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?

Advertisements

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.

Iphigenia in Splott – Gary Owen

Iphigenia In Splott at The Sherman Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet C31B3149It’s tempting to discuss Iphigenia in Splott, – Gary Owen’s new one-woman play about austerity – purely in terms of its proximity to the General Election. Of course the timing of the production is knowingly apposite, and the play has surely become even more powerful in light of last week’s results. In this regard Iphigenia continues the Sherman Theatre’s commitment to staging socially relevant and confrontational contemporary drama. And while this is more than just an “issues” play, it nonetheless cuts deep in its examination of austerity, centering on those who bear the brunt of punitive social reforms made in the name of economic recovery. Its greatest achievement is the way it speaks about big-picture, country-wide issues via a microscopic focus on an individual life. This is raw, provocative and deeply moving stuff.

The play is set in Splott (an inner-city district of Cardiff), and concerns Effie: a young, unemployed, angry girl whose life “spirals through a mess of drink, drugs and drama”. Essentially Iphigenia in Splott is a 75-minute monologue, during which Effie – always addressing the audience directly – describes and re-enacts her life; from street arguments and sex, through to drug taking and a strikingly visceral scene in a hospital.

Iphigenia hits the ground running with its appropriation of the themes of its ancient Greek namesake. Effie considers herself to have been sacrificed under the aegis of austerity, much like Agamemnon’s daughter was killed in the pursuit of a supposed greater good. Whether or not this sacrifice is truly willing is one the play’s key ambiguities.

Tonight

You all are here to give thanks

To me.

Yeah I know it’s a shock

But you lot, every single one

You’re in my debt.

And tonight – boys and girls, ladies and gents –

I’ve come to collect.

This immediately creates a kind of social tension between Effie and the play’s audience; the majority, if not all, of whom, I imagine, have never suffered in any meaningfully negative way at the hands of austerity. It’s possible to interpret this tension as a wry dig at the theatre world’s much-publicised struggle to attract demographically diverse audiences. I mean, I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you really must.

But all this austerity stuff is very subtly deployed; it’s in the subtext, it forms the background; only rising to the surface in, for example, the occasional mention of a closed-down swimming pool, or references to formerly busy streets of shops, now empty and abandoned. The cuts may be the cause of much of the difficulty in Effie’s life, but don’t expect long political diatribes or invective about government policy. This is a play that makes its point about austerity through an intimate portrayal of the day-to-day life of a woman in poverty, rather than through grand statements and ideology.

The play’s staging is likewise apocalyptically minimalist: the most prominent feature is a column of fluorescent tube lights; perfectly arranged and properly ordered at the top, but collapsing and subsiding at the bottom in a brilliant visual metaphor for the social structures being critiqued by the drama.

effie_featured7

Despite what I’ve written above, however, Iphigenia in Splott isn’t unrelentingly bleak. There’s an undercurrent of wit and dark humour which creates some wonderful tonal variations without undermining the seriousness of the play’s subject. Gary Owen’s script is sharp and deftly controlled; modern in its use of slang and colloquialisms, but traditional in its concern for rhyme and prosodic rhythm. Every character that Effie describes to us is distinct and idiosyncratic, without ever devolving into stereotype or caricature, a feat achieved in part by this convergence of heart-rending drama with pointed humour.

effie_featured9

The bulk of my praise, however, must go to Sophie Melville’s utterly mindblowing performance as Effie. As the only actor onstage for the entire, interval-less 75 minutes, Melville commands your attention for every single second. She fills the space with constant movement, and runs such a gamut of wide-ranging and complex emotions as to make summing-up her performance an incredibly difficult task. Speaking in a thick, working class Cardiff accent, one moment Effie might be a flirtatious drunk or a cocky street kid, a maelstrom of anger or passion, but the next she might be fragile and innocent, revealing a youthful vulnerability behind the swaggering outer facade. Melville’s delivery is similarly diverse, from a frenetic, slang-heavy and rap-like cascade, to a delicate and frail introspection delivered so slowly and quietly that the audience leaned forward on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next revelation.

The transitions between these moments are always fluid and organic; this is a complex character piece. We may hate Effie when she first struts onstage, abrasive and accusing, but when she confides in us her heart-breaking desire to feel “not alone”, surrounded by nothing but three empty chairs and some flickering tube lights, our opinions of her are very different. It’s a performance that never lets up its emotional intensity and humanity. People were crying. I’ll never forget it.

Iphigenia in Splott is a shocking, powerful, and moving play; a masterpiece of post-recession theatre; state-of-the-nation told via the state of an individual. In a recent Daily Mail article, Tom Conti commented that socialism and anti-austerity comes from a place of hatred and jealousy, but he’s wrong; they come from a place of anger, and this is an angry, charged and sad play. While Iphigenia in Splott isn’t quite a direct call for revolution, it’s certainly a warning, “What is gonna happen when we can’t take it anymore?”. I hope it at least serves as an eye-opener to those disinterested in the real-world consequences of austerity. If you live anywhere near Cardiff: go and see it. If you’re going to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival: go and see it. Hell, if you live in San Francisco, get on a plane, come to Cardiff, and go and see it!

(All images © Mark Douet)

The Martian – Andy Weir

The MartianContext:

The Martian was self-published by Andy Weir back in 2011, and after gaining momentum on his website and, later, Amazon, it was picked up by a mainstream publisher and became the breakout Science Fiction mega success of 2014 (Ridley Scott’s movie adaptation starring Matt Damon is being filmed this very moment!).

This all happened to the bafflement of the SFF community, as, by almost any measure, The Martian is a terrible novel. It comprises all of the negative traits that non-SF readers stereotypically associate with the genre: it’s badly written, technical to the point of tedium, offers no psychological or emotional insight into its characters or the ways in which their situation changes them, and just generally has nothing to say about anything.

It would seem easy to accuse the Science Fiction blogosphere of a kind of literary hipsterism at this point: an SF novel finally breaks into the mainstream, and it’s charged with being the “wrong kind” of Science Fiction. There’s more than a little having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too about this objection to The Martian’s success, but to be honest it’s a position I kinda sympathise with: The Martian is a long way from the being the sort of novel I’d like to see “representing” the state of early 21st-century Science Fiction, a genre significantly more diverse, creative and human-centric than The Martian would lead you to believe. This jacket quote in particular seems like it was specifically deployed to troll hardcore fans of literary SF:

Don’t be put off thinking this is a sci-fi book – it’s so much more than that.

 *shudders*

The Martian

The premise is a good one: Mark Wahlberg… I mean “Watney”… is stranded on Mars after his crew have blasted back to Earth following a mission-aborting dust storm. Now he’s awaiting rescue, surviving on potatoes, disco music, his absurdly encyclopaedic knowledge of all of science, and more potatoes.

It’s an epistolary novel, made up of Watney’s daily mission logs (unfortunately my hopes that The Martian would develop into some kind of Clarissa in Space were soon dashed by the novel’s utter lack of self-awareness and irony. Darn shame). And while this epistolary structure carries all of the usual benefits of that form (short chapters that can generate a nice momentum, and an excuse to skip the action forwards over the boring bits), The Martian is bafflingly impersonal. The greater part of the novel consists of straight-forward physical descriptions of Watney fixing stuff “I moved here. I put this there. I screwed-in that” etc. There’s a bit towards the middle when it looks as though Watney is about to skirt the issue of his loneliness, but just like his trusty Martian rover, the novel deftly avoids any such difficult terrain in favour of the flatter, easier narrative landscape of scientific technocratic blah. It’s frustrating that the epistolary form, tailor-made to expose a character’s innermost thoughts and fears, is used in such a cold, soul-less manner.

Watney’s voice is the major problem with the novel. The a-to-b-to-c mechanisations of the plot are perfectly serviceable, and I’m confident that this will be a much better film than it is book, purely because cinema can get away with presenting a depthless sequence of improbable crises in a way that novels really can’t (that and The Martian belongs to a particular sub-genre of Hard Science Fiction that’s cinematically en vogue right now (think Moon, Gravity, Interstellar etc.), and which can probably get by on its visual spectacle sans any genuine emotional content).

The narration just did it for me. Watney’s voice is part physics textbook, part sarcastic teenage blogger. Ugly words like “really” and “got” are repeated ad nauseum:

So Houston got understandably nervous when we got whacked with 175kph winds. We all got in our flight suits and huddled

And very un-astronaut-like internet-speak peppers the narrative. Most irritating is the parenthetic “Yay me”, which is used so often as to become a refrain (and soon begins to feel like the writer congratulating himself on having regurgitated some especially technical piece of research).

Many reviewers have commented that it’s Watney’s wit and “personality” that make the novel, but I don’t see it. To me the ill-fitting interjections of teen-speak are just shallow; too-obvious attempts to create the illusion of personality.

There’s no examination of Watney’s emotional situation: fear, regret, wonder, loneliness are barely mentioned. The emotion that’s described in most detail is boredom which, I think, says a lot about Andy Weir’s imagination. I was hoping for some wilderness writing, for a sympathetic fallacy that described the surrounding Mars-scape in emotional terms and used the empty backdrop as a mirror for Watney’s lonliness, but nope: nada. Unless, of course, you consider the barrenness of the prose to be a stylistic reflection of the arid Martian sand dunes…er..

Things hit rock bottom when Watney starts explaining his own jokes:

‘Over the past few days, I’ve been happily making water. It’s been going swimmingly (see what I did there? “swimmingly”?)

Which juxtaposes awkwardly with all of the high-level science in the book. There are pages and pages and pages of this:

Every twenty hours, I’ll have 10 litres of CO2 thanks to the MAV fuel plant. I’ll vent it into the Hab via the highly scientific method of detaching the tank from the MAV landing struts, bringing it into the Hab, then opening the valve until its empty. The oxygenator will turn it into oxygen in its own time. Then I’ll release hydrazine very slowly over the iridium catalyst, to turn it into N2 and H2 […]

Which while impressive in a “look how much research I’ve done” kinda way, is only bearable in small doses. I have no objection whatsoever to Hard Science Fiction, but I prefer it when the aesthetic modus operandi isn’t to achieve a narrative style identical with that of undergraduate physics textbooks.

After 10, 20, 30 pages of the stuff, it all becomes so much white noise. If you want to be generous, you could probably argue that the enormous swathes of physics is a meta-narrative attempt to instil in the reader the same sensations of zen-like boredom being experienced by our stranded protagonist. If that was Andy Weir’s intention, then, bravo, I guess.

But is it even Science Fiction though?

One thing The Martian has encouraged me to do, though, is to start thinking, once again, about that age-old literary problematic of how to define Science Fiction. Because the niggling thought I kept having while reading it was that, whatever The Martian is; it isn’t Science Fiction.

I guess this comes full-circle to my earlier comments about literary hipsterism, and I hope the following doesn’t sound like a hand-wringing attempt to rescue Science Fiction’s critical reputation by claiming that the most scrutinized SF novel in years isn’t actually SF at all, because these are genuine thoughts I had while reading…

Like many SF fans on the critical left, I’ve always been enamoured of Darko Suvin’s definition of Science Fiction, which, while imperfect, remains incredibly fruitful:

A literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

Key to genre fiction, for me, is this idea of estrangement and alterity. Yet despite being set almost entirely on Mars, The Martian manages to be one of the least estranging novels I’ve ever read. The language is prosaic, the narrator is aloof and the text never engages with the otherness of its setting. The rigorous devotion to realism, present-day technology and scientific verisimilitude cloys up the narrative: there’s no attempt at extrapolation, imagination or wonder, or to find meaning through the other.

Realist fiction attempts to echo the world by representing it as faithfully as possible (to monumental hubris, in my opinion), whereas SF speaks about the world by making it strange, and in doing so reveals and highlights deeper truths; Science Fiction is a literature of metaphor. The Martian makes no effort at metaphor, attempting to recreate experience as mundanely and accurately as possible, and in this regard has more in common with mimetic literary realism than Science Fiction. Nothing about the book is unfamiliar, and the constant internet speak, the paratextual assertions that all the technology is real, and the occasional chapters that feature CNN news reports about how Watney has become a celebrity back home make the whole thing so inescapably familiar. How can a book set on Mars feel so parochial?

The Martian fails as Science Fiction because rather than estranging the reader from their everyday context, all the book gives us is… the recognisable. Potatoes and disco music.