The Quantum Thief, the debut novel from Finnish speculative fiction author (and uber-smart string theory expert) Hannu Rajaniemi, has been the source of much gossip and speculation since selling on the strength of its first chapter for a number involving plenty of zeroes. It’s a novel I’ve been eagerly anticipating, so I was rather delighted when the lovely team at Gollancz Australia sent me a copy for review. Needless to say, having spent the past day trying to get my tiny humanities-oriented brain around this complex slab of techno-zaniness, I can see why the book has become such a sensation, but at the same time I’m rather intimidated by the thing.
The Quantum Thief to me recalls a whole mish-mash of sci-fi notables, with Justina Robson’s post-human Natural History coming to mind first and foremost, followed by M John Harrison’s brilliant but utterly incomprehensible Light; there’s also a good old dose of Alfred Bester’s classic spec-fic mystery The Demolished Man (although here the whole mind-reading bit is replaced by techno-babble). Oddly enough, I found myself thinking also of Scott Lynch’s rich and darkly humorous The Lies of Locke Lamora, and Adam Roberts’s ultra-weird Stone, the prison setting of which I felt covered much of the same literary real estate. The Quantum Thief begins (if it begins at all, given the hapless manner in which time is thrown around in this book) with an utterly baffling scene in which thief Jean Le Flambeur continuously enacts a scene that I suspect draws on the famous prisoner dilemma, where he finds himself battling another version of himself time and time again until the appropriate empathetic outcome is eventually met. This never happens, however, as le Flambeur is sprung from prison by the tough-talking Miele, who has a mysterious assignment for him–one that involves forgetting any of the good that his empathetic efforts in prison might have done him, and that requires him to reacquaint himself with his thieving past. The Bester-esque crops up here, of course: pitted against le Flambeur is the architecture-student-turned-detective Isidore Beautrelet, who is determined to entrap the famed thief.
At least I think that’s what this story is about. To be honest, the whole thing flew a little bit over my head, and despite my having mentally gone over it a few times, I suspect that a re-read is necessary for me to truly understand the more complex machinations of the plot, and the various nods and hints along the way. Overall, I have to admit appreciated this book rather more than I enjoyed it, and despite my love of lexical calisthenics and my appreciation for non-linear plots, there’s something about The Quantum Thief that feels somewhat ersatz. At a sentence level it’s all very beautiful, and there’s all the whizz-bangery even Stephen Hawking could hope for, but really, beneath this sexy literary patina, this book is all a bit rickety. The opening section, for example, is all but incomprehensible, and takes up a good fifty or so pages of a book that comes in at just over three hundred–rather a lot of pages, one thinks, for a scene that has very little impact on the remainder of the novel. This emphasis on cool ideas over narrative relevance is an issue throughout the book: Beautrelet’s previous commission, the death of a chocolatier, for example, is given several chapters of page time despite it being, as noted, a previous commission, not the one that’s the focus of the book. And while I, like most readers, have a soft spot for all things cocoa, there are times when it should be stricken from one’s diet. Other plot-slowing issues include the gratuitous amounts of time spent at balls and at parties, and also the random chapter-long interjections from various characters whose relevance I couldn’t fathom (indeed, there’s an entire scene towards the end of the book involving two unnamed characters whose identity I still can’t determine).
But then on the flip-side, there’s the breathless shenanigans that comprise the rest of the book. While the novel is essentially detailing the cat-and-mouse game between the two main characters, this relatively straight-forward plot is hidden beneath layers and layers of thematic trickery and complex jargon. To be fair, some of this stuff is amongst the most interesting of the book–the concept of time as currency, for example, with those whose time is up being reduced to an existence as a Quiet. There’s also the Iron Council-esque idea of a moving city, and the notion of gevulot (“borders”), a sort of privacy shield used by citizens to shield their inner lives from others (a far cry from our own Facebook-obsessed society–or perhaps the result of it). But while all of this is quite fascinating, it plays little more than a middling role in the book, and serves sort of as a highly attractive if not especially functional window dressing. Indeed, with the combination of complex conceptual ideas and labyrinthine world-building, the book begins to collapse under its own weight–I can’t help but feel that if Rajaniemi had been allowed more than the debut novelist’s standard 80-100k words, and the narrative stretched out accordingly, The Quantum Thief would be quite a different beast again. Of course, given the highly abrupt ending and the “but wait, there’s more” epilogue, it looks as though there’s more to come in this particular world.
The onomastics that Rajaniemi employs throughout the novel can also be a problem, and I found myself a little bemused by some of his terminology. I won’t bother trying to tease out the techy q-bits and the what have you, because I’ll be the first to admit that my mathematical ability extends only as far as to be able to do my taxes in as acceptable a manner as needed to not be arrested, but some of the other choices felt odd to begin with, and then further disjointed when contrasted with the others. The gogols, for example, clearly come from the famous (and fabulous) novel Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, and while it’s a fun little nod, it feels too clever for its own good. Dead Souls is such an underappreciated and rarely read novel even now that it seems utterly bizarre that this term should have any sort of relevance in a post-Earth world. There’s also the use of various clan names: “zoku”, from the Japanese, “sobornost’” from the Russian, and “tazaddkim” from the Hebrew; and certain characters who are named for those in other novels, or for concepts (Mieli, meaning mind, for example). It’s sort of like reading A Clockwork Orange without the internal consistency. Finally, and this to me is the major downfall of the book, the emphasis on techno-geekery and quantum-whatsits is to the distinct detriment of the characters. We’re given little more than a fleeting understanding of even the main players in the book, and though there are a few moving scenes where they become humanised, such as Beautrelet’s falling for Raymonde (again), these are few and far between. And without deep or likeable characters, a book like this becomes a tremendous slog.
The Quantum Thief is no doubt the speculative fiction debut of 2010: it’s a complex and zany creation that is yelling as loudly as it possibly can that science fiction can be proper literature, too. But the downside is that amongst all of this crazy techiness and creative worldbuilding the plot and the characters are distinctly underwhelming: not only is the novel challenging to the point of being hopelessly confusing, but there’s nary a sympathetic character with whom to share the ride. As noted before, I appreciated this novel for its creativity and novel approach to the post-human world, but I can’t truly say I enjoyed it–but hard sci-fi buffs with a stronger understanding of all things quantum may feel differently.(less)
If I’ve learned anything from books this year, it’s that if humanity as we know it is going to come to an end, it’s going to be kids that are the helm of it all. Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited bundles up all of the psychotic adolescence of Lord of the Flies, blends it with the freaky post-human invasion of The Midwich Cuckoos, adds in a bit of 1Q84‘s [review] blurring of temporal and experiential boundaries, and then tops it off with a bit of Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human. As elevator pitches go, it’s a pretty good advertisement for birth control.
Like Murakami’s massively hyped 1Q84, The Uninvited employs a detached narrator to do its bidding, and rightly so. Murakami gave us Tengo Kawama, a quiet man-child of a character whose insight is lacking on an emotional level: his skills are in mathematics and in the analytical breaking down of events. It’s something that’s almost needed, however, in order to give balance to the chaos of time-slips, cults, freaky little people building cocoons out of goats and so on, and it’s perhaps why Jensen gives us a similar narrator in The Uninvited‘s Hesketh Lock. Lock has Asperger’s Syndrome: he’s high functioning intellectually, but has difficulty identifying emotional and communicative cues. Instead of the little people and their cocoons, however, Lock is dealing with freaky children with a penchant for salt, the building of tall structures out of household items, and a yen for murder.
Curiously, I found Lock not at all different from Murakami’s typical protagonist, with his wide-reaching ethnographic awareness, unusual job, and lonely and emotionally withheld existence. All that’s missing is the ubiquitous Murikamian cucumber sandwich, really. The similarities are there to such a degree that when I read of Lock’s habit of folding mental origami in order to soothe his frayed nerves, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a nod to Murakami’s work.
Murakami’s detached, unattached narrators provide a thematic and narrative counterpoint to the strange realities of his books, and Jensen’s Lock does the same in the creeping strangeness of The Uninvited. When we begin to see the true story of what’s behind all of these sudden workplace deaths and parenticides, it’s such a huge thing–a thing that has consequences for the evolution/existence of humanity as a whole–that it almost needs such a narrator to be able to offer a viewpoint that’s uncomplicated by a frenzy of emotions. It’s in Lock’s positioning as an almost post-human, or perhaps at least a slight upgrade on the rest of us, that we begin to see resonances of The Midwich Cuckoos [review], John Wyndham’s haunting novel about an alien(?) invasion that results in the mass birth of a group of children who share a collective intelligence and who represent, possibly, an evolved form of humanity. Lock becomes placed in the middle of it all, and necessarily really, being somewhere between neurotypical humans and the evolved, experentially-connected kids who begin committing in sorts of ghastly acts in the name of some greater good whose identity we don’t learn until much later on. This, too, is perhaps true of the professor character Zellaby in The Midwich Cuckoos: he’s the only one who stands any chance of overthrowing what becomes a sort of weird military child invasion. Unfortunately for Lock, things aren’t going to be as easy in The Uninvited, perhaps because his (pseudo)adopted son Freddy is caught up in all the madness, where Zellaby’s daughter miscarried her “cuckoo” child, severing any similar possible connection.
Many of the same issues that occur in The Midwich Cuckoos crop up in The Uninvited as well. For example, the legal status of “evolved” individuals, especially given that they’re minors and have curtailed participative rights anyway. How do you treat a group of people who are, in the case of The Uninvited, effectively terrorists, and in The Midwich Cuckoos, effectively insurrectionists, when they’re possibly not even people at all? In both instances, the wider society looks for proof of “outsiderness”, in order to justify treatment that would otherwise violate human rights. (NB: if you have a third kidney or like to salt your food, run away right now.) How can we apply our legal system to a group of non-humans? asks The Midwich Cuckoos. The Uninvited, on the other hand, is dealing with a much riskier group of individuals–they’re aggressively violent, not violent only in retaliation, as the cuckoos are. But in both cases, the groups are small, reliant on our resources and infrastructure, and they’re desperate to protect themselves from us–whom they see as barbaric, but yet a formidable enemy.
Interestingly, where The Midwich Cuckoos largely keeps its focus to a small town in England, Jensen’s invasion is a global one, and she emphasises this nature through the culturally influenced perceptions of her characters about what’s going on. One person’s ghost is another person’s djinn. Perhaps this is the mark of a novel written in the present day as opposed to one written during the cold war era, but what made Wyndham’s book so utterly terrifying was that it’s the end of the world on a tiny, village-size scale. It’s so personal and so possible, and it’s about people like the rest of us.
The Uninvited, on the other hand, looks at our world on a grander scale, with a grander, more participative protagonist who is yet removed from the reader by the very way in which he processes the world. It’s still creepy, but it’s at its creepiest when it’s zoomed in to Hesketh’s relationship with Freddy than it is exploring the situation panoramically: thousands of freaky, but largely anonymous kids running around killing largely anonymous people. It’s probably an effective parallel between that time and ours: our own ways of disconnectedness and insularity, which occur not because we don’t know what’s going on around us, but because there’s so much of it that we have to filter it all out. But at the same time, it doesn’t quite resonate in the same way.
For me, the sheer scope of The Uninvited was what caused it to fall short for me. It feels meandering and confused for the first third–or even two thirds–however, when the pieces begin to come together at the end, the reveal is so large and grandiose that it almost needs to be the beginning of the story, not the end of it. And yet, how do you even go about writing such a thing? Is the end of the world really the end of the world? Or is the mere awareness that the world as we know it is about to end enough to stand in for the physical end itself? It’s a formidable concept, but one that I didn’t feel was done justice here.(less)
Seventeen-year-old Lena lives in a world where love is taboo, where passion is anathema, where poetry and art have fallen by the wayside, and romantic...moreSeventeen-year-old Lena lives in a world where love is taboo, where passion is anathema, where poetry and art have fallen by the wayside, and romantic tendencies must be put down at all costs. Stringent social conditioning helps guide young citizens through the complexities of these norms, while upon reaching their majority a more comprehensive solution is offered: a procedure, not so far removed from a lobotomy, that results in a total dulling of the emotions. Read the rest of this review here(less)
Lara Morgan’s Genesis, the first in her dystopian YA trilogy The Rosie Black Chronicles, was a blistering read. Its sequel certainly continues in a si...moreLara Morgan’s Genesis, the first in her dystopian YA trilogy The Rosie Black Chronicles, was a blistering read. Its sequel certainly continues in a similar vein, albeit with even more grit and integrity. Morgan writes of a future where climate change has rendered vast tracts of the world uninhabitable, and where the haves and the have-nots are divided almost in a way reminiscent of Soylent Green/Make Room! Make Room! (and the food’s not much better, although admittedly a bit more vegetarian-friendly). It’s a class system so entrenched that it’s closer to a caste system than anything, and things aren’t made much better by the oppressive government, which recalls all of those feared entities of golden age dystopian literature.
But we don’t just get our Orwells and Zamyatins here: there’s plenty of cyberpunk-inspired goodness lurking at the corners of this gritty novel, and every now and then you find yourself bumping into a Philip K Dick or William Gibson trope. It’s angsty, it’s tough, and it’s worthy of Tank Girl. Truly, it’s a welcome departure from so much of the stuff that has a dystopian label slapped on it these days: there’s a wonderful awareness of the roots of the genre and all the issues and features that have been touched upon over the years. This isn’t simply an alternative reality with some completely unfathomable and indefensible “what if…just because” twist added to it; it’s organic and vivid, and you can imagine it growing out of the context of today.
Oddly enough, the day I began reading 172 Hours on the Moon I also read that Neil Armstrong had agreed to give a rare interview, a coup wrangled by an accountant, of all people. The Armstrong interview was newsworthy in that he has been famously tight-lipped about his experience on the moon, helping to fuel conspiracy theories about whether we’ve been told the truth about the circumstances surrounding the moon landing–or whether the moon landing ever happened in the first place. It’s this sort of scepticism that 172 Hours on the Moon exploits, positing that the various space programmes around the world have fallen by the wayside for reasons that we, the public, have never been told. But, of course, none of which can be benign.
In the novel, a lottery is held to send a trio of teenagers to the moon as a way of rekindling interest in the NASA programme and therefore securing further funding (which will in turn result in some moustache-twirling evilness, we’re told by evil Dr Blank at the beginning of the book). The teens have their various reasons for entering the lottery, but they generally fall under the heading of escapism, rather than, oh, actually wanting to go to the moon. Of course, given that the entire moon trip comprises roughly three weeks, the teens in question could probably have come up with a slightly easier way to run away from home. But anyway.
Fishy things begin to occur before the teens head off on their moon trip, with various telegraphed weirdnesses including the recounting of several Japanese horror stories pinched straight from the gazillions of straight-to-DVD Japanese horror films I watched as a uni student; a homeless guy with a shopping trolley offering thinly-veiled warnings; and various POV switches to people involved with earlier moon flights who had lived to tell the tale (but, of course, just barely).
When the teens do arrive at the moon, the point at which the book ostensibly begins, but which actually occurs more than half-way through, there’s the disconcerting sense of reading a combined novelisation of Moon, Event Horizon and Aliens. The government nefariousness suddenly turns into something much more eerie, and though it’s a chilling enough situation, it feels massively disconnected from the first half of the book–other than the prologue jammed on to the front to give some sort of validity to this awkward shift in plot. And I must say that I’m getting a little tired of the ol’ getting-sucked-out-of-the-space-capsule death scene.
172 Hours on the Moon is painfully awkward in a number of ways: the main conceit of sending teenagers to the moon as a PR stunt, for example, is a bit of a head-scratcher to begin with, particularly given the motivations behind it. Sure, I’ll buy Laika the dog in space, but I’m fairly sure that the idea of sending a bunch of minors up into relatively untested waters is fairly likely to be vetoed by any sort of sane government-sponsored body. Especially when we find out just why space travel has become a thing of the part.
The pacing and plot are all over the place as well, with, the aforementioned issues regarding the story kicking in late and the bizarre “warnings” that seem to be desperately trying to link the second half of the book to the first, but don’t succeed in doing so. Even the tone of the book shifts dramatically half-way through, with an ending that feels a lot more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or 28 Days Later than it does anything to do with a moon landing, and a key character who just kind of…vanishes.
On the more micro-level, the prose fails to inspire, and the dialogue is much the same–although admittedly this may be a translation issue. The book is also littered with illustrations and sketches that distract from rather than add to the experience, and to be honest, it’s hard not to feel that there’s something very amateurish about this entire production.
As a bit of a sci-fi buff, I have to say that I was disappointed by this one, and I’m not sure that I’d seek out anything else by this author. (less)
With a half-Italian background and a birthday smack in the middle of the Leo section of the Zodiac, it would be a touch misleading for me to claim to...moreWith a half-Italian background and a birthday smack in the middle of the Leo section of the Zodiac, it would be a touch misleading for me to claim to be a mild-mannered and unemotional person. According to my stepfather, my favourite place to be is on top of my soapbox, from which position I happily rant and rave about all manner of extremely important things, such as whether it’s necessary to wear matching socks if no one can see them, or the fact that Smarties are most certainly not an inferior product when compared with M&Ms. Needless to say, if I were one of the Psy in bestselling author Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling world, I’d be considered rather definitively broken.
The Psy are a deeply eerie race, coldly logical and starkly emotionless as the result of generations of Pavlovian conditioning under a program known as Silence. While this program was ostensibly implemented in order to ensure unerring efficiency amongst the highly intellectual Psy, there is frequent allusion to the fact that this conditioning program has its roots in a movement designed to quell the Psys’ apparent propensity for violence and madness. Still, with their pesky emotions swept and smothered beneath a carpet of brutal stoicism, the Psy are able to engage in a variety of intellectual pursuits in a way that may not be otherwise possible. The cerebral nature of the Psy is such that each individual demonstrates certain mental abilities of varying strengths: telekinesis, telepathy, foresight, among others. And it’s the ‘among others’ where Sascha Duncan comes into the picture.
For Sascha Duncan, the conditioning has not taken as expected, and rather than being privy only to the typical emotional radio silence of the Psy mind, she finds herself dealing instead on a daily basis with a white noise of emotion whose effect she struggles to conceal from the cold suspicions of other Psy. It is agreed that Sascha is in some way wrong, but any effort to pinpoint the reason for this, or exactly in which way she is deficient is carefully avoided. Sascha, after all, is the daughter of powerful Psy Council member Nikita Duncan—although this means less than one might imagine, given that the Psy, in a way reminiscent of the film GATTACA, carefully plan and control the nature of their offspring through emotionally bereft genetic probability calculations.
Sascha’s daily struggles are compounded when she is sent to deal with the DarkRiver changeling clan over a contentious housing project. Despite her careful efforts to control her problematic mental feedback, she finds herself deeply affected by the presence of Lucas Hunter, the leopard pack Alpha and a man whose interest in her steps rather quickly over the bounds of the business/personal divide. Lucas, for his part, finds himself strangely taken with Sascha, who challenges his stereotypical perspective of the Psy. But Lucas has a secondary motive for participating in the housing project: he is helping to investigate a series of depraved murders his pack suspects can only be the work of a cold-blooded Psy who has somehow broken conditioning—and Sascha may well be the key to obtaining the information he needs to head off the killer before another victim is found.
Singh’s conceptualisation of her Psy-Changeling world is an intriguing one, and is in some ways far stronger than I might have expected of a novel with an emphasis largely on its romantic elements rather than its speculative fiction ones. Her approach is uneven, however, and while I applaud her deft touch in some places, in others I can’t help but feel she has resorted to heavy-handed generalisation and hand-wavium rather than developing a cohesive and coherent world. Her depiction of how the Psy came to integrate Silence into their world is quite chilling indeed, but one can’t help but question its apparently all-encompassing nature and what this truly represents. We’re told that it is impossible to stamp out one particular emotion with any success, which is the reason behind the totality of the Psy conditioning, but this seems to ring a little false, and comes across more as a point of authorial convenience than anything (this is particularly the case when, in later books in the series, which I’ll review throughout the week, certain characters have severe reactions in response to particular emotions and stimuli, rather than responding in a universally similar manner to all stimuli).
On a related note, I found myself rather struck by Singh’s depiction of the Psy as a race that is universally cruel and callous, particularly given her sympathetic portrayal of changeling society. The Psy may be intellectual giants, but it seems that they have few other redeeming elements–even, apparently, to their own. It’s strange that Singh works so hard to build a strongly multicultural cast amongst the Psy, but that, contradictorily, she treats the race itself as some sort of monolithic evil. This positioning of the Psy is only emphasised by the highly compassionate stance taken towards the changelings, who are painted very much as emotion-ruled creatures who are hyperaware of both the relationships they build with those of their pack, and of those with the earth. Changeling culture, though, is anything but benevolent–we’re told of extremely violent acts conducted against various other changeling packs, and their eye-for-and-eye and pro capital punishment positions strike me as something a little less than good and harmonious. It seems odd, then, that the violent exigencies of the Psy are condemned as aberrant, whilst those of the changelings are explained away as being the unavoidable product of their animalistic natures and of their pack culture. It seems that we’re looking at quite the same thing, really, but one group’s actions are condemned, whilst the other group’s are simply shrugged off.
Another issue that never fails to make me somewhat uncomfortable in a novel involving shifters is the role of the alpha male in cowing the female he seeks to possess. This is a trope that is in full evidence in Slave to Sensation, although Singh does work to make Lucas Hunter a largely likeable character, and the tension between Lucas and Sascha is generally very well drawn (if described to redundancy in places). Still, Sascha is portrayed as a character who is mentally quite fragile and conflicted, and one can’t help but feel a tad off about Lucas’s incessant efforts to possess and dominate her. Moreover, the fact that Sascha is expected to relinquish integral elements of both her identity and her social and cultural background in order to become a part of the Pack just doesn’t quite sit well with me. I do understand that the Psy are supposed to be evil and horrid and all, and that, well, Sascha’s rather failed to endear herself to them, but is it really logical (or advisable) that she might defect in such a way, trading one type of bloodthirsty ownership for another?
The fact that I’m responding to this book in such a way, though, is certainly not all bad. Rather than indicating my lack of interest, it shows how oddly invested I became in this book, and the world and the characters contained within. It’s not a flawless book by any means, and in addition to my macro-level problems with it, I do have some other gripes, such as the convenient neatness with which the book concludes, the rather-too-evident identity of the serial killer Lucas is hunting, the occasional illogicalities in terms of plot development and character motivation, and some prose-level redundancies (the endlessly repetitive description of Sascha’s ‘night sky’ eyes, and of hands ‘fisting’, and of Lucas’s cat ‘rising’, for example).
But still, given the myriad problems I’ve identified, I really enjoyed this book. Enough, in fact, to have read the next two in the series (which I’ll review later this week). Singh’s approach to the paranormal genre is different enough to feel fresh and interesting, and her attention to the speculative elements–such as the PsyNet, and the various Psy abilities–is most welcome. Even with my qualms about the Lucas-Sascha affair, it’s hard not to cheer for them, and it is rewarding seeing Sascha finally come into her own as a self-aware and self-accepting individual (although one suspects that it might take some time for all of that Catholic-esque guilt to truly subside). The pacing is taut, and the tension remains high almost throughout the entire novel, making it rather difficult to put this book down. (I’m also happy to note that Singh expands her narrow view of the Psy in later books, and that the supplements the hinted-at back story with some interesting tidbits that strengthen the overall conceit, but more on that when I review the subsequent volumes.)
**spoiler alert** Some two years ago, I stood in a Japanese supermarket admiring the perfectly identical produce: large, robust apples, blemish-free b...more**spoiler alert** Some two years ago, I stood in a Japanese supermarket admiring the perfectly identical produce: large, robust apples, blemish-free bananas curved to a precise degree, melons rich and ruddy and designed to fit perfectly within their packaging. One can only imagine the exacting science that goes into producing such fruit, can only imagine how much defective or inadequate produce is thrown away or recycled into some other fruit-based food—pastes and preserves, perhaps. It’s not just Japan that harbours this fascination with exemplary fruit, however: did you know that there are very strict rules worldwide governing what makes a banana and what doesn’t? That in Australia we typically only have access to a few varieties of apples—the types that freeze well and transport easily without bruising? You might be surprised to find that there are some few hundred varieties of apples in the world, but most of us will never so much as set eyes on them because they do not meet the particular commercial standards of our major supermarkets. It’s strange, though, the arbitrariness of what makes a proper apple. Stranger still, perhaps, the wariness with which people treat the small and slightly skew-whiff produce that tends to be the result of a backyard vegetable patch. My grandmother is renowned for her delicious peppers, but to look at them they’re nothing special: spiralling, stunted, coloured differently from the uniform peppers found in the supermarket. But perhaps this indeed is what makes them special. Read the rest of this review (less)
Foresight. Precognition. The third eye. If these were musical compositions,they'd be grouped together as ubiquitous, omnipresent 'variations on a them...moreForesight. Precognition. The third eye. If these were musical compositions, they'd be grouped together as ubiquitous, omnipresent 'variations on a theme'. The notion of the sibyl seems, after all, to resonate across the entirety of the literary canon, with stories abounding of people, usually women, capable of seeing into what is for the rest of us an impermeable fog. While foresight and future-seeing are staples of superstitious tales of the fantastic, they've also taken a strong hold in science fiction, with all manner of works dealing with issues raised by the ability to see--and therefore change--the future. Amongst the rosier approaches, such as the psychohistory found in Asimov's Foundation series, there are also grittier efforts, such as those of Philip K Dick (his Minority Report is one example). It's this latter approach that Singh takes: her F-Psy, as they're known, are trained to channel their talents towards the mercantile and political, reporting on yet-to-happen commercial takeovers and business developments so that their clients can respond accordingly.
Given their potential to drastically affect economies on both the local and global scale, F-Psy are immensely valuable assets to the Psy, who are known, in addition to their astounding mental capabilities, for their impressive business acumen and their unwavering single-mindedness. Those who fall under the F-Psy designation are rare, though, and their precognitive strength varied. The F-Psy who rank as cardinals on the scale that is used to measure the ability boast substantially higher predictive hit-rates than their lower-ranked peers, and of these, one individual in particular is virtually unparalleled in terms of the accuracy and frequency of her visions. Faith Nightstar, a member of the powerful Nightstar clan, is famed for her exemplary precognitive control, having by her early twenties earnt many times over what might be expected of her competitors. However, her condition, as with all F-Psy, is delicate. The F-Psy are known among Psy society for living a firework-esque existence, burning brilliantly until collapsing in on themselves in madness after only a few decades of productivity. As such, Faith, an immensely valuable asset, is kept in both physical and social isolation in order to stave off the crushing mental fatigue that her minders tell her will inevitably result from too much exposure to others. But Faith, despite her isolation, despite adhering to the strict rules and procedures around which her life is scheduled, is beginning to see things that are far removed from, if you'll pardon the pun, futures trading. Instead, she is increasingly overwhelmed by flashes of violence, of cruelty, of sadism. While she does all she can to stave off these unbidden images, to explain them away as aberrations, things come to a head when her sister is reported as having been murdered. On the brink of mental collapse, a terrified Faith escapes into changeling territory in search of the only person she believes may be able to help her: Sascha Duncan, a rebel Psy who has defected from Psy society.
But while Faith is, after much discussion from the wary changelings who intercept her mid-flight, offered asylum within the DarkRiver community, her troubles are far from over. Already struggling under the increasingly crippling weight of her fragmented mind, she finds herself dealing with a number of challenges, each of which has the the potential to overwhelm her in her current state. Changeling society is vastly alien to her, its pack hierarchies and rules scarcely comprehensible, and its emphasis on touch and physical affection as socialising norms pure anathema; Faith finds herself struggling to cope with the nature of the input she is receiving on both the mental and physical planes. Worse still are the decidedly not-so-platonic advances of the dangerous jaguar changeling Vaughn, whose wild, untamed personality borders on the feral, but whom she is increasingly drawn to as her Psy barriers are broken down. And last, but certainly not least is the ever-present threat of the powerful and terrifyingly vicious Psy Council, which she suspects may be behind the attacks she is seeing in her mind's eye--attacks that show no sign of abating.
In many ways, Visions of Heat retraces the plot of Slave to Sensation, the first in the Psy-Changeling series (see our review). The pairing of the alpha-style male changeling with the broken Psy is in full evidence, and even the complicating factors of the threat of the Psy Council, the unrepentant and relentless murderer, and of integration into an unfamiliar culture are present. That said, Visions of Heat is the stronger of the two, and reading it I felt that Singh had really begun to hit her stride as an author. She allocates more time to defining and teasing out Psy society, as well as settling a number of qualms I had about seemingly contradictory elements of their culture when reading the first book, and Visions of Heat is quite a strong book for it. I appreciate the thought given to world-building and to creating a culture that feels not only coherent, but that it has evolved and developed over time in response to a series of internal and external threats, rather than having been created, as these races so often feel like they have been. The Psy, I feel, are given a rather fairer treatment in this novel, with Singh depicting the race as more nuanced and complex than in the previous novel, where they were scarcely more than evil Vulcans--but without the charm of the pointy ears. Singh takes the time to introduce a number of secondary characters who have rather piqued my interest in subsequent books: Anthony Kyriakus, Faith's father and a fellow who appears to wield considerable political and economic influence in a way that has the potential to undermine the Council; and a new and rather terrifying addition to the Council hordes, Kaleb Krychek.
Moreover, in this novel we're given not only a stronger supporting cast, but also stronger main characters. Faith is presented as a more rounded character than was Sascha, the protagonist of the previous novel: rather than leaping to join the changelings, who in the first book were portrayed as arbiters of love and hugs, as Sascha did, she expresses a good deal of ambivalence over whether to join changeling society, and in so doing, renounce her culture and upbringing. Moreover, she spends more time reflecting on the nature of her relationship with Vaughn, rather than simply succumbing to his frankly quite terrifying alpha male ways. While I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say that theirs is a healthy relationship, built as it is on a foundation of submission and loss of self-identity, Faith feels as though she has more agency in the decision than Sascha did, and I'm a little more comfortable with the outcome.
I do, of course, have some quibbles, such as the slightly weaker plotting this time around: the mystery is very much downplayed in this second outing, and the reader is forced to deal with some awkward tacked-on moments such as the coincidental event that eventual serves to ingratiate Faith into the pack. I also found myself a little annoyed that the same prose-level issues that were apparent in Slave to Sensation were abundant here--right down to the repetition of the very same phrases that so vexed me in the first book.
In all, though, Singh's second Psy-Changeling novel is a fast and compelling read, and I veritably powered my way through it. It's a guilty pleasure, of course, but one in which I might even be willing to be seen indulging in public!
I’d not heard anything about Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels until it arrived in my letterbox, locked away in a padded bag, protected by mummy...moreI’d not heard anything about Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels until it arrived in my letterbox, locked away in a padded bag, protected by mummy-like layers of tape. Its cover, a much darker tint than the one above, suggested that I was dealing with a stormy book, a moody book, and I was not far wrong.
The Reapers and the Angels and I did not become firm friends right away. The book is slow to begin, giving us a painfully slow and somewhat taciturnly panning description of a world lost. However, in the opening pages, Bell’s voice does come through in a startling, haunting manner, and to be honest it was this that kept me persevering.
There’s no doubt that the novel is massively derivative, and it’s difficult to read more than a few pages without comparing it to a range of both visual and print texts: Matheson’s I am Legend, Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, even the recent 28 Days Later film franchise come to mind, as do myriad others.
Temple is a maybe-fifteen-year-old travelling alone in a ravaged, desultory world where meatskins lurch and loll, their dry and scrabbling forms a constant presence. Temple, who has been born into this world, has a quietly pragmatic approach to these shambling monsters who every now and then interrupt her raids on service stations or supermarkets, or that can be found dumbly massing in erstwhile city centres. Unlike the small knots of people she comes across in her travels, those who are trying to recreate the society they once knew by enclosing themselves in safe zones, running schools and kitchens and playing music and games, unlike these, Temple has little nostalgia for this unknown and apparently ersatz past.
Her efforts largely circle around mere survival, and she is constantly on the move as a result. However, as the narrative progresses, and Temple comes into uncomfortable contact with a range of well-meaning individuals who try to take her in, offer her a moment or respite, we realise that she is running from something in her past, and has been, at all costs, avoiding a penitence she fears she doesn’t deserve. However, her onward march takes on a new urgency when she finds herself hunted by Moses Todd, a man whose behaviour is as oddly conflicting as the combination of his first and second names.
On the run now from this tangible human force, Temple finds herself fighting her confused motivations, particularly when she meets Maury, a mute mentally disabled man whom, as part of a new-found need for salvation, she seeks to return home. A cat-and-mouse game ensues between Moses Todd and Temple, with the two meeting and parting at several points throughout the book. It is a strange relationship, as Todd means surely to kill her, but never does: perhaps because he begins to see Temple as that essential element in any horror-filled world–that representation of human instinct, survival. Similarly, Temple’s efforts to return Maury to his home, despite knowing in some part of her that this is a pointless effort, offer a curious commentary not only on Temple’s attempt at redemption, but also with regard to the treatment of the meatskins, to whom the silent, useless Maury is a striking parallel.
The Reapers are the Angels is a beautifully written book, its prose fat and rich in the Southern Gothic style. However, the plot as a whole felt almost didactic to me, moving just because, or for philosophical reasons rather than any narrative essential, and it was difficult to stave off the constant comparisons with other literature that I found myself making. In addition, I struggled at times with the characterisation–Temple, an unschooled girl, often speaks precociously and in a strongly poetic manner that seems at odds with her experience–and the other characters seem to act almost in a vacuum. Perhaps this is meant to exemplify how one’s actions and motivations are twisted and affected in a new and painful environment, but it never really rings true.
All in all, this is a curious and promising debut that will likely attract readers from both the speculative fiction and the more mainstream or literary audiences.(less)
“I am the boy running around trying to tell the world that the sky is falling. And you know what? It’s not an acorn this time. The sky really is falling in.” Peter Vincent’s father is a world-renowned scientist, the man responsible for engineering a species of mechanical bees to replace the dwindling originals. It’s an act that’s a triumph of technology over nature, and a similar attitude is pervasive throughout Peter’s world, a world where technology is the new evolution. Survival of the fittest is the old way of thinking. These days, organisms aren’t given the opportunity to evolve and adapt. Technology has seen to that. That’s why, rather than looking for ways to encourage the organic honeybee to thrive, the bee slate was simply wiped clean.
The same is true for humans. In the first in this series, 0.4 (see my review), teenager Kyle Straker watched from afar as humanity underwent an upgrade, becoming the hive-minded, linked-up beings that populate this book, which is set a millennium later. Those who skipped out on the update effectively became invisible to these new beings–incompatible file versions, perhaps. And yet, there persists a movement of people inspired by Straker’s anti-upgrade outlook who continue to attempt to live in the “old” ways. Needless to say, they’re not looked upon fondly by someone of Peter’s father’s ilk.
When Strakerite Alpha contacts Peter to warn him of a series of disappearances, Peter finds himself drawn into a new way of thinking. Quite literally, for critical thinking and analysis isn’t of particular importance in a world where information is simply fed into one’s brain through the Link. Peter, who is already beginning to question the status quo, becomes increasingly critical of the world he lives in when he learns that humanity is facing another major upgrade.
Though 1.4 is set a thousand or so years from now, its themes are today’s. Much is made of media monopoly, of the fact that the masses not only receive their information from a strictly limited number of sources, but also that they only receive that information those media providers wish to relay. ”I’ve started to doubt the wisdom of drawing one’s opinions from the same data well every day,” says Peter at one point. At another, he reflects that it’s not just the informational content that’s a problem. It’s that people trust it, and are unable to think critically about it.
“The process of reading a book takes a while to get used to,” he muses. “It’s so slow and laborious. But once you get into it, once you forget the way you’re reading and concentrate on what you’re reading, it becomes a really unique experience. You have to work to draw meaning from it rather than having a meaning given to you, which is the only way we receive information these days.”
The reliance on these sources as a form of memory is also a compelling issue, and one that those who’ve stopped bothering to memorise telephone numbers or addresses or dates will find familiar. “We have stopped remembering things. We trust the Link to remember them for us.” It’s the present-day version of the problem raised in Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids, where specialisation has meant that people need others in order to be able to survive. There’s a huge degree of trust involved, and even more so when it’s memory that we’re talking about; there are certainly Orwellian overtones here.
There’s also the idea of depersonalisation and alienation, which is widely present in dystopian fiction–of which this is a beautiful example–and which is so very relevant to us today. It’s the making of artificial, largely meaningless social connections via electronic media and the pretence that they’re a suitable substitute for actual, real-world relationships. It’s the idea of being so overrun and over-scheduled that taking a backseat to one’s life is the easiest way to cope.
“We need to feel like we belong. The Link provides us with all the connections we need. So much so that we pretty much let it run our lives for us. It’s how we make sense of the world. So we look for patterns and linkages, because without them the world is a senseless blur.” I did find that the epistolary format created a certain distance between the narrator and reader, and one that’s largely “telling”. There is a certain recursion of plot (although this is more than likely intended), and some elements, such as Alpha’s instant affinity for Peter, felt a little hasty. But overall, 1.4 is a compelling and thought-provoking addition to the dystopian genre.(less)
Though Daisy Appleby is surely the world record holder for Most Times Deceased and Revived...moreThis review originally appeared at Read in a Single Sitting.
Though Daisy Appleby is surely the world record holder for Most Times Deceased and Revived, she’s not going to end up in the Guinness Book of World Records anytime soon. Why? Because Daisy wasn’t brought back by something as mundane as CPR or a defibrillator machine. She was brought back by a top-secret drug that’s still in its preliminary testing stages. The kind of drug that has the possibility to utterly change not just the finality of death, but the way people live their lives. After all, if you knew that you could be brought back to life with not even the merest of side-effects, wouldn’t you do things differently?
But though Daisy may be a little blithe when it comes to things like bringing her Epipen to school or balancing precariously atop a section of cliff-top railing, for the most part Daisy wants nothing more than to be normal. Being a part of a top-secret testing regimen means that each time something happens that may compromise the anonymity of the project, Daisy and her “parents”, two programme operatives, have to move elsewhere, assuming new identities each time. It’s a life that could be likened to being a part of a military family, or perhaps someone in a witness protection programme.
Having been revived from her fifth death and accordingly shunted off to a new home in Omaha, Daisy is determined to live a normal life not overshadowed by thoughts of death or the rigorous testing required by the programme. For the first time in her life, Daisy begins to reach out to others, and she finds herself not only with a best friend with whom she has everything in common, but with a maybe-boyfriend as well. But when it turns out that Daisy’s new best friend is suffering from terminal cancer, she finds herself facing a tremendous ethical battle. How is it fair that Daisy has access to the Revive drug whenever it’s needed, and yet others such as her best friend are not able to access it at all? And why are such trials being undertaken clandestinely, out of the view of the public? What does this mean for the future of the drug and the public’s ability to access it should they need it? Or is death something that is universal unless one has the money and means to make a choice otherwise?
Revived is beautifully and movingly written, and Patrick’s strong characterisation allows her to explore not only these questions, but also related themes, such as the cultural taboo of death and sickness–Audrey, for example, is shunned by her peers, while Daisy, who appears physically healthy, is accepted by them–and the human response to the loss of a loved one–something that Daisy has not before experienced first-hand, but rather has (at times selfishly) been the cause of.
But yet, despite a strong set-up, Revived doesn’t quite hang together. There are parts where things seem to happen too easily: those Daisy tells about the Revived program are immediately receptive to the idea, rather than treating it with a degree of scepticism, for example. And the ease with which she is able to access top-secret programme files doesn’t feel realistic. I also found the pacing in the latter half of the book an issue: the book seems to shift gear half-way through, changing from a quiet, almost literary pace to one a good deal faster, with a sudden dash to Texas culminating in an action film-esque ending that involves a sniper and a scene involving a bees’ nest that, given how the book opens, is just far too neat to be believable.
Still, these issues aside, Patrick has a knack for coming up with intelligent high-concept ideas, and the writing chops to make something of them. I suspect that with a few more novels under her belt she’ll be very good indeed.(less)
More than half a year has passed since the adults of Perdido Beach suddenly vanished, leaving a motley horde of juveniles to fend for themselves. In that time these kids have faced devastating hunger, worsening living conditions, internal fractiousness, and eerie preternatural events. But while things have reached an uncomfortable stasis, with a truce of sorts called in the horrendous aftermath of the events of Hunger (see our review), cracks, as always, are beginning to appear. The democratically elected Council has been thwarted by internal ambivalence, and is teetering under the weight of its own importance, something that the canny clusters of anarchic dissidents throughout the town have noted well. And when certain presumed-dead characters make a terrifying appearance in Perdido Beach, their effect is precipitative, offering the incendiary spark needed for these dissidents to wage war on those against whom they’re ideologically and, well, xenophobically, opposed. Meanwhile, a messiah-like figure of sorts makes an appearance, tempting the youngsters away from the safety of their flock and into the unknown. The members of the Council, increasingly hamstrung by the challenges of maintaining order and cohesion, resort to coercion and lies, and things rapidly degenerate…
In Hunger, the predecessor to Lies, author Michael Grant offered up all manner of intelligent thematic material, into which he dove with impressive vigour. Hunger brought us musings on racism and fear of the Other more generally, and touched on issues of egalitarianism and democracy, as well as on issues of incentivisation and motivation, and economics and sustainability. These same themes recur in Lies, but with greater emphasis on the ambiguity of morality, Robespierreian ends-justifies-the-means politics, and the notion of the sacrifice of rights and freedoms in the name of the “greater good”. These are challenging themes for a YA novel such as this one, particularly as it has to juggle all of this realistically and sensitively while maintaining a cracking pace from start to finish, but as always Grant does an excellent job of touching on these issues without resorting to naval-gazing or As-You-Know-Bobbing. Character-wise, it’s fascinating to watch stoic Sam slowly rescind his duties as a leader as it becomes ever more challenging to take the moral high ground as the choices available become increasingly desultory, and to see “genius” Astrid struggle so painfully with issues of truth, disclosure, and the rights of the individual. Far from maintaining her typically lofty ideals and spiritually informed intransigence, Astrid finds herself struggling with the appropriateness of spreading misinformation and resorting to punitive measures in “unusual” circumstances. This struggle eventually results in the Council finally creating a set of ostensibly liberterian rules for the Perdido Beach enclave, but with the chilling caveat that “special measures” may be implemented should the Council deem this to be necessary. There’s potential for a tremendous slippery-slope slide towards totalitarianism and the establishment of a police-state here, and one can’t help but make comparisons between the events in the book and recent events…
Lies, too, addresses the notion of the power of the individual in a curious way, and it’s interesting to see how Grant examines this. Many of the physically weak characters (and those, incidentally, without super-powers) are increasingly seen as powerful, and there’s an emphasis on the need for personal resilience and internal strength, rather than on physical strength or that gained through powers. Uber-strong Computer Jack, for example, sits out most of this book with an illness, which lightning-fast Brianna also succumbs to. Sam’s nasty brother Caine, similarly, grows increasingly weak, with each passing day highlighting the need to rely on his wiles over his physical abilities. Interesting, Little Pete, Astrid’s severely autistic brother, is shown to be ever more powerful, a fact that surprises the residents of Perdido Beach due to fact that he is generally so unresponsive and inward-looking.
The power of the individual also butts up against the idea of trust, and it’s this that Lies so fascinatingly and unflinchingly explores. Astrid and her Council have for so long positioned themselves as the “good” guys, relying on the bonhomie created by Sam’s heroic actions to see them through, but the trust that they have spent months garnering amongst their followers is noticeably fragile in the wake of recent events. Indeed, so many of Astrid, Sam, and the Council’s actions have been a compromise between what they believe is the appropriate response, and what they can manage at a given point in time, and needless to say the responses to their efforts have been lukewarm at best. Astrid, without Sam, struggles with engendering trust between the other children because she has performed none of the heroic acts of Sam: her own efforts have been more off-stage, and it seems that without these sort of demonstrable actions, others are wary of her all talk, no action policies. The reverse is seen with the character of Mother Mary, who has for seven months now played the role of full-time carer for the younger kids, despite battling a serious illness of her own. The other children will blindly follow Mary due to her previously altruistic actions: there’s little need for second-guessing or analysing her motivations. Similarly, the reappearance of dream-reader Orsay and the subsequent impact on the settlement is fascinating: Orsay’s ability to step into others’ dreams is well-known, but some such as sceptical Astrid are unsure as to whether the scope of this power is as broad as claimed. But while Astrid attempts to pit the others against Orsay for fear of civil disharmony, the others are looking towards a strong leader with a clear direction, and are willing to place their trust in such an individual. Needless to say, the events that play out are quite fascinating. An intriguing addition, too, is the fact that we at last see what is beyond the dome in which the children are trapped: needless to say this raises all manner of moral/ethical issues.
Despite these strong themes, however, Lies isn’t quite as strong as Hunger, in part because the majority of the major characters are sidelined throughout the book, while some seemingly minor characters are given quite a good deal of page space. Similarly, while the introduction of a group of new characters will no doubt raise the tension in the forthcoming books, their actions in this book weren’t especially notable given the page-time they were allotted. Grant has mentioned wanting to avoid the George RR Martin trap (where a zillion characters are followed relentlessly over a series of incredibly fat novels), and this late introduction is no doubt a result of that. Still, by the end of the book, the characters are positioned in what is sure to be a fascinating showdown in the next of the series–unfortunately I have to wait until April to see what the author has in store.(less)
Lauren Oliver’s Delirium (see my review) posited a world in which love is outlawed due to its perception as a dangerous disease whose symptoms result in all manner of illogical actions, and where a puritanical government has mandated what amounts to an anti-emotion treatment in order to stifle any sort of passionate response to stimuli. It’s a sort of surgically applied Brave New World mixed with the heavy-handed government of 1984, but unfortunately with none of the context, let alone understanding of that context, that made these seminal dystopian works so memorable. Delirium, rather is a Romeo and Juliet tale of star-crossed love, with the anti-love context providing little more than a brutal way in which to keep protagonist Lena away from her love interest Alex: in sum, it’s essentially a romance novel slapped against a flimsy dystopian context. After all, forbidden love is even more exciting when it’s illegal, right?
Pandemonium picks up after Lena’s flight into the Wilds, an area beyond the government’s jurisdiction that’s apparently full of fearsome individuals who still have the power to feel emotions. Lena, mourning the loss of Alex, is taken in by a group of such individuals who nurse her back to health and gradually train her up to get her anarchy skills on, and the narrative alternates temporally between her time in recovery and her present-day efforts to infiltrate and take down a political organisation bent on extending further the already draconian application of the anti-love “cure”.
But Lena’s efforts go terribly wrong, and she, along with Julian Fineman, the teenage figurehead of the anti-love group, is taken captive by another insurgent group. Secreted away in a cell, the two find themselves in a battle of ideologies. And by ideologies I mean sexual attraction–apparently Julian, despite his chest-thumping and fear-mongering, isn’t entirely sold on a future of physical or emotional abstinence. What follows is a series of escape attempts, inter-factional battles and quite a bit of reading of Dickens (cf Shakespeare, who was the bard of choice in the first book).
I had a number of issues with the world-building in Delirium, and I’m afraid that those same misgivings persisted through Pandemonium. Despite being aware of the fairly puritanical religiosity of much of the US, I still can’t quite fathom the reason behind the decision to create an emotionless world. Given that this “cure” seems to be applied only in parts of the USA, why hasn’t an international organisation stepped in? Moreover, if the “cure” is so successful in dulling emotions of all types, why are there so many militant, forceful groups getting together in its favour? Given Lena’s description of cured individuals as “zombies”, surely utter apathy would be a more believable approach?
It’s not just the world-building that stymies the reader’s efforts to suspend disbelief, however. The writing style, for one, doesn’t help matters. It’s so painfully earnest, and there’s absolutely no levity here whatsoever–I had to force myself through what felt like a rather extensive extract from the angsty journals I wrote as a teen, and for a book that comes in a close to 400 pages, it’s honestly quite a chore. The sharp, staccato-like writing combined with the use of present tense doesn’t help matters, and nor does the confusing alternation between the past and present narrative threads, the purpose of which I don’t quite understand–perhaps it’s to distract from the fact that the “past” sections are much quieter than the explosion-filled present?
Moreover, the narrative itself takes a few turns that seem oddly glib given the seriousness of the writing style and the constant reiteration of the oppressiveness of the government. Certainly, love triangles are all but mandatory in young adult books at the moment, but the introduction of one here seems unnecessary and out of place with not just the characters involved, but also the direction of the book itself. In addition, the revelation regarding the circumstances behind Lena and Julian’s kidnapping raises all manner of questions, and the appearance of a certain person thought long lost to Lena and the re-entry of a certain key character on the very last page of the book are head-shakingly contrived. These plot elements would work in a book that’s not aiming for such realism, but Pandemonium is so determinedly serious in tone that they’re quite jarring.
While I did appreciate the development of Lena’s character, overall I found Pandemonium quite a challenge to finish. There’s something in Oliver’s incessantly grave writing style that just rings false to me, and which in tandem with the world-building issues prevents me from connecting with her books in the way that I’d like.(less)
"It's the fate of all creators: they fall in love with their creations."
The maker-creation binary is at the heart of Eve & Adam, the latest release from YA authors Michael Grant and Katherine Applegate. However, it's not as simple as this snappy sentence above might suggest.
The fact that these words are spoken by Terra Spiker, a woman who treats her daughter Eve with about as much care and affection as Dr Frankenstein did his monster, and who simultaneously merrily presides over a company whose secret project involves vat-grown humans, is testament to that.
Grant and Applegate are known for exploring often challenging themes and questions within what might be taken superficially as slight, action-oriented novels for young adults, and Eve and Adam is no different. It's not a subtle novel, but then, neither was Frankenstein and, hey, neither was Genesis. There's plenty of slick science, plenty of action, and plenty of fast-talking teen banter, sure. But in addition to all of this there's a thorough exploration of what it means to fill the various maker roles, what it means to be a creation, and the conflicts that spring up between the two.
We meet Eve (an abbreviation of Evening, a name that which offers a notable contrast to the meanings we take from Eve) as she hurtles through the air after a terrible accident. Although her injuries are severe, including the loss of a leg, she's taken to her billionaire mother's headquarters, where with the help of teen employee Solo, she quickly recuperates. Far too quickly, actually. Eve has her suspicions that something's not quite right about the whole thing, as does Solo, whom we learn has been adopted by Terra Spiker after being orphaned. Solo is on a mission to bring down Spiker Biopharmaceuticals, and it's a mission he becomes even more passionate about when he learns that Eve has been given a holiday project involving creating a perfectly lifelike simulation of a human. Because with Spiker's hazy ethical track record, there's every likelihood that this simulation's going to be a little too real for comfort.
The plot unfolds fairly much as you expect it will, and to be honest I was a little disappointed by the book's narrative bluntness. The various character reveals worked well enough (no one is who they seem), although there were several elements that just didn't quite sit right with me. The reasoning behind Solo's involvement at Spiker Biopharm felt a little hazy, and I couldn't quite suspend disbelief during the action scenes that took place outside the Spiker headquarters. I found the subplot involving Eve's creation quite weak as well: it didn't seem to build with any real rhythm, and simply felt as though it ebbed away at the end. This is, as far as I know, the first in a series, but even so I didn't quite feel that the resolution quite worked.
Perhaps my biggest bugbear with the whole book was the use of sexually overt misogyny to belittle the female teen characters. This was baffling to me, particularly given that the women in this book are otherwise empowered. I simply can't imagine a women of Terra Spiker's status letting loose with a constant barrage of "sluts" and "whores" when talking about her daughter's friend. "You have one friend and she's a drunken slut," she sneers at one point; this language is repeated over and over. Gratuitous misogyny is also an issue during the book's climax, where our Evil Scientist character gloatingly says to Solo: "You haven't tapped that little piece yet?" Why is it that antagonists are so often rendered as being sexually deviant, and why, in such a gratuitous manner? Honestly, if you're going about kidnapping people and generally being awful, I will quite readily conclude that you're not a nice person without being slugged with an additional cheap misogynistic blow.
These issues aside, however, I did enjoy the exploration of the different maker-creator notions--the creator, the birth mother, and the adoptive mother--and the fact that almost all of the major characters filled at least two of these. When stitched together, a fascinating web of maker-creator connections arises, and the tension around each of these is so palpable that you can almost hear it humming. Of the main characters, it's Terra and Eve who experience the most different connections, and perhaps it's this that also leads to their ever more conflicted relationship. When Eve effectively adopts her friend Aislin, for example, it's a relationship that resonates both through Eve and through Terra as well. She also adds additional depth to her relationship between herself and her "Adam" by giving him a name--something that Frankenstein fails to do to his own monster.
Eve's conflict over creating Adam is also fascinating, particularly as she's playing the God role while Aislin, playing that of the devil, hovers over her shoulder urging her to ignore her natural desire for balance and to embrace what's effectively a sort of creative hedonism. "Everyone should have flaws," thinks Eve. "Isn't that what makes us interesting?" Aislin, on the other hand, thinks that it's inevitable that Eve should seek out perfection in her creation, after all, she does as much when she's contemplating guys to date. As she continues her work, Eve begins to appreciate the challenge of creation:
"I could make him reckless and bold. He might die younger. He might be a criminal. He might be a great creative mind. This is not the simple, fun artwork of making a face and a body...this isn't as simple as it looks."
Interestingly, her creation is done beneath the shadow of Terra, who's almost frighteningly goddess-like (and I do love that the creators in this book, as alluded to by the book's title, are female). Whatever creative affordances Eve has in her little lab, they're nothing compared with those of Terra. Her name's evocative enough, but the fact that she's a billionaire who has no concept of money works as a parallel to some sort of supreme being with infinite resources at their fingertips. However, as we did in Frankenstein we learn that there are vast differences between the different types of creation, and the relationships that arise between the different types of creator-maker binaries. Is it possible to love something that has been constructed? Or to be truly loved by something you've created naturally?
When you reach the last page of Eve & Adam, it's hard not to flick back to the first page and re-read Eve's thoughts on dying:
"When you die...you should be thinking about love...you should not be thinking about an apple."(less)
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from watching American TV, it’s that Americans really do like their guns. Or really, anything that makes other...moreIf there’s one thing that I’ve learned from watching American TV, it’s that Americans really do like their guns. Or really, anything that makes other stuff go boom. If Jules Verne’s humorous novella From the Earth to the Moon is anything to go by, this is a widely observed fact, and has been for a good deal of time now.
The novella cheekily reflects on a post-civil war environment where all the guns, munitions and artillery are lain down in the name of peace, leaving plenty of gun-totin’ Americans feeling a tad impotent.
But another thing I’ve learned about Americans (also from TV) is that the right to congregation is something held in high regard. So it’s no surprise then when the gun-lovers of Baltimore get together to create the Baltimore Gun Club in order to angst over the dearth of things left to blow up.
On a superficial level, Robert Cormier's excellent I Am the Cheese (see my review) involves protagonist Adam's efforts to take a parcel to his father. But to summarise the book thus is deceptively simple: the narrative is complex and multi-layered, involving not just a physical journey, but a journey into the past, and one into Adam's significantly disturbed mind. It's a challenging novel, and one that epitomises the sort of terrifying paranoia so rife in Cormier's work. It's not a dystopian novel as such, but there is certainly a sense of it, with issues of power and trust at the forefront of the narrative, and the incessant questioning of the true motives of those in prominent, governing positions.
If I Could Fly, the latest offering from British author Jill Hucklesby is almost an answer to the call Cormier places with I Am the Cheese, and mirrors this modern classic in myriad ways. Like Adam, Calypso Summers is undertaking a journey of her own, but in reverse: in her case the physical journey involves running from something, while her mental journey entails the opposite. A similarly terrifying setting is evoked, too, but where Cormier does so thematically, Hucklesby does so more literally, setting her novel in a dystopian context where a swine flu-like virus is sweeping through the United Kingdom and Europe, inducing the same sort of societal paranoia evident in Cormier's Cold War setting. Just like Adam, Calypso is always under threat, with similar fears of being turned in by others.
The narrative approach is similar, too, with Calypso's story being one that hinges largely on her internal growth and discovery, or re-discovery, as the case may be: like Adam, she too is missing an essential component of her past, without which the meaning and purpose of her journey is severely diminished. But curiously, where Cormier's novel becomes darker with every page, Hucklesby's remains upbeat. Where Adam feels in some ways broken, with his disenchantment becoming increasingly palpable as the story progresses, Calypso is the eternal optimist. Both carry with them a stuffed toy, but their purposes are the opposite: Adam's is a reminder of his lost childhood, while Calypso's is a cheerful suggestion of what might still be despite her immensely challenging situation.
And indeed where Adam's interactions are characterised by a fear precipitated by his rather Pavlovian past experiences, Calypso's are infinitely hopeful despite having been through her own personal traumas. There is a dreamlike, ethereal sense to these encounters that is the opposite of those found in Cormier's book, which feel similarly ungrounded, but have a nightmarish quality instead. Where Adam becomes increasingly alienated, and cuts himself off from those who potentially pose a threat, withdrawing into himself (and how thoroughly is the case we realise only at the book's end), Calypso takes these threats and turns them into rich and psychically satisfying relationships. The lost and mad Dair becomes simultaneously a father figure and a dependant, becoming both protector and protected, while Andy, the "face at the window" (a notion that reminded me very much of Jean Ure's excellent novel of the same name), rather than being a spectre that haunts, becomes someone who supports and fulfils Calypso instead.
Both books, of course, involve a final twist, neither of which I wish to give away, but I must say that I feel that Cormier's works more successfully than Hucklesby's, which feels almost platitudinous. Cormier's is perhaps one of the most terrifying, perfect endings I've ever read, while for me, Hucklesby's, although in retrospect reasonably well telegraphed, weakens what was for me an otherwise pitch-perfect read (although it might be interesting to read this in tandem with Connie Willis's Passage). Both are heart-rending, but where Cormier's is somehow inexorable, Hucklesby's feels a touch forced (although one does see the parallels with the famous Greek myth).
There's so much more I could say about If I Could Fly, but given the above you've no doubt realised that this book has made rather an impression on me. Indeed, until the last two or so chapters, this was the most exquisitely written, stunningly executed book I've come across in many months, and I'm in awe of Hucklesby's skill as a writer. Her allusive approach towards setting and milieu, her wonderfully whimsical characterisation, her extraordinary way with words, and her wilful approach to narrative risk-taking--I could rave for hours. Not since Cassandra Golds's wonderful The Three Lives of Persimmon (see my review) have I wanted to buy a half dozen copies of a book and thrust it in the hands of anyone passing by. So, oh, how disappointed I was to read this ending, which turned something so heart-wrenchingly poignant and utterly enthralling into something slightly trite and saccharine. I think, given Hucklesby's willingness to tackle such complex issues with a sophisticated combination of levity and pragmatism, that I was expecting something just that little more challenging, and I'm afraid this just doesn't quite deliver in those last few pages. But, still, this is one that will remain with you, and I recommend that you devote a few hours of your life to it.(less)
Rather like an individual whose vices include smoking, tanning, and excessive drinking, science fiction typically doesn’t age well. I’ve cringed my way through countless SFnal classics attempting to determine what it is about them that has seen them catapulted to cult-like status. Science fiction, of course, is almost necessarily a reflection of the present, rather than of the future: reading an SF volume is a way of gauging the fears and concerns of the era from which the writer is currently writing. Thus, while so many volumes seek to elevate themselves in one area, they often fall flat in others (women’s lib, hello). For me, the best SF is that which works as a simple allegory, those novels that rely on a single trope, and which simply explore the resulting actions and reactions of those around. I’ll take a story about two characters stuck in a room over one that spans galaxies any day. And given this, it’s perhaps no surprise that HG Wells has found himself another fan with The Invisible Man. This, of course, wasn’t my first encounter with this famous novel: I have vague memories of reading a bright yellow volume of the same as a kid, and I’ve seen and read countless variations on its theme since. But this, like the Wyndham or Cormier novels I’ve recently worked through, just to name a few, is one that rather benefits from an old fogey-style reading rather than a cynical school kid-style one.
Iping is your quintessential small town: everyone is known to everyone else; it has its own particular quirks, habits, and customs; it’s narrow in scope, set in its ways, and terribly, terribly insular. And while all of this works perfectly well so long as the status quo is preserved, any changes to its compositional fabric are all but doomed to have some sort of desultory effect. So when a mysterious, inhospitable stranger arrives at The Coach and Horses Inn, we know it’s only a matter of time until things begin to go horribly awry.
A lodger of any sort is cause enough for gossip and chatter in Iping, but the Inn’s newest patron is one who is roughly as evocative as possible. Who is this surly, vituperative stranger who refuses company and gives away nothing of himself? Just how does he spend his days? The lodger, an inherently peculiar thing at the best of times, only elicits increased surveillance and curiosity as he further and further withdraws, attending to his own needs and declining to interact with others. But curiosity, if left unsated, quickly turns to suspicion, and such is the case here. As this strange individual does everything he can to retreat away from the watchful eyes of those around him, they become more determined to learn his secret. But it’s a secret that is both utterly astonishing, and terrifying.
The lodger (whose name is deliberately withheld for the majority of the volume) is, of course, invisible, a condition that is the result of scientific experimentation. And while this notion might not be anything novel or challenging to today’s readers, who’ve seen this idea trotted out as often as a champion show pony, Wells turns the idea into a thing of frightening proportions, and works allegorical wonderment on so many levels.
The most salient of these, is of course, the dangers associated with science. Not science itself, perhaps, but the hubris associated with it: humanity’s search for omniscience, that desire to not only know, but to control the natural. The lodger, in his efforts, has overstepped the bounds of humanity into the sphere of godliness, and it’s something that can have nothing less than disastrous results. By transforming himself, he has not only lost his outward sense of humanity, but given that he is no longer (to a degree, at least) restricted by the bounds of physicality/humanity, he is, by extension less restrained by those of morality. The lodger thus descends into a sort of amoral madness where he resorts to not only extreme pragmatism as a way of justifying his behaviour, but where his actions become almost senselessly motivated. Without the boundaries imposed by the visage of humanity, the lodger regresses to a violent, aggressive state–yes, comparisons with The Island of Dr Moreau and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are inevitable.
But there’s so much more to this book than the simple idea of being punished for overstepping the bounds of science. Apologies for name-dropping Foucault, but the notion of surveillance is utterly key in this novel. Foucault, of course, posited that regulation, documentation, monitoring, and surveillance are all key elements of ensuring that individuals within a given society behave the way that they should. People behave differently if they are being observed, for example. And other norms, such as that of naming–something which does not happen to our lodger until very late on in the book–are also essential to behavioural control. Thus, if our lodger is subject to none of these behavioural mechanisms, in what way will he respond? Truly, what would you do if you were not bound by the punitive force of others’ gazes? To me, this is perhaps one of the most chilling ideas present within this slim little volume: the fact that our humanity, our civilisation, is only a veneer kept in place by the sanctions of those around us.
A third concept, and one that is perhaps on par in terms of eerieness as its predecessor, is that of xenophobia. While the invisible man wreaks havoc and eschews morality at just about every turn of the novel, it’s not entirely without precipitation. From the outset he is othered–the townspeople, in their curiosity, treat him as some sort of curious attraction, or a puzzle that must be solved. And when the reality of his condition is revealed, their response is a mixture of fear and revulsion. The townspeople, including those who knew the invisible man in his pre-transparent days, quickly resort to a classy mob mentality, with even educated individuals, such as the invisible man’s university friend Dr Kemp, turning on him out of fear of his differences. Humanity’s terrifying ability to turn on the unknown and the different is at the forefront here, and it makes for a truly horrifying read. In fact, both the invisible man and the townsfolk end up resorting to the very same pragmatic ends-justifies-the-means approach. And where science is blamed for the actions of the former, it can be in no way identified as the cause of the actions of the latter. Given the complex, changing societies in which we live today–where there are many “others”–this is a sobering, poignant thought.
The Invisible Man is far more than a novel that rests on a cool trope and some well-written fight scenes. It’s complex, dark, cynical, and in its final scenes, surprisingly moving. As an examination of the flawed nature of humanity, and the ease with which the facade of our civilised state can slide, it’s a standout work indeed.(less)
I felt a little misinformed when I began to read Gemma Malley‘s The Declaration. The jacket copy for this book is very coy, and I don’t feel does the...moreI felt a little misinformed when I began to read Gemma Malley‘s The Declaration. The jacket copy for this book is very coy, and I don’t feel does the book justice at all. While we’re given a hint at the theme with terms such as ‘being born’ being seen as illicit, and references to ‘the outside world’, the blurb tries to pique interest through being vague, which is not always the best way to get a reader to pick up one book over the hundreds of others clamouring for attention. Fortunately, The Declaration looked pretty, was on sale, and came armed with a series of cover quotes from sources I trust.
Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, The Declaration is a near-future young adult novel set in a world where people no longer die of old age. Of course, the consequences of this is the huge strain on the world’s resources, as well as massive overcrowding. However, rather than turning to eating people as in Soylent Green (the famous film based loosely on the Harry Harrison novel mentioned above), Malley has made it a crime for anyone to have a child unless they have ‘opted out’ of the longevity treatments. All children who are born to parents who have not ‘opted out’ are considered surplus, and essentially considered non-humans.
The story revolves around young Anna, who is a prefect in the Grange Hall surplus training facility. Anna, who has been indoctrinated into the surplus as rightless ideology, has no desire to achieve anything other than a high degree of utility for her future masters. However, all of this changes when Peter is captured by surplus hunters and is taken in by the facility. Peter is convinced that Anna has a life outside the facility, and is determined to make her see the short-sightedness and cruelty of the longevity laws.
The Declaration is an eerie book of a future that might very well be our own. Malley’s depiction of the near-future scenario is harsh and unabating, and there are several scenes that are quite frankly awful in their harshness and violence. Where you would expect the author to quietly close the door on a distressing incident and let the reader imagine the rest, she instead writes it bluntly and explicitly. This unflinching frankness is key to the book’s success, I think. The Declaration suffers from a slow start and a bit of eye-rolling coincidence in terms of how certain people are linked together throughout the narrative, but it is rescued by Malley’s bleak matter-of-factness, which never dips into anything maudlin or twee. While there are certainly some plot points that seem a little too neat, and the Constant Capitalisation of Almost Every Noun is torture on the eyes, The Declaration is an intriguing dystopic novel that refuses to give in to an uplifting Spielbergian conclusion but instead runs its course bluntly and honestly.(less)
Having recently ventured around the world with Mr Verne, I decided that a journey into its depths with the same author might be in order. After all, Around the World in 80 Days, while flawed in many ways, was an immense amount of fun, and it’s hard not to feel fondly towards it despite its shortcomings. So it was in an adventurous frame of mind (cue image of hard hat, goggles, and spelunking gear) that I began Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Unfortunately it seems as though travelling around the world is rather more interesting than travelling through it. In this novel, Verne takes us along on a psuedo-scholarly journey through the earth’s mantle, stopping frequently to tell us all about different geological materials and the equipment by which they might be assessed. And while I have an appreciation for rocks and stalactites and sedimentary and igneous what-have-you, I admit to needing a bit of plot or character to make this educational meal more palatable.
Verne’s characterisation seems to be a recurring weak point in his work, but it’s painfully apparent in this book. Brusque and snarky Professor Liedenbrock is, well, brusque and snarky, and engages in all manner of shenanigans for utterly incomprehensible reasons. Upon by chance finding in a newly purchased book a cipher he’s unable to crack, he locks up everyone in his household. When his (no doubt hungry and cabin-feverish) nephew Axel cracks the code (a process that is depicted in thoroughly excruciating detail–Mr Verne, if I wanted to read about tedious cryptography and steganography, I’d pick up a Dan Brown book), which tells in poor Latin of the truth of the centre of the earth, Liedenbock suddenly sets off to Iceland, dragging a few hapless others in his wake. And Liedenbock continues in such a manner throughout the rest of the book (with the exception of a few scenes in which he’s forced to show his oh-so-human colours). It’s with a Terminator-esque determination that he sets out on his journey. But curiously, it seems less that he’s motivated by the geological side of things–which might be the case given his preferred area of study–but by a boyish need to conquer stuff.
While a larger-than-life character can be good fun, their presence needs to be balanced by the other characters with whom they interact. But Verne gives us wimpy Axel, who’s roughly as useful as Bella Swan, and who has a similar propensity for tripping over his own feet, and a guide called Hans, whose role is limited to occasional ejections in Danish: “water!”, “help!” and so forth. In fact, the most interesting character is Axel’s betrothed, a young lass who’s an academic in her own right and might well have made for some interesting reading. Of course, being a young woman she’s unsuited to such things, and is left behind to undertake some needlework in the parlour or somesuch.
Needless to say, all of this makes for a rather bumbling effort when it comes to determining whether or not the centre of the earth is molten.
But perhaps what’s most frustrating about this book is its potential–and the fact that that potential goes unrealised. There’s so much room here for this book to be a fabulous, rollicking adventure. We get dinosaurs! Underground waterspouts! Humanoid life! But Verne’s characters utterly ignore these in their efforts to effectively plant a flag in that all-essential central part of the earth. And, of course, once they meet their destination they’re vomited up back on to the earth’s surface (after a few random flashbacks about skulls and academic lectures). I understand that there’s a statement being made here: the human tendency to fixate on one outcome or objective to the point that our myopia stops us from so much as noticing those other astonishing things around us. Given that Verne’s main character is a scientist, this is no doubt a commentary on the nature of scientific practice and research. But while that’s all fine and dandy, one can’t help but feel that this insight might be better served with a dinosaur scene or two.
In all, Journey to the Centre of the Earth makes for a fabulous elevator pitch: “three guys journey to the centre of the earth!”, but there’s little more to it than that.(less)
Given the spate of mediocre YA dystopian fiction hitting the shelves of late, it’s pleasing to read one that is as beautifully wrought as Caragh O’Brien’s debut Birthmarked. O’Brien’s novel, while admittedly flawed plot-wise, relying far too strongly on coincidence and circumstance, is thematically complex and challenging, and all of this is further complemented by largely spot-on characterisation and a world that is eminently believable.
Three hundred years from now, Lake Unsuperior is a world where the haves and the have-nots are explicitly divided by a Berlin-esque wall. Within the wall lives the Enclave, those genetically gifted individuals who live lives of relative leisure and abundance, while outside are those who eke out a simple, subsistence-level style of existence. But as with all such yin-and-yang societies, there is a sort of symbiosis going on here: those outside the wall pay to the Enclave a patently unusual tithe–their children. The tithe is essential to maintain appropriate levels of population within the wall, but is, of course, only extended to healthy children. Protagonist Gaia, a midwife by trade, is regularly privy to both the births of these children and to their subsequently being taken by the Enclave. It’s a fact of life that Gaia, who is socialised into believing that not only are such things normal, but they’re for the greater good, never questions the practice until her mother, herself a midwife, is kidnapped for her suspected crimes against the Enclave.
This becomes the catalyst for Gaia to begin questioning not only her role within society, but the ethical foundations of the Enclave as a whole, and the rest of the book follows Gaia’s efforts to enter the hallowed walls of the Enclave society, and her subsequent questioning of the way of live of these individuals–and of the Wharfton society in which she has grown up. And O’Brien does an admirable job of these. Awkwardly telegraphed plot coincidences and “just in time” rescues and escapes aside, just about every facet of this book is well done. O’Brien’s world distinctly recalls that of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women essentially become little more than wombs valued for their reproductive ability, and where the epitome of their existence is the birth of a healthy child.
O’Brien challenges the reader to assess the value the life of the individual over the value of a wider society, but doesn’t let things lie at this broader level of conception. We’re told of how the lack of genetic diversity within the Enclave is leading to a high prevalence of haemophilia within the Tvaltar, itself a commentary on both the eugenics-style approach of this society, and also on the way it has turned its back on science and technology, this latter perhaps in response to the human-induced global warming that has led to the current situation. The regression of this supposedly progressive society is chilling: despite creating an illusion of pomp and splendour, we’re shown a world that is not only technologically and scientifically backwards, but which is also hopelessly parochial in terms of both its politics and social norms. The “protectorate” ruler, for example, could be characterised as either a dictator or an absolute monarch, as his powers seem endless and unmitigated; similarly, the justice system has devolved into a “lynch ‘em all” style hysteria, with prisoners either hanged without trial, or imprisoned indefinitely in order to serve the needs of the state. And, of course, individuals are kept in order by the prevalence of security cameras–the fact that these are one of the few pieces of technology to have survived the past few hundred years is eerily indicative of the power of the state and its efforts to exert power and cow its citizens into submission.
Likewise, the lack of dissemination of knowledge is worrisome: the remaining scientific and medical knowledge of the world is kept amongst only a scant few, and this specialisation touches on those same issues raised by HG Wells’s The Time Machine, which I reviewed last week. Likewise, it’s hard not to consider Jules Vernes’ notion of the pursuit of science to the exclusion of all else, which is a key theme in Journey of the Centre of the Earth (see my review).
Perhaps the key underpinning idea of this book is whether the ends can ever justify the means, and given this emphasis, Birthmarked fits in well with books such as The Chrysalids (see my review), as O’Brien ponders relentless what it is that makes us human, and what it is that makes one human better (or more human) than another. As in The Chrysalids, Birthmarked‘s society is arbitrary in its decisions about what is genetically or evolutionarily “correct” (indeed our main character is horribly scarred–a fact that makes her “unfit”, despite it having nothing to do with her genetics) and the result is chilling, particularly when applied to our own historical context or those scientific dilemmas regarding genetic manipulation or genetic selection that have been on the horizon for a while now.
One facet of this novel that I have to applaud is O’Brien’s deft avoidance of the “noble savage” trope. While Gaia initially romanticises her world outside the wall as a sort of bucolic idyll filled with rosy-cheeked women and rustic delights, her conceptions become far more incisive as her worldview is necessarily expanded courtesy of her travels within Tvaltar. But similarly her perceptions of the world within the wall change, too: rather than seeing people as a sort of faceless collective–much as the Protectorate seems to–she begins to see people for the individuals that they are. Admittedly, it is unusual to read a dystopian novel narrated by someone who is so disturbingly uninformed, but given the stories we hear about those living within communities where propaganda and misinformation is the word of the day, well, it’s believable–albeit disturbing. Some readers may find this confusion and ambivalence frustrating, but this, combined with the contrasting narrative of semi love-interest Leon, makes for a thought-provoking read throughout.
Just as a final aside, I have to admit that I’m rather disappointed to hear that this book is the first part of a trilogy (or however many books). I thought that Birthmarked ended in a manner that was superb: in the manner of all of the golden-age classics I’ve referenced in this review it was open-ended enough to evoke myriad questions from the reader, and I’m a bit saddened to hear that those ambiguities will be resolved in future volumes. With luck, though, O’Brien will prove me wrong.(less)
In my recent review of Chris Priestley’s Mister Creecher I mused on how humanity and physicality are inextricably tied: no matter how transcendant one...moreIn my recent review of Chris Priestley’s Mister Creecher I mused on how humanity and physicality are inextricably tied: no matter how transcendant one aims to be intellectually, ethically, and spiritually, one’s humanity will always be judged, at the outset at least, by how well one meets the physical criteria of humanness. The idea is nothing new, and it’s one that’s been explored throughout literature, with those who are deformed or physically disabled subject to being shunned or isolated. In particular, it’s an idea that’s looked at in postapocalyptic fiction, and to a lesser extent dystopian fiction. Curiously, these deformities are always the result, whether directly or indirectly, of scientific advances: in this genre, such advances either seem to result in genetic manipulation or all-out warfare.
HG Wells, for example, warns against “godless” scientific tinkerings in The Island of Doctor Moreau (review) and The Invisible Man (review), while John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (review) looks at a postapocalyptic society in which deformities across the entire natural world have become the norm. And there are countless novels, ranging from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale through to more recent works such Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien (review), where systemic female sterility is the result of our intellectual foibles. It’s impossible not to see a moral dimension in these: there are echoes of The Scarlet Letter in both the Atwood and the O’Brien, and the disturbing renegotiation of the perception of women in society is starkly confronting. Similarly, Wyndham’s characters see physical deformity as a moral aberration, not sheer genetic ill-luck, and Wells spends a good deal of time examining the breakdown of humanity in the subjects of his books.
Pure, the highly anticipated dystopian release from Julianna Baggott, incorporates all of the above, with an all-encompassing approach to the genre that blends not only postapocalyptic elements but dystopian ones as well. Baggott’s world is one devastated by the “detonations”, a series of blasts designed, it seems, to wipe clean the slate of humanity in order that we can begin once more anew. A select group of “pures” is isolated within the controlled environment of a dome, while those who do not meet these criteria are left behind to fend for themselves in the desolation that follows. The parallels to World War II are palpable, with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki looming large in the shadow of the “detonations”, and the eugenics approach taken by those in power all too evident. (There is a weird irony, though, that the “pures” are ghettoed in the dome, with the rest of the world ostensibly, although admittedly more in theory than in reality, unfettered around them.)
This sense of history repeating brings to mind Walter M Miller’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, which occurs some several hundred years after the “flame deluge”. In Miller’s classic, genetically ravaged “misborns”, also known as the “Pope’s Children”, roam the earth, and anti-intellectualism is rife, with science and learning demonised as having facilitated the nuclear holocaust. Miller’s narrative approach is cyclical, with humanity slowly rebuilding its technological prowess only to become seduced by its power once more, and there are echoes of the same happening in Pure. Not only do we see parallels between WWII and the detonations, but also the ceaseless efforts of the pures towards self-improvement. Where the wretches left behind seem, at least superficially, to be doing little more than surviving, those within the dome are constantly self-experimenting, undertaking trials to improve themselves physically and intellectually. There are echoes of Wyndham here, with the drive for perfection or purity being linked to moral superiority. And indeed, like the Wyndham there are consequences of imperfection: whole crops, for example, are destroyed if they reveal any sort of abnormality that diverges from mainstream perfection.
But the issue with the pures’ efforts to regain supremacy is that their efforts require involved artificial adaptation. They strive to recreate the agriculture and livestock of old, yet are doing so by forcing these approaches on to a landscape that is utterly changed. Moreover, their own artificial adaptations are conducted with a view to eventually being able to survive in the outside world once it is again inhabitable, but yet they’re doing so without engaging at all with this world. In contrast, it’s the wretches on the outside who are best adapted for survival. Curiously, they’ve undergone adaptation of their own (some vague thing to do with nanotech that’s resulted in their becoming “fused” to whatever organic or inorganic matter was close to them at the time of the detonations), and despite their physical deformities, are doing a surprisingly decent job of surviving in what is little more than a wasteland.
The idea of these fusings recalls of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, in which criminals are “remade” and made monstrous through terrifying amputations and Frankensteinian additions, and where there exists a group of “fReemade”, escaped “remade” criminals. In Pure, as can no doubt be extrapolated from the not-so-subtle title, these physical deviations are a political statement of sorts, and are given overwhelming emphasis–but to, in my opinion, the detriment of the plot. Astonishing amounts of page space are given over to describing the endless horrific ways in which humans can be melded with cars, children’s toys, glass, animals and even other people. So much, in fact, that this almost become the point of the book. And though there’s a hazy sense of politicisation surrounding it all, Baggott is so vague on the political context that it’s all rather meaningless.
This is unfortunately true throughout the book: there’s an odd sense of Pure being less a story and more a setting: it’s almost as though the author uses her pen to pan across the landscape rather than to allow the reader to engage with it. Perhaps, of course, that’s the point–after all, the pures look out, “benevolently, from afar”, from their domed world, but are otherwise utterly disengaged from the reality of it all. But as a reader, it does become tiresome. It takes some several hundred pages for the plot to truly kick into gear, and when it does things become increasingly shaky. Baggott uses the affordances of anti-intellectualism and revisionism to glaze over the social and political circumstances behind the detonations, but where this approach works in novels such as 1984 or Brave New World (review), where there are solidly rendered socio-political contexts and where propaganda is carefully used to manipulative effect, in Pure it simply feels like handwavium: the characters are rendered ignorant so that any concrete information need not be imparted to the reader. Baggott does seem to make her own attempt at the Two Minutes’ Hate in that there are constant repetitions and recurring motifs: protagonist Pressia’s deformed hand is mentioned more times than I can count, and the word fused is an endless refrain. The intention seems to be one of desensitisation through repetition, but the result is a book that feels painfully tautological. The narrative voice, unfortunately, strikes with the same dullness as the endless repetition of “doll-head fist” and “fusing”: dirge-like sentences, soulless descriptions of destruction and despair, and a general wallowing hopelessness.
This repetition is true of the characters as well. Though the book switches between four points of view, two of which in my opinion are extraneous, the voice is unchanging throughout, which seems strange given that two of the point of view characters are uneducated “wretches”, while the others are hyper-privileged dome dwellers. I also found it curious that the two key “wretch” characters were only deformed in a minor way. Though those around them are scarred or changed almost beyond recognition–and often beyond function–Pressia sports a “moon-shaped” scar around one eye and a doll-head fist, while Bradwell has been fused with a flock of birds, leaving his back aflutter with wings. There’s a slightly canted sense of beauty to their deformities, and I find it interesting that the author chose two relatively unaffected characters to contrast with the “pures”.
Perhaps Pure‘s biggest strength is that it draws so strongly on much of the superb dystopian and postapocalyptic fiction that precedes it, making it a useful summation of a lengthy reading list. But as a novel in its own right, I’m afraid I feel that it doesn’t offer much that’s new–and in a genre that’s so oversaturated as this one, a book needs more than a beautifully rendered setting to truly stand out.
Frontier planet Hallholme has earned the moniker Hellhole due to its immensely inhospitable environment: static storms, myriad endemic illnesses, and poor agricultural prospects are just a few of the issues that its down-and-out inhabitants have to deal with. But Hellhole is, after all, a no man’s land that at its best is a dumping ground for the Empire’s unwanted, including General Tiber Adolphus, whose attempt at revolt against the Empire has seen him sent into lifelong exile. But Adolphus refuses to be put down: he has spent years slowly working to unite the numerous nearby independent planets in order to secede from the Empire once and for all. But the Empire, led by the ferocious Diadem Michella, has little intention of letting this happen.
I’ll come clean and admit right away that I’ve yet to read Dune, Frank Herbert’s space opera classic to which Hellhole apparently makes more than a passing nod, so you’ll have to excuse my ignorance here. Still, it doesn’t take more than a page or two of Hellhole to realise that Herbert isn’t the only influence here: this book departs from modern day progressive SF to wallow shamelessly in the golden space opera stuff of the mid twentieth century, and one can almost picture Asimov and his kind leaping up and down and exclaiming, “me too, me too!” Unfortunately, Hellhole suffers from many of the issues that plague its ancestors, and lacks the endearing factor that made those earlier books readable despite their shortcomings.
Perhaps the biggest fault of this novel is that it’s so determinedly epic. Everything about it has a tone of vastness, of hugeness, of verbosity. The cast of characters is George RR Martin-esque, and the setting essentially British colonialism but with bonus space travel. However, while the novel’s breadth may be impressive to some–there’s a clear notion of a huge narrative sandbox in which to play–this breadth results in a significant lack of depth. We’re given a number of hastily sketched worlds with which we must become accustomed, and all of them in the midst of political tumult. In addition, we’re made to contend with the various sources of alienation and disenchantment touched upon throughout the novel: these range from civil war to invasion to alien forces to usurpation. While each of these is an admirable and intriguing theme in its own right, there’s so much going on here that the reader is given little more than a cursory description of what’s going on.
Another issue, to me at least, is the political machinations that are the focus of this book. We’re given a political system that’s straight out of feudal times, with noble families and Lairds and Ladies galore, and one that’s crumbling under its own decadence. While I know that space opera is typically old-fashioned and conservative in nature, I always find the notion of aristocratic society reclaiming dominance over meritocratic systems rather tough to believe. And particularly when the politicians in this book seem to be more focused on sex scandals than anything else.
On that topic, I can’t help but note that I found the depiction of relationships, marriages, and power balances rather an issue in this novel. We’ve reverted to times where individuals (namely women) are married off into politically notable families, and the whole thing smacks of a destructive John Howard-esque nostalgia for white picket fences and apron-clad homemakers. In addition, the way in which women are depicted in this novel is an issue, too. While we’re given a female figurehead in Michella, she’s depicted as a power-hungry ingenue (indeed I imagine her as evil Mom from Futurama–incidentally, while we’re at it, I also envisage the unpleasantly named Adolphus as Adama from Battlestar Galactica), and any other notionally “powerful” women are in such a position due to the fact that they’ve clawed their way back from the brink after suffering at the hands of men. One woman, Michella’s daughter, is on the run after her extramarital affair with a nobleman is discovered; Tiber’s lover Sophie is recovering from the slights of her ex-husband; and young Antonia is on the run from a misogynist who, incidentally returns to rape her. The fact that each of the key female character has been cowed for sexual reasons while their male equivalents are on the run due to political or occupational reasons is something that is hard to ignore.
In addition to all of this messiness, we’re suddenly forced to contend with a subplot about a group of aliens ostensibly seeking their own version of the rapture. It’s a plot device that involves X-Files-esque slimy black pools and Bodysnatchers-like possessions, and it’s one that seems to randomly fall from space and land in chapter 50 (or whichever chapter it is–I don’t have the book handy), leading to a bit of bemusement on the behalf of the reader. While I’d let this sort of narrative zaniness go in an episode of Stargate or even an old issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, this sort of stuff doesn’t really have much of a place outside of serialised fiction. (And while we’re on the theme of serialised fiction, I should point out that Hellhole ends, after 500 or so pages, on a cliffhanger.)
While the various bits and pieces of this plot are interesting enough in their own right, it’s hard work for the hapless reader, and the poor characterisation that’s one of the major shortcomings of this novel doesn’t help matters. Characters are drawn with wide, scant brushstrokes, and we’re never really given enough time with each character to truly get inside their heads. It’s a shame, as the worldbuilding is there, and with a more thorough approach to characterisation, this book could have been a good deal stronger.
While ardent lovers of golden age sci fi may revel in the back-to-basics feel of Hellhole, I can’t help but feel that it’s time these old-school authors took a page or two out of the literary oeuvre of some of today’s up-and-coming authors. Great sci fi can be world-changing stuff, but this, I’m afraid, isn’t.(less)
Some of you might be aware that the title of Aldous Huxley’s famous novel Brave New World is taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I would imagine, though, that there are a good many who might not be. While there are likely all manner of reasons for not knowing this piece of trivia, two significant ones come to mind, one of which is rather Orwellian in provenance, and the other of which is Huxleyan. If you’re in the first group, you’ve likely not come across The Tempest due to its having been censoriously ripped from the shelves and, what’s more, you’ll likely not endeavour to obtain a copy due to a very real fear induced by the omnipresent state that wields its terrible, clutching power over you. If you’re in the second group, you’ve likely not come across The Tempest due to the fact that it’s, well, all but irrelevant to you. Why should you spend hours muddling through thick Shakespearean prose when you can delightedly while away your evenings in front of the television or engaging in some other equally undemanding form of entertainment?
Why indeed, you’re probably wondering, as you flick between this review, some hilarious pictures of lolcatz and the latest gem on Youtube’s homepage. Well, you might be interested to know that if you take pleasure in zoning out in the evenings, avoid engaging in challenging debates, get your news in hashtag-heavy bursts via Twitter, and are perfectly happy as a result, then this rather rousing Shakespearean quote might bear more relevance to your life than you might think: congratulations, you’re living the Huxleyan dream. (Or nightmare, as the case may well be.)
Written as a scathingly satirical response to the gleamingly utopian visions of authors such as HG Wells and other futurist peers, Brave New World is often compared with seminal works by George Orwell (1984) and Soviet writer Yevginii Zamiatin (We), but stands apart from these works due in part to its somewhat peculiar approach to the dystopian genre. While many of the classic dystopian novels bring to mind cruel, oppressive governments beneath which the populace, usually ground down under the exigencies of scarcity and poverty, labours ceaselessly towards fruitless, meaningless ends, Huxley takes a slightly difference stance, positioning his dystopia in a curious, although no less perturbing manner. The citizens of Brave New World lead an existence of unfettered hedonism, are for the most part are quite happy with their lot in life–ignorance, after all, is bliss. But it’s what Huxley’s characters that have lost in return for this life of simple lassitude that turns his book from utopian idyll to chilling dystopia: their capacity for creativity, for emotion, for competition, for love.
Speculative fiction is famously less about the future and more about the present, and Huxley’s world is one in which the fears of the early twentieth century are boldly manifest: the loss of identity and personal and social depth as a result of the mechanisation of daily life and the incessant drive for greater and greater consumption; the rise of sexual promiscuity and its impact on self and the family; and the pervasive, colonising force of American culture. The remodelling of society on the production-line processes of the Model T-Ford, as well as the deference given to Henry Ford himself (‘O Ford,’ the citizens of Huxley’s world wail, whilst making the sign of the T), is at once indicative of the rise of Americanism and the increasingly fast-paced life of modernity, where the individual is subsumed. Huxley takes this critique beyond its natural extension, leaping occasionally from satire into parody: it’s telling that society’s mind-numbing drug of choice is in the form of chewing gum, something unabashedly American, and the ubiquity of zips (or ‘zippers’, as they’re known to Americans) on every imaginable piece of clothing embodies both the crassness of function over form, as well as the loss of subtler intimacies and mood. (Also of note is the rather meaningful use of political and brand-name monikers, which brings to mind Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, which similarly includes such head-shaking names as Telegraph Telegraphovich but I digress…)
But little of this is problematic to those inured into this brave new world, as careful conditioning has resulted in a social stability that is near perfect. Careful monitoring of birth and death rates has ensured that no citizen wants for anything (a point emphasised by the ubiquity of contraceptives known rather hilariously as Malthusian belts, referring to, of course, the notion of a Malthusian disaster, in which population growth outpaces agricultural provision), and social engineering is used to ensure that each citizen is allotted a role that is matched perfectly with their physical and cognitive capabilities, ameliorating issues of competition or unmet desire. Each plays a fragmented part within the Fordian production line, learning the appropriate skills and capabilities, but nothing beyond what is required. Not only is desire for competition and social mobility slowly ground away, but potential triggers for jealousy and possession are, too: citizens are no longer born, but are created, and any problematic emotions that might have arisen as the result of romantic intent are wiped away through careful conditioning that emphasises promiscuity and sexual abandon.
But despite the society’s best efforts, its social conditioning is not unassailable, and it’s in the upper echelons that querulous and schismatic thoughts begin to breed. Bernard is an ‘alpha’ by caste and a psychologist by trade, and is one of those in charge of the subliminal feeds that are delivered nightly to his fellow citizens. However, being who he is, he is afforded somewhat more individual and intellectual freedom than those from other groups or professions might be, and as a result begins to develop a seething cynicism about the society in which he lives. This disaffection, this disenchantment, only grows when he takes would-be lover Lenina to an American Indian settlement to observe how the ‘uncivilised’ live, and is astonished to observe the chasm between their two worlds: the integrated, contextualised learning of those on the estate when compared with the compartmentalised, isolated understandings of his own; the value placed upon mending and repairing clothing and small household items when compared with the throwaway, consumption-oriented processes of the ‘civilised’ world; the disturbing emphasis on family, on story, on the past and how it can be learnt from, all of which are in stark contrast to the in-the-moment shallow hedonism of Fordian life. This juxtaposition, however, is even more firmly realised when Bernard brings home with him a young boy, ‘The Savage’, who is revealed to be the illicitly born child of Bernard’s employer, and thus is seen as in a unique position to bridge the two seemingly irreconcilable worlds.
The Savage’s education and learning on the estate is counterposed with that of his mother’s: primitive though his lessons may seem, we understand that there is a depth and a continuity to them that is missing from his mother’s lock-step understanding of the world. The Savage’s love for literature, and in particular Shakespeare, is contrasted with the ‘feelies’ with which the members of Fordian society superficially occupy themselves, and his stunningly felt and often unbridled emotions are set against the soporific habits of the others. This point is acutely drawn when the Savage’s mother begs to be returned to Fordian society so that she might spend her days in a state of drug-induced bliss, free from the challenges of emotion and the uncertainties of the unstructured estate life. The Savage is distraught at the loss of his mother–a situation that is not usually an issue in Fordian society due to its lack of emphasis on family and its pragmatic approach to death–and grows increasingly alienated by what he sees as a shallow and immoral world that is entirely lacking in the humanist values he so desperately longs for. The consequences of his struggle stretch out painfully, until he flees from Fordian life in an effort to eke out an existence more closely aligned with his own beliefs. But the reach of society is all but absolute, and despite his efforts to remain separate, to remain an individual, he eventually succumbs to its desultory ways, losing himself in devastating totality.
Brave New World is a stunning poignant scenario, which I feel is rather a more apt way to describe it than a narrative. The book is less a novel than it is a careful portrait of a world-that-might-be, and despite its astonishingly perceptive and insightful critique of a society that rather eerily mirrors that of present-day western society, it does fall rather flat as a story. As a series of separate, staged scenes, the book is competently written, but as a whole, it’s uneven and unfocused: the first two chapters are dedicated overtly to setting the scene, whilst a third employs a fractured narrative approach that though intriguing is out of place against the more traditional style of the rest of the book. The Savage, who is as close as any character becomes to the protagonist, is not introduced until rather late in the book, and the reader has to do an about face to realise that the book is less about Bernard than it is about this new character. The Savage himself is a rather hasty construction, and the scenes in which he appears often feel rather laborious and blatant, and struggle under the weight of the carefully elucidated dual perspectives with which we’re provided. I struggled to accept particular plot elements, such as the fact that Bernard is allowed for so long to so openly critique the system before being sanctioned, and Lenina’s rather confused role as a conflicted sexual object. While the final scene is undoubtedly moving, I can’t help but feel that the media in a society such as this would not act in the way that is described here–one would think that given issues of taboo, they would blushingly retreat and speak nothing more of it. (And indeed, would there be much of a news media at all, given the all-consuming emphasis on presentism and infantalism?)
While Brave New World deserves its place amongst canonical dystopian literature, it does feel less of a narrative, a story, and more of a broadly sketched scenario. Though it makes a nice counterpoint to works such as 1984, as a novel, it’s unfortunately not as successful as the other classics with which it’s frequently compared.(less)
With its Katniss-lookalike cover illustration (Aus edition), stark black and red cover scheme, and Hunger Games-reminiscent font, you could be forgiven for mistaking Lisa M Stasse’s The Forsaken for fan fiction. But never fear, if you didn’t make the connection, the ”if you love The Hunger Games read this!“ blurb on the back will drive home the point for you.
This is not a book that’s big on subtlety. Nor, while we’re at it, originality. Or execution.
If you’re the type who can extrapolate where this review is going based on the previous paragraph, you might as well stop there, because I highly doubt you’ll get much out of this book. If you’re the type who needs to be spoon-fed (or enjoys rubbernecking at car crashes), well, stick around for a bit.
I don’t enjoy writing negative book reviews. Slamming a book isn’t helpful for an author, and it makes me look like a mean and nasty purveyor of schadenfreude. I’m not, or at least not all the time. Mostly I’m just horribly cynical, which is an entire rung down on the Ladder of Reviewery Sadism (patent pending).
Anyway, in my review of SE Hinton’s wonderful Outsiders I commented on my increasing frustration with the YA genre for its emphasis on big hooks and marketability over quality of storytelling. Curiously, although there’s all this stuff being written about not writing down to readers at the prose level, this advice is apparently being utterly ignored at a larger conceptual level.
I can’t think of anything more patronising than creating a Frankenstein’s monster novel out of the various popular tropes of today and then packaging it so that it looks like the twin of a long-time bestseller. And let’s just say that The Forsaken reads as though it was constructed based on the advice of Amazon’s recommendation engine. It’s a creaky and lumbering mix of 1984, Minority Report, The Hunger Games, Delirium, Feed, The War of the Worlds and Lord of the Flies, and having touched eyes on this monster, I can see exactly why Dr Frankenstein freaked out after first beholding his own wonky attempt at creation.
There are so many tropes and cliches jammed into The Forsaken that reading it is almost like watching one of those Guinness World Record attempts to squish as many people into a Volkswagon Beetle as possible. Can we really have Big Brother, mind-feed implants, systemic testing for social deformities, the exiling of children to an island in the middle of nowhere, feral villages on said island, a cult leader, government medical trialling, martial arts, fights to the death, an exiled political leader, a frozen wasteland world, tripod-like flying machines, an abandoned scientific facility, cryogenic freezing and a hidden civilisation in Australia all in one book? Why yes, yes, apparently we can. But as my mum likes to say (usually, admittedly, talking about people wearing ill-fitting clothing rather than about literature), just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This isn’t a novel. This is 422 pages worth of a brainstorm session.
From its very opening pages, which involve an Orwellian “they came in the night” prologue, right the way through to its predictable cliffhangerish this-is-just-the-beginning ending, the book feels as though about to collapse in on itself at any moment. The world building is hazy and unfocused, even for a so-called “dystopian” YA (and let’s face it, in this genre a “just ’cause” explanation for whatever bizarre social/political machinations are at play usually seems to pass muster). So much so that unless you’re reading this in outer space–and thus in zero gravity–you’ll find it impossible to suspend your disbelief. None of this book makes sense. Not an iota of it. Just why would people submit to living in a world like this? How are they too stupid to know what’s going on? Why is it always a teenager who is the only one who can overthrow an Evil All-Pervasive Government? How is said Evil All-Pervasive Government apparently unaware of all this seditious stuff going on?
And then, my goodness, the sheer gratuitousness of the plot. A girl, who though remembering her parents being taken away in the night by Evil Government, has no idea why on earth she might have been picked as a possible future dissenter and thus shipped off to Lord of the Flies Island where she suddenly becomes a Helen of Troy-esque beauty capable of manipulating boys’ hearts just as easily as she can suddenly manipulate a bow and arrow. Who subsequently finds herself in faux fights to the death, looking in on some bizarre sex cult, in the middle of a love triangle (she prevails, of course, and it’s lurve), trekking across Antarctic-style wastelands and unearthing evil government conspiracies while outing masked cult leaders and avoiding World of the Worlds-style tripods. Some might call this Mary Sueism to the extreme, but who on earth would really attempt to insert themselves in this sort of kitchen sink construction?
All of the ridiculousness might be palatable if only it were interesting, but it’s not. This book drags like one of the aforementioned tripods might if it had lost a tentacle and was forced to stumble along bipedally. The writing is flat, insipid, and ugly. And then, the final insult, after 422 pages of this muddled mess: it’s the first in a trilogy. Like this series, I could go on, but instead I’ll spare you.(less)
Looking back over a series of events, it’s possible to make out the numerous junctures at which some other outcome might have eventuated but for some particular choice, some twist of fate. The more one considers these what ifs, veering off in one direction or slipping off into another, the easier it is to see these possibilities spread out, tree-like, into a tangle of possible pasts or possible futures. But while our lived reality necessarily extends through only one branch of this tree, there’s always that eerie, niggling feeling that things could very easily be very different—and in fact, may well be. This slippery notion of reality and experience, and the truth of each, is something with which noted speculative fiction author Philip K Dick has explored in a number of his books, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and a good deal of his shorter work.
It is an idea that Dick also examines in perhaps his most critically acclaimed and most literary work, The Man in the High Castle. The novel depicts an alternate future in which the Allies have lost the World War, leading to a divided America whose eastern states are controlled by the Germans, and the west by Japan, with the Rocky Mountain states dividing the two acting semi-autonomously and playing the role of a buffer zone. It’s perhaps a relief that Dick chooses not to subject us to a microscopic examination of life under Nazi rule: rather, he focuses instead on life under the Japanese occupiers, who are painted as considerably more benign. Dick, in an approach that is consistent with much of his other work, provides us with a plethora of seemingly unrelated characters who are linked in strange and uncertain ways, requiring the reader to piece together the pertinent points of life under the new order through these wildly varied viewpoints. This approach, though, does leave things somewhat nebulous and illusory, with much of the reality of life only hinted at: so much lies tantalisingly out of reach, the big answers being beyond the scope of a narrow third person perspective. But it is this almost inchoate, almost surreal feeling that lends the book much of its strength, hinting as it does at a way of life that is still working itself out, that is still somewhere between the turning point of the old and the new.
Indeed the book fixates on such turning points, and it is at a turning point that each character is introduced. Childan, a dealer of kitsch Americana popular amongst the Japanese, is called upon by the high-ranking Japanese official Tagomi to produce an item for a visiting guest; Mr Baynes, a supposed Swedish businessman, is travelling to America in order to meet with Tagomi and his superiors; Frank Frink, ne Fink, a Jewish man living under false pretenses begins a jewellery making venture designed to highlight the American ability to create rather than just to replicate; and Julia Frink, Frank’s ex-wife, meets an Italian man who persuades her to travel across the country in search of the author of a well-known subversive book known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Their narratives are woven together beautifully, with characters seemingly at opposite ends of a narrative thread coming together through a series of events that are both unlikely and likely. There is almost a freeze frame-like sense to the plot, which frequently pauses before turning off to explore another juncture, another possibility. In fact, these narrative plot points are often explicitly highlighted by the characters’ use of the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, a sort of mystical oracle, to guide their actions. What is particularly intriguing about this is Dick’s admission to having himself used the I Ching to determine the progression of the narrative.
The I Ching is used throughout the novel in part to emphasise the ability of the spiritual to live on within an otherwise structured world, but also to highlight the way in which our choices, our agency, are perhaps not within our grasp at all, but rather are the result of some sort of external fatalistic force. Reality seems to happen to us: our experiences are reactive, passive, shaped by external forces over which we have little control. But if this is the case, then are they real, are they true? Indeed, Dick toys with this notion throughout the book, stretching it to apply not only to plot and narrative, but also to characters, and to the otherwise mundane. He incessantly juxtaposes the false and the real, at times applying both attributes to a single item: the cigarette lighter that is imbued with historicity by its owner, but that is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from a replica. There is also the ‘fake gun’, the replica that still functions as a gun otherwise should. Childan’s antiques, similarly, are the genuine article to those who believe them to be such, but can be transformed entirely by the intimation that this may not be the case. The book is full of true fakes and fake truths. Each of the characters seems at once both real and false: Childan, with his deferential dealings with the Japanese, has in fact internalised a good deal of the wartime racist propaganda; neither Baynes nor the man with whom Julia Frank travels is who either purports to be; and Tagomi, it turns out, is the Buddhist capable of killing.
Perhaps the most overt device used to examine the issue of the true versus the false is the novel within the novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which plays a strange sort of meta role, depicting as it does an alternative history to this alternative history: one in which the Allies have won the war. But again, the issue of what is true is further problematised: the world depicted in the book is not that of our own; it is not a mirror to our world. Rather, while there are recognisable elements of our reality, there are key points throughout The Grasshopper Lies Heavy where a juncture has been reached and fate has taken up one of the many possibilities available. When it is revealed that the I Ching, the oracle used by so many of the characters to guide their decisions, has been consulted in plotting The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, we are met with the implication that in another world, another equally real world, but one that has simply broken away at one of the many possibly junctures, the Axis was not victorious. This thought is at once comforting and terrible: the possibility of a life not under Nazi rule is indeed possible, and indeed real, but at the same time, it is not the lived reality of any of those within The Man in the High Castle, who despite their knowledge of this other truth, this other reality, are at the same time forced to continue along the path mapped out for them. This is further highlighted in a scene where Tagomi momentarily stumbles upon yet another illusory reality, one that is our own, when examining an item of jewellery and assessing it for its inner truth, but is abruptly thrown back into his own reality.
It’s interesting that Dick does not allow his characters to use this ambiguity of truth/reality/fate as some sort of excuse to absolve themselves of poor actions. Rather his characters at each juncture act with strength and integrity, responding in a way that is true to their own sense of self and that helps resolve the complex internal conflict each is experiencing. Childan, for example, who has suddenly gained a sense of self-efficacy and pride in his American status after being presented with the stunning jewellery made by Frank, refuses to bow to commercial interests that would see these exquisite items mass-produced and devalued–despite the potential wealth it could bring to him. Julia, similarly, having determined the true identity of her companion, tries to avert a bloody outcome, while Tagomi ensures that Frank is treated with mercy when he is taken in by the Nazi authorities.
There’s no denying that this is a challenging work, and I think it’s one that will likely only give up all it has to offer upon subsequent reads. There are so many themes, so many contested binaries, touched upon here, and many in subtle ways that require teasing out. On a prose level it’s uneven, although less so than much of Dick’s other work, and the plot is surprisingly grounded and traditional when compared with the other novels of his with which I’m familiar. However, the way in which Dick quietly, deftly sketches out this new world(s) and what it means to live within it is quite remarkable. Still, some readers may struggle with the ending, which is open and ambiguous, and which serves to undermine much of the previous narrative. That said, this is probably one of Dick’s more accessible works, and given its subject matter and his treatment of it, I’m not surprised that this novel has stood up so well these past fifty or so odd years.(less)
Fahrenheit 451 is set in a world that seems to gust and spin by, a fast-forwarded whirlwind...moreThis review originally appeared on readinasinglesitting.com
Fahrenheit 451 is set in a world that seems to gust and spin by, a fast-forwarded whirlwind where people are able to engage with their lives in only the most superficial manner, increasingly lost amongst the self-perpetuating triumvirate of mass entertainment, of simple, infantile emotion, of black and white binaries. In a world that encourages its inhabitants to abandon themselves to the freedoms found in moving quickly, in acting and speaking uninhibited by the prospect of being challenged, in being removed from the pain and heartbreak of close and complex relationships. Much like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world in which the why is deemphasised in preference of the how, where the pragmatic trumps the conceptual. It is a world where emotions and depth of thought are equated with unhappiness, with a pained, desultory existence, and so anything that may trigger engagement with such things are gradually elided from the public consciousness, whether overtly or in a covert way. For example, although war looms large on the horizon it, like so many other threats, is ignored, skipped over, lost to the static fuzz of televisions turned to vacuous talk-shows so lacking in content that they serve less as entertainment and more as a distraction. The ills associated with intellectual engagement and rigour, however, are also dealt with in a more blatant manner: the frequent burning of books by clusters of firemen, whose sole job is to seek out these heretical representations of an erstwhile miserable and inwardly oriented culture and destroy them in what is a sort of intellectual and emotional cleansing.
Montag is one of these firemen, and it is in this ritual burning that he takes his sole pleasure: it is through this act of destruction that he seems to draw some sort of existential meaning. There is, after all, none of the same to be gained through an act of creation, which has in Bradbury’s fragmented, industrialised society been reduced to simplistic step-by-step Ikea-like approaches of construction. But Montag’s perspective is suddenly challenged when his young neighbour Clarisse asks him whether he is truly happy. Montag is suddenly thrown into a self-destructive cycle of introspection—something for which he is not prepared, nor has the skills to be able to manage in a constructive manner—and his conception of his world and purpose slowly begins to crumble around him. A dangerous, deleterious thought begins to needle: could there be something more?
As Montag begins to survey the sad, strange geography of his life and the fractured society of which he is—albeit nominally—a part, he becomes increasingly aware of the ersatz veneer of happiness that shields a deeper fear, a deeper alienation affecting those around him. Society shies from the trauma of intellectual engagement, fearful of the clashes and discordance it may create, of the way in which it may reveal its deep flaws and truths. But at the same time, the intellectual and emotional shallowness required by such a perspective has resulted in a complete absence of the social. Children, for example, are born to those acting out only out of a sense of duty or vague amusement, and are subsequently then sent off to be mechanically reared; marriages are little more than formal contracts, their throwaway nature highlighted in a rather chilling scene where a friend of Montag’s wife, blithely reflects on her numerous failed marriages. It is inevitable then, that Montag begin to deconstruct his own empty marriage, where almost all communication is mediated by the wall-sized televisions encircling the lounge area. Montag’s wife, indeed, is presented as less a person than an empty, passionless shell: she pleads with him for an extra screen on the remaining wall of their living area so that she might be surrounded by her ‘family’, the presenters and performers in the shows she spends her days watching. Her obsession with being surrounded by these programs highlights her desperation for closeness, to be a part of something, but she lacks the ability to comprehend the depths of her loneliness, or to do anything to mitigate it. Her despair is such that she makes an attempt at suicide, yet is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to remember it after the fact, as doing so would require some degree of self-investigation, of which she is entirely incapable. The irretrievably lost nature of her mind and soul is cast into stark light when after a blood transfusion, a symbolic intervention that should result in some sort of phoenix-like transformation, she remains unchanged, hiding her woes beneath mindless entertainment.
For Montag, however, things come to a head when he is called to burn the house of a woman accused of hoarding a library of books and the owner, rather than giving herself over to the firemen, chooses instead to be immolated with her beloved collection. For without books, and the knowledge, depth, and creativity they inspire, what point is there? Montag, already conflicted, finds himself lured by the verboten books and what they represent: a freedom of sorts, but a different kind of freedom from that to which the rest of the world so aspires. It is a tormented Montag that returns home that night: hidden on his person is a forbidden tome, an item that to be appreciated requires him to cast off the traditions and norms to which he has been inured. The situation becomes worse, however, when Montag’s superior, Beatty, circuitously notes that he is aware of Montag’s transgression, but that all will be forgiven if Montag returns the book within the day. Beatty’s presence within the book is a terrifying one: he is astonishingly well-read, able to quote all manner of canon verbatim, but is perhaps the most vehement of the firemen when it comes to their destruction. Indeed, his description of books as being ‘treacherous weapons’ is an intriguing one–particularly when considered in light of the end of the book, where Montag’s desperate escape sees him come across a small community of learned individuals, each of whom has memorised a book, thus in a way becoming it and all that it represents. With this in mind, then, Beatty’s role as antagonist becomes more complex: although he comes across as a bibliophile torn by self-loathing and seeking some sort of reconciliation through his destruction of the books, he lives to some degree the type of life that these soi-disant ‘living books’ lead. After all, they too burn their books after having read them, arguing that the book as artefact is meaningless, but that it is what is contained within its pages that is imbued with such meaning. But still, it is not necessarily the bookishness (pardon the pun) of each individual within this group that is of the greatest importance: rather it is their shared commitment towards a common purpose, a common goal that seems most evident. There is a sense of community that despite the physical and experiential distance between them exists amongst these disparate souls, and it is one that is in painfully stark contrast to the nominal relationships we see sketched between the other characters in the book.
Some have described the ending of Fahrenheit 451 as not fitting the dystopian mould given that it allows for a sense of hope, implying that humanity will arise as a sort of phoenix from the (literal) ashes. But to me it’s quite a compelling, challenging ending. Save for our few bookish survivors, we’re told, humanity is destroyed by the war it preferred not to see coming: it’s perhaps a rather poignant illustration of the old adage ‘art is long; life short’. But it’s difficult to reconcile the massive loss of human life with the new beginning we’re told may come about. Moreover, it’s difficult to feel entirely on the side of the ‘living books’, perhaps because of the passive, defeatist way that they have approached their rebellion: there is a sense of the cruelness of fate here, and one can’t help but wonder whether anything new or important really will emerge from what remains. It’s at once a phyrric victory and an empty one: not only did the bookish people fail to actually bring about any sort of meaningful change of their own accord, but their evasive actions meant that they avoided any sort of intervention that might have resulted in a dramatically different outcome had they attempted to use their knowledge and awareness to warn their fellow citizens of the reality of war. There’s a fatalism here, a lack of agency, that sits rather uncomfortably, and I think serves as one of the many warnings promulgated by this chilling book. Fahrenheit 451 is less about censorship and more about the dangerous of ignorance, alienation, and fear.(less)
My recent foray into the oeuvre of Jules Verne has been enlightening in a number of ways. I’ve learned how it’s possible to write multiple books using a cast that varies between books only by name, and how it’s possible to arrange for said character to escape whatever end-of-the-world situation in which they find themselves by manipulating the Earth itself into a rather impressive series of contortions and natural phenomena. Houdini would be proud.
But in The Mysterious Island, Verne outdoes himself. In fact, I do believe that in it he’s written the world’s first strategy game, but on paper. Not only that, but he’s cleverly tied it in to his previous work in such a way that I can only imagine the royalties that must have ensued. Good for you, Monsieur Verne.