Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

25499718This is a fun piece of core Science Fiction. I enjoyed it. And while it’s not really the sort of SF that particularly interests me, I appreciate it as a high-quality example of the kind of thing that it is.

Children of Time comprises two narrative threads told in alternating chapters. The first is set on a terraformed planet that was meant to be the home to a population of monkeys exposed to an evolution-accelerating nano virus.  Unfortunately, human society collapses just as the “experiment” is about to begin; the monkeys are killed by eco-terrorists, and the nano virus falls to the planet where it infects a species of spider (Portia Labiata), instead. The novel then charts the evolution of the spiders over thousands of years, from regular insects, to a hyper-intelligent, spacefaring global super society.

I was initially wary of this premise, as, let’s face it, a novel about super-smart space spiders has the potential to be more-than-a-little-bit naff, even twee. I also have a mixed history with anthropomorphic animals in Science Fiction: I can never resist the urge to visualise them as cutesy cartoon creatures, like with waistcoats and little hats and stuff (this is (partly) the reason why I can’t read Niven’s Known Space novels, what with their talking cats in space suits and all). Thankfully, Adrian Tchaikovsky treats his hyper-evolved spiders with a sense of extreme, joyous realism (…well, you know what I mean, maybe “authenticity” or “seriousness” would be better terms); they never become bipedal or wear clothing, they never “talk” (instead they communicate via a kind of sign language), and their societal structures are distinctly non-human. It’s really, really well done, actually.

Tchaikovsky’s imagined history of spider evolution is notable for the sheer thoroughness of its detail. He pays attention to all the sorts of things you might expect: how spider language evolves, how their webbing-based technology expands in scope and application etc. and etc. But there’s also an explicit focus on the workings of spider society, too. Children of Time plots the development of this society from hunter-gatherer, to feudalistic and, eventually, a space-faring multiculturalism (the mid-novel war between the giant spiders and giant ants is awesome bug-fight madness!).

I was particularly impressed with the way that Tchaikovsky depicts the intellectual evolution of the spiders. They begin the novel as somewhat superstitious, which swiftly develops into a full-blown religion, which is itself superseded (via a nice moment of existential enlightenment) by a scientistic materialism. Some of the inventions and ideas that the Spiders stumble upon can be a little too serendipitous (especially the confusing sequence in which they discover the nano virus that lives inside them), but this is a minor niggle drawn against what’s otherwise a very, very impressive work of evolutionary world-building.

Portia Labiata Jumping Spider

Ew gross. Portia Labiata as we know them. Just imagine it a metre long and super-intelligent.

***

Unfortunately, the other of the book’s two plotlines is less successful. Thousands of years after the aforementioned collapse, human society has just-about clawed its way back to a starfaring level of technology. However, Earth is now climate-changed beyond all hope of repair, so the surviving human populace must find another home. Cue every alternate chapter being set on a generation ship containing the last remnants of humanity.

These chapters are told from the POV of Holsten, a “Classicist” expert in pre-collapse human society and culture.  He’s a somewhat well-realised character, struggling to find a place among a crew of mechanical/military minded people who harbour little respect for his more academic and esoteric skills. The crux of his story is his relationship with an engineer, Lain, but this relationship is a baffling thing, moving from hot to cold, confrontational to affectionate in a way that serves the mechanisations of the plot, but that isn’t really conducive to the presentation of a realistic or complex set of human interactions. How Lain will react to Holsten at any given moment is wildly unpredictable, but in a bad-characterisation way, rather than quirky or fun kinda way. This means that the final resolution of their story doesn’t quite carry the emotional gravitas that the novel seems to think it does. A shame.

In fact, given how lively, well-rounded and unique the spider protagonists are, it’s disappointing that so much of the human characterisation falls short, relying as it does upon basic stereotyping.  There’s Karst, the hot-headed army guy, Guyen, the solipsistic leader guy, Vitas, who has no discernible personality whatsoever, and a whole bunch of disposable (/forgettable) grunt guys.

The run-of-the-mill nature of the characterisation is reflected in the overall plotting of the human sections, which reads like a checklist of Hard Science Fiction genre clichés. There’s a mad A.I., an attempted coup, and encounters with ancient artefacts and derelict spaceships. There’s a long sequence in which the commander tries to use dangerous tech to make himself immortal, and – because this is a generation ship and apparently ALL generation ship novels need to do this – there are generations of humans who become violent and tribe-like, never having known any existence beyond the confines of the ship.

There are some aspects of the human story I enjoyed. I especially liked the way that it tugs, thematically, in the opposite direction to the spider narrative. As time goes on, the spiders become less religious and more worldly/scientific, whereas, on board the generation ship, the humans become more and more superstitious and spiritual (some of the characters begin referring to their imagined new home as the “promised planet”). The fact that both narratives move thematically apart while being, physically, on an obvious collision course generates a really great sense of tension and momentum.

***

But let’s be honest; everything that happens to the humans is just filler; it’s the novel treading water until the spider-evolution story has advanced to a level sufficient enough to make a meeting between the two species narratively interesting. This means that, at 600 pages, the novel is about twice as long as it needs to be.

And this is where I think that Adrian Tchaikovsky has really missed a trick. In my opinion, he shouldn’t have included the human storyline at all. There are numerous reasons why I think this. Partly, it’s because the human story is boring. Partly, it’s because certain events that take place in the human storyline have the tendency to over-explain things that’re happening to the spiders (especially their worship of The Messenger, which we know in advance is a human satellite in orbit around their planet). But mostly, the human story detracts from the sense of alien otherness that the spiders experience as they slowly encounter/discover humanity.

How great would the spider story have been if we didn’t know what was up with the humans? If we discovered the truth about the nano virus and The Messenger and the generation ship in tandem with the spiders, rather than hundreds of pages ahead of them? There would have been some real “holy shit” moments. Not only would this generate a greater sense of reader empathy with the circumstances of the spiders, it would have massively reinforced the  “otherness” with which the spiders regard the humans, and given Children of Time an aura of profound science fictional weirdness. It would also have made a mid-novel moment in which a single human shuttle lands on the planet vastly more interesting for its unexpectedness.  In short: the book explains itself too much.

But maybe I’m just trying to make Children of Time into more of the sort of alienating Science Fiction that I want it to be. The predictable end-of-novel meeting between humans and spiders *is* very effective, (especially the description of what’s happened to the spider planet in recent years) and much of the language successfully imbues the feeling of sheer horror and confusion that the spiders feel when faced with humanity:

She would not have the first idea what to make of anything she sees. Every detail is bizarre and disturbing, an aesthetic arising from the dreams of another phylum, a technology of hard metal and elemental forces. (p.549)

It’s one of the most effective “the aliens are us” moments I’ve ever encountered, but it could have been so much better if we’d known next to nothing about what the humans are/have been doing.

This problem can’t really be fixed by just not-reading the human chapters. It would, I fear, require more of a total re-write. Despite all of this, however, Children of Time does what it does very well. It’s pacy, fun, peculiar Science Fiction, and the spider stuff is really well done indeed. Like, really well done. I just can’t help but feel that the book could have been so much more, if only it was so much less.

The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor

dl.jpgI really like what The Book of Phoenix is trying to do in a big picture kind of way. The most successful element of the novel is how it conflates science with myth, cleaving them together and apart, converging and substituting their signs and symbols until what’s left is a Gordian knot of science that could be mythology, and mythology that could be science. It rejects the linear Western cultural historicism in which myth is followed by religion, superseded by philosophical enlightenment and, finally, scientific process. It rejects a reductionist (materialism vs spiritualism) view of the world, and so revels in a beautiful maximalism that I find very appealing. It’s also exceptionally expressive in its representation of both anger and love. It examines heritage in numerous ways; from the genetic, to the historical, to the empirical, and it ends by looking at those aspects of identity that we choose for ourselves. Finally, The Book of Phoenix rages over the ways humans exploit one another, particularly with regards to slavery.

All of which is great in abstraction. Unfortunately, however, there’s a huge chasm between this book’s ideas, and their execution. On a sentence-by-sentence level the writing is very poor, I think. The Book of Phoenix feels both rushed and repetitive. Reminders that the protagonist, Phoenix, is two years old but has the body of a forty-year-old are repeated almost every 5 pages. Adverbs are everywhere, (“Thankfully, I knew where the exit was, generally.”), and much of the book’s imagery is plain baffling, “You look like a sleeping bolt of lightning”. I have no idea what sort of visual I’m supposed to take from that. There are numerous phrasings that are just odd “The driver, whose name was Endurance, was driving”. Outside of the protagonist, the characterisation is also pretty thin; the majority of the book’s cast are basic types employed to either propel the action forward, or to make easy moral points about Phoenix’s situation (this is especially true of the villainous LifeGen Corporation). All of which is frustrating, given that TBOP deals with so many important issues. These aren’t unmitigated flaws, and, indeed, the book does some things quite well, but taken as a whole, this is a wearisome experience.

***

It’s the near-future(ish), and the narrator is the titular Phoenix, a genetically-engineered African woman who begins the novel trapped in Tower 7, a research facility in New York in which she was “born”. Phoenix is a weapon, a “reoccurring small nuclear bomb”; she can burn, levelling cities to the ground, only to be reborn from the ashes with all her memories intact. But that’s not all Phoenix can do.  She can fly, too. And she can read incredibly fast. She’s got an eidetic memory. And some kind of titanium skeleton. She can massively accelerate the growth of nearby plants and trees.  Also (and this is where the book really jumps the shark) she can “slip”, which is a combination of teleportation and time travel. Basically, the novel imbues Phoenix with a new super power whenever it’s convenient to the narrative for her to have that power.

It’s not long before Phoenix breaks out of Tower 7 and teams up with a small, X-men-like band of fellow super-powered escapees. What follows is a pretty wacky series of events as the story, with very little structure or sense of overall arc, follows Phoenix from one adventure to the next, during which we learn about the climate-changed world of the book’s setting, and the deeper mechanisations of the group that created Phoenix in the first place. There’s a calmer mid-section in which she travels to Ghana, finding a measure of peace before the LifeGen Corporation inevitably catches up with her, but then the disarray begins anew.

It’s a tumbling-down-the-stairs kind of chaos; it’s always changing direction. Ideas are thrown around, then immediately abandoned, replaced by others, which are themselves abandoned, etc. and etc. It’s pacy, but my God is it erratic. Many of the book’s SFnal concepts are very creative, but almost none of them are explored with any kind of rigour or consequence. There are off-the-cuff references to contagious cancers and trees that can stop time. There’s a short passage told from the p.o.v of an interstellar seed, and, near the end, we’re casually informed that humans have settled on Mars, and that a red dust-monster we encountered 200 pages ago was, in fact, an alien from that colony. But it’s all very throwaway; a manic outpouring of stuff that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, let’s look at Phoenix’s speed reading. We’re told that, while imprisoned in Tower 7, she has access to “700,000 books of all kinds”, and that she has read “over half of them”. Let’s round that up conservatively and say that Phoenix has read 400,000 books. Now, she’s not a computer, these books aren’t instantaneously downloaded into her brain, she has to spend time reading them one after another. Apparently she can “read a 500-page book in two minutes”, which is a reading speed of about 4 pages a second. According to a couple of surveys I found online, the average length of a book is 320 pages. So Phoenix could polish off most books in 80 seconds. Reading 400,000 books at a speed of one book per 80 seconds would take Phoenix 370 days. That’s non-stop reading. No eating, no sleeping; nothing but reading.

But Phoenix has only had access to this library for one year. And we know that she eats and sleeps and gets experimented upon, etc. So there’s no way she could have read that many books (and as a brief aside, Phoenix later demonstrates an unnerving naivety about the world for someone who’s supposedly read so much). This is, of course, an overly pedantic thing for me to pick apart, but it’s symptomatic of The Book of Phoenix’s entire narrative praxis, which throws around big numbers and florid ideas, but isn’t at all interested in how these concepts relate to one another.

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Many of Phoenix’s interpersonal relationships are likewise under developed. The emotional crux of the novel’s opening chapters is the death of Phoenix’s lover, Saeed, a fellow research specimen trapped in Tower 7. Her emotional reaction to Saeed’s death is profound, and the language that surrounds this sequence is clearly engineered to inspire feelings of sympathy and sadness in the reader. But other than some retroactive descriptions of their first conversation, we’re barely given a glimpse of this important relationship. Saeed dies too soon for the novel to establish his character, and what little information we have regarding their bond is paltry at best. We’re told how significant this relationship is, but we’re not shown. This means that any attempts the language makes to inspire sadness in the reader inevitably falls short; the book doesn’t give us sufficient context for that sadness. In brief: the novel doesn’t earn it.

This is further complicated by a mid-novel revelation that Saeed isn’t dead after all. This twist is a sort of double-edged sword. I like the fact that Saeed’s “death” and re-appearance mirrors the death and rebirth that is Phoenix’s power, but the fact that he’s been alive the whole time has the potential to bathetically undermine the book’s earlier emotional tone, simultaneously putting at hazard the idea that any of the novel’s events can have serious consequences.

A similar disappearing-then-reappearing character is “Seven”, a giant, winged man whose primary narrative role seems to be appearing when Phoenix most needs him, only to inform her that he’s not going to help. He’s a baffling character. Why he lets himself be captured by LifeGen prior to the beginning of the novel is anybody’s guess, as is his overall roll in the plot. He seems, to me, to hold some symbolic significance for Phoenix, who views him as a mentor and representation of freedom and possibility, but when I tried to find significant textual evidence in support of this, I came up short. It’s just a bit clumsy

***

Okay, we’ve strayed quite far from what was a relatively positive opening paragraph, so let’s talk about the things that The Book of Phoenix does do well. One of the aspects of the book I really liked is the running joke that nobody knows how to react to a black super hero. This is true on both an immediate, physical level, and a grander, mythological one:

They kept my hair shaved low because neither they nor I knew what to do with it when it grew out. (p. 15)

“He saw you and attacked you because you could not possibly be an angel from God. You are African” (p. 80)

This not only establishes the novel’s sociological setting as being identical with our own, but it also works as a wry metaphor for genre fiction’s much-publicised problem with representing non-white characters. These confused and often hostile reactions to Phoenix as a super hero offer an intertextual reflection of the current state of Science Fiction culture, in which the relative invisibility of women and non-white characters remains a problem.

Nnedi Okorafor also uses her characters’ identity as super-powered to examine and articulate her anger at the Western exploitation of native African cultures. This is extremely powerful stuff. When Phoenix spends time in Ghana, for example, she is slowly exposed to the extent of colonialist abuse; LifeGen views Africa as nothing more than a seam of natural resources to be mined, be that the mining of minerals, people, or, in Phoenix’s case, of power:

[They] had taken him, too. Just as they’d taken Saeed. They were always taking from me. Always taking the best. Of my people. Of my world. Take take TAKE! (p. 82)

The manipulation of Phoenix by LifeGen – their attempts to take ownership of her, and to use her for their own (warmongering) ends – becomes an extended metaphor for colonialism and exploitation. The most emotionally hard-hitting passages of the novel, for me, occur when Phoenix refuses to board a trans-Atlantic vessel, framing it as a symbolic manifestation of the white men’s ships that transported slaves to America.

This anger builds in both scale and eloquence until the novel’s apocalyptic denouement, in which Phoenix transcends her previously bipartite identity. When she’s in America, Phoenix is the product of science; when in Africa, she is spirituality and heritage. Thankfully, The Book of Phoenix doesn’t privilege either one of these interpretations over the other. At the novel’s end (which transpires in a far-future setting, used as a framing device to bookend the story), Phoenix is both of these things. She is science and myth; story and history; anger and love. What I like about this is how it successfully fuses so many disparate traditions of genre fiction, allowing for an interpretation of Phoenix that neither has to be purely science fictional, nor purely fantastic. (Though I did feel that things got a little on-the-nose when the book starts referring to Barthes’ post-structuralist theory). Part of this book’s argument, then, is against genre essentialism.

It’s frustrating that the actual experience of reading The Book of Phoenix doesn’t match up to the novel’s thematic and narrative ambition. There’s a lot to like about it, definitely, but the gaps in its worldbuilding, the serendipitous nature of so many of its major plots events, and the overall awkward quality of writing perpetually pulled me out of the moment. It’s an important novel in so many ways, I just wish it was more robust.

Way Down Dark – J. P. Smythe

neon.jpgI was quite torn by this one, which came to my attention after being nominated for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. Microcosmically I think Way Down Dark is pretty effective; it’s well-written, pacy, and has some beautiful turns of phrase. It manages to convey a lot of information about its setting without ever resorting to info-dumping or dry exposition. The narrator is a delight, too; Chan is multifaceted and idiosyncratic, often wrestling with complex ideas about a moral code as a philosophy, versus a moral code as practice, which is a nicely intricate thing to find in a YA novel. I also liked the cloying sense of claustrophobia that acts as a satisfying metaphor for the characters’ ignorance about their wider circumstances. Macrocosmically, though, the book has problems. The worldbuilding is, at best, very inconsistent. Aspects of the plot are highly derivative, and the constant, constant violence quickly moves from being shocking, to apathetic, to downright tedious.

The book is a sort of salvagepunk science-fictional Young Adult dystopia (seriously), and while I don’t know much about YA in general, Way Down Dark seems, to me, to tick all the more voguish boxes of that genre’s clichés. Kickass teenage protagonist? Check. Who’s an orphan? Check. Struggling to survive in a hyper-violent nightmare society? Mega Check!

Okay, so while that’s all broad-strokes unoriginal, the actual setting is pretty intriguing. The action transpires aboard the ‘Australia’, a vast spaceship that fled a dying Earth hundreds of years ago in search of a new home. Since the ship left Earth, something has gone wrong, and society aboard has devolved into a barbaric feudalism. Almost none of the ship’s wonderful technology functions anymore, and most of its metal has been stripped away for makeshift stabby weapons (leaving grating for floors and curtains to separate living areas); it’s one of those setting-as-metaphor-for-the-decay-of-society things. Oh, and nobody on board has any control over the ship’s systems or location “There are no windows on Australia, no view of the stars”.

The ship is divided into a hundred or so floors, all looking inwards around a central pit, at the bottom of which is a dark mulchy landfill of whatever garbage the ship’s inhabitants decide to throw down there (which mostly seems to be dead bodies and faeces. Lovely). Most of the novel is concerned with a civil war, as the ultra-violent inhabitants of the lower decks – dubbed “The Lows” – attempt to take over the rest of the ship, indiscriminately killing and torturing whosoever resists them.

And it really is violent. Removing the physical descriptions of violence would probably reduce the book’s length by a third. Much of this violence is highly visceral, revelling in gory detail, “I kick one to the floor, jamming the stick into his mouth, smashing his teeth and frying his tongue.” and, “I can see the bone jutting through her torn skin. I don’t have time to save her”.  And even when the violence isn’t being described so vividly, it forms the general background to the book’s events. Such asides as “two Lows were in the middle of torturing man I know”, and “The Lows were stringing them up” are commonly peppered throughout otherwise more prosaic passages of description. In fact, these casual asides irked me more than the gratuitous stuff; rather than meaningful attempts to create tone or transmit information, they come across as just patronising reminders of the setting’s intrinsic horror, as if we could ever forget that EVERYBODY IS ALWAYS FIGHTING.

I guess the brutality does serve a purpose in the novel’s opening chapters, establishing WDD as a book that doesn’t pull its punches in regards to its depiction of the human propensity for savagery. The violence also marks Chan, our teenage protagonist, as even more distinct for her refusal to commit murder.

It’s not long, however, before the sheer amount of violence begins to have implications not just for the reading experience (the aforementioned creeping tedium), but for the wider worldbuilding itself. How has the society onboard the Australia lasted so long if this level of violence is the norm? Surely it would have destroyed itself long ago? As @Couchtomoon eloquently tweeted, Way Down Dark “isn’t really concerned with how this all works”.

The shining star of the book is the narrator, Chan. Her personal journey from raw ingénue, through to self-preserving egoist, and, finally, compassionate saviour is convincing. But her refusal to kill anybody can be a little baffling in light of a) the society in which she’s grown up, and b) the fact that her enemies, the Lows, are characterised as raving murderous lunatics incapable of reason or empathy. That Chan’s moral sensibilities are so well-developed despite the brutality and ubiquitous darkness of her entire lived experience is a little hard to swallow in places, but the novel’s justification that she learned all this from her dead mother more-or-less has things covered. Just about. Her voice is also nicely distinct, a believable blend of emotional introspection, moral uncertainty, and frantic teenage expression, “And suddenly, as if we blinked, it happened, fast as anything”.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention The Twist. Towards the end of the novel, the core protagonists discover that they’ve been wrong about their circumstances for their entire lives. Yup, it’s one of those generation ship novels in which you’re led to believe one thing is happening, but then it turns out that, actually, the setting is something very different. DUN-DUN-DUUUN!

The Twist seems to divide readers in a love-it-or-hate-it kinda way; people are either gobsmacked, or they cry “bullshit”. Personally, I found the whole thing exasperating, and saw it coming a mile away; not because it’s particularly over-telegraphed in the narrative, but because this kind of plot twist is such a cliché of the generation ship sub genre, starting with Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958), and re-appearing in everything from Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe (1969), to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993 – 1996), and terrible SF horror movie Pandorum (2009). I get why it’s so popular (and hence over-used); it’s a fruitful kind of twist that generates impressive narrative momentum and sense-of-wonder while simultaneously knocking on the door of deeper philosophical ideas about a Platonist questioning of the material evidence for the world around us. But c’mon, it’s 2016, and this is very old hat. Hell, it’d be more radical for the inhabitants of a generation ship NOT to face such an existential volta.

I mean, it’s not a bad book; Way Down Dark is mostly good fun if you don’t think too hard about all the inconsistencies and holes in the worldbuilding (seriously, how is there enough food for everyone? Why would anybody wade out into the gross sea of decomposing bodies at the bottom of the ship? How does anybody reach child-bearing age without being murdered? And The Twist exposes even more flaws that I can’t really talk about without resorting to massive spoilers). Chan is a compelling protagonist in the Katniss mould, and some of the sub-cultures onboard the Australia (such as the religious fanatics living at the top whose doctrine consists of scraps of bible verse combined with bits of Dante’s Inferno) are interesting and quirky. I just, I dunno. It’s a really odd book, fun and action-packed, but let down by an over-reliance on old genre clichés, and a OTT amount of violence. But I’ve read lots of Amazon reviews, and the target audience of teenagers seem to love it, so what do I know?

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-coverIs fun underrated by literary criticism? There seems to be a cultural hang-up about reading a book just because it’s enormous megafun, rather than because it wrestles with demanding intellectual subject matter. This is of course encapsulated by such common phrases as “guilty pleasure” (etc.). And how often will a reviewer acknowledge that a book *is* good fun, only to immediately qualify that statement by adding “but it also engages with x Serious Issue and y Meaningful Drama”? As if the “fun” only has value by dint of its association with more lofty content.

I remember the debates back in 2010 when Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question became the first comic novel to win the Booker Prize. Some critics asked if comedy was “proper” for such a prestigious institution. Others, as above, moderated their analysis of the book’s humour by primarily engaging with its more serious psychological and religious concerns, or talked about the humour and seriousness “balancing each other out”, as though the former is only justified by the latter.

This seems to be a problem unique to literature; everything from Marvel’s Cinematic Universe to Beyoncé’s new album to Doctor Who is lauded for the craft that’s put into being fun. Books, however, are always expected to contain something more: to pry into the darkness of the soul and psyche. Any comment about fun being an aesthetic achievement in and of itself seems notably absent from literary discourse. Hell, for the past several years the SFF genre-scape has been dominated by grimdark dystopias, post-apocalypses and Game-of-Thrones-esque relentless, scowling gloom.

All of which makes Becky Chambers’ debut The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet even more note-worthy. This is anti-grimdark. This is un-dystopia. This is joyous, rollicking, unapologetic fun that’s beautifully crafted and socially on-point, while being sensitive enough to avoid descending into outright farce. It’s light on plot but big on characterisation, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a Space Opera set in a Banksian galaxy-spanning super society. Like the Culture novels, the setting is, socially, very liberal, inclusive in terms of sexuality, gender, race etc.  Such sentiments as “I am currently male” are common throughout the narrative. It’s an optimistic and uplifting extrapolation of current liberal ideologies that reminded me somewhat of Ann Leckie’s ‘Ancillary’ trilogy as well. Unlike The Culture, however, this society is still capitalistic, predicated on private ownership and wage labour.

The book is about the crew of The Wayfarer, a motley bunch of humans, aliens, A.I’s and virus-symbiotes. Comparative touchstones for the ragtag crew might be the cast of Farscape or Firefly. The Wayfarer is a working ship, equipped with a machine that can create wormholes between star systems. The crew are commissioned to do this by various governments, mostly for economic and trade purposes. I liked this presentation of SF-nal labour, where building wormholes isn’t a high-concept and jargon-filled thing, but, literally, engineers taking a giant drill and boring a hole through space. I guess it makes sense that Chambers would pair her far-future reproduction of capital with an equally material reproduction of labour, regardless of its lack of scientific verisimilitude.

As for plot, well, as I intimated above, there isn’t much of one. The crew are tasked by the galactic council with travelling to a distant star system controlled by new (but dangerous), allies, and to tunnel a wormhole from that system back into their home space. Cue a more-or-less 400-page journey filled with mini adventures and self-contained escapades, but very little in the way of overarching plot. You could probably isolate many of the books chapters as entirely independent short stories.

What The Long Way… is really about is its eight central characters: the crew of The Wayfarer; their relationships, hopes, flaws, and the uplifting sense of camaraderie, even family, that they share with one another.

As the book begins, we experience events through the eyes of Rosemary, the ship’s clerk and newest recruit (there’s a nice running gag about the wonderful opportunities open to The Wayfarer now that they’ve finally employed an administration assistant), but the focus soon expands to encompass the entire team. Each character is brilliantly distinct, from the dwarf, Jenks – a tech expert in love with the ship’s A.I., to Sissix, the humanoid-reptilian pilot, to Corbin, the grumpy “algae technologist”, and, unforgettably, the weird, multi-limbed cook-cum-medic, dubbed “Dr. Chef”. Each personality is so unique; all of them clearly designed to play-off one another’s idiosyncrasies. Sissix’s knowing sensuality is a nice contrast to Rosemary’s more ingénue naivety, and Corbin’s quick temper and stubbornness is satisfyingly matched against Captain Ashby’s fairness and flexibility.

The most striking stylistic feature of the book (and the source of most of the aforementioned “fun”), is the dialogue, which is predicated on an effortless Whedon/Sorkin-esque wit, combined with the sort of internet-speak that uses juvenile or voguish slang to address sometimes quite serious issues. Don’t expect any naturalism going into this book. Many of the conversations resemble witty Twitter exchanges, rather than ordinary speech. Chamber’s greatest achievement, though, is that this highly-stylised prose manages to retain a recognisable emotional quality and depth. It never tips over the edge into farce.

This style of dialogue is most keenly focused in the character of Kizzy, the hyperactive, snack-obsessed, but highly-skilled, witty and caring ship’s engineer. Kizzy is everyone’s favourite character; infectiously giddy but ultra-competent. Some examples of her in action:

After an existential discussion about loneliness:

“I am now starving. What sounds good? Noodles? Skewers? Ice cream? We’re grown-ups, we can have ice cream for lunch if we want.” (p. 128)

Interrupting her captain who’s trying to comfort her when she’s desperately upset:

“Eek!” cried Kizzy. “Mail! A mail drone!” She tumbled out of the wall and ran down the hallway with her arms outstretched like shuttle wings. “Interstellar goodies iiiiiiincomiiiiin!” (p. 153)

When she’s surrounded by tiny “fixbot” machines:

“Are… are you making them hats?”

“Yeah,” she said, and pointed absently. “Alfonzo’s already got his”

Jenks looked to the bot wearing a blue beanie with a yellow pom-pom. (p.393)

 You get the idea. The styling won’t be to everyone’s taste, of course, but it’s refreshing to find this concern for characterisation and interpersonal relationships in Space Opera, a genre more associated with technological plausibility and large-scale plotting than the small mechanisms of human interaction.

Indeed, the witty dialogue wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if it wasn’t placed in the context of deep and sensitive relationships. One of the most compelling of which is the romance between the tech expert Jenks, and Lovelace, the ship’s bodiless Artificial Intelligence. This is definitely the novel’s most extreme challenge to socio-sexual norms, making the alien sex (oh man, there’s weird alien sex) seem positively parochial in comparison. As with the comedic dialogue, this relationship has the potential to descend into meaningless silliness (especially when Jenks expresses his love by hugging some coolant vats or whatever), but so deft is Chambers’ handling of their feelings, that this thankfully never happens. The language that surrounds this affair is no different from that which surrounds any other of the book’s romantic relationships. And this is why it works. It’s a sort of lesson in liberalism: if you want to understand something that’s outside of your personal experience, just treat it sensitively and it’ll make perfect sense. Despite the weirdness of the book’s cast, its relationships, its sex-scenes, nothing is ever othered; everything is treated as normal. It’s remarkably uplifting.

So, that’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. A wacky, action-filled, colourful and fast-paced Space Opera that focuses on relationships, character and inclusive diversity. Would I want all of my SF to be like this? No, far from it. Its sexual and gender politics aside, it may not be ground-breaking or experimental; it wears its influences on its sleeve, and in some places is a tad predictable. But it’s just so much fun. Perfectly-crafted, elegant fun, which manages to describe an impressively complex science fictional universe without ever relying on info-dumpy exposition. As an example of literary craft: swift prose, idiosyncratic dialogue, well-balanced humour and a sensitive understanding of human relationships, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is very good indeed.

John Wyndham

I really must stop reading old science fiction novels just because they’re considered “canonical”. A few weeks ago I read Ringworld by Larry Niven, partly to brush up on the historical side of the genre, partly to contextualize a lot of the stuff I encounter about megastructures in science fiction, but mostly because it has a reputation for being a space opera masterpiece (after all, it won both the Hugo AND Locus awards back in 1971). Unfortunately, rather than the shining star of historical Science Fiction that I’d hoped for, what I actually discovered was a deeply misogynistic piece of badly-written trash.

Ringworld-Larry-Niven

I mean, it’s really bad. Paper-thin characters, poor pacing, and horrible, stilted sentences are just the start of its problems. One of the principle characters is a tiger in a spacesuit, like something from a bad 1930s pulp magazine cover. Nothing happens in the first half of the novel, and the second half reads like a lame Sword and Sorcery adventure, but with “space bikes” instead of horses.  The story also grinds to a halt every 30 pages to allow the protagonist to wander off and have sex with something, the only narrative function of which, presumably, is to titillate the book’s audience of adolescent boys (at one point the crew encounter a beautiful alien sex expert living in a disused police station (go figure…), whose singular desire is to bed the narrator, which must be the most cringey piece of author self-insertion fantasy (pun intended) that I’ve ever encountered). As for the ending, urgh, don’t get me started.

How is it that something so obviously awful has come to hold such a prestigious place in the Science Fiction canon? (My edition was printed as part of the Gollancz “SF Masterworks” series). The unfortunate answer is that the “canon”, such that it is, was established by boring old men more interested in Science Fiction as an extrapolation of scientific ideas than as a literature. And sure, if that kind of technological determinism is all you look for in SF, then knock yourself out, the ‘Ringworld’ is undoubtedly a cool – though flawed – piece of engineering (*chants* “The Ringworld is unstable”, etc.). But at the risk of sounding pretentious, those of us looking for such tenets of literariness as interiority, subtext, argument, emotion, experimentation, aesthetics, or hell, just not-sexist writing, are likely to feel alienated by this approach to the genre.

I’m torn between, on the one hand, feeling like I *should* read lots of historical-canonical SF if I’m ever going to be a knowledgeable or effective reviewer, and, on the other, feeling like I’m justified ignoring most of the genre’s Big Names because I just don’t like their work. Give me Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney or Ursula Le Guin over Asmiov/Heinlein/Niven/Bradbury/Herbert any day.

Last week I read three never-been-out-of-print novels by John Wyndham, again hoping to broaden my genre horizons; and while all three of them have their moments, I was mostly left baffled as to why they’re held in such high regard.

Here are some reviews…

***

The Kids Aren’t Alright

 

51Ecuh1p+0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Like Ringworld, Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) has an excellent premise that’s badly let down in the execution. You probably know the basic idea (it’s been filmed twice, both times as Village of the Damned, and famously parodied in The Simpsons), but I’ll crib it just in case. One day, the entire population of the fictional English village of Midwich falls unconscious. They wake up the following morning to discover that every woman of child-bearing age is pregnant: the married women, the singles, the widows. Everyone. Nine months later lots of creepy same-looking babies are born, and it soon becomes apparent that the kids have psychic powers, able to influence and control the actions of the people around them.

The novel throws around several theories as to the origins of the Midwich children, from parthenogenesis, to vaguer ideas about a “government plot”, to new-agey stuff about the next step in human evolution, and, by the end, the more traditionally SF-nal idea of parasitic alien gestation. (Notably there are no gothic or supernatural explanations put forward to explain what’s going on, which is a shame, given that the isolated, rural setting seems so ripe for it).

It’s a brilliant, brilliant idea; eerie in its manipulation of the uncanny, and telling in the way it articulates contemporary Cold War paranoia about the enemy who lives among us. But this is the limit of the book’s success. Most of The Midwich Cuckoos is dull and ponderous. The majority of the novel consists of long, dry discussions between the narrator, Richard, and a local academic called Gordon Zellaby. Their out-of-place debates about Cartesian dualism and Hegel stifle the book’s pacing, and had me wondering why these two characters even feature. Like in The Kraken Wakes, the narrator is a passive chronicler of events whose personal experience at Midwich has no bearing whatsoever on anything that happens in the book. His narration is also confusing, frequently switching from a limited first person register to a God-like first; how is our narrator able to relate, word-for-word, conversations and events to which he wasn’t privy? It seems that, if it’s convenient to the plot, then Wyndham will let his character know something, whether or not his knowing is at all congruous with what’s being described.

midwich

This difficulty with the pointless and contradictory male narrator speaks to a wider problem with the book’s gender politics. It’s deeply frustrating that there are no significant female characters or female points of view in a book that’s so focused on pregnancy, maternal love, and, subtextually, parental guilt and issues of nature vs. nurture. If you were feeling particularly sardonic, I suppose you could argue that the structure of The Midwich Cuckoos perfectly encapsulates certain aspects of Science Fiction’s history: stuffy men sitting around discussing what’s to be done with the (invisible) women and children.

In fact, the invisibility of women in The Midwich Cuckoos is just one of many problems the book has with handling narrative realism (I know, I know, it’s a Science Fiction novel, but there’s realism in the sense of something being literally possible, and then there’s realism in the sense of a narrative being immersive, logical, and consistent with human experience and behaviour). And herein we find one of the book’s major flaws: the inhabitants of Midwich don’t seem at all phased by what’s going on. After the initial shock of every woman falling mysteriously pregnant, the villagers decide to carry on their lives as normal, raising the children as their own with a kind of collective shrug as to how it all came about.

What. The. Fuck?

I was tempted, in light of this indifference, to imagine The Midwich Cuckoos as a sort of satire on British reserve: “Keep Calm and Carry On” in the face of even the most extreme and disturbing events. It’s ludicrous, and the government’s decision to passively “keep an eye on things” is equally laughable. I understand that Wyndham wanted to generate horror in a specifically relatable and familiar domestic circumstance, but sheesh, things are just too unchanged by the arrival of the children. Defenders of the book might argue that, eventually, the villagers’ reaction to the Midwich children becomes more emotionally appropriate, but the ending occurs nine years after the initial impregnations. Nine years.

So suffice it to say that I didn’t really enjoy The Midwich Cuckoos. Much like Ringworld, it’s another example of something I’m encountering more and more with old Science Fiction, which is that the idea of a text is held to be of greater import than the quality of its writing. This is, of course, a perfectly valid way of approaching a literature, but it’s really not for me.

***

I had to look up what a “Chrysalid” was

(Turns out it’s just another word for chrysalis. Duh.)

9780141181479The next Wyndham novel I read was The Chrysalids, which I thought was vastly, vastly better than both The Midwich Cuckoos and The Kraken Wakes. It’s not without its flaws, some of them major, but in light of these other two books it’s a damn near masterpiece. The Chrysalids is atypical for Wyndham in that the prose flows beautifully, the protagonists are complex (with moving and believable motivations and back stories), and (brace yourselves…) there are strong female characters. Most thankfully, the book doesn’t consist entirely of English scholars sitting around and abstractly discussing the implications of its central problem.

The Chrysalids is set thousands of years after some world-shattering apocalypse (most likely nuclear war), where society has regressed to a sort of agrarian or Amish level of technology. Initially the setting appears to be a bucolic farming paradise, but we soon learn that the inhabitants of his idyll practise a form of fundamentalist Christianity which harbours an obsession with genetic purity. To this end, anybody born with even the mildest mutation (a sixth toe, a misshapen ear, etc) is either banished or euthanized.

The narrator is a teenager, David, who begins the novel as a somewhat ingénue figure guiding the reader through the idiosyncrasies of the book’s world and society. I say “ingénue” because, although David himself has a mutation that he is hiding from his family and the authorities, he doesn’t realise the extent of the brutal danger he faces until a friend of his, also a mutant, is discovered and has to flee into exile to save her life. This becomes a sort of volta moment for David, and sets him on the typical bildungsroman path of turning against the conservative society that has brought him up, and into his own, independently free-thinking self.

David’s own mutation is telepathic: he can psychically communicate with other similarly-gifted mutants throughout the valley. From a world-building point of view this is more than a little eyebrow raising, as David and his friends’ psychic powers are pretty out-of-sync with the other mutations in the book, which are never more extreme than additional digits, longer limbs or big birthmarks. But whatever, I let this pass in service to the story.

David and co. spend much of their time trying to avoid detection by the rest of society: if babies born with extra fingers are killed, God knows what would happen to kids with psychic powers. There’s a nice sense of tension as David has to navigate through ever closer near-misses with the fundamentalist authorities. The telepathic conversations between him and his friends are well-rendered by Wyndham; strange and othering, but never confusing or muddled. The very thing that makes them targets (their psychic power) also brings them together, and there’s a beautiful sense of community, even family, shared between the mutated kids.

This conflict (“us vs. them”,” mutants vs. norms” etc), establishes the book’s moral identity. David and his mutant friends long for acceptance and tolerance; they are painted as compassionate individuals who shouldn’t be shunned for not resembling everybody else. The authorities, by comparison, are portrayed very much as bad guys: violent, intolerant, quick-to-judge, and unthinking in their universal application of exclusionary religious dogma.  The fanatical and violent state of society is echoed in the book’s landscapes, frequently described with such double-meaning language as “the country was more broken now”.

Seemingly, then, The Chrysalids puts forward a positive moral message about diversity and tolerance, right? WRONG! By the end of the novel, Wyndham has pulled a complete U-turn on his earlier appeals for open-mindedness, concluding that, inevitably, there has to be war, and the “new” humans will exterminate the “old” ones (“For ours is a superior variant”).

This abrupt change in moral direction undermines everything the novel has done to build a reasoned argument. Wyndham’s ultimate message seems to be that intolerance and violence are bad if they come from a place of religious hysteria and fear, but perfectly acceptable if the argument for intolerance has a scientific basis. It’s baffling. After 200 pages of preaching that “these people are bad, they would kill us because we’re different”, the novel concludes with “those people are bad, we must kill them because they’re different”.

A bleak interpretation of The Chrysalids might be that violence and bigotry are intrinsic elements of the human condition, and that no matter how enlightened we think we are, we inevitable fear and despise the other. This, however, is very much not the tone I picked up from the book’s ending, which just seems ignorant of the hypocrisy it preaches. The moral position that David and his friends eventually reach is no different from the one they’ve been struggling against the whole time, it’s just coming from the other side of the fence.

I’d still recommend The Chrysalids, if only for its world building, characterisation, and the uplifting sense of community shared by its core protagonists. The ending, however, is total bullshit, and completely undermines the book’s own moral concerns.

***

Apocalypse as Paradise

 

the-day-of-the-triffidsFinally I read The Day of the Triffids, which is probably best known today for its opening scene (borrowed by both 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead), in which the protagonist wakes up in a hospital bed to find that, during his extended unconsciousness, the world has gone to shit, and it’s only by dint of his being hospitalised that he’s alive at all.

Like The Chrysalids, this is a post-apocalypse novel, albeit set during and immediately after the disaster, rather than thousands of years later. Unlike The Chrysalids, however, The Day of the Triffids isn’t very good; I’m sad to report that the awkward prose, info-dumpy exposition, and abysmal characterisation of The Midwich Cuckooks returns, and then some.

The first problem is that The Day of the Triffids tries to simultaneously juggle three different catastrophes, any one of which would have provided substantive material for an entire apocalypse. As a result, everything sort of feels muddled and too busy. The first apocalyptic event occurs when a weird, green-tinged meteor shower causes almost everybody on Earth to go blind. Pretty bad, right? Well there’s more; the survivors also have to contend with genetically engineered walking murder plants (the Triffids of the title) that have escaped confinement and are roaming the English countryside killing at random. And as if that wasn’t apocalypse enough, there’s also a flu-like pandemic to contend with.

The first event, the green meteor shower, is never given a satisfactory explanation, and is pretty much forgotten after the first few pages (except, that is, for when Wyndham tries (and fails) to explain how 99.9% of the world’s population was out of doors watching it). The plague is totally unnecessary. Presumably its there to expand upon why post-crisis Britain is so devoid of people, but surely the after-effects of mass blindness combined with the roaming Triffids should be enough to explain the high death count?

Three such crises should make the world a pretty terrifying place; this is the very stuff of Science Fiction horror. But, to be honest, the collapse of society doesn’t seem all that bad. Most people are pretty chill, and there are certain descriptive passages that make empty Britain sound downright idyllic, even fun. Scavenging (read: looting), farming, not having to work or pay taxes; The Day of the Triffids falls into that too-common trap of making an apocalyptic world seem like an Alpha male survivalist paradise, rather than the fear-ridden, stinking, dying-of-thirst hell it would probably be in reality. It’s more than just a problem with the events of the book: this is tonal. Everything from the exposition, to the dialogue to the hard-to-define “feel” of the novel is so lackadaisical; it feels more like a philosophical thought experiment than a disaster, despite the fact that the narration is in the first person, supposedly the most personal register.

In fact, the apocalypse as male paradise is something you’ll run into again and again in this novel. Huge swathes of text are given over to lasciviously explaining how, in order to re-populate the earth, men will have to sleep with as many women as possible (whether they like it or not – it’s all for genetic diversity reasons, you see). Using the apocalypse as an excuse to basically legitimise rape, or, at best, polyamory, is all kinds of messed up. There are whole chapters that read like a pervy manifesto or teenage sex fantasy (“they’ll HAVE to have sex with me now”). But it’s stupid in a structural sense too: there are long passages of dialogue explaining why all this would be necessary, but such discussions are taking place only days after the arrival of the blindness/Triffids/plague, when surely the more immediate concerns of finding clean water, shelter and other survivors should be taking precedent over long-term plans for coupling and repopulation?

This is further problematised by the fact that, ultimately, a different map for humanity’s future comes into play (cue naff Deus ex Machina ending). Bearing in mind that these sex plans have no implications for anything that either happens in the novel or anything that’s projected to occur after its end… why is so much of the book given over to it?

***

John Wyndham obviously had a wonderful imagination (especially for Science Fiction horror), but there’s a huge gulf in his books between the concepts themselves, and their realisation. And how frustrating is it that The Chrysalids, his best book by far, was such a blip in a body of work that’s otherwise characterised by clunky, exposition-heavy prose, contradictory moral ideas, and a dismissive, even sometimes sexist, approach to women?

The value in reading his books, for me, has been merely in adding to my knowledge of the history of science fiction. But the question I kept asking myself as I read them was: is that reason enough?

Recent Reading

The Myths We Live By – Mary Midgley

 

41-jMNL1m8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is a collection of essays by moral philosopher Mary Midgley, the bulk of which articulate her disdain for certain kinds of “reductionism”; that is, the scientific and philosophical attempt to methodically explain complex systems in terms of their simple constituent parts. Midgley traces this from Descartes and the Enlightenment, and argues that the emphasis placed  on reductionism (or “atomising”) by quantum physics is becoming a cultural mindset that is influencing other areas of academia (and life in general) to a detrimental extent.

She begins by describing the holier-than-thou attitude held by physicists (and which is apparently becoming more and more prevalent in universities) who contend that their discipline is the purest, most objectively true, and that other fields of physical science (chemistry, biology…) are merely weaker versions of the absolute reductionist discipline of atomic physics.

This conception of ontological scientific truth as the highest human achievement has cultural links to such things as the rise of intolerant New Atheism, and the attendant derision by scientists of the academic study of the humanities. It’s the sort of mindset that led Professor Brian Cox to recently Tweet that people who use such terms as “post-modernism” are “not very clever”. It’s perfectly acceptable for an esoteric language to develop around quantum physics (etc.), because the terminology employed there is objective and refers to provable things that exist. By comparison, any attempt by the arts to utilize technical language as a taxonomy of study is “pretentious”, derided for being value-laden, subjective and pluralistic, and therefore devoid of the kind of inherent truth that we find at the heart of physics. Or so the reductionist argument goes.

Essentially, Midgley (an atheist) takes issue with the Western societal fetishisation of the scientific process, arguing that the cultural reverence of “science” (the term and the discipline) and the “truth” it apparently produces is creating a sort of social disregard for other fields of study (such as the arts) whose subjects of learning are irreducible to mere building blocks. As part of her anti-monist philosophy, Midgley’s argument is that this kind of scientistic reductionism can’t, and shouldn’t be applied to other aspects of life. Law, History, Literature, Ethics etc don’t consist merely of “epiphenomena”, and can’t be broken down and understood in terms of fundamental constituent parts (and here she excellently takes issue with Dawkins’ idea of “memes”). The scientistic position can never provide answers about, for example, moral goodness, justice, feminism, history and so on, because these things (despite attempts by people like Richard Dawkins or the behaviourists) are not ultimately reducible to the chemical or physical phenomena that may constitute their existence.

Midgley further highlights this incompatibility by demonstrating that physics and gene science become necessarily fatalistic when expanded to encompass the conscious world, as if consciousness is an illusion created by the coming-together of myriad smaller processes that transpire beyond the human will. Society, by comparison, still very much operates in terms of choice, decisions and individual responsibility. There’s a funny mini-essay about how science and its language could never articulate the meaning of “Sunday”. Physics is not “omnicompetent” and capable of explaining all of the systems with- and in- which we interact. Her argument isn’t anti-science, rather, she argues that a pluralist and non-reductive conception of the world should replace the Kierkegaard-ian Either/Or mindset. Just because something isn’t testable under scientific conditions, doesn’t mean it has no value.

Further examining Descartes, Midgley conceives of the mind/body dualism as perpetuating a kind of historical misogyny, whereby – when expanded to a social level – the male is identified with the “mind” aspect of the duality (reason, choice, independence, intelligence and so on), and the female with the “body” (pregnancy, child-birth, menstruation, breast-feeding, emotions etc). Historically, this system of thought was used to perpetuate the denial of female enfranchisement; Midgley even quotes Rousseau on women thusly “Unable to judge for themselves, they should accept the judgement of father and husband”. This might all seem a bit of a stretch, but as The Myths we Live by piles essay upon essay, the misogynistic nature of the mind/body dualism – and its place in cementing the reductionist philosophy in Western culture – becomes pretty convincing.

I also enjoyed an essay about the agrarian or feudal notion of the collective subject (whose only duty was to do what the King told them) versus the industrial notion of the worker-voter who, reduced to an individual, could exercise their (masculine) reason, by voting.

The Myths We Live By is wonderful to read, Midgley is so eloquent; compassionate but not sentimental. Her arguments are convincing, and I’m sure they will become a major touchstone for my own thinking about the current state of things, especially in our Dawkins-infatuated and increasingly scientistic, individualistic, profit-as-value society. In fact, I would have liked a deeper analysis of the economics of reductionism, particularly the reduction of the worker, zero-hours contracts, and the disturbing rise of the idea of valueless education (no growth/profit = no value, etc).

For such an important and culturally relevant piece of thinking, then, it’s a tad disappointing that this book isn’t more accessible. It’s not an entry-level text. There’s no glossary, philosophers’ first names are rarely provided, and as for their dates… forget about it. Midgley expects the reader to bring with them a working knowledge of such terms as “logical positivism”, “categorical imperative” and “neo-Darwinist”, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the works of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and, well, pretty much the whole canon. I nevertheless encourage everyone to try it. I’m a passionate amateur at best, but by reading it slowly, and with the internet close at hand, I found the challenge more-or-less surmountable.

***

Pnin – Vladimir Nabokov

 

9780141183756Nabokov’s Pnin is probably best understood as a campus novel – and is frequently described as such – but beneath the book’s somewhat perfunctory surface-level comedy of manners lies a more serious examination of loss, unrequited love, and the emotional impossibility of understanding the holocaust.

Timofey Pnin is a Russian-born professor at the fictional Waindell College in the United States. A refugee who’s fled the “Hitler War”, Pnin is weird-looking, has an appalling grasp of English, and is cursed with a sort of low-level bad luck and clumsiness, which simultaneously inspires both sympathy and ridicule.

The majority of the comedy comes from Pnin’s social awkwardness; he’s stubborn, prone to rambling, and all-too proper in his Russian conservatism to really fit-in with the more liberal emergent society of 1950’s America. He’s no mere comic foil, however. Pnin is, in his own way, intelligent, morally courageous, loving, and deserving of our compassion. Having fled the country he loves so much, he’s essentially trying to maintain his dignity as a fish out of water. He’s trapped between old Russia and new America; a limbo beautifully expressed in metaphor by the novel’s very funny opening chapter, which sees Pnin marooned on a remote railway station. It’s a sequence that reminded me of the beginning of Bend Sinister, in which the protagonist – Krug – walks up and down, up and down a bridge, unable to alight at either end. These sequences of geographical indeterminateness are frequent in Nabokov’s fiction, and perhaps speak to his own feelings of being culturally adrift as a Russian writer working in English. Pnin, Krug and Nabokov are all, in a way, exiles.

In fact, the first 40 pages or so of Pnin left me somewhat confused as to Nabokov’s intent. Watching Pnin stumble from awkward situation to awkward situation as he tries to navigate the cultural idiosyncrasies of America is undoubtedly amusing, but this somewhat clichéd émigré farce didn’t quite seem like Nabakov, to me. But slowly, thankfully, the screwball culture clash begins to make way for deeper examinations of identity, introspection and a sense of individual separate-ness. If you were feeling particularly twee (which I am), you might call it homesickness played as tragicomedy.

Pnin is unable to find the cultural and emotional profundity he so longs for amid the salvo of Americana: pop art, consumerism and mass-production are all anathema to him. Nabokov will often do this brilliant stylistic thing whereby he’ll describe, list-like, some phenomenon of the modern world, exploited for all its comic ridiculousness, only to perform a sort of volta, and abruptly end the description with a comment on how cold and empty it all seems. This juxtaposition is humorous in its unexpectedness, and moving in the way it exposes a modernist lack of intimacy and meaning;

The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody.

and,

With the help of the janitor he screwed on the side of his desk a pencil sharpener – that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as must we all.

The real underlying sadness of Pnin, however, is much more subtle. Intermingled with Pnin’s comic misadventures are moments which hint at a deep and profound melancholy. As the narrative progresses, several events transpire that speak to a loneliness that’s as much personal as cultural: an earnest but awkward reunion with his estranged son, gloomy descriptions of rented single rooms, and a strange moment when Pnin is unable to borrow a library book because it’s already been reserved by someone with his exact name. Slowly, and with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-brevity, Nabokov reveals that Pnin’s real tragedy happened many years earlier, when the love of his life, Mira Belochkin, was killed in a concentration camp. I was so stunned to find something so dark in a novel that’s otherwise only fleetingly sad, that I had to re-read the following paragraph several times before I felt able continue with the rest of the book:

Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin […] because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again.

I mean, what do you do with that when you encounter it in a comic novel? In any novel?

It’s not as ill-fittingly dramatic as I’ve perhaps made it seem; in fact, Mira is almost never mentioned, which is, of course, the whole point. Pnin’s sadness isn’t a histrionic or violent outpouring of passion and grief; it’s an absence of action, of thought. The fact that Mira is talked about so rarely not only reinforces, on a narrative level, Pnin’s attempts to impose forgetfulness upon himself, but the near total absence of Mira from the text physically mirrors the absence of Mira from the world.

So the success of Pnin comes from Nabokov’s deep structural and linguistic handling of tragedy and comedy, whereby the humour is all narrative action, malapropism, movement and slapstick, and the sadness is an absence and stillness that catches you off-guard in the occasional gaps between the jokes. So deft is Nabokov’s handling of these moments that one never gets-in-the-way-of, or undermines the other, but neither are they separate and isolated from one another. As dark as it may seem, Pnin is only so funny because he’s been through such tragedy. Has there ever been a writer as simultaneously hilarious and upsetting as Nabokov? Brings a new meaning to the phrase “crying with laughter”, I guess.

***

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

koko.jpg(Trigger Warning: sexual assault/rape).

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted has been heaped with near-hysterical praise, but I’m really struggling to see what all the fuss is about. There are parts of the book I enjoyed, and aspects of its ambition I found admirable, but mostly I thought it was pretty dull, and in some places downright problematic.

Firstly, the good: I really liked the simplicity of its premise; Uprooted attempts to marry the narrative style of epic fantasy with the conceptual straightforwardness of a fairy tale; and it does this successfully, if without much imagination. The book is set in a bucolic valley, the home to several quaint little villages. At one end of the valley is a dark, evil Wood, and at the other end is a tower inhabited by a powerful wizard called the Dragon. It’s his job to protect the villagers from the Wood.

Every ten years, the wizard will descend upon the villages and choose a seventeen-year-old girl, taking her into his tower whether she likes it or not. Enter our narrator, Agnieszka, the most recent girl to be chosen. Contrary to the suspicions of the villagers, the wizard doesn’t imprison Agnieszka as a sex slave, but takes her as a servant-cum-apprentice, and, despite an acrimonious (read: abusive) start to their relationship, they begin working together to defeat the evil Wood once and for all.

It’s refreshing to find a High Fantasy novel that shuns the very en vogue, Tolkienian fetish for world building. There’s no convoluted lore or encyclopaedic amounts of fictional history to get to grips with. There are no scrawly little maps covered in unintelligible place names. There are very few characters and, most importantly, this isn’t the first instalment in a 15-volume series of door stop-sized book bricks. It’s so simple, in fact, as to almost seem allegorical, and it’s in this regard that Uprooted skews closest to the iconography of fairy tales. Most notably, Agnieszka’s encounter with the dark Wood and her attendant loss of innocence is a definite coming-of-age metaphor, and the book’s ending (by far the best part of the novel) is a satisfying (though predictable) fable about the nature of evil and the damage we don’t even know we’re doing to others and the world around us.

There’s also a shit load of magic, and you’ve got to give Naomi Novik props for the sheer number of weird spells and magical plot-devices she’s come up with. There’s magic everywhere. People are running through walls and summoning monsters and throwing fireballs and remote-viewing the distant past and it all gets pretty crazy, which is fun. It’s a nice rebuttal to the “if Gandalf can do all that flashy stuff, why isn’t he doing it all the time?” problem.

While this all sounds good in abstraction, however, the actual book itself is a big letdown. At nearly 500 pages it’s far too long. I couldn’t help but feel that the allegorical nature of its premise would have been better served by a novella. There’s tedious chapter after tedious chapter about learning spells, and a mid-novel battle that just never seems to end. While I’d probably give this stuff a pass if Uprooted was part of a multi-volume saga, here it just ruins the momentum, and feels like a failed attempt to artificially create an impression of epicness that the story just doesn’t need.

This speaks to a deeper problem with the book’s genre identity and structure. It begins as I’ve described, as a simplistic if garrulous fairy tale. But in the middle there’s a really weird Regency-esque concern for the etiquette of high society, and towards the end the book adopts a Game of Thrones-like penchant for gratuitous violence. The pacing is well off. Perhaps this is all a consequence of the book’s unnecessary length, but the genre-swapping, rather than adding and building upon Uprooted’s simple premise, actually detracts from it.

The real problems, though, stem from the book’s characterisation. The characters here are more complex than the basic moral types you might encounter in fairy tales, but only just. The problem isn’t really a lack of depth, but a lack of consistency. None of them have distinct voices, there’s little in the way of interiority, and some of their motives and desires are just plain contradictory. I struggled to get my head around Prince Marek, for example, who at one moment is your stereotypical prince charming, then a potential rapist, then a military hot-head, then a political schemer; good guy, bad guy, morally ambivalent, the book just can’t make up its mind about him. This means that the resolution of his story has very little emotional resonance, despite the gravitas seemingly afforded it by the text.

The book’s sexual politics are also problematic (to say the least…). At one point prince Marek visits the tower and attempts to rape Agnieszka. It’s a shocking sequence, made more so by the fact that, until this point, the novel could almost be a children’s book. But Agnieszka’s response to the assault is pretty weird. Because the prince is good-looking and powerful, Agnieszka can’t seem to decide whether or not to submit to his advances,

I’d probably have been willing myself, if he’d asked me outright and given me enough time to get over my surprise and answer him: I struggled more by reflex than because I wanted to reject him. But he did overcome me. Then I began to be really afraid.

This is the introduction of a disturbing element to Uprooted: the book repeatedly romanticizes abuse. Agnieszka is, in many ways, a stereotypical ingenue, but “I’d probably have been willing” doesn’t parse as an appropriate in-the-moment response to the assault she’s spent so many pages dreading.

This is just one of many examples when the book excuses the predatory actions of its male characters in a ‘but-he-was-handsome-and-overcome-with-desire-for-you’ kind of way, as if this is romantic. I’ve read bad arguments that Agnieszka is SO naive at this point as to be completely confused by the prince’s actions, but the narrative that surrounds this scene makes it pretty clear that Agnieszka knows what’s going on: she frequently worries that the wizard himself is going to rape her, and the text definitely  positions the prince as a spoilt rich kid who thinks he’s entitled to sleep with the help.

The real elephant in the room, though, is the aforementioned fact that the wizard abducts and imprisons a seventeen-year-old girl once every ten years. This isn’t given anything like the moral examination I was expecting. The novel’s rationale seems to be that, because Agnieszka eventually has a good post-abduction experience with the wizard (spoilers: they fall in love), then taking young girls is a perfectly fine thing for him to do. (And this is ignoring any potential Stockholm Syndrome that Agnieszka may be subject to.)

But, c’mon, Agnieszka doesn’t really have a good post-abduction experience, because for her to fall in love with her abusive abductor is bullshit, regardless of how the book itself treats their relationship. I shudder to think what messages about consent and romance this is sending to the book’s potential younger readership (both boys and girls).

There’s no hiding the fact that the initial relationship between the wizard and Agnieszka is abusive. He ignores her, insults her, throws her around etc., and when their relationship does inevitably soften (*sigh*), the word that kept running through my head was “grooming”. The wizard insists he’s never slept with any of his other abductees, but this is also problematic; are we supposed to look favourably on him because of this? Oh what a good abductor he is. Is Agnieszka supposed to be flattered that she, out of all his abducted girls, is the one he deigns to desire?

The fact that the entire narrative process of the novel hinges on a woman being so stripped of her agency is horrible, even if, by the end, she’s able to reclaim her independence. It reminds me of those giant 18th-Century novels like Pamela and Clarissa, wherein the heroines’ reward for putting up with the abuse enacted upon them by their masters is… they get to marry them. There’s nothing wrong with a fantasy novel tackling these issues, of course, but presenting it as a romantic ideal is so not the way to go about it.

Elsewhere the book is peppered with little oddities. Great swathes of text are given over to describing how Agnieszka is messy. She’s always spilling stuff and tearing her clothes etc. etc. This is reiterated so often that I was expecting it to eventually have some narrative significance, but it never really amounts to anything. Maybe you could generously describe it as a narrative call-back to other fairytale heroines like Snow White or Cinderella, whose servant-work is echoed in Agnieszka’s dirty clothing? The evil Wood is also unpredictable; in one chapter you can’t even breathe its air without becoming corrupted, yet in another a huge army marches through it and fights a big battle with its creatures, unperturbed by the poisonous air. There’s also a really, really pivotal character who’s only introduced at the very end (and very serendipitously at that), and several wizards at the court who could be deleted from the book entirely with no consequences for the plot.

It’s so frustrating that a book can start off so well, and then let you down so much. On paper this is everything I look for in a Fantasy novel, especially its refusal to pander to the current genre trend of dense and unnecessary worldbuilding. In summary, then: its intriguing premise is let down by poor characterisation, bad pacing, repetitive prose, and horrendous sexual politics.

The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lupton

silence-xlargeThis is a thriller about an English woman and her profoundly deaf ten-year-old daughter’s journey across Alaska in search of her missing husband. As well as storms, treacherous terrain and uninterrupted darkness (it’s mostly set up in the Arctic Circle), mum and daughter have to contend with a shadowy and relentless figure pursuing them across the tundra. Spooky.

Stylistically the book is mostly on point. It’s very pacy. Short chapters generate a nice sense of momentum, and tender moments of emotional introspection successfully break up the sequences of more visceral terror and violence, stopping them from becoming too tedious and thereby losing their power.

The perpetual night and perpetual snowscape are evocatively described, and it’s impressive that over the course of a 400 page novel, Lupton never runs out of different ways to say “everything was white”. This evocation of Alaska’s sublime and terrifying cold was probably further aided by my own readerly context, as I read the book over the course of a very stormy weekend in deepest winter. I imagine reading this book in Summer would be truly immersion-breaking.

There is the occasional gaffe. I always knew exactly what Lupton was trying to say, but sometimes her phrasing and imagery are a little off; the coloration between the sensations and the images used to describe them sometimes not quite right, “it’s freezing cold; like the air is made of broken glass”. But this is a minor criticism drawn against a narrative style that’s otherwise perfectly serviceable.

The thriller elements of the novel require you to suspend your disbelief to an extreme degree, never more so than when the mum, Yasmin, hijacks an 18-wheeler super rig and, without any training or experience, drives it through storms, over frozen rivers and across the Alaskan wasteland. I was prepared to let this pass in the service of the story, but I wouldn’t blame other readers for not being so generous. The identity of the relentless pursuer, and the dum-dum-duuum Big Reveal of what’s actually going on are disappointingly predictable, and many of the book’s red herrings are a little too obvious. There’s also an on-the-nose eco conspiracy that comes into play more and more as the novel progresses; it’s as subtle as sledgehammer, but its heart is in the right place.

Where the novel really sings, however, is in its portrayal of the relationship between a mum and her deaf daughter. Rosamund Lupton uses two narratorial perspectives (first person for the deaf daughter, and third person for the other, non-deaf characters), and flits between them in such a way as to highlight two radically different ways of being in the world. Sometimes these switches of perspective can be a little disorientating, which you could argue is down to stylistically too-similar voices, but which disorientation I actually enjoyed for its propensity to echo the lost-in-the-storm experience of the characters.

Yasmin’s desire for her daughter, Ruby, to vocalise is heartbreaking when contrasted with Ruby’s assertion that sign language is her “real voice”. Such staples of drama as anger, joy, secrecy and love are simultaneously imbued with a sense of both estrangement and extra clarity when they’re expressed exclusively through signing, written notes, lip-reading and gesture. The featureless, white, silent landscape acts as a satisfying reflection of Ruby’s sense-deprived experience of the world, and the way in which she copes with her situation in Alaska beautifully mirrors her coping with deafness in her ordinary life. This extended metaphor is by far the book’s greatest achievement.