Maul – product placement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maul – “the new face of Feminist SF”

For so states Cheryl Morgan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find my first post on Maul here.

Maul – What is reality?

(Sorry for the delay.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June: Maul

For June, here on Torque Control, we’re reading our third and final book from 2003, that bumper year of excellent science fiction written by women in the last decade.

Maul was Tricia Sullivan’s seventh published novel, if I count correctly. She had won the Clarke Award several years earlier for Dreaming in Smoke, an award for which Maul was shortlisted.

Tricia Sullivan will be the BSFA’s Guest of Honour at its mini-convention and AGM this Saturday, held jointly with the SFF. Tom Hunter will be interviewing her at 2 pm at the Royal Astronomical Society in Burlington House on Piccadilly in central London.

She will also be on a panel on “Women, Science Fiction, and Britain in 2011” with Pat Cadigan, Niall Harrison, and me, as moderator. She’s soliciting your suggestions for material which we could try to fit in to the panel, time and structure willing.

Tony Keen will be leading this month’s discussion. I hope you will join us in reading Maul and discussing it later in June.

The 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

The shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award is, gratifyingly, never quite what anyone thinks it will be in advance. I doubt even any given juror could have correctly guessed what their consensus would determine when they met to collectively choose the shortlist for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the award.


Here is what they chose:

  • Zoo City – Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
  • The Dervish House – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
  • Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness (Walker Books)
  • Generosity – Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
  • Declare – Tim Powers (Corvus)
  • Lightborn – Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)

The Arthur C Clarke Award is a juried award for the best work of science fiction published in Britain in the previous year. It’s judged from the works submitted by publishers so it’s theoretically possible for the award to miss out on options they would have liked to consider had they only been submitted. The “published in Britain in the previous year” is why an award-winning novel published in 2000 made it onto the shortlist this year: Tim Powers’s Declare only had its first UK publication in 2010.

These are six books from six different publishers (out of the twenty-two which submitted books this year), by four men and two women, one culmination of a trilogy, and five standalones. As more than one has already commented, the list features four authors of American origin (although some of them have lived in the UK for years) and one South African, Lauren Beukes. Only one of them, Ian McDonald, has been British and lived in Britain for the majority of his life. This is a point worth mentioning because the Clarke Award is specifically a British award, albeit for what’s published in the country rather than where those authors come from. In more trivial statistics: one-word titles make up 50% of the shortlist, but that’s not too disproportionate – they made up 27% of the list of eligible submissions. It was also a good year to have the last name “Powers”.

The shortlist was chosen by this year’s judging panel: Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Martin Lewis for the BSFA, Phil Nanson and Liz Williams for the Science Fiction Foundation, and Paul Skevington for SF Crowsnest.com. Paul Billinger chaired the judges on behalf of the award. They will all be busy re-reading the shortlist in the coming weeks, in preparation for the jury’s final meeting to choose the winner.

I’m looking forward to reading this list too; from the reviews I’ve read and initial reactions to the shortlist, it looks like quite a good one. I’ve only read Lightborn so far, although conveniently, I started Zoo City yesterday and have The Dervish House handy since I’m reading the BSFA novel shortlist, and those three books (but no others) overlap with the Clarke shortlist.

In the weeks between now and the 27th of April, when the jurors, having reread the shortlist, will meet again to decide on the winner, and the award will be given at the SCI-FI London Film Festival, I look forward to reading all the discussion, speculation, and guesswork about just which of these books will take the prize and why it’s worthy of doing so.

See also comments on the shortlist from:

David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Cheryl Morgan at Cheryl’s Mewsings
Graham Sleight at Locus Roundtable
Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Amanda Rutter at Floor to Ceiling Books
Niall Harrison at Strange Horizons

2010 BSFA Awards Shortlists

The BSFA is pleased to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2010 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel

2010 BSFA Awards Best Novel Nominees

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Orbit)
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Ken Macleod – The Restoration Game (Orbit)
Ian McDonald – The Dervish House (Gollancz)
Tricia Sullivan – Lightborn (Orbit)

Best Short Fiction

Nina Allan – ‘Flying in the Face of God’ – Interzone 227, TTA Press.
Aliette de Bodard – ‘The Shipmaker’– Interzone 231, TTA Press.
Peter Watts – ‘The Things’ – Clarkesworld 40
Neil Williamson – ‘Arrhythmia’ – Music for Another World, Mutation Press

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Big Other
Abigail Nussbaum – Review, With Both Feet in the Clouds, Asking the Wrong Questions Blogspot
Adam Roberts – Review, Wheel of Time, Punkadiddle
Francis Spufford – Red Plenty (Faber and Faber)
Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe – the Notes from Coode Street Podcast

Best Art

Andy Bigwood – cover for Conflicts (Newcon Press)
Charlie Harbour – cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press)
Dominic Harman – cover for The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz)
Joey Hi-Fi – cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
Ben Greene – ‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21
Adam Tredowski – cover for Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer (Corvus)

The BSFA Awards Administrator will shortly make a voting form available for members of the BSFA and this year’s Eastercon, who will be able to send advance votes based on the above shortlists. Advance votes must be received by Monday 18th April. After this date, ballot boxes will be made available at Illustrious – the Eastercon Convention taking place at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham. The ballots will close at Midday on Saturday April 23rd and the winners will be announced at a ceremony hosted that evening at the convention.

Congratulations to all of the nominees!

P.S. Voting details are here.

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.

Lightborn

LightbornThe second discussion this week is of Tricia Sullivan’s new novel, Lightborn — another 2010 book that picked up a few votes in the poll. It’s about the effect of the titular technology (“the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment — beamed directly into the brain of anyone who can meeting the asking price”) when it goes wrong in the Texas town of Los Sombres (“resulting in social chaos and widespread insanity in everyone past the age of puberty”). See reviews by Farah Mendlesohn at Strange Horizons, Nic Clarke in SFX, Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman, and by The Booksmugglers. The panel this time around are me, David Hebblethwaite, Nick Hubble, and Nic Clarke, and, as before, the whole book is discussed.

Niall: Perhaps not surprisingly, given the ages of the protagonists and the “adults gone crazy” conceit, one of the things several reviewers have asked about Lightborn is to what extent it’s a YA novel, or suitable for a YA audience. I’m interested in a related question: what is the novel’s attitude to growing up, and the notion of adulthood? On the one hand, the adults have been co-opted by Shine, and anyone who becomes an adult should expect to face the same fate; on the other hand, Roksana in particular is not the innocent you might expect to find in opposition to such corrupt experience, and in fact you could argue that it’s her lack of innocence that sees her through the novel.

Nic C: The idea of entrance to the adult world as presenting a threat to your integrity and selfhood (while at the same time being thrilling and fascinating) makes sense to me as something for young people to fear. I remember that, as an uber-idealistic young teen peacenik environmentalist, I associated adult life with lost principles and compromise: adults, it seemed to me, not only didn’t really believe that they could change the world (despite having much greater resources to do so than did a thirteen-year-old girl!), they also saw the desire to the change the world as silly and unrealistic and faintly embarrassing. I constantly read and was told that young people have no perspective, but to me adults seemed to be the ones focused exclusively on the short term and the quotidian: well, yes, that’s terrible about the whales, but I have to go to work/watch the TV/do the weekly food shopping now.

DH: I see Lightborn as taking a very pragmatic attitude towards growing up – one way or another, it’s going to happen; the time to become an adult (that is, to display the maturity or take on the responsibility of an adult) may come when the children of the novel are not ready, but they’ll have to deal with it. I also find it striking that (as it seems to me) adults retain the primacy in Lightborn; even to the end, there are copious examples of adult characters’ out-manoeuvring and out-thinking the children. Following on from that, I’d be interested to know what people make of the parent-child relationships in the novel.

Nic C: The parent-child relationships are, as I noted in my review, dysfunctional at best and downright destructive at worst. Partly this is about the parents being humans with (sometimes very serious) problems of their own, rather than the superbeings whose world revolves entirely around us that we imagine them to be as children: Roksana’s institutionalised mother, for example. Contrast this with Xavier’s relationship with his Shined but still (nominally) present mother, which tends more towards vaguely well-meaning neglect, in that her mind runs along its own tracks and she only properly notices what’s going on with him some of the time. (His reaction when she does notice him is heartbreaking, testament to how strongly a parent’s distraction can affect their child.)

I think that the contrasting ways that Roksana and Xavier escape the effects of — or, more accurately, are protected from — Shine/adulthood are interesting, too. Xavier takes age-retarding medication, largely at the insistence of the various parent and parent-substitute characters around him, and while he does fear the effects of Shine in some ways he’s also increasingly frustrated by being, as he sees it, held back. He wants to grow up, but is surrounded by examples of why being a grown-up is dangerous.

Roksana, meanwhile, is not susceptible to Shine because her father burned the capacity out of her before she was old enough to make the choice; the metaphor for fathers wanting to stop their daughters growing up is pretty clear. Although what I liked about the character is that this doesn’t make her an innocent, as Niall points out: she is pragmatic, proactive, cynical, and even has a sexual relationship (albeit a somewhat disturbing one, given the emphasis on a) his sculpted prettiness and b) his Shine-damaged self-awareness). I suppose that, like most daughters with a controlling father, she just does her growing up in secret and in rebellion.

Continue reading “Lightborn”