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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

2016/48: The Many Selves of Katherine North -- Emma Geen

The shiver of my cheeks is slowly becoming more pronounced. When I turn my head from side to side, it’s as if the water varies in excitement. And there – my whiskers fizzle, hitting the zenith of a gradient but what that means, I don’t know. Understanding a new sense can take hours, sometimes days; in the end all you can do is get on with the work. I push along the line of agitation. About me, water dances in a lime glow; the disturbed silt a cascade of stars. [loc. 1948]

Kit is nineteen, and has been a phenomenaut for nearly seven years. None of her colleagues have lasted as long. Phenomenauts use technology to project their consciousness into animals (well, ResExtendas: vat-grown copies of animals, without a consciousness of their own, 'nothing higher than a thalamus'), hoping to understand their interactions with the human world.

But Kit's employers, ShenCorp, have some exciting new initiatives on the table -- and Kit, as the most experienced and resilient of their staff, is the obvious choice of figurehead and trailblazer.

Kit is suspicious, though. She's uncomfortable with the notion of the technology -- and the ResExtendas -- becoming a money-making leisure product. When she discovers that ShenCorp are growing human ResExtendas, she's determined not to be involved: but her neuroengineer, Buckley -- the guy who watches over her when she's being other than human -- seems much more enthusiastic.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is a fascinating read. Geen's at her best when describing Kit's varied non-human experiences -- as a fox, an octopus, a spider, a whale, et cetera -- and the alienation she feels amongst other humans. The near-future British setting (flooding, refugees, spineless politicians) is sketched in broad strokes, but they're sufficient: ditto the vague descriptions of the technology behind Kit's phenomenautism. This is not, at heart, a techno-thriller or a dystopia, but a novel about being -- or trying to be -- human.

Kit's personality (and probably her neurology) make her a somewhat unreliable narrator, and she doesn't always notice things that are apparent to the reader. Though she's in her late teens, she is a child in some important respects (which is why I find one aspect of the novel weak and ethically uncomfortable). She is, however, in the habit of thinking a great deal about her inner experience, and Geen gives her a powerful and often poetic narrative voice.

A minor quibble re proofreading: why so many sentences with missing capitalisation?

I very much enjoyed this, and will be looking out for Geen's next novel -- this is her first, and an impressive debut.

Monday, August 15, 2016

2016/47: It -- Stephen King

Home is the place where when you go there, you have to finally face the thing in the dark. [loc. 1605]

In 1958, at the peak of one of the twenty-seven-year cycles of violence in the small Maine town of Derry, seven young children (aged ten to twelve, though some are more mature than others) realise that the violence is caused by something terrible lurking beneath the town -- something that sometimes takes the form of a macabre clown, but can assume the shape of whatever scares you most. They are determined to stop it before there are any more deaths.

In 1985, the adults who those children became are called back to Derry to finish what they started. They are all childless, wealthy, and successful. And they are all haunted by nagging scraps of memories from that summer long ago. Gradually, the haze clears, and they recall the events of the Bad Year.

These two threads alternate throughout the novel, and are enriched by scenes and asides giving the history, sociology and community of Derry. Those cycles of violence have plagued the town since it was founded: a lynching, a racially-motivated arson attack, an explosion at the ironworks ... Derry has six times as many murders as comparable towns; forty to sixty children disappear each year; the townsfolk, seeing a violent act, will look away.

King is astonishingly good at atmosphere, at evoking the cameraderie between pre-pubescent gang members and the shared joys of father-son relationships; he's also horribly good at depicting abusive behaviour, from a mother's over-protective insistence that her son needs his medicine, to a father beating his child. The rough wasteland of the Barrens, where the gang make their (well-constructed and astutely-planned) den, is familiar to me though I grew up decades later in another country. Familiar, too, are the feuds and fears that loom large in a child's mind: bullies, misheard scraps of conversation, shadows where there shouldn't be.

This was truly an epic read (it's over 1100 pages in print, so ideal for the Kindle!) and for 90% of it I was completely engaged by the story (or stories) and the setting. The final tenth of the book, however, seemed to collapse into a more standard and formulaic horror novel. I firmly believe that the power of this novel is in the telling and not the plot, in the characters and King's slow-build exploration of how those children became those adults. But it was the telling that felt drained and faded in those final chapters. One character (in the 1958 strand) did something I found disagreeable and improbable: several characters (in the 1985 strand) seemed to behave in out-of-character ways.

I did, however, like the epilogue a lot, even though I couldn't at first work out how it fitted. It closed the circle, though, in a way that the Grand Denouement(s) did not.