Reminder: Natural History

I will start posting discussion on Justina Robson’s Natural History beginning on Monday, although I do have another related post planned for later this week, a music-related prologue to the discussion. Please do read along, if you are able to. (I know many of us are busy reading awards shortlists right now – myself included.)

The discussion of Natural History is part of the ongoing series of discussions here at Torque Control on the best science fiction novels by women of the last decade.

Next Year’s Novel Awards

With all the awards discussion, I have spent much of the past three months looking back to last year’s publications. But here we are, already a quarter of the way through 2011. In theory, this should mean that a quarter of the year’s novels which are eligible for next year’s award cycles have already been published.

So tell me – of the science fictional novels already published in 2011, which one(s) might you consider nominating for next year’s awards?

Reading Future Classics by Women

As I mentioned last week, one of my projects for this year is to read through the eleven books voted by Torque Control readers as the best science fiction novels written by women between 2001 and 2010. Hopefully, some of you will be joining me in this!

Each month, I will post a reminder at the beginning of the month, along with a bit of background discussion. In the second half of the month, I will host a discussion of the book here. I’ll post round-ups of reviews and discussion elsewhere of the novels too, whether recent or from previous years. Sometimes there will be contributions exploring a novel from other people, and I would certainly welcome others. (Niall has volunteered!)

There’s no great incentive to read this list in ranked order. I suspect some of the rankings are a very close thing, and the given order of the list is no authority for subjective quality. So instead, this will be a chronological project. I’ve gone with global chronological dates instead of their publication dates in the UK in particular. Life has yet to be published here, and some of us are occasionally prone to reading books on import instead of waiting for the possibility of local publication. Further, a major proportion of the poll participants were based outside of the UK, and so this country’s publication schedule does not necessarily affect the local availability of a given novel for them.

(It’s been an interesting challenge: I had no idea how hard it was going to be to figure out the month in which some of these books were published.)

So here’s the schedule:

February Bold as Love, by Gwyneth Jones
March The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon
April Natural History, by Justina Robson
May The Time-Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffennegger
June Maul, by Tricia Sullivan
July City of Pearl, by Karen Traviss
August Life, by Gwyneth Jones
September Farthing, by Jo Walton
October The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall
November Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin
December Spirit, by Gwyneth Jones

The List

At some point over the weekend, I’ll put up a proper index, with links to all the week’s posts, but for now, that’s a wrap. Thank you to Duncan Lawie, Nic Clarke, Nick Hubble and David Hebblethwaite for taking part in the discussions of Ancient Light and Lightborn; thanks to everyone who’s linked and commented during the week; and most of all, thanks to everyone who sent in nominations for the Future Classics poll. And thanks to everyone who’s been reading this week — hopefully some books have piqued your curiosity! If not, then behind the cut are 200 more — the complete list of every eligible novel that received at least one nomination in the poll.

(And BSFA members, I remind you that nominations are now open for this year’s BSFA Awards…)

Continue reading “The List”

Yet More Top Tens

Because I have the data, and because I can, some alternatives to the overall list:

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by British Writers

1. The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
2. Natural History by Justina Robson
3. Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
4. Life by Gwyneth Jones
5. Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
6. City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
7. The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston
8. Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson
9. In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
10. Hav by Jan Morris

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by American Writers

1. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
2. The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
3. Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
4. Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
6. Passage by Connie Willis
7. Spin State by Chris Moriarty
8. Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh
9= Carnival by Elizabeth Bear
9= Hammered by Elizabeth Bear

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by Writers from the Rest of the World

1. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
2. Farthing by Jo Walton
3. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
5. UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolo Guo
6= The Etched City by KJ Bishop
6= Lifelode by Jo Walton
8. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
9. The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
10. The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Sincere apologies if I’ve mis-nationalised anyone in any of these lists — do let me know. [last update 12/12/10]

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

The Flowers of War

The Carhullan Army coverNick Hubble’s essay about The Carhullan Army first appeared in Vector 258. Many thanks to him for allowing it to be reprinted here.

‘My name is Sister’

Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (2007) begins and ends with the same note of defiance: ‘My name is Sister’ (pp.5, 207). The combination of nameless heroine and resistance to patriarchal authority has inevitably led to comparisons with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), but the similarities are superficial. Where Atwood criticises radical feminism for its complicity with the sexual repression which underlies the Republic of Gilead and implies that separatism is not a challenge but merely a means of accommodation to traditional hierarchy, Hall deliberately reinstates both tendencies at the core of her novel in order to recover the utopian impulses within them as forces for active intervention in the twenty-first century. Neither is The Carhullan Army a “literary dystopia” in the manner of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) because unlike those works its driving force and moral intensity stem from an unwavering belief in human society, explicitly acknowledged by Sister towards the end of the novel: ‘ … we had a duty to liberate society, to recreate it’ (p.196). As such, the novel eschews the playful satire of Atwood and the easy narrative pleasures of McCarthy (who, in best Tolkien style, ensures every ordeal is followed by a reassuring meal) in favour of direct engagement with the horrors it reveals, which are thus demystified and rendered subject to human agency.

Central to this project is Jackie Nixon, the enigmatic leader at Carhullan, the community which Sister joins. It is Jackie who singlehandedly transforms the women of Carhullan into ‘inviolable creatures’ immune to the horrors of civilisation. Sister says of Jackie that

She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side, and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn. (p.187)

Although communicated in a different style and tone, the valedictory outlook expressed here is reminiscent of the death speech of Blade Runner’s Roy Batty: ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those … moments will be lost … in time’ [1]. Both passages acknowledge a strange beauty that is nothing to do with sanitising war and everything to do with getting beyond the limits of normal existence. Such desires appear psychopathic because they are not manifestations of the familiar death drive, but the product of a much rarer life force. It is a rejection of what Fredric Jameson identifies in Archaeologies of the Future as the ‘literary “reality principle”’ which triggers high-cultural ‘generic revulsion’ [2] and it clearly distinguishes Hall from those mainstream writers who deploy isolated genre tropes to spice up otherwise conventional narratives.

Continue reading “The Flowers of War”

Future Classics: #1

The Carhullan Army (aka Daughters of the North) by Sarah Hall (2007)

The Carhullan Army cover

And so, the top-rated novel in this poll — by a healthy margin, in the end — is Sarah Hall’s Tiptree Award-winning and Clarke Award-nominated The Carhullan Army. Victoria Hoyle’s review gets at the book’s merits very well, I think:

…the inevitable irony of Carhullan’s insurgency, and of Sister’s membership of its “army,” is that it leads her to repress others against their will, and even to kill in her turn. She becomes party to another administration of terror, and a willing subject of a dictatorial regime. Whether this terror, driven by Jackie’s autocratic paranoia, is necessary or justifiable is left unanswered; the answer being, of course yes and, of course no. It is the embodiment of an essential dilemma, perhaps the most pertinent of our time: is it more courageous to passively follow your principles unto death, or is it your duty to use the tactics of the enemy, however disgusting, to overthrow them? Is it acceptable or reasonable to use the methods of tyranny in the name of restoring or protecting civil freedoms and human rights?

Either way, Hall understands that this dilemma is not an abstraction; it is the central difficulty of Sister’s existence and lies at the very heart of life at Carhullan. In the process of exploring it she makes and destroys and remakes Sister over and over again. Like us all, she is a malleable creature, eager to be inspired, happy to be galvanized to action, begging for a role to play in the world. The novel is an incredibly tender and multi-faceted portrait of her troubled journey, concerned almost entirely with the mechanics of her reasoning and her understanding of her cause. This is why, no doubt, Hall omits to describe the novel’s main scenes of violence and conquest—Sister’s narrative tapes are “corrupted” at all these critical junctures—but instead focuses on the tension of the long road to a short and bloody aftermath.

Other reviews: Colin Greenland in The Guardian, Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria, AI White at Open Letters Monthly, Rachel Hoare in The Independent, Michael Arditti in The Telegraph, Tom Gatti in The Times, Abigail Nussbaum at Strange Horizons; and more critically, Adam Roberts at Punkadidle, Karen Burnham at SF Signal, and Cheryl Morgan.

And as Adam helpfully pointed out yesterday, with impeccable timing Radio 4’s Book Club has just had The Carhullan Army as its subject; you can listen to the programme, which includes an interview with Hall, here, discussed slightly by Dan Hartland here.

All of which leaves us with the following top eleven:

1. The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
2. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
3. Natural History by Justina Robson
4. The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
5= Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
5= The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
7. Life by Gwyneth Jones
8. Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
9. Farthing by Jo Walton
10= Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
10= City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

So: Eleven novels; nine writers, four Brits, three Americans, one American-Brit, one Canadian; three novels only published in the US, three novels only published in the UK, five novels published in both; four books published in 2003, the most recent nominee published in 2008; nine novels published as “genre”, two published as “mainstream”; two novels that at least some people think are fantasy. What do you think?

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Top Ten Writers

As was noted back at the start of the week, and by a good number of people casting their votes in the poll, the popularity of series in the sf field can make it hard to single out individual books. Moreover, many writers are prolific — if someone’s written one outstanding novel in a decade, they may have an advantage, in this sort of poll, over someone who’s written three. So here’s another way of looking at the data, counting up the top ten writers who were nominated for multiple books, ordered by total nominations received.

1. Gwyneth Jones

Not a surprise, given her three appearances this week. But two other books were also nominated: Castles Made of Sand, the follow-up to Bold as Love, and Siberia, one of Jones’ YA novels (published as by Ann Halam).

2. Justina Robson

Natural History did well, of course, but plenty of people also nominated Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Mappa Mundi and Keeping it Real.

3. Tricia Sullivan

As noted in this morning’s post, in addition to Maul, nominations were sent in for every other novel she’s published this decade — Double Vision, Sound Mind, and Lightborn.

4. Elizabeth Bear

The first writer to appear on this list who hasn’t appeared in the main top ten, Bear received nominations for Hammered (often as a proxy for the whole Jenny Casey trilogy), standalones Carnival and Undertow, for Dust, and for By the Mountain Bound.

5. Elizabeth Moon

In addition to Speed of Dark, Moon picked up nominations for Trading in Danger and Moving Target.

6. Jo Walton

Farthing‘s placement low in the top ten certainly doesn’t reflect the strength of support Walton received, with many nominations for the second Small Change novel, Ha’Penny, and for Lifelode.

7. Liz Williams

Like Bear, Williams hasn’t made it into the main top ten; but she achieves the distinction of having more novels nominated than any other writer, six in total:Ghost Sister, The Poison Master, Empire of Bones, Nine Layers of Sky, Banner of Souls, and Darkland.

8. Karen Traviss

In addition to the nominations for City of Pearl, Traviss picked up a few nods for her tie-in work — Gears of War novel Aspho Fields, and Star Wars novels Hard Contact, 501st, and Order 66.

9. Ursula K Le Guin

Lavinia accounted for the bulk of Le Guin’s nominations, but a few enthused about the Western Shore novels, in particular Gifts and Voices.

10. Connie Willis

And finally, Willis picked up nominations for both Blackout/All Clear, and for Passage — both not that far off the top ten.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #2

Maul by Tricia Sullivan (2003)

Maul cover

As Nick Hubble said yesterday, there is sometimes a sense that Tricia Sullivan is under-appreciated as a writer, but not by voters in this poll; the Tiptree, Clarke and BSFA-nominated Maul claims the number two spot, and each of her other books picked up multiple nominations. Let’s have a bit more of Justina Robson’s review:

The women who run this world are most definitely not the utopian feministas of earlier decades of SF. They have a very present-day administrative verve, and pursue the ancient female preoccupations of shopping and chocolate as they struggle with careers and children. The surviving men, meanwhile, have assented to be locked up safely in castles from where they are periodically paraded for sales purposes, like a neverending series of Fame Academy .

The story hangs on the fact that there are natural survivors of the Y-plagues. These are aided on the inside by a political movement called Bicyclefish – you remember: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” – and Dr Baldino’s match in this story is much less disappointing than most heroes on offer.

All the elements of this novel work very hard all the time, carrying not only a complex plot and fascinating ideas about microbiology, but a heavy satirical charge aimed at contemporary culture and also at SF itself. That it manages so well and is so entertaining is testament to Sullivan’s skill and intelligence. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time.

Other reviews: John Toon at Infinity Plus; Adam Roberts at Infinity Plus; Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Birdbrain

LightbornI suppose that if you’re going to revise Heart of Darkness you might as well be up front about it, but you probably don’t want to leave readers wishing you’d shut up about it. The constant explicit nods to Joseph Conrad’s horror taproot text – both as lines remembered by one of the two protagonists, and in the form of regularly interpolated quotations – are, however, the only real problem with Birdbrain, which otherwise is seductively sparing, and almost unbearably precise in its audience ministrations. The stories of two Finns hiking their way across large chunks of New Zealand, mainland Australia and Tasmania, Johanna Sinisalo’s first novel to be translated into English since Not Before Sundown (2000/2003) is a more sombre piece than its predecessor, but no less striking.

Finn one, Heidi, is an assistant working in PR when, on one trying evening out with clients, she meets Finn two, Jyrki, who at the time is working as a bartender. This is what Heidi sees:

I didn’t have a problem with my constant trips to the bar: the bloke behind the counter was a fairly decent specimen. He was almost two metres tall, slim with broad shoulders. His eyes were a light-grey colour, and there was a darker circle around his irises that gave his stare an almost paralysing intensity. No ring on his left hand, but he had a large golden earring dangling at the side of his shiny shaved head. The most impressive thing about him was that he never seemed to make a single unnecessary or unconsidered movement.

Rather disconcertingly for anyone who’s ever seen a photograph of China Mieville, Jyrki turns out to think about Heidi like this —

She was small and nicely proportioned. Black hair flowed evenly down past her shoulders. There was just enough blue in the colour that you could tell some of the tint had come from a bottle. A bit too much sirloin around the rump. A nice pair of apples bobbed on the upper shelf. (20)

— which sets the structure for the rest of the novel, being largely short segments, alternating between Heidi and Jyrki not quite connecting with each other, and neatly establish the basis of their admittedly intense relationship. An additional layer of structure alternates between two time frames: the one quoted above, which starts in 2006, and one starting in March 2007, with the pair setting out to hike Tasmania’s little-used South Coast Track. It transpires that a few months into their affair, Jyrki, who is pretty much as arrogant as you might have guessed, informed Heidi that he’s finally in a position to go on a long dreamed-of holiday; Heidi, caught somewhat off guard, volunteers to go with him for complicated reasons. It turns out that for her the trip – though not without its rewards – is primarily an ordeal, while for Jyrki – though not without its frustrations – it’s primarily an ideal, a chance to lose himself, and perhaps find himself, in the wilderness. The novel unwinds both timelines and characters over the course of a compact 217 pages, with the South Coast Track the grand finale.

Neither character, you sense, quite has the full measure of the landscape that surrounds them. Heidi feels exposed, unnaturally separated from human community and shelter, and convinced that Tasmania is not just alien but a palpable presence that seems to stalk them: “both age-old and fresh as the day it was born […] invisible, smart enough constantly to devise little pranks and childish enough to carry them out” (41). It’s Heidi for whom the raw conditions are most wearing; it’s Heidi who picked up a copy of Heart of Darkness at one of the hostels they stayed in near the start of their journey, and read it half a dozen times, to the point that it seems to inescapably frame her experience. Yet Heidi also sees the trip as a chance to escape the stultifying patronage of her family, to do something “By myself. For myself” (50); and she learns fast, and pretty well. As her experience grows, so too does a much longed-for sense of freedom.

Jyrki, meanwhile, finds freedom less in his self than in the absence of others. He is continually frustrated by the difficulty of leaving civilisation behind, by the indulgent lodges, or distant planes, or traces of other travellers, or other impurities of experience. (“Conveniences,” he feels, “are only convenient if you actually want them”, 67.) His arrogance, we come to understand, is rooted in both experience and skill – he is an utterly scrupulous hiker, dedicated to leaving on the land untouched — and in an abiding anger at the violence humans inflict on the world around them, through simple thoughtlessness as much as deliberate rapaciousness. For Jyrki Tasmania is other because humans are pollutants: “No animal in this world,” he argues, “is as unpleasant as one forcing its way outside its natural environment, feeding itself off human was like a parasite” (188).

Jyrki’s passion is energising and necessary, and seems to have the novel’s weight behind it. In addition to the two Finns, and Conrad, there are other voices in the novel that shape our understanding of what is happening. The most prominent is nameless (although it may be Heidi’s brother; or there may be more than one nameless), and offers a series of snapshots of urban alienation, each depicting a new vandalism: freezers unplugged in supermarkets; keyed cars; stolen pets; stones dropped from motorway bridges; arson. Almost all we know about nameless is that they’re depressed, sour, callous, and seemingly the embodiment of the worst Jyrki believes about humanity, thoughtless. “It’s not about envy,” nameless says, when trying to explain their actions, they “just want to leave their mark on the world” (98).

And what of the world? It is as distinctive a presence in the novel as any of the humans, and it seems to validate Heidi’s viewpoint. As one of the people Heidi and Jyrki meet puts it, sometimes it seems that humans are “just swarming parasites on Mother Earth’s skin, tickling and teasing, irritating and provoking her until the only thing she can do is disinfect herself” (121-2). And as the pair travel into increasingly remote areas, inconveniences become problems, including a series of disturbances that can’t be accounted for, as when Heidi’s water bottle disappears, then reappears several days and a couple of hundred kilometres later. The implied explanation, which is much more obvious to us than to the Finns, not least because it’s more or less given away on the back cover, has to do with a previously undiscovered species of parrot that may be related to the New Zealand Kea, of which a scholarly article notes: “… can solve even complicated problems with relative ease. […] This behavioural pattern becomes more common when food is in greater supply” (109). This sounds cartoonish but is not: and in fact the novel’s sharp climax gains, the final epiphanic revelation of its own heart of darkness, gains part of its potency from the thoroughness with which cartoonishness is disavowed.

And the rest of the novel is grounded by Sinisalo’s crisp descriptions. Birdbrain is very obviously and forcefully an environmentalist novel; but it is also simply a brilliant piece of writing about the environment. From the fire-scorched Grampians national park in Australia (“the clumps of grass stood out so vividly against the pitch-black ground that they looked as though they had been lit up from the inside”, 120) to the magisterial Ironbound range (“A primordial forest hanging on the edge of bottomless gorges, set right in the middle of a giants’ game of skittles”, 115), the landscape seems always confidently distinctive; as Heidi puts it early on, perfectly aware of its own qualities and without the need to please anyone. That the corruption of humanity may have produce a corruption in the ecology of this land, even a counteracting one, is a deeply felt tragedy – one that springs from a bleak and partial view of humanity, but one that provides a rich seam for this elegant, severe novel to mine.