Tag: postcolonial complaining

Top Ten Books People Have Been Telling Me to Read

  1. The Vorkosigan saga – Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m convinced that the Vorkosigan saga is actually an elaborate hoax along the lines of Mornington Crescent. Everyone says they have read it, but I can never find it in libraries or in bookshops. Or if I can it’s some obscure volume from the middle of the series. How has everyone read it? How?
  2. Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula le Guin. I have read shamefully little vintage SF, and Left Hand of Darkness is by all accounts a classic. And I shall read it as soon as it turns up in my local library.
  3. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. This seems to be cropping up in a lot of places, and it does sound right up my street: steampunk alternate history with an examination of colonialism? Yes please!
  4. Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway has been vaguely floating at the back of my consciousness for a while, but then her October Daye series came up in conversation at a recent TolkSoc event, and they actually sound quite good.
  5. American Gods – Neil Gaiman. I mean, American Gods is one of those books that you read if you are a proper fantasy reader. It’s a bit like Good Omens in that respect, I think: more niche than Harry Potter but orders of magnitude more famous than most other fantasy writers ever. But I dislike the way Gaiman’s cod-liberalism is inevitably accompanied by a generous side helping of sexism.
  6. Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer. This is one of those books that are generally well thought-of by the genre community and which I’d quite like to read but which keeps getting shunted down my priority list for books that maybe aren’t written by white men. I will read it. I will.
  7. Fool’s Assassin – Robin Hobb. I’ve deliberately steered clear of Robin Hobb since I heard about her negativity towards fan-fiction, but she keeps coming up in conversations and she’s one of the more widely available fantasy authors, so maybe I’ll get round to this one day.
  8. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders. This was in the Tournament of Books this year and it actually sounded like a lot of fun, and other people have mentioned it as worth reading too, so on the list it goes.
  9. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy. My manager keeps telling me to read this. I am not convinced: I read Tess of the D’Urbevilles at school, and it’s just incredibly hard going and incredibly depressing and reading is, after all, supposed to be fun.
  10.  Finnegans Wake – James Joyce. Look. “More accessible than Ulysses” is literally a terrible way of selling a book to me. Everything is more accessible than Ulysses. It doesn’t mean I’m going to like it.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Advertisements

Review: Age of Godpunk

TW: rape, transphobia.

Aaand this is why I don’t read books that haven’t been recommended to me one way or another.

James Lovegrove’s Age of Godpunk (and, really, I only picked it up because of the title) is a collection of three novellas, each putting a sort of twist on an old god. Age of Anansi is about a man possessed by the spider-god Anansi who participates in a competition for trickster gods; Age of Satan is about a man who performs a Satanic rite in his childhood and becomes convinced that he’s being stalked by Satan; and Age of Gaia is about yet another man, the hotshot CEO of an oil company, who goes out with an environmental journalist and then Weird (and Sexist) Shit happens.

Here is a (brief, partial) list of things you will find in Age of Godpunk.

  • A trans woman who uses her feminine wiles to “trick” men into sleeping with her, as a way of humiliating them.
  • A woman who commits suicide because her boyfriend hasn’t talked to her for two days.
  • A graphically-described rape whose female victim subsequently gives up her individuality to facilitate her partner’s political ambitions.
  • A Chinese man crawling round like a monkey.
  • A man who becomes a hollow shell of a person because his girlfriend is dominating him in bed.

Do I really need to point out that all of these are damaging, toxic tropes? How the hell did this book ever get published?

This isn’t a question of interpretation, of reading between the lines: these are things in black-and-white, on the page. I haven’t hated a book this much since Ready Player One. In fact, I think this is actually worse than Ready Player One: it doesn’t make even a pretence at tolerance. It’s just really fucking vile.

What’s more, I don’t even know what the point is of these stories, taken on their own (dubious) terms. Neil Gaiman’s done amoral trickster gods better than Age of Anansi does. Pretty much everyone on this earth has done atheism better than Age of Satan does. I don’t have a fucking clue what Age of Gaia thinks it’s doing, but whatever it is it’s doing it wrong.

I was going to go into more detail about each of the three novellas, but, actually, it’s late, I’ve got a busy week at work ahead of me, and practically anything I could be doing right now is better than writing about Age of Godpunk. Do not touch with a bargepole.

(ETA: So this appears to be published by Rebellion Publishing, the same publisher as Europe in Autumn and Ninefox Gambit, the publisher who had a stall at Nine Worlds? What the hell, Rebellion?)

Review: The Familiar Volume 1 – One Rainy Day in May

Mark Z. Danielewski’s One Rainy Day in May is the first of a projected 27 (!) volumes about a 12-year-old girl who rescues a kitten.

I wish I was joking.

I love Danielewski’s seminal House of Leaves; I honestly think it’s the best Gothic haunted house novel out there, and what’s more it’s supremely aware of itself as haunted text, and I’d better stop there because otherwise I’ll fall down the critical-theoretical rabbit hole that is Thinking About House of Leaves. The point is: the postmodernism in House of Leaves is fascinating and thought-provoking and scary; whereas just reading a review of One Rainy Day in May makes me feel exhausted.

There are a handful of frame narratives to the book, including some Youtube mock-ups that remind me more of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film than anything else. The meat of it, though, is made up of the points of view of nine different people – I’m going to quote from the Strange Horizons review here, because writing them all out is just too tedious:

Xanther…a 12(ish)-year-old girl who has epilepsy. Her parents, a game designer and a psych-in-training, have a surprise for her one rainy day in May…Meanwhile: a gang pretends to initiate a new member only to kill him; an older couple is on the run from someone for the possession of an Orb which seems to have some connection to a possible alien intelligence; someone in Singapore steals a bunch of chocolate coins and takes a bunch of molly while working as a translator; a cop investigates a case; a man goes to court against a cop and helps a professor move some boxes; and someone practices superstitions and helps deliver some crates.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Danielewski uses typographical and stylistic tricks to represent the unique and digressive nature of thought as opposed to narrative: so, for example, Xanther’s mother Astair’s narrative is full of nested parentheses; her father Anwar, a game designer, thinks in square brackets and >>s and {}s; Singaporean Jingjing’s thoughts are rendered in Singlish; a different font is used for each character’s sections. What’s interesting about this is that the typographical choices aren’t just used to reflect who each of the characters are, as might be the case in a lesser author’s work; they also reflect how the characters think of themselves – their Second Thoughts, as Pratchett might have put it. It’s that level of self-reflexiveness that saves Danielewski from the rather uncomfortable fact that an Armenian character’s thoughts are rendered in broken English – it’s not because he can’t think fluently in Armenian, but because he chooses to see himself as someone who speaks English.

As we might expect from the author of House of Leaves, a novel ultimately about meaninglessness, Danielewski’s well aware of the irony of the fact that he’s using language to try and represent thought, the unrepresentable. Language, and, more specifically, text, is tricksy in One Rainy Day in May; unreliable and threatening, as when the question “How many raindrops?”, repeated tens of times, falls rain-shaped across the page, the onset of one of Xanther’s seizures – an overload of text that brings not meaning but meaninglessness, because the question can’t be answered; or when the thoughts of Cas arrange themselves on the page to outline the shape of the Orb she’s deliberately not thinking about. In other words, by formally innovating to better imitate the patterns of thought in text, Danielewski’s also revealing the exact inadequacy of text to do just that; a (Post)Modernist paradox if ever there was one.

There’s also the over-arching SFnal “plot”, for want of a better word, which further underlines the artificiality of narrative: it becomes clear as we read that the nine characters are actually being narrated by what seems to be a storytelling artificial intelligence, TF-Narcon9. This device serves to defamiliarise the act of reading; to highlight the alienness of having apparently omniscient access to another person’s mind, the point of view we as readers are so used to.

It’s clever. I’m not going to argue with the fact that Danielewski is probably a genius, and that he’s doing work that will probably be studied in universities in two hundred years. (His work actually reminds me quite a lot of William Blake’s: their texts have a similarly deliberate visual quality, an interest in how a book looks as well as what it says.) But it’s also a bit – sterile?

I’ve never been a fan of Modernist novels. Ulysses annoys me with its meandering, unreadable pretentiousness. Virginia Woolf bores me. Don’t talk to me about D.H. Lawrence. Formal innovation is important, of course, but it seems to come so often at the expense of any reason to care about what we’re reading. As with One Rainy Day in May, there doesn’t seem to be a point to showing up the falsenesses of narrative, beyond revealing that it’s all a lie. And that particular point’s been made before, over and over again (I mean, Chaucer did six hundred years ago in his Parliament of Fowles, did you really think there was anything new under the sun?).

This is definitely a personal thing, and it may be that I just prefer the consolations of traditional narrative to the excitement of formal innovation. But, to me, One Rainy Day in May, though not a slog by any means, feels more than a little like sound and fury signifying nothing much.

Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours

It’s almost a shame I loved Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours so much: I devoured it in an evening and a morning, so quickly that it barely had time to make an impression on my memory.

It’s a collection of magic realist short stories, though that description is far too limiting. In one story, “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea”, a family falls apart as one of their daughters’ idols, a famous pop star, is revealed to be a misogynist abuser. In another, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?”, puppets come alive, possessing or being possessed by their puppeteers in a confusion of theatre. Here there be fairytales, SFnal grief simulators, hotels you can never leave, feminist student societies, lesbian conwomen, haunted houses and brilliant libraries: a profusion of wonders. And as we read it becomes ever clearer that these stories are linked: we meet characters again and again in the backgrounds of each other’s stories, we find recurring motifs (a key, a book, a rose).

The stories are non-traditional. That is, they are often inconclusive or discursive – they offer no neat ending, or they begin as the story of one thing and end as the story of something else. Or they offer a series of narratives, none of them ended or begun as we expect. Together with the recurring characters, that makes the experience of reading What is Not Yours is Not Yours one not of (conventional) narrative but of imaginative space or potential. We are reading about an extended community, living lives that are full of wonder and that exist outside the confines of traditional narrative.

This feels like a literature of resistance. It’s right there in the title of the collection; and the characters who people it are LGBTQIA+, they are people of colour, they are women, they are disabled, they are almost anything but white, straight and male. Oyeyemi is confrontational about this: she allows us to assume, for a few pages perhaps, that we are reading white straight characters, before she slides in a detail that wrong-foots us, that shows us exactly where our biases lie. There’s something a little uncomfortable about using minority identities in this way, as plot “twists” rather than people (and, in fact, this discomfort reminds me of the end of Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, its unexpected transphobia marring an otherwise achingly perfect fable about race and misogyny); but the technique does weave fractured seams of resistance through the text. The stories resist traditional Western narrative – with all its assumptions about whose narratives are worth telling, about the shapes that “successful” lives take – just as the members of the community they describe resist, with varying degrees of success, the pressures of conventional Western society.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours is a lovely book, rich and polyphonous and diverse; it has its problems, but it’s also exactly the kind of fiction I want to see more of right now, fiction that can imagine new ways of living. And, c’mon. Look at that cover!

Review: 2312

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 surprised me. At first glance, I expected it to be the hardest of hard SF – which it is, sort of. Only it’s actually decently written.

Set 300 years in the future (surprisingly enough), it’s Solar System space opera – see also Stephen Baxter’s Proxima and novels of that ilk. It’s broad and ambitious enough in scope that describing its plot in a way that represents the novel fairly is somewhat difficult. It begins with a death: that of Alex, a woman enmeshed in the political life of the city of Terminator, which travels ceaselessly along metal tracks on the surface of Mercury, constantly outrunning the deadly sun.

Shortly after the death, Alex’s stepdaughter, Swan Er Hong, finds out that her stepmother was involved with a secret, select group of people with shared concerns about qubes – quantum computers which have reached an advanced stage of development, bordering perhaps on artificial intelligence. And then Terminator’s all-important tracks are hit by a meteor, halting the city and condemning it to melting in Mercury’s burning sunlight. How could the tracks’ defence systems have missed such a large body from space?

The novel is a loose, leisurely exploration of these mysteries, taking its protagonists – Swan herself as well as a diplomat called Wahram – on a tour of the populated Solar System. It takes in the fraught politics of this expanded human sphere, looking at attitudes to the terraforming of Venus, the rewilding of an ecologically devastated Earth, the adaptations spacefaring humans have made to their bodies in the pursuit of longevity or just excitement (more on this later), different kinds of artistic expression in this future world. The Solar System of 2312 feels just as complex and politically charged as our own Earth does today; it feels, in other words, utterly human, its rough edges unsmoothed by artistic conveniences. If nothing else, it’s a virtuoso piece of worldbuilding.

It’s a lot of other things, of course. I feel it’s important to say this before I launch into full-on Analysis Mode: 2312 is technically a very good book! Robinson’s prose isn’t particularly memorable, but it’s a cut (or even two) above the workmanlike prose of, say, Stephen Baxter. He has moments of real insight:

She often felt a nostalgia for the present, aware that her life was passing by faster than she could properly take it in. She lived it, she felt it; she had given nothing to age, she still wanted everything; but she could not make it whole or coherent.

There’s even a romance – and it’s that rare thing in genre fiction, a romance that feels sane and healthy and actually like the complicated, ambiguous romances real people have. Robinson’s characters feel real, contradictory and yet essential. This is good writing!

You know there’s going to be a “but”, don’t you.

I want to talk about some of Robinson’s structural choices – not necessarily because I think they were the wrong choices, but because I think discussing them potentially gives us an awareness of the boundaries of this kind of story.
Specifically: there’s something a little deflating about the common space opera trope used here that says that the only way to take drastic, species-saving action is to do it in secret; for need-to-know circles of shadowy semi-officials (such as Alex’s qube working group) to hoard up information and then act on it suddenly and unilaterally, without telling anyone beforehand. It’s a trope that reveals deep pessimism about the power of democracy, transparency, diplomacy.

It’s also, as a trope, connected to a deeper structural flaw in the novel, which is probably unavoidable given the kind of story it’s trying to tell: it’s a narrative that centres power. Spacefarers like Swan and Wahram, we’re told, are affluent and privileged, resented back on Earth for precisely that reason. The result of centring their stories is that Robinson’s imagined human future looks, if not exactly utopian, certainly not hopeless. And yet, we’re told that things are very different for those left behind on Earth, working to provide food for those above. It’s a heavily exploitative relationship; I think Robinson does, partially, acknowledge that, but he also has his privileged spacefarers ignore the actual opinions of Earth’s working class in favour of a notional greater good. Which, as Abigail Nussbaum implies, has certain similarities with how Western nations today provide aid to developing countries.

I also feel a bit iffy about the gender politics here. Generally, these are more OK than in most SF: a certain amount of gender fluidity is very much the norm, certainly among the spacefarers, as hormonal treatments in the womb are used to make babies hermaphroditic and therefore longer-lived (I think this is actually based on real science, too). So gender identity is fluid and not particularly associated with what genitalia the characters happen to have. There’s at least one character whose pronoun changes according to who they’re speaking to.

I’m ambivalent, though, about Robinson’s use of the term “bisexual” to describe sexual characteristics – i.e., having both breasts and a penis – instead of a sexual orientation; bisexual people in the real world are already invisible enough without our identity being co-opted for something else.

I want to say this again (as if I haven’t said it enough!): I enjoyed 2312 much more thoroughly than I expected to, and I’ll definitely be reading more of Robinson’s work. Flawed as it is, it’s the kind of book that opens up much-needed questions about our place in this vast and strange universe, and much-needed critical approaches to the genre.

Review: The Fractal Prince

OK, I’ve scrolled through my Twitter feed ignoring this blank page long enough now.

A confession: I have only the dimmest memory of what The Fractal Prince is about. It’s the sequel to Hannu Rajaniemi’s post-Singularity heist novel The Quantum Thief. It’s a take on The Thousand and One Nights set in the last human city, a vaguely Middle Eastern locale that’s threatened by rogue nanobots known as “wildcode” and by the political entity called the Sobornost, which wants to upload every remaining human mind to the purity of digital consciousness. Jean le Flambeur, the thief of the first novel, is involved somewhere. There’s also a human woman called Tawaddud who used to be the lover of a jinn, a human mind trapped inside an object. Oh, and stories are dangerous in this city: telling someone a story can invite the wildcode into their minds, or the jinni.

That’s pretty much all I remember. Impressionistic flashes.

Partly, that’s because Rajaniemi’s prose is incredibly abstruse, eschewing “as you know, Bob”-style explanations in favour of, um, no explanation at all. Given that The Fractal Prince is a novel taking place in a far future in which humans have all but left Earth and all but entirely fused with computers and machine intelligence – there seems, in fact, to be no practical difference between a human mind and a software mind – this makes things tricky. A sample sentence (borrowed from Adam Roberts’ review of the novel in Sibilant Fricative):

The q-bubble struggles to keep up with the barrage it is taking across the electromagnetic spectrum and switches to neutrino tomography around the Bekinstein epicentre.

(Roberts comments, in typical laconic style: “That brings, I confess, no images at all to my mind.”)

Mind, this isn’t a case of authorial incompetence; it’s not the turgid style of, say, the physics sections in Greg Egan’s Orthogonal series. Rajaniemi’s prose is detailed, clever, jewel-faceted – like cyberpunk clockwork, or, better, like a computer circuit-board. You can appreciate the artistry, the minute, interlocking detail, but you suspect that you’ll need a degree in advanced computer science actually to understand it.

Nevertheless, I would recommend these novels, with a few caveats. (As Tori Truslow points out in her review for Strange Horizons, the use of Orientalist imagery in The Fractal Prince is potentially exoticising. And the sub-plot detailing Mieli’s past romance with a woman, a romance which informs her actions in The Quantum Thief, verges on queer tragedy.) They attempt to narrate a future that’s genuinely radically different from now, and which is not entirely, or even mostly, pessimistic – which is an important thing for SF to do. They are ambitious and unusual and they do something new in a highly saturated field. I’m not sure if I’ll read the last book in the trilogy (if I had a pound for every time I’d said that I would have…a lot of pounds), but I’ll definitely remember the ones I did read. In impressionistic flashes.

Review: Starbook

Speaking technically, Ben Okri’s Starbook might be the best book I’ve read – probably, will read – this year. Formally, it’s a fairytale: one of its protagonists is a prince who, in time-honoured fashion, begins to question the morality of his father’s kingdom; wanders away into the woods; finds a woman he thinks is a goddess; loses her and sets out to find her. The other protagonist is the woman herself, a maiden from a tribe of artists, who finds herself the centre of a courtship contest. This simplest of romances is shadowed, though, by a “white wind” blowing through the kingdom, blowing away its history and its culture and its memory. The white wind, of course, is slavery; the kingdom is the African continent.

Despite the simplicity of its plot, and its idealised setting, Starbook is a difficult book. At the sentence level, Okri’s prose has the unselfconscious clarity of fairytale – an unselfconsciousness that often teeters on the edge of naïve risibility:

This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child. The rest I gleaned from the book of life among the stars, in which all things are known.

But the cumulative effect of such prose – rhythmic, oral, seemingly straightforward – is quite different. It’s a prose characterised by repetition, by echoes, by allusion; it develops thereby a quality of density, a way of deploying imagery, that I’d usually associate with poetry. In fact, I found that the most rewarding way to read Starbook was as poetry: it demands an attention that’s at once sustained – you have to focus on every single word – and adaptable. That is, though it’s a speculative text, in the sense that there is magic and ritual and mysticism, it’s not meant to be read as you would read a traditional SFF novel, hunting for clues about how the world works. To attempt to form a rational, consistent schema for Okri’s imagined kingdom is to miss the point: in Starbook, everything is imagery; yet fixating on what any particular image means is to miss the totality of the novel. This Guardian review compares Starbook to the work of William Blake, and I think that’s a good comparison: both writers use very striking, simple imagery to complex effect.

In other words, Starbook forced me into a different mode of reading, and that was something that enriched everything I did while I was reading it, even when the covers of the book were closed. It changed my life for a little while, and that’s something that happens astonishingly little for the amount that I read.

That’s not to say, though, that I found Starbook unproblematic. In particular, I was disappointed by its relegation of its female protagonist to an entirely passive narrative role: she is sought out by the prince, she refuses to make a decision on which suitor she’ll accept, she spends much of the novel ill, she is judged by her fellow townsfolk without recognising it or doing anything about it. This is in part a problem of genre: left unexamined, fairytale tends to cast cultural constructs as timeless truths, and the way that Starbook works as a novel puts a lot of weight on a small number of relatively simple basic concepts that are easy to take as timeless truths.

This effect also lies behind Starbook‘s prioritisation of romantic love as the pinnacle of human relationships: the love of the prince and the maiden is one that literally changes worlds – and they seem to have no other meaningful human relationships. My problem with this, really, is that it has little emotional truth; I don’t think this is how anyone in a functioning, healthy romantic relationship really experiences the world, and in such a technically accomplished novel its presentation of romance feels shallow and disappointing.

I want to stress, though, that Starbook is the rare kind of book whose flaws make it more interesting, tell us something about what the it’s trying to achieve; a book to be studied, and mulled over, and re-read. I hope, one day, it becomes a classic of post-colonial literature; it really deserves to.