Spirit, Part 1: Take One

I started Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit at the wrong time, or at least in the wrong headspace. The plot was a Lego patchwork of interlinked episodes, and it didn’t seem to have enough momentum to take me much of anywhere plot-wise, even as it spanned a barely-known universe in its events. I hadn’t read any of Jones’ other Aleutian novels, had no greater context thus far into which to slot it. I didn’t feel lost, but it wasn’t a universe to which I had any existing commitment.

It didn’t help that I knew there was a rape scene coming, somewhere in its expansive, multi-volumesque middle. With that looming, somewhere, I read more and more episodically, which did nothing to help the volume’s flow. Doom, gloom, and stuckness overwhelmed the characters and I, seeing no hope for them and fearing what I knew was coming, went adrift. I stopped reading.

Despite that unpromising beginning, I always meant to go back to it. My intentions were good. The SFX blurb promised me a take on The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel I remembered fondly and whose plot I’d happily revisit. Nearly halfway through the book, I was barely halfway through the lavishly extensive blurb on the back of the book when I failed to keep reading.

It really is quite a blurb. As Martin Lewis observed in his discussion of the novel last week, it synopsizes up to page 255 out of 472 pages. At the time, however, it was a token framework for me, a checklist of events which the plot had gotten around to, rather than any real roadmap of structure. (Which raises the question: is it still really a spoiler once it’s mentioned in the blurb?) It really was the wrong time and headspace for me to be reading the novel.

Fortunately, Martin suggested I have another go at the novel this March, complete the task I set myself last year when I undertook to write – or host writing on – the eleven best science fiction novels by women from the first decade of this millennium.

I’m glad he did. The second time around, the book was good.

Lavinia, Part 3: Science Fiction?

Enough people thought Le Guin’s Lavinia was science fiction that it was shortlisted for the BSFA best novel award, and  placed in last year’s poll of the best sf novels by women of the previous decade.

But why is it science fiction? Is it science fiction because that’s what Le Guin writes, and therefore this must be too? Is it science fiction between there’s a time traveler in the story, albeit one who makes a limited number of appearances, and those through extended vision sequences? Is it science fiction because, as I have proposed elsewhere, history is a form of science, and this story plays around with historiography in a science fictional way?

Jo Walton and Niall Harrison assert that it’s fantasy, as opposed to science fiction. Others clearly saw no distinction between science fiction and fantasy for the purposes of these particular two samplers – the BSFA Award is specifically open to fantasy, after all, despite the name of the organisation. And Niall didn’t define “science fiction” for the purpose of last year’s best-of poll, so its presence there doesn’t preclude it being only fantasy.

And yet, Niall observed that some people voted for Lavinia for the best-of poll in the same email as they said they wished they could vote for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but couldn’t because that was fantasy. Clearly, some people were consciously thinking of Lavinia as being science fiction as opposed to fantasy.

Personally, I don’t believe that one categorisation precludes the other. Above all, Lavinia is historical fiction, with a focus on the practical intricacies of daily life, and the mechanics of legend. It has one minor possible moment of mythic magic, when a group of household lares are mysteriously transported from one place to another. It has a time-traveling poet on his death bed, whose transtemporal dialogues can be interpreted as science fictional time travel, or as fantastical vision.

It also has a self-aware narrator, whose story is suffused with her consciousness of contingency. Her existence depends upon her being recounted. I’d never thought of post-modern as a mythic mode, but her self-consciousness is thoroughly both in this tale, as is the literalness embodied in her final transformation. Looked at from a different angle again, she feels a keen sense of wonder at the very fact of her own existence, under the circumstances. Perhaps her historiographic analytic self-consciousness is enough of a psychological experiment to justify Lavinia being thought of science fiction.

Lavinia, Part 2: Audience

Lavinia is one of the most recent installations in a long history of what is, in effect, Aeneid-related fan fiction. It was a particularly popular topic for authors in the seventeenth and eighteen century, when the well-educated were quite likely to have read it in Latin as part of their education. The ancient Latin work spawned a slew of elaborators and continuations, best know of which is Purcell’s opera, written about Dido and Aeneas.

Indeed, one of my own extremely rare forays into fan art was when a friend at university asked me to draw a series of small images of Aeneas and his escape from Troy. The images were quite tiny and in watercolour pencil, so barely more than stick figures at that scale. Further, I hadn’t read the Aeneid yet, so relied entirely on my friend’s description of each of eight or nine scenes. That’s how I first met Ascanius and Aeneas and their household Lares, the house gods they saved from Troy, and which find their home, ultimately, with Lavinia in Le Guin’s novel. In Lavinia, Aeneas’ first point of personal commitment to the title character is in entrusting her with their care; and one of the few moments proposed as potentially-supernatural intervention occurs when the Lares move themselves back to her custody.

I’m sure other Aeneid-related works are still being produced, if not so many as in their heyday. Certainly Troy-related works have been going strong lately, if more focused on the Trojan War itself than its aftermath. Equally certain is how well known the stories of Troy are, from their related epics to the ongoing archeological investigations into the history of a city long-since defunct. It’s as inspiring as Atlantis.* Just the other day in Paris, I saw a Trojan dog in the window of some upscale mass-market clothing store, big enough for at least three people.

So the stories generally are known. But how well is the Aeneid in particular known these days among those who haven’t studied Latin? I wonder, not in terms of judging whatever count as “reading the classics”, but in term of who the target audience for Lavinia might be. And does knowing the source material even matter?

My copy of the book is printed in a nice, clear, big font, which leaves me wondering if it was marketed – as many of Le Guin’s books have been – as that relatively-recent classification, Young Adult fiction. The story does deal with a young woman coming of age. How accessible would this book be to someone with no background in Aeneid, whether or not they were a teenager? The story itself provides a summary, in effect, of the last three books of the Aeneid, plus quite a big of its contextual background, but equally the book is written in conscious dialogue with the poem and its poet, who himself appears as an influential character in the book. Lavinia herself tells the reader that her very existence is contingent on his having told of her having been.

Le Guin’s books often deal with historically-rich civilizations, burdened from and benefitting from their layers of past. Might that mean her books would intrinsically appeal to readers with a greater historical consciousness and interest? Or perhaps it is largely through partially-derivative works like this that audiences are most familiar with the Aeneid these days, if at all?

I first read Lavinia specifically because it had been nominated for the BSFA Award for best novel of 2009. Le Guin is, of course, one of the most important authors of science fiction and fantasy; but is this book even targeted at readers of those genres? (I’ll consider the degree to which it even is science fiction in my next post.)

It’s a Le Guin book, and a good and well-reviewed book, so of course it sold at least moderately well. It’s been published at least in the US, the UK, and Japan, and had both hardback and paperback editions; but who is the book’s audience?

* I was recently looking through a brochure of things to do while in Dubai. It includes a theme park devoted to how the residents of Atlantis might have lived.

Lavinia, Part 1: Voice and Identity

Ursula Le Guin’s novel Lavinia is the story of an identity, and of permutations of “I”.

The book begins with the word “I”, and, as throughout, the reader sees this world through the eyes of the titular Lavinia:

I went to the salt beds by the mouth of the river, in the May of my nineteenth year, to get salt for the sacred meal.

Lavinia was a minor figure in Vergil’s Aeneid, a voiceless treaty-bride to his hero Aeneas once he finally settles in Italy and metaphorically plants the seeds which will grow into the city and empire of Rome. Vergil had little enough to say about the young woman, and, as Le Guin’s Lavinia tells us, much of what little he said was cliché rather than accurately descriptive.

The Lavinia of the novel is a voice of several parts. The primary story is that of her more distant past, growing up in Latium, learning the rituals of worship which structure her experience of time, and encountering Aeneas, first through prophecy, then from afar, later through treaties, and finally as his bride. Interludes tell us of a later past, her time happily married with Aeneas, in the three brief years they have together – as she knows and he does not. The framing narrative is the mystery of her voice, that she has one at all, for Vergil, her poet, did not give her one in his poem.

Vergil narrated her into existence, she tells us, in turn recursively narrating his existence in to her story. He appears in her story as a time-traveler in the dreams of his death bed. He meets her that way for the first time, when it is far too late to include her properly in the poem he has already written in his own time; Lavinia, and how badly he misrepresented her that poem, become sone of his dying regrets.

Their conversations cast a long shadow over the playing out of the book’s events; his descriptions of what will happen to Aeneas and what is shown on his shield shape Lavinia’s life for the next three years, and, ultimately, leave her with the difficulty of going on after his effectively-prophetic tellings have concluded. Vergil can tell her of the future glories of Rome, but not of what might happen to her once Aeneas has died. She tells us she is contingent, existing only because of Vergil’s telling of her; and yet, she must find most of her life and the degrees of her existence for herself, because he did not know them. When the contents of the poem have finished working themselves out in her life, she tells her readers that she “has lost my guide, my Vergil.” That “I must go on by myself through all that is left after the end, all the rest of the immense, pathless, unreadable world”. (p. 183)

The end of the Aeneid is not the end of Lavinia, since the whole point, the whole argument, of the book is that she has her own life; by inference, so too does any tertiary character, especially any given woman in a story of antiquity. The rest of the book is a meditation on finding identity amongst political and social conflict.

By the end, the “I”s have multiplied from what seemed to be the simple voice of telling with which the book began; in the the “I”s of the ending, there is the English word for first-person nominative identity but in them too is also the last externally-structuring words Lavinia has – the Latin command to “go”. To go on.

And so, in her own way, she does.

Coming up: The Carhullan Army / Daughters of the North

The next book on the Future Classics list we’ll be reading is Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, published in the US as Daughters of the North.

We’re moving steadily towards the present now. The Carhullan Army was published in 2007 and did extremely well for itself. It won the Tiptree Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. It was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award (which was won by Richard Morgan’s Black Man). The book was her third novel, the previous one having been shortlisted for the Man Booker award.

2007 was the year that Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. The book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published. The Writers Guild of America began the strike which would go on to give us, the following year, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. The Hugo shortlist for best novel included Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, the only work by a female author to be nominated in that category since 2005 or until 2010. Madeleine L’Engle and Ingmar Berman died.The Science Fiction Foundation held its first-ever Science Fiction Criticism Masterclass. It was also, apparently, the Year of the Dolphin.

Tony will be leading discussion of The Carhullan Army / Daughter of the North.

(I leave it up to Niall and Tony whether we’ll be looking at Farthing or The Carhullan Army first.)

Farthing update

Niall’s been swamped, between the Strange Horizon fund-raising drive and travel, so while his posts are Farthing are still forthcoming, I can’t say when.

In the meantime, there’s some news on the subject of the book’s availability in the UK! Regardless of why it may or may not have been unpublished in the UK before now, Jo Walton has now sold world English rights for the book to Tor. The major immediate impact of this is that the audio book version of Farthing is now available in the UK (from Audible or wherever else you choose to buy it from).

August: Life

It’s the eighth month of the year already* and we’re still back in 2004 in reading the Future Classics here on Torque Control.

August’s book is Gwyneth Jones’ Life. It is the second of two books from 2004 (the other was City of Pearl) and one of three by Jones on our list this year. It did very well for itself, winning the Philip K Dick award for that year and being shortlisted for the Tiptree Award.

Nic of Eve’s Alexandria, a new poster on Torque Control, should be joining us to discuss the book before the end of the month. I hope you will join us in reading and discussing it!

* It’s almost still the first half of the month, right?

City of Pearl: Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: 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…]