Archive for November 2011
I published my review of Kindred by Octavia Butler at the beginning of November. It was meant to appear in October. I am meant to be reviewing The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin this month. That isn’t going to happen. I am currently deep into the reading for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award and I have neither the time or the headspace to read or review anything else. So I’m putting A Year Of Reading Women on hiatus until next year and will restart with The Lathe Of Heaven in March 2012. This will be followed Spirit by Gwyneth Jones but then I’d like to keep going and cover eight more books over the rest of the year. Some ideas I’ve had so far include:
- Parable Of The Sower by Octavia Butler
- Cyteen by CJ Cherryh
- Infidel by Kameron Hurley
- Silver Screen by Justina Robson
- The Female Man by Joanna Russ
- A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
Other suggestions welcome in the comments.
On Friday I went down to The Long Table, Nuno Mendez’s new pop-up dining thing in the burgeoning cultural quarter of Dalston that is accreting around the Arcola and Cafe Oto. Everyone in else in Hackney had the same idea though; when we arrived there were people queuing for hundreds metres to get in it. Hats off to Mendez for the obvious success of his venture but we said fuck it and went to the Arthur.
As it turned out, the the pub was pretty busy too but after a pint or so we managed to grab a table. I was pretty pleased with our back up plan not just because the Arthur is a lovely pub but because it (and the rest of the ETM pubs) are currently running a series of game specials. (An email from them rather gratuitously boasts that “every November, Tom and Ed Martin and some of our senior chefs travel to the Czech Republic to hunt for deer and wild boar deep in the vast forests.”) This wasn’t a proposition I was likely to tempt the missus with so I was excited by the direction Friday night had spontaneously headed in. Intending to make the most of this I ordered two courses off the specials board. Unfortunately both truned out to be misleading and underwhelming.
The first was ox cheek and mushroom dumpling with red cabbage and bacon jus. When I think of a dumpling in the context of English cooking, I think of a snooker ball-sized lump of sticky, steaming flour or suet straight from a meaty broth. Instead what appeared was a something more akin to a fist-sized and deep-fried potato coquette. There was no appreciable taste of ox or mushroom, just warm solid stodge. It was placed on top of an absolutely enormous portion of cabbage, if you’d ordered this as a side for the tabel you’d have thought it generous. I know there is a lot of cabbage about at the moment but that doesn’t mean it all has to end up on the plate.
So I was already unneccessarily full by the time I moved to my main course of roe stew with caramelised onion and roast chesnut topping served with parsely mash. (our waitress helpful pointed out that this was wild deer rather than fish egg stew, apparently an earlier patron had been confused!) This again came with a huge amount of cabbage – savoy, this time, and drenched in butter. What it didn’t come with was any mash. Instead, this was roe and potato stew with a bit of parsley thrown in. I just don’t understand how on Earth this can happen, was the menu chalked up before the dish was created? Did they suddenly have second thoughts in the kitchen? I won’t have ordered the dish if it had been described accurately but at ten o’ clock at night I certainly wasn’t going to send it back, monster starter or not. On its own terms it continued to disappoint. The onions weren’t caramellised, only softened, and tasted strongly of vinegar, the chesnuts were pureed and disappeared into the vinegar, underneath there was lots of meat in the pot but it stringy and flavourless, lacking the depth I expect from game, and not well complemented by the parsely.
Meanwhile, N was more modest with fried sprats (impossible to get wrong but again huge) and fish and chips (a classic that they usually do well but both aspects were limp on this occassion). This came to a whopping £60 with just one pint of Amstel. Astonishingly poor value for mediocre cooking from a kitchen I had thought had been on the up and up.
Octavia E Butler is a renowned science fiction novelist but I’ve accidentally managed to choose the only one of her novels which isn’t SF for this series of posts on science fiction novels written by women. Whoops. I picked Kindred because it appeared to be the most popular of her novels but, as with so many of the titles I’ve selected for the series, it isn’t in print in the UK. Originally published in 1979, my copy is the 1988 Bluestreak edition (“a paperback series of innovative literary writing, featuring works by women of all colors”) from Beacon Press, featuring an introduction from Robert Crossley (which unfortunately hasn’t been updated since it was originally published).
The thing that misled me into thinking Kindred was science fiction is the fact it is a time travel story. More accurately, Dana, a young black American women living in Seventies California, finds herself flung back in time to the Deep South at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Crossley remarks, perhaps unnecessarily, that “Butler is silent on the mechanics of time travel.” (p.x) That is understandable but it soon becomes clear Butler isn’t even interested in using magic to tell a science fictional story. Dana finds herself pulled back in time because a young white boy, Rufus, is drowning. She saves his life only to find herself threatened by his father. This is enough to snap her back to the present. Here, for reasons of pure plot expediency, she finds mere seconds have passed rather than minutes. This allows Butler to yank Dana back to the past every time Rufus is in danger but whilst he ages, Dana does not.
My wife read the novel earlier in the year and warned me that it as extremely boring. Perhaps that coloured my own reading but I certainly found it a tedious slog. Butler begins her book with the words: “I lost my arm on my last trip. My left arm.” (p.1) It is a great first line, the matter of fact repetition makes the sentence and promises tension and revelation. Unfortunately Butler does everything she can to strip this away, to close down her text as much as possible.
The second time Dana is forced to save the remarkably accident prone Rufus, she realises that he is her great-great-grandfather. This familial connection supposedly sets up a moral dilemma because it means she is tied to him and must be complicit in his sins to ensure her own survival but since this contrived ‘what if’ could never be it lacks any force. Instead, Dana is locked into a cycle of psychological and physical torture from which there can be no escape due to authorial fiat.
Crossley describes the power Rufus exerts as “an irresistible psychohistorical force, not a feat of engineering.” (p.x) It is a similar psychic power that propels Connie through time in Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Verge Of Time, published three years earlier. There are important differences, however. To start with, Connie has at least some agency; she does not have control but she has some influence. Dana has nothing, she is tossed around at random. More importantly, Connie is moving forwards through time which allows Piercy to compare Seventies America to a utopian potential future. Since Dana moves backwards, however, it is only possible to compare two specific periods in the history of the United States. This closes down a huge amount of potential.
Part of the problem is that compared to a straight historical novel, the timeslip removes a lot of the work (and hence engagement) for the reader. Instead of learning the world ourselves, piecing together its differences to our own time, we have Dana standing in the way, relaying it to us through her own filter.
“I never realised how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” (p.101) If that is the case then Dana isn’t very bright; more likely, Butler isn’t treating the reader with enough respect.
On page 188, Dana goes back to the future once more and I gave up on the book. Recommendations for better Butler novels would be welcomed in the comments.
I’m writing this not long after the announcement of the Hugo Awards at Renovation and again musing about science fiction’s apparent Transatlantic divide. The Hugo Award for Best Novel was won by Connie Willis for two books, Blackout and All Clear, which form a single novel. This novel runs to almost 1,200 pages and I’ve yet to see anyone suggest such verbiage was necessary or served any purpose beyond making the poor reader pay twice for the same story. I’ve also yet to see anyone in the UK praise the novel at all. Rather I’ve seen it remorselessly criticised for research so sloppy it is borderline offensive. In contrast, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House – winner of the BSFA Award and Vector reviewers’ poll as well as being shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award – came last in the vote.
This is less about the taste of the Hugo voters – although there is always scope for criticism on those grounds – than the fact publishing in the US and UK seems increasingly out of synch. It is something I noticed earlier in the year when Locus published their recommended reading list and you can also see it on the rest of the Hugo shortlist. Although Blackout/All Clear ultimately won the award, Mira Grant’s Young Adult zombie novel Feed gained the most first preferences. Like NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it was published in this country by Orbit and received mixed but respectable reviews. The final book on the list, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn, hasn’t been published in this country. This gives a sense that the US and the UK are two quite distinct science fiction cultures.
The Transatlantic divide is more prominent whilst being simultaneously less important in other award categories. No one will be surprised that the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form award consisted of five American films. Even the latest instalment in the surprisingly good Harry Potter series, which makes much use of British labour, is ultimately American under its skin. (Britain does have the dubious honour of having a stranglehold on Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form thanks to Doctor Who.)
For me, it is a much more interesting list than that for Best Novel. It goes without saying that Toy Story 3 is the best film on that list, it also goes without saying that Inception won (but it is hard to get too upset about that). As I said, I liked the Death Hallows Part 1 for its successful polishing of JK Rowling’s turd and, although I hated Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (in large part because I had read the comics), I know a lot of people took it to their hearts. The only film on the list I hadn’t seen was How To Train Your Dragon, based on a series of children’s novels by Cressida Cowell. Having now seen it, I can report that whilst a lot of fun, it shows why Dreamworks will always play second fiddle to Pixar.
Hiccup is a weedy little kid, completely out of place in his village of burly Viking warriors. The biggest and burliest is Stoick the Vast, chief of the village and Hiccup’s dad (as is inevitably the case with Hollywood films, his mother is safely dead). To compensate for his lack of physical prowess, Hiccup is a brilliant engineer, although of course this talent is not held in any esteem by the others. Completely isolated, he secretly lusts after Astrid, a girl who embodies all the Viking virtues he does not. I think you can see where this is going: Hiccup uses his brain to save the day, make his dad proud and get the girl.
The not-so-secret ingredient that adds some much needed spice to the extremely familiar structure of the films is the dragons. They eat the villagers’ sheep and burn down their houses and, however many the villagers kill, there are always more. Despite this rather grim premise, it is joyfully outlined in a clever opening sequence. In another nice touch, there are many different types of dragon, the most deadly and feared being the Night Fury which is so fast no one has actually seen one. Using his mastery of technology, Hiccup manages to wing one but when he catches up with the downed beast he finds himself unable to deliver the coup de grâce. From this a friendship develops between the two because – who would have thought it? – the dragons are just misunderstood. It’s hokey and overly familiar but the animators do a great job of non-verbally conveying the dragon’s intelligence and personality.
And that sums up How To Train Your Dragon: there is quite a bit of wit but it never manages to rise about its generic plotting. As for Blackout/All Clear, well, I’ll be reading it later in the year (Gollancz publish the second volume here in October) so I’ll be able to see if it is as witless British reviewers have suggested or whether the Hugo voters are really onto something.
- Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It, exhibition (20 May to 25 September 2011, British Library) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm by John Clute (Beccon, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- Embassytown by China Miéville (PanMacMillan, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- The Noise Within and The Noise Revealed by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010 and 2011) – Reviewed by Ian Sales
- Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Chris Amies
- Son of Heaven by David Wingrove (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (Simon and Schuster, 2011) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
- Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek, translated by David Short (Hesperus, 2011) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
- Black Halo by Sam Sykes (Pyr, 2011) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- The Heir Of Night by Helen Lowe (Orbit, 2010) – Review by Mark Connorton
- The Hammer by KJ Parker (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- The Inheritance by Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm (Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Amanda Rutter
- Regicide by Nicholas Royle (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Dave M Roberts
- Epitaph by Shaun Hutson (2010, Orbit) – Reviewed by Martyn Taylor
- The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Horns by Joe Hill (Gollancz, 2010) – Review by Lalith Vipulananthan
- Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (Corgi, 2010), The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson (Corgi, 2009) and I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2010) – Reviewed by Jessica Yates
- Ghost of a Chance by Rhiannon Lassiter (Oxford University Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
- The Prometheus Project: Stranded by Douglas E Richards (Paragon Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry