No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

2011/19 and 20: The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men -- Patrick Ness

That's the secret of this planet, Todd. Communication, real and open, so we can finally understand each other for once.
I clear my throat. "Women don't got Noise," I say. "What'll happen to them?"
He stops. I'd forgotten ... if there's a way for men to stop having Noise, there must be a way for women to start. (Monsters of Men, p.453)
I'm discussing both novels in a single post because I read them back to back, and it's hard to separate out some aspects.
  1. These two novels, following The Knife of Never Letting Go, complete the Chaos Walking trilogy. They tell the story of Todd and Viola, two teenagers on New World who find themselves in the middle of a war. Possibly more than one war: the native population (called Spackle by the colonists) are rising against the invaders, but there is also conflict between the Mayor's party and those loyal to Mistress Coyle. Todd, who at the start of The Ask and the Answer is plotting to kill the Mayor, finds his beliefs and integrity shaken by the realities of war. Viola, who was sole survivor when a scout ship crashed, brings an external perspective and a few home truths.
  2. The trilogy as a whole is immensely readable -- well-paced, plotty, with plenty of reversals. The books are also a remarkably quick read, full of staccato sentences and creative typography, though not as much as in the first book).,Todd and Viola's voices are utterly distinct (and printed in different fonts). In the third volume there's a third viewpoint character who gets a font of his own: again, a very distinctive voice.
  3. On reflection, I'm inclined to think that the Chaos Walking trilogy is not -- despite Ness's choice of narrators -- primarily the story of Todd and Viola, or even of the conflict between humans and Spackle. Todd and Viola, despite the epic events in which they're instrumental, would very much like their story arc to be a typical teenage romance: they're besotted with one another, they act and justify those actions because of one another, and despite their youth (he's 14, she's 13) they move through the typical dance of romance: love, jealousy, doubt, apparent betrayal. But perhaps the 'real' story is that of David Prentiss, the Mayor (he elects himself President), a former military man who knows a great deal about the allure and corruption of power, and even more about social engineering. Chaos Walking could be read as the Rise and Fall of David Prentiss: he's a complex and credible character.
  4. One of the themes of the trilogy is communication. The Spackle communicate predominantly (only?) via Noise: to take away a Spackle's capacity for generating Noise is to silence that Spackle. ("It makes them better slaves." (A&A, p.100)) The Mayor learns to use Noise as a weapon, and as coercion: apparently this is a teachable skill. But so's reading: the illiterate can become literate if someone who can read 'shares' their skill -- rather than guiding word-by-word -- via the (rather fuzzy) mechanism of Noise. A society used to Noise doesn't expect stealth attacks, because an attacker's Noise would give them away. And Viola, who's become accustomed to Todd's Noise, is disturbed when she can't hear it any more; when he's become the same as the men she grew up with.
  5. I'd have liked more detail about how Noise works. It's audible over a communications link, so it's not traditional telepathy. It's also audible from underwater: the fish of New World are hungry, and have a small but precise vocabulary (eat) which is remarked upon by people on the beach. And I would very much like to know why women don't have it. Human women, anyway: Spackle females, who we never really encounter, have Noise.
  6. There are plenty of good, strong, three-dimensional female characters: Viola, Mistress Coyle, Simone, Todd's dead mother whose present in her journal. The women talk to one another about things other than men. Yet there's no specific, credible explanation of why all the women of the first colony are dead. (David Prentiss tells one story; Mistress Coyle tells another. Neither is a trustworthy source of information.) Given that a considerable part of the emotional content of the novel is about the conflict between men and women -- ranging from attempted 'femicide' to Viola's complaints when she can't hear Todd's noise -- it feels as though we're missing an important part of the story.
  7. Todd's essential decency -- his capacity for empathy, his desire to do the right thing (if only to make Viola happy), and the ways in which he protects himself against a world in which he's forced to be brutal -- is evident throughout the books. It's a catalyst for the actions of others, including the Spackle who wants revenge because Todd ('the Knife') knew that he was doing wrong but still did it, and the Mayor, who says that Todd is making him into a better person -- and, later, that until he met Todd he thought he himself was morally good.
  8. Given that many of the adult humans are either torturers (the Ask) or terrorists (the Answer), it's a relief that one of the more traditional themes of the trilogy is the transition of power from the older generation to the younger. Occasionally this seems slightly too neat, but the three young protagonists have endured a great deal in order to be qualified and competent to pick up the reins when they must.
  9. The Spackle are an intriguing alien race, though they have a damning tendency to speak without contractions (I'm reminded of various TV 'sci-fi' shows, and any number of Noble Savages in popular literature. There's just enough detail about their society to make me want more explanation.
  10. I was pleased to find The New World, a novella that tells the story of Viola's journey to New World, free as an ebook on Amazon. It shows just how quickly Viola has to grow up after the ship crashes, and offers some insight into her character.

2011/18: Declare -- Tim Powers

... the SIS Beirut station picked up a heavy traffic on the service bandwidth: it was en clair, but they thought it must be code because it was all nursery rhymes -- 'the man in the moon came down too soon', 'how many miles to Babylon' -- that kind of thing. The SIS triangulated the signal and found that it seemed to originate in the Bashura cemetary, but they could never find a transmitter, and the signal faded after a month, and they blamed the vagaries of the Heaviside Layer; but we in Declare knew that it was St John's ghost, catching hell from the Moslem angels. (p. 467)
  1. Declare braids two timelines; Andrew Hale's reluctant reconscription to the intelligence services in 1963, and the events leading up to an epic confrontation (and a poker game) in 1948 on the slopes of Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark traditionally came to rest. There's backstory aplenty, sketching out a secret history that goes back to the Ararat earthquake of 1883 and explores the arcane foundations of the Soviet Union. Switching between the timelines adds mystery and suspense, since Hale in 1963 (where the novel begins) is profoundly affected by the events of fifteen years before, while the reader's wholly ignorant.
  2. The suspense might be drawn out excessively: there's nothing about the nature of les parasites ("knots of turbulent activity in the nighttime Heaviside Layer", p. 83) until a third of the way through, and then we're inundated with explanation. I also found the multiple viewpoints uneven: for most of the book the narrator is Hale (young or older), but in the latter third there are other perspectives.
  3. Declare is a Cold War spy thriller with strong supernatural elements: distinctly fantasy, though the supernatural beings are more fully-realised, more three-dimensional and different, than many space-opera aliens.
  4. Andrew Hale grows up ignorant of his father's identity, groomed for the Secret Service and pledged at age 7 to the shadowy organisation named Declare. As a double agent in occupied Paris, he meets and falls in love with Soviet agent Elena Ceniza-Bendiga; back in London, he encounters Kim Philby -- whom he recognises from dreams -- and begins to suspect that he and Philby share some preternatural connection.
  5. Andrew Hale's fascination with the supernatural is all too credible: he wants to know, even after he's had a very close encounter with a force he can't control, or reason with, or even name.
  6. Powers has said "I made Catholicism be true in the definition of the world the story takes place in -- so that baptism, for instance, has a real effect on a person's identity" (Strange Horizons interview, 7-2-05). Powers also writes, in the afterword of Declare, about the process of examining the known facts -- in particular, Kim Philby's often eccentric behaviour -- and fitting them into a larger, stranger tale.
  7. The characterisation of Kim Philby is fascinating (because Powers is clearly fascinated) but seems inconsistent: sometimes hero, sometimes coward. He doesn't quite add up, doesn't feel complete. This might be because of his nature, or the destiny his father choose for and instilled into him, or because of the events he's lived through: but Hale feels more rounded. (I'm less impressed by Powers' version of Guy Burgess, though the flaws of this particular Burgess are explained by events alluded to in the novel.)
  8. I thought this novel failed the Bechdel test, but I was wrong. (Though Elena's a pawn and a prize as far as Philby, in particular, is concerned, she does have an independent story arc and isn't simply a token female.)
  9. After reading Declare, I looked at my world with new eyes. Powers gives an excellent rationale for drinking gin (it's all in the name). I wish he'd write a short story featuring Romeo, the fox that was living at the top of the Shard in London. And one of many interesting facts that I learnt from this novel: 'vrej' is Armenian for revenge. This casts one aspect of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle in a different light.
  10. Declare is packed with detail, anecdote and observation. It's not (or not only) Powers showing how thoroughly he's researched the period, the events, the people: often a significant detail (topology, meteorites, ankhs, bird's eggs, poisonous honey, bilocation, hitching a ride on the Ark) is buried in a plethora of scene-setting. And the scenery is robust: as the action moves from London to Paris to Moscow to Berlin to Beirut, each city comes alive with a different ambience. (I found Powers' descriptions of city streets and sordid bars more evocative than his, often poetic, descriptions of desert and mountain.) Occasionally an Americanism uttered by an Englishman grated; occasionally I wanted to query a detail. (When did Marks and Spenser start making quality menswear?) But overall, I enjoyed this novel immensely, and while I was writing up these notes I pretty much reread it.

Shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award 2010. (Declare was first published in the US in 2000, but a British edition only appeared last year. Given the globalisation of the book market -- and how very much easier it is to acquire non-UK books than it was even a decade ago -- maybe it's time to rethink the 'first UK publication' rule?)

Monday, April 18, 2011

2011/17: Generosity -- Richard Powers

Generosity -- Richard Powers
"We cured smallpox. We eradicated polio. We can hunt down and wipe out misery. There's no reason why every one of us can't be equals to our ideal ... I don't believe in God, but I do believe that it's humanity's job to bring God about." (p.190)
  1. Russell Stone teaches a 'creative nonfiction' class: one of his students is Thassa-dit Amzwar, a young Berber Algerian woman who Stone nicknames 'Miss Generosity' for her emotional resilience and enviable joie de vivre. She's survived more horror and hardship than the rest of the class put together, yet she remains cheerful. Thassa's happiness -- diagnosed by Stone as 'hyperthymia', a preternaturally joyful temperament -- influences all those who know her. Stone becomes close to Candace Weld, a clinical psychologist at the college who's as bemused by Thassa's brain as everyone else.
  2. If Stone and Weld are the 'arts' side of the equation, Nobel prizewinning geneticist Thomas Kurton and cable broadcast star Tonia Schiff -- who's putting together a programme on genomics -- represent 'science'. Kurton is fascinated by Thassa's condition, and believes that there's a genetic basis for her happiness: he hopes to make it possible (and commercially viable) for others to share in her gift.
  3. Richard Powers' writing is dense with epigrams, encapsulations, turns of phrase that make us look twice at the familiar. This book isn't a quick read: it deserves patience and reflection.
  4. Generosity is science fiction in that it's fiction about science: the core of the novel is the nature-versus-nurture debate, and the science of happiness and depression. There's a great deal of discussion about the evolutionary basis of depression:
    If you're scouting and find food, that's dandy. But if a pride of lions discovers your hideyhole while you're sleeping: Game Over. The bad can hurt you much more than the good can help. So nature selects for pessimists. (p.93)
    . Powers doesn't simply tell, he shows: Stone is reeling, eight years later, from the end of an affair; Candace is divorced; Candace's son Gabe finds meaning and fulfilment in online games; Stone's students are discontent but hopeful. Thassa's happiness is thrown into sharper contrast by the mundane miseries of every other character's situation. About a third of the way through the book I was inclining towards the view that she was a conduit as much as anything -- a way of reconnecting the lost and broken with a larger reality, letting them be courted by life.
  5. The novel's also about the act of creation: Stone's 'creative nonfiction' (which has caused him pain at the intersection of fact and interpretation), and his students' attempts to inject their journalled lives with meaning and feeling. There's also a mysterious narrator, a first-person voice who seems clumsy and uncertain of his craft and the direction of his story. This narrator's bias colours a lot of the novel, sometimes in ways that aren't transparent.
  6. Because it's a novel about creativity (both scientific and artistic) it explores differing interpretations and the quest for meaning. Uncertainty creeps in: did it really happen that way? Is this character's viewpoint trustworthy? Is the narrator reliable?
  7. If the mystery narrator is a placeholder for Powers, or for the reader's narrative bias, then so's the prize-winning novelist who's troubled by the implications of Thassa's psychology:
    ... genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to one another and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all. (p.139)
    . The limits of Thassa's happiness are revealed, though perhaps they surprise the characters more than the reader. If I've read correctly, the factors affecting that limitation might explain why Thassa's condition, call it 'hyperthymia' or generosity or joy, is so rare.
  8. I loved the book, but found the ending unsatisfactory. It does make sense, but it feels like defeat. Worse, it feels bolted on.
  9. Here's a curious thing: many of the characters are fascinating, but none -- with the possible exception of Thassa -- are truly likeable. Is that because Powers is merciless in his revelation of their flaws? Or is it because they're placeholders for points of view, actions, dramatic progression? I veer towards the former explanation.
  10. Generosity passes the Bechdel test (named female characters talking to one another about something other than a man). I wonder how differently it would read if Thassa-dit Amzwar wasn't foreign, exotic, non-white.

2011/16: Zoo City -- Lauren Beukes

It's a junkie look. That desperately pretending that everything is hunky-dory, you're not stressed at all about anything in the world, when inside your jeans pockets, your hands are clamped into sweaty fists, fingernails leaving grooves in your palms. If Huron's grooves were an LP, they would be playing the Johnny Cash cover of Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt'. And the tentacles would be waving along in time. (p.93)
  1. An alternate South Africa (the dates on some of the emails were, spookily, an exact match to the dates when I read the book) in which murderers are Animalled -- accompanied by a living, breathing beast that's somehow an embodiment of their sin. Zinzi, the narrator, has a Sloth on her back. It doesn't stop her running 419 scams to con rich Americans out of their guilt-money. Zinzi's talent is finding what's lost: the Sloth helps with that.
  2. Zinzi's latest assignment sends her on the trail of a missing teenage pop star, and right into the murky depths of the JO'burg music scene. It's a setting that is refreshingly novel.
  3. The novel's firmly rooted in modern Africa. Zinzi's lover is a former child soldier, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zinzi seeks assistance from a sangoma (traditional healer) who turns out to be a former actuary and who gets text messages from the ancestors.
  4. This may be post-apartheid South Africa -- and race is barely mentioned -- but the spirit of apartheid is alive and kicking in the segregation of the Animalled.
  5. Lauren Beukes' prose is sharp and spiky and feels like cyberpunk: and yes, there are cyberpunk elements, including the emails that Zinzi receives from untraceable accounts.
  6. This is more urban fantasy than SF; though multiple theories of the Animalled (and the Undertow, a 'black cloud' that manifests as needed to kill those whose animals have died) are posited, none of them are given credence or proven correct.
  7. Beukes is refreshingly aware of genre, as well as popular culture: there's a nice nod to Philip Pullman.
  8. Zoo City blends magic and technology, African mythology and popular culture. It has a distinctly noir aesthetic and the pace of a thriller.
  9. Definitely worth checking out the soundtrack -- Zoo City soundtrack on AfricanDope.
  10. I felt the novel (or possibly just its narrator) lost her way a little in the middle: plenty of tension and running around but not much progress.

Shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award 2010