Tag Archives: speculative fiction

The Other Shore (2014) – Hoa PHAM

Seizure are a publishing company based in Western Sydney—think of them as the cooler, younger sister of Giramondo. Over the past few years they have run a competition called Viva La Novella, designed to promote writers using this shorter format. This year, there were four winners, each published in print form. Hoa Pham, a former SMH Young Novelist of the Year, was one of this year’s winners.

When Kim Nguyen falls out of a boat and nearly drowns, she suddenly finds herself with the ability to speak to the dead. News of her gift, though, quickly finds its way to the all-knowing government, who want her to use it to help them. But Kim is uncomfortable with her new work, and with the arrival of a mysterious young man from America, she finds her loyalties divided.

Here’s a fun fact: the name Nguyen is the 13th most common surname in Australia. In Sydney, it’s the third most common. Australia has a strong history of immigration from Vietnam—South Australia’s Governor-elect is Hieu Van Le, a man who came to Australia in 1977 as a refugee. And yet, there is a dearth of Vietnamese-Australian voices in the literature world. Anh Do’s autobiography, The Happiest Refugee, was popular, but outside that, there are no household names. It’s refreshing, then, to read a Vietnamese-Australian voice in print.

Kim’s gift awakens her not only to the spiritual world, but to the realities of history that have been hidden from her by an authoritarian government trying to keep a lid on the past. Born and raised in Hà Nội, the stronghold of the communist government, Kim has only been told one side of the story. As she visits past battlefields, however, to help spirits reconnect with their living descendants, she finds herself talking to Americans and Southern Vietnamese people who died during the war.

The use of speculative fiction to shine a light on real-world issues is not exactly revolutionary—in fact, it is the genre’s very raison d’etre—but by placing it in this context, Pham reminds us that the effects of war live long into the future. The Vietnam War holds a particularly complex place in Western memory, and it is pleasing to see that Pham draws out the complexities of the American War from the other side. The battle may be over, but the reverberations of one death travel along family lines, forcing their way into everyday life.

More important, though, is the question it raises about the relationship between children, education and history. Kim is suddenly awakened to the reality of history—that war is complex, and that there are not usually any clear winners. Pham dares to ask the question: what happens to a young girl on the brink of adulthood when she discovers that her life is built on a lie? And here, we don’t mean a small lie, we mean a big, sociocultural lie. Literally her entire life is built on the idea that the North won, and that the Americans and the South were inherently bad people. But this is clearly not the case. Kim’s struggle to reconcile this truth with her life before her gift is deftly explored by Pham, particularly in the second half.

If Viva La Novella is a prize dedicated to finding Australian fiction that wouldn’t be published by a mainstream publisher, then it’s hit the nail on the head with The Other Shore. A genre-bending short work, it highlights Hoa Pham’s abilities to combine the everyday with the supernatural in a way that never feels forced; instead forcing her readers to reconsider their own ideas about war and memory.

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The City & the City (2009) – China MIEVILLE

Two years ago, I was blown away by the brilliance of Embassytown. The ability to take spec fiction tropes and use them to interrogate a whole raft of ideas—ranging from linguistic theory to postcolonial critiques—reminded me why I love spec fiction so much. So here I am again, back to worship at the altar of the big, bald socialist that is China Miéville.

Somewhere in the depths of Eastern Europe, in a small city called Besźel, a girl has been murdered. But when Inspector Tyodor Borlú begins investigating the case, even he cannot imagine where it will lead him— Besźel’s greatest nemesis, and closest neighbour, Ul Qoma.

Though there are glimpses of the brilliance seen in Embassytown—including a gift for imaginative linguistics every other fantasy author on the planet would kill to have—The City & the City does not reach the heights of Miéville’s sci-fi masterpiece. His desire to stick slavishly to the procedural crime novel genre doesn’t give him the chance to move out of a fairly limiting structure and style, though there is no question he pulls of the style perfectly. And the twist ending is a little silly—I get that Miéville is a proper socialist, but the twist (“capitalism is the bad guy!”) undercuts the beautiful work he does in foreshadowing secret societies, rogue nationalists and perhaps even fantasy creatures.

Having said all that, the core concept at the heart of The City & the City is so brilliant, I can almost forgive the other stuff. This is a novel about the ways in which humans throw up arbitrary borders around our groups and the ways in which we exclude people from our lives simply because they are different. At first glance, the idea that two cities could occupy the same space seems inherently ridiculous. How could people possibly be taught to ignore the parts of their surroundings that are considered to be foreign? Remember, it is not just the space they share—they have a common history, a common archaeology, even a common architecture. How do you convince people that these identical things are really unique?

Yet that is exactly what we all do, each and every day we are alive. We teach ourselves to see the things we don’t want to as we walk through town—the charity workers trying to fleece our spare change, those supermarkets with signs written in a script we don’t understand, that homeless man begging for money.

Take, for example, my hometown. Though Sydney is widely held up as a successful model for integrating various ethnic and cultural groups into one city, so often, the real world application of these policies ends up more like these Miévillean (I’m totally making that a word, by the way) parallel cities. We all move through our lives taking in only the parts of the city that directly relate to us—we actively block out the ones that we believe have nothing to do with us. Taking this point to its logical conclusion is this novel’s greatest strength. By exaggerating the human characteristic, Mieville forces us to re-examine how we (literally) view the world around us.

Despite the genre and structure issues in The City & the City, an average Miéville book is still going to make you think about the world in which you live—who else would be able to come up with the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma? Once again he proves that the best kind of spec fiction focuses on ideas and themes, and not flashy aliens and dragons

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The City of Devi (2013) – Manil SURI

The recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula remind us that the flashpoints of the future are not in Europe or America—they are in Asia. From North Korean tinpot tyrants to Taliban insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it seems likely that the next major international conflict will come from the developing Asian world. So it’s interesting to see a potential future from an Asian writer.

Mumbai. The city of Devi. A city on the brink. As news of an imminent nuclear attack hits the streets, so too does Sarita. Her husband has been missing for a few days, and she has decided to find him. But someone else is trying to find the same man. Jaz is following Sarita in the hope that she will lead him to Karun. As they weave through the battered streets of Mumbai, though, both begin to realise that bigger problems are looming.

Taking this on board, Suri paints a world where this has happened. Just like Tarun J Tejpal in The Valley of Masks, Suri uses a uniquely Indian context to create speculative fiction to revitalise many of the tired clichés dragged out by other writers. One film which takes the Hindu god Devi and turns her into a modern-day superhero, aptly named Superdevi, has taken India—and the rest of the world—by storm. As the local government in Mumbai decides to use Devi as a symbol of the city—despite the secular nature of said government—the local Muslim population find the use of a Hindu symbol to represent them less than ideal. Egged on by extremists in Pakistan and anti-democracy protestors in China, violence rapidly erupts, a road that once taken can’t be unmade.

Mumbai, then, is transformed into a city teetering on the brink of complete annihilation. As the purported deadline for Pakistan’s impending nuclear attack comes closer and closer, people begin to act more irrationally. Bombs and violence become an almost daily certainty, so by the time we as readers arrive on the scene, Sarita finds herself hiding in the bomb shelter of a hospital. People are terrified—though the internet is no longer working, word of mouth has spread rumours that  Pakistan is planning on dropping a nuclear bomb on Mumbai in the next three days. Needless to say, people are nervous, and even in the small confined space of a bomb shelter, Muslims are being hunted down by Hindus. And how do you know when you find a Muslim? Same way you can tell someone is Jewish.

Unbeknownst to Sarita, Jaz, our other narrator, is also present. But Sarita has more pressing concerns—she thinks she knows where Karun is, and begins to run through the desolate streets of Mumbai to find him. As she runs, we get flashbacks to the beginning of Sarita and Karun’s relationship. Both in their early thirties, their families willing them on to find someone to settle down with, they find themselves actually falling in love. But Sarita feels that Karun is holding something back, particularly when they try to consummate their relationship. Even after they marry, it takes Sarita a lot of time to get Karun to perform sexually. She feels that something is holding him back, but she can’t work out what it is.

When we shift to Jaz’s perspective, everything crystallises. Karun’s secret is hardly surprising—anyone with half a brain can guess he’s having an affair with a man from about 30 pages in. So it’s kind of frustrating that it isn’t confirmed by Jaz until almost 100 pages later. It makes Sarita come off as less than the naïvely-in-love woman she is supposed to be, and more of an idiot. Though perhaps this is an Indian thing? I know the Indian take on homosexuality is not the most positive or prominent, so perhaps this more like the case of the 1950s housewife being genuinely surprised that her husband like dudes.

The treatment of sexuality in India—particularly in Muslim communities—adds another dimension to the novel. Suri paints the isolation and persecution faced by gay men in India well, and Jaz’s coming to terms with his own sexuality is made simpler by the fact that he is brought up in Europe, where attitudes are a little more liberal. His transformation from sex-crazed teenager forced to skulk in parks to find partners to a man in love and in a mature relationship is nicely realised, and really makes you feel for Jaz. Having found someone to love in a society that frowns upon it is hard, and the fact that Karun is skittish about the whole thing makes it seem even more unfair.

No doubt Cory Bernardi would be unimpressed by the ending of this novel. As signposted fairly early on, Suri presents us with a future that does not rely on contemporary ideals of family and relationships. Karun becomes the centre of a relationship between three people, with him in the middle—literally and figuratively. Haring back to the alternative Hindu holy trinity presented at the beginning of the novel, Suri suggests that each of us needs not just one other person in our lives, but two, to provide a more balanced approach to life. It’s an interesting idea that actually qorks quite well in this context.

Perhaps the most important job of a speculative fiction writer is to make sure that the world they create never becomes too unbelievable. It’s a fine line, and only occasionally does Suri falter. There are one or two moments where Suri has to write his way out of dead-ends he has written himself into. But for the most part, this is an excellent post-apocalyptic novel with an arguably more realistic take on potential future conflicts.

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The Plains (1985) – Gerald MURNANE

One of Australia’s largest independent publishers, Text, have recently brought out a new line of Australian classics. This has been accompanied with a series of articles talking about why it’s important for Australians to read their own literature, and despairing so many twentieth century novels are out of print. To rescue a book from the scrapheap of out of printness takes great courage, to assume that it can live beyond its own context.

A nameless documentary maker comes to the Plains – the vast, never-ending land in the middle of Australia – to make a documentary for his fellow coast dwellers. As he begins to investigate the unique culture in which he finds himself, though, he begins to realise just how bit a task he has set himself. This will not be easy, and as time passes, he becomes more and more frustrated with both the plains, and his own inability to understand them.

There are echoes of More’s Utopia, but with a uniquely Australian bent. The novel is split into two sections, the first of which outlines some of the basic history and culture of the plainsmen, while the second deals more closely with the frustrations and struggles of the film-maker living “in country”. As in Utopia, the first section is like an introduction to the historical context, while the second finds the observer/narrator interacting with these previously abstract theories.  The created society Murnanme paints is that of the “plainsmen”, a society cut off from the rest of coastal Australia, preferring to live on the plains, and let their culture blossom from the unique landscape in which they find themselves.

Murnane teases out a lot of issues still facing contemporary Australia. The tension between city and country becomes conflated with the Great Dividing Rage, and those of us who live on the coast (which is most of us) spend our time trying not to think about what’s on the other side of those mountains. And so the basis for Murnane’s fictionalised Australian begins to make more sense. I rather suspect those who live inland view people on the coast as city-slickers, with no understanding what the “real” Australia is. So, too, the plainsmen see those who live on the coast as a little backward and stunted, people who couldn’t live up to the culture of the plains which, for the plainsmen, is inherently better. Of course, there could be another explanation. Maybe it’s the tension bewteen Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The relationship between Indigenous Australians and the unique bush of our fine continent is echoed in the plainsmen’s fascination with portraying, and indeed not portraying, the fields in their own culture.

And in the end, none of us are any the wiser. We still don’t understand the relationship between the plainsmen and the plains. We don’t know why Australia has split itself in two. We don’t know what the plains really are. Where do they start? Where do they end? This gets to the crux, I think, of what Murnane is trying to talk about – the relationship between the artist and her subject. Ultimately, the film-maker is trying to make a film about something unknowable, and he fails. Has he spent too long in the plains to be a passive observer? Does one have to be totally detached from the subject to talk properly about it? Or is his problem the opposite? Is he too tainted by the coast to ever understand the plains? I know this is a paragraph made up almost entirely of rhetorical questions, but in my defence, the entire novel is essentially one long question, so I feel somewhat justified.

I lent this to a friend of mine after I read it, and when I asked her what she thought of it, she told me she “hated it”. It’s not hard to see why The Plains originally out of print. Whatever literary merit it might have, it’s not a satisfying read. There are no hard and fast conclusions. In fact, there are no conclusions at all. Murnane paints a continent divided, where two groups of people cannot find common ground, even though there seem to be attempts to find some. There are more questions than answers, which is not always a bad thing.

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Shades of Grey (2010) – Jasper FFORDE

Jasper Fforde has carved out a niche for himself in the crossover between pulp and literary fiction. His works require a huge knowledge of classical literature (mainly Victorian novels), but at the same time, they are written in a style that is accessible, and often hilarious. I quite liked The Eyre Affair, but thought the other novels began to get a bit repetitive. So I read his new novel, Shades of Grey, with some trepidation.

The world has changed. People can only see one colour, and depending on which colour you can see depends on your status in society. Col0ur classes and social structure are so rigid, doing anything outside the rules can mean re-education. But Eddie Russett has been sent to East Carmine as punishment for a practical joke, and along with his dad, they are about to discover secrets that have been hidden for 500 years. Secrets that could change the very nature of society itself.

Fforde has pared back a lot of the humour that peppered his other books, and actually, it works to his advantage. When he’s not trying to show off how deep a knowledge of the Western canon he has, he can write well. Of course, he hasn’t lost that which makes him unique amongst lit-pop crossovers – the ability to world-build like no one else. He doesn’t have to resort to pages and pages of faux-history info-dumps to do this, and instead, he actually manages to pull off people doing exposition talks with good reasons. Genre authors could learn a lot from him.

And this world he has created is amazing. A world where the ability to see colours can define your entire life, and marrying into another colour creates a new off-shoot that’s a different shade. Colour permeates each and every facet of this society’s life, right down to the people who can see no colour at all – the Greys; the people who are at the bottom of the rung, who are ostracised from society, and are forced to do menial work for no pay. There are other people, too – those who cannot exist, so are simply deemed invisible. The man who doesn’t exist actually plays quite a large part in the novel, and he is one of the more tragic characters we are presented with.

There are some lovely jabs at organised religion, too. The manufacturing of spoons, for example, has been outlawed by the rules laid down by society’s creators over 500 years ago, and while no one remembers, or really knows, why this is the case, the fact that they must follow this rule to the letter makes for some hilarious spoon related comedy – something that not everyone can pull off. And, indeed, as the book takes a more serious tone as it draws towards its climax, the spoons are a sign of something else at work. For to not have a spoon is to not exist, and when a giant pile of spoons is discovered, we know something is afoot.

Eddie Russett, our protagonist, is not perhaps the most exciting person in the world. Well, maybe that’s not completely fair. He’s at the brink of being interesting, and on the edge of society, but he still kind of wants to fit in with everyone else. This dichotomy of wanting desperately to fit in, and wanting to bend the rules makes him tend towards inactivity – often caught up with the old way of thinking. But as he moves on, and begins to discover secrets, he begins to open his mind to the possibility that his way of thinking is not so strange, after all, and perhaps even, he might be more correct in his desire to make numbered lists than he originally thought.

It’s hard to judge this novel by itself. It is the beginning of a trilogy, and it could be a while before we see the other two volumes – Fforde is working on another Thursday Next novel.  But there are some fantastic ideas at work here, and I hope Fforde has a plan. Well, I’m sure he has a plan – I just hope it’s a good plan. If this novel is anything to go by, we should all be looking forward to it with bated breath.

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Her Fearful Symmetry (2009) – Audrey NIFFENEGGER

I loved The Time Traveller’s Wife. Truly, it is one of the best science fiction novels of the past ten years, and definitely one of the greatest love stories ever told. And told beautifully, mind, with Niffenegger perfectly managing the logic of time travel. So I’ve been hanging out for this book for a long time, thanks to the promise shown in her first novel.

As she dies, Elspeth Noblin makes one last request – her twin nieces are to inherit her London flat, on condition they live there for one year, by themselves. Julia and Valentine are reluctant at first – particularly since their parents don’t want them to go – but go they do, and meet Robert, Elspeth’s widower. Robert, along with the staff of Highgate Cemetary and the twins themselves, are slowly drawn into one woman’s quest to remain alive long after she has died.

This novel is very, very odd.The characters are odd – Robert can’t let go of his dead wife (which is fine, but the way he does this is unusual), the neighbours in the apartment block are weird (one is an agoraphobic OCD man whose wife has just left him), and the twins – Julia and Valentine – are just plain nuts. There’s so much weird, it’s hard to sympathise with any of them – they are almost weird to the point of stupidity. Personally, I thought Martin, the OCD man, was the best character, and his obsession with cleanliness, and the repercussions this has on his relationship with his wife and son are actually quite poignant. His side story has very little to do with the main plot, but actually, I quite liked it. Almost more than the rest of what was going on.

The other characters, however, are less likeable. All of them have their own obsessions and quirks, but instead of making them poignant, they become pitiable – and not in a good way. You kind of don’t want to read about these people, because you know that they will never do what they should do – and they’re a little bit creepy. One reviewer says of the twins: “they are so inseparable that they are rendered infantile to the point of idiocy”, and I would argue that this extends to the other main characters as well. They are so incapable of acting outside their self-imposed parameters, sometimes you just want to scream at them, and tell them to harden up. Though maybe that’s just me…

Julia and Valentine, the central characters of the book, are so stereotypically twinnish, it’s hard to take them seriously. There’s the bossy twin (Julia), and the shy, retiring wallflower twin (Valentine), and yet neither of them can function without the other. Julia actually comes off so bossy as to be almost unlikable, and Valentine is just so passive, you kind of want to shake her out of her self-induced stupor.

I’m going to talk about the ending, because it frustrated me so – so you’ve been warned if you don’t want to spoil the novel. Elspeth actually turns into a ghost, and can eventually communicate with the twins. This is fine, I suppose. But what rapidly becomes ridiculous is the fact that Valentine suddenly decides she’s suicidal, and is happy to kill herself so that Elspeth’s soul can enter her body. I know – it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

What makes this ending even more off-putting is twofold. First of all, while Valentine is arguably the main character, there is almost no indication throughout the rest of the novel that she is suicidal. Then she tops herself. Second, Elspeth is so desperate to get back with her husband, she’s willing to kill her own daughter (yes, it turns out the twins were actually hers all along), and use her body for the rest of its life. The book rapidly descends into madness and stupidity, and nothing can save it. There’s just so little point to what is going on, you really don’t care that all these people are dying and switching bodies and all that jazz. It pushes well past the point of magical realism, and eventually turns into straight up fantasy. Which is fine,but there aren’t really any warnings about ghosts being actual things until we start meeting them left, right, and centre.

I suspect I’m more disappointed with this book because I’m such a big fan of Niffenegger’s first novel. Having said that, there are some serious structural and character flaws with this novel. If she could have picked just Martin’s story, for example, I think it would have turned out well. Unfortunately, the magical realism path she has chosen to go down means the novel suffers as a result.

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The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) – Walter TEVIS

After several important, heavy novels, I’ve gone back to some mid-20th century science fiction as a bit of a break. Since The Man Who Fell to Earth was reissued in a pretty new Penguin Modern Classics edition, I’ve had my eye on it. Fortunately, it came into work the other day, so I was able to give it a go.

A strange man comes walking into a small town in smalltown America, and sells a diamond ring. Several years later, Thomas Jerome Newton is a multimillionaire, using his extraterrestrial technological knowledge to create objects that the world wants in great demand. But a greater plan is at foot, and as his secret threatens to become public, everything will fall apart.

One of the many, many invasion novels of the 20th century (and indeed, if V is anything to go by, the 21st), this remains different for two important reasons. The first is that the alien invader is our protagonist – we see things from his point of view. The second is that the alien is not necessarily out to get us.

Having an alien as your focus is a brave choice, and for the most part, Tevis manages to make him just alien enough for him to be believable. By having him physically look like a human, we don’t have to bother with all those extra tentacles that would make him stand out. Yet he still is physically different – taller, slimmer, and being used to a planet with less gravity, his bones are not as strong, meaning when he falls, he falls hard. It is these small things that really hit home with the reader, and for the most part, actually make us sympathise with him. This is a man who has learned about Earth (American) culture through interstellar television broadcasts, so while he might understand a lot, he doesn’t understand everything. His interaction with Betty Jo is perfectly pitched, and they are the ultimate odd couple. Both of them turn to drink in order to forget about their problems, and his addiction to gin and tonic is, at first cute, but later, tragically naive.

The Antheans – the race of people to which Newton belongs – are a tragic invention. Their world has been destroyed by constant warring and environemntal damage – a timely reminder to humanity that this is what will happen if the Cold War continues to accelerate at the rate it currently was. Much like every other cautionary tale of the late 20th century. But what becomes more interesting is that the 300 Anthean refugees that wish to come to Earth have, to Newton’s knowledge, no interest in conquering Earth. How could they? 300 aliens on a planet of several billion – aliens that are weaker on Earth’s gravity, and have easily snappable bones, like bones. Instead, they wish to give Earth the benefit of their technology and knowledge in order to stop Earth from destroying itself. But can one every truly be a benevolent dictator? Is that how power really works?

And yet, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Most humans seem unconcerned with Newton’s reclusive lifestyle, and it is not for many years that his two closest friends find out the truth about him. But eventually, everything comes crashing down. The CIA have had spies in the building, and Newton is arrested and taken in for questioning. And still, he does nothing. It is the final folly of humanity that brings him and his plan down. They know the truth, but have no desire to make this information public, bcause who would believe them? He is ready to be released from his ordeal with the CIA, but some tiny miscommunication in paperwork means that he is blinded. And that’s all it takes. No one can do anything with him anymore. It is the infighting of human politics – in this case, American politics – that mean we can no longer use the technological benefits of a superior alien, and he cannot carry out his plan of bringing his people here. Everything has failed.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is unique for these reasons. It is not the greatest novel anyone will ever read (I hope), but as an example of mid 20th century science fiction, it is meaty enough to be going on with, and though the trope is nothing new, I always like reading about morally ambiguous tales where it is actually the inaction of humanity that causes our own downfall.

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The Year of the Flood (2009) – Margaret ATWOOD

The name Margaret Atwood strikes terror into the hearts of many science fiction fans. Her adamant statements that she does not write science fiction, basically because she thinks it’s a bit rubbish, has given her many enemies. Which is a shame, because she does write excellent science fiction. Or speculative fiction. Or whatever you want to call it.

Two women are struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic future. Toby, an older woman, is surviving in a spa for the rich, where she worked before the virus came and killed everyone. Ren is a young girl trying desperately to survive the streets. And as these two womens’ stores unfold, their past and futures intertwine, and a world in pain is slowly brought into focus.

While this is not a direct sequel to Oryx and Crake, it is a spiritual one. The two novels are actually happening contemporaneously, so while the two women of Flood are trying to sort their lives out, Jimmy and Glen from Oryx are also messing around. I hadn’t read Oryx and Crake for a long time, so I had to brush up on what was going. Not that this was needed at all, since the two novels can be read in isolation, but I do think they work better as one big work, with similar themes and ideas. Obviously.

And what of those themes? It’s weird to see the combination of science and religion that has been mashed up to create the beliefs of the God’s Gardeners, though as the novel progresses, it seems to make more and more sense. Going back to the roots of Christianity, I suppose, and taking creationism to such a level that one believes the sciences of the natural world can be married with a divine being. Not my bag, alas, but it’s a fascinating concept.

Also interesting is this positioning of the group outside the mainstream – we see and hear of so many doomsday cults, to have this one as a fringe group is interesting. Obviously, at some level, we should identify with this group – they are the ones who are trying to get back to the natural world, away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. This trope has been done to death in post-apocalyptic fiction, but by having these people as a fringe group – a group that eventually resorts to terrorism – is a nice twist. Speaking of this future, it’s good to see Atwood not repeating herself too much in her descriptions of this post-apocalyptic future. It was done in Oryx and Crake (and, if we’re honest, every other post-apocalyptic novel in existence), so there was no need for her to go into any great depth. Which she doesn’t.

Having two main characters gives us two different perspectives of this weird group. Toby, having been introduced to the group later in life, is far more cynical and wary of the group’s actions, and though it takes a while for her to find true faith with these people, eventually, she comes to terms with the life she is now leading. Ren, on the other hand, was a Gardener from an early age, and it wasn’t until later that she left the group, as many teenagers are want to do.

Once again, Atwood’s world building is top-notch. Creating a world where meat seems to carry so much weight (and other over-processed food products, too) is not easy to do, but Atwood manages to make eating meat seem gross, and a little unnatural. Granted, the meat in this novel is very unnatural, and not at all what we might enjoy, but to convince a lover of steak like myself that meat is bad is no mean feat. Ren’s life also gives us insight into things like the class structure of this society, with teenage gangs running amok through the city with seemingly little control. We also are allowed a glimpse into one of the privileged Compounds, where rich people live. To see the differences between these two kinds of worlds is interesting, and Atwood does not disappoint. There are a lot of details in this novel, allowing us to see the bigger picture.

Is Margaret Atwood a good writer? Yes. Is she a good science fiction writer? Yes. Her background in “real” literature allows her to create characters and situations which are unique to the science fiction world, and allows a more mainstream audience a glimpse into the genre. Which is a good thing, particularly since Atwood does what all good science fiction writers do – show us a world that may seem unfamiliar, but still tell us something about the human condition. And while Atwood’s environmental message may seem heavyhanded at times, it’s still good to hear.

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The Death of Grass (1956) – John CHRISTOPHER

Exams are over. All is right in the world again. And so back to the good books that are looming on my shelf, waiting for me to read them. To help this, I’ve picked something off the shelves at work that has absolutely nothing to do with that and had a pretty cover. Ah, the fickle ways of the reader.

A virus is sweeping its way across Asia, killing every form of grass known to man. For those in England, this is far removed from their simple lives, and think nothing further of it. But when the virus finally makes its way to the tiny wet island, a group of people band together to escape the plans of the government, and try to reach a country haven, where salvation is waiting for them.

I feel that, had I not recently read The Day of the Triffids, I may have been somewhat more enamored with this novel. There are a lot of similarities between the two, and I’m not sure if that’ because they are both English sci-fi novels of the 50s, or if there’s another reason. Once again, a band of survivors must trek out of the dangerous city that London has become, and try to rebuild their lives in the countryside, where the promise of a better life beckons. The Death of Grass differs, however, by being far grittier than Triffids ever managed. While Wyndham’s novel is concerned with one strong man leading his group out of London to an unknown destination, Grass sets up the interesting conundrum of having several men vying for the position of leader of the group. And while the vote at the beginning of the novel sets John Custstance as our elected leader, events along the way force the other two men – Harold Pirrie and  – to reconsider what this leadership means for them, and what actions they must take to

What is more terrifying, though, is the fact that there are no aliens to blame, no outside forces shaping humanity – the humans are the monster. Particularly, the government of the United Kingdom. Those who have seen Children of Earth will find disturbing similarities to a plan by a British government to control the population of the country in order to solve the food shortage. The plan to drop some nuclear weapons on some large population centres is a terrifying thought – no doubt more terrifying when the novel was first released, with the threat of nuclear warfare from the Cold War still in the public’s mind. This mistrust of the government is seen again and again throughout the novel, and the people in charge are the real villains.

This is interesting, because there  is a fairly large sliding scale of morality in the book for our protagonists as well. The three men in charge are willing to kill other people for their food and supplies with almost no hesitation – these are our heroes. They know what they must do to protect themselves and their families, and they feel fully justified in it. They do have a tendency to pick off smaller groups of people, and are themselves attacked several times. The degeneration of proper English society is fast, but perhaps a more accurate representation of what humanity might do if this were to happen. This nihilistic tone continues right to the ending of the novel, with John having to decide which side to fight with – his family or his new found friends. And personally, while I do understand the decision he made, I wouldn’t have chosen it. Though, Christopher has written an ending that makes it hard for John to choose anything other than what he does.

Also fascinating is the discussion of sexual politics in this new world. When Pirrie realises that he no longer has to put up with the affairs of his younger, beautiful wife, he kills her. Simple. And then wants to take another young girl, whose parents have been killed by our heroes, as his new mistress. It’s all a bit unsettling – but as John realises, he needs Pirrie for his gun prowess, and there’s no reason for him not to do these things anymore. Christopher also doesn’t shy away from rape – with John’s family (wife and daughter) getting a turn each. John, though, seems somewhat disconnected from this, preferring to let the women sort out their feelings. It’s all very 1950s male, in an odd way.

I have one minor niggle, though. I know that if grass is wiped out, that causes a lot of problems for our food supplies. But surely, there are enough potatoes and seafood for everyone? Particularly since most of Asia live off a predominately seafood diet – I know that a lot of rice is included in this, but I’m sure we could all survive. While the fish and chips solution is mentioned throughout the novel, Christopher never seems to do very much with it, preferring to leave it in the background. Having said that though, the ending does seem to imply that this will be the future of humanity.

There’s a lot to like here. While it has some of the trappings of a cosy catastrophe, The Death of Grass does pack a lot more punch that many of Wyndham’s efforts, and many of the efforts of the time from which it comes. In the end, though, it’s no better or worse than any of the many, many other dystopic future novels we’ve all read before.

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The Day of the Triffids (1951) – John WYNDHAM

I know that I keep going on about how much I love the new(-ish) Vinage Classics covers, but Penguin have now stepped up to the mark with their new Modern Classics covers. Some truly awesome covers in there. Which, despite the old adage that tells me not to read a book just because it looks pretty, makes me want to buy them because the cover is pretty. And this one’s pretty good.

Bill Masen after eye surgery one Wednesday morning to discover that everyone else is blind. Somehow, the world has been decimated, and he must escape London to survive. First, though, he must find people to help him, including the young attractive novelist, Josella Playton. Together, they must eck out a new life in the countryside, avoiding the crazy people who have popped up everywhere, and the deadly triffids – plants who can walk, and who have taken over the planet now that the humans are no longer in charge.

This was wttally not what I was expecting, and it actually turns out that The Day of the Triffids is, while certainly a prime example of 50s pulp fiction, actually a littl bit deep, and Wyndham has some quite interesting points to make. It is quite clearly a product of its time – the threat of nuclear war and the USSR are ever present, with the Cold War and Hiroshima now firmly impanted into people’s minds. As such, the idea of a post-apocalyptic world was perhaps no more important in any other part of the 20th century. So the question that is asked by many authors of the time, then, is this: what happens to humanity when something big happens? Wyndham’s vision of splintered, factional control of the countryside is probably more true than most – and it is certainly one that remains in the minds of many authors still. The images are almost now cliched – a small farm in the countryside, where a small group of people live in harmony, with constant watch from the outside, either other groups, or the ‘baddie’ of the story.

For this story, that means the triffids, which are an excellent invention. I kept waiting for them to be revealed as the ‘baddies’ of the story, and yet that is exactly what they aren’t. They just happen to be a species of plant that happens to thrive in a world where humans cannot see. There’s never a clear explanation of where they came from, or why, but the implication is that they were an invention of the USSR that accidently spread throughout the world.I rather like this idea, and it really allows Wyndham to focus on making his story about the people of the book, not the monsters and their life, which I just don’t care about, to be honest. And in the end, Wyndham’s view is probably pretty conservative, though by no means confusing – in the end, it is the people who can see, the people who have not been disabled by the catastrophe that must carry on the human line. Not very communist, indeed, but as I say, the threat of the USSR is present throughout the entire novel. Similarly, the catastrophe is never explained, but the theory is again based on the Cold War. Once people started putting nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, pointed at their enemies, it was only a matter of time before one of them went horribly wrong.

I know Brian Aldiss called this novel the beginning of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ – that is, post-apocalyptic futures in the suburbs, where nice people get together and rebuild the world – but I’m going to have to disagree on him with this one. There’s enough human in-fighting going on to last quite a lifetime (I especially love the line at the end that mentions one man going to war, despite having just survived a holocost), and these people can get nasty. It never resorts to violence, but a lot of humanity has gone. Especially among the blind, who turn into animals (almost unbelievably) quickly. A very readable look at humanity in its darkest hour.

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