Memory of Water – Emmi Itäranta

MemofWatI think it’s fair to say that the Arthur C. Clarke Award has a theme this year. This is the third book I’ve read from the shortlist, and it’s yet another lit-fic – genre crossover with a post-apocalyptic setting.

And I really didn’t like it.

It’s probably best to start with the premise, because everything that’s wrong with the book more or less stems from the flaws therein. Several hundred years into the future, global warming (or some such similar climate catastrophe) has melted the ice caps; oceans have risen, entire continents have been lost, and almost all sources of fresh water have dried up. The teenage narrator, Noira, lives in the “Scandinavian Union”, a state ruled by the totalitarian “military”, which controls all of the water, and rations it out to the citizenry in such a way as just-about keeps people alive.

The primary narrative concerns Noira and her immediate family as they attempt to keep a freshwater spring near their home hidden from the military. Hiding or not-disclosing a source of water is a “water crime”, punishable by death.

So far so good; climate change is, of course, a very worth topic for SF to cover. The first problem, though, is that Memory of Water’s larger-scale worldbuilding isn’t consistent with its basic premise. Fresh water is supposedly ultra-scarce (so much so that sacks of it have become currency, valued like gold), yet the text is peppered with casual descriptions of the characters taking showers, washing their clothes, and watering their gardens, which completely undermines any efforts the writer makes to generate tension and hammer home her themes of desperation and water poverty. Noira’s father’s assertion that living without their hidden spring would mean “the garden would suffer somewhat” is hardly evocative of a fraught struggle to cling to life.

There are also numerous references to a nearby sea; in fact, the world is almost entirely covered with water – but there is no mention whatsoever of desalination technology. This would be fine if the post-apocalyptic society of the Union was technologically atavistic, but it isn’t: there are trains, fingerprint scanners, solar panels and a network of communication devices called “pods”. All of this stuff has survived the climate catastrophe, but the basic knowledge needed to remove salt from water has, apparently, been lost. (Also: with such an abundance of modern technology, why are the characters so amazed when they stumble upon some old CDs, or a broken radio, or any of the other salvage that seems strewn all over the place?)

The second problem has to do with the book’s moral direction. Memory of Water is sympathetic with the plight of Noira and her family. She’s a likable, honest, and loving narrator, and at no point is this presentation ambiguous or ironic. Noira is the heroine. But it seems to me that keeping a source of fresh water hidden from the dying-of-thirst society that surrounds you (and hogging all the water for yourself) is an extremely dickish thing to do. Exactly why Noira and her family want to hide the spring at the back of their house isn’t clear. There’s some vague stuff about water being “free”, and the military wanting to “own” it, but this isn’t at all satisfying or substantial. The real reason, it seems, is that the narrative just needs a conflict to move things forward.

Other sub-plots are picked up and abandoned haphazardly.  Noira and her best friend spend a good chunk of the novel attempting to uncover the fate of a lost scientific expedition, which is by far the most interesting part of the book, and by far the most frustrating when no answers are forthcoming. Likewise, what her mother is researching when she leaves to work in a faraway university is never explored, and the deeper politics and power structures behind the ubiquitous “military” are anybody’s guess.

Thematic and emotional interests are similarly underdeveloped. For the first half of the novel, Noira will often try to imagine what winter is like (a season that’s vanished in the climate-changed future), which creates some wonderful visual contrasts between the arid world of the books’ setting, and the crystalline snowscape of Noira’s dreams. There’s a suggestion that Noira’s winter-obsession will eventually have implications for the book’s plot, or at least some metaphorical significance, but about half-way through the text, all the winter stuff is abandoned, never to be mentioned again.

***

Stylistically Memory of Water is a real grab bag. Emmi Itäranta is clearly a sensitive writer; the prose is very stylised and highly emotional, but it also overreaches itself philosophically. Almost every page contains some kind of aphoristic or quasi-spiritual statement about water, most of which are nowhere near as deep or as poetic as the writer seems to think. The basic notion that, in a water-scarce world, a whole philosophy of water has arisen with its own set of metaphors, idioms and symbolism is commendable. Unfortunately, Memory of Water lacks the intellectual nous to make this really work. A lot of the water-philosophy is twee, and a lot of it is just baffling nonsense. Some examples:

Water has no beginning and no end (p31)

We are children of water, and water is death’s close companion. The two cannot be separated from us, for we are made of the versatility of water and the closeness of death. (p 113)

Water is the most versatile of all elements […] it doesn’t hesitate to shatter against sharp rocks in rainfall […] it exists beyond all beginnings and ends. (p221)

I was like a calm surface of water, extreme and unnatural (p62)

The overarching idea that, in this world, water has a memory – specifically a memory of everything human society has done to it – is strong, both poetically and metaphorically. Unfortunately, though, this concept is just lost amid the never-ending salvo of confusing, cod-philosophical gibberish that dominates the narrative.

There’s also the regrettable fact that the vast majority of this stuff that enters the dialogue makes every character sound as if they’re suffering from a bladder disorder, “I can feel water wanting to leave me”, “my water may run dry freely” etc.

Elsewhere, the sentence-by-sentence styling just feels sort of, off. Sometimes, as above, there’s an eloquence issue, and sometimes the characters themselves just sound weirdly artificial, an attempt at over-styling that hasn’t paid off:

Silence is not needed to chain tame things (p. 134)

You’ll be a better tea master than I know how to be anymore. (p86)

A circle only knows its own shape (p. 219).

Memory of Water is a perfect example of a book that’s brilliant in abstraction, but let down in its execution. There’s so much I wanted to like about it. The styling is way off, but at least it’s an *attempt* at an idiosyncratic style; something that’s too rare in modern Science Fiction. Likewise the ending would be very striking if I’d been made to care about the characters or anything that happens to them. There are little nuggets of success; the counter-intuitive idea that water, so abundant, has nonetheless become more valuable than gold is a wonderful inversion of the way the world is. And the basic concept of a post-apocalyptic story that’s very small, personal and intimate, rather than the Big, Important, Violent stuff that dominates the genre is also refreshing. I’m intrigued to see where Emmi Itäranta goes next, but as it stands, Memory of Water is just… forgettable.

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The Girl With All The Gifts – M. R. Carey

TGWATG

The major problem for The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) is that the video game The Last of Us (2013) had the same idea, but did it much, much better.

Here’s the premise for TGWATG:

A strain of mutated cordyceps fungus infects humans. Those infected become zombie-like, and transmit the infection to others through bites. As the infection progresses, fungal growths protrude from the victims until, after many years, their bodies are completely over-taken and they become immobile clumps of gross mushroom stuff. The initial outbreak spreads very quickly, society collapses, small pockets of survivors yadda yadda yadda.

Twenty years later, a young girl is discovered to be infected-but-kinda-immune. A group of adults must escort her across the UK on a long, treacherous journey to a lab where a scientist wants to remove her brain in the hopes of synthesising a cure.

And here is the premise for The Last of Us:

A strain of mutated cordyceps fungus infects humans. Those infected become zombie-like, and transmit the infection to others through bites. As the infection progresses, fungal growths protrude from the victims until, after many years, their bodies are completely over-taken and they become immobile clumps of gross mushroom stuff. The initial outbreak spreads very quickly, society collapses, small pockets of survivors yadda yadda yadda.

 Twenty years later, a young girl is discovered to be bitten-but -immune. A gruff dude must escort her across America on a long, treacherous journey to a lab where some scientists want to remove her brain in the hopes of synthesising a cure.

 (Both my words)

The novel and the game were released too closely for any accusations of plagiarism to be seriously considered. Indeed, The Girl with All the Gifts even mentions the same David Attenborough “cordyceps” documentary that The Last of Us writer Neil Druckmann cites as being the inspiration behind his own story.

 TLOU

The fact that two writers had the same idea at the same time is boring. What is interesting, however, is the stylistic and qualitative difference between these two similar narratives. The Girl with All the Gifts is good, but compared with TLOU its characters are flat stereotypes (with the exception of the girl Melanie), its dialogue is stilted and exposition-heavy, its plotting is bloated with unnecessary events, and its subtextual examination of the parent-child relationship is disappointingly shallow.

I’m not going to write a long, list-like, compare-and-contrast review, (this is meant to be part of a review series on the 2015 Clarke Award, for a start), so I won’t say much more about TLOU. But the similarities are such that I felt I should mention it. The difficulty for The Girl with all the Gifts is that, to anyone who’s played The Last of Us (and the crossover of people who read Science Fiction, and people who game is a big one), it can’t be anything but second best. A lesser version of deeply-loved original.

(As an aside, I’d like to add how surprised I am that so many fellow SF critics (famous ones, good ones, too), have described this book’s fungus-zombie concept as amazingly original, with no mention whatsoever of The Last of Us and its place as a highly-praised, complex and important part of the genre zeitgeist. If anything, this reinforces my idea that genre critics who refuse to engage with video games are increasingly finding themselves with ever-widening gaps in their knowledge of the field. They might even be at risk of finding themselves left behind entirely. And here I was hoping that “video games are art” was becoming a truism.)

 ***

Taken on its own terms, The Girl with All the Gifts is perfectly fine; an action-heavy piece of commercial genre work which dabbles in some mild social and philosophical issues. The titular protagonist, Melanie, is a marvel; a super-intelligent child whose perspectives on adulthood, responsibility and love are very well done indeed. She has a voice truly her own. Melanie’s struggle between desperately wanting to stay close to those she loves, and at the same time wanting to distance herself from them (lest she infect them with the fungus-virus) result in some striking moments; the interplay of physical and emotional closeness is very good.

The other characters, however, are nowhere near as well-developed. The Girl with All the Gifts does this weird sort of flip-reverse thing, where for most of its story the major players seem to be shallow stereotypes (the brusque sergeant, the scientist who thinks of people as “specimens”, the cowardly army grunt etc.), but who by the end are revealed to have more emotional depth than you’ve been led to believe. I’m not quite sure what the point of this actually is, other than to, perhaps, generate some tensions by playing with the reader’s expectations. I’d much prefer the characters to be fully-rounded from the off.

The writing is mostly good, and especially note-worthy are the action sequences, which are fluid, well-paced and never confusing. It’s possible to race through its 460 pages very quickly. It’s ultra readable. But I wasn’t too taken by the use of the word “Hungry” for “zombie”, which I found irritatingly juvenile (this is yet another zombie story set in a universe which never seems to have had its own zombie fiction). And there are occasional discrepancies in the worldbuilding; for example, at one point we are told that:

The hungries mostly stay close to where they were first turned, or infected, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not a homing instinct

But just eleven pages later, the text decides:

Instead of just freezing in place […] some hungries have a homing instinct for a particular place.

So it’s a hit-and-miss sort of book. The ending is absolutely brilliant: shocking, complex, morally ambiguous and by far the strongest, most original part of the book. But elsewhere, too much is familiar. There are gangs of scavenging, violent survivors roaming the wastes because genre convention dictates that all post-apocalypses must be so populated. And the fact that sneaking past the zombies depends on not being smelled by them is something we’ve all seen over and over again.

Outside of its one strong character and its good ending, The Girl with All the Gifts is just a fun romp, nothing more.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenWhere Station Eleven is most successful is in its emotional intricacies; it “gets” people in a way that Science Fiction sadly rarely does. It cuts deep in its examinations of how relationships can change over a lifetime, softening and hardening, swinging from one extreme of feeling to another and back again. It’s moving, elegantly written if not particularly stylised, and deftly handles the inconsistent and complex nature of human emotions. I was also struck by the way it uses its post-apocalyptic setting to question and challenge where our own (pre-apocalyptic?) society finds value.

Where Station Eleven is least successful, however, is in its surface elements and the way it performs its genre. The novel falls short in its descriptions and its worldbuilding, failing to evoke that sense of wonder-at-emptiness that’s characteristic of the best post-apocalyptic fiction. The second half of the novel hinges on some clichéd and predictable drivel about a self-styled “Prophet” of the wastes: a man obsessed with the Book of Revelations who interprets the end of society as a Biblical cleansing of the sinful, akin to Noah’s flood or whatever. There’s a lot to recommend about Station Eleven, and I enjoyed it immensely, it’s just a shame that the strength of its subtexts and characterisation isn’t reflected in its setting or plot.

The principal narrative follows the ‘Travelling Symphony’, an itinerant theatre troupe that specialises in performances of Shakespeare, and which travels from settlement to settlement in the decades following the “Georgian Flu”, a bird-flu-esque pandemic that’s killed 99.9% of the world’s population. The book has a non-linear narrative and tracks multiple characters through both pre- and post-apocalyptic North America. In fact, Station Eleven is a structural marvel, simultaneously juggling several timelines and character arcs but never becoming confusing or pretentious. The reasons for this back-and-forth between past and present are, supposedly, many fold: from the standard post-apoc fare of hammering home what’s been lost, to the stylistic function of building tension. There’s also a lot of satisfying and impressive imagery to be found in the dissonance that comes from the manic, workaday, pre-apocalyptic world rubbing against the empty, slow, quiet and timeless post-crisis America. This dissonance is expressed most keenly in the novel’s preoccupation with aeronautical imagery: the presence-then-absence of planes from the sky.  Alastair Reynolds has written about this more eloquently than I ever could, so I direct you to his own review.

The nominal main character is Katniss…er… I mean Kirsten, a knife-wielding actress of the ‘Travelling Symphony’ who was just a child when society collapsed. She’s also the least interesting character, whose arc involves being separated from the Symphony and trying to find it again, while occasionally stopping to wonder what the world was like “before”, which is a fairly run-of-the-mill genre trapping, and pretty dull.

Most fascinating are Arthur and his ex-wife Miranda, whose heart-rending story occurs before the onset of the world-ending super plague. What shines through is the complexity of their relationship, not just the youthful affair and eventual separation, but the fact that, years after their divorce, they’re unable to extricate themselves from one another’s lives. Their struggle for happiness – with and without each other – is made all the more poignant by the novel’s dramatic irony and sense of impending doom: if only they knew, as the reader does, how little time they have left.

It’s frustrating, however, that the novel doesn’t capitalize on its interest in Shakespeare. In recent years the post-apocalyptic novel has developed a concern for what I call ‘textual salvage’, whereby the trendy salvagepunk aspects of the genre (scrap fetish and bric-a-brac technology etc) are replaced with salvage of a different kind: that of literary history and intertextuality. Station Eleven does this in a very basic way (its characters want to preserve Shakespeare), but for me this doesn’t go far enough. The best examples of what I’m talking about use textual salvage to completely reconfigure society, affecting their texts both on the level of world building *and* on the level of subtext (by engaging with the post-modern problem that everything has been done already, and all we’re left with now is endless reproduction and reconfiguration). My interest was piqued when I read the book’s blurb: the apocalypse combined with Shakespeare, but I’ve just seen this sort of thing done much, much better elsewhere; notably China Miéville’s Railsea in which the post-apoc society is reordered as a collective performance of Moby Dick, and in Marly Youman’s Thaliad, which tells it’s tale through the filter of salvaged Classical poetry, thus making-strange both the post-apocalyptic world of the novel and our own pre-crisis society.

Station Eleven, then, is at its best when it’s not being a Science Fiction novel. The pre-plague chapters outshine the others by orders of magnitude. They’re so good, so intricate and delicate and downright human as to make the whole experience worthwhile anyway. I mean, the apocalypse stuff isn’t a complete waste (c.f. the aforementioned aeroplane imagery and wonderful use of dramatic irony), but it’s not original in any way. As a nominee for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award, it’s troubling that the Science Fictional elements are this novel’s weakest aspects, but nevertheless, this remains a beautiful, well-observed, well-written novel about what it is to be human. If, however, you’re looking for a great after-the-plague Science Fiction novel, read Earth Abides instead.