Tuesday 22 March 2016

Glorious Angels - Justina Robson

Part 1: The Plot (kinda).
A plot précis is always the most tedious bit of a 'review' though I'm not sure I'd call anything I write here a review anyway. But I'll try. A bit. So, on an unnamed planet, in a city called Glimshard there is an awful lot of shenanigans goin on. And, on a different part of the continent a strange artefact has been found. The rulers of Glimshard are so eager for the information, technology or riches that it holds that they have gone to war to protect it. So there is war and plunder in Glorious Angels, colonialism and national rivalry, blackmail and deceit, spying and seduction, lust and longing, growing up and growing wise(r), plus lots of manoeuvring amongst a ruling class and it's bureaucracy. Also, this society is a matriarchy so there's all kinds of interesting things going on with sexual politics and gender that is fascinating - so it's in a conversation with say, recent novels by Ann Leckie and N K Jemisin (and many more before it). Add to that a genuine strangeness - and I don't say that lightly, because it's seemingly rare in any kind of literature - especially in the depiction of the Karoo, a race of shapeshifters who think differently and experience differently. So a novel of ideas then, political and philosophical? Yup, it is, but it's also a novel of great characters. Tralane Huntingore is an engineer, eager to understand the pieces of ancient technology that she comes across. Her two daughters, Isabeau and Minnabar, similar but different to their mother are trying to find their own way. Zharazin Mazhd is a spy, an agent for the Infomancy, a complex group that gather and assimilate information for their Empress. There are more great characters but you should discover them for yourself.
I hope that sounds tantalising and interesting because Glorious Angels is a novel that needs to be read and debated. It's great. If you find it a bit difficult to begin with, I did too; it's full of conversations and discussion....and maybe too much telling. That can be a put off but you'll be rewarded for persevering and it speeds up considerably around halfway. 

Part 2: What IS it about?
About 200 pages in I decided to try to map out what I was thinking and feeling but found that the text was resisting anything like simple answers or pathways - it felt pleasingly complex and weird. It continued in this vain. Part of me wants to say that in part at least it's a novel about 'Otherness' but that's probably a little lazy. Glorious Angels certainly is asking how well we can know and understand others and if not then what gets in the way. Characters' modes of thought and their ways of being can feel very singular and different and their attempts to understand each other are hard won. It also wants us to think about the way different kinds of power - political and ideological, sexual and physical - work, giving freedom and control for some while it restricts and inhibits others. How might different societal rules and norms impinge on sexuality, relationships, duty, authority, etc,? And what does that say about our own societal norms, rules and laws? It also contains a lot of complicated thinking about feelings, attitudes and motives. The text is full of all kinds of speculation too and it can feel quite abstract and cerebral: in need of mediation and negotiation. That said, looked at another way Glorious Angels is a romance of sorts about a clever woman admired by an interesting man. It's erotic too and full of ridiculously beautiful people. And it's full of colours and smells, sights and sensations. On the level of sentences and paragraphs, the writing is very fine indeed.
If I have issues it's some of the ones I usually have - that it's a text about the powerful, the beautiful and the talented. When I read these great speculative novels I wish they might try harder to escape how liberal and middle class they feel. Maybe I shouldn't be so frustrated, it's not like I don't love, say, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Taylor. I do. I just want more I guess.

Part 3: How VERY personal.
I read Keeping it Real some time ago but didn't really understand why I should be reading it. It left little impression and I felt no desire to carry on with the sequence. That sounds a little too utilitarian of me I guess but I'll have to go back and figure out what I missed because Robson goes straight into my list of speculative must-read authors along with Mike Harrison, Nalo Hopkinson, China Mieville, Kelly Link and Adam Roberts: people who produce texts that are so darned clever that I'm usually too wimpy to write about them! I can remember rereading Light and Nova Swing in preparation for Empty Space but being so mentally drained and wiped out that I couldn't read anything for a week, let alone Empty Space. Robson's text hasn't quite had that effect thankfully but it has somehow tapped into feelings to do with loneliness, dissatisfaction and intimacy in ways that I find hard to explain.  

And again this might put people off!

Don't be. 
It really is a brilliant novel. 
I hope it wins the BSFA and should be a definite, along with Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora on the Clarke shortlist.

Monday 14 March 2016

Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson

So, as readers of this blog will know, I didn't discover literary fiction and the classics until quite late. But when I did, at 19, I read a lot. One of the things I did was go to a Reading Group. My memories are a little hazy but I'm sure it was held at my old secondary school. There were maybe five or six women there, all well over 50. They were open and friendly and the book under discussion was The Return of the Native: my first Hardy and I suspect my first classic after Austen and the Brontes. Despite my nerves I was effusive in my delight - I had loved it.

All good then? Well yes, but what I remember most is the response I got. Those women were happy for me but seemed to think I was SO impressed because I was so new to it all. I wish I could remember phrases or words they used. Did they really call me callow? I doubt it. Proud thing that I was (am!?) I felt a little patronised. I didn't go again. Silly fool.

I remember all this now because Aurora is my first Kim Stanley Robinson novel. (And to be fair I don't read that much 'core' science-fiction either)
Fuck me, it's SO good. Are they ALL this good?

It's clever in ALL kinds of admirable, amazing ways. And FULL of wonder and ideas. And it's political and incredibly and ridiculously relevant to everything that's going on in our fucked up, crazy world. And the science is BRILLIANT, never in the least bit boring, at all: it just made me think and ponder and gasp with understanding and more questions. And though there's lots of information and a limited amount of story I didn't care because it was FASCINATING!
Is it a little didactic? Maybe, but it's discursive too and it OPENED up the world to me in all kinds of ways so I don't mind at all. 

AND please do not compare it with The Martian. Don't go there. Ever. (Though I know people have) I managed 50 pages of that and just wanted him to die. No not Andy Weir! The Watney fella.

So anyway. Go ahead, patronise me. I don't care. But read the book. I loved it.

And Clark judges, if this isn't on the shortlist you are WRONG. Just sayin.

For a thorough review of Aurora  - rather than the excessive amount of CAPITAL letters and exclamation marks on show here - check out Adam Roberts in the Guardian.

Also, what is essential Robinson - I'm assuming the Mars trilogy and The Years of Rice and Salt.
Anything else that I HAVE to read? 

Friday 4 March 2016

Making Wolf - Tade Thompson

I still read far more 'literary' fiction than speculative fiction and by following various prize shortlists and taking note of Guardian reviews, etc I read plenty of literature from around the world. Nonetheless I doubt whether I would have read Tade Thompson's Making Wolf unless The Kitschies judges had put it on one of their shortlists.


Weston is a supermarket security guard living in London but returns to the city of his birth, Ede in Alcacia - think south-west Nigeria, now an independent state, after the civil war had turned out differently in this slightly alternate world - for his Aunt's funeral. After bragging that he is a homicide detective at the funeral he is kidnapped by a paramilitary organisation and told to investigate the death of a national hero who was trying to bring a modicum of peace to the war torn nation. What follows is a fantastic noir as Weston becomes embroiled in all manner of difficult political, moral and social dilemmas.
Tone is difficult to get right in any novel but really difficult in a novel like this. Dry laconic humour, bursts of horrific violence, sex and longing, moral decay, the ironies of a corrupt yet fascinating social order. Add to that the long term legacy of colonialism and the ongoing effects of imperialism and racism, and lots of detail that a European audience might not be familiar with (including me!). This is a novel that will challenge your ideas and expand your horizons as it entertains.

Thompson almost gets it all right - sexual politics in Making Wolf is tricky because we see through the eyes of Weston and you have to increasingly question everything that Weston sees and thinks as the novel progresses - but I still think we get an unnecessary and uncomfortable preponderance of the male gaze at certain points despite the fact that the novel's femme fatales get their righteous anger, their good reasons and strong character arcs. Decide for yourselves. 

Otherwise, in what is a fast paced, always compelling, often exciting narrative, Thompson gets it right again and again and forces us to figure out what we'd be doing in similar circumstances. I don't mean to suggest that it becomes a 'what would I do' kind of narrative. Thompson's text is far too political and nuanced for that. Weston's problems aren't just moral, but practical and quotidian too. The text gives you a tremendous sense of how damaged and compromised we can become when faced with situations beyond our control, our experience and our imagination.

It delivers what all the best noirs do: corruption, violence, temptation and hypocrisy, the sense of being on the edges of society, at risk of your life and deep in the hidden and foul mire of excess and depravity that remains hidden at the 'top' of society.

It's a text that will provoke you to make judgements and judge even as you wonder if there are any right answers: maybe he is on the right side; maybe she does the wrong things for the right reasons; Weston does or doesn't end up on the side of the Angels; and so on. And again, a novel that wants us to make up our own minds and manages to provide that platform is still fairly unique.

Finally, for me Making Wolf has proved to be a tremendous follow up read to N K Jemisin's The Fifth Season. When you're reading shortlists you get a much better sense of ambition and scope - or, at least, different kinds of ambition and scope - and the different ways texts can deal with the same kinds of ideas and the challenges writers face. I think I appreciate both novels even more because of the debates and comparisons going on in my head.

There's a good discussion with Tade, Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, Kate Elliott and Cindy Pon at The Book Smugglers on "Culture, history and novels" here.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

The Fifth Season - N K Jemisin

A review in two parts.

PART 1 (read the book!!!!!)

First if you haven't read The Fifth Season you should. I do like fantasy - China Mieville's Bas Lag trilogy, Joe Abercrombie, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Holdstock and Mervyn Peake but don't read it often. I've tried the odd bit of commercial stuff - Martin, Canavan, etc. but always found it tedious. 
But Jemisin's novel is being praised for all the right reasons. Look for instance at Ana's review over at the Book Smugglers and, though somewhat critical, Kate Schapira on Strange Horizons is essential reading. Jemisin's novel is political, sophisticated and gripping - a very well written novel indeed. It has three narrative strands, one in the second person, that focus on three, intriguing female characters, Damaya, Syenite and Essun. It's set in a world where severe seismic disturbances can cause massive damage to the planet, and in the aftermath smoke clouds and gases stop anything growing. This causes long 'seasons' where humans must hunker down in their walled cities and communities to last years or decades. It's full of drama, great worldbuilding and great set pieces - there's a moment about a third of the way in when Hoa, one of Essun's companions fights a fierce creature and her reaction is "Wow" and that's what I kept thinking throughout. Wow. This is like being 11 again and watching the BEST Sword and Sorcery film ever. It's the most fun I've had reading a book in ages. If that sounds like faint (or patronising) praise it's not meant to be at all. That eleven year old LOVED those films and watched them again and again - and to reproduce that feeling in ye olde Gareth requires an amazing imagination plus an understanding of colonialism and oppression, history and climate change. If the second volume in this Broken Earth Trilogy were already out I'd already have started it. And that's coming from someone who is generally really, really grumpy about trilogies - why can't you fit your story in ONE book ffs!

So yeah, read it.

PART 2 (with mild spoilers - thus, read the novel already and let's have a debate - because as usual I'm just debating with myself and that gets CONFUSING and I'm often wrong)

So, you've read it? There is SO much in The Fifth Season. It's a book that wants you to see clearly and see everything - go on it says, have a proper look at the world with its child slavery and it's child prostitution, it's hypocrisy and it's cowardice, it's refugee camps and it's wars. Have a look at the consequences of slavery and imperialism. It's a novel that can be hard and cruel, usually in all the right ways. It's righteous and angry and unflinching. Maybe that makes it sound like a hard or unenjoyable read - it's not. It's easy to read, compelling and will grant you a great deal of pleasure.
Structurally it's daring too: not many authors use the second person and make it work this well. And how much do we trust the narrators? Are they unreliable in ways that are interesting or in ways that are too obviously telegraphed. I also love the snippets from historical texts that end each chapter.

And there's this.....
So you've seen the film or read the book. Usually they are rubbish. It's the one where the baddie is intent on destroying humanity. He or she is mad or an evil genius or a broken nihilist who can see no hope and when pushed, finally and inexorably, revenge is the only thing left. Sometimes it's about rebirth - Earth has another chance at getting it right. Sometimes humans have fallen too far and can't be saved: humanity is a pox on the Earth. Etc.
But what if that mad, genocidal baddie was the most human character in the whole damn book or film or seven season TV epic. And what if the main character is a mass murderer too. What then? 

Part of me loves this book SO much.


Part of me wonders if it falls into the traps that so many other plot driven books fall into to. Because that IS a genocidal mass murderer and that is another mass murderer and does the text gloss over all that death and destruction? And it's not that the text doesn't show you that Alabaster, Syenite and Essun are damaged and fucked up, products of a system that causes them to hate and hate themselves. That Jemisin succeeds in making them as as interesting and worthy of our empathy as she does whilst giving you the reasons in the text to reject their decisions and conclusions is fantastically well done. My problem rather is that it doesn't show the suffering that their victims have to endure and it doesn't show people resisting in different ways, thus it's more akin to action film violence. Also with all the clever thinking that Alabaster does (and the text's insistence on Syenite believing him crazy until that last sentence IS rather annoying), that he can't see different possibilities and beyond his pessimism is, well, a narrative choice that bothers me a lot. People are broken all the time but find ways of organising and fighting back. Yes the ruling class in the novel is shown to be having its internecine conflicts - excellent - but I want the whole picture.  

And furthermore it's a novel about dangerous superheroes (and supervillains), however damaged and oppressed, that can wield serious, awesome power, and though I think the whole X-men representation of oppression had its glorious day I'm not sure that's good enough any more. And its not that I want allegory or simple mapping of one thing onto another. But do these metaphors work? Not sure - not sure they get us seeing and imagining differently in The Fifth Season.

Jemisin's novel has nothing to say about resistance or revolutionary transformation through struggle. That's true of most novels of course but when something is so good and understands oppression so profoundly I guess I want it all. I feel like the novel is madly enjoyable, brave, radical, singular, praiseworthy - yes, all those things - but in the end is it still a thoroughly bourgeois novel that focuses on individuals with power and that hides or ignores important social relations? This might seem wrong - is that not asking for a different book you might ask. Maybe, and maybe I'm being too harsh - though I'd be very happy for it to win The Kitshies Red Tentacle even so. But if I am being harsh it's because there aren't too many novels that try this hard or where the stakes are so high. The story you decide to tell has consequences for the kinds of ideology that seeps through or remains hidden and thus places fetters on how we can imagine and act to find a better way of living.

I'm hoping the other books in the trilogy might address some of these questions and the ones Schapira outlines in her discussion.

Still Margaret Atwood to read for the Red Tentacle.
But first, Tade Thompson's Making Wolf.