Archive for October 2009
As long term readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of Margaret Atwood. She is a bit of a lightening rod for genretards (latest example here) because she has the temerity to have an outsider’s perspective on science fiction. At the same time, there are occasions when I can feel an insider’s frustration. Here is Sue Arnold in her brief review of the audio book edition of The Year Of The Flood:
No one does doom and gloom with such savage, satirical humour as Margaret Atwood. Who else could imagine a facility for condemned criminals called “painball” where offenders can choose between being spray-gunned to death or doing time in the painball arena – more of a forest, really. “You got enough food for two weeks plus the painball gun like a regular paint ball gun, but a hit in the eyes would blind you and if you got hit by the paint you’d start to corrode and then you’d be an easy target for the throat-slitters on the other team.”
Who else? Well, I can think many, many purveyors of such crude satire and it is the sort of thing that is often thrown in as background colour in SF stories. It seems a strange thing to single out for praise as well. I’ve recently started reading The Year Of The Flood and the punning neologisms and silly satire are by far the most irritating thing about the novel (as was true of Oryx And Crake). Different strokes for different folks but also different horizons.
To mark their thirtieth anniversary, the London Review of Books have made the whole of their latest issue available online. Which is nice. The LRB can be a bit hard work but this issue contains Daniel Soar on Sebastian Faulks’s “high-class bodice-rippers” which is good fun:
But if the women are special because they’re more modern than their surroundings, they also make Faulks’s readers feel special because they’re begging – or, more usually, ‘imploring’ (as in ‘her body, independent of her, implored his attention’) – to be made aware of things we know but they have yet to discover. They are attractively virginal, or effectively so, apparently innocent in a prelapsarian sort of way, but they aren’t the passively naive recipients of male attention that Mary (above) presents herself as being, with her ‘little sense’ of the effect her inverse filmy stuff might have on the ‘clothed man standing opposite’. They will their man to do to them what they want, or what he wants and they know – but don’t exactly know – that they want too. Sometimes, as in Birdsong, Faulks is happy to have his woman be the seemingly uneager quarry of a determined man (though being unlocked obviously changes her mind); but usually the heroine’s basic message is: ‘Ravish me.’ The man in Charlotte Gray, a Hurricane pilot with a roving eye and chicken legs, says, ‘You’re a very determined woman, Charlotte,’ after she makes it impossible for him not to have his way with her thanks to a stray movement of her hand. So if these women are the fantasies of a sensitive modern male, they are also autonomous enough, as fictional creations, to be fantasising into existence the very type of sensitive male who has created them. This is quite a metafictional trick.
Strange Horizons maintains a list of Stories We’ve Seen Too Often. Number thirty is:
Brutal violence against women is depicted in loving detail, often in a story that’s ostensibly about violence against women being bad.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because whilst I was on holiday I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson. The original Swedish title is Män som hatar kvinnor which literally translates as Men Who Hate Women. Larsson was a journalist and obvious held strong and sincere beliefs about the evils of violence towards woman. However, when this was translated into fiction something unfortunate happened, he became complicit with the very thing he was decrying.
At the centre of the book are the sex crimes of a serial killer that, yes, are depicted in loving detail. Worse, a significant portion of the book is devoted to an elaborate, preposterous revenge fantasy. For this revenge to be possible the heroine of the book must first be brutally raped. It is gratuitous, grotesque and offensive.
As this article by Melanie Newman points out, this sort of thing is nothing new for blockbuster thrillers – James Patterson is a repeat offender – although it is particularly disappointing from someone professing to be a feminist. She concludes: “only misogynists make money from rape.”
Authors must be free to write and publishers to publish. But critics must be free to say they have had enough. So however many more outpourings of sadistic misogyny are crammed on to the bandwagon, no more of them will be reviewed by me.
We began with Haldeman and so we end. This story was originally published in Playboy (the world’s sexiest magazine) but I first read it in another erotic SF anthology, Cybersex.
Dr Wilson Cheetham gets his nob (and most of the rest of him) burnt off in a high orbit steel manufacturing accident. Luckily, they can rebuild him:
Surprisingly, to me at least, the reconstruction of a penis is a fairly straightforward procedure, which they’ve had lots of practice. Men are forever sticking them in places they don’t belong.
The story takes the form of Cheetham’s recovery journal. They patch him up and he documents his progress, whilst at the same time concealing the full extent of the strength and dexterity of his new cybernetic limbs. There is no particular reason for this apart from the fact it will prove convenient to the plot later. Cheetham is a deeply unsympathetic character; pompous, pedantic, up-tight and anti-social. Despite this:
A pretty nurse who has been on this project since the beginning came into my room after dinner and proposed the obvious experiment. It was wildly successful.
He prefaces this diary entry with the words “Most interesting.” Cheetham is the sort of bloke you try to escape from at parties but his cyborg cock proves irresistible to women. Apparently what you look like and how you behaviour doesn’t matter if you can control your erections at will and simple stiffness guarantees female pleasure. Everything is going swimmingly until – whoops – he breaks someone’s spine during a bout of bionic sex. Things go a bit pear-shaped after that.
As you might have gathered, this is not an erotic story in any shape or form and Haldeman is clearly taking the piss. He should have gone further though. As it stands, it is a very limp piss-take which is about as clever and funny as the title.
One of the few stories in the anthology about love rather than just sex or infatuation. Kate and Jessica are in a long term relationship but Jessica’s employer is just about to post her to a new site. In space. So they kindly given them some experimental technology, a full body recorder* so that Jessica can share herself entirely with Kate.
As is foreshadowed rather too clearly by the relentlessly sombre tone, Jessica does not return from this assignment; her space station is blown up. (This war on terror worldframe is the least satisfying part of the story.) The final act deals with Kate setting aside her artificial memories in order to move. It is a mature, thoughtful story but also a rather boring one.
* There must be a snappier name for this. They use squid in Strange Days but that is never going to catch on.
There is some skill here in the way the world is evoked through little touches rather than baldly stated. However, these little touches never cohere though and when Berman introduces a character who may or may not be a time traveller it all becomes too chaotic. It is also marked down for repeated (mis)use of the word chode.
Late capitalism has got even later, water has become a precious commodity, our protagonist is Chief Superintendent at a water purification plant, she has a fetish for water, her newest member of staff has water for blood. Sexiness ensues.
It is a story that doesn’t mesh conceptually and the writing is also slightly off balance. Each mini-chapter is headed by a faux encyclopaedia entry. I find this device irritating at the best of times but Jamneck does a particularly poor job of mimicking a reference work:
From the Anglo-Saxon and low German root waeter, formerly an abundant substance on earth.
All known forms of life need water. Humans consume what is referred to as “drinking water” – water with qualities complementary to the human body. This natural resource has become scarce with the mounting world population, and its availability is the chief collective and economic concern.
The third sentences is particularly odd but it is all a bit off. The rest of the prose also falls into an uncanny valley which very nearly evokes the hardbitten, rough and ready style that is being aimed for but doesn’t quite.
Right, I am off to sit on a beach in the Indian Ocean with this little lot:
See you on the flip side.
“Space is as ordinary as this street or that hotel. Once you’re over the initial shock of it, space is like anywhere else. It’s life. It’s ordinary. Even tedious, at times, but, like life, punctuated with moments of brilliance.”
“Seeing a supernova as it happens. Our guests can see a wider spectrum than humans, so I can see the gamma ray fountains streaming from pulsars.”
“What else? Tell me.”
“Trembling blue stars being born in the Horsehead Nebula. Other intelligent races. The guests are slowly introducing us. I’ve met living machines that find us as strange as we find them. They can’t believe that fragile meat has thrown itself out into space.”
A simple story: Arkadi is a cosmonaut; in order to tolerate deep space he has been killed, had his organs removed and been re-animated by an alien parasite (a “guest”); returning to Earth he encounters Valentine, the woman he abandoned, in a cafe; she fails to convince him to resume their relationship. It is told in the first person but mostly consists of dialogue, interpersed with an occassional arch comment such as “Cigarettes are the perfect prop when you have nothing to say.” The dialogue is sharp and the back and forth is enjoyable but this jousting gives way to some depressingly familar battle of the sexes.
There is an overpowering whiff of girl cooties to the story. Arkadi has fled his relationship for space and it turns out space is no place for girls. “You can’t blame me for that. There are basic biological incompatibilities between female neurochemistry and the guests.” This, as Valentina points out, is very convenient. She does get her shots in but she on the whole she is portrayed as desperate, pathetic and unable to define herself except against Arkadi. The final section of story is a race to see just how much she will debase herself to try and win him back: “Take me with you. I don’t need much. I’ll be your rabbit. Give me lettuce and water and rub my ears every now and then.” Arkadi, augmented by the emotional detachment of his guest (a “meat puppet run by a space monster”), spurns her again and considers this an act of kindness.