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…]

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…]

July: City of Pearl

I exaggerated a little about 2003. It is pretty astonishing that three books out of the 11 best science fiction by women from the last decade were published then, but it was part of a larger lumping in the decade. Two more of the novels on the list came out in 2004, adding to my mild suspicions about how we mentally process novels, and how long it takes to pass judgement on a book’s staying power while still remembering that one has read it. It would be interesting to do similar surveys every five years and see how they evolve.

In any event, this month on Torque Control, we will be looking at Karen Traviss‘s novel, City of Pearl. Given how prolific Traviss has been since, it’s worth remembering that City of Pearl was her very first published novel, one of two which came out in 2004.  Also note that it has not been published in the UK, although used copies are certainly available here. Her Wess’har War series, which it begins, would have five more volumes by 2008.

Traviss will be at ComiCon in San Diego later this month. She was also part of a three-way interview on Women’s Hour of BBC4 in June, which Niall transcribed here.

And speaking of Niall, he’s the one who will be leading discussion of City of Pearl later in July. I hope you will be able to join us in reading and discussing it.

Maul – Recap

You can tell it’s summer. We’re busy, but not always in the ways we are the rest of the year.

In any event, June now comes to an end, having taken a bite out of July in the process. For June, we read Tricia Sullivan’s Maul, the last of the 2003 novels from chronological exploration of the best science fiction novels written by women in the previous decade which we are reading here at Torque Control over the course of this calendar year. 2003 really was astonishing, with the publication of, in addition to Maul, Natural History and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Tony Keen, a new Torque Control contributor, examined the book over a series of posts, beginning with the vexed question of just what constitutes reality in the book; continuing with a consideration of feminism and violence in the novel;  and then discussing the central role which branding played in the writing and world-building of Maul.

My thanks to Tony for leading the discussion! And thank you to all who joined in – never to late to go back and do so! – in reading or re-reading Maul.

Discussion: Part 1 (What is reality?), Part 2 (“the new face of Feminist sf”), and Part 3 (Product placement)

Some other recent posts/reviews on Maul:
Martin Lewis on the first chapter of Maul.
He also notes that Maul is out of print, and Sullivan is out of contract only eight years later.
Val Guichon at Valunivers

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.