The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead‘s novel The Underground Railroad (review copy from Little, Brown) has achieved an interesting double: winning the Pulitzer and the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2017.  It’s also shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  The Pulitzer, the Clarke and the Booker are unlikely bedfellows, but they show the impact this book has had.  Whitehead has written a magical realism novel about slavery in America, following escaped slave Cora on her journey to freedom.

Whitehead literalises the underground railroad of the book’s title, using it as the engine that drives Cora from state to state on her escape, experiencing different aspects of the slave experience.  Whitehead moves Cora through time as well as space, enabling him to fictionalise real events that took place over American history.  This is an analogue of Pilgrim’s Progress, or the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Cora finds in the library: a journey that is enabled and hindered by people she encounters, and tempting her to end her travelling and settle at various points on her way.

Cora’s journey is one from a closeted, pastoral existence to increasing social and political awareness, and growing personal agency.  Each step on her journey broadens her understanding of the world and increases her dissatisfaction, showing a different aspect of the discrimination and exploitation suffered by black people, both enslaved and free.  Some of that is obvious: the cruel plantation owners or the weekly lynchings of escaped slaves.  But some of it is much more subtle and insidious, including the benevolent white people seeking to instil their own values and practices, a thin veneer of tolerance concealing medical experimentation and other forms of control.

Most of all, The Underground Railroad shows how people are active and complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression.  The system sets people against each other, even those that might appear at first blush to be natural allies.  Poor Irish immigrants like the maid Rose are keen to separate themselves from those at the bottom of the heap; others find it an outlet for their saviour complexes; still others live in fear of setting themselves against their neighbours by standing up against poor treatment.

Ultimately, Cora’s choice is one to pursue and shape her own destiny, rather than to fall into the choices and structures of others.  Freedom comes in many forms, but that is the only one that truly counts.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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Archie, The Little Suitcase Who Could

Archie,

Eight and a half years ago, one December day in Cape Town, I welcomed you into my life.  Since then, you and I have had many wonderful adventures together.  We have been on many work trips away, but lots of fun times too.  We have travelled all over the country, and across the world.  Always you have been happy and eager to see what was waiting round the next corner, and excited for the next adventure.  You have been my constant, reliable, and cheerful companion, rattling along next to me with reassuring solidity and the promise of adventure.

Archie, with his happy smiling face

There was the time we got snowed into Belfast and I had to leave you there over Christmas because I wasn’t confident I could get you home in the snow.  I felt so guilty leaving you, but your happy, smiling face was waiting for me in January and I was so pleased to see you.

We have had so many fantastic nights away with friends.  I would pack you with excitement, and you’d carry pretty dresses, shoes and make up with ease.  For a while, when my life was different, we only did fun stuff together, but recently there have been more work trips.

You have been practically perfect in every way.  Your Mary Poppins-like interior holds a huge amount.  Your inner pockets are just so.  The secret space in your lid has held many emergency books and sets of work papers.  You nestle into overhead lockers like a pea in a pod, with your smiling face waiting to greet me the moment I open the door.  I can push or pull you with equal ease.  You helped me smuggle knitting projects  on flights before the security rules were relaxed and it was allowed again.

But you are showing your age, every scuff on your exterior a mark of the time we have spent together.  I’ve had to reluctantly make the decision to retire you.

A few weeks ago, the mechanism for your telescoping handle jammed.  It had been sticking increasingly frequently, but every time previously a determined jiggle would free it up.  Not this time.  I had to carry you back from Leicester, cradled in my arms like a child.  No amount of WD40 has been able to fix you.

Last week I went shopping for a new suitcase.  It felt like I was being unfaithful to you, walking around the shop looking at all the other suitcases and assessing what they had to offer.   Trying to imagine spending time with them in the way that I have done with you.  None of them were right, either.  Too flimsy, too ugly, and the wrong arrangement of pockets inside.  I came to the crushing realisation that I will never be able to replace you.  You are unique.

This week I go away on business, and I will take my new suitcase with me.  But every time I look at it I will feed sad.  Because it’s not you.

From Darkest Skies – Sam Peters

From Darkest Skies is the debut novel from Sam Peters (review copy from Gollancz).  It’s a crime thriller set on a colony world in space.  Agent Keon Rause is newly returned home and investigating the deth from drug overdose of a celebrity, while on the side investigating the death of his wife in a terrorist attack several years previously.

This is solid and dependable stuff.  Think of a mismatched crew of investigators, led by Rause, all with different skills and mysterious backgrounds.  Think of a simple investigation that reveals a major conspiracy that threatens the world.  Think of signs that the wife’s death was not all it appeared to be.  You know what to expect with this kind of thing.

The book does have some interesting aspects to it.  Agent Rause has created an illegal android analogue of his late wife, Alysha, with a personality matrix built from everything that has been recorded of her life, opinions and what she did and believed.  Rause uses it as a comfort as he fails to come to terms with her death.  But it’s an imperfect copy, lacking Alysha’s inner life and deepest thoughts.  The android is unable to help him piece together what motivated Alysha to run away in her final hours of life and find herself on a train that was blown up by terrorists.  From Darkest Skies asks us how well we can ever know a person, even in a world of omni-present social media and surveillance.

Some interesting world-building is hinted at too.  Alien beings called The Masters were responsible for the destruction of large parts of Earth, and for dispersing its population throughout the universe on a number of colony worlds.  This piece of history is only mentioned in passing in this novel, but if offers some fascinating hints of where future books could go.

I will watch with interest to see what Peters comes up with next.  This is a promising debut.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Space Between The Stars – Anne Corlett

Every now and then a book comes along that confirms to you that it’s not that you’re struggling to get excited about reading.  It’s just that the books you’ve been reading recently, while perfectly competently written, have just been a bit meh.  Anne Corlett‘s The Space Between The Stars (review copy from Pan Macmillan) is one of those astonishing, game-changing books that reminds you what reading should be about.

Corlett’s novel is the story of a universe after a highly contagious virus has wiped out most of humanity.  A tiny number of survivors – each of them one in a million – are scattered across colony worlds across the universe.  They must deal with what has happened and find a way of moving forward. The story focuses on Jamie Allenby, who had fled to a remote outpost from the breakdown of her relationshp following a miscarriage. She wakes alone after the virus has burned itself out, and sets out on a journey home to the Northumberland coast.  Along the way she meets a failed priest, a religoius scientist, a ship’s captain and his gruff engineer, a prostitute and a boy with autism.  These become her unlikely travelling companions on her journey to Earth and a hoped-for reconciliation with her partner Daniel – if he has survived the virus.

So far so Station Eleven.  But what sets The Space Between The Stars apart is its focus on the personal.  The small stories of the survivors and how they deal with the consequences of what has happened: grief and anger are real and there are no easy ways forward.  Let me be clear: this is not a big, galaxy spanning story of rebuilding civilisation or a Survivors-style tale of people banding together for protection against feral raiders in the ruins of our world.  Civilisation has ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

This is a story about humanity in all its chaotic glory.  Don’t expect the relentlessly saccharine positivity of The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet.  And that makes it a much better piece.  This is a book about how imperfectly we live together with one another.  It’s about the tension between our striving for privacy and independence, and our basic need for community and contact with one another.  It’s about the imperfect communications between us all.  It’s about the messy business of life and survival, and the way it does not fit neatly into the stories we tell one another, with their clarity of purpose and happy ever after endings.  Like the sea glass that Jamie collects on the beach, we are all unique: shaped and made beautiful by the pounding tides that rub us up against one another and the grit between us.

Goodreads rating: 5*

A Tale of Two Cons: Nine Worlds 2017 and WorldCon 75

It’s a TARDIS full of bras!

This summer I did the crazy thing that I last did back in 2014.  Two back to back conventions: Nine Worlds and WorldCon 75 in Helsinki.  Two crazy weeks of spending time with my geeky tribe, having my imagination and creativity stimulated and learning lots of things.  But they were very different events.

Things look different from up here – the view from the stage at Nine Worlds

In many ways, Nine Worlds has become my ‘home’ convention, even though its multi-disciplinary programming means it doesn’t always have the book content I instinctively crave.  This year I sought to help fix that, rather than just complain about it, by taking part in a panel for the first time.  My panel was Police and the Supernatural, which was a discussion about the works of Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell, both of whom have written supernatural police procedurals set in London, but ones that are very different in style.  We turned out to be the second most popular programme item after the Saturday night cabaret and disco, so no pressure there then!  It was a brilliant experience, I have to say: my fellow panellists were awesome and the time flew by.  What was particularly lovely was having people coming up to me the rest of the weekend (and in Helsinki!) saying how much they’d enjoyed it.

From L to R: me in cosplay as Missy, with a woman wearing a knitted Dalek dress and another woman cosplaying as the 13th Doctor

There were some fantastic programme items at Nine Worlds.  Some were thought-provoking (including a deeply interesting session on architecture and world-building in fiction, plus one on robots, AI and the labour market) and some were deeply silly, but they all shared a generosity and humility from the speakers.  And I learned a lot, for example about theories of education through the example of teaching in Harry Potter, or some amazing examples of powerful women in West African history.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

And it was just so much fun too.  As always, you stuck out if you weren’t in cosplay or dressed flamboyantly, and people were determined to enjoy themselves and facilitate the enjoyment of others by being relentlessly and furiously kind and thoughtful. Rarely have I encountered an environment that is so energetically inclusive and generous in its acceptance of others.  Diversity in all its forms is firmly within the DNA of Nine Worlds, proving that it’s possible to do with a bit of work – and it doesn’t take that much of it either.

Me wearing a dress with cats in space, standing next to a person cosplaying as No-Face from the film Spirited Away

Numbers were a bit down on last year, which was a bit of a shame.  I think that was in part because many people couldn’t afford the time or money for two conventions and had chosen to go to WorldCon instead.  Understandable, given how rarely it makes it across the Atlantic (of 75 WorldCons, only 8 have been outside North America, 5 of those in UK, and 3 of those in London).  But those of us there were made the most of it.

Me with Major Ursa, on Day 1 of WorldCon

WorldCon75 in Helsinki was a different kind of con.  Much more book-focused, but very traditional in its approach.  Being WorldCon, the spread of authors was much greater, with big names from the US and Canada that are rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic.  There is little like sitting there eating your dinner watching George R R Martin walk past, or going to what I dubbed the “Hangover Panel”: 2pm on Day 4 (the day after the Hugos) where famous writers like Robin Hobb, Elizabeth Bear and Jeff VanderMeer were talking about their cats.  With lots of cat pictures and funny stories about them ‘helping’ with the writing.

From the country that brought you Lordi: steampunk blacksmiths

WorldCon was huge.  There were around 7,000 people there, in a venue that was probably designed for about 4,000.  It got full very quickly, in a way the organisers had not foreseen.  This was the third-largest WorldCon in history, with the largest still being LonCon3 in 2014.  There were a lot of complaints about the crowds and the queuing, but the organisers were responsive and I never had any difficulties.  A bit of patience and planning got you into most things, and if you weren’t able to make it into one of the rooms then ther was bound to be something else on the programme that appealed.

A person dressed as an owl

But there were a couple of off-key aspects for me.  As with LonCon 3 this felt very US-centric and dominated by US concerns with a very low level of awareness of US cultural colonialism and its impacts.  That was uncomfortable for an event taking place in Finland, and at times it just felt plain tone-deaf.  The main example of this for me was a panel on resistance, which was composed entirely of US writers and led to a discussion dominated by Trump, healthcare and various issues in the US system, with only one panellist referencing non-US examples (Kameron Hurley talking about the experience of South Africa).  All of the over-riding cultural framing was the US narrative from its founding myths of resistance.  At one stage, one of the panellists suggested that paying one’s taxes in order to support other people in society was in some ways a rebellious act.  The audience pointed out with increasing irritation that this was normal in Europe.  In another panel, an audience member from the US questioned why the panel was discussing the work of two British writers rather than the US writers she named.

A recording of Tea and Jeopardy, with special guest George R R Martin

The panels themselves felt short – 45 minutes compared to the hour, hour and a quarter of Nine Worlds.  This meant they never really got beyond scratching the surface of a topic.  Panellists rarely got to speak more than twice during a discussion.  And some of them felt either poorly organised or poorly moderated – with panellists unsure why they had been selected for a particular panel, or with moderators taking a wildly different interpretation of the brief than appeared in the programme.

Authors talking about their cats

That sounds like I’m being harsh, and I guess I am.  But that didn’t stop it being an amazing event and an opportunity to meet and hear from people I don’t normally get to encounter in the UK.  But what really made the event was the awesome crowd of people I met and hung out with over the five days of the event, swapping ideas for panels and badge ribbons.

Best dressed club. From L to R: Ali, Helena and I

In two years’ time WorldCon will be in Dublin.  There’s a huge buzz about it already, and I’ve bought my membership.  I can feel in my water that it will be another big event.  Hopefully there will be a bit more sensitivity when it comes to some of the cultural issues (I can’t say I’m looking forward to having Irish history mansplained at me by Americans – I fear there will be some crashing insensitivity displayed, but it will at least highlight the difference between Irishness and the wholly separate identity of being Irish-American).

But that’s two years away.  In the meantime there’s next year’s Nine Worlds to plan for.  Excuse me while I go and think up some panel ideas.

How To Stop Time – Matt Haig

Matt Haig’s latest novel, How To Stop Time (review copy from Canongate) was a bit of a disappointment.  The story follows Tom Hazard, a man born in Elizabethan England whose body ages at a much slower rate than normal human beings.  Along with the other ‘albas’ Tom is part of a society aimed at preserving the secret of their unusual existence, principally by supporting people to periodically reinvent themselves with new jobs and identities before suspicion at their youthfulness becomes dangerous.

For most of his life Tom has been an unthinking member of that society, working to recruit other members when albas are discovered, or eliminate threats to the society.  But he is increasingly starting to question whether this is the right course of action.  His values are increasingly becoming out of step with the society and he increasingly struggles to commit to its work.  A move back to East London and a job as a history teacher force Tom to confront his past and his desire to live a settled life free from deception.

The frequent flash-backs to Tom’s past life make this a very choppy novel.  It is fractured and fragmented.  While this reflects the intrusion of his memories of the past into Tom’s present day life, it serves to interrupt the narrative flow., risking pushing the reader out of the novel.

Ultimately,  I was not convinced.  The ending feels rushed and the changes of heart from various characters feel unconvincing in their rapidity and firmness.  Go read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North instead.  It’s a much better book.

Goodreads rating: 2*

The Ice – Laline Paull

Laline Paull spung to fame with her novel The Bees.  Her follow up, The Ice (review copy from 4th Estate) is an interesting but ultimately flawed near-future story about friendship and betrayal, set in the harsh environment of the Arctic.

Sean Cawson is a businessman who has had a life-long fascination with the Arctic and with the great explorers of the past.  Together with his oldest friend, a famous environmentalist called Tom Harding, he purchases an old whaling station in the Arctic Circle and converts it into a boutique hotel and retreat for the super-rich.  But tragedy occurs almost as soon as the project is finished and open for businss: Harding is killed in a freak accident.  Cawson is seriously injured, but survives.  Three years on, Harding’s body is recovered, and the ensuing inquest is the frame for the novel to explore Cawson and Harding’s friendship and the circumstances that led to the accident.

There is a strong thread running through the book of climate change and its impacts.  The melting of the Arctic sea ice has opened up new trade routes and opportunities for tourism, but at an ecological price.  The tensions between Cawson and Harding come from the right way to respond to that.  To Harding, the need to protect the environment and prevent further damage is paramount.  To Cawson it is an inevitability that society must change and adapt to, albeit in a sensitive way.  There was the scope here for an interesting and nuanced exploration of this dilemma in the book, but unfortunately Paull dodges this, choosing a fairly simplistic environmental message.

Paull’s novel is a story of Great Men doing Great Things.  She is trying to draw linkages between the big beasts of the corporate world and the explorers of the past (and Paull’s research into the history of Arctic exploration is one of the real strengths of the book, shining through strongly).  In both cases ambition, resolve and resilience are required in order to thrive and prosper.  To Paull, the world of business is no less harsh and unforgiving than the Arctic.  One mis-step or poor judgement can lead to ruin, and only the boldest will succeed.

But this approach makes the novel feel tired.  Ulitmately, The Ice is the story of Cawson’s mid-life crisis, as he comes to question his assumptions and path in life.  The female characters in the novel are particularly poorly served, fulfilling little more than stereotypical set dressing: the hysterical ex-wife, the rebellious teenage daughter, the femme fatale, the kooky Chinese business partner.  Much of this is down to Paull’s close narrative focus on Cawson.  We see the world and the people in it through his eyes.  While some of those judgements change as Cawson changes, Paull doesn’t (as some other writers might) clearly show us that these are his perceptions of more sophisticated and fully-formed characters.

The Ice is interesting and ambitious, but just doesn’t quite succeed for me.

Goodreads rating: 3*