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”

Maul by Tricia Sullivan (2003)

Maul cover
Maul was my first encounter with Sullivan’s fierce, fluid novels, thanks to its Arthur C Clarke Award nomination, and remains my favourite of the ones I’ve read, not least for the elan with which its central metaphor is constructed and elaborated. Justina Robson’s review sums the book up well:

Maul deals with plagues: biological plagues, political ideology, sex and shopping. […] 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.

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 tonight, Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.

When A Datapoint Becomes A Trend

Earlier this week, John Gray wrote about sf in the New Statesman, setting out an argument about The State Of Science Fiction. He begins by praising The City & The City‘s insight into the way we live our lives, asserts that “this insight comes without any suggestion that the situation can be changed”, and takes this stance as paradigmatic of modern sf, as opposed to classic sf’s belief that humanity can and will shape the future.

Even at its most pessimistic, science fiction has always been a humanist genre. The consoling assumption has been that while civilisation may be flawed and fragile, it can always be rebuilt, perhaps on a better model, if only humans have the will to do it.
[…]
If science fiction is no longer a viable form, it is because the humanist assumptions that underpinned it are no longer credible even as fictions. The hybrid type of writing that has evolved in recent years is symptomatic. “Slipstream”, “cyberpunk” and “new weird” blend together influences as diverse as Arthur Machen and Mikhail Bulgakov, Charles Williams and William S Burroughs. What these styles of writing have in common is an absence of politics. No world-changing project features in any of them. Miéville is an active member of the Socialist Workers Party, but his brand of fantastic fiction has as much to do with his political hopes as Wells’s scientific fables did with his utopian schemes. Wells may have fantasised about a world government using science for the masses, but it was the clairvoyant dreams that appear in The Island of Dr Moreau that expressed his true vision.

During much of the 20th century, speculative fiction served an impulse of world transformation. Fantasy was understood as an exercise in which alternative worlds were imagined in order to create new possibilities of action. Today fantasy has the role of enabling us to see more clearly the elusive actualities. The question of action is left open. We debate what can be done to change the world, but no one expects an answer.

This is not an argument that comes completely out of left field. It is not the same thing as William Gibson’s future fatigue — the idea, as expressed in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, that all we have is the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios — but it’s related, I think, inasmuch as if you think you can’t realistically talk about the changes to come, you’re not talking about changes that will come. Nor is it the same thing as Gary Wolfe’s proposition of Evaporating Genres, which is much more an argument about where and how science fiction appears; except that you would expect some changes in the character of science fiction to go along with changes in where and how it’s published, and Mieville’s book is the exemplar of a crossover text.

So in some ways I agree with Cheryl Morgan that “instinctively” Gray’s point has “a certain validity”, at least that the sort of sf he describes has become a more prominent strain of sf. But there’s an awful lot to argue with. Some of the argumentation is dubious — I’m a little bit in awe of that “If science fiction is no longer a viable form”, for so unapologetically repositioning as a given what was at best an implicit proposition a few paragraphs earlier — and, most problematically, as presented Gray is extrapolating from an absolute paucity of datapoints. He probably didn’t have to do so for the sake of his argument. He would have been justified to arrogate to his cause The Road — certainly the most widely-noticed apocalyptic vision of the last decade, and distinguished by its utter refusal of Wyndham-esque rebuilding — and perhaps the advocates of Shine might say that, in part, they’re addressing the gap that Gray identifies.

But here’s the complete list of writers of sf cited in Gray’s piece, as it stands: Wells, Zamyatin, Huxley, Stapledon, Orwell, Heinlein, Wyndham, Moorcock, Harrison, Lem, Ballard, Mieville. Laurie Penny has an excellent, necessary riposte on the familiar imbalances here:

Gray’s article lists not a single woman writer, nor any writer of colour — nor, indeed, any living writers from the 21st-century save Miéville. It is particularly startling that, in his digest of 20th-century dystopian fiction, he neglects to mention Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a near-future novel set in a brutal patriarchal theocracy, alongside Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World.
[…]
Women’s liberation has always been, in Gray’s words, an “impulse of world transformation”. Imagining alternative futures in order to create a potentiality of action has been particularly important for women writers and writers of colour seeking to articulate social oppression.

There’s a list of the usual counter-suspects at the end of Penny’s piece, credited to Farah Mendlesohn and (suggestively) China Mieville. A few things strike me about that list. One, it’s as American-led a list as Gray’s piece is Brit-heavy; make of that what you will. Two, someone really needs to fix “Tricia O’Sullivan”, because I wince every time I read it. Three, Sullivan’s Maul is a good example of the sort of sf that — having spent part of the weekend discussing it — jumped out at me as noticeable by its absence from Gray’s piece, that is, sf engaged with some form of posthumanity. There’s plenty of it around, and it’s exactly about imagining radically transformed human experience. Fourth, and finally, Gwyneth Jone’s Bold as Love sequence is a pretty devastatingly effective counter-example to Gray’s argument, being as Sherryl Vint puts it, precisely “a thoughtful and thorough meditation on the political options facing us in the 21st century”, clearly accepted as a major work.

Penny’s piece itself, however, I find myself unable to agree with entirely. I’m not sure that sf “can’t help but replicate the strategies of radical politics and identity politics”; I might be convinced by “is particularly amenable to”, but there’s an awful lot of conservative sf out there. And moreover it seems to me that it’s not hard to come up with examples of books by women that fit Gray’s agenda — he includes weird fiction, for instance, which gets him books like Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War, and he includes slipstream, which gets him books like Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Both of those are, you can argue, works that highlight “elusive actualities” rather than propose alternatives. I rather suspect Gray didn’t mention them not because sf by women, in a broad sense, is antithetical to his argument or his particular humanist sensibility, but because he’s just not familiar with it.