The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet

The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet coverI have seen it said that it’s a bad sign when a review begins with discussion of a work other than the one under immediate consideration: that it betokens a lack of confidence in the book on the table. It’s not a stricture I particularly agree with, but neither is it a tactic I find myself deploying very often, simply because I usually find the text at hand suggests the most immediate and direct route to whatever it is I want to say. When it comes to The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories, however, and considering what the collection is and is not, I find my thoughts returning to a story of Vandana Singh’s that isn’t included. Distances, published as a standalone volume by Aqueduct Press at the end of last year, is by some way Singh’s longest work to date — it is on its own about half the length of The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet — and her most science-fictionally complex and ambitious tale. Set, unlike any of her other stories that I’ve read, far in the future and far away, Distances tells the story of Anasuya, a “rider” who explores mathematical problems via a technology that renders abstract mental landscapes into navigable simulations. (I was reminded somewhat of Rez.) It’s an absorbing tale, if perhaps one that doesn’t quite earn all its length, but what I want to highlight here is how beautifully apt its title is, not just because of the many distances that are worked into the narrative — geographic, intellectual, emotional, societal — but because of the way the abstract notion of distance is seen as an integral part of human existence. Distances, in other words, lend Anasuya’s society its sense of completeness; and indeed, perhaps the most satisfying thing about Distances is how irreducible it feels, how Singh mixes mathematical, artistic and sociocultural speculation in a way that feels holistic precisely because it is aware of where those different domains intersect and interact. The distances in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet are more familiar; and the speculations are smaller, if not more tame; but for Singh’s characters, the negotiation of the two is usually no less challenging.

Or, to put it another way:

Meanwhile, she continued to read her science fiction novels because, more than ever, they seemed to reflect her own realization of the utter strangeness of the world. Slowly the understanding came to her that these stories were trying to tell her a great truth in a very convoluted way, that they were all in some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader. And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unraveling, was centered around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years. (18)

That’s from the very end of “Hunger” (2007), which opens Singh’s collection, and which I have written about before. Or, to put it yet a third way:

So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks, and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder, and meaning in the greater universe.

But also, speculative fiction has a revolutionary potential that is perhaps unique.

Why do I say this? Because imagination — that faculty that expands the human mind to the size of the universe, that makes empathy possible (you have to have some imagination to put yourself in another’s shoes — also allows us to dream. […] While speculative fiction has not yet fully realized its transgressive potential, dominated as it has been by white, male, techno-fantasies — Westerns and the White Man’s Burden in Outer Space — there is still a strong undercurrent of writing that questions and subverts dominant paradigms and persists in asking uncomfortable questions.
But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven’t we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation? (201-3)

That is from “A Speculative Manifesto”, which closes the collection, and can be read as positioning sf as a literature centrally concerned with the negotiation of distances: between the self and the world, or the other; between what is and what is possible; between what is here and what is elsewhere. All of these are tensions visible in Singh’s work. (Most of them are refracted such that they become iterations of the distance between the speculative and the real.) Never, aside from the end of “Hunger”, are they explicated so directly; but the sincerity of her stories, the belief they evince in their chosen mode — the irreducibility of Distances — and, ultimately, if sometimes obliquely, their belief in humanity, are qualities that I value. They can perhaps be described as old-fashioned, but after the self-consciousness of much contemporary sf, which is a kind of anxiety, Singh’s stories feel like a relief. The uncertainties they explore do not spring from an uncertainty about their right to exist. They feel like coming home.

Home, indeed, is central to The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet: fully half of the collection’s ten stories are rooted in domestic experience, and with one exception the rest are still domestic in the sense that they don’t venture beyond Earth. The domestic alienation of “Hunger”, as I’ve noted, opens the book, serving double-duty as a gateway to the distances in the everyday, and a gateway from the real to the speculative. In this company (as opposed to the anthology in which I first read it) I thought the story slightly less impressive, but I still admire its scrupulous detail, and it does both the jobs it is required to do here with aplomb. The collection’s title story (2003) tells a similar tale — of a woman whose science-fictional perspective is ultimately matched by reality — from the point of view of her uncomprehending husband. After Kamala tells Ramnath she has had a revelation, and that she is a planet, he calls a doctor, whose considered verdict is that “women are odd” (44; there’s no doubting where our sympathies lie); and bafflement turns to horror when, at night, he sees “dark stuff … gathered about her mouth, on her chin, like a jelly … not blood but composed of small, moving things” (47). But the alienation here is Ramnath’s, not Kamala’s: she is comfortable with her condition, even telling her husband she wishes he would agree to be colonised and ultimately, in a well-placed moment of comedy, floating away into the sky, the better (it is implied) to care for her new inhabitants. It’s a deft story, if not a terribly penetrating one. Rather better is “Thirst” (2004), whose title and opening — a wife, Susheela, waking up after a vivid dream and finding her surroundings “imbued with remoteness” (88) — seem to indicate another forerunner of “Hunger”. But this iteration of the story is more overtly fantastical, perhaps because it involves more transgression than capitulation. After a buildup that evokes various kinds of longing — for the monsoon; for a local gardener; for self-knowledge — with great intensity, Susheela’s hallucinatory reconciliation with the otherness she discovers within herself is a consummation, perhaps the most visceral release in the book. But as in “Hunger” and the title story, the purpose of the fantastic is to illuminate and accentuate the stresses that result from unequal relationships between men and women.

Other stories examine other inequalities. The BSFA Award-nominated “Delhi” (2004) is a hymn to that city as channeled through the experiences of an itinerant called Aseem, who is prone to seeing “tricks of time” (20) that unpeel his home’s layers. The city — “its ancient stones, the flat-roofed brick houses, threads of clotheslines, wet, bright colours waving like penants, neem tree-lined roads choked with traffic” (19) — is the undoubted star of the show, and Singh is not at all ashamed about using her chosen device as an excuse to provide history lessons. (More and less successfully. “His grandmother,” we are told, “was one of the Hindus who never went back to Old Delhi, not after the madness of Partition in 1947, the Hindu-Muslim riots that killed thousands” [24]. “Hunger” can perhaps be read as directed as Indian readers not familiar with sf, but works as well [at least for me] as a celebration of sf; this similarly feels directed, at Western readers perhaps not familiar with India, but the complete lack of knowledge assumed is surprising: surely everything after “Partition” is unnecessary.) But the story is also an acute rendering of urban alienation. Aseem’s search for a mysterious woman, who he is told is important to his future, is poignant; but what endures from the story is the sense of Aseem’s place within the greater urban organism of which he is only a part. “The Wife” (2003), in which Padma, having made being a wife the cornerstone of her identity and adjusted herself, and even moved to America, for her husband, is now forced to adjust to being abandoned by him, makes a similar point about the importance of human perspective, when her husband insists that “We make realities out of words, Padma, words in our minds and on the page” (172); though it is one of the thinnest stories in the book, and its point is rather more sharply made by “Three Tales From Sky River” (2004). The titular tales are the myths of human cultures many millennia after a galactic diaspora: they are witty pricks to human hubris, and a reminder that how we tell it is not always how it is. (“The Room on the Roof” [2002], which closes the collection, reminds us that sometimes it can be.)

“Conservation Laws” (original to this collection), a story written, we are told, in tribute to the Bengali sf writer Premendra Mitra (1904-1988), is the moment when the collection feels closest to classic Western Golden Age sf. It is a story that is cheerfully blatant about its exposition, with a tenuous framing device that exists to set up a closing gotcha, and is at its heart about how limited human perspective may be. An elderly astronaut recounts a mission to Mars during which he claims that a figure, who may have been the ghost of a first wave of explorers, or may have been an alien, lead him into an underground city, and to a revelation as to the nature of the cosmos: “I saw vast fields of stars and all manner of strange beings. I saw strange and wonderful worlds, and pathways in utter darkness, that led to distant universes” (121). It is perhaps gimmicky, but heartfelt. A more serious exploration of the same ideas comes in “The Tetrahedron” (2005), Singh’s take on the mysterious alien artefact story, in which a student is caught up in the events following the appearance of an enormous tetrahedron — black, obviously — in the middle of a Delhi street (at, we are told, precisely 10:23 IST). Facing the prospect of an arranged marriage, Maya, a student, finds that the arrival of the tetrahedron makes her realise “how useless and insignificant” her life is “against the unending mystery of the universe” (144). She strikes up a conversation with Samir, an astrophysics student helping with the work on the artefact which, far from quenching her thirst, merely reminds her of the other implacable boundaries shaping her life (most particularly, class); and so she takes matters into her own hands. Her escape — at least as imagined by the story’s narrator — is most fulfilling because it appears to involve true partnership, denied elsewhere in her life. Tellingly, those left behind receive a few paragraphs of thought: even as one distance is closed, another opens up.

Probably the most accomplished tale in the collection, and perhaps Singh’s best to date, is “Infinities” (new here). Like “Conservation Laws” and Distances it takes its rigorous shaping metaphors from mathematics: here the Continuum Hypothesis, the statement that there is no infinite set of numbers with order between a lower order of infinity (such as the integers 1, 2, 3, 4…) and the next highest order (such as the real numbers, 1.4, 1.56, 1.659…): you can see, I think, how this fits into Singh’s concern with separations. The protagonist of “Infinities”, Abdul Karim, is a fastidious mathematics master; as with Maya, the domestic detail of his life is contrasted with his desire to see infinity, to escape from “the prosaic ugliness of the world” (57). A long-ish story, split into sections headed by epigraphs from (mostly) Indian (mostly) mathematicians, “Infinities” gradually unwinds the infinite moments that define Karim’s life and obsession — how he threw himself into mathematics after the death of his sister in a riot; how that career was cut off when his father died; how he sees shapes, sometimes, at the edges of his vision; the death of his wife; his friendship with a Hindu writer, Gangadhar — and, in doing so, creates a more nuanced portrait of India, and the tensions that shape it, than is to be found anywhere else in the collection. (For all the specificity of many of her stories, the India-ness that lingers when you close this collection is, as Singh notes in her afterword, “less the man-made political entity than a set of philosophical attitudes toward the world” [205]. And a few brief glimpses in “Delhi” is as close as she ever takes us to the future of her country.) The diverse threads of the tale are beautifully entwined and, as in “Delhi”, as in “Hunger”, the speculative is revealed to be lurking beneath the skin of the present: Karim is granted an epiphany that, heartbreakingly, reveals how far the messy real world is from the seductive abstracts of his chosen field.

In uncovering the speculative within the world we know, “Infinities” is characteristic of The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet; the most satisfying aspect of this collection is that its stories, even the less successful ones, feel of a piece, like an exploration of a coherent and urgent set of concerns. This is a hallmark of a book worth reading. There is a sense, however, in which the collection is incomplete, and I think it explains why I felt the need to talk about Distances at the start of this review. It is to be expected that there are Other Stories not included: The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet does not pretend to be comprehensive, and the stories I’m about to name may not even have been written when it was being compiled. But as noted above, between “Hunger” and “A Speculative Manifesto”, the collection presents itself as an argument for the value of sf; and in the collection as constituted, that argument is incomplete. Divya may assert that her treasured pulp novels approach a great truth; Singh may assert the value of stories set on other planets, in other ages, seen through other eyes; but with momentary exceptions, this collection takes place within the frame of the familiar and contemporary. In the best stories, this setting is itself recontextualised by a shift in perspective of one kind or another; but sometimes Singh doesn’t do more than simply articulate that there is a distance that needs to be considered. What’s missing, in fact, is precisely a story like Distances, that steps away from the immediate familiarity of most of the stories in this collection and yet clearly addresses the same concerns; or perhaps a story like Singh’s other novella, Of Love and Other Monsters (2007), with its alien protagonist and arguably more radical perspective shift. Those are the stories of Singh’s that most fully use the codes of sf, that — in concert with the work collected here — make her case; and, for all the other pleasures in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet, I missed them.

The Host

The Host coverThe most depressing thing about Stephenie Meyer’s first science fiction novel, set in a future in which billions of humans have had parasitical aliens who call themselves “souls” implanted into their brains, is how throughly an interesting premise has had its body stolen by the mind of an emotionally stunted fairytale. Two choices on Meyer’s part prop up the story. The first is to begin after humanity has well and truly lost. Doing that skips over most of the familiar antecedents and suggests a story that will be as much about accomodation — about coming to terms — as it will be about resistance. The second choice sets up exactly that: the narrator is one of the souls, Wanderer, who discovers that the consciousness of her host, Melanie, is lurking in the back corridors of their shared mind. Although Mel begins to assert herself fairly quickly, the initial stages of the novel are successfully alienating, and some aspects of Wanderer’s coming to terms with her new humanity (such as her initial assessment of human language as “choppy, boxy, blind and linear”, compared to what she had access to in her previous life as an underwater sentient tree) are vividly done. So much of the book is good medicine: sadly, it comes with much more than a spoonful of sugar.

The Host, you see, is a novel in which everything is special. It is not enough, for example, that humans be sufficiently willful that they are hard to subdue, and sufficiently emotionally intense that occupation be disorientating for the souls; they must be the most willful species the souls have ever encountered, and their emotional reactions must be the most emotionally intense the souls have ever encountered, such that Wanderer (the narrator) is driven to wonder how any soul could survive in a human host. (And this is not to mention humanity’s “physical drives”, the like of which the souls have never seen, although in fact Meyer does a very good job of not mentioning them for most of her book’s six hundred-plus pages.) Nor can the narrative simply be the story of a soul and a host wrestling for control of a body: it must be the story of an extraordinary soul, who has lived many lives on many worlds, and an equally extraordinary host, so secure in her identity that, one soul asserts, she would have “crushed” any soul other than Wanderer in days.

To an extent, the snowflake-ness of all this can be justified. Melanie is only 17, and has just experienced her first love, while for Wanderer’s species altruistic urges are as powerful as the base physical ones that afflict humans. A better recipe for rose-tintedly seeing the best in everything is hard to imagine, and in fact the novel’s very last move could be read as an acknowledgement that nothing about the book’s story is as special as Wanderer tells us it is. But long before you reach that point, the sheer density of exceptionality becomes suffocating, and leaves you with the feeling that some of the most interesting implications of the novel’s premise are never being drilled to any great depth. The division between Melanie and Wanderer eschews anything resembling a reflection of the real complexity of memory, for instance; Melanie’s remembrances are simply a collection of home movies.

The true target of the novel is revealed in a conversation between Wanderer and her therapist who, in a nice touch, turns out to have been a front-line soldier during the initial colonization period. Describing why she kept a human name, and how she ended up bonding strongly enough with her assigned partner to maintain the relationship after the war, she says:

“At first, of course, it was random chance, and assignment. We bonded, naturally, from spending so much time together, sharing the danger of our mission. […] We lived every day with the knowledge that we could meet a final end at any moment. There was constant excitement and frequent fear.

“All very good reasons why Curt and I might have formed an attachment and decided to stay together when secrecy was no longer necessary. And I could lie to you, assuage your fears, by telling you that these were the reasons. But …” She shook her head and then seemed to settle deeper into her chair, her eyes boring into me. “In so many millennia, the humans never did figure love out. How much is physical, how much in the mind? How much accident and how much fate? Why did perfect matches crumble and impossible couples thrive? I don’t know the answers any better than they did. Love simply is where it is. My host loved Curt’s host, and that love did not die when the ownership of the minds changed.” (41-2)

As noted above, we already know by this point that Melanie was travelling with a man she truly loved, name of Jared. Actually, that’s being too kind: we have been bludgeoned over the head with the fact. The first time Wanderer gets caught up in Melanie’s memories of Jared, she says that despite the intimidating similarity of human faces (only “tiny variations in color and shape” to tell them apart by), “This face I would have known among millions” (10). Another memory recalls Melanie’s first meeting with Jared, after months of trying to survive with her younger brother, Jamie, during which, despite thinking he’s soul-possessed and out to get her, she has time to note his iron-hard abs and prominent cheekbones. Nor does Melanie object too strenuously when Jared’s his first action on realising she is also a free human is to kiss her, with only “I’ve just been alone so long!” (33) as an excuse. She focuses rather on his gentle voice, and how “He seems to realize how brittle I am, how close to breaking” (34). And this is only the beginning: originality of phrasing is not Meyer’s strong point, and once the relationship gets going, there’s really a lot of talk about how Jared’s touch sets Melanie aflame, and similar cliches of burning passion. Again, some of this — and some of the (for Wanderer) terrifying intensity of Melanie’s memories in general — can be attributed to the excitement of youth. But a lot of it seems to just be trying too hard. Jared says things like, “Neither heaven nor hell can keep me apart from you, Melanie” (84), after only a month of acquaintance, and without any detectable irony; never is the necessity of the relationship seriously questioned.

The questions the novel is interested in, clearly, are those identified by Wanderer’s therapist: whether Melanie’s love will transfer to Wanderer as completely as Wanderer’s therapist’s host’s love transferred and what such a transfer might mean. So it’s no surprise at all that Melanie’s yearning persuades Wanderer to go AWOL in an attempt to find Jared and Jamie (“I could not separate myself from this body’s wants”, 88), nor a surprise that she succeeds (thanks to directions to a secret hide-out in the Arizona desert memorized by Melanie); nor is it even a surprise that Jared, Jamie, and the plucky band they’ve hooked up with in Melanie’s absence are not best pleased to see Wanderer.

Nevertheless, what follows — when Meyer has moved all her pieces into place, and can just let them bounce off one another for a few hundred pages, with Wanderer’s struggles to fit in among a small community of survivors and deal with human emotions as the notional centre of gravity — is when the novel is at its most successful. The relationships that Wanderer (with Melanie as the devil on her shoulder, a dynamic that becomes increasingly appealing) builds up with various members of the community are largely well-handled, from the surrogate-mother role she adopts with Jamie to a genuine, if tentative, friendship that develops with the group’s pragmatic-yet-secretly-kind leader, Jeb. (Sometimes it seems as though Meyer is being cheerfully blatant about her use of central casting extras: the community’s Doc is exactly as crotchety yet honourable as you’d expect a character called Doc to be.) Wanderer’s relationship with Jared is, as you’d expect, fraught, recalling the reactions of human crew on Battlestar Galactica on learning that a close friend is a cylon (or, perhaps more aptly, recalling the reaction of Buffyverse humans to vamped friends). Wanderer is gradually accepted as a sort of teacher, giving the community (and, of course, us) the chance to learn things about her people that were heretofore unknown. We get more detail on the evolution and biology of souls, explaining why it is they were so horrified by the brutal violence of normal human affairs (indeed, it was a dramatic decrease in crime and unpleasantness that led to humans noticing the arrival of the souls in the first place). We get glimpses of a possible future in which humans and souls co-exist, such as an apparently loving family in which two souled parents are raising an unensouled child. There’s a lovely conversation about television at one point, in which it is revealed that all human shows up to and including The Brady Bunch have been censored due to their sexual and violent content. The new ones all have happy endings: “you have to consider the intended audience” (477).

That the novel stays readable right up to the end is something of an accomplishment, because the further into her story she gets, the more Meyer seems determined to undermine its integrity. (Maybe she thinks she’s considering her audience.) There is an odd inconsistency, for example, between the emphasis on Melanie-as-Melanie’s athleticism, on Wanderer-in-previous-life’s adventuresome feats, and the way in which Wanderer-in-Melanie’s-body turns into a weakling girl whenever the plot requires it: she is rendered helpless by the sight of a gun, and finds digging a hole in the ground an impossibly intimidating physical feat. Such a retreat to traditional gender roles — because of course Jared is a powerful leader of men — can’t be entirely unselfconscious on Meyer’s part, given the discussions elsewhere in the novel about alien societies with different constructions of gender; but it does seem odd. Similarly, there are moments in which the sf elements of the story are betrayed to lend a frisson of sensationalism to the relationship between Wanderer and Jared: at one point, Wanderer is forced — forced! — to kiss Jared, hoping the intensity of the contact will re-awake Melanie’s personality within her; at another point, Jared is forced — forced! — to scar Wanderer’s face, to provide her with a convincing alibi. Of course, the souls’ medicine can heal said scar right up.

But these are passing moments, and to be kind, you could argue that one way of parsing the novel’s trajectory is that it’s about Wanderer learning to escape from the neutered narratives of her kind. Sadly, she never quite does, and even with a six-hundred-page run-up the novel’s closing stages, which lean heavily on Wanderer’s propensity for selflessness, become tedious, not least because Wanderer’s final choice is rigged so as to make everyone else believe in it, too. In the last fifteen pages, Wanderer is put on a pedestal that threatens to burst out of the stratosphere; as I mentioned earlier, the book’s final move undercuts this somewhat, but it’s too little, too late. If Melanie is the devil on Wanderer’s shoulder, then Wanderer is an angel; and angels are even harder to believe in than souls.

Recently Read 2

Everything is Sinister coverThe existence of a book like Everything is Sinister doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Reality TV has by now become an easy fictive shorthand for a certain level of cultural obnoxiousness, and as such a gift for satirists (or would-be satirists), so a story set in a near future which emphasizes the vacuousness or ugliness of the celebrity culture that reality shows encourage hardly feels like speculation at all. (Indeed, there’s at least one other novel published in the UK this year – Glynn Maxwell’s The Girl Who Was Going to Die – that seems to take a similar approach, though I haven’t read it; and Amelie Nothomb’s Sulphuric Acid, translated last year, featured a reality show cheerfully called Concentration, about, yes, a labour camp.) But even beyond this, in attitude and setting Everything is Sinister appears to have similarities with a clutch of other recent novels; I’m thinking of books like Matthew de Abaitua’s The Red Men or Will Ashon’s Clear Water, which like Everything is Sinister are set in darkened versions of our present, in which one factor or another that shapes our lives has been intensified until it threatens to self-destruct. In de Abaitua’s novel it’s modern office life; in Ashon’s, consumerism; here, as noted, it’s the power of celebrity. The narrator, Ed Raynes, is the showbiz correspondent of a (fictional) tabloid called The Voice of the People, and as the novel opens he’s covering the current series of a show called Lockdown, and struggling with his concerns about the likely winner, Colin Curtis, who has an unsavoury past that hasn’t been publicised. Raynes feels increasingly alienated from the world around him, and when he’s beaten up on his way home one evening, he cracks and retreats into his flat to observe what he thinks (and what a very odd neighbour encourages him to think) is the ugly collapse of modern society taking place all around him.

It’s quite satisfying, then, to be able to report that Everything is Sinister largely works; Lockdown is by no means the only sfnal touch in the piece, and the narrative is well controlled, clocking in at a little under two hundred pages. In a number of ways, certainly, it treads ground covered by earlier genre authors. Mostly the resonances are the ones you’d expect — there’s more than a dash of Bug Jack Barron, a hint of Time out of Joint-flavour Dick, and in its portrayal of a complete moral collapse, just a touch of Ballard – but there are also, I think, some interesting comparisons to be made with Stand on Zanzibar. Like that novel, Everything is Sinister is set in 2010, and one way of describing the world in which it’s set is that it keeps everything Brunner got right. So: it’s a future in which overcrowding (if not actual overpopulation) is (at least Ed Raynes believes) literally driving people mad, with riots that spring up for no reason; casual drug use is rife, including a sedative called Derekon and symph, a drug that makes you believe you’re remembering the future; and the world is information-saturated. What’s most striking is the way in which this is represented: as part of his retreat, Raynes immerses himself in the online and televisual worlds, transcribed by Llwellyn in sections that read like nothing so much as The Happening World segments of Stand on Zanzibar. (With a bit more editorializing than Brunner let himself indulge in; although on the other hand, Brunner didn’t have the opportunity to include a hilariously accurate future broadcast of Newsnight Review.) Whether or not any of this is deliberate I won’t pretend to guess — both books have epigraphs that reference Marshall McLuhan, but really all I know about Llwellyn’s genre credentials is that his previous novel was a Torchwood tie-in, which frankly you could take as evidence either way – but it feels like the work of a writer who know what he’s doing.

Llwellyn’s created future is nothing like as panoramic or as dense as Brunner’s, of course, and there is something a little quaint about his inventions: the way The Voice of the People and Lockdown are so patently stand-ins modelled on The Sun (down to featuring “page four girls”, and despite the fact that The Sun is itself mentioned in the novel) and Big Brother; or in the way he gives us an extract from “Megapedia”, or talks about the “Jupiter Music Prize”; or in the sorts of brandnames he comes up with (to my ear, “C-Fish”, the novel’s supercharged Blackberry-equivalent, just doesn’t work). But accepting this backdrop, in many cases, Llewellyn’s eye is good, in particular his detail of the banality of modern media life. A paroled contestant from Lockdown goes to a club where, “instead of dancing, she strikes dance-like poses” for a photographer, “a breathing waxwork begging to be immortalised” (16); press junkets and exclusive parties seem as “ephemeral as snowflakes” (51); when hiding out in his flat, he watches the streams of commuters with his neighbours, “as content as men watching a sunset” (62). His eye for the specifics of place isn’t bad, either, which is just as well since he spends quite a lot of time describing things; but even the obligatory Canary-Wharf-is-sfnal moments feel relatively fresh.

But I think what ultimately makes Everything is Sinister worth reading is velocity. It doesn’t waste any of its pages; the narrative is divided into succinct chunks that come (like blog posts) with handy subject lines and timestamps, and the further into obsessive despair that Ed Raynes slips, the more biliously claustrophobic is the cumulative effect. “Something is wrong with people” is a repeated refrain in the novel’s second half, uttered with increasing conviction in the face of a parade of black-humoured plot twists, as Raynes appears to disappear down the rabbit-hole of his psyche good and proper. Ultimately we come to understand just how complete Raynes’ self-imposed lockdown is, how completely impotent are his attempts to rage against a culture thirsty for ever less inhibited forms of “reality”, and that there really is no possibility of parole; for us as well as him.

After Dark coverA little over half-way through Everything is Sinister, Ed Raynes is enticed into leaving his flat by the intoxicating violence of a nearby riot. When he reaches the scene, he finds himself — for once — in front of a camera, rather than behind, and observes that there is “something other-worldly about existing, however briefly, on the flip side of a television screen” (107). It’s a psychological observation that becomes literally true in Haruki Murakmi’s most recent novel to be translated into English, After Dark (2004/2007), where it serves as the central lynchpin of weirdness in a more cerebral exploration of urban alienation. It’s also just one iteration of what is probably After Dark‘s USP, namely its concern with perspective. Unlike in Llwellyn’s book, we get little or no description of place beyond some initial scene-setting, a diorama of hyperconnectedness that’s enough to call to mind all the traditionally cyberpunky images of urban Japan. Where this story is set isn’t half so important as who is telling it and who it’s about.

The narrator turns out to be an anonymous, first-person-plural omniscient narrator who directs our attention to a series of figures within the landscape. Depending on how you identify the narrator – at times it seems like it could be a supernatural entity, at others a manifestation of urban consciousness (if you squint, you can almost read it as an urban AI), and at still others simply a metafictional reflection of the reader – the book can be read in different ways. But whichever way you take it, the narrator frames everything we know about the characters in a much more explicit way than most novels, gently guiding us to look first one way and then another. The character it spends most time watching is Mari, a college freshman we first see sitting alone in a Denny’s, just before midnight, reading a book. She’s joined fairly quickly by Takahashi, a guy who sort-of knows her (he knows, or would like to get to know, Mari’s sister), and they have the first of what is one of many slightly rambling conversations that punctuate the story. These conversations veer unpredictably between the banal and callow and the incisive and moving — Mari and Takahashi talk about, among other things, what to eat, why siblings are different, and how to live a good life. The story spiderwebs out along connections from this initial meeting to take in the staff at a nearby love hotel, an overworked salaryman, and Mari’s sister Eri, who turns out to be the girl who disappears through the TV — an eerie sequence, made more unnerving by the narrator’s insistence that they can’t intervene: “We follow the same rules, so to speak, as orthodox time travellers” (27).

If humanity in Everything is Sinister is being driven wild by over-saturation and over-connection, in After Dark something like the opposite is true: we are never more separated than when we are crowded together. The nocturnal setting — the entire novel takes place in one night, with, as in Llwellyn’s book, each short chapter bearing its own timestamp — is offered as a liminal zone, a place where different worlds can meet and start to mix in a way they wouldn’t do during the day. The city is presented more than once as something living, as a “single collective entity” (3), whose circulatory system transports data, consumables and – tellingly – contradictions. It’s at night time, apparently, when these contradictions start to surface, when they can be challenged and renewed, and when the barriers between worlds — not just between Mari and Takahashi, who come from different peer groups, but between the criminal and law-abiding worlds, and even the fantastic and the real – are most frail. And yet all of these worlds are part of a “single collective entity” (3). One of the locations to which the story returns several times is, as mentioned, a love hotel, with the rather revealing name of Alphaville, explicitly after the film: “in Alphaville”, Mari explains, “you’re not allowed to have deep feelings. So there’s nothing like love. No contradictions, no irony.” When Mari confirms that there is sex in the film’s Alphaville, her interlocutor muses, “Sex that doesn’t need love or irony […] Alphaville may be the perfect name for a love ho” (60). Or, put another way, Alphaville is a place of no contradictions, an abstracted image of a city rather than the real thing.

After Dark is never less than engaging, is often charming, and a couple of times unsettling; but it has a problem, which is that the central point of view is as limiting as it is freeing. A narrator who belongs to all and none of the book’s worlds can aspire to the pretense of impartiality, can (for example) chill us with its voyeuristic depiction of Eri’s somnambulistic journey into TV-land; but for all that it holds the promise of revealing the real urban landscape, it ultimately cannot convey the experience of it. Like Ed Raynes, Murakami’s narrator watches and catalogues, but After Dark‘s final contradiction is that we never enter Mari’s world in the way that we enter Ed’s: it’s on the wrong side of the screen.

The Story of Forgetting coverOne of the two narrators of The Story of Forgetting is a stranger in the modern world, too, but that’s because it’s literally grown up around him. Abel is an old man, living alone in a small house in suburban Texas, surrounded by modern developments that have gradually encroached on the open spaces he used to know, and by which he seems stubbornly indifferent. (He has a horse; when he rides it to the shops we’re told “he rejected the industrial revolution as though it were one man’s opinion”, 74). As in the above two books, Abel’s story is one of observation, but his focus is himself and a recollection of his life and the losses he has endured. “I have no choice but to remember everything,” he thinks. “So much has changed” (68) And so much has been lost: twin brother Paul is gone, as is Paul’s wife, Mae (one of a number of women in the book who get a slightly raw deal, although there’s a lot of misery to go around in general); as is the daughter that might have been Abel’s, as the result of an affair, or may have been Paul’s. No surprise that Abel’s stories are marked by self-loathing, loneliness and self-pity; and yet they draw us in. Abel is a hard man to like, but easy to listen to.

Seth Waller also knows that remembering isn’t easy, and also finds himself compelled to remember anyway, if for a different reason: “only because I’ve sworn myself to full and total honesty,” he tells us, “will I remember it now on purpose” (21). “It”, at this point, is a specific incident in the gradual erosion of his mother by Alzheimer’s disease: how he discovered his mother after a fall. This and other memories, such as the night she wandered off in search of home, carrying a suitcase full of rotting meat, go part way to explaining why Seth – in high school at the time – decides that the solution is to devote himself to learning as much as he can about his mother’s condition, and the brain in general. The more Seth learns about the particular (fictional) variant of Alzheimer’s afflicting his mother – it is early-onset; it is heritable – the more he wants to learn. He gets his hands on a copy of a research database, which describes the distribution of the EOA-23 gene responsible for the disease across North America. He starts visiting whichever sufferers he can reach, in an investigation whose depiction of sadness is sometimes unbearably poignant, and sometimes uncomfortably pornographic. It’s not until very near the end of the book that Seth learns what is obvious to us, watching him, from early on: that he’s trying to learn how to understand his own life, as much as the disease that’s blighted it.

Braided with these two strands are two others that explore the same concerns in ways that tend to be just a little two obvious. One is a genetic history, following the propagation of the gene for that variant of early-onset Alzheimer’s from its creation in the DNA of one Alban Mabblethorpe, lord of Iddywahl. English names are not Block’s strong suit, but he can write about the mechanisms of molecular biology with not a little poetry — replication gone wrong causes the polynucleotides “to fray and recoil like hair over a flame” (55); the beginning of Memory, the start of biochemical life, is “a simple repetition of a few simple units, like a bar of a song stuck in one’s head” (240) – and, perhaps because they achieve a bit more distance from their subject, these sections contain some of the most engaging in the book, ironic in tone but precise in detail. And then there are the stories of Isidora, stories told to both Abel and Seth as children, of a land without memory, “where every need is met and sadness is forgotten” (13). “There are places where you can cross”, the novel’s opening states, but it’s a false promise: Isidora remains a story throughout the novel, serving as a commentary on the power and seduction of fantasy.

Which is where the novel both succeeds and fails. What there is to admire in The Story of Forgetting is in the specifics: the voices of Abel and Seth, the way science and sorrow are both transmuted to story, the particular scenes that live in the memory. The tales of Isidora are perhaps the purest expression of this virtue. For all their brevity, they can be startlingly eloquent, and the complexity with which they recapitulate the world grows throughout the novel. I can very nearly believe in Isidora as a necessary consolation: like the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind, it is a story told to make the story of forgetting bearable to watch. But in the end, it also exemplifies the contradiction at the novel’s core, which makes it a hard book to love: because while sentiment demands justice, intellect refuses it.

Rumble Strip coverIf The Story of Forgetting is about making something ugly bearable through beauty, Woodrow Phoenix’s latest graphic novel, for all that it’s never explicit, is about revealing ugliness. Rumble Strip is a polemic against irresponsible car use, not on environmental grounds but on the simple and arguably more immediate big-lump-of-metal-moving-scarily-fast grounds of safety. The opening pages imagine a world in which every building had a grand piano hanging outside it, suspended by a couple of strings, as a way of freshening up our perception of the risks of driving; and the rest of the book is similarly blunt. Drawn in stark black/white/grey, it is extremely well-paced, measuring the rise and rise of a pulse of anger, and it understands the seductiveness of cars in greater depth than simply the way they represent a lifestyle choice. I think Phoenix goes too far in his discussion of how people rate “best car” exclusively by speed — I just don’t think that’s true, even among hard-core car nerds — but the basic point stands, and there’s no doubt he makes his case for an imbalance in modern society, that we cede too much to the car, with power and skill. The book’s ultimate triumph is its artwork: it never shows a real person, or a car. Nearly every page unfolds as if showing the view from behind the windscreen in an ostensible driver’s paradise, the truly open and empty road. But it becomes an eerie and irrational world: a segment that emphasizes the commanding nature of the lines in an empty car park is particularly potent.

The Gone-Away World

The Gone-Away World coverIt takes a little while, because there is something entertaining in almost every paragraph of The Gone-Away World, but sooner or later you start to wonder when (or even if) you’re going to get back to where you started. The first chapter of Nick Harkaway’s first novel introduces an unusually fluid post-apocalyptic landscape and a bunch of trucker-repairmen who get charged with saving the world; the fact that in no sense is this introduction economical is insufficient preparation for the hundreds of pages of laconic flashback that follow, in which we skip back to the narrator’s school days and read about the development of his friendship with one Gonzo Lubitsch (more of him later), his early romantic fumblings and martial arts lessons, his eventual transition to an Oxbridge-esque university, his falling-in with a group of political activists, his arrest and incarceration for suspected terrorism, his difficult subsequent job-hunt, the details of the job he eventually finds with a top secret weapons R&D outfit, his tour of duty in an Afghanistan-esque clusterfuck of a conflict in a made-up Middle East country including a stint as stretcherman, injury and subsequent convalescence, and …. well, you get the idea. There’s an awful lot of Stuff in this novel. Some of it is told with deadly intensity, but most of it is told with a great and convincing enthusiasm — Harkaway’s narrator can gab like Iain M Banks on a roll — that is easy to wallow in. It’s not so much the clomping foot of nerdism as the dance-dance revolution; but, still, you do wonder when you might get back to where you started.

None of which is to say The Gone-Away World is a bad book. I think it’s probably a very good one, as it happens; but I also think that opening chapter is a mis-step, because it creates an expectation that the next two hundred pages go almost out of their way to refute. Harkaway’s love of meandering, tangential narrative is apparently almost Stephensonian in its excess, and in the midst of it you can end up drumming your fingers: the digressions and set-pieces can stop being enjoyable for their own sake. Which is a shame, because while some of the time it all adds up to a numbing excess of detail — when the narrator receives a note, for example, we’re told the handwriting style, the meaning of the style, the colour of the ink, the type of pen, and the type of paper; and at one point we get a loving description of every pothole in the driveway of his house — most of the time Harkaway directs his plot with a swagger, not to mention dollops of wry humour. The two-page exploration of the fate of sheep caught in a warzone, for instance, or the scene in which the narrator ends up stranded in a strip joint with a troupe of mimes, which turns out to be a lot less superfluous than it initially seems. From a distance, it seems obvious that the conviction, if not coherence, with which the narrative sweeps from a world more or less like our own (with a few notable but usually irrelevant-to-the-plot differences: Cuba has joined the UK, for instance) to one that is richly unfamiliar is one of The Gone-Away World‘s greatest strengths. It’s a novel that believes absolutely in whatever it’s telling you at any given moment. But the memory of that first chapter, and the promised future, means you can’t always enjoy that sweep as you’re reading.

Because the desire to get back to that opening world — to get some answers — is pretty intense. What you can piece together from the opening twenty-eight pages goes a little something like this: at some point, the Go-Away War changed the planet, erasing much of what went before — people, institutions, geography — and leaving only a Liveable Zone surrounded by an Unreal World. The Zone is maintained by something called the Jorgmund Pipe, Jorgmund being a gigacorporation that’s risen up to carve something like sanity out of something like a nightmare; and the Pipe sprays something called FOX into the air, which keeps away the bad things. The narrator, and the menagerie with whom he hangs out in the Nameless Bar — Jim Hepsobah, Egon Schlender, Annie the Ox, Sally Culpepper, Tobemory Trent, Gonzo Lubitsch (him again), Samuel P, and Roy Roam (I still can’t quite decide whether Harkaway’s way with names is evidence of genius or insanity) — are the Haulage and Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (“ten trucks of bad hair, denim, and spurs”, 10), and when the Pipe catches on fire, they’re the ones that Jorgmund recruits to get it fixed. After disquisitions on types of bureaucrat (the ultimate of which would be “a person so entirely consumed by the mechanism in which he or she is employed that they had ceased to exist as a separte entity”, 15-6) and the workings of corporations (in the form of a parable about Alfred Montrose Fingermuffin, factory-owner), and negotiation strategies (“an ellipsis is a haymaker punch you throw with your mouth”, 16), the Company suit up and roll out, heading for the fire on a route which takes them through some distinctly creepy places. Harkaway has a habit of describing everything as seen through a sort of Spinal Tap everything-up-to-eleven lens — part of the enthusiasm I mentioned before — so a chair is monstrously comfortable, a plan includes magnificent redundancy, an individual is full of majestic self-importance. He gets away with it because he’s got a world to show us that we really haven’t seen before; the closest contemporary comparison I can think of is with the Stuff-filled “high-interaction” sidebar universes in Justina Robson’s clear-sighted negotiation of romance, Living Next-Door to the God of Love (2005). Like that, but writ large.

While we wait for that world to reappear, what gradually becomes apparent is that the sundering of this world we (almost) know is a specifically twenty-first century kind of apocalypse. The Go-Away war — a ferocious hundred pages of which takes up the heart of the book — isn’t the sort of thing that can be reduced to an easy allegory, but it’s clearly figured as a sort of millennial transition between then and now, old and new. It’s the preparations for war that bring the sf back into the story after over a hundred pages of youth and young manhood, when the narrator is recruited into a research division working on a new superweapon, one that will make enemies simply Go Away. His boss Professor Derek (a not-un-Q-like role) describes the principle this way: “Information, then, does matter — in the sense that it is the organizing principle without which matter simply cannot exist. Without matter, there is no universe and there’s no place to do anything. WIthout information, matter withers away. Vanishes. And gradually, even the memory fades. It won’t dissipate entirely, of course. But it becomes … slippery” (147). It’s a speech that gets at the heart of the novel: the tension between order and chaos — or organization and autonomy.

Harkaway’s evident interest in the world he’s creating is a joy, but it’s working through this theme that really brings out the best in him as writer. Not that the depiction of teen emotions and student philosophising and so forth is ever less than satisfactory, but the chapter in which the bombs are deployed en masse, as part of a stupid, wasteful escalation from a small-scale but politically useful conflict, is little short of terrifying: how lethal the absence of information, of certainty. Shadows become traps, places where the unreality is most concentrated and most horrible: “The attack is here, and there are people dying, but there’s no enemy, just darkness, confusion, and people getting dead. It’s as if this was weather” (216), with bullets “drifting on the wind like pollen” (218). It is, the narrator later realises, “the grimy rag and bone subconscious of our race” (272), come home to roost.

Standing tall amidst the chaos is Gonzo Lubitsch, big damn hero. (I said I’d get back to him eventually.) Back in the first chapter, the relationship between Gonzo and our narrator was sketched out in asides: “When the phone did ring (any time now), we could go and be heroes and save the world, which was Gonzo’s favourite thing, and perforce something I did from time to time as well” (7). He is not the leader of the Freebooters — that’s Sally Culpepper — but he is charismatic, confident, extremely dangerous, and probably wouldn’t recognise irony if it hit him with a plank. He is capital-H-Heroic, and the narrator is his shadow, his confidant, his wingman. Surprisingly little time is dedicated to establishing this relationship, but the fact of it is always there and frequently asserted; even Gonzo’s absence defines the narrator’s presence, with all actions measured against an impossible standard of What Would Gonzo Do? The biggest implications of this relationship for the narrator don’t become clear until quite a long way into the book, but from early on it serves as evidence that as much as the Go-Away War strips order from the world, the characters in The Gone-Away World need order to understand their souls: in just about every case, who they are is defined by what they do, from the “pencilnecks” who sacrifice their individuality to the corporate beast, to the soldiers for whom sublimation into a military hierarchy can be a form of salvation, to the “new” entities created after the war who simply want to live. The struggle at the heart of The Gone-Away World is the struggle against disorder, but it’s against personal apocalypse as much as global; the link between the two is emphatically undermined by a late-ish plot development that also confirms Harkaway’s commitment to the sfnal elments of his book. Unfortunately for those characters who get well and truly fucked along the way, it’s well-known, as one character puts it, that “the second law of thermodynamics … does not look kindly on unfucking” (383).

Of course, the narrator manages to find a way to live, and indeed at the end of the novel he’s alive in ways he didn’t realise he wasn’t at the start — not to mention perhaps the real hero. You could say that he survives the system, though I doubt The Gone-Away World would want me to paraphrase its conclusion in such po-faced terms: this is a book in which quite a lot is resolved by fighting, culminating in a triumphantly over-the-top, if somewhat boy’s-own, action sequence (during which Harkaway nevertheless finds time for his narrator to speculate on whether squid can watch TV). More than once in the book’s final chapters, you might recall the narrator’s loving description of kung fu movies from his youth — “The martial arts film is a curiously sentimental thing, fraught with high promises and melodrama … The plots are moral, Shakespearean, and have a tendency to charge off in some unexpected direction for twenty minutes before returning to the main drama as if nothing has happened” (44) — and, given its accuracy as a description of The Gone-Away World, wonder exactly how successfully the novel itself has resisted the call of comfortable, orderly formula. Resist it does — with those digressions and their (in Harkawayan terms) often monumental hilarity it’s a book constantly straining against its own coherence — but its ultimate completeness somehow suggests that The Gone-Away World might die in the memory as completely as it lives in the moment. The saving grace may be the ending, which stubbornly refuses to settle for getting the book back to where it started, and instead insists on escape into who-knows-what. “From here,” the narrator says, at the end, “it’s all about forwards” (531). So speaks a native of his country.

Hopeful Monsters

Hopeful Monsters coverThe strangest things in Hiromi Goto’s first collection happen at night. The first two stories in Hopeful Monsters are little more than experiments in capturing the distinctive textures of night — the seeming loudness of a stray thought, in the claustrophobic intensity of “Night” (1993), and contrariwise the freeing anonymity of darkness in “Osmosis” (1998) — but they set a precedent for what is to come. For example, it’s in the middle of the night that “Tales from the Breast” (1995), which is for most of its length a relatively uninspiring portrait of the travails of breastfeeding, making in a somewhat laboured fashion the point that just because something is biologically natural doesn’t make it enjoyable, suddenly blooms into an extraordinary image. The baby is demanding to be nursed, and the skin of your breasts (the story is told in the second person, in parts) is so tight that

Like a pressured zipper, it tears, spreading across the surface of your chest, directed by your fingers, tears in a complete circle around the entire breast.

There is no blood.

You lean slightly forward and the breast falls gently into your cupped hands. The flesh is a deep red and you wonder at its beauty, how flesh becomes food without you asking or even wanting it. You set the breast on your lap and slice your other breast. Two pulsing orbs still spurting breast milk. (63-4)

This is typical of Goto’s prose — a cleverly used perspective, short descriptive sentences or sentence fragments, an emphasis on physicality — but what’s really interesting and impressive about it, I think, is the way it mingles horror and release. The separation of self from self should (surely?) be a horrific image, and certainly “two pulsing orbs” is the sort of language you’d expect to see in a horror story; yet the horror is a backnote. Because of the gentle, bloodless ease with which it happens (and the weight of uncomfortableness that has been built up through the rest of the story) the dominant emotion evoked is freedom. What happens next — the wife places her detached breasts on her husband, they “seep into his skin, soft whisper of cells joining cells” (64), and he wakes up in shock — is more traditionally horrific, albeit refracted through the wife’s more sanguine perspective. And, in fact, the story ends with the wife falling asleep, such that if you really want to you can read the entire episode as a dream. But neither of these things, for me, diminishes the power of that initial image, and I think in a way it’s emblematic of one of Goto’s core concerns: to challenge us to reclaim things from which we would normally recoil.

She is, for sure, not always successful. “Stinky Girl” (1996), about a fat, coloured (her terms) 33-year-old woman, wants to be about exactly this subject, but falls flat. Goto goes to some lengths to establish that the titular smell that adheres to the narrator, driving away passers-by, is “not a causal phenomenon”, that it has nothing to do with Stinky’s physique or hygiene. Stinky is not abnormal “medically speaking”, but “not normal in the commonly held sense of the word” (39). And we are told with equal carefulness that none of Stinky’s attributes have any reflection on her character; indeed she is “blessed with a certain higher intelligence, a certain sensitivity which enables me to more than endure the trials of this existence” (45). (The ego probably helps, too.) The coup-de-grace up to which the story leads is the idea that smell is as subjective as, say, visual standards of beauty: “If one were taught as a very small child that roses were disgusting […] would one not despite the very thought of their scent? It may be that I smell beautiful beyond the capacity of human recognition” (46). The truth of this is apparently born out by an encounter with a child who, unlike everyone else, does not react to Stinky’s stench. But for me, at the very least the ask is too big, and at worst the story is being deliberately disingenuous for the sake of a striking idea. I don’t doubt that there is a socially constructed element of smell, but there are also sound reasons why we experience (or are taught to experience) the smell of rotting meat and faeces as bad, in exactly the way that there aren’t sound reasons for prejudices based on weight or skin colour.

Arguably the problem with “Stinky Girl” is that it takes place in a near-vacuum; at least, Stinky doesn’t have much in the way of personal attachments, and the stories that take place within deftly sketched family units are mostly more effective. (I was reminded, occasionally, of the similar care with human relationships in Maureen McHugh’s fiction.) There are still some transferrals that are too obvious, as when the mother in “Drift” (1999), unable to come to terms with her daughter’s lesbianism, ends up feeling like the child in the relationship. But in a story like “Tilting” (1993), in which a young girl, her brother and her father meet their mother and grandparents on their return from a trip to Japan, the faultlines are delineated with a minimum of judgement; the memories of the recent trip provoke memories of earlier trips with not a little elegance. Similarly, “Home Stay” (1999), which describes the odd relationship that develops between an Asian man and the parents of his estranged wife, manages to portray a mutual incomprehension born of imagined difference (which is no less “real” than “real difference”, of course) without condescending to anyone involved. In each of these stories, it’s worth noting, the family is multi-racial; an Asian (usually Japanese) man has married a Canadian woman, or vice versa. It seems only natural. Families, in Hopeful Monsters, are always in flux, always sprawling things without true edges or borders, breeding grounds of hybridity in just about every way; which is why they are natural focal points for the sort of tension between prejudice and acceptance that Goto seems to be interested in.

The fantastic is deployed sparingly and, although it may be dramatic, as often as not (as in “Tales from the Breast”) it’s the questionable, equipoisal kind, where it’s up to you to decide how much really happened. The closest Goto comes to a straightforward horror story is probably “From Across a River” (2001), in which a mother is confronted with an unnerving faceless manifestation of the daughter she lost some years earlier. In “Camp Americana” (2005), we encounter one of Goto’s less charitable characterisations, in the form of a Japanese grandfather, on a camping trip with his wife, his son, his son’s Canadian-born wife, and his two grandchildren. He is not shy about his traditional — which in this story is to say sexist — views, which can make him hard to endure: “His son’s wife wasn’t raised properly, that was obvious […] the females of this country are uncivilized” (116). The conflict that develops is left unresolved when, on a solo night-time trip to the bathroom, the grandfather falls and experiences a visionary hallucination in which his grandchildren appear with the heads of cats, and his wife’s disembodied head and neck wrap around him like a snake. Once more, the horrific potential of the images themselves is secondary; what’s important is the instability in how they are explained, with a succession of possibilities being quickly raised, each trumping the last — they are creatures that have taken his family’s forms, they are a dream, they are his family having gone through a secret transformation, they are a stroke-vision. I think it’s the impossibility of accommodation that Goto is drawing on here, or perhaps the trauma that results from a rigid mind refusing to bend.

And then there’s the title story, which is the closest the collection comes to science fiction, which is presumably why it’s on the reading list for this year’s Foundation Masterclass in SF Criticism (which is, in turn, why I acquired the book in the first place). It’s here, in a quasi-scientific epigraph, that we get a definition of “hopeful monsters” — which turn out to be that small percentage of “macromutations” that can “with chance and luck, equip an organism with radically beneficial adaptive traits with which to survive and prosper” (135). Immediately after this, we encounter a pregnant woman, and so wonder: will her child be such a creature?

The first part of the story is a description of Hisa’s pregnancy, of the support her “sweet” husband Bobby attempts to give her, and of her conversations with her superstitious (but possibly also actually psychic) mother; the second part describes the birth itself; and the third part describes Hisa’s reactions to her child’s unusual physiology — she is born with what the doctors describe as a “caudal appendage”, and what Hisa sees as a tail — and the decision she makes about it. The tone throughout is unsentimental, from the physical and psychological discomforts of pregnancy (“Ridley Scott had a lot to answer for, she thought”, 138) to the more dramatic discomforts of birth (“Hisa pushed and pushed. She held her breath, pushing down with her abdominal muscles, a squirt of residual fecal mater forced along as well, she pushed, pain no longer a sensation but a entity …” 144), and the less cute details of a newborn baby (the stain of bruising, the strangeness of the fontanelle, the unpleasantness of poo). But at times the point seems laboured, as though Goto intends Hisa’s experiences to be as alien to us as detaching breasts; such an aim would fit with the collection’s overarching investigation of what is really alien to us and what is simply unexamined normality, except that I’m not convinced pregnancy and birth fall into either category.

More interesting is Hisa’s arc, from pre-birth nerves to an understandable franticness after the birth (when she senses that something is “wrong” with her child, but nobody will tell her what), to her attempts to come to terms with the abnormality. At times, the story becomes the inverse of “Stinky Girl”: “If she looked at it long enough, would she lose this skin-crawling repulsion?” (153). But here Goto has an extra twist to add, since it turns out that Hisa was also born with a tale, subsequently removed, and thus has to come to terms with the idea that what she perceived as strangeness is also a part of her. The latter is clearly more challenging; there is a dramatic difference between Hisa’s initial reaction to the sight of her child — “Hisa stared. What moisture left in her mouth withered: a bitter dust on her tongue. Her heart boomed inside her ears” (149) — and Hisa’s reaction to the news about her own heritage: “The room ballooned, a sudden vacuum. […] The fluorescent light buzzed with frenetic electrons. […] The baby’s breathing split into air, heart, blood, hemoglobin. Hisa gasped. The world cracked. Then the shards slid back to create an entire picture once more” (155). Ultimately, Hisa decides to steal away her child, so that the doctors will not remove the tail; an effective grace note is that just before she goes, worried that she doesn’t have enough practice at being “abnormal” she calls a lesbian couple from her prenatal classes to ask for advice, and is given the short shrift she deserves.

What’s somewhat perplexing is how this story is meant to be understood as in any sense speculative. Caudal appendages are a known phenomenon; vestigial functionality is rare but not completely unknown; so the only point at which the story might cross over into unexplored territory is the suggestion that Hisa’s child’s tale is an inherited feature, not a developmental abnormality. (So far as I know, caudal appendages are always the result of developmental abnormality.) Yet Goto writes in an afterword that the story was inspired by Wendy Pearson’s essay “Sex/uality and the Hermaphrodite in Science Fiction, or, The Revenge of Herculin Barbin”, from Edging into the Future (2002). The parallel, presumably, is intended to be with the way medicalisation of human biology ends up excluding all but the two “true” biological sexes (that is, excludes intersex individuals); thus Hisa’s child is, we are meant to believe, similarly excluded by a medical establishment that doesn’t recognize a true mutation when it’s right in front of them. But as with “Stinky Girl”, the parallel seems to me inexact in ways that undermine the story. A caudal appendage simply is not functional in the way that genitalia are — and if the sfnal point of the story is that this one is, then it doesn’t do the work necessary to make this plain. A reflexive grasp in a newborn is not enough to convince me that a tail would be a “radically beneficial adaptive trait” for a modern human (or that it could be a marker for other, more profound mutations), which leaves the story looking rather hollow. It does occur to me, though, that there’s another possibility: perhaps we are meant to be thinking this way, to reinforce the ambiguity of Hisa’s final decision. Even as she leaves, it’s not clear to what extent Hisa is acting for her child, and to what extent she’s acting for herself. It may be that Hisa is, in a wishful sense, the true hopeful monster, walking away into the night.