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Archive for August 2011

‘The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up’ by Jacques Barcia

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This is an interesting story primarily for what de Vries’s says about it in his introduction rather in its own right. He describes it as his “ideal” and continues:

It is complex yet recognisable, it is exotic yet familiar, it exhumes mystery while shedding new light on old tropes, and its progress is very hard fought, at every level. Yes, the world is – or may be – a better place, but not before we have worked and thought very hard to get there.

A lot of this has an empty ring to it, it sounds good but what does it actually mean? “Exhumes mystery”? It is obvious, however, that de Vries believes progress will be hard and that fiction must reflect this. But this sentiment stands in marked contrast to his facile opening story, ‘The Earth Of Yunhe’. Nor am I convinced ‘The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up’ is much better in this respect.

The Greenman is Inácio Lima, “soldier-turned-analyst”, a revolutionary in the Green War who – having won – returns to his home town of Recife, Brasil to become a sustainability consultant. The story starts as he is employed by a group of anonymous teens to perform ethical due diligence on a company they are interested in investing in. It is a nicely understated premise but unfortunately lacks any tension in its resolution. Inacio makes a couple of phonecalls, goes to visit a few people; this allows Barcia to fill us in on his world and background in a way which very much falls into the category of worthy but dull.

Then Inácio’s dead husband Lúcio turns up. Before the reader has much chance to ponder this strange development, Barcia rushes us to our conclusion by having Lúcio spill the beans. Turns out the company Inácio is investigating have succeeded in uploading human consciousness to computers and, unbeknownst to him, Lúcio was the first successful subject. How very convenient. (The story also shares the same contrivance as ‘The Earth Of Yunhe’ by having the local political leader being the protagonist’s dad.) Alas, immortality uses too much energy so Inácio has to regretfully advise his potential investors that they keep it off the market. This paradigm shift in human evolution is quickly and cleanly dismissed and everything is resolved with no mess or fuss. We close with a line of immortal badness: “He wondered what the carbon footprint for love is.” Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Near-future? Sort of.
Optimistic? Sort of.
Readable? Yes.
Good? No.

As you might be able to tell, I’m having trouble with the concept of “near-future”. What does it actually mean? As an analogous exercise, I tried to think of what I mean by the recent past. It didn’t help; it could be anywhere between the Second World War and last year. This story (like ‘The Earth Of Yunhe’) is set in the 21st Century at least several decades hence. Does that make it near-future?

“Optimistic” is also a bit tricky because both of the first two stories in Shine take it for granted that the world will undergo devastating environmental and economic collapse. Sure, they hold out hope for the future after that but it seems like in this context optimistic means “life might be okay for my great-grandchildren”.

Written by Martin

30 August 2011 at 21:25

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‘The Earth Of Yunhe’ by Eric Gregory

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Xiaohao has invented a whizzy bit of nanotech that cleans contaminated soil whilst also converting it into a “massive solar power plant, communications hub, and computational substrate”. Hooray! He promptly defects from Ecclesia, the “metanation” who have bankrolled his research, to take his invention back to his home town, Yunhe in China, which has been devastated by industrial pollution. They equally promptly charge him with sedition for formenting revolution with foreign technology and his dad, who happens to run the town, gives him a good kicking and throws him in jail. Never fear though, our narrator is his sister who soon allies herself to Xiao’s plan and organises an amazingly quick, easy and non-violent revolution. Optimistic indeed.

‘The Earth Of Yunhe’ highlights the problem with Jetse de Vries’s call for solutions. Xiao’s invention is essentially a magic bean; this is not constructive thinking so much as wish fulfillment. The story itself suffers from being so compressed that all its events seem ludicrous or contrived or both.

Near-future? Dunno.
Optimistic? Yes.
Readable? Yes.
Good? No.

Written by Martin

29 August 2011 at 19:20

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‘Introduction’ by Jetse de Vries

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It seems slightly redundant to review Shine, Jetse de Vries’s “anthology of near-future optimistic science-fiction”, because it is a movement that has so clearly had its moment. Still, Solaris accidently submitted it to the Arthur C Clarke Award so I’ve got a copy, there are some interesting contributors and it has been a while since I’ve read any short fiction. But before the stories, we need to talk about the concept.

The two clauses of the subtitle set out of the conditions of the what but why? It is obviously the second of the two that most interests de Vries:

Optimism and an upbeat attitude have been given short thrift (sic) in written SF over the last few decades, and especially the last one. Yes, there are novels and short stories with a positive outlook, but these a far and few between.

So that is de Vries’s perceived problem and Shine is intended as a corrective. He goes on to explain that it hasn’t been an easy task and that Patrick Nielsen Hayden has been unsuccessfully trying to get a similar book off the ground since 2002. It is an unfortunate juxtaposition because if Nielsen Hayden can’t assemble enough decent positive SF stories for anthology, how much hope can we hold out for de Vries? Indeed, he acknowledges that he had to extent the deadline for Shine due to a lack of submissions of sufficient quality. This is the last thing any reader wants to be told.

There then follows a restatement of the perceived problem and the difficulty of providing a corrective. As evidence that SF is out of step with the optimism of the real world, de Vries presents a Kansas University press release about the Gallup World Poll and an anecdote about his work environment that both suggest most people are optimistic. I don’t regard either of those sources as bulletproof but, rather than attempting to rebut them, I would instead question how relevant this is to SF. After all, we would expect SF writers (who think about the future as a profession) to have a rather different perspective than the average person on the street. He suggests that SF writers are out of step with the “real world” but aren’t they part of this world? If everyone in the world is generally optimistic except for SF writers then how does de Vries account for the difference?

(The reason I don’t attempt to rebut de Vries’s sources is because it is inherently impossible for the anecdote and practically impossible for the hidden survey. I am also suspicious of de Vries’s attempts to quantify how negative SF actually is; he says that SF is “at least 90%” downbeat but there is nothing underlying his estimate. But I think it is possible to let his predicates stand and still find issue with his conclusions.)

Now we get to the most problematic part of de Vries’s argument:

Written SF almost exclusively shows the consequences of bad behaviour, and almost never the consequences of good behaviour. Dire warnings and doomsayings, being told over and over again ad nauseam, lose their effectiveness. With Shine I hope to show the other side of the coin: SF that actively thinks about the solutions to the problems plaguing humanity today. To show readers that written SF does something more than either provide escapism (which can be nice, once in a while) or wield the whip: that written SF can actively think in a constructive manner.

Let’s start with a couple of the more tangential points. Firstly, is it really true that repetition is ineffective? Is it better for the Government to simply issue a single press release warning of the dangers of climate change or heart disease or whatever and then keep silent? I’d suggest most research (not to mention advertising budgets) show the opposite. Secondly, I would agree with de Vries that there is rather too much escapism in SF but doesn’t this come into conflict with his idea that it is overwhelmingly negative? Can escapism and pessimism really make such cosy bedfellows? As for “wield the whip”, I wonder if de Vries himself knew what he meant here.

But there is a much bigger problem here, the idea that fiction should be “effective” and should attempt to solve problems. I disagree with this at a conceptual level; fiction is art, not engineering. I do think fiction should discuss, debate and criticise problems but, of course, this is exactly what it does do, regardless of whether it is pessimistic or optimistic. It is not the job of criticism to be constructive, unless that is what is being paid for (last time I checked, the SF community wasn’t a think tank).

Stepping down from the conceptual level, however, “the solutions to the problems plaguing humanity today” are actually blindingly obvious. There is no great mystery as to the source of the world’s suffering: it is neoliberalism. The solution therefore is nothing less than the overturning of the dominant global political and economic philosophy. An easy task, I’m sure you’ll agree. No, the only way for a writer to effect change is to criticise the hegemony responsible; the solution is to educate people about the problem because it is only with a critical mass of people that the system can be changed. This is where de Vries has got it completely backwards. If an SF writer presents a future of food shortages, energy wars, social segregation or any number of other gloomy scenarios then far from burying their head in the sand, they are implicitly criticising the current system and as such they are part of the solution.

After all this big picture stuff, the de Vries returns to another nuts and bolts section about the difficulties of producing the anthology before we close with two pages of synopses for the stories that are to follow. It reads much less like an introduction to an anthology than a blog post celebrating someone’s first book. There is a time and a place for this sort of thing but it probably isn’t here.

Having read de Vries introduction, I will now try and forget it. This is because the only problem I have with optimistic fiction is the claims made for it. Instead, I will try and ignore the claims and simply treat the book as any other themed anthology. (In a change from previous short story project I am also going to dispense with the two five star ratings and go for four simple yes/no questions. Consider it an experiment.)

Written by Martin

28 August 2011 at 15:38

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Golden Witchbreed

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In what will become a defining feature of the novel, as soon as one journey ends, another begins. Golden Witchbreed opens with Lynne de Lisle Christie arriving on the panet of Carrick V, know to its inhabitants as Orthe, but she must the take a week long journey by ship to reach the alien Court where she will take up the position of Earth envoy. This provides a sense of scale to the planet and allows Mary Gentle space to begin to reveal her world. Whatever complaints I have about the novel (and I have plenty), it is not thinly imagined; it is a detailed and fully committed world, groaning with geography, history and customs. Groaning, perhaps, to the degree it is over-stuffed.

Before the beginning of the novel proper, we are given a list of the “principal characters” (the scare quotes are because the majority of them are minor characters with only a handful of lines of dialogue). Starting with Christie herself, there follows the stoutly Anglo-Saxon names of the team of xenologists: Huxton, Elliot, Barrat, Thomas, Meredith. Then there are the aliens with whom they are making first contact: Dalzielle Kerys-Andrethe, T’An Suthani-Telestre, Crown of the Southlands, also called Suthafiori, Flower of the South; Sulis n’ri n’suth SuBassasen, T’An Melkathil; Gur’an Alahamu-te O’he-Oramu-te, a barbarian woman. And so on and so on. These two very different sets of names present two very different sets of problems for the reader and potential reader.

Firstly, there are those alien apostrophes. Gentle’s names are almost a parody of the attenuated names science fiction and fantasy so off-puttingly revels in. They all make sense (and are shortened) when introduced within the context of the novel itself but shoved up front they are, well, alienating. It is presumably there as an aid to the reader but not only it is totally unnecessary for this purpose but it can be an active barrier. I read Golden Witchbreed on holiday and a friend commented that given the cover and the character list she would never have given the book a chance. Usually I would blame the publisher for demanding this but the book also contains a wealth of appendices which suggest the author’s hand. Gentle includes a glossary-cum-encyclopaedia (which, as always, doesn’t contain the term you are searching for), the local calendar, instructions for an Orthean board game and not one but two maps. There is an embarrassment of worldbling on display and, even for those of us well-schooled in the protocols of science fiction, such gluttony can be hard to stomach.

Secondly, why are all the humans British? Christie introduces herself as being from the British Isles which makes a sort of sense in a culture which places so much emphasis on geographical heritage but even in 1985 when the book was first published this must have seemed a slightly archaic formulation. After all, Falklands fillip notwithstanding, Britannia didn’t rule the waves. She seems to be doing pretty well in Earth’s space-faring Dominion. At the same time we are cautioned: “The focus of the world has long since shifted east; Asia holds the twenty-first century’s future. Nothing of real importance happens in the declining West.” (p.31-32) Why then are Christie and the whole xeno-team British? And why is no other nationality ever mentioned again? It is evidence of a disharmony between Gentle’s strong interest in the world of Orthe and her weak interest in the universe of the Dominion.

The world of Orthe (or, at least, the two continents we see) is at a relatively uniform level of development, roughly equivalent to 16th Century Europe. Initially viewed as a pre-tech civilisation, it soon becomes clear it is post-tech and that Ortheans are very happy with this state of affairs. The Ortheans themselves are extremely humanoid to the extent that you could easily overlook their sixth digit or nictitating membrane.

The universe of the Dominion is presented with less clarity but we know it is a universe in which intelligent life is abundant. Humanity has discovered FTL and this has opened up extra-solar planets to us, all of which appear to be populated. The fact that Orthe is merely one of a hundred thousand civilisations perhaps explains why the faded empire of the British Isles is free to go off and explore but it doesn’t explain how they possess the ability to do so. Are resources really so little of an issue for the “declining West” that they can arrange for an interstellar spaceship to drop off a single passenger on another planet? Regardless of that, Gentle is at pains to tell us that the planet is, in fact, special. It is: “the first socially mobile pretech world on record” (p.47) Further more: “All societies do some division of labour according to sex – all but this one.” (p.47) But apparently no one but the Brits are interested.

The xeno-team are already in situ but have been forbidden from leaving the capital and so are awaiting the envoy’s arrival. Her role isn’t exactly clear but Christie is told that (unlike the people with actual qualifications) she is free to roam around, immersing herself in this society. So the journey begins again and the novel becomes a rather dull planetary romance. In this it resembles nothing so much as the worst type of epic fantasy: the longeurs, the endless travel, the sight-seeing and, of course, the idiot plotting. To facilitate this, Christie is remarkably ill-equipped for her mission: she is 26 and has little previous experience. We learn that her uncle is “minister for the department” – which reinforces the strange sense of parochialism, that first contact operations are directed out of Whitehall – and that he got her the job:

“That was when I applied for the off-Earth postings… I’d always sworn never to use family influences… That noble resolution lasted until I realised how badly I wanted in to the ET department… Would I be off Earth without that influence? Yes. Would it have happened this soon? Ah, now, that’s another question.” (p.199-200)

It is question with a ready answer. She is not a politician or a sociologist, lacking both the aptitude and training. Her diplomatic style seems to be to go native at the first opportunity whilst retaining a casual bigotry about said natives: “He was a little mad, even for an Orthean.” (p.361) Nor does she seem very practical; she packs formal skirts and jackets but not a cagoule. A Goretex waterproof would be high on my list of items to bring to a pre-tech world. Worst of all, she is utterly incurious. Everything about the Ortheans is mysterious to her but she takes no interest in finding out about them and, even when she does, Gentle without holds this information. Halfway through the novel Christie suddenly discovers that all Ortheans possess psychic memories of their ancestors. “The more I did find out about Orthe, the more I was depressed by my total ignorance.” (p.209) And so she should be – how can she only now have discovered this? What on Earth have the xeno-team been doing? This authorial reticence has its ludicrous apogee when Christie has sex with an Orthean and the whole experience is glossed thus: “Any difficulties we had were habit and not physiological.” (p.129)

In another display of naivete, when she is summoned by a mysterious figure known as the Hexenmeister, she simply pootles off to see him without asking anyone about him. It is hard to begrudge her this though, since, finally, with Chapter 24 (299 pages into the novel) we start to make some narrative progress after the perpetual journeying by foot, beast and ship. Or so it at first appears.

The first reference to the Golden Witchbreed of the title comes in a typical lecture on geo-politics:

Peir-Dadeni and Ymir are pro-Earth. Rimon over the river… uncertain. Roehmonde’s never supported any contact with your Otherworld, nor has Melkathi; but then, nothing good ever came out of Melkathi. Morvren Freeport would trade with the Golden Witchbreeds themselves. (p.36)

Amongst the stodge of secondary world description the casual reference to the Witchbreed is rather thrilling and more is teased out over the course of the novel. They were the highly advanced civilisation whose empire on Orthe fell several millennia ago. (Despite leaving vast examples of technology that surpasses anything that humanity can produce they apparently never bothered with space flight.) They are reviled by the majority of Orthe as enslavers and destroyers but a few still claim ancestral links. It looks at first as if the interlude with the Hexenmeister is going to delve into this history but no, the witchbreed exist solely as an opportunity to slander Christie in a threadbare web of statecraft.

We are repeatedly told of the Orthean love of intrigue and duplicity but everyone is presented as essentially guileless. On page 266 Christie’s servant passes her a message which proves to be an attempt to set her up for the murder of a local dignitary. It is only page 342 that anyone decides to ask the servant who actually gave her the message to pass on. Once this is revealed – with enough drama to end the chapter on a cliffhanger – the named individual immediately confesses. Towards the end there is a shock revelation straight out of a whodunit where the person you least expect turns out to be the bad guy. It is all very tiresome.

In many ways it shares the same fundamental flaw as Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time: to have invented a richly imagined alternative culture and then failed to find a way to convert this into a novel. Niall Harrison calls the novel a “magisterial display of worldbuilding prowess” and it is but I’m not sure that is enough.

Written by Martin

18 August 2011 at 13:37

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Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all of this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.

Roger Deakin, Waterlog

Written by Martin

14 August 2011 at 17:34

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Woman On The Edge Of Time

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In a series of escalating scenes, Marge Piercy plunges the reader into a horror story. Consuelo is a Mexican-American woman in her late thirties living in genteel poverty, haunted by a past trauma but determined to live a just life. Connie’s niece, Dolly, bangs on her door. She has been beaten by her boyfriend, Geraldo, who is also her pimp, because she has fallen pregnant (ironically, this was a deliberate tactic by Dolly to protect herself). Geraldo shows up at Connie’s door with one of his enforcers and a backstreet abortionist. They argue, they fight, Connie breaks Geraldo’s nose with a wine bottle. In response, she is burnt and beaten unconscious. She comes round in the car as they are making their way to the hospital and is brutally beaten again. When they arrive Geraldo’s injuries are treated but hers are ignored and she is held responsible for both; Dolly lies to protect her pimp and condemns the aunt who tried to protect her. Connie is treated as a criminal, drugged, restrained and imprisoned in a mental asylum. The final words of the chapter are: “She was human garbage carried to the dump.” (p.32)

It is a harrowingly unfair opening that plugs directly into a deep human fear: complete powerlessness. Connie has done nothing wrong, she is a victim of circumstances, systems and history. The trauma in her past (which she has been fruitlessly trying to atone for ever since) is the fact she once beat her daughter whilst coming down off a drink and drug binge following the incarceration of her husband. As a result her daughter was taken into care and she was sectioned. She therefore fits a profile and that is enough to remove her humanity. Her pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears. After all: “The authority of the physician is undermined if the patient presumes to make a diagnostic statement.” (p.19)

In a very real sense Piercy has located a dystopia in Seventies America. What in other circumstances we might think of as the welfare state is here presented as an inflexible, illogical, patriarchal, authoritarian bureaucracy. Now, there is no doubting that the state can be all those things, even in supposedly developed countries, and was undoubtedly more likely to be so forty years ago. Equally it is true that mental health provision has had a long and sordid history of failing those it has notionally existed to help. This is particularly true of its failures towards the already marginalised: women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the poor as well as the mentally ill themselves. At the same time, it is hard not to think that (as with so many other dystopias) Piercy has her thumb on the scales to make her point.

Everyone is against Connie: her family, her community, her doctor, her social worker, her nurse. Even her ex-employer, a professor of romance languages at CUNY who was also her lover, is against her: “He called them all Chiquita, like bananas.” (p.50) It is so one-sided that eventually the barrage of oppression produces not anger but disbelief. Again, there are many documented examples of horrendous abuses of power within the system but in seeking to dramatise them Piercy has perhaps strayed too far into didacticism. Here is Connie remember her last encounter with her social worker:

The social worker had given her that human-to-cockroach look. Most people hit kids. But if you were on welfare and on probation and the whole social-pigeonholing establishment had the right to trek regularly through your kitchens looking in the closets and under the bed, counting the bedbugs and your shoes, you had better not hit your kid once. (p.26)

This does not sound much like Connie’s voice to me, it sounds a lot more like an authorial insertion of Piercy’s. The immediate “human-to-cockroach look”, fine but the more objective “whole social-pigeonholing establishment”? What is elsewhere a tight third person perspective seems to expand outwards to another, more distant narrator. Connie analyses her situation to a remarkable degree without enacting this analysis in any other way. She is noticeable sharper and more intelligent when reflecting in these passages than elsewhere in the novel, particularly the dialogue. Here is another example of the same thing:

She too, she was sprayed. They had taken out her womb at Metropolitan when she had come in bleeding after that abortion and the beating from Eddie. Unnecessarily they had done a complete hysterectomy because the residents wanted practice. (p.45)

I’ve deliberately chosen this passage because of the unfortunate typo in the first sentence. Woman On The Edge Of Time was originally published in the US in 1976 and was published by Women’s Press in this country in 1979. They re-printed it every year following that until they issued it as a Women’s Press Classic in 2000. Yet despite this honour they do not appear to have re-typeset since it was originally published and the text is blurred and contains more than a few typos. This is no way to treat a classic.

Returning to the meaning rather than the appearance of the text, I believe the angry immediacy of her identification as being spayed but not the detached, final sentence. As I mentioned, this also stands in contrast to the dialogue which is frequently terrible but also far less articulate and reflective:

“I won’t grow up like you Mama! To suffer and serve. Never to live my own life! I won’t.”
“You’ll do what women do. You’ll pay your debt to your family for your blood. May you love your children as much as I love mine.”
“You don’t love us girls the way you love the boys! It’s everything for Luis and nothing for me and it’s always been that way.”
“Never raise your voice to me. I’ll tell your father. You sound like the daughters of the gangsters here.”
“I’m good in school. I’m going to college. You’ll see!” (46)

And so on. This is a good example of the schematic argument that often replaces attempted verisimilitude in the conversations that take place in the novel. It is perhaps unfair to contrast the words of a girl with those of the woman she becomes but, child or adult, her words share a similar register. The tone and texture of this voice is absent from the inner reflections and so I struggle to associate them with Connie. There are, however, suggestions that this is deliberate, that her interior and exterior are radically different, that her personality is not unified:

“Anyhow, in a way I’ve always had three names inside me. Consuelo, my given name. Consuelo’s a Mexican woman, a servant of servants, silent as clay. The woman who suffers. Who bears and endures. Then I’m Connie, who managed to get two years of college – till Consuelo got pregnant.” (122)

Inner and outer life need not mesh and much great literature has inhabited this gap but I find this example problematic on several levels. First, the poetry of the description of Consuelo does not match any of the facets we see of her and again seems to stem directly from Piercy. Similarly, this suggestion of compartmentalisation is another manifestation of a disassociated, intellectualised objectivity that never convinces. Finally, there is the danger of using such a metaphor in the context of a character who is wrongly believed to be suffering mental illness and is punished for this. Connie isn’t sure who she is but I’m not sure if Piercy is any clearer and to open up the question of Connie’s mental state seems ill-advised (she proceeds further down this path as the book progresses).

It turns out that Connie is a special snowflake. She is an “extraordinary top catcher” (p.42) or at least so Luciente, a visitor from the future of 2137 tells her. This is notionally the point where Woman On The Edge Of Time reveals itself to be a science fiction novel but even considering the general difficulties of treating time travel as SF, this is a particularly weak example; Luciente has essentially used astral projection to reach the past. Piercy wants to present a utopia to contrast with her dystopia but has no interest in the mechanisms of presenting such a contrast. Nor is this contrast subtly presented:

“Where you go to study. To get a degree,” Connie snapped.
“A degree of heat? No… as a hierarchial society, you have degrees of rank? Like lords and counts?” Luciente looked miserable. “Study I understand. Myself, I studied under Rose of Ithaca!” He paused for her appreciation, then shrugged, a little crestfallen. “Of course, the name means nothing to you.” (p.53)

Luciente doesn’t seem particularly well briefed. Perhaps she went to the same time travel school as Connie Willis’s character. She does recognise a few of our quaint 20th Century customs though:

Connie lit a cigarette.
Luciente leaped up and backed away. “I know what that is! I beg you, put it out. It’s poisonous, don’t you know that?” (p.53)

Let’s make no bones about this, it is bad writing. This embarrassing false culture-shock continues for several more pages before going on to become a defining feature of the novel. Because not only is Connie an extraordinary top catcher, she can also project herself into the future and interact with all Luciente’s friends. This allows Piercy to walk us through her utopia, its intricacy described through exchanges every bit as hammy, forced and tedious as those found in the granddaddy of all these books: The Socratic Dialogues by Plato.

Piercy’s utopia is a frustrating place (and not just because of the prose). Our world is obviously a deeply unjust place and she has created an alternative world founded on the principles of equality and sustainability with admirable rigour and pragmatism. But it is also liberally dosed with hippy woo. In the future, for example, everyone will apparently realise that cats can talk through sign language. Then there is the astral project, the conquering of illness through mind over matter, the divine revelation of calling: “Those positions are not chosen strictly by lot, but by dream. Ever spring some people dream they are the new Animal Advocate or Earth Advocate.” (p. 151)

The frustration continues when Piercy attempts to inject some ambiguity into the novel without fully committing to it. For the majority of the book, the 20th Century of Connie’s captivity serves chiefly as a frame for the philosophy of the future. We still get quite a bit of the mundane battles of everyday life but the novel (like Connie herself) constantly escapes to tomorrow. Into this is gradually salted the idea that the future is not necessarily The Future: “Yours is a crux-time. Alternate universes co-exist. Probabilities clash and possibilities wink out forever.” (p.177) If alternate universes exist then by their very nature they are infinite; to suggest that the Seventies are a special crux-time simply because that is when Piercy is writing suggests an enormous lack of perspective. It also once more moves the book from the realm of speculation to that of woo. But Piercy goes further than this by suggesting that maybe Connie really is mad and that her future world takes place only in her head. It is the obvious direction to take the story but even given this still manages to disappoint in its execution.

Hinted at throughout, towards the end of the novel we finally get to witness the idealogical war that is taking place in the future. It is a deeply unconvincing war so this could be evidence that we are not supposed to believe it is real or it could be evidence of a paucity of talent on Piercy’s part. This war then becomes a metaphor for Connie’s external struggle against the jailers. Or does it become a metaphor for Connie’s internal struggle against her mental illness? “War, she thought, I’m at war. No more fantasies, no more hopes. War.” (p.338) I can’t find any coherent way of reconciling these readings of the novel with what we know of Connie. The question of her sanity is imposed rather than arising from the text; the ambiguity here is careless rather than enticing. Is she mad, in a coma or back in time? To which I can only answer: who cares?

Written by Martin

4 August 2011 at 15:36

Posted in books, sf

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