From the BSFA Review: The Trials of Apollo

trial1The Hidden Oracle, Book One of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan (Disney Hyperion, 2016)

The Dark Prophecy, Book Two of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan (Disney Hyperion, 2017)

Reviewed by Christopher Owen

Winner of the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards: Middle Grade and Children’s, The Hidden Oracle begins the next adventures in the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles. The Hidden Oracle and The Dark Prophecy are the first two books in The Trials of Apollo pentalogy by New York Times #1 Best-Selling Author, Rick Riordan. The Camp Half-Blood Chronicles is primarily made up of three five-book series. The first two, Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus respectively, follow the adventures of twenty-first century demi-gods, teenage children of mortals and either Greek or Roman gods/goddesses. In this third series, Riordan does something different, focusing instead on the adventures of the god Apollo.

At the end of The Heroes of Olympus, Apollo is blamed for the problems the heroes have had to resolve. This third series picks up a few months following the events of the second series with Apollo’s punishment beginning with him falling from the sky and crashing in an alleyway dumpster. At first Apollo’s punishment appears to be one simply designed to humble him: he is transformed from a beautiful, powerful god to an awkward, acne-covered teenaged human. He is then further humbled when a couple thugs beat him up, when he is forced into the servitude of a young girl named Meg, and when he realizes that he is exceptionally less talented at music and archery than when he was a god. His inner-struggles throughout the narrative consist of a conflict between his over-zealous ego and his melodramatic horror at his newfound limitations. But Apollo also faces exterior struggles, and it is in these conflicts that he learns that his punishment is not just to be humbled, but also to right previous wrongs. Apollo must save five missing oracles and stop a secret organization called the Triumvirate. The Triumvirate is made up of three re-born Ancient Roman Emperors who have been pulling the strings in the background all along, causing all of the problems of the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles.

In The Hidden Oracle, children at Camp Half-Blood, a secret camp for demi-gods, are going missing. One by one they head into the forest as if hypnotized and are never seen again. While previous heroes in the Chronicles have travelled far in an American road trip-style adventure, in The Hidden Oracle Apollo does not need to travel farther than the forest neighboring the campgrounds. This changes the structure of the narrative from the previous books. Apollo is able to head back and forth between the forest as site of adventure and the campgrounds as site of respite, healing and communicating with aids. Furthermore, while previous books touch on the other campers only briefly, this book spends a great deal more time getting to know the people who live at camp year-round. This includes three of Apollo’s children, adding another interesting dynamic to this book, a greater focus on the relationships between demigods and their godly parents, something that is only touched on briefly in the first two series.

trial2The sequel, The Dark Prophecy, follows Apollo’s quest to save both his friend and all of Indianapolis from the control of the Triumvirate. This book follows a similar structure as The Hidden Oracle. While the characters travel from Long Island Sound to Indianapolis for this novel, and thus there is the potential for a road trip-style structure that the original two series of the Chronicles use, this book begins at the end of the journey, as the characters are arriving in Indianapolis. Within the first few chapters, the heroes are lead to a magical hideout called the Waystation, which functions in the same way as Camp Half-Blood in The Hidden Oracle. The heroes go back and forth between fighting their enemies in Indianapolis, and re-grouping and healing at the Waystation. During these adventures, Apollo and his friends team up with a variety of different species, adding interesting new group dynamics unexplored in previous novels of the Chronicles.

Both The Hidden Oracle and The Dark Prophecy feature intense final battles that take place in Apollo’s space of respite and safety, Camp Half-Blood and the Waystation respectively. Unable to go home on Mount Olympus, every home that Apollo tries to make for himself on his adventures is attacked, almost completely destroyed and becomes the site from which he must leave to continue his important mission to stop the Triumvirate. It is also from here that he meets and joins forces with previous heroes from the Chronicles, including Leo Valdez and Grover Underwood, suggesting, perhaps, that what is truly valuable is not the place called home, but rather the people we call family.

On the topic of family, one of Apollo’s sons, Will Solace, is dating a boy named Nico Di Angelo, a central character from the previous two series of the Chronicles. There are very few LGBTQ+ characters in middle-grade children’s fiction; three of them are in The Hidden Oracle. In The Dark Prophecy, a lesbian couple runs the Waystation, and the main villain is Apollo’s ex-boyfriend. The book uses frequent flashbacks to focus on the relationship between Apollo and his ex-boyfriend. Apollo is bisexual, making him very much a rarity as a same-sex attracted first-person narrator in a children’s fantasy novel. With six central LGBTQ+ characters, a wide range of ethnicities represented, and explicit feminist ideals, these books work very well to present progressive ideologies and a diverse representation of characters.

While reading the other ten novels in the Chronicles allows for a greater appreciation of The Trials of Apollo, this is not entirely necessary in order to follow the story. These books work well to begin a new, exciting series in Riordan’s universe. The adventure continues in The Burning Maze, which will be released in May 2018.

 

From the BSFA Review: That Bastard Wonderland by Lee Harrison

That Bastard Wonderland by Lee Harrison (Wrecking Ball Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Arike Oke

bastar

You can take the lads out of Hull, but you can’t take Hull out of the lads. That’s okay, I’m a daughter of Hull myself. That means I appreciate the dourness, sarcasm and bittersweet melancholy of my home, all of which come through beautifully in this love letter of a fantasy debut from Lee Harrison. I mean: mushy peas get an origin story.

There’s a backlash right now against maps in fantasy books. Utter tosh say I. A novel with this geographic ambition, outlining a startlingly well realised alternative world, could only benefit from a map. I kept flicking to the frontmatter and the endpapers to find only blank pages, beautiful blank pages though. Wrecking Ball Press, a small press operating out of Hull (see, some kind of theme emerging!), has made a gorgeous edition of this book, cover, paper and font all working together to make a quality volume. Is the image chosen for the cover a small spoiler of a one of the story’s treats? Perhaps, but it looks well on’t.

The protagonist, and main point of view character, is Warboys. No relation to the tragic lost boys of Mad Max Fury Road, this Warboys is as laddish and uncouth as they come. He reluctantly teams up with his dad on a begrudging journey across their world. They are caught up in the expansionist ambitions of a Napoleon–like figure, but soon come up against the old belief systems of the territories they are forced to invade. It seems that there might be some truth in the old myths, but who can Warboys and his dad trust? Is anyone looking out for the underdogs in this war that on the surface is about a conflict of cultures, but underneath is as much about broken dreams and sickening ego as any real-world conflict throughout our own history.

Harrison shows us the other side of the conflict through the eyes of Nouzi Aaranya, a young man groomed from childhood in more ways than one to be a soldier and martyr for a cause he barely grasps. Whereas Warboys is solidly placed within the world of pubs, back streets, sailors, drinking and swearing, Nouzi is altogether more delicate. He’s led a life of direct indoctrination, rather than the societal conditioning of Warboys’ context. Nouzi’s own identity gradually surfaces as the plot unfolds. This forms an enlightening counterpoint to Warboys’ growing sense of responsibility to others. By the end of the book both men find themselves changed.

Harrison handles the dual point-of-view third person narration deftly. Each character is well drawn and distinctive. The plot, once past an avoidably slow and dialogue heavy first act, trips along happily building towards a satisfying, touching and cinematic denouement that still somehow manages to retain the ‘call a spade a spade’ Northern tone. Female characters are few and far between in this boys’ own tale, but as this story can be read as intrinsically about male relationships this paucity of female representation is hardly unexpected.

The world that Harrison has created for this story is startling in its clarity and depth. The technology, the big reveal, the language, religion, even the descriptions of landscape, sea and street are deft and convincing. It is a nice touch that Harrison prefaces sections of the book with quotations from archival texts from within the universe he’s created. Harrison has set up a world that could contain many more stories. We are not left with a cliff hanger so much as an open window looking out across a vista of real humans living real lives in which Harrison will find rich pickings for many more stories. I’ll be in line to read them, pattie buttie and chips in hand and wearing my ‘It’s Never Dull in Hull’ t-shirt. One request though, forget what the internet forums say: next time let’s have a map, eh lad?

 

Jeremy Shaw’s ‘Liminals’

jeremyJeremy Shaw’s Liminals can be seen at The Store Studios 180 The Strand, until 10th of December 2017. It is the first off-site exhibition by Berlin based KÖNIG Galerie and forms part of their recent expansion to London.

Liminals, a work of Vancouver-born artist Jeremy Shaw, takes the form of a fictional documentary made not more than a couple of decades into our future. From the narration, we reconstruct some of its historical context, although the focus of the documentary is on ‘periphery altruist cultures’. The Liminals are one such sub-cultural group, who are observed by the posited filmmakers with a detached fascination (and a style) reminiscent of the early 20th century ethnographies.

It is far from clear who is the intended audience, because humanity’s days, the documentary reveals, are numbered. Technology is to blame, specifically, choosing to let computation replace ritual. Kieslowski’s warning in the first episode of Decalogue against elevating computers above faith has clearly gone unheeded, and in 2024 all spiritual experiences are replaced by VR via a technological innovation called ‘The Unit’. ‘The Singularity Disaster’ follows in 2033, and soon after ‘The Announcement’ of ‘the countdown to extinction’ is made.

Amongst the general apathy that ensues, radical groups emerge, as they always do – observes the film’s narrator – during the Millenarian periods of history. The most radical of these groups believe that a possible salvation lies in the ideas of ‘pre-Unit’ science fiction writer Samuel Delany, specifically the paraspace:

a specific paraspace could serve as a transitory zone for humanity – an intermediate area between the physical and the virtual where a generative incubation period towards our next phase in evolution could take place. They refer to this paraspace as The Liminal.

The documentary is an exposition of the methods by which The Liminals are trying to reach that paraspace.

 

Book Reviews: ‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’ and ‘Rosewater’ by Tade Thompson

mollyTade Thompson, whose novel Rosewater was reviewed in Vector earlier this year (see below), has just published a new work of fiction. The Murders of Molly Southbourne is set to appear on screen as well, which is not surprising given the beautifully harrowing images that the novel fosters. It is a work of science fiction which reads like a thriller. It might be bloodier than Cormac McCarthy, yet it has the sweetness of a coming-of-age romance. The emotional confrontation with one’s reading self that ensues (‘should I be enjoying this scene?’), as well as all other inner conflicts, are put into perspective by the novel’s narrative of self-destruction. The science-fictional world of Molly Southbourne is a combination of Cold War past and a low-fertility future. The latter is particularly refreshing given the dominance of overpopulation scenarios in both science fiction and everyday conversations. Tade Thompson’s medical and psychiatric knowledge is always put to good use in his novels, the characters are entirely plausible in their contradictions, and the science is internally consistent and evidently very carefully thought through.

Continue reading “Book Reviews: ‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’ and ‘Rosewater’ by Tade Thompson”

Exhibition Review: Haroon Mirza/HRM199

Haroon Mirza hrm199_Chamber for Endogenous DMT (Collapsing the Wave Function), 2017. Tim Bowditch, courtesy the artist and ZC Low Res-7734

Haroon Mirza/HRM199 reviewed by Polina Levontin

The Zabludowicz Collection in North London is hosting an art exhibition until December 17, which is of particular interest to the sf community. The commissioned work is by Haroon Mirza, whose own studio is located nearby. The exhibition is titled ‘For a Partnership Society’ and the word partnership is key to thinking about the works presented. Firstly, the exhibition itself is a collaborative project on many levels and in almost all of these collaborations science plays a role. Science is invoked in the exhibition as a subject, for example, when the production of scientific knowledge is being compared to a process of forming other sorts of beliefs. Science appears as an object when the standard theory of physics or excerpts from topology lectures become the material parts of an art installation. A history of science serves as a context for the conversation about the fundamental building blocks of a belief system. Furthermore, both technology and scientific methods are intentionally employed as tools for making the artwork, as well as appearing as subjects for Mirza’s artistic explorations.

The premise of Mirza’s work is that the fictional, the religious, the artistic and the scientific are not separable modes, that ‘science, like art, politics and religion often relies on system of beliefs in its pursuit of truth’ [Zabludowicz Collection]. References to a Pythagorean society which practised mathematics as religion remind the viewer that the pretence of decontextualized objectivity in science is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In his 1984 essay ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now’ Derrida gives another reason for why we should no longer pretend that beliefs and science can be disentwined: technological powers have passed the threshold where the science itself poses an existential threat to humanity. Derrida was referring to nuclear physics, something which Mirza references in almost all the works that are part of the current exhibition. Since 1984, when Derrida wrote ‘one can no longer oppose belief and science, doxa and episteme’ because modern/atomic technology ‘coexists, cooperates in an essential way with sophistry [imagination]’, new technological threats such as AI have emerged.  Mirza’s work is a manifestation of this quote:  the AI and other forms of technology coexist and cooperate in an essential way with his art.

Haroon Mirza hrm199_Pathological Theology, 2017. Tim Bowditch, courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection Low Res-6038

At least one part of the exhibition is literally a scientific experiment, conducted with researchers from Imperial College. In ‘Chamber for Endogenous DMT (Collapsing the Wave Function)’ Mirza constructs a confined sensory deprivation space which is being used by the scientists to explore human perception. Like the scientists, Mirza is interested in the potential of art to influence a state of mind, or even alter the state of mind as much as some psychotropic chemical substances or meditation practices. In a spirit of experimental design and following a framework for scientific investigations, Mirza’s art installations produce a range of sensory input levels – from near complete deprivation to sensory overload.

The scientific method is used by Mirza not just in setting up progressively increasing levels of exposure to sensory inputs, but also in taking a deductive approach as the principle for creating artwork. He dissects, breaks down and analyses various materials (including works of other artists) as a scientist would in trying to understand the basic principles of how something works.  His approach is hierarchical, making explicit different meta-levels. For example, Mirza takes a ‘found’ YouTube video where young Bjork is seen examining the functions of a cathode ray tube and, echoing her curiosity about technology, breaks the wholeness of the video down to expose its more elemental aspects: the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) system of colour projection, the individuality of video frames and how these are cropped, sequenced and made to follow one another at predetermined intervals (24 frames per second).

Haroon Mirza hrm199_The System, 2013, installation view, Tim Bowditch, Courtesy Zabludowicz Collection_Low Res-7017

Mirza’s thesis is that a partnership first and foremost requires the dismantling (or at least the questioning of) barriers. Mirza successfully makes the viewer (even a scientifically trained one like myself) uncertain of where scientific knowledge ends and the pseudo-scientific begins. Science is never presented as an isolated subject, more poignantly, videos with snippets of lectures on topology are shown side-by-side with a commentary on a history of colonialism. The idea that there is only one true system of knowledge is questioned as the viewer is invited to contemplate the standard theory of physics alongside indigenous knowledge systems, shamanic rituals and AI. Topology, colonialism, quantum physics, environmental catastrophes and political upheavals dissolve into one another with the aid of the AI Deep Dream technology.  Cumulatively all these ideas are given an inorganic but seemingly living presence by Mirza who uses an Emerging Paradigm (hrm199) technology to forge a coalescence of synchronised video, sound and led lights.  Mirza’s genius of generating meaning out of seemingly inarticulate materials is evident in the title of this work. It is simply a pair of numbers, ‘9/11 11/9’. Mirza uses the succinctness of mathematical notation to tell a complex story, where an attack on the World Trade Centre becomes conjoined with the 9th of November, the date Trump’s victory in the American election was declared.

Mirza’s many disruptive dualities are designed to induce the kind of ‘cognitive estrangement’ (Darko Suvin) that is characteristic of sf. Further, his preoccupation with science and technology and their interactions with human perception and understanding of reality places his work in the critical space occupied by the theorists of science fiction.

Haroon Mirza hrm199_Pathological Theology, 2017. Tim Bowditch, courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection_Low Res-6124

From the BSFA Review: Lagos_2060

Lagos_2060 curated by Ayodele Arigbadu (DADA books, 2013)

Reviewed by Polina Levontin

Lagos_2060

Writing about present day Lagos, Rem Koolhaas warns that already ‘the city itself has mutated into something’ quite unrecognizable to Westerners who think of cities in terms of European or North American models.  ‘What will the city be like in 2060?’  This was the question posed to 8 Nigerian science fiction writers during a workshop that yielded an anthology: Lagos_2060. The resulting eight stories, three of which are written by women, represent a diverse range of imaginaries all set in Lagos, the year 2060.  These stories engage with science and governance, city infrastructure and climate change, co-evolution of technology and social norms, urbanization and the future of global capitalism. Yet these scholarly themes emerge from stories that are first and foremost exciting, often romance-filled adventures.  There are man-eating frogs and time-travel inducing herbs, girls with luminous tattoos and zero-gravity bedrooms, albeit in separate stories…

Individual writers approached the remit to imagine the future of one of the world’s greatest cities each with their own genre pallette and a remix of intellectual priorities.  But what these stories share is a sense of dynamic liveliness that can only be a feature of a work in progress, their various literary forms reflective of the chaotic process by which the city itself is shaped. Their gift is the recklessness of trying out new things. These are pioneering works, regardless of how one decides to date science fiction in Nigeria.

What interested me in particular were the discourses on science.  The first story of the anthology, ‘Amphibian Attack’ by Afolabi Muheez Ashiru presents the dangers of leaving the sciences in the hands of the private sector.  The private company ‘Bright Life Group’ is so efficient in curing diseases and supplying energy that it has to use science also to undo the progress, secretly engineering catastrophes, so that it can keep itself profitable and powerful by fixing its own ‘accidents’.   The discourse in the second story ‘Animals on the Run’ by Okey Egboluche is that of conflict between technological progress on one hand and society and environment on the other.  The value of robotics in particular is questioned because it reduces employment in conditions where large numbers of people need jobs.  Robotics is critiqued on an intimately personal scale in another story in the collection, ‘Metal Feet’ by Temitayo Olofinlua.

Technological advances such as land reclamation to expand Lagos are questioned as risky and as a violation of ‘natural order.’  In ‘Mango Republic’ by Terh Agbedeh scientific rationalism is instituted in Lagos, making it ‘the most beautiful prison in the world ever conceived by man’ (p. 197).  But even supreme scientific achievements are shown to be powerless against the forces of nature unhinged by climate change. Floods and rising sea levels threaten Lagos, while environmental destruction elsewhere in Nigeria swells the city’s population beyond capacity. In ‘Mango Republic’ the discourse of science is survivalist – science is our last hope to adapt to a perilous future.  Yet, exemplifying the complexity of the narratives in Lagos_2060, other stories demonstrate the political danger of seemingly desirable scientific solutions.  On the extreme opposite spectrum from ‘Amphibian Attack’, scientific knowledge becomes highly guarded government property in ‘Cold Fusion’.  A new way to produce cheap renewable electricity reinforces the government’s control over the people of Lagos and stirs political ambitions to secede from the rest of Nigeria.   Science promising energy independence actually does enable the politicians who rule Lagos to secede from Nigeria in another story – ‘Coming Home’ by Rayo Falade.

The collection is full of ideas pertinent not only to the future of Lagos but the future of humanity in general. The writers don’t envision Lagos in isolation but as an integral part of the global economic and natural system. Their visions and hopes for Lagos, their individual philosophies and fears are expressed with humor and showmanship. Their ability to ask urgent questions about the direction we are heading is made invaluable by their skills to entertain.

City of Pearl: IV

City of Pearl cover

[previously]

Here’s another quote, from rather later in the novel, just after Lindsay, who managed to get herself pregnant before the mission left Earth, has given birth.

“He could do with some more milk, if you’re up to expressing some.”

Not more tubes. He was too weak even to feed properly. She laid him down in the cot again with a breaking heart. Every instinct in her body said she should forget common sense and take him somewhere quiet to comfort and nurse him. But Hugel was a doctor, and knew better. And Lindsay was an officer, the ranking officer now that Shan was out of action.

“I’ll get on with it,” she said. (311)

This is such a brusque examination of the maternal instinct that it feels little more than functional, a device to remind us that humans are animals, but set up and dismissed in a couple of sentences so that Lindsay, and the narrative, can get on with it. Quite a lot of City of Pearl felt like this to me: it is an almost exhaustingly direct novel, with a quite narrow emotional range; like a more cynical John Scalzi, or a less schematic Isaac Asimov. What’s interesting is how this style dovetails with the novel’s content.

Constantine, we are told, is “a transparent sort of place” (61), not somewhere of great complexity or nuance, with a symbolic fascination with glasswork. More than that, the native life on bezer’ej is often see-through, as a camouflage strategy; the planet, Shan concludes, “was a transparent world” (194). The wess’har, as I’ve already described, are a moral position embodied as its extreme to enable contrast and conflict, and deployed with no ambiguity whatsoever, the dilemmas their laws produce being the equivalent of 24’s ticking bombs, in that they distort a situation beyond all likely reality to justify an extreme response. And the grand climax of Shan’s narrative is an audience with a wess’har matriarch for which she is told that she must speak with absolute directness: “Shan made a conscious effort to remove the automatic tendency to edit what she thought before it escaped her mouth. It had taken many, many years to learn to do that. Now she had to unlearn it” (355).

Not infrequently, this all starts to feel like an indulgence of the worst of sf’s world-simplifying tendencies. Yet running alongside all of the above is a determined effort to complicate choices and confuse boundaries. The wess’har are imposing their morality on others, and are resisted by the isenji. A third group of humans arrive completely without warning, with their own agenda. Constantine turns out to be not just as transparent as glass, but as fragile, an artificial ecology maintained within the native bezer’ej landscape. And – most symbolically – towards the end of the book, Aras deliberately infects Shan with c’naatat to save her life, and Shan begins to change. Judged alone, I think I would have to find City of Pearl wanting; but the dynamics it establishes are so clearly set to evolve over successive books that I can easily believe the series ends up in a more complex place.

City of Pearl: III

City of Pearl cover

[previously]

We’re presumably meant to see the decision to arrange the execution of the offending scientist as the sort of thing Shan Frankland’s recruiter had in mind when insisting that the expedition needed “a government representative there who isn’t afraid of hard decisions” (16). And if the decision isn’t that hard in the end, it’s a shame not only because it simplifies Aras for our consumption, but because it diminishes Shan, who is otherwise probably the best thing about City of Pearl.

An efficient ex-cop, Shan is – according to Eddie Michallat, the expedition’s rather irritating journalist – “not plump big, womanly big, but tall, athletic, hard big”, and deeply, occasionally comically, cynical about human nature. She is a baseline human, primarily, we a told, thanks to the pagan beliefs she inherited from her mother, giving her — in a world where the unaltered are becoming less common than the altered — a “hint of wildness and savagery”. She has a temper, and a brain; and most important, to me, she is a professional. For all her physical capability, called on several times over the course of the novel, she is a serious person who takes her job seriously: a rare enough type in science fiction at all, but particularly distinctive amongst the impoverished array of contemporary female characters. Her self-confidence makes her an effective counter to the eternally mutable Aras, and in fact makes her somewhat irresistible to his matriarch-conditioned brain: he finds her no-nonsense manner distinctly wess’har, and increasingly has to fight the urge to defer to her will.

Shan’s other important relationship in City of Pearl is with Lindsay Neville, who would have been leading the expedition had Shan not been installed at the last minute. Lindsay is young military authority, Shan is older civilian authority; unsurprisingly they have rather different ways of doing things. For Lindsay, death is “nothing personal […] all neat and sanctioned and under rules of engagement. After you’d killed them, you would stand at memorial parades and say what an honourable enemy they were”; while Shan “got to know her targets far too well, and honor never came into it” (211). Their headbutting, and eventual tentative respect, is rather nicely done.

It’s hard to say that Shan’s interaction with the rest of her expedition’s members is handled as well. That she doesn’t like the scientists she has to look after – describing them almost exclusively as “payload” – is fine, but there is never an equivalent of the detente with Lindsay, or even the potential for one. What’s missing – aside from brief diary extracts at the start of a couple of chapters – is the viewpoint of a scientist, which leaves them little more than ciphers, and makes incidents like that involving the bezeri child feeling even more lopsided. The payload are the ones who cause trouble, the ones who – astonishingly – we are meant to believe see sentient aliens as just a kind of animal, the ones who just won’t follow orders, god dammit. They are, in fact, the villains of the piece; which would be more interesting if they weren’t also the novel’s truest Other.

[continued…]

City of Pearl: II

City of Pearl cover

[previously]

City of Pearl is, on one level, another entry into the proud tradition of brutal challenges to the Campbellian notion that humanity is a special case. Its particular lens for focusing this argument is ecological: the wess’har, or at least the ones we meet in this novel, are environmental fundamentalists who consider all living things to have equal rights – Aras refers to rats as “people” – and who live with as little imposition on other beings as possible. They’re also possessed of a technology level capable of wiping out large cities – say, those of the isenj – and restoring the landscape left behind to a wilderness state without too much difficulty, which makes them exactly the people you don’t want to have taken custody of a planet when you’d like to settle on it.

The first humans to reach Bezer’ej are spared by dint of the fact that they carry a gene bank of Earthly life, and found the agrarian Christian commune of Constantine. A later expedition of scientists with a military guard, led by City of Pearl’s protagonist Shan Frankland, is allowed to land because Aras is curious; it’s a decision he comes to regret.

The conflict between wess’har and human psychology and morality has strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, having a viewpoint character with such an absolutist worldview as does Aras enables Traviss to throw her readers off balance every so often, to make them question their assumptions – as with the remark about rats noted above, or as when Aras corrects Josh, the leader of Constantine, about humans “detecting” other alien species, rather than “discovering” them; or when Josh himself mentally tuts that Shan only recognises Bezer’ej as “inhabited” when there are sentient aliens in the frame. And the colonists of Constantine, who carried their own ecological morality with them from Earth but have followed the wess’har’s lead, philosophically, during the decades of their tenure, are an interesting bunch that I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with.

But as the narrative (inevitably) heads towards conflict, it stumbles. When he allows Shan and her companions to land, Aras sets some ground rules, of which the most important is “no samples of living material”: not a blade of alien grass. It’s clear almost immediately that for most of the scientists in Shan’s party this is an unacceptable restriction on their research, but it’s not until half-way into the book that one of them manages to pick up what appears to be a dead organism from the shore and bring it back to base camp. When that happens, some of the party do object, but the scientist in question locks herself away and begins a dissection before Shan arrives to stop her.

This, of course, is enough to initiate a diplomatic crisis, and for a few pages it looks like a quite interesting one: the scientist’s actions are against wess’har morality, and though they surely have the right, and the power, to set the local rules, they can’t help seeming excessive to us; while even as we disapprove of the scientist’s actions, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her curiosity. (She has, after all, given up her life for the opportunity to visit another world: with slower-than-light journeys and cryogenic suspension, nobody she knew on Earth is going to be alive when she returns.) But quite quickly it’s revealed that the organism wasn’t dead, after all; and moreover that it wasn’t just any organism, it was a juvenile bezeri; and so the scientist, monstrously, has been dissecting a living child. This, I can’t help feeling, is much less interesting, because it horrifies us as much as the wess’har, which means that when Aras demands the death penalty for the scientist’s crimes, it’s a demand that comes from a recognisable place (even if we abjure capital punishment ourselves). How much more challenging it would have been to empathise with Aras if the scientist’s actions had been a crime by wess’har standards only.

[continued…]

City of Pearl: I

(With profuse apologies for belatedness, here’s the start of my discussion of the Future Classic for July, Karen Traviss’ first novel City of Pearl. A bit of a curate’s egg…)

City of Pearl cover

I.

Here are a couple of sentences from very near the start of City of Pearl:

Aras mimicked the lettering, copying it into the unspoiled snow beside him with a steady claw. He considered it, then brushed it away. (1-2)

Does anything here bother you? Personally, I’m bothered by that pronoun. From the claw at the end of the first of these sentences, and the fact that we know we’re starting a science fiction novel, we infer – correctly – that Aras is an alien. But for an organism not from our biosphere, how meaningful is the male pronoun likely to be? It would be understandable as the imposition of a human point of view, as in, say, Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, but there are no human characters in this scene, or indeed on the planet at this point. Later, we are told that Aras’ species, the wess’har, are matriarchal: their women are big and few and occupy ruling positions, while their men are in thrall to the feminine, and have stronger nurturing instincts. But because that initial pronoun is pure narrative imposition, the complication of the pronoun seems like an arbitrary trick. Had Traviss chosen to make Aras “she”, she could have almost as easily described wess’har society as ruled by men with enormous harems. And that bothers me, because it makes the authorial fiat involved in constructing an alien society more visible than I would like it to be.

That aside, the fact that City of Pearl includes a non-human perspective is something to be admired, and the other ways in which it is complicated are more satisfying. Aras is the last of a soldier caste, infected with a virus or micro-organism (it’s not entirely clear) his people call c’naatat that exacerbates the already-high mutability of his genetic code to enable him to adapt rapidly to environmental threats – such as, say, otherwise lethal wounds – and incorporate useful traits from other species with whom he comes into contact. This is junk science, but a very useful fictional device. As soon as Aras has touched a human, we have an excuse for the inevitable humanness of his point of view; and once (inevitably) one of the human characters becomes infected by c’naatat, you have a beautiful model system in which to play out some ideas about the self and the other.

As the first in a series of six, City of Pearl doesn’t push this notion as far or as fast as you might hope, and there are other things in its portrayal of the alien that don’t quite work – including some spectacularly ill-judged names, such as the capital city of F’nar. But by the end of the novel you do believe in the wess’har as an independent species with their own distinct culture and behavioural principles, literal and logical but without the obtuseness often assumed to accompany those characteristics. Moreover there are reasons to believe that the cultures of two of the other three species who claim a stake in the world Aras guards – namely the native, squiddish bezeri and the expansionist, arachnoid isenj – will be further developed to similarly satisfying effect. The fourth species with skin in the game, of course, is us.

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