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.
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.
I really like the concept of Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion. In 2013 Hassan Blasim and his collaborator Ra Page, the founder of Comma Press, asked well-known Iraqi writers to write speculative short stories envisioning Iraq in 2113 or thereabouts. The Introduction and Afterword are persuasive about the artistic ambitions of this project, and give a proper sense of political and humanitarian rage at the destruction of Iraq by the British and US-led coalition, in 2003. As time has moved on, new predators have emerged in Iraq, so several of the stories feature deeply-felt responses to the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. This is an anthology about what it’s like to write fiction about the future in a present that no-one wants.
There is nothing hopeful about these visions of a future Iraq. It’s impossible to quantify how science-fictiony these stories are, but their defining characteristic is anger at the present, and a recurring sense that little is going to change in 100 years except the need to look back at this time. In that context, these are not particularly good science fiction stories, but I don’t think that’s important. In how they tackle problems of an unknown future that will somehow relieve the discomfort, injustice or the tyranny of the present, they are very like early Anglophone science fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, especially that written by women. They show strong signs of an emerging artistic tradition.
Early western male sf writers focused on technological advances and ignored everything else about society, or they railed against feminists and the horrors of sexual equality. Early female sf writers from the west also focused on technology, and how it would alter their lives for the better (rather than for war, which was often the male response), but they also wrote about changing society for the better, creating social equality, and doing away with injustice. That is the common factor with these Iraqi stories, by men and women both. Hassan Blasim remarks in the Introduction that ‘Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing’. In both content and impetus, Iraqi writers have used sf in this collection to express their fears and anxieties about the present, by changing them for the better through speculative fiction, or by digging into their nature to find out what needs to be fixed.
The stories most aligned to modern sf are ‘Kuszib’ by playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, with its really remarkable combination of alien eroticism and humans treated as meat; and ‘Najufa’ by Ibrahim al-Marashi, which envisions a modern and roboticised Islamic society, in and out of the mosque, in a totally climate-altered world. Other stories use a futurised society to retell the story of Scheherazade (‘Baghdad Syndrome’ by Zhraa Alhaboby), and the story of the 2013 invasion through time travel (‘The Corporal’ by Ali Bader’). There is an unsettling recurrent image of eating human bodies, in ‘Kuszib’, in ‘The Worker’ by Diaa Jubaili, also a story of a giant automaton, and in ‘Kahmarama’ by Anoud, which rages against the commodification of women by charlatan imams. For the strongest story of speculative invention glazed with horror I’d give the prize to ‘Operation Daniel’ by Khalid Kaki, in which transgressors are incinerated and archived into a glittering chip, to be attached to the robes of the Venerable Benefactor and tyrant, Gao Dong. This is the only story that reaches beyond the familiar Iraqi-US binary, and envisions a different cultural player in the future.
All these stories are about punishment and transgression. This is not a collection for comfort reading, and the stories are certainly not contemplative visions of a calm and perfect future as seen from a suburban armchair. But they’re vigorous, and exploratory, and represent a new way of writing about present-day problems by authors who really know what suffering and destruction mean. For that reason alone, this impetus should be nurtured.
Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press 2016), ISBN 9 781905 583669, £9.99
I buy Gollancz’s SF Masterworks editions because I trust their editors to provide me with the best sf from the past century. I don’t expect their reprints to be classics all the time, but I do expect a decent read. Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow was a disappointment, but had a whumph in its tail.
It was published in 1955, in the same year as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which it fairly closely resembles. It’s a story of life in North America after the Bomb (not again …. I would so like to read a sf novel of life in any other part of the world after the Bomb: all suggestions welcome), in which religious tyranny has overtaken all civilisation within two generations. Oddly, people who were children during the time of the Bomb can remember their pre-Bomb lifestyles, but their children and grandchildren have been so completely indoctrinated as to believe all such memories are sinful and subversively dangerous. The indoctrination has been carried out by religious cults, led by bullying men with loud voices. I do not, cannot, believe this: all magazines, books, posters, art, photographs, visual references, let alone the technology to hear music and see TV and film, completely gone in two generations? Twenty, maybe, but not two. My belief failed to be suspended.
The Long Tomorrow is a futuristic western, in that the protagonists want desperately to escape their present tyranny and travel west to a far-off land of freedom. They have to make their way alone with no help except some mysterious guardian outlaw types, and they move cautiously through frontier towns that actively repress all attempts at community growth or trade. Violence is everywhere. Women are barely even noticeable, being crushed under the restrictions of the religious and civic tyrannies. They are either crushed slaves in bonnets (what is it that attracts religious cults in the USA to Little House on the Prairie fashions?), or pouting strumpets mad keen for sex-and-marriage (because tyrannies always insist on marriage). This is a pioneer variant of Joanna Russ’s concept of intergalactic suburbia, in which advances are made in all areas of human life and technology except where women are concerned, because their place is in the 1950s. There is one female character with agency, seen briefly for plot purposes, but she is mad, starving, dresses in rags and has clearly been exiled for having a mind of her own.
The sf elements are limited to the post-apocalyptic setting, and to the importance of rescuing lost technologies as a metaphor for regaining civilisation. Except: when we reach the end of the novel, and the protagonists finally reach their goal, Brackett drops an idea on us that is truly magnificent in its implications, and finally shows why this novel belongs in the sf canon. Her philosophical paradox that denies and rewrites everything that we’ve read up to now, and for that alone the novel is worth reading. All that has gone before is pretty second-rate stuff. I had been thinking that the novel’s only selling point was a cynical piggyback on the fact that Leigh Brackett wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. The Long Tomorrow is one of her earliest novels, and is not great, but has a tremendous central concept. For that alone it’s worth reading.