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 – 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.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Chicago

What is it about Chicago and oddball science fiction genetics? This month, it was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife. Last month, for me, it was Richard Powers’ Generosity.

Generosity posits a bleak Chicago, full of the deep, dreary, grey wells formed by towering buildings, autumnal greyness, dysfunctional winter. When a winter storm brings the city to a halt, the joy of experiencing its midwinter glitter is abbreviated by the drudgery of dealing with iced-up reality. Mostly, however, Generosity bears its sense of place as backdrop. The city itself is not, in effect, a character in the book. Not the way the woman with the covetable genes is.

Niffenegger, on the other hand, clearly holds deep affection for Chicago, even if it is bitterly cold in the winters of the Windy City. Winter, in her Chicago, is more lethal, in its way, but leavened by parties, meetings, adventures.  Life goes on amidst the cold outside in the dark of the year and the air-conditioning of its heat.

Clare, the titular time traveler’s wife, yearns for the big metropolis from her rural upbringing across the lake in Michigan, not so far from Kalamazoo. She moves to it for art college, for the vibrancy of its art scene,  and to find her time traveler,  Henry. Together and apart, their lives unfurl in place. Drives are measured in specific, real streets and the changing of neighborhoods. As Henry observes of it,

Chicago has so much excellent architecture that they feel obliged to tear some of it down now and then and erect terrible buildings just to help us all appreciate the good stuff. (332)

Characters spend time in some of the city’s most significant destinations: the Field Museum; the Art Institute; the Lyrica Opera House; the Newberry Library. They live in recognizable neighborhoods, go to specific restaurants; I haven’t spent all that long in Chicago, but I have eaten at one of the restaurant eaten at in the book. Most, whether or not all, the others seem to be real places too, based on this map of city places from the book.

Niffenegger’s is a vibrant portrait of a lively city, a lived-in city, which I found so successful because of the way place suffused the story. Geography, in this book, is not just background, it’s landmark, the pin-points of orientation the characters, especially, but not only, the time traveler  himself, use to understand the nature of the moments in their lives. Place, time, and people are his means of orientation, which is why a briefer summary of one of his time traveling moments might comprise “I was in the Selzer Library in the dark, in 1989.” (275)

The city develops and changes with and around its characters, beginning – literally beginning – with long-standing cultural havens, the Newberry Library and the Field Museum, and moving outward:

I think about Chicago in the next century. More people, many more. Ridiculous traffic, but fewer potholes. There will be a hideous building that looks like an exploding Coke can in Grant Park; the West Side will slowly rise out of poverty and the South Side will continue to decay. They will finally tear down Wrigley Field and build an ugly megastadium, but for now it stands blazing with light in the Northeast. (332)

I suspect that anyone who grew up around South Haven, Michigan, that town across the lake near to which Clare grew up, would recognize their town too. I’ve only spent a couple of days in Chicago, but in the pages of this book, it came alive for me again, cohesively and expansively.

What was the sense of place in The Time Traveler’s Wife like for those of you who have never been to any of these locations?

Natural History: Recap

April’s book, Natural History, by Justina Robson, was the third in the chronological series of best science fiction novels written by women in the previous decade which we are reading here at Torque Control over the course of 2011. Published in 2003, it is the first of three books we will be reading from that year alone – clearly a significant one. Whether it was significant because it really was a bumper year for good science fiction, or because it takes seven years to truly judge, digest, and yet still remember a book, I leave to your judgement.

In my posts on the book, I focused on the parts which interested me the most: the fascinating Forged hybrid people, created, categorized, literally enmeshed in the debate over whether or not form dictates function; the alien technology which sparks off the storyline among the Forged and Unevolved; and the impression that ultimately, for all the things I like about it, I like this book better as a thought experiment than I do as a novel per se. And I really do like and admire it in that capacity.

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

Discussion: Part 1 (Cladistics); Part 2 (Space and Stuff); and Part 3 (Conceptual Resolution)
Chris Moriarty at SFness

Natural History – Conceptual Resolution

Take a new kind of humanity, the Forged, created as part machine, part animal, part human, living uneasily with Unevolved humans.

Take the Stuff, a mysterious substance capable of becoming an instantaneous interstellar drive and a strangely-uninhabited alien planet.

Shake.

Natural History is, at its heart, an experiment, working out the ramifications of an alien intervention into humanity’s future developments. It features a wonderfully-wrought cast of characters in a plausibly sketched future, a couple hundred years ago. I didn’t get a strong sense of the fabric of daily life in that future so much as the power struggles over creation – quite literally encoded into the name of guy in de facto charge of shaping Earth, Machen, and the progenitor Pangensis Tupac. Robson shows us the lines of power and the lines of information, in names as well as actions.

Moments of importance are often underlined in overwrought moments of reaction:

Corvax leaped back from the consoles, straight through his virtual arrays, and landed against the wall, smacking his back so hard with the force of his own involuntary retreat that he snapped several feathers and a minor wing bone. (33)

Overreaction such as this, rather than just reaction, was little a little too frequent for my taste, especially given the general lack of emotional reaction to the immense potential of the universe theoretically opening up for humankind. That’s also why I could never quite relate to Isol, whose journey the book is structured around more than most. But those are minor objections.

What really undermined the ultimate shape of the plot arc for me was that there was no way to show the resolution; instead, it required a chapter of info-dumping. Hard-won, it is true, but nevertheless a weary unwinding in words rather than the visualized playing-out of the fate of those with Stuff. The plot-shape is discovery, a burst of experimental effort, and a steady dying away into a much more limited vision of the likely future.

And yet – this is an impressive book, more so on re-reading than reading for me. The world building was too rich for me to process the first time around. The Forged characters and the solar system which created them are the vividly-realized background of this book. Against them, an elegantly-conceptualized philosophy experiment, in effect, can be carried out; but I deeply admired the world more than I enjoyed the story qua story.

Enjoyment isn’t everything though. Since finishing Natural History, I keep finding ways to relate it to other books. To tell you what they are would be to more clearly spell out exactly how the book ends; suffice to say, Natural History does a more compelling job of realizing the possible consequences of that kind of communication system than most which are even vaguely similar.