City of Pearl: IV

City of Pearl cover

[previously]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Pearl: III

City of Pearl cover

[previously]

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

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

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

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

[continued…]

City of Pearl: II

City of Pearl cover

[previously]

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

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

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

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

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

[continued…]

City of Pearl: I

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

City of Pearl cover

I.

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

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

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

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

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

[continued…]

Maul – product placement

… she kept shooting, taking out pyramids and columns of fragrance and colour. Estée Lauder, Nina Ricci, Lancôme, Gucci, Calving Klein, Clinique, Chanel, Ralph Lauren … a crystalline gazz of the highest order for Suk Hee. (Maul, 2003 Orbit edition, p. 34.)

Many commentators, most recently Sebastian Faulks, have noted the manner in which Ian Fleming validated James Bond as a character through the brands he used.  It was important to Fleming to know, and to let the reader know, what cigarettes Bond smoked, what vodka he drank, what golf balls he used.

Something similar is going on in Maul.  The bloody gunfight that precipitates much of the action in the maul occurs not just in an upmarket clothes boutique, but in Lord & Taylor.   Sun and Alex have sex in the stockroom not just of an electrical goods store, but of Sharper Image.  Other shops are mentioned – Godiva, Toys-R-Us, etc.  Sun’s existence seems defined by the brands she uses – she doesn’t wear perfume, she wears CK1.  When she finds a packet of cigarettes what registers is Benson & Hedges.  The only significant thing that is not referred to by its brand, interestingly, is Sun’s gun.

Sullivan does this for authenticity.  This may not be a mall in our world, but it is a mall in something that is a close enough approximation of our world to be recognisable.  Americans, and most Brits (certainly anyone who’d ever seen The Blues Brothers or Dawn of the Dead) would have an idea of a mall in which trading names are prominent.  Sullivan herself, who grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, no doubt spent some time herself in such places (though hopefully she never ran into a running gun battle). So Sullivan’s maul needs to have same quality of commercial branding – anonymous stores or invented ones just won’t cut it.

Something similar is going on in the future strand.  Of course, there the  brands are made up, but commercial interests clearly still loom large in this world.  The Mall  game Meniscus is a product of NoSystems.  Madeleine Baldino works for Highbridge.  Some of the names, however, are not invented.  Dunkin’ Donuts is still going, as is Play-Doh.  Clearly, Meniscus’ world is not that far into the future.

I’ve talked in the previous post about how Maul is a novel about violence and gender roles.  But the use of brand names suggests to me that it is also a novel about commercialism, and the way that can wreck lives.  It is not just about the fetishisation of violence, but its commodification.  It truly is an SF novel for the way we live now.

You can find my first post on Maul here, and my second here.

Maul – “the new face of Feminist SF”

For so states Cheryl Morgan.

It feels smooth and heavy and warm when I stroke it because I’ve been sleeping with it between my legs. I like to inhale its grey infinite smell for a while before I pass my lips down its length, courting it with the tip of my tongue, until my mouth has come to the wider part near the tip. This I suck, and blow gently into the hole. It becomes wet in my mouth but doesn’t soften. It remains achingly solid and I put it between my legs. Its tip snuggles around my clit. On the day I bought it, I had to test out several models before I found one that fitted, and Suk Hee’s gangster cousin Woo kept trying to look around the side of the van to see what I was doing. Woo was afraid someone would come and he’d get caught with the van and everything. I came. It was the only way to be sure I had the right one.

And so begins Maul.  The passage, I think, deliberately sets out to shock.  It becomes more shocking still when, after our narrator Sun Katz has achieved orgasm (in what, by the way, is one of the best come scenes I’ve read in literature), it turns out that she is describing not a penis, as one might have thought at first, or a dildo, as one might conclude by the end of the paragraph.  No.

Even a hypothetical boyfriend wouldn’t understand.
How I feel.
About my gun.

Yes, that’s right. It’s a gun.  Guns are very important to Sun and her Korean girl gang pals.  (Another point to note in passing is how understated Maul is about Sun’s ethnic identity.  It’s there, but Sullivan feels no need to have Sun explicitly state at the beginning “Oh, by the way, I’m Korean.”)  Sun wears her gun strapped under her skirt, not coincidentally close to her genitalia.  The link between femininity and weaponry is underlined by the UK cover, as noted by Martin Lewis; a lipstick in a bullet cartridge.

If written by a man, this could be seen as misogynist claptrap, or at the very least wet-dream wish-fulfilment.  But Sullivan’s point is that women can be as interested as men in the fetishization of guns and violence – they just have to be given a chance.

This is emphasized even more in the future Meniscus strand.  There, the Y-plagues have eliminated  most males.  The few that remain fertile are locked away in “castellations”.  The majority of the population are women, and they are running the planet.  Does this mean that there is a feminist Utopia?  No.  In Sullivan’s vision, women have moved into the niches vacated by men, to the point of some becoming burly butch truckers.

Most women have children through cloning.  But the sperm of the men in the castellations, the “pigs”, is there for those who can afford it.  And what are the qualities that are valued in those men?  Not sensitivity, but athletic ability, fighting prowess, heroism, the same old macho bullshit.  As prominent pig Arnie Henshaw says, “Nowadays, no matter how skinny, a really good hacker is worth ten guys who can impale a mammoth with a spear, but you chicks would rather have a hacker with muscles, wouldn’t you?”  The main female protagonist of this strand, Madeleine Baldino, knows this, and hates herself, and Henshaw, for it.

Some women in this world think that the exploitation of men is wrong.  Their underground terrorist activities drive the plot.  In a neat reversion of the feminist slogan “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, their movement is called Bicyclefish.

But there is a cost, and that cost is the validation of the actions of a man like Snake Carrera, a violent and arguably psychopathic male who carries out Henshaw’s stunts for him, and who ends up in Meniscus’ cell as part of a plot to murder him.  He is, also, the most imposing male character in the book, far more so than any man in the Maul strand, where males are either authority figures like policemen or security guards, or feeble and less than they appear on the surface, such as Sun’s lust object Alex, who takes her virginity but soon proves to be not the person she needs or wants. The interesting characters in that strand, Sun, her friend Suk Hee, her antagonists 10Esha and KrayZglu, are all women.

Maul rightly made the 2003 Tiptree Award Short List, though it didn’t win. It certainly explores gender and feminism in a way that challenges long-held certainties on all sides. Indeed, I feel it explores the relationship between men and violence, and the attraction of both to women, in a similar, but I felt more successful, manner to the 2002 Tiptree winner, M. John Harrison’s Light.

The message, in the end, is that violence is not endemic to men – it’s endemic to humanity.

You can find my first post on Maul here.

Maul – What is reality?

(Sorry for the delay.)

Cheryl Morgan and Justina Robson both seem to think that readers in the UK need to have the pun in the title of what Tricia Sullivan, probably rightly, regards as her best novel, explained to them, on the grounds that the pronunciation of “mall” that is the same as “maul” might be unfamiliar this side of the Atlantic. I don’t know about that. By 2003 most Britons, I would have thought, would be well-exposed to many items of American culture that took place at least partly in malls (the movie Clueless comes to mind). I would expect most people were perfectly familiar with that pronunciation, perhaps even more so than with the short-a version that is most commonly encountered in the road that leads to Buckingham Palace. The title certainly never threw me.

That absorption of American culture is perhaps key to the novel’s success in the UK, where it was nominated for both the BSFA and Clarke Awards. The present-day strand is set in a world that is only slightly distant from that experienced by the British reader, who could experience a similar environment (if perhaps less dangerous) not far from where they lived (Lakeside opened in 1988, Gateshead MetroCentre in 1986; Bristol’s Cribb’s Causeway even calls itself “The Mall”). And anyone who remembered the James Bulger killing would know that bad things could happen in places like this.

But the mall/maul strand is only one of the strands of this novel. It is paralleled by a far future strand, where men have been mostly wiped out by genetically-engineered plagues that attack the Y chromosomes, and leave men dead or desexualised. The science, as Sullivan herself says, is “pure fudge”, but it does its job, and creates a society almost entirely dominated by women. I want to discuss the gender issues in the second post – for now, I want to stick with the strands, and their relationship to one another. When I first read this novel, I was immediately reminded of M. John Harrison’s Light, which similarly blends present and future strands. But what is the nature of the relationship between the two strands in Maul?

It is rapidly apparent that there is one. In the future, Meniscus, a clone, is a living experiment, treated as not much better than a lab rat. He is, however, given a game, Mall, into which he can retreat to save what remains of his sanity (this was when virtual reality was still quite new – Second Life was launched in 2003, and only later became so passé that it could feature in both CSI and Law & Order).  In the mall strand, the culture Meniscus has most recently been infected with, 10E, turns up as online video artist 10Esha (this latter characterisation is later echoed by FallN in Sullivan’s most recent novel, Lightborn).  But does this mean that the mall has no reality?  Robson certainly thinks so:

“this world, the book’s ‘reality’, is a virtual simulation being run inside a human being from some alternative reality.”

The novel itself might also suggest that.  The first person narrator of the mall section, Sun Katz, tells us at one point “I have this weird conviction there will be no tomorrow”.  Morgan and Adam Roberts are more circumspect. The both talk of the mall strand being a metaphorical representation of the Meniscus strand.

But the novel begins and ends with Sun, not with Meniscus.  Early on, Sun christens a security guard Descartes, “for reasons that are nothing to do with anybody but me.”  One can’t help feeling that Sullivan wants the reader to think of René Descartes’ most famous maxim: “I think, therefore I am.”  Sun thinks, and we are privy to her thoughts. So she is real, at least to herself.  As to whether the mall has any more objective reality, well, what does?  In this, Sullivan’s novel resembles another crtically-acclaimed work of the previous year, Christopher Priest’s The Separation. Like Priest, Sullivan lays all the pieces out in front of us. But it’s up to the reader to work out what they mean.

Reminder: Bold as Love

Just a quick reminder that, per Shana’s post earlier this month, I’ll be kicking off a discussion of Bold as Love next week. So if you were planning to read it but haven’t got around to it yet, now’s the time!

(In other news, those who haven’t been following the comments on my post about Nina Allan’s short fiction may like to know that she seems to be eligible for this year’s John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.)

February: Bold as Love

This month begins my chronological reading of the novels nominated as the best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years. I invite you join me, starting with the first-published of the eleven books on the list, Gwyneth JonesBold as Love.

***

2001 was almost last week in the history of books, but a very long time ago indeed in the history of websites. That’s why I’m so impressed that the book-specific URL given in the introductory apparatus of Bold as Love is still going as a functional website.

The site has evolved along with the series, from an all-black version, to green with modulating rainbow-colored type, to animated falling leaves (lovely in concept, gawky in execution), to the more minimalist maroon with a rotating orb of leafery which the present version has retained for the last several years. That design evolution reflects the sheer distance which websites from 2001 have traveled to today.

I’m not telling you this because I’m particularly  prone to posting reviews of website design, but for two other reasons. The first is to think a bit about what the world, particularly the world of science fiction and fandom, was like in 2001. The second is to tell you that there is a copy of Bold as Love, available for free download there in PDF. The sequels are available too. You’ll miss out on the Anne Sudworth cover and the Bryan Talbot illustration of the major characters, but you’ll have the text.

***

Gwyneth Jones had been publishing fiction since at least 1973 and novels since 1977. By my counting, Bold as Love was her thirteenth novel. In 2001, she was Guest of Honour at Novacon, and won the Richard Evans Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction. She was also at A Celebration of British SF in Liverpool that year, a lively event, well-attended by authors and fans.

The cover of the 2002 edition of Bold as Love which I have proclaims it to have been “Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award”. More importantly, it went on to win the Clarke Award in 2002, showing that the reprint must have been designed in the gap between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner! Bold as Love was one of three Clarke-shortlisted books by women published in 2001, the others being Justina Robson’s Mappa Mundi and Connie Willis’ Passage. (The Clarke Award for books published in 2000 was given out at 2001: A Space Odyssey Event, organized by Pat Cadigan at the Science Museum. At it, China Miéville won his first.)

Women authors of science fiction and fantasy did fairly well in 2001 in terms of prizes. Mary Gentle’s Ash won best novel in the BSFA Award, while Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. J.K. Rowling won the Hugo novel award for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

In other 2001 news, Dorothy Dunnett, Tove Jansson, Douglas Adams, and Poul Anderson passed away. In Britain, the food-and-mouth crisis began and the Eden Project opened. While there is all sorts to be said about the events of 9/11 and their consequences, what still strikes me most in terms of Britain in particular is that it is referred to as 9/11 on this side of the ocean – even though that would normally be the ninth of November.

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Niall will be leading discussion of Bold as Love in the second half of February. Check back for his posts then!

P.S. You can hear the short story on which the novel was based in Dark Fiction Magazine‘s newest issue.