I did a little frivolous something over on Vulpes Libris to celebrate my undying love for Star Wars, today, on 4th May. May the fourth. May the FOURTH. Oh come on ….
I’ve had a bad run of books I didn’t like and books read for work rather than pleasure recently, so all I can offer this week are these three pallid specimens. I’ll try to crank up my enthusiasm next week. It’s the end of term, holiday reading is beckoning, I have hopes of something marvellous waiting for me when I pick up the very next book from the pile.
Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
I love Karen Russell’s short stories, in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which I reviewed here, so I bought Swamplandia!, her novel, and have been putting off reading it for over a year. I took it all the way to Hawaii and brought it back unread. Not a good sign. So I went and put myself on a train with nothing but this to read and made myself get through it. It’s not great. Her imagination is stupendous, and her eye for compelling detail creates marvels, but this novel is a short story that has grown beyond its natural capacity for wonder. And I was not entranced: I was bored by halfway through. The central premise of an alligator park in a Florida swamp is solid; Ossie’s romance with a ghost is extremely odd; the story of Louis’ swamp-sailing life in the 1920s is a beautiful short short that might have been published somewhere else first, it is so polished and self-contained. I was completely unconvinced by the Chief’s obsession with keeping the park on, and by Kiwi’s passive endurance. Ava the narrator is of course a star, but the red Seth is unused and wasted, like a glowing ember snuffed out by Gothic monstrosity. Too many details, not enough story.
Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting
Another novel I put off reading until I absolutely had no choice. I inherited a Modern Scottish Fiction course from a departing colleague, and so I inherited all the novels he had carefully chosen and a course outline he had refined over the years. Miss Jean Brodie, A Disaffection, Morvern Callar, Lanark, Keep Breathing, they’re all there. And lurking like a malignant toad at the back, was Trainspotting. I read the first half in a gobble of desperation, like a really bad medicine, and felt ill. It vastly enlarged my vocabulary for drug addiction and a truly astonishing collection of words pertaining to the body and its functions, humours, liquids and solids, but did I enjoy it? No. I hated it. I admire its technique and innovation, but I was counting the hours until I could put it back on the high shelf. I wrote my class notes. Reread bits. Cautiously took a peek here and there through the remainder of the novel and read some of the shorter chapters. Revised my class notes. Took the class through the first seminar of the week, and felt some hope. They liked the novel, some of them really liked it, so they did more of the talking than usual. Emboldened, I finished the chapters I’d not read, and we tore through the second session. I had had the brainwave of getting the class to put the book on trial, and my obliging lawyer sister found me Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. That went down well, with some strong defences of its scatology, misogyny and the glamorisation of violence. Now I never need read the bloody thing again.
Larry Niven, Ringworld
I’ve been meaning to read Larry Niven for years, so I scooped up a copy of Ringworld, hoping for technological wonders. Foolish me. I’d forgotten that the only Niven story I’ve read was ‘Cloak of Anarchy’, which had the futuristic technology I craved, and the slightly dystopic enclosed society, and also the naked girl walking through a park with her cloak hovering behind her, unafraid of sexual assault because of the police surveillance. And then the surveillance stopped, and oh look, assault begins. Ringworld (as far as I read) doesn’t have the assault, but it does seem to revolve around an old man’s seedy, leering gaze on a very young woman’s body in and out of various anonymous and uninteresting parties, and frankly I could not be bothered. Several alien characters, who seemed like tedious blokes in alien suits for all the difference they exhibited in their behaviour or perceptions, exasperated my tolerance for tired 1970s fantasies until I just had to fling Ringworld on the floor. It went to Age Concern last week, and they’re welcome to it.
I haven’t seen Arrival, but I wanted to read the book because the story as told to me by someone who had seen the film interested me greatly. I spotted the book in the bookshop because of the Amy-Adams-in-a-spacesuit cover, and was surprised to see that a whole film had been based on a short story. I’d heard of Ted Chiang, but only vaguely. I’ve finished all the stories in that collection now. Oh my.
Ted Chiang appears to be a polymath. ‘Towers of Babylon’ (a Nebula Award winner) is about Bronze Age architecture that can build a tower to Heaven. ‘Understand’ is about accumulating intelligence and quantitative cognition. ‘Division by Zero’ is about maths, really intimidatingly high-level maths. ‘Story of your life’ (the story the film was made from, and the winner of three awards including a Nebula) is about linguistic theory. ‘Seventy-two letters’ (a Sidewise Award winner) is about two (not one but TWO, darn it) invented pseudo-sciences in an alternative Victorian England. ‘The evolution of human science’ is a three-page short short about how humans can continue to work on science when metahuman science has long since outstripped human understanding. ‘Hell is the absence of God’ relies a little bit on OT theology but is otherwise fairly ground-level sf. It won four awards, including a Nebula and a Hugo: it’s the story I liked least. Hmm. ‘Liking what you see: A documentary’ hauls us right back to the hard stuff by theorising about gnosias that prevent our brains’ perceptions of beauty, and other human things.
Stories of Your Life and Others (the original title of the collection known as Arrival) will expand your mind relentlessly. The knowledge is only part of it: you don’t have to be a computer scientist to be pulled along by the scientific dilemma in ‘Understand’ because it is utterly human. All the stories are about being human, and dealing with the extraordinary. ‘Story of your life’ is the highlight for me; a perfect, beautiful story, beautiful in how the structure reflects the evolution of the story and what we learn from it as we read (the as-we-read bit is important, because this story is about the accumulative process). ‘Tower of Babylon’ was strange and deeply satisfying, and ‘The evolution of human science’ is a pocket firework.
I have some grumbles. ‘Tower of Babylon’ ignores the economic perspective: if a society is building a tower to reach to heaven, so high that the work continues not for weeks or years but generations, who pays for it? And why is that society, which will presumably be weakened by this constant and unproductive drain on its economy, left unmolested and uninvaded by its neighbours over the years that the building continues? ‘Understand’ ends with a titanic battle between two men: WHY? Why does every opposition have to end in conflict?
However, I was most irritated by the immensely long ‘Seventy-two letters’, which is really a novella, rather than a short story. It is set in Victorian England, and we quickly learn that it is an alt universe Victorian England, in which Robert Stratton learns to reprogram his toy golems to see how rewriting their names will affect their behaviour and refine their design. So far, so very steampunk. He becomes a nomenclator, designing new names to create new functions, and his radical new thinking on automaton design enrages the sculptors who make them by its threats to their livelihoods. Meet the Luddites at the Industrial Revolution. Stratton is asked to join a secret science project which is accelerating the development of homunculi from spermatozoa. This is the second pseudo-science of the story, a form of IVF that combines with the faux-genome mapping of the nomenclators to create a superb milieu of steampunk science without the explosions.
The invented sciences are marvellous and slightly chilling, treading closely on the boundaries of dystopia. But I am annoyed that no-one told Chiang that he can’t write British English dialogue. Both the third-person narrative voice and the ‘English’ characters make blooper after blooper, despite Chiang’s exceptionally good reconstruction of Victorian England. The story might have worked better if he had set it in New York, because then the Americanisms would have been appropriate. But to create an English society so faithfully, and not even posit that it was somehow American-English, and then drop clangers in phrasing, social usage and syntax, is just not good enough. No-one in England, now or 150 years ago, ever talks of a ‘steer’ when they mean a cow. Maybe the narrative voice is supposed to be American (but why?), which would explain why ‘Lionel had Robert wait outside’: no English voice would say that, not now or in the nineteenth century. No school-teacher scientist would address a peer without adding ‘my lord’ at the end of his request. No Victorian peer would drink ‘whiskey’, and he certainly wouldn’t pour it himself.
There are many more maddening small errors, and I’m not including the American spellings. It’s annoying to see detectable mistakes in otherwise brilliant work. If you’re going to recreate England AS England, why not do the job properly, or get someone to check it? But apart from that, I love these stories (most of them) and have joined the legions of Chiang admirers.
So, when I read this title, I Am Legend, I automatically think of Tim Curry in magnificent raunchy curled horns and stomping devil hooves, terrifyingly, hugely red, from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend. Or John Legend. Or perhaps the film with Will Smith in it. In descending order of recognition, that title barely scrapes a thought for Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel. Pity. Matheson certainly didn’t invent the vampire, but he put it into 1950s pulp fiction, and imagined vampires in American high streets and grocery stores.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is the basis for the 2007 Will Smith film, which (from looking at the online descriptions) moved the action from an anonymous, Everyman small town to (yawn) New York, and upped the leading character Robert Neville to a ‘brilliant scientist’. Matheson’s Neville is a regular American guy who has to repair his house every morning after the nightly attacks from his vampire neighbours, and also force himself through a basic biochemistry course from library books. You get desperate when you’re working out how your immunity to vampire attack can help you kill them before they kill you.
Matheson’s novel is a pulp classic. It’s a straightforward survival story, generously laced with gore and relentless sexual suggestion. The female vampires flaunt themselves at Neville, trying to lure him outside (of course they do; female vampires only exist to supplement male sex fantasies). The female survivor who Neville rescues is unaccountably unable to keep her bathrobe tied properly. There’s even a scene where something secret is brought out from its hiding-place inside a brassiere. Whatever happened to pockets?
I Am Legend has been repackaged as a science fiction classic, despite its horror lineage, because it uses a serious scientific approach to the problem of the biochemistry of vampirism. Is it in the blood, or in a bacillus? How does the bacillus allow vampires to survive gunshot wounds? Why does wood work when lead won’t, and exactly which part of the garlic bulb is the repellent? I definitely enjoyed the science more than the tedious pulpy parts, because as Neville thrashes through his flashbacks of what happened to work out why the vampire plague happened, we see glimpses of a far more interesting story. I was bored quite quickly by Neville refusing to escape from being trapped in his house by night and scavenging by day. I wanted to read the whole thing, not his deranged memories and circular ramblings. The oblique storytelling becomes really murky towards the end, so much so that I am still none the wiser about why Neville has become a legend to the new society that is taking over the earth. They don’t sound like nice people. I was happy to close the book.
I love it when Jim Al-Khalili communicates science. He’s a physicist, a BBC Radio 4 presenter of science programmes (The Life Scientific is a great podcast, btw) and he’s written, among other books, a fine work on the history of medieval Arabic science. (I have no idea about his academic publications because I can’t read the first sentence of an abstract in Nature without gibbering.) Give me his popular science books, and I am happy.
I am even more happy when science is applied to science fiction, and Aliens does this excellently. Al-Khalili took the premise that if there are aliens out there, in the vastness of space, what will they look like, and how could we detect them? He asked twenty scientists with a foot in the field to speculate – in a nicely moderated popular style – how their specialisms could illuminate what might happen. He starts with Astronomer-Royal Sir Martin Rees, and moves from astrophysics to microbiology to psychology and neuroscience. In about half the essays, the alien extremes that we already know about on Earth are explored for what they might tell us about the possibilities for life Out There. I already knew about deep-sea thermal communities of bacteria that thrive in conditions that would slaughter most other life-forms, but did you know that communities of chasmoendoliths live inside rock?
I was most struck by Rees’ remark that our first contact will not be biological, but artificial, since that’s what we are doing already. Mars already has alien visitors: our AI vehicles and exploratory equipment are already out there, dropping Earth particles into its peculiar atmosphere. The limitations of space travel (time, energy and mass) make missions operated by AIs much more likely than sending humans out in deep sleep conditions. And then there are the places we could look at: since solar winds strip atmospheres from orbiting bodies unless their gravity is strong enough, only those orbiting bodies with the right geophysical parameters are likely to hold the conditions for life. These begin with water (or another substrate fluid for nutrient exchange and solvents: several of the contributors differ about including methane in this list), and the most common chemical elements that have created life as we know it. Most of the potential life talked about is microbial, and while it’s difficult to get excited, let alone alarmed, at the thought of a mat of proteins living between silicate layers only a few cells thick, it’s that scale, and level of strangeness, that we should be open to if we’re serious about finding life Out There.
The essays are short and snappy, and include excellent round-ups of science-fiction films and novels about alien contact that should be read or seen, or avoided. There is inevitable duplication of explanation – almost everyone carefully defines how H2O is essential – but there are also good links across chapters (evidence of a good editing hand). The consensus seems to be that Europa, Titan and Enceladus are the bodies most likely to harbour life in our own system, but my word, getting to that life will take many of our lifetimes. Even if the SETI search can detect suitable planets, identifying and contacting life on them is one of the longest-term projects we have. Assuming we’re still here on Earth when contact is made by the AIs we send out on missions lasting hundreds of years. My only complaint is that no-one, absolutely no-one, mentions the NASA press conference of a few years ago which announced with hysterical excitement that they’d found evidence of arsenic-based life on Mars. That debacle was hushed up so quickly: I really wanted to read more about the mistakes scientists make when they think they’ve found alien life, and what we learn from those mistakes.
Jim Al-Khalili (ed.) Aliens. Science Asks, Is Anyone Out There? (Profile Books, 2016), ISBN 9781781256817, £8.99
This podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like This Book is on the first of Gene Wolfe’s epic science-fiction & fantasy tetralogy The Book of the New Sun, The Shadow of the Torturer (1981), the only one of the four I have been able to finish. It is EPIC, a tremendous, sprawling feast of fantastical invention slathered over a strong sf foundation. To reassure those not wishing to read celebrations of violence, it contains only two torture incidents, both very brief, and described in such a way that we are more interested in the how and why than the what.
Here’s the story: Severian is an apprentice torturer, and hopes to rise one day to become not just a journeyman but a master torturer. The torturers are the executioners and punishment inflictors for the Autarch, who is the supreme ruler of this part of Urth. That’s our Earth in the very far future. Severian becomes emotionally too close to a ‘client’, as torture victims are called in this world, closer than he should be, with the result that he is sent on a journey. The journey introduces him, and us, to his world, which is convenient since he and we are equally ignorant about its fascinating details, while the things that Severian knows about that we don’t are not explained because they are the mysteries of his trade, and we the readers are not privy to these. It’s a familiar way to tell a story – Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle came to mind quite a few times while reading this.
Severian narrates the story from many years later, with more than enough remarks about his later career, so we don’t have to worry about whether he’ll survive (an awkward pitfall of first-person narration: if they’re still alive to write/dictate the narrative, obviously they’re not going to fall down a cliff or onto a spear halfway through). As I say, we are given so much reassurance that Severian will survive, in a narrative where death is simply everywhere, we can concentrate with greater avidity on his story, and try to work out why his society makes a guild of torturers necessary. The McGuffins that keep the plot moving are (1) that Severian has to get to his destination, and (2) by the end of this first novel in the tetralogy he finds a certain extraordinarily valuable something and he has to decide what to do with it. There are other, smaller mysteries as well: why does Dorcas have no memory? Will Vodalus the rebel ever come back to challenge the Autarch? How will Severian reach the destiny we are told about almost at the beginning of the book?
This society is medievalised, which is a peculiar convention in fantasy literature. It is oddly common for a fictional future society to have reverted to pre-industrial technology. This produces useful hand-to-hand, one-to-one combat scenes between characters the reader has learned to care about, rather than big impersonal explosions between anonymous armies (though fantasy still deploys these: looking at you, Michael Moorcock), but why the reversion? What events cause a society to forget all it once knew and regress, other than a lack of industrial quantities of resources? As a former economic history student (one term only, till I failed the course utterly), these motivations for world-building bother me.
Wolfe complicates the medievality by allowing glimpses of, for instance, the fliers owned by the rich, which zip through the air like silver tears. The lighting in the Citadel is clearly from something as long-lasting as nuclear power; some of the torture techniques are based on psychotropic drugs; and the Tower of the Torturers is clearly part of a long-defunct and partially overgrown and overbuilt spaceship. In this respect Wolfe has done what Anne McCaffrey did with her dragons of Pern novels, but he’s stayed on Earth. Extra-terrestrials are mentioned briefly; they are cacogens, pale and thin, but a few more clearly alien creatures and people appear in the last crowd scenes of the novel, with the effect of letting us know that Wolfe has hardly got started: this is just the first act.
On rereading The Shadow of the Torturer, I found that I had not remembered anything much except a sense of wonder and a world that I wanted to return to. Sometimes you get a sf novel where the society is more interesting than the plot, and I think Wolfe may have tipped the balance with this one. I don’t care very much about Severian and his agonies of conscience, but I adore his world. There is a fascinating use of hierarchies in his society. Severian knows his place and refuses to be elevated from it, because his role is more important than the man. He dissuades the chiliarch from giving him his executioner’s fee with his own hand because this would have demeaned the chiliarch’s own office, and was not traditional: his fee had to be flung at him on the ground.
Chiliarch. Yes: what’s a chiliarch? For this purportedly post-historic frame narrative Wolfe adds a note at the end explaining his ‘editor’s need to invent words for ancient concepts that had not come into existence’. Instead of leaving us to accept that sf is just invention like any other kind of storytelling, Wolfe adds extra meaning to the very idea of sf, like so many other sf novelists, by inviting the reader to think about these stories as being the narratives and records of history that have not happened yet. So we don’t just read ‘story’, we also think about these stories as histories, reports, assessments, commentaries: all of which let us consider how future reality might yet be.
With this in mind, we might read The Shadow of the Torturer in this way with some relief, because its most striking aspect is its vocabulary. Opening the book at two, unrelated, pages at random, here is a representative sample: cataphract (some kind of guard), sateen (a fabric, but not the Victorian cheap furnishing fabric with the same name), optimate (middle-class, burgher), armigette (woman of the trading classes), anagnost (official from the justice courts), jade (low-grade mistress, much the same as its early English meaning), bravo (thug, ditto from Renaissance English), sabretache (satchel, also a British nineteenth-century military accoutrement), fuligin (a colour darker than black). Their meaning is fairly obvious in the context, and there are very few words whose meaning is totally obscure, because otherwise how would we understand what’s going on? Wolfe doesn’t want to scare his readers off, he wants us to work through the story with the experience of not everything being familiar or clear.
The associations carried by the similarity of these strange words to existing words add layers of sound and meaning to the prose. His new vocabulary (mainly nouns) sounds as if it was altered by changing a vowel or suffix to make new words from a familiar root. He also changes the meaning of real words, like destrier, which in his world isn’t a horse, but another animal that is however ridden and used like a horse for the upper classes, which is what a destrier was. Wolfe warns that even some words that are familiar may not mean what we understand them to mean, like ‘metal’ and ‘hylacine’.
The early scenes of the novel are set in the apprentices’ world in the Tower of the Torturers, which inevitably recalls Earthsea, or Hogwarts, and then we think, no, this is much darker. The Shadow of the Torturer is about medical training with a particularly non-Hippocratic use of the Oath to ‘do no harm’. These medievalised characters are also not saving the world through magic. There isn’t any magic in these novels: it’s all physics and invented alien biology. This is a magical world only in the sense that it is conjured up by invented and archaic words.
Wondering what the words mean, and knowing that there are going to be gaps in our knowledge throughout the story, keeps us nicely off balance. Nothing can be taken for granted. Wolfe is an expert distracter of attention, of casting casual asides down in our path just as we expect to be focusing on something else, with the clever result of dividing our attention. At the same time that we are focusing on the present we are also looking at the past. Being told things in such an oblique way also changes the focus. Because we aren’t told anything about screams, bleeding flesh, details of pain, or anything else that we might expect from a torture scene (and believe me I do not read that kind of fiction, so I’m just guessing here), we don’t feel immediate horrified empathy. Instead, we’re told about the event from a very clinical viewpoint, and also an artist’s perspective. We are first invited to admire the skill, we applaud the careful work, and only then do we think about the poor suffering ‘client’, and wonder, with increasing horror, what the clinical details actually mean to the nerve endings concerned. It’s very effective, because the displacement of our attention from natural, emotional empathy for the victim to rational admiration for the technical expertise is done solely by the narrative voice, by the torturer himself.
After the distancing, comes the interest in the details of the technique, the rituals, the taught practice, the means of doing the job properly. The torturer is concerned to maintain dignity for all, there is no degradation, but there is also no exceeding or mitigating the sentence handed down. The final, most important effect of the distancing technique is that we never forget that the role of the torturer is to be an officer of the law, a means to enable justice as decided to be enacted. And this leads us to ask, who sets these punishments? What IS this society that maintains torturers to separate verdict and punishment? You will only find out by reading the next three novels. (Caveat: I have tried the second novel, The Claw of the Conciliator, but it lost my interest.)
Hello, 2017. Look, I’m jet-lagged, I’m about to set up house in a different country to where I currently live, and I start a new job next week. I’m a bit distracted. Please amuse yourself with these short reviews written for the SF Ruminations series on short stories by female sf writers published before 1969: C L Moore’s ‘No Woman Born’, and Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Lady in the Tower’. I’ll be back next week when I’ve got the internet working.