Tag Archives: science fiction

The Bone Clocks (2014) – David MITCHELL

I should note, before I start, that I can in no way be a partial judge of David Mitchell’s work. If ever I had a favourite author, this guy would be it. So apologies if this sounds a bit fanboy-ish.

David Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks, is another genre-bending, time-travelling, sprawling epic from the author of Cloud Atlas. When Holly Sykes runs away from home as a 16 year old, she cannot begin to imagine her life as an adult—a life that will see her travel the world, meet interesting people, and be drawn into a supernatural war thousands of years old.

Mitchell has few peers when it comes to the way in which he mixes and remixes genre and style to create an entirely new entity. So the best comparisons to draw are with his other work. I have seen several reviewers point to Cloud Atlas for comparison, but other than the fact that The Bone Clocks is composed of six interlocking novellas, there isn’t a lot going for that comparison. For while the beauty of Cloud Atlas is that those six novellas are, for the most part, unrelated, The Bone Clocks is a much tighter, much more controlled narrative. Each of the six stories here relates directly to Holly Sykes, whether through her family or through people she comes into contact with as she lives her (comparatively) normal life.

The other huge departure, too, is that The Bone Clocks is, if you’ll forgive the expression, balls-out fantasy. There’s none of the pussy-footing around the idea of reincarnation that we saw in Cloud Atlas, or even in Thousand Autumns—the concepts of Horologists, Atemporal, of people who can read minds, of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cather are right out of a Neil Gaiman or China Mieville novel. And yet it all seems to work, and never feels forced or too much like a literary trying desperately to be cool: it’s not just fancy decoration.

So though the fantasy is omnipresent in the pages of the novel, these complexities and fireworks would be nothing if there was no humanity, no soul (if you’ll forgive my taking of Mitchell’s own parlance) at the centre of it. Once you are drawn into the real lives of the five protagonists, it is easy to forget that any other-worldly creatures exist in this novel ever existed—Hugo, Ed and Crispin are all fascinating portraits of ordinary people learning to live in a world that doesn’t quite make sense to them. Each finds themselves on the outer, each tries to get closer to Holly in order to ground themselves in a world they see slipping out of their grasp at an alarming rate. Perhaps, then, this is a novel of the men in Holly’s lives?

Mitchell has always been deeply concerned with the soul, with exploring the essence of what it means to be human. His work finds this soul, this humanity, in people from all over the world and from all over time. He doesn’t seem to see any particularly inherent difference between, say, a Noongar elder from the dawns of time and a Japanese prostitute working in 1600s Dejima. That kind of beautifully humanist naivety is what has always drawn me to his work, and The Bone Clocks is no exception.

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The Swan Book (2013) – Alexis WRIGHT

It’s been six years since Alexis Wright’s last novel, the Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria, a sprawling novel about the north of Australia. The Swan Book sees Wright return to similar themes, but in a setting quite unlike anything else ever seen in Australian literature.

The world has been ruined by climate change. In the north of Australia, one group of Indigenous Australians has been granted self-determination, and created a nation on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. One young girl, Oblivia, lives in a shipwreck in the bay with an old white woman. One young boy, Warren Finch, has been anointed by the elders to be the vessel of their future. As their lives begin to intertwine in ways Oblivia could never have imagined, the fate of the Australian nation could be in their hands.

The Swan Book is postmodernism at its finest. Wright has no qualms about mixing high and low culture, or about placing European, Asian and Indigenous mythology on the same level. A quick glance at the quotation list at the end of the novel shows sources as varied as Auden, Wordsworth, Paterson, Goswami and Ch’i-chi. These quotes and references are weaved into the text seamlessly, never feeling forced or tokenistic. While mainstream Australian literature can often feel parochial and inward-focussed, Wright proves that Australian writers can mix with the best when it comes to internationality.

There can be no questioning, though, that this is Australian writing—indeed, Indigenous Australian writing. If you’ll forgive my getting theoretical here for a moment: postcolonial theory suggests that when colonised groups write in the language of the colonised, they are reclaiming the centre. They take back the power taken from them by the destruction of their language and culture by appropriating it for their own stories with their own language and words.

Wright has certainly reclaimed the centre in this novel. It is a blistering critique of almost every piece of legislation and policy aimed at Indigenous Australia in perhaps the entirety of Australian history. Nothing is safe from Wright’s keen view, from the Stolen Generation to the ultra-politically-correct language of the bureaucracy. Blame for the state of Indigenous Australia in this time is laid squarely at the feet of the white settlers. Make no mistake—this is at least as much political protest as it is piece of art.

And even though this novel is set in the future, where an Indigenous man, a man who is a world leader when it comes to minority rights and environmental policy, is one step away from becoming Australia’s Head of State, the sharp divide between Indigenous communities in outback Australia remains as stark as it is now. Wright does not see traditional power structures as a way for Indigenous Australian to solve their problems.

There is no one—in Australian or international literature—who writes quite like Alexis Wright does. After the success of Plains of Promise and Carpentaria, The Swan Book cements her claim to being one of the great writers of our time. Imagination is easy, but to be able to couple it with a socially and politically relevant argument to create a cohesive, enthralling and beautiful piece of art is a talent few others have.

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What the Family Needed (2011) – Steven AMSTERDAM

I’ve made a (potentially) terrible decision. I’ve joined a book club. Fortunately, it’s made up of like minded people, and for the moment, I’m picking the shortlisted books (I’m not completely unreasonable.) What the Family Needed was on the first shortlist because I’d heard good things about Steven Amsterdam’s first novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming, and I’m a sucker for genre crossover fiction. What could possibly go wrong?

When her 7 year old cousin, Alek, asks a young Giordana, if she wants to fly or be invisible, she picks invisibility. Little does she know that this answer will actually give her the ability to become invisible at will. Slowly, other members of her family discover that they, too, have superpowers, and as Giordana grows up, so too does the rest of her family. From the dizzying heights of a young man learning to fly, to an old man almost wishing his dead wife back into existence, this is a very incredible family.

I’ll say this from the outset: What the Family Needed is not a bad book. If you can’t tell from that damned-with-faint-praise sentence, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. There are some good bits – and I’ll get to those eventually – but it was weighed down by too many “meh” moments which meant, even though I read it quite quickly, I never felt really carried away until the very end. Maybe I just kept reading to see when it finally got good?

Giving one’s characters superpowers is nothing new. Superheroes, in their current form, have existed for nigh on a century now, so it’s a brave author who uses this trope with the hope of saying something new. And there’s the fundamental problem at the core of this novel – it’s nothing new. We’ve all seen The Incredibles, Heroes and Misfits – we know what it’s like for ordinary people to have extraordinary powers. Amsterdam tries to take it to extremes – his main characters are almost too ordinary as to be tropes. There’s the teenage girl trying to deal with her parents’ divorce – she can turn invisible to escape the pain. There’s her older brother who falls into a marriage in which he feels trapped – he can fly to escape the humdrum every day life into which he has been sucked. There’s the gay cousin who can’t tell his parents about his sexuality, and can’t keep down a steady relationship – he has the ability to bring people together.

But once their powers are removed, they’re just not very interesting people. As a family drama, it doesn’t really work. Amsterdam devotes one section to each of the seven main characters, and follows them as they deal with their powers. There is some overlap, but there are huge time jumps between each section, which makes this far closer to a collection of linked short stories than a traditional novel. But each story follows the same basic shape, and by the fourth or fifth time, you can pretty much map out what will happen. An event will trigger the power in the character. They will spend some time testing its limits. They will use it. They will feel good that there is something more than their humdrum life. Repeat. Good science fiction melds the mundane and the extraordinary into one believable conglomerate, but I think in his attempt to win the literary-minded reader over with his conceit, he goes too far in the other direction, and gives us too much of the ordinary.

There is however, one redeeming feature. Alek. It’s clear Amsterdam has put most of his work into creating this one character who is a constant throughout the entire novel. A slightly-too-imaginative young boy turns into an introspective, ADHD teenager, who turns into a social waif, moving through the city, and eventually the world, without seeming to care about any “real” problems. He spends a lot of his time off-stage, and you’re always wanting to know more about this mysterious man-child. One’s patience is rewarded in the last chapter, which is Alek’s, and hands-down the best story. Much like Hiro from Heroes, Alek has the ability to manipulate the space-time continuum (though Amsterdam never deigns to call it that). It’s a fascinating power, and Amsterdam has taken it to its logical extreme – what happens to someone who is constantly having to deal with multiple timelines and parallel universes only known to him? No wonder Alek is a bit nutty – inside his brain lies a multitude of possibilities and things-that-never-were, things that no one else could literally ever know. It’s explained in scarily clear detail in this last section, as Alek rebuilds his life around him as though he was never the odd one, and in many ways, it’s the most touching part of the novel. That Alek has to rearrange the entire universe around him to make his family happy is terrifying. Some of my friends found it nice – I found it immensely depressing.

So maybe this is the question we need to ask about the novel? Do any of them actually have special powers? Certainly none of them every make a show of it to the rest of their family or friends. Are they just dreaming of things they wish they could do? Maybe it’s so subtle a metaphor I missed it completely. But Asterdam presents it with little suggestion of this – it’s all played incredibly straight, right up until the surprisingly upbeat ending.

For a book billing itself as an adult version of The Incredibles, What the Family Needed is surprisingly low-key. It’s the story of seven members of one family who discover they can do extraordinary things, though none of them ever do. It’s a weird novel that tries to take the superhero genre and fit it into middle Australia, though never quite manages to get either side quite right.

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Embassytown (2011) – China MIÉVILLE

Small note about this review: it is full of spoilers, because I literally cannot talk about the huge ideas and concepts Miéville deals with without going into specifics. So if you want to read this novel – and I really, really suggest you do – just skip to the last paragraph, where I gush some more.

Embassytown is a small human outpost on the planet of Arieka. It is also the birthplace of Avice Benner Cho, a young women with training to fly spaceships through the immer – the space-time vortex. It is also the native planet of the Hosts, mysterious aliens who can only speak Language, requiring specially trained Ambassadors to act as translators. When Avice returns home with her new husband, she does so at the same time as a new Ambassador. A new Ambassador from the outside. A new Ambassador that will bring Embassytown to its knees.

Earlier this year, Christopher Priest, the author of The Prestige, went on a vaguely insulting rant about this year’s Arthur C Clark award. Whether this is simply sour grapes over the fact that his latest novel didn’t make it, we’ll never know. He does, however, make three claims about Embassytown, and I thought it might be fun to look at each in turn, and see if Priest is a raving loony, or someone to whom people should listen.

Priest’s first objection to Miéville’s novel is that it is full of “careless solicisms.” I’m not going to lie – I had to look the word up in a dictionary. Yes, there is the occasional bending of certain grammar rules, along with confusing neologisms, but I wouldn’t expect any good science fiction novel set in the far flung future worth its salt not to try and push the boundaries of the English language – for that is what most characters speak.

Language (and here I mean both language and Language) is obviously central to the novel. Miéville has clearly read a lot of linguistic theory, and wants to talk about it – and as a novelist, the best way for him to do so is to write a novel about it. Who thought linguistic theory could be so interesting? Certainly not I. The idea of a language that must be spoken by two voices is strange enough, but then the idea of language that not only must be spoken by two voices, but by one mind – that is mind-blowing. It brings up questions of identity and communication I had never imagined – if two people are required to speak Language, is one person by his or herself simply a piece of unintelligent meat? That is the fear of humans who cannot speak Language – that the Ariekei see barely even see them.

To counteract this problem, we have Ambassadors. Genetically bred twins/clones/same people, who are taught to speak Language. Their names are plays on two syllable names with which we are already familiar – MagDa, CalVin, BranDon, and YlSyb. It is a social faux pas to speak to them as separate people – for all intents and purposes, they are one sentient being, even when it comes to terms of address. Perfect social conditioning forced upon a group of people living on the edge of the human empire. As the only form of communication between humans and Hosts, they are in a unique position, and are suitably pompous about the whole thing. Of course, as with all good genetic experiments, there is a downside, and the shocking, though ultimately unsurprising truth about how Ambassadors come into being is nicely played.

The reason behind EzRa’s ability to affect the Ariekei in the way it does is fascinating. Two voices, speaking Language in perfect unison, but hating the other the entire time. All of a sudden, Ambassadors take on yet another level of symbolism – this new breed of Ambassador is the part of humanity that hates itself, that cannot stand the sight of its other half, whatever that may be. For Ez and Ra, two men brought together for shady purposes, to then spend time together in order to keep an alien revolt from occurring – it’s going to strain anyone’s relationship.

Priest also derides “lazy writing” as a sign of  Miéville’s unsuitability to be listed for the Award. I must, once again, politely disagree. As we reach the third act, where all hell has broken loose in Embassytown, I couldn’t help but marvel at the precise, intricate structure built into the first two acts. The opening passages, of Avice’s childhood in Embassytown, becoming part of a simile, and meeting Bran, all function as a nice wading pool into the wider imagined world. Or so you think. All of a sudden, every single piece of information you had before is a clue to understanding the addiction of the Hosts/Ariekei, and understanding the possibility of a cure. We shift gears in the second act, when Avice brings her new husband back to Embassytown, and we are set up for what we all know will not be a happy homecoming. But things are afoot in Embassytown, and just as Act One will inform the finale, so too does Act Two. Each part of the puzzle is carefully laid out before us, though we remain completely oblivious as to which parts are important and which are Christie-style red-herrings. Here’s a hint: everything is important. Miéville wastes nothing, and each sentence is a part of a whole that builds to the final dénouement.

If the violence of Bolaño is lauded for being subtle and vague, then we must also praise Miéville for being the exact opposite. There are some truly horrific things that take place in Embassytown. The first is clear and easy – the addiction of the Ariekei to the god-drug EzRa is recounted and described in harrowing detail, and though we could not be any more different – biologically, mentally, or intellectually – it is not hard to feel an indescribable pity and sorrow for what they have become in the name of the colonial project, still alive and well this far into the future. At the same time, though, it is understood that not all humans are bad, just as not all Ariekei are good. Each side fractures into a whole spectrum of ideas about how to stop the war, how to fix the addiction, and how to deal with the other side(s). Naturally, Avice finds herself on the side with the solution, though its not the one I was expecting. I’m curious to head Miéville’s thoughts on the solution with which he came up, because it kind of suggests that Language – the ultimate sign of the Other in this novel – is not a viable option. The only way for the Ariekei to move on is to assimilate into the wider cultural milieu.

Priest’s final objection is “a lack of characterisation,” and alas, this is where I must agree, though it’s not all bad news for Miéville. If there is one flaw in the glass, it is that some of the characterisation is a little light on. Avice herself doesn’t have much of a personality, though her occasional asides in the narrative are a nice touch. She seems to wander through a chain of events, and though she is deeply affected by what is happening – how could you not be? – she maintains a strange sense of detachment.

I’m going to stop here, because I could probably write a thesis on the ideas embedded in this novel. It’s freaking huge. So here are some final comments: Embassytown is a big, sprawling novel of ideas and concepts. Nothing escapes Miéville’s mind – a perfect blend of post-colonial criticism, lingustic fireworks, religious questions, bizarre aliens and a fully-fledged science-fiction world. It is in turns exhausting and exhilarating, and will linger with you long after you have it down. Truly a novel that deserves to be read by everyone.

Yes, there is the occasional bending of certain grammar rules, along with confusing neologisms, but I wouldn’t expect any good science fiction novel set in the far flung future worth its salt not to try and push the boundaries of the English language – for that is what most characters speak.

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