Top Five Books Not From 2008

And my second list, the five novels I read in 2008 which weren’t written in 2008:

1. Stay, Nicola Griffith
This is a book so fantastic that not only did I not realise I was reading a sequel without reading the previous installment (The Blue Place), but it didn’t matter that I hadn’t. Aud, the main character, is absolutely fascinating – a broken, grief- and guilt-stricken woman rebuildling herself after the death of a lover, capable of brutal violence but still able to help the two women she comes across while investigating a missing girl. While the strong, intelligent, female character is a big part of the appeal, it’s also gorgeously written, especially when descrbing Aud’s cabin in the woods, and the minor characters are never ciphers or cliches.

2. Look to Windward, Iain M Banks
It’s a little more thoughtful and less violent than some of the other Culture novels, but it’s probably my favourite because of the way it explores the morality of the Culture, and delves into the long-term implications of their decisions. PLus it has megafauna and I am a sucker for those.

3. White Queen, Gwyneth Jones
This makes my list purely on the strength of the thoroughly alien aliens, which may be superficially physically similar to humans, but soon turn out to be as strange as I’ve ever encountered, with different approaches to communication, gender, birth and death, and which affect all the humans they encounter. I usually find Jones’s books a difficult read to follow, but this one was worth it, and I enjoyed the complexity of Braemar and Johnny and their strange relationship.

4. On Stranger Tides, Tim Powers
I didn’t like The Anubis Gates, so James persuaded me I should give Powers another go by giving me a copy of On Stranger Tides. It’s a joyous adventure full of pirates and voodoo and ghosts and the Fountain of Youth and rampaging around the Caribbean, madness and obsession and a severed head in a box. Plus it inspired one of the greatest video games of all time.

5. Only Forward, Michael Marshall Smith
Starts off as a light, funny, crime novel in a weird and fascinating cty (about as close to Douglas Adams as anything I’ve read), but turns into something sad and moving and even more interesting, and somehow the mixture of the two works incredibly well. As a bonus it also features one of the few science fictional cats which I do not hate.

Next year’s reading resolution is to keep a list of all the books I read so these best-of posts aren’t quite so difficult to write.

Top Five Books of 2008

There’s still a few books I hope to get through before award nomination time (notably The Quiet War and Half a Crown), but this is my list of the top five of books I read in 2008 which were actually published in 2008.

1. The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway
It’s not the most polished novel I read this year, or the most tightly plotted, but it was the most exuberant, enthralling, joyous novel I read this year. Niall said the “meandering, tangential narrative is apparently almost Stephensonian in its excess”, and I loved nearly every wandering digression it takes. Some chapters are more engrossing than others, and the ending feels a little anti-climatic, but the main reason why this and not Anathem is sitting atop my list is that unlike Jonathan’s experience, it pulled me in emotionally and I didn’t realise it until one twisty chapter two-thirds of the way through.

2. Anathem, Neal Stephenson
I covered it in more detail here, but I liked the way that Stephenson has taken his love of meandering digression and found a way to work it into a science fiction plot. Much like Cryptonomicon the female characters are not much cop (although the unreliable narrator can be blamed for some of that), and the first hundred pages are a hard slog, but once it all clicks into place it is magical.

3. The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan
Richard Morgan takes his love for writing (and subverting) extremely manly novels into the fantasy genre, and it’s not surprising that what we get is a brutal, bloody, swear-filled, angry novel with lots of fucking. when I read I hadn’t read any Moorcock, and now I’ve read a little Elric I can see the debt it owes, but it feels like a modern take on the idea. The three characters are a little unbalnaced, and I would have liked to see more of Archeth, but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, especially the take on homosexuality.

4. Song of Time, Ian R MacLeod
It doesn’t have the exuberance of the previous three books, nor is it as filled with wonderful ideas, but Song of Time has its own charm. The alternating narrative, between an old woman looking back on her life and the experiences she had, is elegantly written, and reminded me of McAuley’s Fairyland in the descriptions of a near-future Europe in turmoil. I was impressed with the ending, which manages to pull off something which would in less capable hands feel like an unsatisfying revelation.

5. Matter, Iain M Banks
I’ll be honest – I read this book very early in the year, and I can’t remember so much of the detail. But I remember thinking it was a fine return to the Culture, and as you may have guessed from my top three books of the year I am a sucker for anything which has enthusiasm and humour and great big SF ideas, and Matter has all three. I’m pretty sure that you could have cut 200 pages or so without problem, but I enjoyed reading them anyway.


I’ve posted my additional thoughts about “Divining Light“; thanks to everyone else who read the story and commented. Hopefully discussion will continue …

What’s interesting to me about Clute’s review of Half a Crown, and the reason it has made sure what was already pretty likely beforehand, that I will read the Small Change trilogy, is that it seems to me to contain or imply an interesting set of ideas about what dystopian fiction is and does, and how it works. For starters, there’s the implied question of whether you can write a dystopia with a happy, or even relatively happy, ending. A friend of mine observed recently (in a separate discussion) that there’s a reason most dystopias end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, forever; it’s because dystopias are almost always intended to warn in some way, and if they end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, for a while, the force of that warning inevitably gets dissipated in some way. Is that the case? How might a story get around it? What might be gained that might compensate for that lack of force, if it does occur? There are also the arguments Clute advances about formula and technique. It’s Clute’s argument (as I read it) that, however effective the narrow perspective is in the first two books, by the time you get to the third book it starts to look like avoidance. This seems plausible; it also seems like something that might vary from reader to reader. (Indeed, based on the fact that Clute’s is the only reaction to Small Change even remotely this negative, it seems that it certainly dose vary from reader to reader.) Why? Similarly, Clute argues that Small Change’s adherence to a formal structure makes its ending — however historically grounded it may be — unconvincing as fiction because it makes the fall of a fascist government look like “a plot twist”; in other words, makes it look in some sense unearned, or trivial, which retroactively diminishes the achievement of the trilogy. This may just be a potential pitfall of fiction that wishes to adhere to a formula, even in homage; or it may be something that particularly afflicts dystopian fiction. I find it more interesting to think about, at any rate, than Benjamin Kunkel’s article about dystopianism. (See also.)

I’m still rather enjoying Isvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. I mentioned the “novum” chapter in this post; the book as a whole is built around discussion of a number of “attractors” that Csicsery-Ronay Jr has identified as characteristic elements of sf, and contains a version of the argument that we are living in inherently science-fictional times that’s a bit more grounded than most I’ve read. Had I been a bit more patient, however, I could have used more of the book with reference to my discussion of Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, namely some of the comments made in the discussion on “Future History”. Csicsery-Ronay Jr (yes, I have to check myself every single time I write that name, why do you ask?) is particularly attached to sf as a venue for various kinds of play; so although he identifies several kinds of future history common to sf, including utopian/revolutionary (change brought about by conscious action on the part of humanity) and evolutionary (change brought about as a result of unconscious, adaptive forces), his clear favourite is what he terms “dispersive” histories, in which change is essentially random, or (and this is what made it seem relevant to Blonde Roots) somehow walled off from the real we know.

It is sometimes said that any prophesied future that does not come to pass becomes a divergent reality. […] The more of these a public is exposed to, the less naive they become about projections, and the more comfortable with alternate histories that lack causal connections with the familiar present. Quantity turns to quality: so many predictions have been made, so many fictive prophecies have become uchronias and “fantastic philosophy”, that they rival the number of sincere predictions. Reading sf now incorporates the discounting process of already viewing it as an alternative timeline or retrofuture.
By disrupting the temporal logic of continuity with the present, alternative histories appear to renounce the ethical seriousness of the revolutionary and evolutionary paradigms. If there is no connection, how can there be responsibility? On the surface, such dispersed worlds lack even the minimal gravity of other kinds of uture history. It makes sense to view this scattering as an example of the flattening of historical consciousness that Jameson considers a defining quality of postmodernism. The sense of the continuity of unidirectional time lived toward death and succeeding generations, which links the experience of individual life with collective history, is replaced by an infinite array. […] The abstract dispersal of realities frees them not only from the burden of an inexorable past, but from the resistance of nature and embodiment altogether. (97-8)

That last sentence, in particular, seems a good way of summing up what I think Evaristo was aiming for — freedom from the burden of an inexorable past — without losing the ability to comment on that past, and on our present.

I’m not happy about this change to the David Gemmell Legend Award rules [pdf]:

After receiving lots of feedback from fans, readers and industry alike, we at the
DGLA have – after much deliberation – come to the decision to make the David
Gemmell Legend Award completely publicly voted.

This means that once the Longlist closes, the top 5 novels will be put forward to the
Shortlist Poll and YOU will be able to have the final say about who should win, by
voting once more on the shortlist! Readers and fans will be involved at every step to
produce our winner.

What was interesting about the Award, to me, was precisely that the final stage was juried; I was looking forward to seeing how the judges evaluated the award’s criteria. While popular vote awards certainly have their place, I can’t muster the enthusiasm for another one right now.

An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation

Earlier this week, I said positive things about Ted Kosmatka’s story “Divining Light“, in particular praising the ending. However, in the wake of that post I’ve been exchanging emails with a couple of other people, and it turns out we all have a different interpretation of the ending; in particular, what the ending means for the narrator of the story, and for his co-worker.

I’m going away for a couple of days, and won’t be back online until Sunday evening, so I thought I might invite you all to do some homework: go and read the story, and then post a comment here about what you think happens at the end. (And about any other aspects of the story that grab your interest.) When I get back, I’ll post what I think it means, and why (even if nobody else has done so).

Novums Foreign and Domestic

Anyone who reads more than the bare minimum of contemporary criticism of sf, particularly academic criticism, will have come across the concept of the novum, as advanced by Darko Suvin, meaning “the central imaginative novelty in an sf text, the source of the most important distinctions between the world of the tale and the world of the reader.” That’s Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s gloss on the term, at any rate, in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (page 47, if you’re interested), at the start of what is the most useful discussion of the term’s origins and evolution that I’ve yet encountered. To summarize: in strict Suvinian terms, in a work of “optimal sf” novums are “validated by cognitive logic” and create a “multipoint metaphor” which “dominates” the text; the degree to which an sf text excavates the novum’s potential for this domination to create “rich and varied aesthetic effects” becomes a marker of its success or failure.

Of course, as Csicsery-Ronay Jr rightly notes, in most contemporary sf things are a bit more complicated than that. There’s plenty of sf which contains scientifically nonsensical novums validated by the merest pretense of cognitive logic and, particularly when it comes to populist science fiction, there are large audiences which do not care one jot about this, and derive science-fictional pleasures anyway. Equally, while the idea of a single shaping novum works well for a lot of sf written before, ooh, about 1960, since then the trend, and arguably the expectation, has been towards the presence of multiple interacting novums. What Csicsery-Ronay Jr calls “carnivalesque” sf – such as Fairyland (1995) or River of Gods (2004) — is often valorised as the most appropriate response to the modern world. Clearly this doesn’t mean single-novum works as envisaged by Suvin have gone extinct, nor that they can’t find their own successes — Csicsery-Ronay Jr lists the attractions of single-novum works as “intellectual intensity, elegance, and a sense of dynamic rigor that may be treated as fatality or comedy” (66). This seems fair to me, particularly when you think that the classic single-novum form is the sf short story, but the more immediate reason I like this list, and the rest of Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s discussion, is that it’s helped me to articulate my reservations and admirations for two books I’ve read recently. Both are, or can be discussed as, single-novum books, and both are – in different ways – driven by a sense of playfulness about those novums, even while being shaped by them.

Blonde Roots coverThat said, to deploy sf terminology in the vicinity of the first, Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, may appear to be self-defeating, and even to risk doing violence to the text. I can use that terminology to tell you, for instance, that it’s an alternate history in which the polarity of the slave trade is inverted, and “blak” enslaves “whyte”; but as Gwyneth Jones notes in her review, Blonde Roots is very far from being a conventional alternate history. (Or, if you prefer, the nature of the reversal cannot be expressed in terms of a plausible train of cognitive logic.) The first thing you see when you open the book is a map: it depicts an Earth that could not exist, a place of transposed geography which places “Aphrika”, with the familiar outline of Africa, where our Europe is, and similarly “Europa” where our Africa is – and yet leaves a Britain-shaped island off the coast of Aphrika, known as the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa. If more confirmation that this is not alternate history in any straightforward or rigorous sense, even relative to such recent fantasies of history as Naomi Novik’s Temeraire and its sequels, is needed, it quickly becomes apparent that the climates have been swapped along with the geography — the UK of GA is on the equator, and therefore tropical, while Europa’s weather is so dour it’s known as “the grey continent”.

This, then, is the initial playfulness of Blonde Roots: it is a comedy, and it invites us to be in on its joke. It’s a good joke, and Evaristo certainly gets her money’s worth from it, often with a sting; and novum-like, the joke shapes the book’s entire reality. Underlining the above point about climate, for instance, one chapter is called “Heart of Greyness”, and features a trader visiting a contact gone native. In the great town of Londolo, in the UK of GA, we find Mayfah, “the most expensive piece of real estate in the known world”; Paddinto Station; and a literal, functional Underground Railroad. There are suburbs. CVs. Baringso Bank. “Barbae” dolls. Coasta Coffee. A Minstrel Show. On Voodoomass, it’s “business as usual” for slaves.

Within this clamour of parody, there is a familiar rock to cling to: the plot. Blonde Roots hews to what can be thought of as a template slavery story – abduction from home, years of service, attempted escape, recapture, exile to plantation, formation of community – with deliberate precision, such that the only unfamiliar element of it is the central reversal. (Gwyneth Jones’ review also points out parallels with Alex Haley’s book Roots; I haven’t read Roots, but from what I’ve gleaned it makes sense as a template.) So in Londolo we meet Doris Scagglethorpe, engaged in an escape attempt. Back home in Europa, Doris’ life was a generic Western European medieval/feudal life, freshened because explained to us, with its customs and habits, as though exotic: “Pa’s hair was the dark ginger of the folk from the Border Lands. It fell to his shoulders in spirals beneath the wide-brimmed farmer’s hat he always wore when outdoors” (10) – the sting here is that later there is a deal of stuff about the hairdressing of Europane “flyaway fine hair” (30) to achieve the twists and braids of Ambossan women, in response to which Doris notes that, “As it was their world I was living in, I had image issues, of course” (31).

Initially, Doris’ present and past are juxtaposed, with flashbacks describing her abduction and forcible bringing-to-awareness about race, and how she came to be owned by Kaga Konata Katamba I — note the initials; Doris gets branded with them. KKK is a rich slaver, working class made good, and a firm anti-abolitionist. In the middle of the Blonde Roots there are some extracts from “The Flame”, a self-regarding periodical written by Katamba arguing for the necessity and rightness of the slave trade, using all the arguments familiar from our own history (“Craniofecia Anthropetry” proves that the negroid race has a superior intellect …); and there is then a period in which Doris works on a plantation, her fall from (relative) privilege to the lowest of the low (a “field wiggar”) complete. This last is certainly the most science-fictionally interesting section of the book, because it’s where the shackles of satire start to be cast off, and Doris starts to participate in the development of a new, hybrid, slave culture. “Happy Birthday” and similar tunes are refigured as songs of Doris’ homeland; Doris starts thinking that, “Now that it was gone, I realised how much I was embedded in the past. I had to let it go because there was no future in it” (246), which is surely in part a jab at victim mentality, but also acts as confirmation of the book’s general trajectory, which makes clear that the first two sections of the book were as much about laying foundations as telling jokes. It all culminates in what looks like a happy-ish ending, swiftly undercut by a where-are-they-now, anti-consolatory postscript.

The point of it all, of course, is to demonstrate the contingency of power. The book’s epigraph, from Neitzsche, makes this point directly — “All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is function of power and not truth” — and the frequent force of the following story, which sets out to disabuse everyone, black or white, of any notion of moral or practical superiority, is not to be denied. The punishments inflicted on Doris go to the bone: the abduction is on-screen, and harrowing, as are the various abuses inflicted on Doris during her captivity: the callous dumping of the dead by slavers; the naked, squalid, vicious, hungry, maggoty life in slave ships. A whipping is particularly visceral (172). Evaristo is good at finding the language for this — there are moments of emotional punchiness: “A cluster of moths crashed into each other in a tiny, heart-shaped space” (157) – and at giving Doris and Katanga a necessary awareness of language, which turns jokes to ashes. Here’s the boss on the language of the Europanes: “A language without the clicks, clucks, clacks and !tsks of normal speech sounded dreary beyond belief, more akin to the low monotonous moan of cattle than the exuberant sounds of human communication” (124).

It’s impossible to read Blonde Roots, I think, and not be uneasily aware of the cultural as well as physical costs of mass slavery: how thoroughly native culture is quashed, and how tragic, even if beautiful, its necessary mutations to survive can be. [Additional thought, March 2009: It’s the telescoping of references to the past and present into one moment, and the articulation of that telescoping through a voice that combines modern and archaic language, that really drives this message home.] And this awareness is, at least for me, enhanced by reading Blonde Roots in the context of the sf megatext. Straightforwardly, by making the inversion of slavery obviously ridiculous (as opposed to, say, the more cognitively logical reversal seen in Ian R MacLeod’s novella “The Hob Carpet” earlier this year), Evaristo makes our reality ridiculous, too; but I think there is an extent to which the impact of the novel is increased by an awareness that not only do we usually perceive our history as non-ridiculous, but we expect alternate Earths — for no particularly good reason — to be non-ridiculous as well. Why is alternate, we might ask, so rarely radical? And yet for all that, some part of me holds back from fully embracing Blonde Roots. It’s not that the novel ever feels dutiful, as books tackling such “worthy” subjects sometimes get accused of; nor does it feel as though it is aimed at a narrow audience (quite the opposite, in fact). Nor is there a lack of wordsmithing-craft. It’s true that it is not as transgressive as it styles itself; the observation that our reality is ridiculously unfair is not, perhaps, a new one, though that doesn’t mean it’s not an observation worth making. But more than that, I think, my hesitance comes down to that concept of “aesthetic richness”: however inventive Evaristo’s variations, they all say, at heart, the same thing, and that engenders a weariness that all the vim in the world cannot fully dispel.

Watermind coverThe playfulness of M. M. Buckner’s fourth novel is more buried, and simultaneously more familiar (in a megatextual sense), having to do with the basically absurd conception of the swamp-born, Blob-like artificially intelligent trash colloid that gives Watermind its title. The prologue describes how a collection of “mote computers”, washed away from a weather experiment in Canada, eventually fetch up in Devil’s Swamp, Louisiana, a pollution dump where six-legged frogs are not out of place and where, ominously, “the water stirred with signals and ring tones. And the motes formed new bonds” (12). You just have to roll with it, because the story that follows takes this moment of pulp implausibility and puts on its serious face. The story’s principal, CJ Reilly, dropped out of MIT after her driven, genius-chemist father blew his brains out, and has been wandering (and guy-hopping) her way around present-day America for the past year. When we catch up with her, in the opening chapter of Watermind, it’s just another day in what now passes for CJ’s life: blundering around a swamp in Baton Rouge on a warm day in March, ostensibly working as part of a chemical company’s clean-up crew, actually more interested in getting stoned with her current beau, Max Pottevents, a mixed-race local who doesn’t always talk like a cut-price Gambit. Together, the pair stumble across an impossibility: a frozen pond. (Max: “Put your gloves on, lamie. It don’ sound like ice.” [17]) It’s still understandably a bit of a surprise, at least for the characters, when the ice suddenly melts, envelops and fondles CJ, before equally suddenly letting her go. Her curiosity (not to say dignity) is pricked: the game is afoot.

As in Blonde Roots, the game follows a familiar arc: this time, a close-focus account of the action delivered in scene-shaped gobbets with handy timestamps (the novel takes place over a grand total of eleven days), tracing a trajectory of gusty escalation. CJ’s personal investigation — after her discovery that the Watermind is somehow converting toxic sludge to pure water — is co-opted by the chemical company that owns the swampland, and gradually comes to the attention of the media. Oddly (you might think), there is little sense of threat. CJ projects the worst-case scenario at one point — “Think how fast he might grow […] there’s plenty of pollution to keep him growing […] he’ll infiltrate the clouds and rain in the rivers. And we’ll drink him. Then we’ll be part of him, too” (135) — but Buckner never spends much time trying to convince you this sort of apocalyptic outcome is a real possibility. The CJ-vs-the-corporation intrigue mostly seems like a kind of bluster, an excuse for CJ’s urgent need to figure out how the Watermind does what it does. Because figuring-out is what Buckner does spend time on: not many life-and-death confrontations here, but plenty of hefty chunks of experiment and/or theorising about how the Watermind might work. Meanwhile, the Watermind spends most of its time just bimbling down the Mississippi, wishing (so far as anyone can tell what it’s wishing) to be left to its own devices but defending itself, in increasingly creative ways, when necessary. It’s all a little odd.

Perhaps the key to what’s going on is in paragraphs like this one:

CJ steered her rented Viper up the Mississippi. A bright dry wind blew in from Colorado, bringing positive ions to mate with dopamine receptors in her brain so that, in the languid depths of Louisiana, she felt a clear Rocky Mountain high. (166)

Moments like this, when the camera pulls back and Buckner gives us a glimpse of the messy molecular soup of the world (it could be seen as a kind of Gaia) working on and through her characters, are their own kind of cold-water shock. The wide-angle lens is readied in the novel’s first sentence, which borrows from Wells (“As the twenty-first century dawned over western Canada …”) before descending to the seemingly proasic (“…three grad students saw their weather experiment ruined”, 11). It’s used to, among other things, give the currents of sexual tension wandering through the book possibly the least erotic gloss imaginable: “Their molecules of sexual scent wafted on air currents too fine for conscious awareness, but in the shadowy subliminal undersides of their brains, both of them recognized the chemical code” (53). Such dispassion is undeniably striking, but at first glance an odd choice for what is in most other respects a kind of technothriller: the result is a story that sometimes feels like a gale trying to blow through a vacuum.

But on reflection it’s not such a complete mismatch after all: at the end of both War of the Worlds (the scientific romance on which Watermind leans most explicitly, per that first sentence) and your average technothriller, after all, the threatening novum goes away. (Is scientific romance particularly amenable to single novums? There’s something in the characteristic juxtaposition of the familiar and the radically different that leads me to suspect so.) It is also, as rapidly becomes inescapably apparent, part of Buckner’s aesthetic elaboration of her novum, or at least of the “awesome multiplicity” (207) that is said novum’s key characteristic.

Hybridity, in Watermind, is endemic. It is the condition of the world – and us, as CJ’s recurrent anxiety about what she may have inherited from her parents tells us. Louisiana is of course a melting pot — for race, religion, music — on the verge of boiling over. “Every year,” CJ is told, “the Mississippi runs higher, and the hurricanes blow harder, and the local citizens are trapped between” (48); and we are later assured that the Mississippi itself is “not a single entity but a transient, multiplicitous spill” (177). When Roman Sacony, the CEO of that chemical company, wonders, “why now, when so many critical issues were converging? (105), we get the point; when Max speculates of CJ that “maybe she had mixed motives” and wonders, indeed, “[are] anyone’s reasons ever pure?” (158) we get the blunt end. Hurricane Novum rampages through the book, never showing any signs of blowing itself out. If Blonde Roots’ problem is that it says everything about one thing, Watermind’s is that it wants to say one thing about everything.

And at times such over-zealousness to elaborate results in the book becoming, if not incoherent, certainly inelegant, which is a real shame because in general Buckner integrates technical detail into her prose less obtrusively than the average technically-interested writer. But CJ’s first sample of the Watermind is described as “pearly” four times in the space of ten pages (and more intermittently thereafter); Max’s voice is never allowed to stand unadorned, being variously a “resonant baritone”, a “rich baritone”, a “gentle baritone”, and a “sonorous baritone”; another character”s “ample breasts” (136) are mentioned every time they come on-screen, while yet a third character can’t seem to stop sneering. It’s not that Buckner can’t turn a phrase: one of the colloid’s more memorable special effects is to spark with electricity, which is noted as “light drizzled upwards”; except it’s also then explained as being “like brilliant inverted rain” (281). “Drizzled” already did the heavy lifting in that image; the clarification just leadens the whole thing. Most damaging of all, for a book so clearly aiming to rehabilitate its pulpy premise with a veneer of scientific plausibility, are the occasional gear-grinding errors of this sort: “On the laptop, he enlarged one particular bacterium and clicked through a fast-forward sequence of images […] it was the lumpy swollen nucleus that drew their attention”, as well it might; bacterial cells not normally having a nucleus, and all.

It all makes for a weird creole shambles of a novel. Norman Spinrad’s hailing of it as “a post-genre novel, a novel that works the interfaces between any number of genres” makes very little sense to me, unless his conception of what “science fiction” can naturally encompass is rather more limited than it otherwise seems (and than mine is); Watermind strikes me most obviously now as a single-novum novel more rigorous than dynamic, and mercilessly elaborated to the point of collapse. Or near-collapse: because somehow it almost always comes into focus whenever it comes back to CJ Reilly. After memories of the foghorn mentions of her “slender hips” (15), allusions to her nymph-like sexiness (66), and reassurances about her “astonishing IQ” (49) have faded slightly, there is a character left behind who stubbornly demands to be remembered, a deeply Imperfect Girlfriend. There are moments in Watermind, most particularly in CJ’s cutting negotiations with Roman Sacony’s professional chemists, who perceive CJ as a pixie-girl parachuted into their midst with no real justification, and whose claws never quite retract, that reminded me of Gwyneth Jones’s Life (2004) as a novel about the practice of science by a woman, which I consider high praise. But whichever of the many twists in Watermind‘s braid is uppermost, CJ feels fully engaged with it. This is where Buckner’s commitment to the multifarious pays off: CJ gets to show off all sides of a human personality. Inconstant in her aspect, she provokes and fascinates more than anything in the somewhat tattered story that surrounds her.

Story Notes 3

The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen (The New Yorker, March)
“Surely,” the nameless narrator says near the end of this tale, “our world obeys rules still alien to our imaginations”. She’s ostensibly talking about the possibility of time travel, though the larger point “The Region of Unlikeness” is structured to make is that she may as well be talking about the impulses of the human heart. From the start, the story emphasizes what is unknown or uncertain: describing how she fell into an intellectual pose of friendship with two ostentatiously erudite older men, the first thing the narrator admits is that she doesn’t actually know whether one of them is a philosopher or a physicist; nor does she understand the relationship between them, although now she suspects it may hide “a scientific secret, that rare kind of secret that, in our current age, still manages to bend our knee”. If that sounds like the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this; the story is brim-full with carefully observed quotidian (New York) detail, the contours of the relationships between the three characters are finely delineated, and the tension between the story’s science fictional and mundane explanations well balanced. I do like this sort of thing, and I did like this, particularly the last, caught as it is between an evoked longing for the conspiratorial explanation to be true – for there to be rules still alien to our imaginations – and a recognition that its truth is potentially horrifying. It’s made me bump Atmospheric Disturbances a few notches back up the reading stack, anyway. It also reminded me of Justina Robson’s “Legolas Does the Dishes“ at some points, though Galchen’s tale is more conspicuous about guiding its readers; but then, the narrator is the sort of person who thinks playing a video game is de facto evidence of childishness, so it makes sense that she’d be proud of her learning.

“The Kindness of Strangers” by Nancy Kress (Fast Forward 2)
Kress also sets up a balance between the human and the science-fictional, but of a more traditional kind, telling a story about an implacable but literally incomprehensible alien visitation contrasted with an implacable but all too comprehensible human story. For it to work the aliens must be impressive, and they are – they start removing Earth’s cities, in decreasing size order, made retrospectively even more impressive when their appearance afterward in human form has the feel of a more simple magic – and the personal crisis be affecting, and it is. Jenny is the other woman in an affair that she knows can’t go anywhere – or couldn’t, before Eric’s family were apparently obliterated by the aliens and they were trapped, with a small group of others, between invisible barriers. Several stylistic and structural choices on Kress’ part maximise the story’s effectiveness; it’s told in the present tense, and notably Eric is kept almost entirely off-screen, placing the emphasis on Jenny being drawn into interacting with one of the other families. The answer for the aliens’ actions obtained in the inevitable final confrontation isn’t new – none could be – but it reaffirms the chill contrast in perspectives that’s at the heart of the story. Likewise, the story as a whole isn’t new, but it’s done with satisfying skill.

“The Sun Also Explodes” by Chris Nakashima-Brown (Fast Forward 2)
A story which is clearly trying to be new, and depending on your reading is either caught between its utopian and satiric impulses, or productively exploits the tension between those impulses; being charitable, I lean towards the latter. The tension is there in the setting, a desert micro-state advertised as a haven for artistic, cultural, political, sexual and interpersonal experimentation – where topics of conversation range freely from new planets to comics – if you can afford the entry fee. You suspect a wink when Nakashima-Brown describes his characters as a “posturban hipster crowd”, and the relationship/collaboration that develops between the narrator, a kind of literal landscape artist, and Elkin, a bio-artist, has the kind of casualness (at least on the surface) which that characterisation suggests. But it’s also a bond informed and altered by the new biological and cybernetic technologies that infuse their work and bodies. The terms of success the story sets up for itself are ambitious, and more met than not; the major disappointment is that there is not, in fact, an exploding sun.

“Little Lost Robot” by Paul McAuley (IZ217)
This is a fun story on several levels. For starters, it’s about an immense civilization-killing robot, travelling from solar system to solar system, carrying out a prime directive to wipe out The Enemy, which basically seems to be any organic life. It’s not hugely pyrotechnic, but there is a sense of intoxicating power hanging over the story. The style is rather droll; the robot is described simply as “the big space robot”, and the narrator says things like, “Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you and it will rock your world”. And although the dilemma that ultimately faces the robot – it uncovers evidence that it may be about to destroy the civilization that birthed it; can said evidence be trusted? – is familiar, McAuley finds an angle on the dilemma, and a resolution, that feel fresh. It’s big, clever fun in five pages.

Divining Light” by Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s, August)
A perhaps slightly overlong, but very proficient, sf story about quantum mechanics in the classic mode, which is to say idea-driven and didactic. As with Kress’s story, it’s a piece that does what it needs to do to work – three things, in this case. First, it makes its chosen idea – the famous, although apparently not as famous as I thought, given that the story includes a diagram, two-slit experiment demonstrating the wav/particle nature of electrons – parsable, both in terms of a literal clear explanation of the experiment and in rendering the experiments and their implications human-scaled and easy to grasp. Second, it gives its new idea (an implementation of Wheeler’s Delayed Choice thought experiment) human weight: this in part flows from the voice of the narrator, Eric Argus, a researcher driven to bitter existential despair by his work on quantum computers, who faces down drink and the solace of a gun every day at his “new start” job in Boston, and is prone to saying noir-ish things like, “I learned this: there is no bottom to see” of his experience with Scanning Electron Microscope scans, or “the more research I did, the less I believed in the world”. (Just as well, since he’s the only half-way real character in the piece.) And third, “Divining Light” brings the idea and the human story together with appropriate elegance. The story’s last ten pages spin off implications of Eric’s work rapidly in several directions (animal welfare, the nature of faith, human evolution), such that the world begins to be changed; but ultimately the story comes down to one devastating moment, rendered comprehensible by the explanations that have gone before. A very nice performance, and one that handles the slide between the real and the speculative expertly.

The Best Novels of 2008

According to SFX readers:

  1. Making Money by Terry Pratchett
  2. Flood by Stephen Baxter
  3. Matter by Iain M. Banks
  4. The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl
  5. Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik
  6. House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
  7. The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert VS Redick
  8. Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
  9. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  10. Anathem by Neal Stephenson

I’m not quite sure how the eligibility for this works, given that Making Money, The Empire of Ivory and The Name of the Wind were first published in 2007; but that aside, I will be interested to see what, if any, correspondence there turns out to be with the BSFA Award shortlist, when that’s announced in January. (Get your nominations in now, folks!)

Now That’s What I Call A Book Log

Here is what Joe Bernstein read, or at least skimmed, this year:

Via. It adds up to more than 100,000 words, if you’re wondering. I am boggled, approaching staggered.

For reference, here’s last year; a measly 70k.

Sparkle Motion

When I mentioned I was planning to read Stephenie Meyer’s young adult vampire blockbuster Twilight, many people reacted with puzzlement. Why was a reading a book with so many negative reviews, so many articles about the disturbing gender roles and creepy romance? Partly it was curiosity, to see if there’s anything to explain why these books hit such a chord with female readers, much like I read (and enjoyed) Harry Potter to see what all the fuss was about, but mostly it was because I don’t like writing off books without actually reading them just because everyone else says they are rubbish.

Twilight is the story of Bella Swan, who selflessly moves from California to live with her dad, the sheriff of the small, exceptionally damp town of Forks, Washington. There she meets the mysterious and pale Edward Cullen, falls in love, meets his family of equally pale and attractive vampires, and has a run-in with a nasty vampire before the Cullen family rescue her and Edward takes her to the prom. While I was prepared for how much of the book is devoted to the love story, I didn’t realise how lacking in plot it actually is. For 300 pages we follow Bella around as she goes to school, is terrible at gym, makes dinner and does the laundry, and has lots of teenage angst, before she and Edward actually go skipping through the meadows and meet the proper villain. Surely there are better ways of portraying the mundanity of Bella’s life pre-Edward than to tell me every detail.

Bella is clearly an attempt at a character the female readers with empathise with – she worries about fitting in at her new school, she’s bad at gym and worries about her clumsiness. Other than that, her personality is a blank slate, which is why it’s so unbelievable that all the boys she meets are attracted to her, and the clumsiness is so exaggerated that she can barely walk a mile without falling over. It becomes an even bigger problem since the whole plot hinges on Bella being Edward’s one true love, and the only evidence we have for that is Edward’s continual declarations that she smells nice and how intriguing she is, mostly because she’s the one woman whose mind he can’t read.

When James the bad vampire turns up, things get more interesting and more disturbing, at least from a gender angle. The vampires are playing baseball, in an unintentionally hilarious scene as they reveal that they can only play baseball during thunderstorms as they hit the ball so hard it sounds like thunder. (And yet the bats and balls can stand up to this treatment.) The vampires in Meyer’s world draw lightly on traditional vampire mythology, as they do drink blood, and get “turned” by another vampire, but other than that they have superpowers – immortal, exceptionally fast and strong, and a variety of powers which allow them to foresee the future, read minds, control emotions, track humans, and also compose heart-rending piano pieces. In a fight between two groups of superpowered individuals, Bella gets literally picked up and carried about, ordered around, and when she decides to confront the villain herself, it all goes wrong and she has to be rescued, and being a first-person narrative we don’t even get to see the fight as Bella is out cold.

While the relationship between Bella and Edward is undoubtedly creepy and disturbing, with Bella lacking in agency and awareness about how weird it is, I was never sure quite how much was deliberate and how much is Meyer unintentionally robbing Bella of her agency because that’s the only way she can think of to make the plot work. There are occasional nods to Bella having thoughts of her own, as she comes up with a plan, or protests a little at Edward ordering her around, but it is unconvincing against such events as how romantic it is that Edward spends his nights sneaking into her bedroom and watching her sleep. The writing might be an attempt to write like a seventeen-year-old girl in love might write, but it is drowning in adverbs; everything is ‘utterly absurd’ or ‘gloriously intense’, Edward has a ‘sculpted, incandescent chest’ and ‘scintillating arms’, and he even has an alabaster brow, which I hope is a nod to Anne of Green Gables but I’m worried it’s meant to be sincere.

I can see why Twilight does appeal to teenagers, because Edward is the perfect, older boyfriend, one of the cool kids from high school, who takes her out to dinner and wants to know all about her, always the one restraining himself from taking the relationship further while Bella is eager to progress. I don’t worry about teenagers reading it, because I read piles of books with much worse role models and gender issues than this as a teenager. It’s just disappointing that of all the good books out there, so many people are obsessing over it, but if I could predict what book would sell a million copies I’d have a lot more money.

Your Twilight linkapalooza:
Helen-keeble is more forgiving than I am, and has interesting theories on why Bella appeals to teenagers.
The first of Cleolinda’s many Livejournal posts.
Ide Cyan at the Feminist SF blog talks about the cultural positioning of Twilight.
A feminist takes on Twilight’s abstinence message.
Liz Henry is enjoying it so far (it’s true that Bella does think about how she might think about hurting her attempted muggers, but then Edward comes along and rescues her and tells her how she needs a healthy does of fear).
A set of Livejournal posts on Twilight and mormonism.
And just for the funny, Growing Up Cullen, which fills in what Edward was doing for years and years waiting for his true love to turn up.

Empire in Links and Gold