Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Blood Runs in the Water: L. J. Adlington, The Diary of Pelly-D, (London: Hodder Children's Books, 2005).

I dislike allegory.
I dislike Holocaust literature even more.
L. J. Adlington has written a book which is essentially an sf version of The Diary of Anne Frank.

I love it.

It's taken me days to blog on this one because first of all I had to calm down and settle my distress. Adlington has really pulled off something quite special here. The book starts when Toni V, a young worker on a construction site, finds a diary. As he reads more of it, the book, and Toni V's thoughts, interact to build the world around us.

We gradually learn that we are on a different planet and that the humans on this planet have been adapted for the climate. They have gills and need/want to swim pretty much all the time. Water is crucial to their economy and their culture. Apart from that, there seems to have been a war. Toni V is involved in reconstruction, Pelly-D, the author of the diary, was a rich and pretty high school student.

What happens in Pelly-D's life is that two Cities become bellicose. One sees itself as genetically superior because it's population carries an expressed gene--Adlington never tells us what this gene does, and there is some speculation that it might not do anything. This City, City One, begins demanding help for a water shortage. Meanwhile in Pelly-D's City Three, while the demands of City One are eventually resisted, the politicians begin to make use of the same gene-ist rhetoric of their opponents. One of the fascinating tricks Adlington pulls is that those who are discriminated against in City Three, cannot call what is happening racism because there is no insult worse than racist.

Pelly-D finds that while her Dad carries the all important gene, she and the rest of the family don't. This isn't a tale of heroism. Dad deserts his family, allows them to be moved to a ghetto (the artists quarter, because all of this gene type is considered artistic) and he does nothing to help or rescue them when it becomes clear that their lives are threatened.

The diary ends there, but it's impact extends into the future. Toni V starts to think about who can and cant afford things; what it is he and his friends are digging over and destroying and he begins to wonder why. At the end, he wonders what has happened to the people who once lived here and realises that he may be part of the Final Solution.

What makes this book work is the way Adlington unfolds the world. Pelly-D's diary is incomplete, it tells only what a high school girl would think to tell, there are no info dumps. Similarly, what Toni V can tell us is bound by his knowledge of the world. The book is actually a useful reminder of how little even the complicit can know of genocide.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Not all earthquakes move the soul: Diane Browne, A Tumbling World...A Time of Fire (Jamaica: Arawak, 2002).

Thank you to Nalo Hopkinson for bringing this one back from Jamaica for me. It isn't very good, but always helpful to reach beyond imperialist shores.

Vanessa and Kerry get sent to their aunt and uncle for the vacation-a punishment for poor grades. Uncle sends them back into the past in his Time Mill.

Annoyingly, the machine covers space as well as time so they end up in Kingston. They have encounters with people, work out they are in 1907 and eventually experience the earthquake of the period. The whole thing feels like a Disney experience. Browne has a number of social issues she wants her readers to recognise, but hair straightening seems the most important (social and class divisions are described, but not processed by either author or protagonists). And beyond all of this, the "pay off", the experience of the earthquake, just doesn't work--it's limp.

I don't think this book is flawed because it's poor sf, it's just an aimless book. The time travel is there to give a history lesson and inspire children with an interest in the past but it is all just too obvious.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Space Men in Wales: Louise Lawrence, Star Lord, (London: the Bodely Head, 1987).

Well, after all that bitching, I have an interesting book to talk about, although I do have one or two issues.

Louise Lawrence's Starlord is straightforward enough. A space ship crash lands and a family, Enid Wiliams (mother), Gywneth (daughter), Rhys (son) and Hywel Thomas (grandfather) find a survivor, a very beautiful young boy. The army is after him and they first hide him, find him a doctor, and eventually help him escape through a portal in the mountain.

A number of things had me hooked: the writing is really stylish ( a huge contrast to Morgan,) but it is the way in which it was stylish which interested me.

One of my complaints has been the degree to which so many of these books are really about a family situation. The same could be said of Star Lord but Lawrence treats the family situation the way we would expect an sf writer to treat any problem: she tells us as little as possible and leaves us to work it out. Even at the end we only think we know what the issues were--Enid's bad choice of men, possibly more than one, the last one probably violent. We aren't even sure if her children have the same father, we don't know what her father thinks about all of this, and we only have hints of what Gwyneth and Rhys think. Similarly, Gwyneth and Rhys's hopes and ambitions are only hinted at.

The effect of this is that when Lawrence introduces the supernatural in the same voice it escapes the usual coyness of this technique. I almost managed to suspend my disbelief in a mountain with sentience which was also a portal to a different land--a fairy land. Her decision to tell only minimum both imparts to the mood a sense of the sinister--both people and landscape remain reticent to the last--and allows her to get away with a combination of fantasy and sf that would usually have me ranting. Even though Enid communes with the mountain, it doesn't feel out of place with the spaceship.

What did depress me, because it was so unnecessary, is that Lawrence has the mountain power be hostile to new technology, she [the mountain] strikes (and brought down the spaceship) "because his power was not like hers". And her power is unquestionable: mysteries such as the Bermuda triangle are better not challenged. All a bit odd really and definitely a closure of the imagination not an opening out. At the end, Rhys is trapped in the mountain (or the world the other side of the portal) but the Star Lord gets home. Enid and Gwyneth move away and Enid marries the army captain she deceived. Rhys's dog sits on the hillside and refuses to move for the next ten years, fed by the villagers until she dies. This "invasion" has been momentary, its consequences entirely personal. Science cannot challenge Gaia.

Lawrence gets away with it because--unusually for these writers--she pays attention to the idea that form of language shapes the content of the novel.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Ignoring everything you ever learned about writing: Nicola Morgan, Sleepwalking (London: Hodder, 2004).

The most difficult thing about keeping this blog, particularly now I'm reading less, is finding something good to say. Re-reading some of my comments I'm rather forcibly reminded of that old saying "If you have nothing good to say, say nothing." Unfortunately, at least until September when I'll be able to get back into the library, read a much wider range of fiction, and get stuck back into the cognitive development and education work, I'm confined to a small number of books with little control over whether what I talk about is actually of interest or not. (Dissing books is not, after a certain point, very interesting.)

I wish today's blog were something different. It ought to be. Nicola Morgan is a very fine writer. Monday's are Red (about synasthesia) was a brilliant book, and on the edge of slipstream. I get the feeling though that when Morgan embarked on Sleepwalking she somehow decided that the same children who she would expect to work out what was going on when a boy "tasted" red, couldn't cope with a fully constructed and alien future.

Until page 56 this entire book "tells you about". Up to page 31, the book is a short story which tells us about the world, with lots of explanation about Citizens (the drugged), Specials (those who responded badly to the drugs), Outsiders (who rejected the drugs). Even given that this will turn out to be a "told story" it's pretty clumsy. And it's followed by a chapter in which a teacher decides what the children in his care need to do, thinks through them, describes them all to us, and describes the world in his head. Morgan makes a very specific and very basic mistake when she does this, and then later allows him to have told, the students about their mission in a little time elipse. She doesn't really have a choice because she can't repeat the information, but it makes the children (teens) seem very passive.

Off the teens then go to change the world: they meet the Outsiders from whom they have been sheltered (they've been brought up in Balmoral Castle in a secret school), discover the horror of real poverty, and the horror of being drugged up--there is a very unsubtle anti-drugs message here--they discover the world is ruled by a computer which runs the world according to stories, and at the moment the top two stories are 1984 and Brave New World. They replace the stories with one story, a story of a Princess giving birth to Hope. Then they leave and go off and make their own lives, which turn out to be about falling in love and "growing up". The Butler at the castle turns out to be a secret conspirator and plotting to take over the world and we leave it there.

I can offer my usual criticisms: Morgan puts more effort into "teen issues" than she does the sf; the book is mostly about parental expectation and teen rebellion and finding their own place; clearly there is consequence at the end, and I do quite like the fact that Morgan both shows consequence and teen indifference/solispism re the consequences, although her teens lack the idealism I associate with 16 yr olds.

But my real criticisms here are not about the structure of the book, which actually comes a lot closer to my Constant of "real sf" than do many of the books that I've read but about the writing. It's very passive, very explanatory, and unbelievably clunky. Take this one example chosen simply by random opening of the book:

"They ran round the end of the lockers, and hid out of sight of the door. They were each behind a different row of lockers, pressed against the cold sides. Livia was the closest to the door. Marcus was the closest to Livia. They fixed their eyes on each other while straining to catch any noise. She stared at every part of his face, as if she might never see him again." [my italics]

Apart from the really awful, overwrought and inappropriate moment of straining emotion, take a look at the bit I put in italics. Department of x-ray vision? Definitely one for Thog's Masterclass.

And this is a writer I would have otherwise recommended to you unreservedly. Clearly when she set out to write sf, she decided that it had nothing in common with real writing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Never Mind the Politics, Feel the Faith: Fay Sampson, Them (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2005).Never Mind the Politics, Feel the Faith:

Britain seems to be a theme park. Berlewen is Countess of Cornwall, her parents the Grand Duke and Duchess. All is well on the estate, and servants mind their manners and mostly try not to be seen--as at Disney, the "true" inhabitants aren't supposed to see the technicians.

Then THEY forbid Berlewen and her family to leave their estate--they aren't allowed to ride their horses off the grounds. This is followed by a summons for Berlewen's services, but unfortunately her pet, an enkenethal, a sort of alien wolf-hound, chases them off and Berlewen decides to flee accompanied by her maid, Honesty.

Honesty and Berlewen have adventures. They meet the Robin Hood rebels and sing "One new morning my Prince will appear" (I joke not, it's the words of a freedom song). Eventually they and their friends will rescue the slaves and begin the liberation of the world from the Stalinists of the Freedom and Justice party. Along the way the earth moves and a dragon goddess emerges, and eventually there is an eclipse during which no guns work--this helps the peasant's revolt a great deal.

Although there is a nice hint that the pet (called "Prince" by Honesty) might be the saviour of them all, at the end, the Prince turns out not to be the boy who serves the soup.

Can you tell I didn't much like this book? OK, in order:
1. The style is verbose and over-written. I'm not sure it would have bothered me in a fantasy book but here it seemed constantly over the top, and its emphasis on landscape and describing people subsumed the rather interesting rebellion which was going on.
2. The politics are a mess. By this I don't mean that I don't agree, but that they never make sense; there is a token gesture to the idea that rulers may believe they are acting for the best when they behave tyrannically, but it never really hits home, and there is no sense at all of what might replace THEM. The faith in the monarchy is touching.
3. They are rescued by the dragon-goddess. This is fantasy, not sf.

And finally:
4. I started to get quite uneasy about two thirds of the way through. I'm still not certain why I was bothered. Maybe the setting in Cornwall? Glastonbury as a place of refuge?

Anyway, I wasn't in the least bit surprised when the actual prince, at the end, starts to act not like a prince, but like a Saviour.

He appears to have been in three places at once. Honesty remembers feeling that the prince was always with her. He bakes bread and serves soup to his followers. He appoints three leaders to act in his name (Honesty, Berlewen and her brother). He gives them staffs of office. He defines being a prince as "being with your people, all of them, wherever they are, sharing their suffering, bearing as much of it as you can. The ruler of all must be the servant of all." (248)

He refuses to rule; "I have shown you the laws by which this world was made to run. [I must have missed a chapter because I didn't notice.] Now I need delegates to carry on my work. Some people will muck out stables in my name, read bedtime stories in my name, keep account books in my name, and yes, govern a country in my name." (249)

Sorry lady, you've been rumbled. One G. P. Taylor is more than enough, and neither of you have the panache of C. S. Lewis.

A ps: just before posting it occured to me to check the publisher. I apologise. No deception is intended Lion Publishing is a Christian press. Odd though that there is more than a whiff of paganism about this novel.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Bobby Socks and Hotrods: Bernal C. Payne Jr, Trapped in Time (Archway Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1986)

[a reprint of It's About Time, 1984]

A back to the future book in which two very unconvincing teens wish themselves back to 1955 to see their "perfectly matched parents" meet and fall in love, only to discover their parents hated each other, and in addition to interfere in their parent's first meeting.

The book is sickly and sentimental and mostly doesn't work. And it doesn't work because Payne never really thinks about what it would be like to be a kid thrown back into the past. Although lots of differences are noticed, many that ought to be slide by, and there is no actual thought involved, so that the protagonists note how "cheap" clothes and food are, but although in their teens never consider that wages would be much lower.

The scene that is most revealing of the absence of sf-nal sensibility is when the Priest is testing the children. He asks them a very long sequence of prepared questions about the future and they rattle off the answers.

There are two problems:
1. They have told him far too much if they don't want to change the world in anyway. The man could lay bets on every Presidential election and feed every poor person in the parish on the results.
2. They tell him about "men walking on the moon, satellites circling the earth, nuclear powered ships, heart and kidney transplants, computers the size of radios,and calculators the size of a watch." What puzzled me about this list was what the Priest could have asked--he doesn't (as far as I can tell) allow the kids to free associate. The question that occurs is "what new inventions are there" but if he asked that, are these the things a 15 yr old would come up with? Back to the Future did this much better.

Which is another point. Back to the Future was released in 1985, this book in 1984. Does anyone know if there is a connection? They are awfully similar.

In the end the book just never really gets into the head of a time traveller. For all the description of difference and the kids' fear that they will disappear, there is no real sense of disorientation. I think this is partially because the story is told in the first person retrospective, so that the entire works as a travelogue through the past. It becomes a picture show rather than an awfully scary adventure.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Playing in the Islands of Hate: Jan Mark, Useful Idiots, (London; David Fickling Books, 2004)

Two notes before I start; I'm actually using the pb because my hb is stuck in Dublin (an improvement on the rest of my books which are in storage) and I heard a rather excellent paper on this book by Mary Harris Russell only a month ago and before I read the book. As I don't have a copy of the paper, I've fuzzy on what are Mary's ideas, what are mine, and what are a combination of the two.

Useful Idiots reminds me a lot of John Christopher, Richard Cowper and specifically Robert Westall's Futuretrack . The book is set post flood in a drowned world. The UK is now islands, part of a European Federation. Nationalism is viewed with suspicion, racialism (ie the identification of oneself through race, not prejudice against the other) is even dodgier, but despite this each landmass has its own pockets of racial hold outs. In the Isles they are the Inglish, descended from the kind of people who think weights and measures are part of our identity, but who also tend to be all white.

The story is of Merrick Korda, an archaeology grad student who helps to dig up a contested body. The story turns out not to be about the contestation of the body but the role of this dig in some people's attempt to get aboriginal protection acts overturned and -- one presumes--either reclaim the land or destroy the aboriginals. In the course of the novel we see vicious exploitation (the aboriginals have been used--in the past--to cultivate a kind of oyster generated in human bone by the horsefly), real racial prejudice (Merrick turns out to be only third generation assimilated, ie an aboriginal in inheritance--this bit doesn't quite make sense, his skin colour would be notiecable, surely), and a rape (which led MHR to speculate on whether this was really a YA novel--by sense is that given similar themes in the earlier The Ennead and that in this novel adolescence lasts into one's thirties, then yes).

I thought the plot a great deal better than most of the books I've read so far, for an oddly enough non sf reason. Most of the other books seemed to be confined to what we think of as "Sf plots". By this I mean that the plots themselves were about sf-ness. Meet the alien, travel to the new planet, be invaded, reject the invaders. Mark in contrast has realised what sf as a genre accepted long ago--you can make sf out out any plot. This book is the classic secret conspiracy to be uncovered, made sf by the context and the construction.

So, to context and construction: the unfolding of the world is done brilliantly in what I think of as the "classic" way: you tell the audience what is, and only later do you explain it. In addition, Mark uses the limitations of her society to create problems, so that a DNA test can't be done on the found bones because it would encourage nationalism. The email virus Comfort and Joy trashed the world's computer archives but there are still books, and "disgust" emptied the museums. The riffs on contrived "disgust" are wonderful. Mark is witty and snide.

I have only one doubt. Don't get me wrong, I don't always want happy endings, and I know the world cannot be remade at the end of each book. But when I got to the end of this book--which I already knew, I felt let down. At the end, Merrick loses the pearl he has been cultivating as evidence to defend the aboriginals (it's complicated). It is stolen by the very people he hoped to defend, who would rather just have the money and run. In some ways, this is very realistic, but it reminded me very strongly of those YA post-nuclear holocaust books which end with the "you can't fix it if it's broke, so we are all going to die unless *you* the reader, fixes it now". There is something hopeless about it. So I ought to like the ambivalence of this ending, but instead I'm left again thinking--all that trouble and no sense of consequence at the end, not even a sense that without the court case Merrick wanted, a genocide is about to be unleashed on the world, one in which Merrick might be caught up (he has already been noted by others to be aboriginal by descent).

At the end, Jan Mark implies that Merrick and his aboriginal friends can run off and it will change nothing about the world. Merrick will be free.

Let me say this flat out; Jan Mark perpetrates a lie. Merrick has changed something. He stood at a Jonbar point and failed. There will be consequences. This book refuses at the end to accept the hints it contains.

I could conclude there, but just want to say that this is not unusual for a Jan Mark book. The Ennead also ends with the same message of ineffectualness, the same argument that the individual cannot make a difference. Merrick's failure does not, as Merrick seems to think, excuse him from trying again.

None of which stops me from loving the book.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

by Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1945

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Polish up that Sense of Wonder: Nancy Etchemendy, Stranger from the Stars (New York: Avon, 1983).

I'm puzzling over this book because it has all the right ingredients, but somehow the cake sank in the oven.

Ruthie Keag lives on a ranch. She has two best friends, Kate the bookworm and Tom the town badboy. She is fascinated by electronics and has a table full of equipment in her room, but is also girl-soppy about her horse.

One day she sees an odd looking stranger out in the range, and when she returns, Tom is trying to kill him. She scares Tom off.

As the story progresses we learn the stranger is an anthropologist from an inter-planetary culture, crash landed on the planet by a member of the crew who stole an artefact of Earth and killed two other crew members to hide what he had done. Tom has taken the wrong side, but knowingly. A kid from the wrong side of the tracks, he has aligned with his alien in the hope he'll be taken off planet.

One of the key issues will be Ruthie getting the alien's communicator to work again, and this is pretty effective--Ruthie lines up all the damaged communicators, decides which is least broken and then works through it, comparing each part to the parts in the other more damaged models until she manages to assemble all the working components and it functions.

The communicator brings rescue and the aliens leave. Tom wonders if they will keep their promise to come back.

One noteable difference to some other books is that by the end none of this is secret: the whole town knows and the men of the town are involved. The recursion is mostly that we have no sense of wider consequence rather than that the town is left utterly unmarked.

But what really bothers me is that somehow, Nancy Etchemendy managed to make this story dull. There is no sense of wonder. What I think went wrong is that she desperately wanted a hero who was a girl and was scientific, but was terrified of putting girls off with a "nerd". The result is that there is a constant mild sense of apology for Ruthie's interests, and they are kept coralled and confined to that table. When she isn't in her room, Ruthie doesn't think about science. We may be sf fans but you could never imagine Ruthie at an sf convention.

Sunday, April 10, 2005


Greg asked of my post on Outland "Why Orientalism?"

Sorry to be so slow responding, I tried to post before but the site just wasn't having it.

I'm working on another book on rhetorics of fantasy. In that, while looking at the quest fantasy, I was struck by how much the worlds that were built were there for the sole purpose of journeying through--Diana Wynne Jones also talks about this. If you look at Edward Said's famous Orientalism the qualities he pinpoints are "unchangingness", "thinness" (ie the world feels like a stage set) and the sense that nothing happens when the protagonists aren't there (Roderick Townley's masterpiece, The Great Good Thing proceeds from this conceit). In these tales, the story "belongs" to the protagonist, even if it is one which is about the salvation of the fantasy world. So that in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the all of the later books, real adventures of a world changing nature can only happen when one of us is there to make it happen.

Lassiter manages to escape all of this. This is a real world and the story belongs to the world, not to the protagonists. This is made clearest at the end when an indigenous character sacrifices a nice world-farer for the sake of long term politics.

[Book blog tomorrow, I promise. I've just spent an entire weekend in meetings.]

Thursday, April 07, 2005

All the world in a library: Rhiannon Lassiter, Outland (Oxford: OUP, 2004)

This appears to be book two, the first is Borderland the third is Shadowland. I'm hopeless with most trilogies, I just can't be bothered ( I still haven't bought the latest Liam Hearn) but this series I want.

InOutland Rhiannon Lassiter has made a YA sf story out Borges' "The Library at Babel". I kid you not.

What I think happened in book one was that three teens, Laura and Alex (siblings) and Morgan, a goth chick, found a doorway into another world. Morgan discovered she had small magics which gave her rank as mage, Laura took up politics and Alex took up armies.

Morgan met Charm and Ciren who turned out to be World travellers. Charm can read minds, Ciren can read magics. She also took up with Kal, ruler of the desert fortress,

Alex and Laura meanwhile took up with the desert nomads who were under increasing pressure from the fortress people and also from the neighbouring empire (which also had it's eye on the fortress and saw "pacifying" the nomads as a way to get both--the political discussions in this book would not be out of place in a Ken MacLeod novel). Alex acquired a nomad girlfriend (Jhezra) while Laura imported an acolyte, a girl from earth called Zoe.

It all went horribly wrong and Alex brought down the fortress with mines and killed pretty much everyone.

In this book Morgan and Kal are working their way through the Library with Ciren and Charm and getting ever more unhappy about the two.

Alex, Jhezra, Zoe and Laura first have to get out of the collapsed fort which they do through a Door, work their way through another world and eventually also land in the Library. Laura is blind thanks to Morgan's curse, Zoe and Jhezra are discovering they don't much like Laura or Alex, and Alex is completely impervious to anything resembling a learning experience.

The book is mostly about the adjustments each person is going through after the disaster of book one. Nothing happens and it is the most rivetting nothing happening I can remember in a long time. Lassiter uses the Library of Babel brilliantly. Underneath the apparent scholarship are factions, and ideologies and quite possibly a little war. The nice characters end up being sucked into the wrong side, the really horrible Laura manipulates the nicer factions. Lassiter seems to have broken through the awful closed orientalism of the quest fantasy to create a constant sense of confusion rather than destiny, and there is a very real sense that this world does not belong to the questors, and that Laura and Alex are so damn dangerous because they think it does.

But is it sf? I think so, because the explanations suggested (not given but argued) for the construction of the Library and for the Doors are about physics. Laura finds herself wondering if the Library is a Dyson Sphere. Alex insists that even where there is magic there are rules or the universe would fall apart,

Is it young adult? Interesting: Lassiter makes no bones about the fact that some of the characters are lovers (she uses the words). To my relief only two of them are in love (don't get me started on the insistence of some writers of "excusing" underage sex with love, personally I think lust is a healthier response from 14 yr olds). But there is coyness, We get chapters ending with the implication of sex, and then starting with kissing, On the whole, there is that sense of censorship which makes it feel YA even though the characters and plot could fit happily into the adult genre.

The end of the book is unpleasant. Things do not go well. But we know who the villain is: he uses the leaves of a book as toilet paper.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Child of the Adventuress: Philip Reeve, Infernal Devices (London: Scholastic Press, 2005).

The sequel to Mortal Engines and Predator's Gold finds Tom and Hester grown up (36, my own age--ouch), living in Anchorage which has settled on the coast of America, and with a fifteen year old daughter of their own, Wren.

I truly don't want to spoil this book for people so I will just say that Wren, in search of excitement, follows the Lost Boys and ends up kidnapped and a slave. Reeve, as ever the wry satirist, comes out with some briliantly sly lines.

Later, Wren would sometimes tell people that she knew what it was like to be a slave, but she didn't, not really." (111)

Reeve has worked out how to write Grand Romance without writing sentiment, and this ties in with the one thing I do want to talk about which is how Reeve writes the generational shift in this book, because he seems to write it with an awareness of the cultural shaping of childhood we've discussed.

For most of the book, Wren waits to be rescued. She does show some ingenuity, but never quite enough and is unable to effect her own release. In the end, it is Tom and Hester who enable her to get away. Now some of this may be because the story is really Tom and Hester's--interesting stuff happens there which will presumably be picked up in the final book A Darkling Plain--but Reeve also makes it quite clear that it is in part because Wren is a child of different circumstances. Tom and Hester, abandoned orphans with only their own wits to rely on, were tough and ingenious characters, and Tom was gentler because he had experienced a kinder world. Wren is the cosseted daughter of two people who stand high in Anchorage. As Reeve points out, it's quite new for Wren to have to even consider whether to trust those around her.

So that while the first two books were precisely about kicking children into the world to cope as best they can, this third book is much more recursive because the child has been brought up to look towards home for her goals. The trajectory of the adventure changes because the possibilities for the child have changed.

Interesting I think.

Friday, April 01, 2005

That essay I promised.

Tonight's reading (Linda Newberry's The Firefly Gate) proved to be a ghost story not a time travel novel. Very good but nothing for me to post here. So instead I finally got my act together and posted the promised paper I delivered in Nova Scotia. I've tidied it up only minimally. It's still raw thought and bits of it don't link, don't make sense or don't really work at all. But here you go. Nova Scotia Essay.

If you feel like commenting, it makes more sense to comment here than over at the essay.

The World is Shivering: Ann Halam, Siberia (London: Orion, 2005).

I've read Ann Halam's other sf, but I've always preferred the books she writes for the adult market (under the name Gwyneth Jones). This time round I happened to have read her newest adult sf novel, Life about three weeks before I picked up Siberia . Life won the Philip K. Dick Award last week, and while I have some issues with the portrayal of University life (which is about fifteen years out of date) it is a really masterful discussion of how science, scientific thinking, and the whole process of argument and experiment proceeds. It's in these areas precisely that I think Siberia , while not necessarily a better novel, is more gripping.

Halam uses some of the things I've been saying about child development to explore the differences between technology we use, and science which we understand. That isn't her aim by the way: in some ways this is a classic eco-agenda novel, but because it has this argument running underneath Halam can maintain a tension in the novel which prevents it ever becoming over didactic, and her choice of a growing child described by the adult she grows into also lets her show the development of understanding, and the mismatch between adult explanation and child comprehension.

But to the novel. It starts with Rosita remembering her arrival in a Settlement camp with her mother. She is four years old and she remembers nothing before then. Her moment of Wakening is the realisation that her shoes are too thin for the hard packed snow beneath her.

One strand of the story is Rosita growing up in the Settlement, joining the school, hardening herself to her surroundings and becoming "Sloe", named for a hard and bitter berry. Sloe will eventually be sent to a rehabilltation school where she will inadvertantly betray her mother--her mother has broken the law by teaching her science--and eventually is expelled, at which point she returns home only to have to escape from the local gangs and the police carrying something they seem to want, the small walnut shell and tools that let her make Lindquists.

The Lindquists are the second strand of the story and they are where Halam has produced something very special, for this strand is told as a braid of mother love, fairy tale and science. Rosita/Sloe discovers the Lindquists when she spies on her mother "doing magic" one night. When one of the tiny kits escapes it develops into a squirrel like being that stays her friend for a year. Nivvy is much mourned when he dies, and this elegaic note is held throughout story. Nivvy remains a presence without ever becoming sentimentalised.

Rosita's mother, aware that her time might be running out, teaches Rosita how to maintain the Lindquists and what they are--compressed DNA that can express in many forms. This is one of the most important aspects of what Halam does. A lesser writer would have written this as the passing on of true knowledge and understanding. Halam does no such thing, instead, from early on we get, through Rosita's eyes, the accumulation of misconception and mis-reasoning. Rosita, as she realises herself by the time she is eight, spins the technology she witnesses into magic and fairy tale. The making of the Lindquists in their nutshell, their transformation into magical creatures, mutates into the Czech version of Cinderella. When the older child, Sloe, goes on the run with the Lindquists, she has to return to the recreation of first principles, dredging her memory for what her mother told her and what the policeman Yagin reveals about the various classes of animals so that she can learn to manipulate the "magic" to produce the right animal to aid and abet her.

At various stages through the novel we see this movement from the magical explanation to the scientific, and it is always handled with great delicacy. We don't realise Sloe thinks the animals' love for her is a magical bequest, until she is told that they are genetically keyed to her. Anything that looks like a fairytale (the bright clothes and friendly manners of the traders who save Sloe from the ice and blizzard), is eventually revealed to be something else, a part of a greater complexity of being.

Surrounding all of this tale is a story of a world genetically damaged, covered in ice and snow, in which human survival is bought at the expense of the animal world and in which the protection of the environment has become increasingly difficult as people have forgotten what it is they are protecting. "Natural" is no longer "familiar.

The novel has two endings, which address some of what we've been discussing about how an sf novel should end. One ending is Sloe's reunion with her mother after a trek across the ice that reminded me of the Genly Ai's journey in THe Left Hand of Darkness for its sheer power. The second ending however moves us out again, shows us Sloe leaving home to start a new life--there is a reunion with an old (male) friend but nothing is decided and their relationship seems to serve as a metaphor for the seeds Sloe carries, not the other way around.