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…

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The Race by Nina Allan

The RaceAllan’s debut – The Race – is a brave novel, hard to categorise and in some ways hard to describe. It is, essentially, four short stories from four different characters’ perspectives. It begins in a fairly standard fashion; a science fiction tale from the point of view of Jenna.

Kent, and by extrapolation, England, has been ravaged. Fracking has caused an environmental collapse. Life has reverted back to almost 1970s style existence (shillings are the currency, trams are the main transport), except that the major past-time is smartdog racing; a futuristic version of greyhound racing, where the dogs are connected to human runners. Jenna makes gloves for the runners. The story takes place in Sapphire, on the edge of the future Romney Marshes. Not a lot happens at the outset. Jenna describes her life and her narrow world view. Her brother, who is dodgy, runs a race track. His daughter gets kidnapped and he must win the big race to find the money to pay the kidnappers.

Next up is Christy. Her story is much more contemporary. In fact, it appears she lives in our world. It perturbed me a little early on as her voice and her story seemed a lot like Jenna’s. Christy’s brother is Derek, Jenna’s is Del. They are both wrong’uns. Again, not a lot of plot to talk about, as Christy describes her relationships with the people who come into her life as she heads off to university. One of Derek’s girlfriends is called Lin. She goes missing…Alex is Lin’s ex-boyfriend and is the narrator of the third, and shortest story. He visits Christy in Hastings, where they must confront their pasts. He also ties up a loose end of Christy’s tale.

Back in the future, the final story features the orphan Maree, an empath on a strange journey to a new home across the Atlantic. Some of the places seem to be those of our world, and some seem to be the world of Jenna – smartdogs are a feature too. There’s a lot of mythology in this story, especially about gigantic whales that cause consternation to the travellers. Relationships are the order of the day in this segment, and Maree has plenty of them to negotiate. One of the passengers on her ship discloses that he is an investigator hired to find her. Maree is the kidnapped niece of Jenna. It is revealed that she is to work on a project which is attempting to translating some potential alien languages. There is an appendix too, which is a third person story of Maree, several years later. More about how the stories throughout the novel are interwoven is revealed. I especially enjoyed the link to the mirror scene in an earlier section of the book.

Allan’s voice is strong. Her prose is very readable and her characters very engaging. The style of the first two (Jenna and Christy) is deliberately similar, and once you work it out, is satisfying. Despite the individual sections not having a whole lot of story, the completed work exposes the bigger picture nicely. Not everything works perfectly – such as the narrow focus of the world building in the science fiction tales, and the half made-up, half relatable future. Although I suppose as they are first person tales, the narrow focus is understandable.

The main focus of The Race is not science fiction, or even plot. It is relationships. Especially between brother and sister, but also, and unusually in science fiction, between boyfriends and girlfriends (and same sex couples) in the early stages or short-term partnerships. Not much happy ever after or soul-mates to be found here. People come and go in our lives and Allan describes this with aplomb. I could have done with more plot, personally. I would have liked an explanation of why the gloves where so important. I would have liked more thematic completion, especially around the title – although I guess it might be the human race as opposed to the smartdog race. Alex seems to exist only to solve Christy’s suspicions surrounding the missing Lin.

Allan’s deft touch is nice – when the hints she drops about Christy’s voice is made clear, it is almost casual, as if unimportant. There is an undercurrent about Allan’s view of language and what books generally and stories specifically mean to her, culminating in the terrific passage which includes the memorable line: “what the hell is a fucking squirrel”. There are hints of Allan’s feelings on war, and the science fiction has a nostalgic quality. And so there is a lot going on in The Race, lack of plot notwithstanding, and most of it hugely enjoyable. And you can thank Allan’s brilliant prose style and very likeable characters.

Originally published here: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2016/09/the-race-by-nina-allan/

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].

Favourite Re-reads: Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse 5“All this happened, more or less.” I decided to read all of Vonnegut’s novels in order. I’d previously only read this one, The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions and Timequake before this particular mission. While I’d thoroughly enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five previously, it was only on this re-read, following on from Vonnegut’s first 5 novels that I’ve come to really appreciate it as part of a body of work.

Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim. He is a survivor of the infamous World War 2 attack on Dresden, as was Vonnegut himself in February 1945. Back in the US, Pilgrim is an optometrist and is the only survivor of a plane crash. Billy insists he can travel through time; witnessing key moments of his life out of sequence. And after the crash, he reveals that he has spent time on the planet Tralfamadore. He was kidnapped by aliens and exhibited in their zoo, along with another human – an adult film star called Montana Wildhack. They are to mate. The aliens are to watch. The Tralfamadrians explain that they can see all of time at once, and that everything that happens, happens at the same time, so you can visit events at will.

Of course, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war novel. And how! But being anti-war, especially considering Vonnegut’s personal history, is only half the story. Most of the tale is the journey of Billy as he is captured by the Germans and sent to Dresden where he survives the firebombing in the titular slaughterhouse. The storytelling, wit and intelligence is what elevates this novel. It is even metafictional – the narrator clearly identifying himself at occasional key points. Of course, as Vonnegut experienced many of them himself, he must be the narrator, manipulating the reader and the events he portrays.

For me, Slaughterhouse Five opens with one of the best and most memorable lines in fiction. There is so much meaning to those 6 words. Autobiographical. Fiction. Metafiction. Satire. Horror. Science fiction. An indication of what’s to come. The books brings together many of Vonnegut’s ideas, phrases and characters. The most common, of course, is “so it goes” whenever some passes. A harrumph at destiny? The Tralfamadrians, of course, are fatalists by nature. Other familiar areas are Ilium, New York; displacement in time; the fictional science fiction author Kilgore Trout; the planet of Tralfamadore (first mentioned in The Sirens of Titan and then in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). And fairly blunt attacks on religion. Reoccurring characters include war veterans Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (from Mother Night) and Eliot Rosewater (from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) and the time shifting Bertram Copeland Rumfoord (from The Sirens of Titan).

With all that in mind, Slaughterhouse Five is such an easy and enjoyable read. More than almost any other writer I’ve read (especially social satirists and science fiction authors), Vonnegut is a terrific storyteller. He understands his audience and he understands people. In the hands of any other author, some of the writing would seem ludicrous, especially in an anti-war novel (“Billy had liked Spot a lot, and Spot had liked him” sounds like it comes from a beginner’s reading book). However, it moments such as Billy watching the war film backwards that whack you over the head with poignancy and meaning, especially the moment describing the women who hide the materials taken from bombs in the earth so they’d “never hurt anyone every again”.

There might be some doubt, narrative-wise, that what Billy recounts is real. Are his encounters with the aliens and his ability to travel through time real, or the results of the trauma of war (and the plane crash)? Is this simply a device Vonnegut uses for storytelling? Is Vonnegut (as himself or as Kilgore Trout) an unreliable narrator? And if so, does that mean we aren’t meant to take the aliens and time-jumping as anything other than metaphor? I don’t think it matters. You can read it either way – real or all in Billy’s mind – and the book still wallops you in the brain.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five says plenty about the horror and humiliation and dehumanisation of war. Much of the plot that happens in Billy’s later life occurs while the Vietnam War is ongoing. Despite the undeniable horrors of Dresden, America in particular never learns. Billy says: “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does”. A very bleak outlook indeed. According to the Tralfamadrians, everyone who has died and suffered terribly because of war, is still alive somewhere and always will be. Which is something, isn’t it?

Stepping out of the comfort zone: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Mother NIghtMother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Confessions by Kanae Minato, Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. Various works by Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami.

When I pick up a book I have a rough rule of thumb: nothing that can possibly happen to anyone in the real world today. It is rare that I don’t read anything that is covered by fantasy, science fiction, horror or magic realism. The above examples are the closest I come to reading what some might call normal or contemporary fiction. Of those examples, I haven’t really enjoyed Moore and Minato. The rest I’ve loved. Having just read Mother Night I thought I might investigate why.

I set myself a meaningless challenge at the start of 2015 which goes against my usual dislike for conformity. I plan to read all of Vonnegut’s novels in order. And so I come to Mother Night. Published in 1961, it was his third novel, following the science fiction of Player Piano and Sirens of Titan. I didn’t choose the read non-genre other than within the limitations of my own challenger.

This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. It is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This is a literary trick I like and dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. The best example is probably The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). The protagonist is an American who moved to Germany as a young boy in 1923 and then a well-known playwright and Nazi propagandist. He is now awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he recounts his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested. Incidentally, this is the first time Vonnegut uses his ‘so-it-goes’ approach to narrative, which I’ll come across again later in the year. Admittedly, in Mother Night the author plays with fiction and narrative, so although there is no fantastical elements, it is far from straight forward fiction. It is satire, as black as night. It is speculative fiction at its best.

Mother Night is clever, funny, bleak and brilliantly written. Vonnegut was a practiced writer before he became a novelist. His debut was outstanding and this isn’t far behind in terms of technical achievement. The plot is interesting enough but it is the themes and characters that keep you interested. Campbell feels like a classic unreliable narrator. He describes his motivations but remember, he is on trial in Israel for being a Nazi. How honest is he being? Only the actions of others hint at the truth. Vonnegut is so clever with his plotting and how he plays with the reader.

I think I’m happy enough to read what might be described as non-genre fiction but it appears there are some conditions. Literary tricks. Metafiction. Playing with the reader. Dark comedic satire. And if the list above is examined carefully, none of it could actually happen in the real world under normal reality rules and conditions. Mother Night is not science fiction and is not alternative history. It is not fantasy in the traditional sense. However, most good science fiction tells the reader something interesting about the human condition, either on an individual or global level. Vonnegut achieves this in the 175 pages of a memoir of a war criminal. Genius.

Telling Tales: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Buried GiantThe best novels are about great stories, interesting or surprising character development and taking the reader on a journey of discovery. The latest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro is a historical fantasy and as has been said by others, two out of three ain’t bad.

What I have enjoyed previously about Ishiguro’s novels have been the power of his writing to evoke a sense of time and place. Whether he’s in a dystopian horror or a dream-like Eastern European city, the reader feels a part of the novel; understands its place. In The Buried Giant Ishiguro hits those notes perfectly again, despite the tale being told is set in Arthurian times. The main characters are, as the narrator describes, known as Axl and Beatrice. An elderly couple, Britons, living out their days in a village, perhaps somewhere in the south west of England. As with the other villagers, even the younger ones, memories are foggy and motivations are unclear. Even recent events. Ishiguro plays with words and ideas when describing the fuzziness of memory – and indeed with being – with a deft touch. The couple’s relationship is beautifully solid too, despite the difficulties of time. Axl only ever refers to his wife as ‘princess’ and they have very real ups and downs.

One morning, as Axl vaguely recalls a visitor and her conversation with his wife, it is decided they should go to seek out their son, who lives in a distance village. Although they cannot remember why it should be so. And so they set out. This is a journey narrative. A movement of characters from a to b with encounters and trials along the way. They meet a warrior and a boy who it seems has been bitten by an ogre. They meet a mysterious boatman and one of Arthur’s knights. They visit a monastery where nothing is as it appears. They learn of the she-dragon called Querig and why it is so important to not only their lives, but all of England. To reveal more would be to spoil the journey, and its conclusion.

The framing of the story, revealed at its conclusion, is brilliant and as realisation dawned on this reader I felt that the reading journey had been worthwhile. Because to be honest, I’d struggled somewhat in the middle section of this book. While the main characters are interesting, the others, especially the warrior and the boy, weren’t as developed. Some of the events show some imagination (the boatman and the pixies are but two) and wit; proving Ishiguro is as comfortable in this genre as in others. However, the story itself was a bit thin. The book is about memory (the buried giant) and perceptions, along with history and the wars fought in historical England. Trouble still brews between the Britons and the Saxons. There is an element of religion too and implications that the dragon and the memory loss are punishments from God (our heroes are Christians). The concepts are brilliantly woven throughout the book and characters’ interactions. The sense of walking through this country highly evocative. I love the fact that this is a fantasy adventure where the main protagonists are an aging couple with no special powers or, for example, remarkable courage other than the desire to see their son. It is all about the journey and the reveal. However, the actual narrative, from village to village to monastery to dragon’s lair to Axl and Beatrice’s son is a little on the dull side. The dialogue a little on the trite side.

There was significant hype about The Buried Giant with Ishiguro admitting he threw out the first draft and press interest in whether or not he thinks of this as a fantasy. I think for me, the hype and the anticipation are not met by the actual tale told. I am big fan of fairy tales. Usually they are resolved due to human kindness, and contain a sense of mystery and wonder. Ishiguro has attempted to write a fairy tale here, and it does have those elements to it. While there is nothing wrong with the descriptions, the main protagonists and story-telling, the actual tale needed more focus, more texture. Style – a beautifully written and powerfully cleverly constructed idea – over substance.

Original version published here: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookhugger/2015/03/23/the-buried-giant-by-kazuo-ishiguro-2/ 

Literary tricks: Thoughts after reading Day Four by Sarah Lotz.

Day FourFine lines. Brilliant fiction is often about fine lines.

I like a literary trick. I find them clever (I like clever). Providing they’re not at the expense of a plot. When the author is going all hey look at me, aren’t I clever but there’s no story, I’m not so keen. You can admire the effort but find the result and even the intention pretentious. Almost all fiction that I read, probably what anyone reads, is standard format: chapters and prose; first person or third. I often ache for something different, original, challenging. But again, not at the expense of story. When I read, story is paramount.

In Sarah Lotz’s The Three, which was presented as reportage, the ideas and plot where left open to interpretation. I was delighted by the book. It was a refreshing read, although not really a literary trick. Reportage is reasonably common in fiction. The Three, thankfully, defied genre and left questions unanswered. I was eager for more. When I started to read her follow up, Day Four (which incidentally can be read as a sequel or a standalone – no previous knowledge required) I thought, nice, she hasn’t tried to repeat herself. No, instead Lotz does something more rewarding.

The Three was a thriller which could be read in a variety of ways. When four planes crash with only three survivors, speculation is rife about what it might mean. Day Four is a more conventional tale of a disaster aboard a cruise ship. The first few chapters are, apparently, standard narrative. It is day four on the ship’s voyage. We meet a PA of a superstar medium. Then Gary; a man with a perverse secret. Next up is one of the ship’s crew – a chambermaid called Althea. By now I thought I wouldn’t like this one so much. Straight forward pot-boiler and lots of characters it would take a while to get to know. I sometimes struggle with novels that begin with multiple viewpoints because each time a chapter begins it feels like a new book is beginning. These things take time. The next chapter features a couple of elderly women. The one after, a medic called Jesse, who has a dubious past. And then Devi, another member of the ship’s crew. Oh, and now we’re into day five and there’s a blog post. This is a lot of POVs. And then we’re back with the PA and the chapter headings are repeating. Intriguing.

So the ship is floating without power and the passengers and crew are becoming restless. Weird shit goes down, although we as readers, are never spoon-fed. Each chapter, from the POV of each character, moves the plot on nicely without repetition or cliché. As one chapter ends, the next takes place a few moments later, but without telegraphing or an obvious handing over of the baton. Lotz’s skill is to make us care about each character, although we spend precious little time with them, while presenting an intriguing plot, with more questions than answers. The skill is also to forget the literary trick and simply follow the narrative. The feel of the book is more of a classic ghost story with a medium as the conduit for the action, although there are hints of other weirdness going on. I’m not usually a fan of the page-turner, the pot-boiler or what-ever you might call it, but I couldn’t put Day Four down. When the coda comes along, again in a changed format, I hadn’t an inkling of what was going on. When the denouement presented itself I was more than happy to go along with it because Lotz had proved herself to me. I wasn’t being played with. I was being told a decent story in a captivatingly different way.

Day Four isn’t a profound novel. It doesn’t say a whole lot about the human condition that hasn’t been said elsewhere. It’s not a particularly original story either. The sub-text, as with The Three, is minimal – people are basically animals. But it comes with an ending that makes you reflect on the story and the style of writing as a whole (and whether or not a sequel follows I’m happy with my own council). However, it is an interesting story, without being stuck up its own arse. This fiction stays on the right side of a fine line. It isn’t brilliant, but is highly enjoyable and eminently readable. What elevates it into something more is the interesting style. Lotz’s isn’t going on about how clever an author she is – and she is clever – but she can write a readable story in an attention-grabbing style. And for that, I thank her.

Thoughts after reading The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeThere’s something I’ve noticed in the last few years. It’s definitely a trend and I for one am delighted. Actually, there are a couple of trends, and they are both exemplified by my copy of The Three by Sarah Lotz. Although my copy is a pre-release proof, it is still a gorgeous book. All black and shiny, and with each page trimmed in black too. I’ve seen pictures of the hard back and it looks awesome. This first trend exhibited is the clear effort that publishers are putting into making books more attractive to have – a response, I guess, from the e-book market. As a bibliophile I couldn’t be happier. My recent hard back edition of Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea by Adam Roberts also shows off this trend. When was the last time you read an adult novel (as opposed to a YA or children’s book) with illustrations? Love it.

Once I’d admired the actual physicality of the book and started reading it, I was immediately struck by the difference in format. I am constantly striving to find something different in life, be it in music, art or whatever. I am tired of the same old same old. There is a lot of repetition in the creative world. I have not read a book (to the best of my memory) that is quite like The Three. The only reportage style I’ve experienced before is Max Brooks’ World War Z and Carrie by Stephen King (although its 20-odd years since I read the latter). I’ve learned this style is called an epistolary novel (which apparently also refers to novels such as Dracula – I have read and it is a tedious book – which are almost all letters). Reading The Three felt like a genuine piece of non-fiction. Almost like a documentary. Credit must go to the author. The final section of the novel plays on this in a very clever way.

The Three is the story of survivors. Four planes crash almost simultaneously; in the USA, Japan, South Africa and off the UK coast. American Pam survives the Japanese crash long enough to leave a message. Then she dies. This message has the potential to change everything. Three children also survive, against all odds – in Japan, USA and UK. The novel follows the tales of these children as a fictitious author pulls all the strands together in a variety of formats (interviews, transcripts of recordings, online messages, transcripts of Skype interviews and more). The children are subject to speculation and conspiracy. In the US, they are believed to be incarnations of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Is there are forth surviving child? There are suggestions of aliens and ghosts. Whatever, the children are genuinely creepy in their portrayal. By the end, you don’t know what to believe or who. Even the fictional documentarian, Elspeth Martins, may have an agenda. Which is a great idea. Most non-fiction authors and documentary film-makers have a natural bias. Lotz captures this with apparent ease.

Trend number two [spoiler alert]. This is another book from my recent pile that defies genre. On the face of it, it is a conspiracy thriller – four plane crashes, why? Surely there must be a reason, although none are revealed. Some are suggested but nothing is concrete. And then…what becomes of the survivors? Is this just a human story; contemporary literature? But. It also has elements of ghost stories (the Japanese suicide forest is properly haunting), religious end-of-the-world akin to the infamous Left Behind novels (which have their own version in Lotz’s world) and there is even the possibility of an alien invasion novel. Is this a horror novel? Science fiction? Fantasy? None of the above. We never know the truth so it is both all and none of these at the same time. Lotz’s imagination and writing skill are brilliant and self-evident, but it is her ability to blend ideas and genres without it feeling forced is a triumph and is exactly what I’m looking for in a novel.

I hope that this is hugely successful book because this is one of those rare novels that come along all-too infrequently. Something a bit different (even if elements are from other books or genres), something I’ve not read before and something un-put-downable. Something that will turn heads and make the reader excited (both by the content and the physical book itself). This is what I want in speculative fiction. In the last few years I’ve read more and more of these novels which defy genre classification. While I’ve recently enjoyed some classic science fiction, horror and urban fantasy, it is novels such as The Three that are exciting me the most and I plan to seek out more like this. Authors such as Sarah Lotz are the future of genre (and non-genre) fiction. More power to them.

But a final thought, if not a plea. I hope there is no sequel that explains things. I love an ambiguous ending, a one where it is left up to me to decide what happened. I know in my mind what I think happened in The Three. I don’t want the author’s truth, I want to keep my own.

 

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Erewhon by Samuel Butler (1872)

ErewhonThe interesting aspect about the development of science fiction is that not all key texts are actually science fiction. However, they are worth an investigation. Samuel Butler was a bit of a polymath, being a commentator on Christian orthodoxy, Italian art, evolution, and literary history and criticism. He also made prose translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. So it is appropriate that he wrote a cultural satire which nods towards Utopia by Thomas More.

Erewhon: or, Over the Range was first published in 1872. Erewhon is of course an anagram of ‘nowhere’. The fictional country is meant to based on Butler’s experiences in New Zealand, although the inhabitants of the mysterious land are described as European in appearance. The copy I read is 1985 Penguin Classic edition, based upon their first publication of their reprint in 1935. As is usual, I did not read the introduction or notes on the text. This was my first reading of the text.

Erewhon begins with a narrator and his guide (Chowbok) visiting the forbidden country which lies beyond the mountains. They find a pass through, but Chowbok runs off in fear. Our hero continues until he finds a mysterious collection of statues. He loses consciousness and is discovered by some Erewhonians. He is taken to a village, and locked up because he owns a watch. Yram (Mary), befriends him and teaches him the language.  He discovers that these people treat illness and misery as crimes. Grief is a sign of misfortune and an individual is held responsible for actions that made them unfortunate. Machines, such as the watch, are also seen as criminal. The narrator’s reputation spreads and he his soon summoned to the capital to meet the king and queen. He is told he is to stay with Mr Nosnibor (Robinson) who is a recovering embezzler. Actual crime is seen to be something to be pitied and treated. The protagonist soon falls in love with the youngest daughter, Arowhena (which doesn’t appear to be an anagram of anything at all). However, the oldest is to be wed first, and it must be the narrator’s responsibility to marry her.

It is at this point that the narrative halts and the philosophical treatise begins. While visiting the University of Unreason, where students study anything that has absolutely no practical purpose, he learns the truth of the society – the Musical Banks, the worship of Ydgrun, the Book of Machines and more. It is this that section that is the true satire of Victorian culture. Butler talks about religion and science. He writes to comment on his almost Lamarckian view of evolution, in opposition to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Lamarckian evolution is based on the idea of inherited traits: the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring (so a giraffe that stretches its neck longer to reach the highest leaves will give birth to offspring with a longer neck). Butler’s writing suggests that cells have a will and a capacity to shape their environment. He is well versed in the science of the day and even quotes Paley’s theory on the divine watchmaker. Butler also satirises his perceived injustices of Victorian England by means of this utopia in which everything in Erewhon is the exact opposite of what they were in England. These are broad attacks however, and it is never really clear who Butler is riling against, with the possible exception of Darwin. The philosophical chapters cover the Musical Banks, the Ydgrunites, the Colleges of Unreason, the Book of the Machines (the idea that machines may evolve and come to dominate humanity), and the myth of the world of the unborn (where the unborn choose their parents). There is a sense of the nonsensical about this book, which must be deliberate. While a satire on Utopia is probably seen as a dystopia, this world that Butler creates has more in common with the surrealists and the literary nonsense of Lear.

In the last couple of chapters, the narrative returns, and our hero escapes in a balloon with Arowhena. They find a ship and are married before returning to England. The book concludes with them planning to return to Erewhon in order to change their culture, as akin to Christian missionaries. So does this mean that Butler actually thinks Victorian society is correct and should dominate and even replace that of Erewhon?

Firstly, I should point out that this is less of a novel, or a story, and more of rant. For the majority of the book, not a lot happens. As with Gulliver’sSamuel_Butler_by_Charles_Gogin Travels a narrator goes to a place and then simply describes their society. ­The main character, our narrator, is a fairly dull and objectionable personality. He is rescued and taught by the kindly Yram and develops emotions for her, and yet abandons her without a care at the drop of a hat. He basically assumes he knows better than everyone else.

Secondly, I think that it is quite strange that despite the likes of Shelly and Verne creating hugely influential and popular works of fiction, and this being published 350ish years after Utopia (1516), the novel doesn’t appear to have evolved much. There is little difference in style and construction in all this time. The idea of incorporating world-building into plot has not yet occurred to authors.

I should have loved this. The writing is technically fine. It is the typical diary-style of the fantastic voyage format and the author knows that his words are meant to be read and reacted upon by future generations. There are moments of wit and there are some interesting passages and novel ideas. It is, as I’ve said, the work of a knowledgeable author. This is however, by 1872, a tired conceit, especially when the plot stops and the rant starts. The book is quite peculiar, distinctively imaginative and satirising a subject I know about and was educated in, but it is so very dull. There are hints of the warnings common in science fiction during the Book of the Machines section, but there is nothing about Erewhon that is actual science fiction. It is not even fantasy, just a misplaced tirade. Nothing more than a mildly interesting diversion from more actual science fiction from the late 1800s.

 

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Orrin Lindsay’s Plan Of Aerial Navigation Edited by J. L. RIDDELL, M.D. (1847)

I can’t recall how I came across this little known oddity of science fiction. Probably at the British Library a few years ago. What I do know is that having read a few books and short stories ranging from 1516 to 1826, and declaring that science fiction had become an established genre by now, that this short story, published in 1847, could be the first science fiction story that puts the science first.

Gibbous_MoonI read a converted e-text of the originally published pamphlet, which was transcribed from the British Library’s original copy. It has a grand declaration on the cover, stating that it is ORRIN LINDSAY’S PLAN OF AERIAL NAVIGATION, WITH A NARRATIVE OF HIS EXPLORATIONS IN THE HIGHER REGIONS OF THE ATMOSPHERE, AND HIS WONDERFUL VOYAGE ROUND THE MOON! Edited by J. L. RIDDELL, M.D. NEW ORLEANS; REA’S POWER PRESS OFFICE, 58 Magazine street 1847. No hiding from the intent of this pamphlet then. It turns out, that Riddell is actually John Leonard Riddell (1807 -1865) who was a scientist and doctor who also lecturer in various US universities.

The story is formatted in the way of letters. The first is a request for a lecture given by Riddell. The second is a response from the author, accepting that request. There is then the ‘attached’ transcript of the lecture which outlines the letter Riddell received from a former student Mr. Orrin Lindsay, ‘announcing some new and astonishing discoveries in aerial navigation’. The immediate point of interest is that just this transcript of the lecture, there is a scientific notation, describing the nature of gravitation, which contains equations and citations – Memoir on the Constitution of Matter and Laws of Motion, by J. L. Riddell, N. 0. Medical Journal, March, 1846, volume II, page 602. A little digging suggests that this is a real publication (see Worldcat entry). Riddell’s lecture transcript then refers to letters between himself and Lindsay, and then there is Lindsay’s account of his experiments, which is a narrative provided to Riddell, which he has read out. This short narrative falls under four parts:

  1. PRELIMINARY REMARKS AND PROGRESS OF DISCOVERY.

In which Lindsay discusses various powers available to man [sic] such as wind, steam and electro-magnetism. He talks about science and gravitation. He claims an invention which provides ‘an impervious screen to the influence of gravitation’. OK, so we’re firmly now in the realms of science fiction. Of that there is no doubt. He then talks about experimentation, and how he used science to create a magnetic balloon.

  1. NARRATIVE OF THE FIRST AERIAL VOYAGE.

In which Lindsay describes his first successful attempt at flying the balloon. He notes dates and times, describing both data and sensations. He reaches five miles and experiences drowsiness. On his return to Earth, he reports that his balloon had been observed by ‘sundry persons’. Again, this section contains scientific footnotes.

  1. PREPARATION FOR THE SECOND VOYAGE.

In which, this shortest of sections, Lindsay describes how he plans to overcome the difficulties of his first experimental voyage. He lays out mathematical logic which he uses to design his voyage.

  1. NARRATIVE OF THE SECOND VOYAGE.

In which Lindsay and his companion, Josslin, visit the moon in his gravity-defying balloon. Again, this passage is about observation and process; how they got there and what they saw. Refreshingly, there are no aliens on the moon (unlike, say Godwin’s The Man in the Moone). He describes the lightness of the moon’s atmosphere, mountains and depressions, unfortunately, volcanoes. Of course, at the time, it was unknown that the moon was geologically inactive, so Riddell, in writing Lindsay’s fictional account, assumed it would be just as active as Earth. I think that can be forgiven, within this context. The travellers then return to Earth, observing much of the planet during their descent, landing safely at their original point of departure. Again, there are footnotes containing equations and facts, assisting the reader in understanding the science behind Lindsay’s journey.

The story concludes with a letter again from Lindsay to Riddell suggesting a voyage to Mars.

What I find fascinating is that Riddell is real and uses reality within the story. Is this, therefore, not only the first science fiction story that puts real science at the forefront, but is it also the first example of science metafiction. Riddell uses his science background – and remember, this was 1847 when science (as named as such, with experimentation and reporting of results) was still in its infancy – to create a fiction that he is complicit in.

So let’s break this down into the components of science fiction story. It is well written in the sense that it reads like is should; a scientific account of the Riddellage. Of course, Riddell was a trained scientist and published author, which means he should have been practiced at getting his point across. There are no ‘real’ characters in the story. Riddell is merely a reporter. Lindsay is an experimenter, albeit with a grand vision. I suspect he is Riddell in a poor disguise. And I do think that justifies the metafiction idea too. Josslin has no character to speak of. Is it, then a story at all? Or just a fake scientific account? Tricky. Probably not. There is no traditional elements of growth and discovery. There is no warning or political comment, as much of science fiction does have. There is a beginning, middle and end, which counts, I suppose. So, this short work is strong science-based science fiction. Of that there is no doubt. It is a work well ahead of its time in almost every sense: use of evidence-based science and experimentation to drive the (small piece of) plot; clearly written and explained with the use of footnotes; and using current theories of science (lunar volcanoes) excepted to justify its existence. It deserves to be much more widely known about. While it is stretching it to call this piece a short story, it is nonetheless, a short fiction. It is not a flight of fancy and an excuse to put weird aliens on the moon, but a valid look into the future of technology and discovery. Despite its dryness, I kinda liked it.