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

Friday, October 19, 2012

2012/51: Spares -- Michael Marshall Smith

So many objects and machines these days are stuffed full of intellect - and most of the time it's just turned off. We're surrounded by unused intelligence, and for once it's not our own. For every fridge which tells you what's fresh and what's not, there'll be fifty which have been told to shut the fuck up. ... We created things which are clever and then told them to be stupid instead. (p. 105)

Read for bookclub, Spares is a futuristic noir thriller that begins in the lowest levels of a crippled shopping mall, takes in a clone farm and the mysterious Gap ('all the places where no one is' (208)), and culminates in a chapel at the very top of the MegaMall. Protagonist Jack Randall (ex-cop, ex-bladerunner, ex-soldier) starts off thinking that he's carrying out a rescue: in the end, the only person he can rescue is himself. He needs to learn a lot about what's really going on before he can solve a series of crimes and bring to justice the man who wrecked his life.

I suspect this was a far better read when it came out in the late 1990s: now -- fatal for an SF novel -- its vision of the 22nd century feels dated. A street price of $800 for 128GB RAM? $800 enough to subsist on for quite a while? And, damningly, 'it must have been great when computers could only fuck you up at work, by pretending they couldn't find the printer' (p. 83). That's the author, not the character.

There are some excellent ideas in here -- smart appliances, the Gap, cloning as medical insurance, the MegaMall, the drug that intensifies reality, the reformed war droid who's the most likeable character in the novel -- but I didn't feel they really came together. Or maybe I was distracted [or repulsed, or outraged] by the protagonist's sexism, and the sexism of the whole society.

I have neither the time nor the desire to discuss sexism / misogyny in Spares at any length, but here are some examples:

  1. The most successful career woman in here is a professional shopper.
  2. Female clones as sex objects (okay, not just the clones)
  3. The feud between Vinaldi and Randall is based on what they did to each other's wives (no indication that the wives had any agency in those situations).
  4. One female character is pleasantly surprised not to be raped when she's captured. (Presumably this is usual in such circumstances.)
  5. There are lots of soldiers. None of them are female.
  6. Maxwork -- 'relief from tedium', something for men to do while women shop. So men don't shop? So women don't get bored by any male activity?
  7. 'suddenly furious in that force-of-nature way women have' (269)
I'd have liked this novel much better if I'd read it ten years ago. Friends who did read it back then don't recall the misogyny being anything out of the ordinary: but times have changed. I wonder how differently the author would write it now?

2012/50: The Left Hand of Darkness -- Ursula Le Guin

I stopped at a street-crossing and thought, Why should I not go east, across the mountains and the plains back to Kerm Land, a poor man afoot, and so come home to Estre where I was born, the stone house on a bitter mountainside: why not go home? Three times or four I stopped and looked back ... each time I thought of the folly of trying to go home. As well kill myself. I was born to live in exile, it appeared, and my one way home was by way of dying. [p. 59]

Reread for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (a previous review is here). I couldn't believe I no longer had a copy: promptly fixed that problem, thanks to Amazon.

I'm still finding new aspects of this marvellous novel, and it was great to have another opportunity to discuss it, both online and in person, with fellow Coursera students. This time I found myself focussing on Estraven's story, and trying to connect the sparse facts of his life into a coherent whole. (I'm still puzzled as to why, even in critical journals, it's taken as read that Estraven's brother Arek committed suicide. But I think I understand why he writes to Sorve and not to his other sons.)

It's a beautiful tragedy, and Estraven is one of the most compelling politicians I've encountered in fiction. He is competent, pragmatic, capable. I wish he could have lived to travel out into the Ekumen.

My Coursera essay:

The Left Hand of Darkness can be read on a number of levels: an account of the events leading to Gethen's membership of the Ekumen; an exploration of gender issues; a story of betrayal and redemption. Less explicitly, it is the biography of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who goes from Prime Minister of Karhide to disgraced exile and, perhaps, suicide.

Estraven's personal life is sketched in sparse detail. At the time of the novel he* has been 'exiled' from his home for twenty years. He spent seven of those years with Ashe, with whom he had two children: they separated because Estraven's vow of kemmering was "a false vow, a second vow" [60]. Admitting this to Ashe, he thinks of his brother Arek, who has been dead for fourteen years. Only in the final pages of the novel does Genly Ai learn that Estraven and Arek had a child, Sorve.

Estraven would have known the hearth-tale 'The Place Inside the Blizzard', which forms chapter two of the novel. In that story, Getheren vows kemmering to his brother Hode. The brothers conceive a child, and are thus commanded to break their vow of kemmering. Hode, despairing, commits suicide, and Getheren is exiled for having caused his brother's death. Estraven also conceived a child with his brother, but his exile was self-imposed. By leaving home and family he sought to assuage his own guilt, avoid the fate of Getheren, and spare Arek the pain and shame of mandatory separation.

Political exile is less significant to Estraven than the solitude that results from his transgressive love for the brother he still mourns. His double exile forces his perspective and his loyalty outward towards humanity and the 'greater good', rather than inward towards his lover and child. 'Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing?' [128] he berates himself: but without the impossibility of a lasting relationship with Arek, he could not sacrifice career, reputation and life to help bring Gethen into the Ekumen.

* I use the pronouns in Le Guin's first edition: whilst problematic (because they limit gender roles), they are more readable than the pronouns she invented later.

Le Guin, Ursula The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) Page references refer to the Orbit edition, first printed 1992.

Jeanne Murray Walker 'Myth, Exchange and History in The Left Hand of Darkness', Science Fiction Studies #18: accessed online at, 21.09.12

2012/49: The Martian Chronicles -- Ray Bradbury

The rain.
Raw, gentle, and easy, it mizzled out of the high air, a special elixir, tasting of spells and stars and air, carrying a peppery dust in it, and moving like a rare light sherry on his tongue.
He sat up. He let the blanket fall and his blue denim shirt spot, while the rain took on more solid drops. The fire looked as though an invisible animal were dancing on it, crushing it, until it was angry smoke. The rain fell. The great black lid of sky cracked in six powdery blue chips, like a marvelous crackled glaze, and rushed down. He saw ten billion rain crystals, hesitating long enough to be photographed by the electrical display. Then darkness and water. (p. 76)

Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF Course. I'm not sure I'd ever read The Martian Chronicles cover to cover: certainly I had a sense of jamais vu, of reading something new. Bradbury's liberal, ecologically-aware humanism is powerful now: I like to think that it was even more exceptional when the stories first appeared. These stories are very much artefacts of their time: big business, male chauvinism, racism (my edition, from 1954, contains 'Way in the Middle of the Air' rather than 'The Fire Balloons'), a brash disregard for the world(s) around them.

Bradbury's pre-colonisation Mars makes me ache. He doesn't describe a Utopia -- indeed, Mars has many of the same problems as 1950s America -- but there's an emphasis on beauty, a sense of age-old civilisations, that is much more beguiling than the Mars of Burroughs, acknowledged by Bradbury as a major influence.

Who first described Earth as a green star? I think it might have been Burroughs; or was it H G Wells? I wonder if Earth ever was green, instead of blue, as seen from another planet ...

Here's my essay -- actually a transformative work -- for Coursera. (Achieved my lowest grade to date for this! One peer reviewer didn't seem to get it at all, despite my footnote; another told me it was 'disrespectful' to a fine writer; the third said that without the footnote they'd have thought I got drunk and tried to paraphrase SparkNotes ...You decide.)

Rae Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles is a visionary subversion of gender roles. In post-war American society, a woman's place was in the home, but Bradbury's Mars presents female characters with opportunities to take control.

In 'Ylla', the protagonist is increasingly perturbed by her husband's dreams, in which he hunts and kills black-haired, blue-eyed strangers. Ylla tricks Yll into remaining at home while she goes to welcome the strangers -- the First Expedition -- and warns them of the hostile reception they will face from more conservative Martians.

In 'The Martian', Anna and LaFarge encounter a shape-shifting Martian who assumes the appearance of their dead son. LaFarge is overjoyed, but Anna quickly realises that 'Tom' is an imposter. Rather than betraying the Martian's identity (or lack of it) she attempts to make him feel loved and welcomed, but LaFarge's possessiveness leads to the Martian's death.

Genevieve Selsor believes she is the last human on Mars, until she is telephoned by Walter Gripp. When they meet, however, Gen finds Gripp shallow and superficial. In a satirical inversion of romantic tropes, Gen realises that the best way to rid herself of Gripp is to demand commitment. The wedding-dress she finds in a deserted shop proves an effective deterrent, and Gripp flees, leaving Gen to live as she pleases.

Genevieve rejects the role of wife and mother: in 'The Million-Year Picnic' Alice Thomas considers the comparable dilemma faced by her friend Betty Edwards. Should Betty bring her daughters to Mars to become the wives of Alice's sons, thus preventing the human race from extinction? At the end of the story we are still unsure of Betty's decision, but it is clear that if the girls do arrive, Alice and Betty will be raising them with sound feminist ideals.

Bradbury's women are products of the patriarchal society in which the author was writing, yet they question and transcend the stereotypes of post-war America. The women in the Chronicles are empowered: they take action, and change the course of Martian history.

FOOTNOTE IN COURSERA ESSAY CITATIONS SECTION: (Just for clarification: this is a transformative work. I am aware that Ray Bradbury was not a woman and did not spell his first name 'Rae'; furthermore, the stories I mention by name do not have the plots and themes discussed above.)

2012/48: Among Others -- Jo Walton

Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. [loc. 920]

Mori, protagonist of Among Others, is more or less the same age as me: like me, books -- especially SF and fantasy books -- are her salvation. Unlike me, she has recently saved the world, and has the scars to prove it.

Mori's twin sister, Mor (one's short for Morganna, one for Morwenna) was hit by a car and died; the same accident left Mori in constant pain, unable to walk without a stick, and estranged from her mother, who is a witch.

Mori runs away and ends up with her father, who has never been a part of her life. He, and Mori's three aunts, send her off to boarding school. In a reversal of the Potter trope, school is a bastion of normality. Mori even, tentatively, makes friends, and she joins an SF reading group at the local library. But there is still magic in the world, and Mori has unfinished business -- quite aside from the ordinary pressures of growing up, interacting with non-relatives, and testing the interlibrary loan scheme to its limits.

There is so much here that is familiar, and so much that is strange. I laughed and I wept. I disagreed violently (Creatures of Light and Darkness is a marvellous book!) and had that lovely not-just-me sense of relief re The Magus. I too discovered Dragonsinger before I knew that Dragonsong existed. I ...

One criticism levelled against this novel is that it's nostalgic. Yes and no. Mori's reading, though it doesn't directly parallel her life outside books, shapes and influences her reactions to the mundane world. It's one thing to read Babel-17 at fifteen: quite another to read it just as you're having trouble communicating with others. Books save Mori's life; they show her alternative modes of behaviour; they give her the vocabulary to express (even if only to herself) what she wants. And they are an excellent source of metaphor, a filter through which she can interpret and relate to the beings she calls Fairies.

I was reminded of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin -- the mundanities of school / college life with a glimmer of magic here and there -- and also of Joanne Greenberg's beautiful and unsettling novel about mental illness, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: in particular, the way the latter describes the landscapes and beings of Yr, the world that the heroine constructs as a defence against reality. I'm not suggesting that Mori is doing anything comparable, just that the eerie spikiness of the fairies resonates, for me, with Yr and its gods.

And now I'm gradually collating Mori's acerbic (and occasionally inaccurate) observations on the books she reads, and mapping them to my own ...

Weirdly, I wish I'd read this when I was 15. And I'd be fascinated to learn what it's like to read this if you haven't read the SF and fantasy classics that inform Mori's world.
We thought we were living in a fantasy landscape when actually we were living in a science fictional one. In ignorance, we played our way through what the elves and giants had left us, taking the fairies’' possession for ownership. I named the dramroads after places in The Lord of the Rings when I should have recognised that they were from The Chrysalids.[loc. 455]

Thursday, October 11, 2012

2012/47: The Sea -- John Banville

Yes, this is what I thought adulthood would be, a kind of long indian summer, a state of tranquility, of calm incuriousness, with nothing left of the barely bearable raw immediacy of childhood, all the things solved that had puzzled me when I was small, all mysteries settled, all questions answered, and the moments dripping away, unnoticed almost, drip by golden drip, toward the final, almost unnoticed, quietus. (p. 94)

Read on the beach, on the last day of summer (= last feasible sea-bathing day). I've owned this novel since it came out in paperback in 2006, the year after it won the Booker. No rush, eh?

Max, whose wife Anna has recently died of cancer, is staying at The Cedars, a guesthouse in an Irish seaside village. In his distant childhood, this house was the summer residence of the Grace family, who drew him into their circle, invited him on picnics, let him play their games. Max (though 'Max' wasn't his name then) was infatuated with Mrs Grace; intimidated by her husband's sense of humour; drawn into the orbit of the twins, Chloe and Myles (the latter of whom didn't speak). He imagined he knew the secret of Rose, the nanny. It takes him a long time to discover that he was wrong about her.

Max is not an especially likeable character: he's pedantic, discursive, rambling, and very sorry for himself. With some cause. His daughter has taken up with an unsuitable young man; his wife is dead. He's living at a seaside guest house, alone save for the mysterious Colonel (so caricatured that he must be an imposter?) and Miss Vavasour, the proprietress of The Cedars. Alone, he reflects on his childhood memories of Chloe and Myles and how they were lost to him; into that narrative is woven Anna's death and Max's sense of being 'no one', invisible. (People look at him but don't see him: this is an image that recurs throughout the novel.)

The Sea consists of a slow, simple tale glinting with gorgeous prose. Max's voice is sometimes irritating, but when he lets go of detail and focusses on a whole experience, the effect is breathtaking.