This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, May theme: The Final Frontier
While C.J. Cherryh needs no introduction to genre readers, I must admitThis read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, May theme: The Final Frontier
While C.J. Cherryh needs no introduction to genre readers, I must admit that this great lady is one of those classic scifi authors I had yet to actually read (there are quite a few others which I shall not name just yet...). So when this Hugo winning novel turned out to be the result of May's poll, I was delighted!
I dived into Downbelow Station and was really amazed by the scope of the prologue which provides readers with all the background information they need regarding the Company, its fleet, the different stations and the Union. Prologues, especially when they serve as info dumps (which is the case here) generally put me off. However, Downbelow Station is such a dense book that I am not sure there was any way around it.
Despite quite a few typos, problems with grammar and syntax (but perhaps my edition was a bit dated), I was really gripped for the first 200 pages and not terribly bothered by the elliptical and unsmooth writing style. There was so much going on, so many characters and points of view, a lot of material to digest... possibly too much. And then, despite the fact that I really wanted to know how the events turned out, I found myself reading comics.
Let me explain, I generally turn to comics when I need a break: sometimes it's when I have enjoyed a book so much that I don't feel ready to dive straight into something else just yet and am in need of something short and sweet to catch my breath; at other times, it's when I can't get into a book and this generally happens at the beginning of a book rather than at the end. Neither was really the case here but I got tired of reading the novel and finishing it came as a strange relief.
Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy this book on some levels and I would recommend it to scifi fans but definitely not to anyone outside the genre. If you have never read a space opera before and are not familiar with the terms specifically related to the genre, Cherryh is not going to make it easy for you. She's not the type of writer who's going to take you by the hand and explain faster than light travels and the way a space station operates. You either already know it from previous reads or figure it out quickly enough so as not to lose interest in what's going on. This debatable approach has probably put off more than one reader and I think that was the case for a quite a few participants in the book club. I am generally quite self-disciplined (apart from the comics breaks) and not the type of reader who gets frustrated if I don't understand every single detail, but my boyfriend is and that's probably the reason why he and I don't enjoy the same scifi books.
Another thing that frustrated me throughout my reading of the novel and which I think is really the main cause of my eventual exasperation was the constant change in view points. There are A LOT of characters in this novel, most of which I found very interesting and while I didn't like all of them (and I don't think you're meant to), I felt that they were never taken to their full potential. That's part of the reason why I felt so engaged for the first 200 pages. I felt like the story and its character were going to bloom into something spectacular but they never actually did. Instead, I got tired of the constant change of view points. This is definitely one of the hardest things to pull off and part of me wonders if Downbelow Station had been written now, what type of editorial changes would have been made to Cherryh's initial manuscript compared to the ones that were made in the 80s. I do think that books are a lot more character driven now than they used to and I do try to bare that in mind when reading a classic scifi novel. It's interesting to think that perhaps, my difficulties with this novel stem from a new fashion trend in genre literature and that had I read it when it came out (well had I been born and old enough to), I wouldn't have encountered the same frustrations.
And yet, while I was initially puzzled (by the typos, grammar and syntax), a part of me does see why it won the Hugo prize (although I really don't know how it compares to the other novels nominated). The scope of the novel made me want to read the rest of series and I feel like it's not so much the novel itself that deserves the prize as the author's world building and perhaps the rest of the series. It's so vast and so brilliantly conceived that I think it's difficult not to want to know more if you've managed to finish the novel. The problem for me was really the characters and how the author's characterizations skills felt diluted among all of them so that not one really stood out and felt fully fleshed out.
Perhaps, it's the nature of the endeavor itself that makes it impossible to go from large and vast to small and detailed. And yet, I felt like a few changes could have achieved this. It would be interesting to know if other scifi series with a similar ambitions suffer from similar flaws. I am not well-read enough in the space opera genre to be the judge of this.
What I can say is that I feel like reading Cherryh's other titles in her Company Wars series and more broadly in her Alliance-Union universe as a history books or as non fiction rather than fiction. I want to know what happens to Pell, the Fleet, the Union, how they evolve and change over the centuries but I'm not sure I can bare another narration constantly alternating view points with characters I don't really get a chance to know in-depth. I do intend to try though so welcome any recommendations.
Cherryh's talent at world building is unquestionable and perhaps that's the reason why readers feel like they could expect more from her characterization. I do think a good proofreader was also required but then as I mentioned my edition was probably a bit dated so perhaps more recent edition do not suffer from this. At any rate, this was challenging read on more than one level and although the novel is not without its flaws, I thought it made for a nice introduction to Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe and do plan on reading more works by this author....more
This read was for the 2012 Around the World in 12 Books Reading Challenge hosted by Shannon at Giraffe Days (January: South Africa)
Zinzi December liveThis read was for the 2012 Around the World in 12 Books Reading Challenge hosted by Shannon at Giraffe Days (January: South Africa)
Zinzi December lives in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, in a world very similar to ours except for the magic and/or science. I've read elsewhere that the novel takes place in near future dystopian South Africa but since the novel takes place in 2010, I suppose parallel dystopian South Africa is more accurate. At any rate, the world changed with the appearance of an "Afghan warlord and a penguin" (as Zinzi puts it), marking the appearance of aposymbiotism. Individuals who have committed various levels of crimes and misdemeanors are faced with the appearance of an animal with whom they have a special psychic connection and from which they cannot be separated. Some will be reminded of Philip Pullman's dæmons in His Dark Materials, but I suppose familiars are fairly common in speculative fiction... don't get me wrong, nothing in Zoo City is "common" or rehash. With the animal comes the threat of the Undertow and also the manifestation of a unique talent.
Zinzi has Sloth and a talent for finding lost things.... and also another talent for getting herself into shitty situations but I guess there wouldn't be a story otherwise! Aposymbiotics or zoos as they are referred to, live on the outskirts of society. While their living conditions are not exactly ideal, zoos living in South Africa are not nearly as bad off as zoos in other less liberal countries where they are openly experimented on, mistreated, tortured and killed. Still, zoos are clearly perceived as stained and once an animal is at your side, there's no turning back or even simply going on living your normal life. Accommodation will become impossible to find in certain areas, not to mention jobs.
Zoo City is a dark thriller that depicts an urban South Africa where technology intersects with magic and culture. It's fascinating in the way it mixes science fictional elements with an urban fantasy setting: voodoo in slums, magic with a scientific explanation. One example would be the sangoma that Zinzi consults at some points in the novel. This practitioner of traditional African medicine has a D&G logo on his vest and a cell phone which in case your didn't know, really comes in handy when you need to get in touch with the other side:
"I didn't know the ancestors were SMSin now." "No, he calls me. The spirits find it easier with technology. It's not so clogged as human minds [...] data is like water - the spirits can move through it. That's why you get a prickly feeling around cellphone towers." "And here I thought it was the radiation."
While I've never been to South Africa, I have had the opportunity to travel to other African countries and while each was very different, one thing that struck me pretty much everywhere was this strange combination of tradition and modernity. For example, I often saw women dressed in traditional outfits, driving a scouter, a designer bag on their shoulder. Zoo City clearly illustrates these interesting multi-layered identities, these intersections between multiple cultures and it also throws in a nice bit of magic in the mix.
The existence of zoos, or rather the appearance of their mashavi (their animal) is what I found to be most fascinating. While scientists have tried to explain their origin and sudden appearance, while they have applied technical terms such as "aposymbiots", there is really no explanation for their existence. Is it a spreading virus? Has the phenomenon always existed but at a smaller scale? Is global communications responsible for its spread? Is the Undertow a black hole that swallows whole the zoos when it's their time? Or is it the hand of God that's come to punish sinners?
No real explanation is given although many interpretations, both scientific and religious, are put forth. One character ventures:
"Maybe that's all your talent is for, a distraction to keep you preoccupied until the blackness comes rushing in."
To be honest, Zinzi and the other zoos have other problems to deal with and are not too concerned with the origin of this mysterious condition. They are more concerned by its immediate consequences and how it affect every aspect of their lives, putting them in a precarious situation, regardless of their race, gender and social background. Zoo is a new class of its own.
I must admit that I first struggled with Zoo City's first person narration. Everything is so alien, you're not sure what you're stepping into. Lauren Beukes doesn't take her reader by the hand, she dumps you in Zoo City and leaves you to fend for yourself and piece together the background story. Like any new zoo, you'd better figure it out fast and by yourself in order to survive. While I'm always grateful for limited info dumps, this process can put off some readers. Should that be the case, do persevere because it's well worth it! There's a lot going on in those 256 pages, this is dense novel, nothing in there is superficial.
Zinzi's character is not your coy heroine; she's guile, cynical and morally dubious at the best of times. But that only makes the novel's first person narration all the more witty and engaging (if you're a fan of dark humor which I am).
Context is provided by a series of interview transcripts, scientific reports and other supports that nicely complement Zinzi's story. All those elements add something raw, real and almost authentic to the novel. In a strange way, despite its parallel dystopian setting, Zoo City is very much anchored in the now. This is also helped by the bits of South African slang, the various references to contemporary musical artists and pop culture that are spread throughout the novel.This is somewhat unusual in scifi (less so in urban fantasy I suppose) which is either grounded in fandom with a lot of geeky allusions or projected so far in the future that it wouldn't make any sense to include references to pop culture.
When I started reading Zoo City, I wasn't really sure if it fully qualified for Shannon's challenge which mainly aimed at discovering or learning more about a country, its culture, history and geography. Zoo City taking place in a futuristic Johannesburg, I didn't really know how much I was going to learn about contemporary South Africa. However, Lauren Beukes's projection of Johannesburg, while subjective and somewhat pessimistic, tells a lot about the issues the country has faced in the past and is still currently facing. The lady is in her own words a "recovering journalist" and perhaps this is the reason why social awareness is such an integral part of her writing. I read in an interview that a lot of research was done on the actual inner city slum of Hillbrow, as well as interviews of immigrants, refugees and social outcasts, so I do believe that her descriptions of life in the slums fairly reflect reality.
Zoo City is not novel about the apartheid although racial issues do crop up here and there. While the treatment of zoos is clearly an allegory of xenophobia and zoos are stigmatized, forced to carry their guilt for all to see, the focus seems to be more on class than race. Like in current Western societies (post-racial societies as some call it but there's a whole other debate here, isn't there?), racism is not quite as open and transpires in more vicious ways in everyday life.
Zoo City is an ambitious and audacious novel that lives up to all the buzz around it and that I would highly recommend....more
**spoiler alert** This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, January theme: Genre in Mainstream.
I'm not sure how to start reviewing this novel.**spoiler alert** This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, January theme: Genre in Mainstream.
I'm not sure how to start reviewing this novel. To be perfectly honest, I probably wouldn't have turned to this title if it weren't for the Theme Park book club even though I'd vaguely heard positive things about it before. The title was what put me off as it gave me the feeling that it was a non fiction science fiction title, like some sort of textbook and not an actual novel. Boy was I wrong! So this just goes to prove that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover and that book clubs are good for you.
Where to start? Well, perhaps I should begin by saying that while I enjoyed this thoroughly and found it to be brilliant and original, I do think it's not a novel that will appeal to everyone. It's a bit of a non identified literary object and you have to give it a chance to blow your mind because trust me, it will... and literally at times. It's one of those novels where you need to accept that not everything is going to make sense in the beginning... not the end for that matter. It's not perfect but it is unique.
Some readers, especially non SF readers, might be put off by the scientific jargon, as it can be overwhelming in the first few pages. But this is not Jules Vernes describing in details the workings of his balloon for an entire chapter. Charles Yu's time traveling is an idea, a concept that serves the narration more than actual HG Wells time traveling. To my surprise, I found the novel to be more voice driven and introspective than plot driven, especially in the final chapters as Charles Yu (the character) desperately reminisces on his relationship with his father. But the novel's scientific concepts allow for interesting questions on determinism, memory and perception.
In that regard, I understand why the book was part of the book club's January selection which theme was "Genre in Mainstream". That is not to say that it's not science fiction, it clearly is and as it's taking place in a science fictional universe, there are various references to science fiction authors (Ursula K. LeGuin and Heinlein, for example) and science fiction universes (such as Star Wars) but also just random geeky things. It is an ode to geekism. But it's the book's intricate narrative, voice and introspection, not the science, that make it experimental and unique.
Here are few interesting quotes:
"Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward" (page 27)
"Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience. Raw data will be compiled, will be translated into a more comprehensible language. The individual events of your life will be transmuted into another substance called memory and in the mechanism something will be lost and you will never be able to reverse it, you will never again have the original moment back in its uncategorized, preprocessed state. It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter." (page 51)
Equally as fascinating is the fact that Charles Yu (the character) is at some point given the very book we are reading by his future self, whom he shoots, thus becoming stuck in a time loop. Before collapsing, his future self tells him that the key is in the book. Charles Yu (the character) then runs away in his time machine and slowly realizes that he has to write the book to be able to give it to his past self when we comes out of his time machine and be shot so as not to create a time paradox. Thanks to voice recording systems and various other hi tech gadgets in the time machine, a copy of the book is actually being written as Charles Yu (the character) is reading it. So that means that the very book we're reading has no real origin, it's a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, etc... as there's no way of knowing how long Charles Yu has actually been in this time loop... metafiction indeed. This leads to some interesting questionings:
"I am typing what appears to be somewhat digressive and extemporaneous rambling, all of which is starting to make me have serious doubts in terms of the whole free will versus determinism situation" (page 89)
"The book is just like the concept of the 'present', is a fiction. Which isn't to say it's not real. It's as real as anything else in this science fiction universe. As real as you are." (page 160)
I'm not even going to pretend that I got everything happening in this crazy metaphorical metafiction. The novel is short but engaging and can easily be read on several levels. I was pleasantly surprised by the emotional resonance and the description of the touching father and son relationship. Despite its unappealing title, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a strange and unique reading experience, well-worth forcing yourself in the beginning should you initially find it a bit difficult....more