The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950)

Dying EarthDescribed primarily as a fantasy, I wondered if Jack Vance’s 1950 curio The Dying Earth might find a place in this history of science fiction. After all, it is set way into Earth’s future as the planet is dying. It also occurred to me that it might be resonant to the third of Arthur C Clarke’s ‘law’: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That first appeared in 1973, so I wondered if this was, perhaps, an inspiration.

I read The Dying Earth as part of the Fantasy Masterworks collection Tales of the Dying Earth published by Gollancz in 2002.

I say curio because I was more than surprised to realise that The Dying Earth isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of loosely interconnected short stories all set in the far future where magic is real and humanity has fractured. Everyone knows that earth is on its last legs, and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of technology. Indeed, wizards and demons are the primary focus of life. Earth has moved on beyond anything recognisable, with a collection of weird and exotic creatures, and varieties of humanoid species.

There are 6 stories in the book. Some mention characters or locations from other stories, but other than that, they don’t really link in theme (maybe the search for lost knowledge at a push) or purpose; only setting. There is a vastly reduced population. Wizards are the predominant power, and are the only ones who understand magic (although maybe not its origins). Women appear mostly subservient to men. There are ruins of long lost civilisations. Magic is carried out in a very traditional method; practitioners memorise and recant long and complex spells, and use objects or relics for protection. There is a suggestion that magic originated in maths and sciences long forgotten.

Each story is mostly a disappointing adventure romp. Mizirian is a greedy wizard seeking more power. He desires to create artificial life in a vat, but lacks the skills or smarts to do so. Turjan also wants to create life and ventures to another realm to learn how. He is also the guardian of the books which contain the 100 spells which remain in human knowledge. Guyal is seeking a ‘Museum of Man’. He hopes to find all is answers from someone known as the Curator, an apparent font of all knowledge. Ulan is a young trainee wizard who wants to find ancient tablets containing lost knowledge. Liane is vain adventurer, seeking out women, who embarks on a mission to steal a tapestry from a witch. T’sais is an artificial woman created by Pandelume, but she can only see evil and ugliness in everything. She has a sister who is the perfect woman.

In each story, stuff happens for no apparent reason. For example, in Guyal’s tale, he meets a woman and an old man, and there is some weird interaction with music – the woman tries to get him to play the man’s instrument. But then the story swiftly moves on with almost no comment or effect on Guyal. There is some mention of technology of former times, but again, this is more about lost knowledge. Ulan comes across a ‘magic car’ but no-one knows how it works.

While in this future, women appear to be subservient to men, there are some female characters with agency. Other than T’sais (although of course she was created by a man), there is Lith in Liane’s story. She refuses to serve Liane when he demands it. So maybe Vance is showing some progressive political thought for the time?

There is no indication of the history of Earth; how we get to Vance’s future from our present. It makes me wonder why he set it on Earth at all. The fact that the planet is dying only gets a few passing mentions (and maybe an indication that the majority of humans left for other worlds eons ago). It certainly isn’t a primary concern of the inhabitants of these stories. If Vance had written these stories without referring to Earth at all, but on an unnamed dying planet, this would never have come under the science fiction radar for me.

There are hints and nods that magic and technology are linked but these ideas aren’t explored in full. Magic is magic, I think, not advanced technology. The lack of through-narrative and no real depth of meaning in the collection as a whole meant that I found it difficult to engage. However, Vance’s writing is full of interesting and imaginative diversions. Which seems to be the best thing to say about The Dying Earth. His use of fantasy language is full on, and the world he has built is complex and seems to have an internal logic. But I just don’t think it hits any science fiction notes. Hints and allusions are not sufficient for me, and I’m just not a fan of empty fantasy stories of wizards and thieves.

On reading Terry Pratchett: Mort

MortThere are some things in my life I thought I’d not get around to doing. Mostly cos I’m an obstreperous git. I have no intention of ever watching Back to the Future pt2 and pt3. Which is weird I know. The original Back to the Future is such a perfect gem I’m scared to watch the sequels. And I don’t like westerns…

I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, mostly because of the hype surrounding them, but mainly because all the non-fantasy fans constantly reading them on the tube in London in the 1990s. I’m reminded of going to see David Cronenburg’s film Crash and overhearing some over-privileged type claiming that they hated Science Fiction. Sheesh. I’m sure they’re perfectly fine fantasy novels, but I really like Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic. Glasses…owl…boy wizard…just saying! And I have read Good Omens too, but I never thought I’d read a Terry Pratchett novel. Mostly because of this:

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I mean, look at those books he’s written!

But then Pratchett revealed he had Alzheimer’s and I read some interviews and learned a little of his politics and people saying we should all be more like Terry. Which I agreed with, broadly. Then he died and there was documentaries and thought-pieces to read and some welling up and after conversations with interested parties I decided I should have Pratchett a chance. Not that I intend to read all of his work, but some and I decided, after some consultation, to begin with Mort, the fourth novel published (in 1987) and the first in the Death series.

The plot of Mort isn’t particularly ground-breaking and most will know of it anyway. In a nutshell, Mort is taken as an apprentice by Death who wants a bit of a break. Death has an adopted daughter, Ysabell, and a man-servant type, Albert. This all takes place on Pratchett’s famed Discworld of course. Mort learns some of the ropes but when he gets to go out on his own, he decides not to take soul of Princess Keli but instead kills Keli’s would-be assassin. However, the universe isn’t too pleased with Mort and people start to forget the Princess. Mort has, in effect, created an alternative reality – the multiverse theory if you will – where Keli lives, but is being overridden by the original version, eventually killing Keli. Meanwhile, Death is experiencing life. Until he finds out what is going on with Mort. Some hi-jinks and some discovery follow, in which we learn the true nature of Albert and some of Ysabell’s emotions. It culminates in a duel between Mort and Death, a conflab with some gods and some happy ever afters.

What did I expect? I thought it would be a familiar romp with some cutting insight into society. Comic novels are rare. Good ones rarer still. Genre-wise, I’ve read all of Douglas Adams oeuvre many times over, most of the early work of Robert Rankin (and some of the later), all of Jasper Fforde and the occasional random Tom Holt. Which I’ve enjoyed to varying degrees. So I did get the familiarity – the running gags, the knowing one-liners, anachronistic or out-of-context metaphors and of course the winks and conversations with the reader. Even footnotes. Love a bit of metafiction, me. What I also got was a fun (but not laugh-out-loud) fantasy genre romp. What I would call the perfect morning train read. Not too taxing to quickly get into at 7.15 on a Tuesday morning, and that means I’m the only commuter smiling.

The things about the novel I liked the most wasn’t the characters, although they were fun, and Death of course being the funnest, and it wasn’t the plot. The descriptions of Discworld and how it works comes close. But… It was the sentences combined with Pratchett’s wonderfully crafted wordplay that I enjoyed the most. A perfect random example:

“It was a heavy sound, a dull sound, a sound that poured like sullen custard over a bright roly-poly pudding of the soul.”

What I didn’t get was anything particularly deep, cutting or insightful. I wonder if this might come in the later novels? I did enjoy reading Mort but that’s as far as it goes. I don’t think I’m gonna be a huge Pratchett fan but I will read more on occasion, especially these gorgeous hardback editions. Nice things to have. So, which of Pratchett’s novels should I read next?

The end of my Winter of Weird: Thoughts on The Weird

the-weirdAnd so it comes to end. On 31 October 2016 I embarked on a mission to read the short story anthology The Weird (2012) – edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – from cover to cover, averaging a story per day. I almost achieved the goal, hitting the 110 stories in 117 days. Not too bad, considering all the other stuff I read during the same period, too.

It feels, well, weird, now it’s come to an end. Stories of ghosts and monster, aliens and demons have been with me almost as a comfort blanket for the past 4 months. And yet, as I’ve said before as I’ve marked this quest, it didn’t have any kind of effect on me. I wondered if I’d get creeped out, or even have nightmares. I never get nightmares. Maybe because the stories didn’t get under my skin in the way I’d hoped. I certainly didn’t find a new favourite writer, although some of the authors featured within this anthology will be added to my to-read list.

The Weird, as mentioned, features 110 short stories. Not quite 110 authors as some are featured twice. It is the very definition of a weighty tome; my edition coming in at more than 1100 pages (and featuring two page 800s!). Some of the stories are relatively long: novellas or novelettes almost, depending on your definition. Others are just a few pages. Each story comes with a brief introduction about the author, their notable works and where-else they’ve been published. We have big names and relative unknowns, novelists and short-story specialists. Authors who are known for a particular genre writing in a different one; authors treading familiar ground. The first in this collection is Austrian Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908) and the last is Australian K.J. Bishop’s Saving the Gleeful Horse (2010). Nations covered include Iran (Reza Negarestani), Czech Republic (Michal Ajvaz), Nigeria (Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri), Poland (Stefan Grabinski), Japan (Hagiwara Sakutaro), Benin (Olympe Bhely-Quenum), Italy (Dino Buzzati), Guatemala (Augusto Monterroso) and many others. This is truly a global story of weird fiction. Of course, the usual suspects are all present and correct too: Gaiman, Miéville, Kafka, Barker, Borges, Carter, Aickman, Lovecraft, Peake, Bradbury, King, Walpole, Russ, Ellison, James, Blackwood et al. The oddest name on the list might just be Joyce Carol Oates.

And in the 110 stories, there is something for everything I’m sure. But also probably something for everyone to not get along with too. Out of the pack, while I didn’t engage with a fair few, I can say only one left me completely cold: Singing My Sister Down (2005) from Australian Margo Lanagan felt like an exercise in confusion with no coherent message, plot or empathy for any of the characters, as a ‘weird ritual’ takes centre-stage. It would take too many words to describe and nod to each story on display here. Suffice to say that I enjoyed the classics: Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier (1971); The Snow Pavilion, Angela Carter (1995); The Brood, Ramsey Campbell (1980); The Willows, Algernon Blackwood (1907); Casting the Runes, M.R. James (1911); Mimic, Donald Wollheim (1942) and others.

A couple of nods should go to George R.R. Martin’s Sandkings (1979) and Daniel Abraham’s Flat Diane (2004). The former is a totally enjoyable and unexpected sci-fi romp from the master of fantasy, while the latter demonstrates that you can write about horrible and brutal subjects with poignancy, warmth and beauty. One of the best in this collection…Looking back over the list of stories here, I recall enjoying this little oddity (Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands (1987) by Garry Kilworth) or that complex exploration of weird writing (such as Finland’s Leena Krohn with Tainaron (1985)). In the end, however, there are just dozens of great, odd, disturbing or interesting stories that I will return to in time, such as Brian Evenson’s The Brotherhood of Mutilation (2003) or Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s The Hell Screen (1917).

While science fiction, specifically, evolves as a form of literature over time, reflecting the times and ideas of the culture it comes from, I found that many of the themes here haven’t evolved so. The writing styles have, for sure, and a willingness for experimentation in language and form. However, with one or two exceptions – such as the excellent In the Lion’s Den (2009) from Stephen Duffy that uses CCTV as a plot device – many of the stories that feature later in the anthology could easily have been written in years gone past. No evolution of theme or creepiness or weirdness. A rare comment on our times (war being the most obvious theme here). T.M Wright’s The People on the Island (2005) seems to feature a trapped colony that could just as well come from Kafka or Borges for example. Meanwhile, Hagiwara Sakutaro’s The Town of Cats (1935) could be a companion piece to Thomas Ligotti’s The Town Manager (2003). It is interesting, however, that I’m always on the lookout for original and unusual styles of writing, and yet it is often the most traditionally written that I’ve enjoyed the most. So maybe it’s the originality of the subject that I’m craving. Something I’ve never read before, such as Mark Samuels’ creepy The White Hands (2003) a metafictional gothic chiller or James Tiptree Jr’s witty The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Terrible Things to Rats (1976).

My absolute favourite: I couldn’t possibly pick one…

Enough! I can’t mention all these stories, although flicking back through my edition I remember some of them fondly and look forward to reading them again. Which probably says a lot about me. Stories of battling cities, creepy cages, ghoulbirds, mysterious strangers and stranger houses, death, captivity, rats, autopsies, devils and a whole lot more have had no adverse effect on my psyche. Which is both odd and deeply satisfying. My Winter of Weird doth conclude, but my personal weirdness continues.

A love letter to books: Fav Re-reads – The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly

the-book-of-lost-thingsIt’s been about 8 or so years since I first read The Book of Lost Things. What this re-read has nicely demonstrated is that memory plays tricks on you. I remember this book as being a sad story which incorporated fairy tales and aspects of World War II. In fact, it is a heart-breaking, beautiful and brutal love letter to books that subverts fairy tales to show how complex humans are.

When I was reading Connelly, I was struck by how beautiful his writing is (“She was night without the promise of dawn, darkness without hope of light” – has the Big Bad ever been described thus?) and how there is so much packed into the 348 pages of my edition. Almost every other page there was something I wanted to make note of. Either a phrase or a passage or idea. The story begins with the horrible premise of a young boy, David, trying to save his terminally ill mother from leaving him by modifying his behaviour; making sure he does everything in even numbers, for example. Connelly shows how the strong their relationship is during the early pages through both their love of books. “…although both were lost in their own individual worlds, they shared the same space and time”. Of course, when she dies David’s father finds love elsewhere. Before long, a grieving and guilt-ridden David has a half-brother getting all the attention. He finds solace in whispering books. (I love the way the books mock David’s doctor when he’s wrong. And Connelly’s description of how a child feels on dealing with a academic is awesome). When he’s transported into a world of fairy tales, he must battle some familiar foes and makes some interesting alliances in order to get back home.

What I especially liked is Connelly’s subversions. In the magical kingdom, a new breed of half-wolves half-men are the result of Red Riding Hood’s sexual perversions (“’Lovely wolf’, she whispered. ‘You have nothing to fear from me.”). Meanwhile, ‘Hansel’ is a little boy who cries while his sister provides – and they punish the woman in the candy house, before ‘Gretel’ abandons her brother. However, these subversions also bring about Connelly’s only real misstep. After the heart-break of David’s real life, he meets a Woodsman. It appears that the adult is torn apart by wolves. David then meets a collective of dwarves and a mean, obese Snow White. The novel descends into a darkly comic treatise on the oppression of the worker. But David is soon back on his journey and witnesses a Huntress slay a deer-girl. The Huntress then gets her comeuppance in the creepiest manner imaginable. The tonal shift from brutal horror and back again for the diversion into Snow White’s world sits uncomfortably with me. But maybe the horrors throughout the book were a bit too much and some levity was required.

I’d also mis-remembered Connelly’s novel as being more of a young adult story. So while it features the emotional growth of a 12 year old boy, this is no book for kids or even young adults. This is an adult book with adult themes and some nasty scenes.

When I first read this book, I hadn’t read all of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I have now, and I hadn’t equated the character of Roland here with King’s tale. Both are a tribute in a way to Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning. Which I’ve not read. In this story, Roland is almost unbearably lonely and has little faith in humanity. Maybe he’s right…There is a theme of the nastiness of war that runs through The Book of Lost Things: in our world it is WWII, while in the magical world, it is the gathering of the wolves (“So you left behind one war, only to find yourself in the midst of another”). Death is unbelievably horrendous in all its forms here. Even the bad guy – the Crooked Man – is only trying to stay alive (although is also incredibly evil). Only the death of a missing girl, Anna, has any real positivity.

I felt the end was a little rushed. The Book of Lost Things isn’t a long novel, but when brave David defeats his enemies and his lessons are learned, the Woodsman unexpectedly reappears and before we know, David is back in ‘our’ world. It was also fairly obvious who the king was and how it reign came to pass. The end of the magical journey happens to quickly without the weight it earned from the rest of the novel.

There is real melancholy and depth and sorrow here. Pain is real and is felt, demonstrably, by the characters here. When David finds Roland’s body, he bends over in agony. Heart-wrenching. Much more than I recalled. However, the title should give it away. The things lost as a child when we finally must grow up. Life is almost unbearably tough at times, and not at all fair. When David’s story concluded, pretty much as the Crooked Man had foresaw, I had a lump in my throat.

I’m very happy that I re-read The Book of Lost Things and I hope that my memory of it remains true. Life is hard. Death is horrible. But Connelly loves books and stories and maybe they are what we need. This ain’t no kids book of fairy tales, but a brilliant, beautiful and brutal work of magic.

Top 10 women in modern fantasy worlds

I like my fantasy not so much swords and sorcery and a tad more modern, but I do like magic and mystery, monsters and mirth. For me, fantasy is not some wish fulfilment or quest to obtain the all-problem solving doodad or girl’s (or boy’s) heart. Which is odd, as I grew up with the Hobbit and Greek myths. Maybe it was my love for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… The magical in the mundane, the unreal in the real. Fantasy is an exploration of those things outside of science and reason (although not always, clearly). Fantasy doesn’t always need magic but it definitely needs spirit and soul. It needs something that can’t easily be explained by rationality and evidence.

Books explain personalities that I don’t readily have access to. Books are my windows on how other people think. However, I’ve been alone in London, as Kalis is. I’ve been lost in a good book – see Thursday next. Of course I haven’t been trapped a mansion with a vampire or battling my ex-friend the mad scientist as the end-of-the-world approaches, but these are all women I’ve learned something from.

As I am who I am, I find myself drawn to these characters, written mostly by men, which probably says something, although I’m not sure what.

So, not in any particular order here are my top 10 female characters in modern fantasy fiction (I’ve taken modern to be any time since I’ve been alive).

Bellis Coldwine from The Scar (2002, China Miéville)

TheScar(1stEd)

Defining quality: Fortitude, plus she’s a librarian (albeit reluctantly, and she destroys a book…hang on…)

Kalix MacRinnalch from Lonely Werewolf Girl and sequels (2007, 2010, 2013, Martin Millar)

Kalix

Defining quality: Independence (and reluctant tolerance) but oh so much more. I love Kalix!

Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials (1995–2000, Philip Pullman)

Amber Spyglass

Defining quality: Moral compass (and curiosity and loyalty and…and…everything)

Tara Martin from Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012, Graham Joyce)

Some Kind of Fairy Tale

Defining quality: Faith in the magical.

Thursday Next from The Eyre Affair and sequels (2001-2012, Jasper Fforde)

EyreAffair

Defining quality: Love (of books, of her family, etc)

Ariel Manto from The End of Mr. Y (2006, Scarlett Thomas)

The End of Mr. Y

Defining quality: Scholarly fascination.

Sunshine from Sunshine (2003, Robin McKinley)

Sunshine

Defining quality: Bravery (and loyalty and magic…)I love Sunshine as much as Kalix.

Zinzi December from Zoo City (2010, Lauren Beukes)

ZooCity

Defining quality: Determination

Nao from A Tale for the Time Being (2013, Ruth Ozeki)

Tale for the Time Being

Defining quality: Beautiful solitude.

Patricia Delfine from All the Birds in the Sky (2016, Charlie Jane Anders)

All the birds in the sky

Defining quality: Empathy with the natural.

All these women bring something to my table. Who else should I seek out?

Arcadia and The Book of Phoenix: Critical thinking about science fiction and enjoying the fluff

Book of PhoenixThinking critically is an important life skill. Having your own opinions and being able to back your arguments shows you’ve understood your subject. I always think that you can’t describe one side of an argument without at least acknowledging other options. I can argue that this is green without understanding the rest of the colour spectrum. Fandom is full of opinions, and many are informed and interesting. Many less so. I’ve decided to apply these concepts to the last two science fiction books that I’ve read: both Clarke Award shortlisted Arcadia by Iain Pears and The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.

Critical thinking (2015) can be defined as “disciplined thinking, by a rational agent who is able to evaluate the information available to them and the relationships among pieces of that information, and analyze and synthesize the results in the process of developing their views. Key to critical thinking is the awareness of the process, of one’s own biases and the biases of others, and the ability to see multiple sides of a scenario, rather than responding from emotion or “going by the gut.””

Everyone lives within a personal bubble. People rarely think consider viewpoints beyond those that immediately affect them. A farmer might be pro-EU, for example, because she gets a good subsidy. She might, however, have ideological reasons opposing a non-elected European institution deciding on that subsidy. I’m reminded of the Asian story of the bug in the rug, as found on Harmonic by Hex. I love science and logical and pragmatism. I love storytelling and imaginary worlds. I love fairy tales and heroes. I know my bias, both emotionally and politically.

ArcadiaI sometimes think about critical thinking before I start reading a book, especially if I’m planning to review it. Sometimes, however, I want to enjoy the book without thinking too much about its contents. Sometimes I want just the gut pleasure. At times, I start thinking critically about books only after I’ve started reading them. Arcadia is a complex tale of time travel and alternative, fictional realities, and how a variety of characters interact with either other through these periods and realities. It is also very much as story about storytelling and the production of fiction. Henry Lytten used to be a spy but now he’s an academic who scribbles away trying to create the perfect fictional world: Anterwold. Lytten’s fiction begins with the character of Jay, a young boy who one day thinks he meets a fairy. This fairy is Rosie, Lytten’s friend, who has stumbled into a portal made by another of his friends, Angela. Lytten doesn’t know that she is from the future and has created this fictional universe based on his writings. It gets even more complex that, and Pears writing is sublime. It is one of my favourite novels that I’ve read for a long time, although didn’t pack the emotional punch I’d hope it would, as it built towards the climax.

Arcadia is generally known as a kind of pastoral utopia, which has a connection to the ancient Greek region of the same name. I’m not sure which came first and I don’t want to look it up. This is key. I don’t want to think too much about Pears novel. I wanted to enjoy it for what it was, much like one might imagine the enjoyment of a pastoral utopia might feel like.

I’m not for a second suggesting Arcadia is fluff. Far from it, but I enjoyed it as something light, not something I had to think too deeply about; it was something I could get swept up in and enjoy the lives of the characters. I suspect it is Pears writing, rather than the story itself, that made me feel like this. It wasn’t overly analytical and the science fiction bits weren’t too sciencey. The issue with time travel and alternative worlds and physics in fiction, is that unless you are an expert in the fields discussed, it is hard to known if they make sense. Without giving the plot away, the cause and effect created by Angela’s machine and Henry’s fiction world are so wrapped up in knots, it is impossible to say if they made sense. For me, anyway.

But of course there’s nothing wrong with some fluff every now and then. My favourite fluff are the early books of Robert Rankin for example. After all, you need a little bubble-gum to with the broccoli sometimes.

The Book of Phoenix has almost the opposite issue. While half the size of Arcadia, it appears to be more densely packed with meaning but with not a whole lot of plot. It is a delicate Persian rug, one which I can see but not necessarily understand. The story is about an accelerated human; a woman called Phoenix, who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. As she discovers herself and her past, she also awakens her powers, including the truth of her creation. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. She escapes, finding an usual seed en route. She ends up in Africa where she learns some truths before deciding to take out the company that created her and her kind. Her revenge is total. There are some interesting characters and ideas, and especially when writing about the relationships between characters, Okorafor’s writing is charming. It feels almost like a superhero – or supervillain – origin story, without being so explicit.

The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression. Americans and their corporations taking Africans and their lives as if they mean nothing. An American life is worth more than an African life. A white person is worth more than a black person. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments. I can’t really think critically about it, textually. I have no frame of reference. I’m not oppressed and I’m fairly certain I’ve never been directly culpable of oppressing anyone else, although I do benefit from being a white, middle-aged, middle-class male, whether I like it or not. Plot-wise, not a lot happens. Phoenix travels about, learning bit and bobs and makes a few decisions, before moving to the next place. As a piece of fiction, I can say it’s far from the greatest I’ve read, but I did enjoy reading it, and spending time with Phoenix.

 

When I read about so-called fans arguing about the relevant merits or lack-thereof of this book or that author, I suspect that they’ve either missed their critical thinking training, or missed the point. A book can entertain without any depth of meaning. A book can oppose your worldview and be a valid work or art. Some books are all about the characters or a situation. Others are about story or plot. Others still are about the process of writing or reading. People, fans, forget this. They argue vehemently that their opinion has validity and none other does. A recent thread on Reddit tore apart The Sparrow. I should have countered, but I couldn’t face the argument, to be honest.

Many people who read The Book of Phoenix won’t think about it critically, I suspect. Which is fine, of course. I wanted to, but couldn’t. I have no personal understanding of racial oppression. I don’t know if Okorafor’s perspective is fair or valid. Of course slavery is heinous and corporations do take at the expense of people. All this is true, but I don’t think I can appreciate her writing critically.

I didn’t want to read Arcadia critically; in case it didn’t make sense. I wanted the story regardless of accuracy and the opinions of Pears.

I enjoyed both books but for very different reasons. The Book of Phoenix won’t be making by best of books of the year by some distance, although Arcadia might.

 

Critical thinking (2015) In: J. Mcray (Ed.) Leadership glossary: Essential terms for the 21st century. Mission Bell Media, Credo [online]. Available at:http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/mbmlg/critical_thinking/0 [Accessed: 3 June 2016].

All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the birds in the skyThere are two ways, in fiction, to introduce something new and different to a reader; in style or in content. A creator, someone with a story to tell, and who wants to be the difference to everything else out there in a crowded speculative fiction market, must make a choice. The most accessible way to introduce something new and different is to write a traditional prose story, but with new and engaging content.

There’s nothing particularly new about a clash of ideologies within a narrative, but mash up some genres and critique binary thinking and you have All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Books and stories that defy labelling and mess with traditional boundaries of genre are becoming, thankfully, a lot more common. Which is probably an issue for booksellers, but for me, I can’t get enough. Over recent years I’ve praised the likes of Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson (science fiction and Arabic mythology), the Dog-Faced Gods series by Sarah Pinborough (noir crime fantasy) and The Shining Girls and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (fantasy crime time travel and magical science fiction respectively). Into this mix comes the glorious All the birds in the sky.

Charlie Jane Anders is the editor-in-chief of popular science fiction and all-things-geeky website i09. All the birds in the sky is her debut novel, having previously had short fiction published on Tor.com and Strange Horizon. She has also been a juror for awards panels including the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and for the Lambda Literary Awards. She is known to identify as a trans woman. All the birds in the sky is essentially a story about binary concepts and at first glance is pretty much black and white within its tropes: the protagonists are Patricia, a witch who as an affiliation with nature, and Laurence, a scientist who doesn’t. Woman, man, magic, science. If this was all the book was – a traditional science versus nature, man versus woman tale, it wouldn’t have the emotional wallop and interesting genre-blending insights that it does. It would have also descended, possibly, into a saviour or ‘the one’ theme, which it thankfully avoids.

Patricia is introduced to the reader when she is six years old. She is suffering a little from younger sister syndrome. An experience with a wounded bird brings her to a Parliament of Birds and a Tree. There is a mysterious question that she must answer in order to become a witch: Is a tree red? This question comes up at significant periods in the book. Ignorantly, I kept imagining it would be something to do with perception and it should be read, and therefore when it is dead and made into a book. I was delighted at the reveal. Meanwhile Laurence is a child-genius who builds a two-second time machine which helps avoids his bullies but has little else of merit. He is stifled by his parents, so runs off to a rocket launch where he meets Isobel and Milton, both of whom would play important roles in his life. Patricia and Laurence meet during adolescence at school. They are both having a rough time of it. They become friends, almost through necessity. They find out each other’s secrets, but Laurence especially, has a problem dealing with Patricia’s magic. Laurence, on the other hand, has been building a potential AI and it is Patricia who has a significant part to play. School days, in the book, aren’t given too many pages here, which I thought was a clever move. This is no Harry Potter, after all. Our protagonists are estranged and in their early adult life now.

Patricia is coming to terms with her powers and helping people, while being chided by her peers for being too aggrandising. Laurence has cast aside the AI project and is working with a group of equally genius scientists in a think tank. Meanwhile, the world is heading for oblivion. It is with this backdrop that most of the narrative unfolds. The magician and the scientist exist in different worlds, but they keep clashing and drifting apart, like waves on a beach. There are misunderstandings and reconciliations, relationships with other people and with each other. A forgotten plot point comes back to the fore, and you realise it was always there, just skilfully hidden. Patricia and Laurence are both outsiders who are drawn together through the pull of something much bigger than defined boundaries. They are mistrustful of each other’s natures but their feelings outweigh that mistrust. They both make plenty of mistakes and turn one way when they should have kept going straight on. And all the while, the birds are telling Patricia that it’s too late.

There are binary ideas throughout the book. For example, within the opposing camps, there are divides into two. In the magic camp, there are the Tricksters and the Healers – even to the point of having their own versions of Hogworts. The science types are less polarised, although the factions move between saving humanity or destroying it. There is no good versus evil or right versus wrong here. Females aren’t better than males – Patricia and her clan don’t think to ask an important question which as devastating consequences on Laurence. Males aren’t better than females. Laurence messes up a perfectly fine relationship due to his own insecurities. Both magic and science have flaws. And so they should. There is never an easy solution, never a clear route to success.

Charlie Jane Anders’ writing makes this book so very accessible. It is often said that it is very difficult to make something look easy. Anders’ previous experience in writing and living as transgender in a geek work might be the effort that makes this book a joy to read. My only real criticism is that this is very much a book of the moment. It does read, sometimes, as an ‘issue-of-the-day’ book, exemplified by the use of terms such as mansplaining. If some words and ideas fail to establish themselves beyond the zeitgeist, it could date the book quickly. The dialogue occasionally straddles the faddish and the genius. When it works, it is very naturalistic and honest, especially in the relationship scenes. Other times it is witty, which kinds of covers up some clunky exposition about wormholes and doomsday machines and such like. Which brings me to the world building. Considering that the world is going to an environmental and political hell-in-a-handbasket and considering that there are numerous complex muddy characters, there’s a significant lack of exposition. Characters don’t explain everything, either. When Patricia and Laurence are talking about dimensions, they both agree it is like the concept of Plato’s Cave. Anders doesn’t feel the need to explain that to the reader. She has faith in them that the either know, or they’ll go and look it up. This is common throughout. Certainly, there are hardly any info-dumps. Another one of the reasons why this book works. The superstorm (the main subtext is climate change) has devastating effects, for example, but Anders doesn’t tell us from a distance. It impacts characters’ lives, not just at the moment, but later in the book too.

Laurence makes a sacrifice that reminded me a little of Will and Lyra make at the conclusion of His Dark Materials. This passage elevates All the birds in the sky beyond just an interesting and successful endeavour in genre-busting speculative fiction, and into the realms of simply great storytelling. It’s what tugs on the heartstrings and moves the story beyond a clever entertainment. This book, it turns out then, isn’t about boy meets girl or magic versus science. It is not a fantasy; not a science fiction. It is a genre label-free zone. And it’s about all the messy, muddy colours that human lives actually are, and the natural if not vital conflicts within relationships.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the CrownImagine a world where women don’t have the same rights as men, and Regency England’s foreign policy is built on bigotry. Imagine that world having sorcerers, fairies, vampires and dragons. Welcome to the world of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

Zacharias is the son of African slaves, bought and raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen. When the latter passes away, Zacharias takes both the mantel and the staff that the position demands. But not all is well. England’s magic is fading. Relationships with the Fairy Court are strained, as are relations with France and further afield. And there are grumblings that the body that oversees magic and thaumaturges, the Committee, want to wrestle the power from Zacharias.

Into this rich world created by Cho comes Prunella Gentleman. She seems to be gifted in the ways of magic. Shame, then, that women aren’t allowed to be magicians or greater. Country witches are the best they can hope for. Prunella is an orphan, and when exploring her father’s inheritance, comes across something that could perhaps save English magic. Meanwhile, there are precarious foreign affairs to address, with a Sultan and his wife, and a witch from the Malaysian island of Janda Baik (Cho is from Malaysia). So, not easy times for Zacharias. Prunella however worms her way into Zacharias’ affections, and once he sees her power and potential, determines to reform English magic and repair the ties with Fairy.

There is a lot of complex plotting in Sorcerer to the Crown, much of which is to be admired. This is not just a story of an apprentice magician finding her feet. This is not just the story of an outsider who has risen to the top, struggling to justify his place in society. This is a story of institutional sexism and racism: the idea being that foreigners are beneath the English. The idea that women can’t be equals or betters than men. It features political duplicity, class warfare and a critique of English Imperialism. Which is a lot to get through in what is written in the style of a Regency magical romance. The ladies are all proper and magic has rules. Tradition is everything.

Cho’s writing is confident and effective, considering this is a debut. She relishes in her vision. The language she uses is appropriately formal, both in dialogue and narrative prose. There is occasional wit, too. Wherever you look there are capital schemes or murmured courtesies. The mostly-formal tone won’t be to everyone’s taste – it lends a certain distance between the reader and the characters which may make empathy challenging. There’s nothing wrong with the accomplishment, but it won’t be to every fan of fantasy fiction’s taste. The characters are great, and are all multi-dimensional. Prunella, as heroine and the main driver of plot, is wilful and annoying at times, but rightly so, for the world she lives in is challenging for her. She is discriminated against for no good reason. Zacharias is a little wet at times, and a little too bullish at others. One of the main plot points regarding his ascension to his position concerns the death of his mentor. At times, Sir Stephen comes to the fore, and then seems to be side-lined for a while, before popping up again. No real explanation for this waxing and waning of behaviour is forthcoming.

The fantasy is solid and has depth, as do the characters. The writing is as fine as it could be. Cho’s world is interesting and richly populated with magical creatures and real human monsters. And dragons, of course. It packs a fair punch. The pertinent themes and complex plotting could unravel at lesser hands, but rather than wade through treacle, the reader is more likely to find a delight, if the style suits.

Originally published: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/2015/11/sorcerer-to-the-crown-by-zen-cho/ 

Top non-male protagonists in speculative fiction

Under_the_Skin_FaberHaving recently read some terrific new novels from the likes of Becky Chambers, Frances Hardinge, and an old favourite from Nicola Griffith, it seemed appropriate to highlight my top genre fiction featuring non-males as the main protagonist. There are of course, some brilliant female characters and feminist books such as Le Guinn’s The Left Hand of Darkness or the many women starring in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (Martin) but these are still told from the male point of view in most cases.  Non-binary genders are slowing filtering into the genre too. It saddens me that something like these words is even required, but even today, there is an uneven gender-balance within the starring roles of genre fiction.

The first example of non-male genderness in genre fiction that I’ve come across is Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928). The plot starts with the lead as a male but for no reason other than the need to tell the ideological story, he becomes a she. Not hugely keen on the book in terms of story, but hugely important in terms of context. So, because it was a meandering rather than a tight plot, it only comes recommended for completists. Sadly, too, there aren’t too many others that I’ve come across written after Woolf’s work and pre-twenty first century.

There have been plenty female villains in literature but rarely is an original story told from their point-of-view. Step forward the enigmatic alien in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000). Isserley wanders around the Scottish countryside picking up hitchhikers for nefarious purposes. It’s all about farming on the surface, but scratch and you see the themes of sexism and sexual identity. Isserley isn’t obviously alien from the outset, just odd, and Faber’s writing adds to the mystery of her origins and intentions. She sees the world through innocent eyes, beautifully described. Her ending is not something you’d expect and completes her path from dark villain to complex shades of grey. Maybe no villain after all.

One of my favourite protagonists was introduced in The Eyre Affair in 2001 by Jasper Fforde. Thursday Next, for it is she, is a literary detective and quite unlike any other characters I’ve read. She exists in a meta-complexity of alternative realities and fictional worlds where she can travel through the pages of real fiction. Despite all this, she has a family life and a pet Dodo, which is enough to make anyone smile. She has a difficult life, balancing the mundane and the extraordinary, but always stands tall in the end. Thursday leads the reader on a journey through the importance of fiction and character, with humour and agency. There is so much joy to be had in reading the adventures of Thursday Next. 7 books worth!

The Shining GirlsKathy in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) is an oddly cold character from the outset. From the very detached and distant opening likes, you’re never quite sure of her. She describes her childhood in the traditional-sounding boarding school but from the outset, something clearly isn’t right, both with Kathy and her friends (Ruth and Tommy), and the world she lives in. Once the children’s destiny is revealed, and Kathy moves out with the others, aged 16, she shuns the easy option of falling in love – even though she is attracted to Tommy – and becomes a carer. Kathy’s character is one of self-sacrifice and genuine care, and is someone who brings a tear to eye.

The Scar (2002) by China Miéville is set in the universe of Bas-Lag, which is a magical steam-punk alien science fiction extravaganza. Following on from Perdido Street Station (2000), is tells the story of Bellis Coldwine. She, like Kathy, is a cold character. A linguist, she finds herself on the run after being accused of connections to the events in the previous novel. While she finds events and people try and manipulate her life, she still remains vital in both character and in terms of the book working. Without having much of her own agency, she is still strong throughout.

I adore Kalix the Werewolf from Martin Millar’s trilogy. She is a tiny goth girl who just wants to be left alone but events conspire to make her life hell. Not surprising, when she’s a fierce werewolf from a proud clan, and has to deal with inter-dimensional elementals, fairies, her wannabe pop-star sisters, a murderous guild of werewolf hunters and the fashion industry. What’s not to love? First introduced in Lonely Werewolf Girl (2007), Kalix is moody and shy, and probably suffering from depression – addicted to drugs and a self-harmer. But thanks to Millar’s staccato prose, vivid descriptions and wonderful storytelling, you can’t help but fall for her and want to protect her, but at the same time fear her and be in awe of her. Kalix is the epitome of the struggling teen outsider coming to grips with the world and her responsibilities as she approached adulthood. A wonderful character full of courage to be herself.

The main protagonist of The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes could easily have been a victim in lesser hands. Kirby Mazrachi is one of the titular girls hunted by time-travelling serial killer Harper Curtis. But instead of lying down, she stands up and fights to work out the truth about what happened to her and the other girls. By definition, Kirby has to be smart and full of potential – shining – but she has a complex personality which is not only based on her perceived victimhood. And boy is she resilient. She just won’t be that victim. Nor should she. Harper is a despicable character.

These girls and women deserve to be read about, deserve to be heard about, and thanks to the great writing of both men and women as outlined, are out there in the world. In their own ways, each of them helped me open my eyes and see things both in myself and the people around me. And after all, that’s what great fiction and great characters are all about.

Kalix

Honourable mentions must go to of course Marghe in Ammonite (Nicola Griffith, 1993) who finds herself and love after a series of personal conflicts and trials, and Rosemary, the brilliantly ordinary lead who shines the light on others in the diverse The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Becky Chambers, 2015); both of whom have made me think more about the roles of women in fiction. Other great characters and books to recommend include A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki, 2013) which is from the perspective of a 16-year old girl in Japan who finds wisdom and an American, Ruth; Cuckoo Song (Frances Hardinge, 2014) starring Triss who has an odd hunger and a tenacious desire to find the truth; The Girl in the Road (Monica Byrne, 2014) which is also a story of search for truth, from Meena’s point of view and of becoming a woman, from Mariama’s; The End of Mr Y (Scarlett Thomas, 2006) in which Ariel journeys through the mysteries of mind-reading, quantum physics and homeopathy with a post-modernist twist; and Sunshine (Robin McKinley, 2003), featuring Rae, who battles vampires while making cakes.

Telling stories: Favourite re-reads – Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, or What’s life without magic?

AmmoniteI could have come up with a dozen titles for this remembrance, but all of these seem most appropriate, because while yes, this book is a favourite of mine, it is about the very nature of stories and it is about magic, despite being science fiction. In hindsight, this book was the start of a fiction reading journey that now means I read books across and that defy genre.

First published in 1992, Ammonite by award-winning Nicola Griffith, is the story of Marghe, an anthropologist on Gershom’s Planet, or when shortened to GP, pronounced ‘Jeep’. She is employed by the Company, an organisation we learn little about. Jeep has a virus that kills all men, so all Company employees use a vaccine against potential threat. We’re in the far-future. Jeep is inhabited by tribes and townships of women, with only vague stories of their origin off-world, and the mysterious goths who may be the origin of both the virus and the mysterious standing stones – too ancient to have been erected by the human population.

I remember being blown away when I first read Ammonite, probably about 1993. I picked it up for two reasons: I was a geology student and was therefore attracted to the title and the cover of my copy; and I’d read a short story by Griffith in an Interzone anthology, and was intrigued to read more. I’d not read much science fiction by women at the time, I’m sorry to say. I’d not read anything that contained a cast of female-only characters. It was this political stance that the book takes combined with Griffith’s beautifully descriptive prose that drew me in. Today, I’m much more familiar with female authors and fiction featuring female protagonists with their own agency. If I read Ammonite for the first time now, I doubt the content would be so affecting. That’s not to say it’s not a terrific book, just not so impactful today. Which is a good thing.

I love speculative fiction that defies genre. Ammonite might have been the first book I read that falls into that category. It begins in science fiction – all space ships, distance planets, viruses and the nefarious Company. Great stuff. Once Marghe has left the Company’s planet-side base, however, the narrative feels more like a questing fantasy, more in common with Tolkien than Clarke. There are potential magics and mysteries, but are they to be explained with science? I think Griffith pushes the reader in that direction, rather than anything supernatural. But the feel of the novel is certainly less science fiction in most of Marghe’s narrative. Only when it follows Danner, the Company commander on the base, does it feel like a first-contact science fiction story. And so it is tough to label Ammonite, despite a clear science fiction premise.

Griffith’s style aids to the magical feel. Her attention to detail, both in Marghe’s narrative and her actual journey, is stunning. You can flick through the pages of this book and stop at almost any page to get a wonderful description of the planet’s geography, biology or history; human myths or human emotions. And also because it is about stories and their power. Marghe, and her eventual partner, become journeywomen, trading their stories for goods and services. The women of Jeep value stories above most things – as should we all.

“What’s life without magic? Turn your magic into a song – share it with others”

Ammonite follows a fairly typical science fiction narrative, in which a character travels to a far off planet only to find herself and what she needs. I wish I could travel as far. Thankfully, I have Griffith’s imagination in print as compensation. As with Le Guin’s more famous but similarly themed The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), this is classed as feminist science fiction. However, to me, it is so much more than that – it is a proper story (which you might not be able to say about The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ for example) about proper stories with proper characters fulfilling satisfying character arcs. It might be said that Marghe’s journey is an obvious one, but it is thorough. Sadly, however, there is very little palaeontology, although the ammonite metaphor is a success. Marghe becomes complete, as does the story.

CC BY-SA 2.0 by craiglea123
CC BY-SA 2.0 by craiglea123

The cross-genre style and the female-only cast have had a big impact on my subsequent reading. I don’t think I would be as enamoured with the likes of Sarah Pinborough, Ruth Ozeki, Claire North, Tricia Sullivan, Frances Hardinge, Sarah Lotz and Lauren Beukes and more if I’d not read Ammonite. Despite all that praise, and the admission that I really enjoyed reading this book for a second time, it lacked a certain emotional wallop that would have elevated this to an all-time classic for me. But then I tend to enjoy pizza more than a fine cut of meat.

 

 

Image credit: Some rights reserved by craiglea123