Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures in Science Fiction

The London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC, possibly pronounced “Lucifer” for those who prefer their initalisms to be acronyms) played host to a larger crowd than usual in Gordon Square on Saturday 16th September for their first day-long conference, organised principally by Rhodri Davies, Francis Gene-Rowe, and Aren Roukema. One of the primary activities of the LSFRC is its monthly reading group: each year, the organisers decide on a theme and request suggestions for texts that might interact with the theme in interesting ways. Once the (typically extensive) list has been compiled, it is voted on by the community, and the texts which come out top form the next year’s reading list. “Organic Systems” was the topic of discussion for 2016-2017 – for anyone interested the topic for 2017-2018 is “Sublime Cognition: Science Fiction and Metaphysics” and the group meets in Gordon Square on the first Monday of each month (I’d advise checking the Facebook group for relevant details). Consequently, this one-day conference marked the culmination of a year of discussion and gently percolating thought regarding, in Chris Pak’s words, “interlocking systems intersecting on multiple levels” within sf and its accompanying critical discourse. I suppose it should be noted for reasons of editorial balance that I did attend at least some of the reading group sessions.

posterLSFRC Sublime Cognition poster by Sing Yun Lee

Continue reading “Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures in Science Fiction”

Spirit, Part 1: Take One

I started Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit at the wrong time, or at least in the wrong headspace. The plot was a Lego patchwork of interlinked episodes, and it didn’t seem to have enough momentum to take me much of anywhere plot-wise, even as it spanned a barely-known universe in its events. I hadn’t read any of Jones’ other Aleutian novels, had no greater context thus far into which to slot it. I didn’t feel lost, but it wasn’t a universe to which I had any existing commitment.

It didn’t help that I knew there was a rape scene coming, somewhere in its expansive, multi-volumesque middle. With that looming, somewhere, I read more and more episodically, which did nothing to help the volume’s flow. Doom, gloom, and stuckness overwhelmed the characters and I, seeing no hope for them and fearing what I knew was coming, went adrift. I stopped reading.

Despite that unpromising beginning, I always meant to go back to it. My intentions were good. The SFX blurb promised me a take on The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel I remembered fondly and whose plot I’d happily revisit. Nearly halfway through the book, I was barely halfway through the lavishly extensive blurb on the back of the book when I failed to keep reading.

It really is quite a blurb. As Martin Lewis observed in his discussion of the novel last week, it synopsizes up to page 255 out of 472 pages. At the time, however, it was a token framework for me, a checklist of events which the plot had gotten around to, rather than any real roadmap of structure. (Which raises the question: is it still really a spoiler once it’s mentioned in the blurb?) It really was the wrong time and headspace for me to be reading the novel.

Fortunately, Martin suggested I have another go at the novel this March, complete the task I set myself last year when I undertook to write – or host writing on – the eleven best science fiction novels by women from the first decade of this millennium.

I’m glad he did. The second time around, the book was good.

Lavinia, Part 3: Science Fiction?

Enough people thought Le Guin’s Lavinia was science fiction that it was shortlisted for the BSFA best novel award, and  placed in last year’s poll of the best sf novels by women of the previous decade.

But why is it science fiction? Is it science fiction because that’s what Le Guin writes, and therefore this must be too? Is it science fiction between there’s a time traveler in the story, albeit one who makes a limited number of appearances, and those through extended vision sequences? Is it science fiction because, as I have proposed elsewhere, history is a form of science, and this story plays around with historiography in a science fictional way?

Jo Walton and Niall Harrison assert that it’s fantasy, as opposed to science fiction. Others clearly saw no distinction between science fiction and fantasy for the purposes of these particular two samplers – the BSFA Award is specifically open to fantasy, after all, despite the name of the organisation. And Niall didn’t define “science fiction” for the purpose of last year’s best-of poll, so its presence there doesn’t preclude it being only fantasy.

And yet, Niall observed that some people voted for Lavinia for the best-of poll in the same email as they said they wished they could vote for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but couldn’t because that was fantasy. Clearly, some people were consciously thinking of Lavinia as being science fiction as opposed to fantasy.

Personally, I don’t believe that one categorisation precludes the other. Above all, Lavinia is historical fiction, with a focus on the practical intricacies of daily life, and the mechanics of legend. It has one minor possible moment of mythic magic, when a group of household lares are mysteriously transported from one place to another. It has a time-traveling poet on his death bed, whose transtemporal dialogues can be interpreted as science fictional time travel, or as fantastical vision.

It also has a self-aware narrator, whose story is suffused with her consciousness of contingency. Her existence depends upon her being recounted. I’d never thought of post-modern as a mythic mode, but her self-consciousness is thoroughly both in this tale, as is the literalness embodied in her final transformation. Looked at from a different angle again, she feels a keen sense of wonder at the very fact of her own existence, under the circumstances. Perhaps her historiographic analytic self-consciousness is enough of a psychological experiment to justify Lavinia being thought of science fiction.

Lavinia, Part 2: Audience

Lavinia is one of the most recent installations in a long history of what is, in effect, Aeneid-related fan fiction. It was a particularly popular topic for authors in the seventeenth and eighteen century, when the well-educated were quite likely to have read it in Latin as part of their education. The ancient Latin work spawned a slew of elaborators and continuations, best know of which is Purcell’s opera, written about Dido and Aeneas.

Indeed, one of my own extremely rare forays into fan art was when a friend at university asked me to draw a series of small images of Aeneas and his escape from Troy. The images were quite tiny and in watercolour pencil, so barely more than stick figures at that scale. Further, I hadn’t read the Aeneid yet, so relied entirely on my friend’s description of each of eight or nine scenes. That’s how I first met Ascanius and Aeneas and their household Lares, the house gods they saved from Troy, and which find their home, ultimately, with Lavinia in Le Guin’s novel. In Lavinia, Aeneas’ first point of personal commitment to the title character is in entrusting her with their care; and one of the few moments proposed as potentially-supernatural intervention occurs when the Lares move themselves back to her custody.

I’m sure other Aeneid-related works are still being produced, if not so many as in their heyday. Certainly Troy-related works have been going strong lately, if more focused on the Trojan War itself than its aftermath. Equally certain is how well known the stories of Troy are, from their related epics to the ongoing archeological investigations into the history of a city long-since defunct. It’s as inspiring as Atlantis.* Just the other day in Paris, I saw a Trojan dog in the window of some upscale mass-market clothing store, big enough for at least three people.

So the stories generally are known. But how well is the Aeneid in particular known these days among those who haven’t studied Latin? I wonder, not in terms of judging whatever count as “reading the classics”, but in term of who the target audience for Lavinia might be. And does knowing the source material even matter?

My copy of the book is printed in a nice, clear, big font, which leaves me wondering if it was marketed – as many of Le Guin’s books have been – as that relatively-recent classification, Young Adult fiction. The story does deal with a young woman coming of age. How accessible would this book be to someone with no background in Aeneid, whether or not they were a teenager? The story itself provides a summary, in effect, of the last three books of the Aeneid, plus quite a big of its contextual background, but equally the book is written in conscious dialogue with the poem and its poet, who himself appears as an influential character in the book. Lavinia herself tells the reader that her very existence is contingent on his having told of her having been.

Le Guin’s books often deal with historically-rich civilizations, burdened from and benefitting from their layers of past. Might that mean her books would intrinsically appeal to readers with a greater historical consciousness and interest? Or perhaps it is largely through partially-derivative works like this that audiences are most familiar with the Aeneid these days, if at all?

I first read Lavinia specifically because it had been nominated for the BSFA Award for best novel of 2009. Le Guin is, of course, one of the most important authors of science fiction and fantasy; but is this book even targeted at readers of those genres? (I’ll consider the degree to which it even is science fiction in my next post.)

It’s a Le Guin book, and a good and well-reviewed book, so of course it sold at least moderately well. It’s been published at least in the US, the UK, and Japan, and had both hardback and paperback editions; but who is the book’s audience?

* I was recently looking through a brochure of things to do while in Dubai. It includes a theme park devoted to how the residents of Atlantis might have lived.

Lavinia, Part 1: Voice and Identity

Ursula Le Guin’s novel Lavinia is the story of an identity, and of permutations of “I”.

The book begins with the word “I”, and, as throughout, the reader sees this world through the eyes of the titular Lavinia:

I went to the salt beds by the mouth of the river, in the May of my nineteenth year, to get salt for the sacred meal.

Lavinia was a minor figure in Vergil’s Aeneid, a voiceless treaty-bride to his hero Aeneas once he finally settles in Italy and metaphorically plants the seeds which will grow into the city and empire of Rome. Vergil had little enough to say about the young woman, and, as Le Guin’s Lavinia tells us, much of what little he said was cliché rather than accurately descriptive.

The Lavinia of the novel is a voice of several parts. The primary story is that of her more distant past, growing up in Latium, learning the rituals of worship which structure her experience of time, and encountering Aeneas, first through prophecy, then from afar, later through treaties, and finally as his bride. Interludes tell us of a later past, her time happily married with Aeneas, in the three brief years they have together – as she knows and he does not. The framing narrative is the mystery of her voice, that she has one at all, for Vergil, her poet, did not give her one in his poem.

Vergil narrated her into existence, she tells us, in turn recursively narrating his existence in to her story. He appears in her story as a time-traveler in the dreams of his death bed. He meets her that way for the first time, when it is far too late to include her properly in the poem he has already written in his own time; Lavinia, and how badly he misrepresented her that poem, become sone of his dying regrets.

Their conversations cast a long shadow over the playing out of the book’s events; his descriptions of what will happen to Aeneas and what is shown on his shield shape Lavinia’s life for the next three years, and, ultimately, leave her with the difficulty of going on after his effectively-prophetic tellings have concluded. Vergil can tell her of the future glories of Rome, but not of what might happen to her once Aeneas has died. She tells us she is contingent, existing only because of Vergil’s telling of her; and yet, she must find most of her life and the degrees of her existence for herself, because he did not know them. When the contents of the poem have finished working themselves out in her life, she tells her readers that she “has lost my guide, my Vergil.” That “I must go on by myself through all that is left after the end, all the rest of the immense, pathless, unreadable world”. (p. 183)

The end of the Aeneid is not the end of Lavinia, since the whole point, the whole argument, of the book is that she has her own life; by inference, so too does any tertiary character, especially any given woman in a story of antiquity. The rest of the book is a meditation on finding identity amongst political and social conflict.

By the end, the “I”s have multiplied from what seemed to be the simple voice of telling with which the book began; in the the “I”s of the ending, there is the English word for first-person nominative identity but in them too is also the last externally-structuring words Lavinia has – the Latin command to “go”. To go on.

And so, in her own way, she does.

Looking ahead

We’ve gotten a bit behind with plans here at Torque Control. I’ve had a busy end-of-semester, and Niall and Tony both ended up over-committed, which is why you haven’t seen the end (or in one case, beginning) of discussions of Farthing and The Carhullan Army. I can’t tell you when those posts will be along, but I can tell you the following…

I have a special preview of the next Vector for you tomorrow. The issue itself was as waylaid as this blog, but you should still have it before the end of January. In the meantime, tomorrow I’ll be posting an article which will appear in the print issue when it comes out, but which you really need to read much sooner than that: Andrew Butler’s writeup of the John Martin: Apocalypse show which is currently at the Tate in London, but closes January 15th.

Next week, I’ll be posting on Lavinia.

Then, two weeks later, in January, I’ll post about Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit. Shortly after which, you should be receiving the next BSFA mailing, about which much more anon.

Coming up: Lavinia

Next up in reading the Future Classics is a novel set in ancient Latium.

For November, what’s left of it, I’ll be looking at Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin’s retelling of part of the Aeneid from the perspective of a character who, in the original, has no lines. The book was contentious as science fiction at the time: does it even count as part of that genre? Whether or not it does – we’ll reconsider the arguments – it’s certainly a fascinating and admirable book. It won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was shortlisted for the BSFA Award.

Lavinia was published in 2008 (meaning we’ve skipped 2007). In that year, Fidel Castro resigned as president of Cuba, Bill Gates as chairman of Microsoft, the island of Sark lost its distinction for preserving feudalism, the summer Olympics were held in Beijing, and the Large Hadron Collider was officially opened. Arthur C Clarke died, and Terry Pratchett announced that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The BSFA began its experiment with running Matrix as an online magazine.

I can promise you a discussion of Lavinia before the end of the month. I’ll be posting on it starting a week from today.

P.S. These year recaps paid off at the BristolCon quiz for me, when, thanks to doing them, I knew in which year Pluto lost its planetary status.

Coming up: The Carhullan Army / Daughters of the North

The next book on the Future Classics list we’ll be reading is Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, published in the US as Daughters of the North.

We’re moving steadily towards the present now. The Carhullan Army was published in 2007 and did extremely well for itself. It won the Tiptree Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. It was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award (which was won by Richard Morgan’s Black Man). The book was her third novel, the previous one having been shortlisted for the Man Booker award.

2007 was the year that Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. The book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published. The Writers Guild of America began the strike which would go on to give us, the following year, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. The Hugo shortlist for best novel included Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, the only work by a female author to be nominated in that category since 2005 or until 2010. Madeleine L’Engle and Ingmar Berman died.The Science Fiction Foundation held its first-ever Science Fiction Criticism Masterclass. It was also, apparently, the Year of the Dolphin.

Tony will be leading discussion of The Carhullan Army / Daughter of the North.

(I leave it up to Niall and Tony whether we’ll be looking at Farthing or The Carhullan Army first.)

Farthing update

Niall’s been swamped, between the Strange Horizon fund-raising drive and travel, so while his posts are Farthing are still forthcoming, I can’t say when.

In the meantime, there’s some news on the subject of the book’s availability in the UK! Regardless of why it may or may not have been unpublished in the UK before now, Jo Walton has now sold world English rights for the book to Tor. The major immediate impact of this is that the audio book version of Farthing is now available in the UK (from Audible or wherever else you choose to buy it from).

Coming up: Farthing

The next book in our ongoing Future Classics series is Jo Walton’s Farthing.  Niall will be leading discussion, likely starting before the end of September.

Farthing was published two years after Gwyneth Jones’ Life, which means 2005 is the first year of the last decade we have skipped. None of the books published that year made it onto our list of the top-10 science fiction novels by women of the last decade.

2006, however, gave us Farthing, the first of Walton’s Small Change trilogy. It was also the year that Pluto was demoted from being a planet; novels by five male authors were shortlisted for the best novel for the Hugo Award; and Octavia Butler, Stanislaw Lem, Jack Williamson, and Jim Baen died.

Farthing was shortlisted for a slew of awards, including the Nebula, the John W Campbell Memorial Award, the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and the Locus award.  It won the Romantic Times 2006 Reviewers’ Choice Award for Science Fiction.

I hope you will be able to join us in reading and discussing Farthing.