Life: Recap

(Isn’t that a fantastic title for a post?)

Over the last few weeks, Nic has posted a series of thought-provoking explorations of Gwyneth Jones’ Life, looking at its relationship with institutions and attitudes towards scientific practice; its self-consciousness as feminist sf, as a commentary on the role of women in a science fictional world; the core of the relationships which define the plot of the book; and the fictional scientific discovery at the heart of the story and how it affects gender.

Life, the seventh book we’ve examined in the Future Classics series here on Torque Control, is our last book from 2004, the end of the first half of the decade this book list covers.  The remaining four books cover the rest of the decade. For planning ahead, those are

  • Jo Walton, Farthing (in late September)
  • Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North (October)
  • Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia (November)
  • Gwyneth Jones, Spirit (December)

My thanks to Nic for joining us for this discussion (and perhaps more in the future?), and to those of you who read along and participated in the discussion. It’s never too late to come back to these posts and do so.

Discussion: Part 1 – Science and Sensibilities; Part 2 – Feminisms; Part 3 – Roles and Relationships; Part 4 – Gender and Conclusion

A recent, related post:

bookgazing asks for insights into what new things cis-gendered women could become “in the middle of a pre-existing world full of pre-conceptions about gender and behaviour?”

Cat Women of the Moon, Part 2: Bibliography

Here are the books mentioned in the second and final part of the BBC Radio 4 documentary, Cat Women of the Moon, hosted by Sarah Hall. Some of the duplication from last time is because their authors featured on the both programmes.

  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
  • HG Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau
  • China Mieville, Embassytown
  • China Mieville, Perdido Street Station
  • Ian M Banks, the Culture novels
  • Urusula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Geoff Ryman, The Child Garden
  • Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex
  • Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Nicola Griffith, Ammonite
  • Nicola Griffith, Slow River
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Plus Star Trek and the titular Cat Women of the Moon.

Edited: It’s now available, for at least the  next week, on Listen Again.

Cat Women of the Moon, Part 1 – Bibliography

Cat Women of the Moon, the two-part documentary of science fiction and sex hosted by Sarah Hall, was on BBC Radio 4 just now. (Part 2 will be next Tuesday at 11:30 BST).

Part way through the episode, I realized that this was a prime opportunity for book recommendations, and to consider just what the show has collectively mentioned. Here, then, for your contemplation, are the books mentioned in the program for whatever reason.

The programme is now available on Listen Again.

  • Nicola Griffith, Slow River
  • Nicola GriffithAmmonite
  • Mike Ashley, Out of this World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It
  • Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
  • Jane Webb Loudon, The Mummy, or A Tale of the Twenty-second Century
  • Joanna Russ, The Female Man
  • Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army
  • Geoff Ryman, The Child Garden
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  • Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
  • Iain M Banks, The Player of Games
  • China Miéville, Perdido Street Station
  • Isaac Asimov, Robot series
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula (Mentioned in such a way it could be a film reference instead)
  • John Christopher, Death of Grass

Also, in other media, Bladerunner, the titular movie, Cat Women of the Moon,and Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco of the Creation of Man.

City of Pearl: Recap

The book of this long, lingering July* was Karen Traviss’s City of Pearl, which Niall discussed in a series of posts. It was the first of two 2004 books we are reading here at Torque Control this year as part of the Future Classics series of the best science fiction novels written by women in the previous decade.

Niall examined the difficulty of writing aliens, especially with respect to gender; the role of humans in the context of those aliens, and the problems with the way the book presents scientists; an examination of the main viewpoint character, Shan Frankland; and a look at a few of the book’s other major themes and the way they affect the conclusion.

Continuing the post-9/11 notes, this book too had a plot  thread about terrorism, by that name, in the context of moral ambiguities.

My thanks to Niall for the thoughtful examination of this book, and to all of you who joined in the discussion about it. (There’s always time to do so in future weeks… or months… or years.)

Discussion: Part I (Aliens); Part II (Environment and humanity); Part III (Characters); Part IV (Transparency)

I can’t, offhand, find any other discussions of this novel online from the last month, which is why  I am not providing them for you this month. (I though I did run across another fantastical “city of Pearl” as a result: more in Jeff VanderMeer’s post here.)

* Summer, with all its life disruptions to put us in places we aren’t normally and disrupt posting habits.

Best novels of 2011 so far

I knew it was halfway through the year when my thing-a-day calendar required flipping on the fourth of July. And halfway through means another quarter has passed and you have read more books.

Back in April, these were the books suggested for next year’s award nominations:

  • Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City (Published 2011 in the US)
  • Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path
  • James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes.
  • Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes.
  • Jo Walton’s Among Others
  • Andrea Hairston’s Redwood & Wildfire
Are these still the best contenders for next year’s novel awards, or have new books trumped or added to them since? What would you nominate as of now?

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?

Group-Reading the Guardian Reviews Section

The best part about being in a bookstore at midnight when the latest Harry Potter book was released wasn’t having the first opportunity to read the latest installment. It was the joy of the yearly enterprise of group-reading the same book at the same time, of knowing that a blogged reaction would appear on my feed as soon as any given friend had finished reading it. It showed me the sheer, astonishing speed with which some people were able to skim the entire volume (two hours!) and the steady chipping away at it required by those unable to take time off from the rest of their lives. It was a momentary community of joint reading I have not even found in formal book groups, because for them, the reading is not the synchronous part; the having-read is.

In honor of the exhibit on the history of science fiction opening at the British Library later in the week, the Guardian has dedicated its Saturday Reviews section to the subject of science fiction. It released the first few articles a few days early, beginning the resulting group discussion which percolated across my feeds, which was spurred especially by mixed reactions to Iain M Banks and his irritation over those writing in genre who have never read it.

Today, the reviews section came out. One by one, commentators went to their local news agents to pick up a copy, which made it comment-worthy when at least one had sold out. (Those who have ongoing subscriptions, and thus automatic delivery, have not mentioned it. Why would they?)

To state the very obvious, one advantage of the newspaper section is that it is made up of articles. Small units enable more immediate reactions, such as just how apt or not the top 10 list of the best aliens in science fiction was, or noting the cumulative tendency of respondents in the initial survey of the best books or authors of science fiction (as picked by “top SF writers”) as being oriented towards books written long ago by men.

When it comes down to it, it is a small swathe of geographically-limited internet which is reading and responding to the Guardian today, especially about science fiction. But it is a group of whom many have gone out today specifically or in part in order to hunt down the paper version of a collection of critical works to read together.

Perhaps others of you have encountered it before, but I have never noticed a simultaneous effort to group-read science fiction criticism before, complete with physically tracking down the  publication on the same day as others, and I’m delighted that it’s happening today.

Playlists, Soundtracks, and Science Fiction

The first chapter of Justina Robson’s Natural History is structured around the Don McLean song, “American Pie”. The lyrics help to structure fraught events, both in our world and in that of the dying Isol. The book (about which more discussion  next week) begins, in effect, with music, with a theme song. It’s not a whole soundtrack for the book, but it’s why I noticed a coincidence or a trend – I don’t have enough data to know which.

Our first book of this year’s TC reading project didn’t have one theme song. It had an entire discography, listed out on the final pages of the paperback and a page of the accompanying website. Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love is about a rock band, so it’s not surprising that it might come with music. Plenty of books about bands don’t, however. This one recommends hours of previously-existing albums, plumbed for their vibe, their synergies, their influence on the book’s musical interactions. Its concerts are major plot points.

The second book didn’t have a discography listed out as an appendix, but it didn’t need one. Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is suffused with soundtrack, carefully orchestrated by its main character to match the needs of his life. Lou uses symphonic music to overlay sequences in his life with imposed structure, a device which makes it easier for him to cope with various scenarios, from the gym to the drive home. It need not even be recorded: he has a wealth of classical music stored in his memory for summoning up when he needs it as counterbalance. A mention – name, composer – may be enough to summon up the tunes for some readers as well. In only one instance does Lou recommend to us specific versions of the music he thinks through: in all other cases, we can pick our own symphonies, our own soloists.

I’ve read a couple of other books in the past year or so which came with the songs or albums listed to which the author wrote the book. Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty books do. Linnea Sinclair’s last novel, Rebels and Lovers, does. Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland has an entire purchasable album which was compiled around it. So does her currently Clarke Award-nominated Zoo City.

The only book soundtracks I’m particularly aware of from previous decades are filk. Mercedes Lackey has written and produced a slew of albums to accompany her Valedemar novels. Anne McCaffrey approved an official album in part comprising tunes to lyrics she’d provided in her Pern novels. Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue came with poignant alternative spacefaring lyrics to known tunes, used as chapter intros.

The CD singles charts may be in commercial freefall, as far as any given song’s success is concerned, but I am certain that, more broadly, the singles market has never been more healthy. Download a song as ringtone. Download a single at a click. In the ‘80s it became feasible to make mix tapes, with the advent of the cassette tape. Now, a book’s soundtrack need not even be prepackaged if the tunes are mainstream enough: they can be individually downloaded and reassembled into the unified album that a playlist had the potential to be on one’s own music playing device.

As evidence goes, this is scanty. These are the works of science fiction and fantasy I can name off of the top of my head which come with soundtracks.

So – the three books so far for the best science fiction novels written by women in the last decade. Will more of this year’s TC reading project feature theme songs or downloadable soundtracks?

Are female authors more likely to include that bit of extra real-world tie-in world-building than male ones are, or is this an accident of what I’ve been reading that I’ve only noticed soundtracks in books which happen to be written by women?

Regardless of gender, is this a trend or a coincidental cluster?