The Underground Railroad vs Ninefox Gambit

Underground RailroadA few weeks ago the critically acclaimed The Underground Railroad won the Arthur C Clarke award and I wondered why? I wondered if I should read it. Is it genre fiction? I pondered. It was pointed out to me in my comments section that was alternative history, which has a long and prestigious relationship with science fiction. Meanwhile, I was about to pick up one of the other shortlisted novels: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. It occurred to me that these books were poles apart and I wondered what they were doing on the same award shortlist. So I picked up a copy of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and read them contemporaneously. A few chapters of one, and a few chapters of the other.

Ninefox Gambit is the story of Kel Cheris in the far future. Cheris is a military tactician, who is ‘paired’ up with a mad, dead general who never lost a fight but slaughtered his own troops. Cheris is chosen to take back a fortress in space, which has fallen into heresy. Something called Calendrical Heresy.

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She has a brutal life (shunned even by her own kind), but escapes her owner with fellow slave Caesar on the underground railroad – a system of tunnels and trains and station agents and safehouses run by abolitionists. She is chased by slave catcher Ridgeway.

Whitehead’s powerful and shocking novel is based on a truism. There was an underground railroad during the period of slavery in the US, but it was a metaphor: it was only safehouses and secret routes. So why is this genre fiction? And what does it have to do with Ninefox Gambit?

I really struggled with the latter, despite allegedly being a fan of science fiction. Although I’ve tended to shy away from hard military science fiction. With one or two exceptions, of course (Ender’s Game, for example). For the most part, Yoon Ha Lee’s book left me cold. I just couldn’t like the characters or care about the universe they lived in. Mostly because it, and I respect it for this, dives into a new universe without much explanation. There are so many concepts and there is so much unfamiliar terminology that it made my brain hurt: calendrical rot; formation instinct; amputation weapons; Hexarchate, and more. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but I just found it too difficult to relate to any of the characters, mostly because I was trying to work out if any of it made sense. I’m still not sure if it did, having finished the book. Others have reviewed Ninefox Gambit and explained it in ways I didn’t quite see myself. Now I’m not dumb (I’ve two post-graduate qualifications), but I just didn’t see what Yoon Ha Lee’s book was about at first. It seemed to be about military tactics and people’s relationships with technology, but I couldn’t work out if it was anti-war, for example, even tho’ there are clear horrors described. This is as science fiction as stories come. It is space ships and aliens (or maybe post-humans, I’m not sure) and technology and metaphor and unpronounceable names.

I thoroughly enjoyed Whitehead’s story. Although enjoyed is probably not the correct description. But it was mostly because Cora is a terrific character. And boy does Whitehead not hold back on the horrors the age. His characters really suffer. They are raped, mutilated, whipped, humiliated and degraded. And sometimes, there is a slave-on-slave crime. When Cora and Caesar escape, they find the underground railroad that takes them on a series of journeys where Cora faces her past and her future. They are separated. People who protect Cora suffer. She is eventually captured by Ridgeway but again, finds herself free. There is nothing in this book that is fantastical (although for me, how one human can treat another human as Whitehead describes is almost beyond belief – if not for the news I witness today) or even magical realism. I wondered if it might be a little steampunk, with the railway being some unexplained technology that shouldn’t exist. But no. It is certainly not traditional science fiction.

But then is Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? There is nothing science fiction about the actual plot of that classic, other than the setting. However, it does address the concept of multiple universes. I love that book. I’ve not read a lot of alternative histories, so beyond this, I can’t comment.

What do these books have in common, then, if anything? Imagination of the authors in telling their particular story. But that could be said about any work of fiction. I’ve pondered this a little and three words come to mind: fear, power, numbers.

Cheris exhibits fear, as does Cora. Power and who has it is a major theme. In Whitehead’s novel, some states have more black slaves than white free folk, but it is the power the whites have over the blacks that is key. Which is also a numbers game. And in Ninefox Gambit, society is based on mathematical concepts and the calendar. The rulers use the calendar to keep the little people in line. So is theme what makes something science fiction? I’ve always said no. I’ve always said science fiction needs to have some rational difference to it that isn’t in our world (fantasy’s differences don’t need to be rational or even an internal logic). Maybe I’m wrong?

Both books are written with conviction and brilliance, but in contrasting styles. I’ll pick the same page from both books:

Ninefox Gambit:Tell me about the class 22-5 mothdrives. If the Pale Fracture weren’t a calendrical dead zone, they would almost be good enough to fuel a whole new wave of expansion.”

The Underground Railroad: Ultimately, the pigs did them in. They were following the rut of a hog trail when the white men rushed from the trees.”

They both use language as a powerful force, but the former is often incomprehensible, the latter is beautifully shocking. The shocks in Ninefox are distant (such as the continued reference to the dead general slaughtering his own troops), while in Underground they are powerfully personal, such as Cora’s time in the Hob, or the injuries slaves suffer.

Ninefox GambitNinefox Gambit shows me clearly that I’m not a fan of this kind of fiction, no matter how brilliantly it is written. Finer minds than mine seem to like it. Award winning writer Abigail Nussbaum, for one, seems to get it (read her review of the sequel here). Had Whitehead not won the Clarke Award, I’d never have picked it up (I’d previously found his Zone One zombie novel tedious beyond belief). But it’s an excellent book, fully deserving of its success. In today’s world, it has a scary prescience, of course.

I’m still not convinced it should be classed as genre or speculative fiction, even if it is alt-history. At best, The Underground Railroad is set in a universe an nth of a fraction from ours. Is that enough? Some would say of course. There is a huge amount of truth in the book, but the exact same story could have been told with the railroad as the historically accurate metaphor it is. Whatever the shelf these books belong on, only a few will enjoy Ninefox Gambit, if they can figure out what’s going on. There might be truth in it, but you need to dig hard and have patience. Few might say that they actually enjoy The Underground Railroad – far too brutal for enjoyment – but it is the far superior read.

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Should I read the Arthur C Clarke Award winning The Underground Railroad?

For the last 10 years or so I’ve been reading all, or at least most of, the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist books. In recent times, I’ve added the BFSA and Kitschies shortlists to my reading piles. Over the past couple of years, my interest in reading most of the lists has waned, as my tastes and priorities have evolved. I wittered on a bit about this in May.

Last week, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was announced as this year’s winner. So congrats to Whitehead! It’s also won a whole bunch of other stuff and some critical acclaim. Clearly, it is a work of some significance. Is it science fiction? Is it genre? Is it for me? I’m not sure. The write up of the award in the Guardian explains why it is classed as such: the real underground railway used by slaves was a collection of safe houses – Whitehead reimagines it as an actual underground railroad. I do like magic realism and more importantly, genre-defying speculative fiction.

I read Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One and found it dull. Years later, I couldn’t tell you want happened in the book. Not a clue. I’ve been told his other books are works of genius, especially his debut: The Intuitionist.

The other shortlisted books in the Clarke Award were:

  • A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
  • Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
  • After Atlas – Emma Newman
  • Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan
  • Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed the Chambers, and thought the Sullivan was so-so. Far from her best. Ninefox Gambit is on my pile and will be read within the next few weeks. Tidhar’s book is on my radar and I might get round to reading After Atlas at some point. But can you compare all these traditional science fiction novels (yes, I know Sullivan’s book has angels in, but still…) to Whitehead’s tale of slavery. Well, I’m not so sure, but having not read it, I can’t really say.

I wonder if its inclusion is political.

Still, I’ve added The Underground Railroad to my wish list and I’ll read it later in the year. When the hype has died down a bit.

I’ve very sad that All the Birds in the Sky from Charlie Jane Anders hasn’t had the recognition I think it deserves. I’m hoping the shortlists in 2018 will capture my imagination once again.

The Rift by Nina Allan

The RiftIt’s always exciting to discover a genre voice with a different perspective. I read Nina Allan’s 2014 debut The Race last year which I thought had huge potential. On completion of her new novel The Rift I knew that potential had already been reached. Allan, of course, isn’t new to the scene, being critically acclaimed for her short stories. Indeed, The Race has a short story structure to it. So with The Rift, Allan presents her most complete long form fiction. And boy is it worth the wait.

The Rift begins with an unusually disturbing aside before we’re properly introduced to the life of teenager sisters Selena and Julie. But it’s not long before Julie disappears. And returns again to tell her story. The plot doesn’t go much further than that, but then this isn’t really a story of other planets or the search for missing people, but it’s a story of truths and emotions. Most of the novel is Selena’s story from the third person. The middle section is Julie telling Selena about what happened to her all those years ago, life on the planet she went to, and other details about her life that Selena didn’t know about.

Of course, this is a story about the divide between adolescent sisters and how life diverges when they are no longer close. It is a story about a family coming apart. Selena is sure that the Julie of now is her missing sister. Their mother is not so sure, while their Dad, who suffered from terrible grief and obsessions after that fateful day, is no longer around. Allan uses a wide range of writing styles and story-telling techniques to play with the reader’s perceptions. The story is interspersed with letters, police and newspaper reports, fiction and non-fiction from Julie’s planet (a nice concise way of world-building that doesn’t detract from the human stories), interviews and other devices. All these ideas plant various ideas of what may or may not have happened to Julie.

So, is Julie telling the truth? Is Nina Allan telling the truth? Does it matter? I’m convinced that there are clues laid about, but they may just be coincidences – deliberately so. Mis-directions if you will. Names on the planet and on Earth have similarities (Lila and Lisa for example). Meanwhile, not long after a mention of Marillion’s 1980s hit Kayleigh we learn that there is a place called Marillienseet and a character called Cally. Allan even alludes to her own playfulness: “the written word has a closer relationship to memory than with the literal truth, that all truths are questionable…”

There is a term used in psychiatry; confabulation. It is, essentially, the ability to mis-remember or distort our own memories to fit within the truths of our own existence. The Rift could be said to be Julie’s confabulation as a reaction to what really happened to her, or she might have really spent many years on another planet. Allan doesn’t hand you answers on a plate. Or at all. What is reality and does it have any significance other than how we deal with the relationships in our lives?

Allan’s writing is so engaging. With everything that is happening between the characters you come to enjoy spending time with them. With all the puzzles that surround the book, Allan never fails the reader. She uses small details and a plethora of pop culture references to ground the story. There isn’t any requirement for pages of complex world-building. Is The Rift science fiction, or even genre? Each reader will have to be their own judge of that. All the same, this is a book that gives the reader so much to think about and so much to enjoy, it should be read by any audience. Allan’s voice is a triumph of mind and writing and imagination.

This review was originally published on the Geek Syndicate website here: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/reviews/book-review-the-rift-by-nina-allan/

Reflections on what I liked in the 31,536,001 seconds of 2016

Time for the annual reflection on all things geekery that occurred to me in the previous 31,536,001 seconds. 2016 was a bleak year for sure, but there was much joy to be had from the creation of fiction. As ever, I’m always on the look out for something a tad different and unusual, so before the top books, honourable mentions should go to: Making Wolf by Tade Thompson (looking forward to reading Rosewater soon), Arcadia by Iain Pears and The Race by Nina Allen.

In total I read 39 fiction novels, listened to 10 audio books, read 6 nonfiction books and 3 novellas and half a book of short fiction (The Weird – my Winter of Weird shall continue). Plus some graphic novels. According to GoodReads, my year looked like this: https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2016/6304958

Thusly, in order:

The Thing Itself (2105) by Adam Roberts. I thought that this was smart and funny and creatively unique. It had me gripped and interested in both the characters and story from the outset.

the-thing-itself

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (2014) by A S King. How can I relate to a teenage girl in the USA? King’s genius characterisation and story telling! Bonkers and brilliant and heart-warming and bleak and reaffirming.

glory-obriens-history-of-the-future

All the Birds in the Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders. A refreshing mash up of science fiction and fantasy that was engaging and funny and I can’t wait to read what Anders comes up with next.

all-the-birds-in-the-sky

Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. See Glory re: Meche; only in Mexico in the 1980s. Mix tapes! Magic. Complex teenagers being wonderful and difficult.

signal-to-noise

A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) by Becky Chambers. There is more humanity in Chambers’ pages than in most other science fiction and the mind-body dualism is a great story-telling device.

a-closed-and-common-orbit

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) by B S Johnson. Metafiction. Raging against the machine. Why this isn’t a classic along the lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four I have no idea.

christie-malrys-own-double-entry

Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson. A prescient look at politics and people dressed up as a science fiction spy thriller. What’s not to love about Hutchinson’s wit and verve! (Also, currently reading the final book in the series.)

europe-in-autumn

I think there’s some pretty damn fine books there!

My history of science fiction challenge continued. Slowly. As usual. What? There are lots of books to read. I spent a while trying and failing to get a hold of an English translation of Ravages (1943) by René Barjavel but my favourite wot I read was Swastika Night (1937) by Murray Constantine. I also finished reading all of Vonnugut’s novels in order too. I might try that again. I’ve been thinking about Philip K Dick, but that’s a lot of books…

Moving on.

I saw 31 films for the first time. My favourites in no particular order were: Midnight Special, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, The Lobster, Tale of Tales, Rouge One: A Star Wars Story, Crimson Peak, High-Rise, Arrival, Deadpool, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Meanwhile, the absolute stinkers were: Batman V Superman, Independence Day: Resurgence and Jurassic World.

And some TV I’ve enjoyed: Stranger Things, Luke Cage, Black Mirror, Daredevil, Agent Carter, Better Call Saul, Penny Dreadful, iZombie, House of Cards, Preacher. Yes, I like things bleak and funny and nostalgic when I’m chilling in front of the telebox.

Finally, some comic series I’ve enjoyed are: The Wicked and the Divine (although I’m getting a bit bored of it now – why can’t these things just have shorter runs? – I’m looking at you, Saga), Injection, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Scarlett Witch, Kill or Be Killed, Monstress, Paper Girls, Negative Space, Deadpool Max and Ms Marvel.

Shout out to a couple of podcasts too, that mean my to-read list is ever expanding: Robin and Josie’s Bookshambles (must read some Steve Aylett) and Backlisted (where I heard about the Johnson).

So there. Thank you to all the creatives, artists, writers, directors and others whose vision and talent have brightened by life while the world crumbled.

Welcome to my Winter of Weird

the-weirdSo this is the plan. Read 110 short stories from The Weird over a period of about 100 days, which should lead to mid-February. Why? Well why not! It’s Halloween and I fancy setting myself a challenge. I’ll be blogging about it as I go, occasionally reviewing a story, occasionally commenting on the experience.

What is The Weird? I was given it as a gift a few years ago and I’ve dipped into occasionally, but not read the whole lot. Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, it contains 110 short stories covering just over a century (1908 to 2010) of weird fiction. Lots of ‘deca’ notation going on here. Weird fiction might be described as a bit indescribable. Apparently, Lovecraft himself came up with the term, but I guess it really is that area of speculative fiction that can’t be described as horror, science fiction or fantasy. It is something ‘other’.

I’m hoping to discover, amongst all other considerations, a few new authors to explore from this collection. If read a few of the stories here, such as the Lovecraft, Gaiman, Miéville, Barker, Carter and others, and I am of course, familiar with many of the writers presented in this glorious collection. There are other authors that I know but have not read (Michael Chabon, Karen Joy Fowler, Lucius Shepard, Robert Bloch and Daphne Du Maurier – looking forward to reading Don’t Look Now especially – for example) but there are dozens of authors that I’ve not come across: Jerome Bixby, T.M. Wright, Kelly Link, Donald Wollheim, Reza Negarestani, Marc Laidlaw, Fritz Leiber…the list goes on.

I won’t be reading a story every day. Some are short enough to get a couple in on any given day (H.F. Arnold’s The Night Wire is only 4 pages long for example). However, I will be reading them in chronological order. So, it’s Halloween. Time to cosy on up on the sofa with a glass of whiskey and enjoy, the Winter of Weird.

The Pursuit of Knowledge – Favourite re-reads: The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

Listened to, not read
Listened to, not read

Imagine someone writes a novel and it’s just for you. They tap into your interests and beliefs. They build a character that feels like parts of you. I suspect this is the success of most great novels, that the authors find that unnamed thing within you and put it on a page. This is how I felt the first time I read The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, when it came out in 2006.

I wouldn’t have normally picked it up. I doesn’t sit comfortably within any genre I would normally read, but then it doesn’t sit within any genre really. I picked it up because a. it was set in Canterbury, where I was working in the public library at the time and b. it heavily features theoretical and quantum physics, which I’ve a strong interest in.

I like to learn. I love to ponder the nature of things. I would be a polymath if I had the time or the talent. Ariel Manto, in Thomas’ book, would also be a polymath, I think. She seems to have an interest in everything and a question in one area of specialism will lead to another area of thought. And this is natural. For me, anyway. Throughout the plot, Ariel is constantly asking questions. She keeps admitting that she doesn’t understand (such as how homeopathy is supposed to work) and then trying to find out the answers, and in doing so, explaining the topic to the reader. She also admits her ignorance. Freely. I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance is attributed to Socrates! And thus philosophy features heavily too – the works of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida in particular. I also read about philosophy, although I often find most of it just beyond my reach.

And so I thought I’d return to The End of Mr Y around ten years later. I wanted to see if it was one of those books that are of a moment in time, or would give something new to me today. I listened to the audiobook this time, narrated by the wonderful Clare Corbett. Within the opening few chapters, Ariel had referenced Abbott, Butler, Darwin, Einstein, and the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. I remember that during my original reading that it felt like Thomas has gone along my bookshelf and wrote a story around it. That remained a true feeling this time. And of course, I felt comfortable listening to the descriptions of the city where I still work, although it is a little weird walking up St Dunstan’s while coincidently listening to it being described within a work of fiction.

The plot? Hard to describe, but Ariel is doing a PhD on thought experiments after discovering the titular text in a second-hand bookshop. Actually, I’m not going to describe the plot…just read the book! On her adventures, Thomas via Ariel deals with the aforementioned physics, God and religion, animal rights, homeopathy, telepathy, philosophy, sexuality (I’d forgotten just how crude Thomas is), abuse, the end of time, cults, academia, homosexuality, mental health and the very nature of thought and existence. I think that’s everything. What makes it a great book – awesome characters and terrific prose aside – is that it never feels like any of these subjects are forced. By the way – the prose is very brave: not only does Thomas have the characters having a lot of conversations where they explain the finer details of their understanding of all these tricky subjects, but some concepts are also spelled out within the descriptive prose – the long sequence of numbers repeated when Ariel first enters the tunnel into the troposphere for example. They all fit neatly in the puzzle, often driving the plot, rather than reacting to it. What I found interesting, however, is that I hadn’t thought of many of the specifics of the book at all for almost 10 years – the mouse god Apollo Smintheus; the trip back in time to meet Abbie Lathrop as examples – but as soon as Corbett spoke the names their details came flooding back to me, even though I’d thought of the book and especially Ariel Manto several times in the interim. Memory is the most fun – fuck theoretical physics, as Thomas writes.

In the end, of which is of course another reoccurring theme in of itself, I think The End of Mr Y is a love-letter to books and the pursuit of knowledge. The first time I read it, I warmed to it like a long-lost friend. I thought it might be science fiction or certainly magic-realism. This time around, it had less of an emotional impact, and genre-labelling be damned! but like Ariel’s thought experiments, it made me consider memory and desires, goals and interests. So it made me think differently. Rather than just acknowledging and reacting to the content, it has inspired me; reinvigorated me. I might even put Heidegger’s Being and Time on my to-read list…

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.

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

The joy of reading strange new worlds.

The intention of fiction is to transport the reader to another world, a one that simply can’t exist in our real lives. Even contemporary or literary fiction exists in a fantastical bubble where lives and events follow narrative plot structures and (usually) the conclusion brings about some form of ending to the story. It is the simple joy of reading these tales that draws readers back to imagined worlds, or persuades them to open a new book in the hope of discovering a strange and new world.

Dragon
Some rights reserved by johanferreira15

Consider genre fiction. There are many familiar worlds and locations to excite the imagination. From Narnia to Middle Earth, Hogwarts to Wonderland, these are familiar places. It is easy to find wonder in these safe and classical fantasy worlds. Strange forests inhabited by giant spiders, uncharted waters with lurking monsters and mystic misty mountains abound. The same is true for science fiction: Ringworld, Iain M Bank’s Culture universe, William Gibson’s cyber-punk future, and Wells’ far future of Morlocks and Eloi are amongst many imaginations worth repeated visitations.

Recently, and perhaps not coincidently, worlds familiar to our own yet unconventionally different from the classics have begun to emerge. These are new places in which to find pleasure, explore and to get lost in. Fresh and intriguing fantasy realms and potential futures. These are books so terrific that they stay with you long after the characters’ stories have concluded. You want the book to end so you can find out what happens but you never want to finish it! You won’t find the traditional tropes of genre fiction here.

Day FourSarah Lotz has created something exciting and innovative in her books The Three and Day Four. This is a universe very much like our own. It is familiar, yet just a degree or two off-centre. Events and people seem to be plausible. We have an evangelical cult and a spooky Japanese forest for example (The Three), and the cruise ship and the beach they find (Day Four) which are unsettling indeed. The fantastical elements don’t contain the ghosts of horror novels but the situations the characters find themselves in send shivers down your spine. There are no space ships but despite Lotz’s universe being just like our own, feels alien. Not in the way a traditional invasion story might feel, but something less tangible. In both novels, it is the pay-off in the endings that make the Lotz world such a fascinating place to visit.

The Golem and the DjinniWe think we know all about Golems and Djinns, but nothing can prepare you for the pure pleasure to be attained in Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. Published in 2013 and criminally under-read, it features both a 19th century New York where magic is real and a distinct, evocative Arabian imagination-scape. This isn’t the magic of traditional fantasy. There are no wizards with staffs and long, grey beards or teenagers with wands. This is an ancient magic. Real and steeped in tradition. The reader sees these versions of our world through the lonely eyes of Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni). These are characters of ancient civilisations. Whereas Middle Earth has a written history, The Golem and the Jinni has real mythology. It is hard not to read this in sepia imagination and, perhaps, some inherited understanding. Wecker portrays her world in such a way that despite the loneliness and tragedy, it’s a place you love to visit.

A different kind of Arabian fantasy is portrayed in G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. The fictional Middle-EasternAlif ‘City’ is a gateway, between the world that we think we know and the world of Islamic supernatural creatures and myths. The magic in Wilson’s story is almost that of technology. Imagine William Gibson’s Neuromancer with primeval spirits and vengeful jinn calling the shots. It is a blending of genres. You don’t readily find science fiction in fantasy novels and you rarely get wondrous mythological creatures in near-future cyberpunk. The journey through the City’s streets and alleys engenders a desire to visit somewhere like Cairo that you can almost taste the desert dust in your throat as you romp through the adventure.

You might say that Wilson’s is a new kind of urban fantasy, whereas Kate Griffin’s is a fresh take The Minority Councilon classic urban fantasy. Her Matthew Swift books (Madness of Angels, etc) are pure magic for anyone who has even lived in a dark and sprawling metropolis. Anyone who’s walked home alone at night and heard that indescribably noise from just around the corner. Swift, the Midnight Mayor, uses the magic of the electric blue angels to conjure strange creatures and fight unearthly foes. Some of the expected elements are present and correct. Swift casts spells and recites chants. Monsters come and go. However, these are monsters made of grease and broken machines. These are spells made of the names and history and the very foundations of London. Stephen King’s Dark Tower and JRR Tolkien’s Barad-dûr and Orthanc are replaced with the likes of London’s iconic Centre Point and the Shard. If you are familiar with the reality of living in a dense urban landscape, visiting Griffin’s London is a rare and rewarding treat.

Station Eleven proof.inddA final nod in the direction of science fiction. Emily St. John Mandel is the recent winner of the Arthur C Clarke award for her brilliant Station Eleven. On the face of it, a post-apocalyptic journey with a rag-tag bunch of Shakespearian actors might not seem like a joyful read. While the characters are captivating and are enjoyable company to keep, it is the pre- and post-apocalyptic cities and landscapes that are fresh. You might be familiar with the idea of survivors carving niches for themselves in the remains of dying cities, but maybe not in the remnants of an average no-name airport close to the Great Lakes where a museum of relics crops up. Imagine a fantasy with a travelling troupe of mysterious performers or a magical dust-bowl Carnivàle and transport it to a world where the majority of humanity has died. These scenes are interspersed with (amongst others) live revolving around a theatre in Toronto. The juxtaposition works! While not as bleak as some (The Road for example) Mandel’s worlds have depth and realism not often found in this genre.

Finding yourself in one of these worlds and universes and others just like them, brought into being by such talent and imagination, is a rare gift and should be appreciated for what it is. Our real world can be tough to live in, and these escapes provide the highest of rewards. They educate and inform as well as entertain of course, but their primary purpose is pleasure. These fantasy and science fiction worlds don’t have wizards and aliens, mysterious apocalyptic diseases or quests for the magic MacGuffin, and are all the better for it. Joy is an apparent simple emotion but the enjoyment gained from these books, and others, is not readily quantifiable. It is easy to pick up a book and find yourself lost. And smiling.

Image credit: The Fire Dragon CC BY 2.0 by johanferreira15

What’s the point of Sci-Fi Book awards? Or, some great books I’ve read thanks to the Clarke Award.

Station Eleven proof.inddThe Hugo Award fiasco really upset me. Of course, the whole right wing bully-boy tactics is offensively stupid, but I’m not part of that world (thankfully) so I had little vested interest. Most people who were involved wrote about it far better than I even could. Seek out their words. What upset me more was everyone seemed to be arguing about what books were on the short-lists and which ones weren’t. No-one seemed to be taking about reading. The quality of the fiction. The passion of the stories (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t read anything about great genre fiction in relation to the Hugo nominations. Even though I’ve read Jim Butcher in the past (great first few novels then…bored now) I’ve no desire to read any of the shortlisted novels this year.

Does anyone care about reading anymore?

I like the Kitchies. They seem to me to highlight innovation. They are progressive and diverse. From this year’s shortlist, I’ve read and enjoyed Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor although I didn’t think it was amazing. No emotional resonance for me. Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith, The Peripheral, by William Gibson and The Race, by Nina Allan are all on my to read list for this year. As for the debut category, I’ve read Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (see below), while Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and The Girl in the Road from Byrne are on my pile. While intriguing, Viper Wine (Hermione Eyre) doesn’t really appeal to me. Good lists and plenty of good stuff on there, but to my sensibilities (and like an indie music or film festival) there does seem to be an agenda of sorts. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that notion, just to be clear, and if so, it is a good agenda (inclusive, diverse, innovative as I mentioned).

To me however, the Clarke Award appears to be just about the books. This year’s short list is:

  • The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. CareyThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
  • Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson
  • Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North
  • Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
  • The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’ve not read the first two and probably won’t. Carey’s is possible but it just isn’t grabbing my attention. I’ve read that Europe In Autumn is more of a sci-fi spy-fi techno-thriller type which isn’t really my bag. So, thoughts on the rest:

 

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North

To me, this reflects the genre-defying fiction that I love. It is really a time travel story without traditional science fiction time travel elements and reminded me a little of Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls. However, it is character study. A lesson in choices. We all regret this choice or that one and in North’s story, Harry August gets to make different choices and also pre-empt the actions of choices to come. North’s prose is so very readable and the world she creates is so detailed and believable. One of those books that you never want to end because you enjoy being in it so much.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

The same can be said of Station Eleven. It is a traditional science fiction trope – the end of the world caused by something as ordinary as flu, but told in a complex and gripping narrative style from varying points of view – including that of someone who wasn’t even around when the end comes. The idea of focusing on actors and musicians is unique – certainly in what I’ve read previously. Friendships, survival and religion are key themes. Again, the world Mandel’s creates with brilliant prose and intriguing characters is one (despite its horrors) where I just wanted to stay in. The way she combines the various threads of the narrative so they make sense without being over-blown is admirable. The ingredients are familiar, the recipe common, but the final meal is deliciously new.

Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta

Itäranta’s debut appealed to me, although I hadn’t heard much about it. In a weird way, this could be set in the same world as Station Eleven although much further into the future, when the post-apocalyptic recovery is further along. Although in this case the cause was apparently environmental. Itäranta writes beautifully, especially considering it isn’t in her first language. Some of the sentences are pure poetry. “But water doesn’t care for human sorrows. It flows without slowing or quickening its pace in the darkness of the earth, where only stones will hear.” Sadly, the story is somewhat lacking. The characters (who have complex and secretive relationships) and world building (I like the plastic graveyard motif) are fine but there was lots of set up which promised so much but never really delivered. I was more interested in the words than the story.

The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’m about 2/3s through this excellent book. Almost directly opposed to the Memory of Water it is written in a straight forward manor but the story is so very engaging. I can’t wait to find out what happens. Essentially about the power of religion (so far) and trying to understand a new intelligent species on an alien planet, the corporation who has sent the pastor is represented by engineers and pharmacists who would be home on the Nostromo in Alien. It is intensely interesting and readable. I hope the ending is the one the reader deserves after 300+ pages.

Congratulations to the 2014 winner: Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – which I think is awesome! A triumph of story-telling.

 

What I love about all four of these is that I’ve really enjoyed reading them. Not thinking about them for what they are or what they represent in the wider sense (short-listed literature). I’d read North’s book before the list was announced and Faber’s was on my pile to read. I probably would have stumbled across Station Eleven but I probably wouldn’t have known about Memory of Water. I was lost in all of these books. Proper joy of reading stuff. I read Mandel’s 330 pages in 4 days because I didn’t want to stop reading it. I wanted to know what happened in the conclusion but I wanted to keep reading forever. This is the power of great fiction and it is something that I believe gets lost in award season with all the perceived in-fighting and back-stabbing. Of course, the contradiction is that I wouldn’t have read the latter three on the above list quite so soon (if at all) had they not been short-listed.

So I have a love/hate relationship with science fiction and speculative fiction awards. They often point me in the direction of terrific stories and characters and introduce writers I might not have come across. But to me, they are missing the point of what good books are for and not celebrating the story as a thing itself enough.