July: City of Pearl

I exaggerated a little about 2003. It is pretty astonishing that three books out of the 11 best science fiction by women from the last decade were published then, but it was part of a larger lumping in the decade. Two more of the novels on the list came out in 2004, adding to my mild suspicions about how we mentally process novels, and how long it takes to pass judgement on a book’s staying power while still remembering that one has read it. It would be interesting to do similar surveys every five years and see how they evolve.

In any event, this month on Torque Control, we will be looking at Karen Traviss‘s novel, City of Pearl. Given how prolific Traviss has been since, it’s worth remembering that City of Pearl was her very first published novel, one of two which came out in 2004.  Also note that it has not been published in the UK, although used copies are certainly available here. Her Wess’har War series, which it begins, would have five more volumes by 2008.

Traviss will be at ComiCon in San Diego later this month. She was also part of a three-way interview on Women’s Hour of BBC4 in June, which Niall transcribed here.

And speaking of Niall, he’s the one who will be leading discussion of City of Pearl later in July. I hope you will be able to join us in reading and discussing it.

Maul – Recap

You can tell it’s summer. We’re busy, but not always in the ways we are the rest of the year.

In any event, June now comes to an end, having taken a bite out of July in the process. For June, we read Tricia Sullivan’s Maul, the last of the 2003 novels from chronological exploration of the best science fiction novels written by women in the previous decade which we are reading here at Torque Control over the course of this calendar year. 2003 really was astonishing, with the publication of, in addition to Maul, Natural History and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Tony Keen, a new Torque Control contributor, examined the book over a series of posts, beginning with the vexed question of just what constitutes reality in the book; continuing with a consideration of feminism and violence in the novel;  and then discussing the central role which branding played in the writing and world-building of Maul.

My thanks to Tony for leading the discussion! And thank you to all who joined in – never to late to go back and do so! – in reading or re-reading Maul.

Discussion: Part 1 (What is reality?), Part 2 (“the new face of Feminist sf”), and Part 3 (Product placement)

Some other recent posts/reviews on Maul:
Martin Lewis on the first chapter of Maul.
He also notes that Maul is out of print, and Sullivan is out of contract only eight years later.
Val Guichon at Valunivers

Maul – product placement

… she kept shooting, taking out pyramids and columns of fragrance and colour. Estée Lauder, Nina Ricci, Lancôme, Gucci, Calving Klein, Clinique, Chanel, Ralph Lauren … a crystalline gazz of the highest order for Suk Hee. (Maul, 2003 Orbit edition, p. 34.)

Many commentators, most recently Sebastian Faulks, have noted the manner in which Ian Fleming validated James Bond as a character through the brands he used.  It was important to Fleming to know, and to let the reader know, what cigarettes Bond smoked, what vodka he drank, what golf balls he used.

Something similar is going on in Maul.  The bloody gunfight that precipitates much of the action in the maul occurs not just in an upmarket clothes boutique, but in Lord & Taylor.   Sun and Alex have sex in the stockroom not just of an electrical goods store, but of Sharper Image.  Other shops are mentioned – Godiva, Toys-R-Us, etc.  Sun’s existence seems defined by the brands she uses – she doesn’t wear perfume, she wears CK1.  When she finds a packet of cigarettes what registers is Benson & Hedges.  The only significant thing that is not referred to by its brand, interestingly, is Sun’s gun.

Sullivan does this for authenticity.  This may not be a mall in our world, but it is a mall in something that is a close enough approximation of our world to be recognisable.  Americans, and most Brits (certainly anyone who’d ever seen The Blues Brothers or Dawn of the Dead) would have an idea of a mall in which trading names are prominent.  Sullivan herself, who grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, no doubt spent some time herself in such places (though hopefully she never ran into a running gun battle). So Sullivan’s maul needs to have same quality of commercial branding – anonymous stores or invented ones just won’t cut it.

Something similar is going on in the future strand.  Of course, there the  brands are made up, but commercial interests clearly still loom large in this world.  The Mall  game Meniscus is a product of NoSystems.  Madeleine Baldino works for Highbridge.  Some of the names, however, are not invented.  Dunkin’ Donuts is still going, as is Play-Doh.  Clearly, Meniscus’ world is not that far into the future.

I’ve talked in the previous post about how Maul is a novel about violence and gender roles.  But the use of brand names suggests to me that it is also a novel about commercialism, and the way that can wreck lives.  It is not just about the fetishisation of violence, but its commodification.  It truly is an SF novel for the way we live now.

You can find my first post on Maul here, and my second here.

Maul – “the new face of Feminist SF”

For so states Cheryl Morgan.

It feels smooth and heavy and warm when I stroke it because I’ve been sleeping with it between my legs. I like to inhale its grey infinite smell for a while before I pass my lips down its length, courting it with the tip of my tongue, until my mouth has come to the wider part near the tip. This I suck, and blow gently into the hole. It becomes wet in my mouth but doesn’t soften. It remains achingly solid and I put it between my legs. Its tip snuggles around my clit. On the day I bought it, I had to test out several models before I found one that fitted, and Suk Hee’s gangster cousin Woo kept trying to look around the side of the van to see what I was doing. Woo was afraid someone would come and he’d get caught with the van and everything. I came. It was the only way to be sure I had the right one.

And so begins Maul.  The passage, I think, deliberately sets out to shock.  It becomes more shocking still when, after our narrator Sun Katz has achieved orgasm (in what, by the way, is one of the best come scenes I’ve read in literature), it turns out that she is describing not a penis, as one might have thought at first, or a dildo, as one might conclude by the end of the paragraph.  No.

Even a hypothetical boyfriend wouldn’t understand.
How I feel.
About my gun.

Yes, that’s right. It’s a gun.  Guns are very important to Sun and her Korean girl gang pals.  (Another point to note in passing is how understated Maul is about Sun’s ethnic identity.  It’s there, but Sullivan feels no need to have Sun explicitly state at the beginning “Oh, by the way, I’m Korean.”)  Sun wears her gun strapped under her skirt, not coincidentally close to her genitalia.  The link between femininity and weaponry is underlined by the UK cover, as noted by Martin Lewis; a lipstick in a bullet cartridge.

If written by a man, this could be seen as misogynist claptrap, or at the very least wet-dream wish-fulfilment.  But Sullivan’s point is that women can be as interested as men in the fetishization of guns and violence – they just have to be given a chance.

This is emphasized even more in the future Meniscus strand.  There, the Y-plagues have eliminated  most males.  The few that remain fertile are locked away in “castellations”.  The majority of the population are women, and they are running the planet.  Does this mean that there is a feminist Utopia?  No.  In Sullivan’s vision, women have moved into the niches vacated by men, to the point of some becoming burly butch truckers.

Most women have children through cloning.  But the sperm of the men in the castellations, the “pigs”, is there for those who can afford it.  And what are the qualities that are valued in those men?  Not sensitivity, but athletic ability, fighting prowess, heroism, the same old macho bullshit.  As prominent pig Arnie Henshaw says, “Nowadays, no matter how skinny, a really good hacker is worth ten guys who can impale a mammoth with a spear, but you chicks would rather have a hacker with muscles, wouldn’t you?”  The main female protagonist of this strand, Madeleine Baldino, knows this, and hates herself, and Henshaw, for it.

Some women in this world think that the exploitation of men is wrong.  Their underground terrorist activities drive the plot.  In a neat reversion of the feminist slogan “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, their movement is called Bicyclefish.

But there is a cost, and that cost is the validation of the actions of a man like Snake Carrera, a violent and arguably psychopathic male who carries out Henshaw’s stunts for him, and who ends up in Meniscus’ cell as part of a plot to murder him.  He is, also, the most imposing male character in the book, far more so than any man in the Maul strand, where males are either authority figures like policemen or security guards, or feeble and less than they appear on the surface, such as Sun’s lust object Alex, who takes her virginity but soon proves to be not the person she needs or wants. The interesting characters in that strand, Sun, her friend Suk Hee, her antagonists 10Esha and KrayZglu, are all women.

Maul rightly made the 2003 Tiptree Award Short List, though it didn’t win. It certainly explores gender and feminism in a way that challenges long-held certainties on all sides. Indeed, I feel it explores the relationship between men and violence, and the attraction of both to women, in a similar, but I felt more successful, manner to the 2002 Tiptree winner, M. John Harrison’s Light.

The message, in the end, is that violence is not endemic to men – it’s endemic to humanity.

You can find my first post on Maul here.

Maul – What is reality?

(Sorry for the delay.)

Cheryl Morgan and Justina Robson both seem to think that readers in the UK need to have the pun in the title of what Tricia Sullivan, probably rightly, regards as her best novel, explained to them, on the grounds that the pronunciation of “mall” that is the same as “maul” might be unfamiliar this side of the Atlantic. I don’t know about that. By 2003 most Britons, I would have thought, would be well-exposed to many items of American culture that took place at least partly in malls (the movie Clueless comes to mind). I would expect most people were perfectly familiar with that pronunciation, perhaps even more so than with the short-a version that is most commonly encountered in the road that leads to Buckingham Palace. The title certainly never threw me.

That absorption of American culture is perhaps key to the novel’s success in the UK, where it was nominated for both the BSFA and Clarke Awards. The present-day strand is set in a world that is only slightly distant from that experienced by the British reader, who could experience a similar environment (if perhaps less dangerous) not far from where they lived (Lakeside opened in 1988, Gateshead MetroCentre in 1986; Bristol’s Cribb’s Causeway even calls itself “The Mall”). And anyone who remembered the James Bulger killing would know that bad things could happen in places like this.

But the mall/maul strand is only one of the strands of this novel. It is paralleled by a far future strand, where men have been mostly wiped out by genetically-engineered plagues that attack the Y chromosomes, and leave men dead or desexualised. The science, as Sullivan herself says, is “pure fudge”, but it does its job, and creates a society almost entirely dominated by women. I want to discuss the gender issues in the second post – for now, I want to stick with the strands, and their relationship to one another. When I first read this novel, I was immediately reminded of M. John Harrison’s Light, which similarly blends present and future strands. But what is the nature of the relationship between the two strands in Maul?

It is rapidly apparent that there is one. In the future, Meniscus, a clone, is a living experiment, treated as not much better than a lab rat. He is, however, given a game, Mall, into which he can retreat to save what remains of his sanity (this was when virtual reality was still quite new – Second Life was launched in 2003, and only later became so passé that it could feature in both CSI and Law & Order).  In the mall strand, the culture Meniscus has most recently been infected with, 10E, turns up as online video artist 10Esha (this latter characterisation is later echoed by FallN in Sullivan’s most recent novel, Lightborn).  But does this mean that the mall has no reality?  Robson certainly thinks so:

“this world, the book’s ‘reality’, is a virtual simulation being run inside a human being from some alternative reality.”

The novel itself might also suggest that.  The first person narrator of the mall section, Sun Katz, tells us at one point “I have this weird conviction there will be no tomorrow”.  Morgan and Adam Roberts are more circumspect. The both talk of the mall strand being a metaphorical representation of the Meniscus strand.

But the novel begins and ends with Sun, not with Meniscus.  Early on, Sun christens a security guard Descartes, “for reasons that are nothing to do with anybody but me.”  One can’t help feeling that Sullivan wants the reader to think of René Descartes’ most famous maxim: “I think, therefore I am.”  Sun thinks, and we are privy to her thoughts. So she is real, at least to herself.  As to whether the mall has any more objective reality, well, what does?  In this, Sullivan’s novel resembles another crtically-acclaimed work of the previous year, Christopher Priest’s The Separation. Like Priest, Sullivan lays all the pieces out in front of us. But it’s up to the reader to work out what they mean.

June: Maul

For June, here on Torque Control, we’re reading our third and final book from 2003, that bumper year of excellent science fiction written by women in the last decade.

Maul was Tricia Sullivan’s seventh published novel, if I count correctly. She had won the Clarke Award several years earlier for Dreaming in Smoke, an award for which Maul was shortlisted.

Tricia Sullivan will be the BSFA’s Guest of Honour at its mini-convention and AGM this Saturday, held jointly with the SFF. Tom Hunter will be interviewing her at 2 pm at the Royal Astronomical Society in Burlington House on Piccadilly in central London.

She will also be on a panel on “Women, Science Fiction, and Britain in 2011” with Pat Cadigan, Niall Harrison, and me, as moderator. She’s soliciting your suggestions for material which we could try to fit in to the panel, time and structure willing.

Tony Keen will be leading this month’s discussion. I hope you will join us in reading Maul and discussing it later in June.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Recap

And that was May. May’s book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, is the second (but not the last) book from 2003 we’re reading this year as part of a chronological exploration of the best science fiction novels written by women in the previous decade which we are reading here at Torque Control over the course of 2011.

I looked at three of the book’s major elements: its wonderful inhabitation of the landscape of the greater Chicago area; the way in which the central couple strive for as much of a “normal” life as they are able to; and the book’s uneasy, if necessary, dabbling in the degree to which free will exists.

Thank you to all who joined in reading or re-reading this book.

Discussion: Part 1 (Chicago), Part 2 (Normality), and Part 3 (The Decline of Free Will).

Some other recent reviews
Beckah Cubed
Sherry Helms at Print Asia
Ellen Stodola on The Celebrity Café
Highlight of my Day
The Pegster
In My Books
 

The Time Traveler’s Wife – The Decline of Free Will

The role of free will is a challenge which any good time travel story at least acknowledges.  In some stories, the effect of time travel leaves ripples of effect on the future, radically altering that future. In others, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, a sliver of the future or the whole of the past has already been experienced. It will happen as it was always going to have happened, but the only way to make sure it does is to fail to give major spoilers.

Really, there are two major time travelers in this book. Henry, whose chronology is scattered across the past and future, but is primarily in the progressing present; and Clare, whose chronology is sequential, and who therefore knows about aspects of Henry’s future because they already happened in her past. Each is capable of, and generally avoids, giving away what the other’s future holds. But they regularly warn each other, or themselves, anyways, as when a future Henry tells Claire, “[I]t’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996. You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”(157)

The book also notes moments, such as New Year’s Eve parties, in which they, in effect, time travel together (in that case, from one year to the next), but Henry never really focuses on them as a normal human kind of time travel because his experience of it is so radically different.

(Henry) “Such decadence. It’s only 9:15.”

(Clare) “Well, in a couple minutes, it’ll be 10:15.”

(Henry) “Oh, right, Michigan’s an hour ahead. How surreal.”(161)

Henry is only so self-aware once, when he gets a haircut: “I’ve become the me of my future”, he thinks. (253)

As a sop to inevitability, a few parts of the book are spent debating free will. They must voluntarily choose to do what they have always already done. Henry wonders if it’s more specific than that:

“I was just talking about that with a self from 1992. He said something interesting: he said that he thinks there is only free will when you are in time, in the present. He says in the past we can only do what we did, and we can only be there if we were there.”

“But whenever I am, that’s my present. Shouldn’t I be able to decide—”

“No. Apparently not.”(58)

And yet, having occasionally already seen himself do things in the future, he is also bound there to do them, or have them happen to him. That apparent free will cannot contradict the end of his story.

His likely ending is a gently looming element through much of the book which means, as he knows more about the how, why, and when, it loses much of the impact it might have had in some other book. We, following Henry, had not yet experienced his death directly, but it is a resolution so dependent on the natural of his time traveling such that it could never have happened that way to anyone else. It feels quick, cruel, arbitrary, and inevitable. And arbitrary and inevitable are, as concepts, uneasy together. His letter to Clare moved me in a way his ending could not.

I admire so much about The Time Traveler’s Wife and am absolutely delighted that I finally read it, thanks to this project.  It has wit, affection, an extraordinary love story, and a meticulously-constructed intersection of two complicated, rich timelines. It used its cultural references lightly but evocatively. There are subplots whose purpose I did feel were wholly integrated (Ingrid, Alicia), and an ending too telegraphed to bring home the impact it ought to have had. The journey, not the destination, was the masterful accomplishment.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Normality

The back of my copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife tells me it’s about “Henry and Clare’s struggle to lead normal lives”. I don’t often find insight through blurbs, but the more I think about this one, the more true it is.

Normal, everyday life as a dominant theme and setting for a book is, in my experience, a very rare beast in science fiction. Disruption, change, alteration of status – that’s the plot motivator for most of the genre; indeed, that’s the basic model for what a plot is. In contrast, this is a book where disruption is the constant and the attempts at normalization is the adventure, not just in an end-goal kind of way, but in all the little interactions along the way.

Looking over my shelves, I can’t see any other book quite like it, structurally. Lifelode comes close, in the way it treasures normality (and features ghosts from other times and places), but even that builds its crises around external intrusions.

The Time Traveler’s Wife begins when Henry meets Clare. Not vice versa, for she has known him, talked to him, learned from him all her life; at least, older, time traveling instances of him. Then we see her meeting him for the first time; again, he knows exactly who she is because he is from the future when he meets her for her first time. The story is not usually so scattered: it generally follows Clare’s timeline, her encounters with Henry and her waiting for him, getting on with the tasks of life.

The fragmentation of their timelines means that each of them must keep major secrets from the other in order to allow the other as much normality as possible. Each knows elements of the other’s future that they do their best to allow the other to discover through living, not telling, when that future becomes the present. Degrees of estrangement,  both literal and metaphorical, lie at their relationship’s heart.

Time travel is a kind of genetic defect for Henry, a physical impetus in his life akin to epilepsy, and to a large extent, they can deal with it as a disability. He looks after himself, running, fast and for miles, every  day. It’s self-defense training since he never knows when he’ll suddenly end up somewhere else in place and time,  naked and in danger. (Time travel is involuntary, and he can bring nothing with him, not even a filling.) Eventually, he has regular appointments with a doctor, trying to help him regularize his timeline or at least reduce triggers. Specific stresses or flickering lights are most likely to trigger an episode. Henry mostly manages to hold down a regular job, but his co-workers know there’s something not quite usual about him, a psychosis which drives him to nakedness in the book stacks apparently.

Normality, or at least the semblance of it, is hard work.