Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

mockingbird-661x1024I quite enjoyed the first hundred pages or so of Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird (1980), which manage to convey an intricate and moving sense of emotional introspection while simultaneously doing the big-picture busywork of establishing the novel’s creepy dystopian setting. Unfortunately, however, it’s all downhill from there. The book’s early chapters primed me to expect an open-minded and liberal argument about human behaviour and the future direction of society, but what I actually found was a disappointingly conservative piece of defensive status-quo-ism.

Mockingbird bathetically undermines its own thesis by concluding that the best way to overcome an enforced and judgemental attitude towards human behaviour is to replace it with… a different but still equally moralistic set of prescribed behaviours. Tevis fails to realise that the problem with his dystopian society isn’t that the wrong type of behaviour is being mandated, but that behaviour is being mandated in the first place. So the problematic here isn’t the kind of binary, but the very fact of the binary. The book’s basic argument is this: recreational drugs, T.V. casual sex, pornography, advanced tech, privacy = bad. The nuclear family, monogamous sex, labour, openness, knowledge, reading = good.

Yeah, it has that weird 1970’s Sci-fi thing of being obsessed with sex, which, coupled with a het male-gazey approach to women’s bodies, is just incredibly tedious, lechy and unnecessary.

It’s all really grah, because on a sentence-by-sentence level Mockingbird can be very expressive. Its characters are distinct, the dialogue is believable, and there are passages of wilderness writing that do a good job of evoking the emptiness of once-thriving cities abandoned and returning to nature, which is trope-ish, sure, but good fun nonetheless.

***

The novel opens with the story of the tongue-twistingly named Spofforth, a human-like robot so advanced that he falls in love, gets horny, and longs to start a family, all of which are, apparently, universal hallmarks of humanity. But being a robot and, shall we say, anatomically incomplete, Spofforth is unable to realise any of these desires, which are mostly hang-overs from the real-life human brain that was the model for his robot consciousness. Spofforth’s dilemma is this: while he’s unable to satisfy his sexual and familial desires, he’s also unable to end his own existence, as his anti-suicide programming kicks in whenever he tries to destroy himself.

I’m not sure if “the robot depressive who can’t kill himself” is quite the existential tragedy that the text would have us believe, but Spofforth’s chapters are nonetheless effecting, especially when he is tormented by dreams and imaginings that belonged to the long-dead human that his brain was, in part, copied from. In fact, the once-human dreams that plague Spofforth are where Mockingbird’s prose really shines. Here the text is beautifully estranging, offering one of the best and most othering examples of the robot-who-wants-to-be-human cliché I’ve encountered in a while.

A secondhand dream, taken by accident from a life he had not lived

[…]

“I wanted to live with you the way the man whose dreams I have might have lived; hundreds of years ago.”

(Though occasionally it does become hilariously pretentions, “I did not want to live with the real anymore”, so watch out for that)

The early Spofforth chapters also introduce us to Mockingbird’s future society. The global human population has collapsed to around 18 million, there’s nobody alive under 30, and everybody was brought up in these sort of brain-washing nurseries where they learn to follow the maxims of privacy and “inwardness”, a philosophy that espouses no eye contact, no touching, no intimacy of any kind. There’s also an obsession with “mandatory politeness” which, if this book wasn’t 36 years old, could sound like one of those anti-SJW satires the alt-right like to put out.

Most people waste their days taking “sopors” and smoking marijuana, which, as we know, turns anybody who ever touches it into a drooling moron. The book is extremely condescending in its anti-drugs preaching, and reaches peak silliness towards the end of the novel when a character in her late thirties suddenly realises that she hasn’t seen any children in decades: she’d been too drugged-up to notice their absence, or something. Yeah.

Oh, and everybody is illiterate.

Next the book introduces us to Paul, Mockingbird’s primary narrator. Paul teaches himself how to read, which opens up a world of understanding and empathy. In becoming literate, Paul learns about intimacy, society, work etc, all the things that have been eradicated by the new obsession with “inwardness”. The rebirth of literacy has the potential, it’s claimed, to end the decades of social inertia and to get history moving again, “when literacy died, so had history”.

I like the idea of literature being what finally overcomes the apocalypse, and the salvage of words becoming more important than the salvage of things, which is a nice inversion of the scrap fetish that’s so common in books of this genre. There are even some funny passages in which Paul becomes more and more frustrated as he plunders the world’s ruined libraries: the only books he can find are, like, manuals on Chess openings and useless stuff like that. Nature hasn’t been selective in deciding which books survived the centuries of decay, which is comically realistic. (although the discovery of a “how to fix robots” book is a bit too serendipitous for my liking)

But this argument about literacy as social panacea starts to lose its charm when Tevis begins coupling it with some pretty conservative ideas about the nuclear family. One of the book’s legendary and most literate characters “was, by the way, one of the few people I know who were brought up in a family”. The text all but states that family is the necessary context for literacy, intelligence and empathy, while failing to care that the necessary context for stable family is, so often, social privilege. The novel’s ending (which (spoilers) sees the establishment of a new two-parent family) infuriated me with its hypocrisy. After 250 pages of satire about the negative things that happen when people are told how to live, the book concludes by… telling us how we should live.

Eventually it all just begins to feel like an over-long dissatisfied allegory for late twentieth century social change. It reads like some op-ed columnist ranting about kids these days who watch too much T.V., don’t know the value of hard work, and who’re all drugged-up, promiscuous idiots. There are value judgements everywhere.

The book’s treatment of its female characters also leaves a lot to be desired. Mary-Lou, Paul’s lover, is repeatedly described in terms of her physical appearance, a stylistic tick that Tevis reserves for all of the book’s women, but none of its men. Indeed, the writer seems to be having a debate with himself about whether or not Mary-Lou is attractive. “Her face was not very pretty” is the opening of one chapter, while another chapter uses the exact phrase “she was very beautiful” twice in two pages. I don’t want to get too bogged-down in synopsis, but the narrative importance of Mary-Lou can be summed up thusly: to become a wife and mother so the world can start reading again.

Large tracts of the text also smack of authorial self-insertion fantasy. It’s the nerdy, hyper-literate reader who, in a world full of illiterate idiots, must save society by restoring it to its former, everything-in-its-right-place glory. There’s a creepy sense of awe that the women of the novel express when confronted with our literate hero. Seriously, Tevis pitches his protagonist, Paul, in language that’s more in keeping with superhero stories:

“Jesus Paul, you’ve changed”

I said nothing, but nodded,

“You look… you look ready for anything”

Suddenly I found words. “That’s right”, I said. And then I stepped forward and put my arms around her and pulled her to me, very hard.

I laughed.

It’s frustrating as hell, because there is some good writing here. There’s a great mid-novel chapter in which Paul stumbles upon an ancient toaster factory that recycles the toasters it makes and turns them into yet more toasters, which functions as successful and funny metaphor for the change-less dystopia in which Paul lives. The resolution of Spofforth’s story is also well done, a nice example of “the best laid schemes of mice and men [(and robots?)] gang aft agley”. It’s a shame, then, that these are rare moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout an otherwise moralistic, patronising novel. For a work of far-future science fiction, it’s surprising how socially conservative Mockingbird ends up being.

As a final note, can anybody fathom what the phrase “Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods” means? It’s this refrain that’s used constantly throughout the text, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what Walter Tevis is getting at. I assume the “mockingbird” is the mock-human Spofforth, but, as for the rest of it? No idea.

Advertisements

Arcadia – Iain Pears

31OP7N6X71L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Every now and then this thing will happen whereby a traditionally literary-realist writer will publish a decidedly genred work, and all hell breaks loose in the SFF community. Some genre fans will whine that the writer is merely appropriating Science Fiction as window dressing in order to make-cool an otherwise naturalistic narrative. Others will complain that the writer hasn’t “earned it”; how can they write compelling genre if they’ve not spent years steeping themselves in the history of said genre? And inevitably people get pissed when mainstream literary journalists who don’t know what they’re talking about praise a work that deploys tired and clichéd genre tropes because they simply don’t know that what they’re praising are tired and clichéd genre tropes etc. etc.

I try not to engage with this kinda stuff. Partly because it smacks of gatekeeping (fuck anybody who says you need to have read certain books or think certain things in order to take part). Partly because SFF is only going to shrivel and die if we don’t encourage writers from diverse places to join in. But mostly because I believe that huge swathes of genre writing have a quality-of-prose problem, and could learn a thing or two by engaging with different literary heritages. Hell, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant was the subject of this kind of community outrage last summer, but it’s the best Fantasy novel I’ve read in years. American poet Marly Youmans’ Thaliad might be the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve ever read. Neither of these writers come from traditional genre backgrounds, but they’ve shown up and produced dazzling works nonetheless.

However. However, while I am generally wary of perpetuating this eye-rolling “non-SF writer trying to do SF and failing” stereotype, there are times when this really is what’s going on, and Iain Pears’ Arcadia just smacks of it. The SF-nal tropes this book deploys really are tired clichés. Both its far-future and its Fantasy settings would have seemed out of date decades ago, and – at risk of becoming the sort of genre fan I was just criticising – Arcadia has a certain tonal smugness about it that really rubbed me up the wrong way; the book seems to think it’s being much more original and experimental than it really is. This is a feeling I partly gleamed from the novel itself, and partly from all the paratextual marketing gumpf that’s been surrounding it for months. All this could be forgiven if Arcadia had a depth of characterisation or a quality of prose capable of out-shining its otherwise tepid ideas, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t.

I will say this though: Arcadia is a structural masterpiece. The novel’s central idea is that time isn’t linear, it’s only our limited human perception that makes it seem so. Events in the future can alter events in the past. The past can change, the future isn’t certain, and the present is just as unstable.

Arcadia’s most successful element is the way its structure perfectly encapsulates this idea. The book flits, non-chronologically, between three different timelines, and it’s not uncommon for something to happen in the future timeline that influences and changes stuff going on in the past. Or vice versa. To really see this in action, you can download an app (not kidding…) which will provide you with different “paths” through the novel. You can read different chapters in different orders and it all still makes sense, hence reinforcing the book’s thematic concern for the non-linearity of cause and effect. It’s all very intricate. Every decision a character makes has a wider significance in the timeline. It’s very modern, too, and could probably be described as a novelistic attempt at the much-lauded videogame principle of “ludonarrative”, that is: the narrative generated by the different ways the reader (/player) can interact with a text. God knows how long it took to plot the whole thing. It’s very, very clever.

But clever structure is all that Arcadia is. And so much is lost in the service of being clever. Imagine an architect has designed a staggeringly impressive and convoluted building; weird geometry all folding in on itself, it’s self-supporting and will collapse if you remove any one part. But then imagine that this building is made from the dullest, most boring and grey materials imaginable. That should give you some idea of what Arcadia is like.

At 600 pages it’s also stodgy as hell. It’s very repetitive, which I’m convinced is a consequence of Pears’ decision to let the reader approach the book’s chapters in different combinations: he has to repeat the same info over and over in case the mid-way point for one reader is the entry point for another (for the record, I read it in the traditional, front-to-back kinda way). And although I like the idea that events in the story have consequences for the structure of the book, it nonetheless requires such a level of narrative engineering as to make large chunks of the novel seem contrived.

By the end of Arcadia, I definitely got the feeling that major plot events were happening more in service to the novel’s structure, than in service to any of its characters and their motivations.

9780571301577

***

The future time-line is set in a quasi-dystopian, climate-changed UK that’s ruled by mega corporations. It’s a conform-or-die sort of place, where everything is geared towards profit, the private ownership of ideas, and generally being nasty to one another. It’s really, really bog-standard SF stuff (the biggest, richest, meanest bigwig is called “Oldmanter”, which is on-the-nose even for my tastes), and it’s so thinly drawn that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be visualising half the time. A genius scientist called Angela Meerson has invented a machine that opens portals to parallel universes, but the big bad corporation guys want to grab this for themselves in order to mine those other universes for raw materials, and make big buckaroos.

(Thought: if the mega corporations could strip other universes for coal or whatever, wouldn’t such a HUGE influx of minerals actually hyper-inflate the markets and therefore massively devalue those materials, and hence ruin the potential to profit from them? I guess if only one group controls access then they could still make their moneys, but once the stuff is out there, how do they control the secondary markets? etc….)

Angela is my favourite character; idiosyncratic, witty, and borderline sociopathic in her devotion to science. She doesn’t want her ideas stolen, so she destroys her notes, and uses her machine to send herself into another universe. However, Angela’s understanding of physics is incorrect; her invention is actually a time machine, and, instead of another universe, it sends he back to 1960s Oxford, the second of the book’s 3 timelines.

The Oxford chapters are, by far, the best in the book, perhaps indicating that when he’s not ventriloquising tired genre settings, Iain Pears can write compelling characters and descriptive prose. These chapters are chiefly concerned with an aging English Literature professor called Henry Lytten, and a local schoolgirl called Rosie. One of Henry’s subplots is actually a half-way decent cold war spy story; it’s a tad ancillary to the wider goings-on of the novel, but is nonetheless good fun (I’d be up for reading a cold war thriller starring an old Shakespeare scholar!).

Henry is also a writer, working on a Fantasy novel set in the imagined realm of “Anterworld”, with the eventual goal of creating a society that fully functions without any gaps or inconsistencies.  He wants the world of his novel to “work”. I have a slight theoretical problem with this, as I think it misunderstands the nature of worldbuilding and the ways in which texts relate to anything real: characters and worlds don’t consist of anything more than what’s on the page: the presence of boats in a novel may imply the presence of ship-builders in the fictional universe, but convoluted histories and meticulous attention to detail doesn’t make a text any more “real” or “stable” than any other. Hamlet is nothing more than the words he speaks etc.

Anyway, Angela learns about Henry’s “Anterworld”, and, attracted by its level of social realism (and hence “stability”) she uses it as a blueprint to test a new machine. Basically, Angela creates “Anterworld”, not as simulation, but real, living universe.

How exactly Angela “makes” Anterworld from Henry’s scrappy notes isn’t at all clear, and this speaks to a wider problem with the book’s narrative style. Large chunks of description have a definite “Hard Science” feel to them, especially when it waffles on about creating other universes and how cause and effect relate to one another. But elsewhere the book is remarkably twee. Angela’s machine is capable of creating, holding and sustaining an entire working universe and altering the course of human history, but, being trapped in the 1960s, she’s forced to make do with materials of the period:

I would have used refined aluminium, but I had to use aluminium foil in its place. Instead of sheets of pure graphite, I used lead pencils and old newspapers.

She makes her universe-generating machine out of tin foil and pencils. And controls it with pot and pans:

The kettle sets the year and month, the saucepans fix the day and hour and the two tea mugs set the location.

While this stuff kinda matches the eccentricity of Angela’s character, it’s just too much kitsch, and in a novel very much concerned with how things work, it’s starts to feel silly.

Like the future time period, the third of the book’s settings, Anterworld, is likewise run-of-the-mill genre stuff. The phrase “standard fantasy setting” should tell you everything you need to know about it. The schoolgirl I mentioned earlier, Rosie, stumbles upon the doorway to Anterworld, and wanders inside. Here she becomes embroiled in an incredibly boring story about a contested lordship, she falls in love with a Robin Hood figure, and eventually becomes an important figure in the mythology of the world.

The Anterworld sections, then, are simultaneously both intriguing and dull. The way it interacts with 1960s Oxford and the far future timeline are fascinating, and showcases the cleverness of Pears’ convoluted structure. But unfortunately the majority of the Anterworld stuff is just bland, with nothing to set it apart from any other feudal fantasy. Given the urgency of the futuristic stuff, and the intrigue of the 1960s spy drama, I struggled to find any reason why I should care which deposed lord has the most genuine claim to the contested lands. Far too much of Arcadia is given-over to these dull feudal politics, most of which turns out to be just scene-setting for a somewhat predictable late-novel twist.

The girl who wanders into Anterworld Rosie, is equally inconsistent. In abstraction she’s great, a slightly precocious, adventure-loving loner. She’s witty, loyal, and takes no shit from anyone. On the page, however, Rosie is problematic. I think she too-willingly abandons her previous life in favour of staying in Anterworld. Her level-headedness and intelligence seems to evaporate in the face of her love interest, which is a disappointing trait to find in a character set-up to be independent and strong-willed. Rosie begins the novel as a promisingly contrarian young girl, but ends the book embracing and defending the traditional gender roles that the story forces upon her. There were several passages towards the end of Rosie’s story where I almost threw the book across the room.

Large sections of Rosie’s dialogue are also very odd. This is what Iain Pears thinks fifteen-year-old girls sound like:

“You speak with defiance. That is not unattractive. Indeed, I am sure that any woman would find it beguiling, even hard to resist. Almost impossible, I would say. Until she considers this: what trust can be put into your words?”

Rosie’s age results in some awkward reading, too. Her (underage) marriage in Anterworld is a key part of her story, and there’s a suggestion of underage sex as well, but Iain Pears takes great pains to creepily remind us, again and again, that, as Anterworld is a feudal-level society, this is all fine. Rosie is old, in fact, not to be married (apparently). Coupled with copious references to Rosie’s physical beauty, it’s all a bit uncomfortable. Why didn’t Pears just make her a year older and circumvent having to do this? It reminds me a bit too much of:

***

And so it goes on and on. I admire the structural ambition of Arcadia, as well as its thematic interest in narrative; focusing on the ways in which stories are changed and renewed in their re-telling is exactly the sort of metanarrative playfulness I enjoy. But the whole thing is just so contrived, and as the complex construction that is the novel’s plotting builds and develops, it only feels more and more forced. Mid-way through the book, for example, Rosie is cloned when attempting to leave Anterworld. The narrative rationale behind Rosie’s cloning is that the machine detected a change about her person (she’s wearing some rings acquired in the fantasy land), and so created two versions of her; one that can leave Anterworld, and one which has to stay behind, “Your profile did not match the one you had when you went through […] It didn’t know whether to allow you back or block you, so it did both”. But later in the novel, when another character leaves Anterworld after spending a long time there, there is no cloning, despite the fact that Chang’s clothing and history has been even more affected than Rosie’s. Why is Rosie cloned and not Chang? Well, the irritating answer is that the story’s convoluted structure needs two Rosies, but not two Changs. In a novel about the verisimilitudes of cause and effect, these types of rule changes have the potential to bathetically undermine the book’s entire argument.

I have more problems with Arcadia, but this review is already pushing 2000-words, and I don’t want to get too list-like, so I think I’ll finish off here.

(oh, wait, one more: for a book so focused on the mutable nature of history, why are some elements set in stone? Like a document that history won’t allow to be destroyed? There are numerous mentions of history’s “proper path”, but what force or consciousness sets this path in motion, and arbitrates over its propriety? It’s definitely at odds with the otherwise infinitely changeable nature of history put forward by the text. And, again, the answer is simple: certain events and objects are unchangeable merely because the intricate construction that is Arcadia’s plot requires them to be).

So, yes, what Iain Pears has done with structure is very clever. But as the novel progresses, more and more is sacrificed to the auspices of this structure until what’s left is nothing but the structure. Characterisation, consistency, pacing… it’s all secondary to the grander project. And although the end result is an impressive piece of narrative construction, you’ve gotta wonder…. Is it worth it?

Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson

I think the general consensus among SFF fans is that Dave Hutchinson was robbed (robbed I tell you!) of last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. His 2015 novel Europe at Autumn is a brilliant Science-Fictional spy novel – cum – satire set in a near-future Europe that has Balkanized into hundreds of different countries, city states, and polities; “the big thing in Europe these days was countries, and there were more and more of them every year”. Hutchinson is remarkably playful in creating his emergent nations, despite the fact that his fractured Europe has roots in some pretty serious contemporary politics (the increasing instability of the EU, the rise of reactionary nationalism right across the continent, austerity and the counter-emergence of a new and optimistic socialism, not to mention debt and refugee crises). There’s one country, for example, that’s occupied and governed by fans of Gunter Grass. Another appears to consist of two warring tribes of football hooligans. And one “nation” is a cross-continental railway simply dubbed “The Line”, a nod to the popular Science Fiction trope of the perpetual train.

1781081956.LZZZZZZZ

Hutchinson’s prose is lyrical, his politics insightful, and his satire of European national identities (and the rivalries therein) is spot-on. The heart of the novel, though, is the well-drawn and sympathetic character of Rudi, a chef recruited by the Coureurs des Bois, a secretive organisation of couriers determined to keep the spirit of Shengen alive in a Europe of ever-shifting Borders. Finally, Europe at Autumn was notable for its deft deployment of so many thriller/espionage tropes. Hutchinson does a sort of masterfully self-aware thing whereby he mocks and ridicules the more out-there clichés of the spy genre, but employs them as plot devices nonetheless, because he recognises that they’re damn good fun.

***

26009702Europe at Midnight is the follow up to Europe in Autumn, and, like its predecessor, has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It’s set in the same fictional universe, but other than a brief cameo, doesn’t feature any of the same characters. It’s a risky sequel in that’s it’s very, very different from the book that came before it. EaM is markedly more science-fictional, concerning itself with a parallel universe version of Europe called “The Community” and a further pocket-universe called “The Campus”, both of which were introduced in the final act of the last book.

Unfortunately, Europe at Midnight isn’t quite as successful as its predecessor. Neither of its two central characters are as compelling as Rudi. The frequent jumps in place and time – though sometimes good at generating momentum – can be disorientating as hell, and some of the book’s gender politics are a tad indelicate. I also missed the wonderful observations of European cultural idiosyncrasies that so coloured the previous novel. Their absence is mostly a consequence of Europe at Midnight being set almost entirely in England (or versions of…), so I recognise that there are plot-related reasons for this shift in narrative style, but still, the descriptions of, for example, Polish cooking, Hungarian aloofness and Estonian wit were among my highlights of the previous book.

None of these complaints are deal-breakers, however. Europe at Midnight is still really, really good, despite the aforementioned niggles. The two central characters are Jim and “Rupert”. Jim comes from the fractured Europe of the previous book. He’s a detective recruited by a shady department of the English secret service. “Rupert”, like Jim, is also an intelligence worker, but he comes from The Campus, a pocket universe consisting of a giant university in which the previous ruling body “The Old Board” has recently been overthrow in a democratic coup. The technology of the Campus is relatively old (there are no cars or mobile phones), but the mysterious Faculty of Science are conducting grotesque experiments using tech that’s out-of-sync with the rest of the pocket universe. Spooky. It’s Rupert’s job to investigate.

It’s not long before the narrative arcs of these two characters intersect, and both learn about “The Community”. This is a parallel universe version of Europe (of which The Campus is a small part) that was somehow created by a family of English cartographers in the Nineteenth Century. Jim’s team is interested in The Community mostly for national security/diplomatic reasons: are they a threat? Can they get to us? Can they be traded with? etc. Rupert’s interest is more personal, as various clandestine goings-on between The Community, The Campus and Europe may-or-may not have had a role to play in several personal tragedies the befall him in the book’s opening chapters. This dualism between Jim and Rupert – the personal versus the national interest in Europe – is a nicely balanced thing, perhaps reflective of the concerns may real-world Europeans harbour about the state of the continent. A dissonance of head versus heart.

So let’s talk about the novel’s parallel universe version of Europe (not the fractured, split one… I mean the other one, dubbed ‘The Community’). The Community is a brilliant conceit on Hutchinson’s part, narratively fruitful and loaded with symbolism through which he critiques real-world Europe. The Community is a fantasy manifestation of England that spans the entire European continent. Everybody is English, the only language is English, and there are no traces of non-English culture or history. It basically represents what certain sections of contemporary British society probably consider to be the ideal Europe, perhaps encapsulated by the “England Abroad” holiday resorts that’ve been cropping up on the continent in recent decades. This is Europe without foreigners, and represents an atavistic fantasy of English colonial ambition:

[It’s] very attractive to a certain type of English person. I know Tory politicians who are delighted that there’s a version of Europe where we conquered the Continent.

The Community is a satire of right-wing uber-nationalist self-importance in which England isn’t just a significant player in Europe: England is Europe.

The most successful part of Europe at Midnight is its simultaneous presentation of two extreme versions of European future: the homogenous super state, versus the fractured, ever-shifting mess. Of course both of these situations are hyperbole: Europe at Midnight is a satire in the sense that it takes two potentialities and pushes them to their most absurd conclusions, but, like all good satire, it’s telling in the way it exposes real-life issues, highlighting just what a cross-roads real-world Europe is currently faced with. It’s tempting to describe the book as being about two Europes: the fractured versus the superstate, but it’s actually about three, with our real Europe providing the paratextual context from which so much of the satire springs forth. Europe at Midnight works so well because its future Europe seems to alarmingly probably; what with brexit, the devaluation of the Euro, the rise of nationalist right-wing parties into government etc..

In fact, Europe at Midnight is at its best when Hutchinson takes the basic idea of his setting, and really runs with it. There’s a very funny passage in which he imagines what the Eurovision Song Contest would be like in a Europe with hundreds and hundreds of participant nations:

There were five hundred and thirty-two entries in this Eurovision […] The final was scheduled to last two days, with another three days set aside for voting.

Sure, the song contest has no bearing on anything that’s happening in the novel, and it would be easy to accuse Hutchinson of using it as a backdrop merely so he can crowbar the joke into the story, but it’s wry observations like this that ground the science fictional in the familiar. It works because it’s recognisable and it’s new at the same time.

***

Other aspects of the novel, however, aren’t quite as strong. There’s a real paucity of deep female characters in the book, and the three women who show the most potential for interesting development are variously and violently killed off before we really get to know them. Even with their very limited screen time, these women vastly outshine the sometimes bland male protagonists, which makes the brevity of their involvement all the more frustrating. I was especially taken by Araminta, for example, who arrives on The Campus and shakes up Rupert’s entire life while simultaneously hinting at a personal history that primed me to expect a complex narrative to follow. The ending of her story is so abrupt and unsatisfactory that I was half expecting her demise to be some kind of red herring, and for Araminta to show up later in the book, so we could continue learning about her story (people sometimes survive nuclear explosions… right?). Dave Hutchinson can definitely write strong, compelling women; the problem isn’t with how they’re presented, but with the roles they’re given in the text. It’s difficult to think of a single female character in Europe at Midnight whose primary narrative function isn’t reducible to motivating something that happens to one of the two male leads.

There are also difficult shifts in setting, character and time that can be so disorientating as to take quite a few pages to get your head around. This adds a layer of obfuscation that the already complex plot doesn’t really need. I’d have preferred a gentler way-in to some of the jumps in place and character. But who knows? Maybe this is just me being a lazy reader.

Taken as a whole, however, Europe at Midnight is still very good, and definitely the best book on this year’s Clarke shortlist. The conspiracy elements of the novel are complex enough to be unpredictable, but not so obtuse as to be confusing. The writing is characteristically swift, with a few well-deployed phrases (such as the casual mention of a “ten-pound coin”), Hutchinson can establish setting, tone and satire that would take lesser writers many pages to explain.

Dave Hutchinson is also very good at nailing that certain “this is exactly what would happen” cynicism that defines the best works of speculative political satire. For example when we learn about the capitalist organisations with an interest in the parallel universe Europe, “Two fast-food corporations, a sports clothing manufacturer [and] all the main high street coffee chains”. The prosaicism of these high-street brands, coupled with the inevitability of their involvement, is just so on point. It’s brilliant. What happens when we extrapolate contemporary neo-liberalism into a science fictional setting? Well, the invaders from another dimension are our profit-hungry coffee chains and sports shops, of course! The vision of capital enterprise being so ravenous for new markets that they’re willing to invade another dimension is funny because it feels so depressingly plausible, despite the inherent silliness of the situation.

It’s all to do with potentialities, really. What Europe is, what Europe could be, what different groups want to make Europe into, and the ways in which individual lives try to cope with and respond to this. Like it’s fractured setting, Europe at Midnight is a fluid patchwork of different ideas: part spy novel, part science fiction romp, part satire, part state-of-the-nation commentary, and I’m pleased to report that it handles most of these things very well indeed.

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.

23281789.jpg

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.

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.