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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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*

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*

Borne – Jeff VanderMeer

Borne is quintessential VanderMeer (review copy from 4th Estate).  It is a subtle, slippery, tricksy novel, expertly telling a small story against the backdrop of a big world.

Rachel is a scavenger, living in a post-apocalyptic world blighted by mutated, out of control products of bio-engineering from The Company.  Chief among them is Mord, a giant psychotic flying bear that terrorises the residents of the city.  Rachel picks out a living at the margins of society, finding enough recoverable materials to eke out an existence, or to trade for food, water and other goods.  She lives with her lover, Wick, a former Company bio-engineer who spends his time making and fixing products, trading on his expertise and skills.

One day Rachel finds a strange creature entangled in Mord’s fur.  It’s an amorphous lump resembling a sea anemone.  Rachel brings it home, and names it Borne.  As Borne consumes he learns and grows, becoming an integral part of Rachel and Wick’s family, as well as the cause of tension between them.  But Borne is also the key and the catalyst for Rachel and Wick to get to the heart of the Company’s secrets with a view to finding a way out of their marginal existence.

VanderMeer’s regular themes of environmental change and the indifference of nature to humanity are highly prevalent in Borne.  The landscape in which Rachel and Wick live is a product of humanity’s actions and the damage caused by industry and uncontrolled bio-engineering.  Humanity is no longer the apex predator, and the natural world is not something for it exploit in pursuit of a comfortable standard of living and convenience.  Humanity must instead scratch a living in amongst the pollution and scarcity that its actions have created.  Ultimately, it must learn to live in harmony with this changing world, rather than seeking to change it further or escape it.

But Borne is also a story about memory and communication and our relationships with one another.  The novel is characterised by moments of misunderstanding, and the gulfs created between people by their unique histories and the difference of meaning and interpretation those lead to.  Our memories are fallible and we conceal as much about ourselves as we reveal to one another, even those we are closest to.  But the way we relate to one another can have profound effects.  Rachel’s parenting and raising of Borne shapes his world-view.  The ultimate blank canvas, he absorbs his values and view of the world from her and those ultimately come to guide his actions.

Jeff VanderMeer is one of my favourite writers of speculative fiction and I’ve been following his career with interest, ever since I picked up City of Saints and Madmen many years ago.  Always with a literary touch, he reveals deep truths about people and our relationships with each other and the world we live in.  Borne is another jewel he has added to the crown of genre fiction.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (review copy from Jo Fletcher) is a glorious tale of historical mystery, peopled with compelling eccentrics and drawing on a rich heritage of English folk tales.  It’s a compelling page-turner from start to finish.

Rotherweird is an isolated place.  Cut off from the rest of England since Tudor times, it exists under its own laws and rules under the custodianship of hereditary office-holders.  With his career in tatters, Jonah Oblong takes a job as history teacher at Rotherweird school, but under the stricture that all the history taught must be modern – nothing older than 1800.  Another outsider – Sir Veronal Slickstone – has bought the local manor house, which has been closed up since time immemorial.  He moves to the town with his wife (an actress) and his son (an urchin pulled off the street) and seeks to make big changes in the town.  The timing of Sir Veronal’s arrival is no accident.  Unbeknownst to the townspeople, Rotherweird’s past is about to come to the fore, putting all their lives at risk.  It’s up to Jonah Oblong and a band of Rotherweird inhabitants to solve the mystery and save the world by piecing together the past.

Rotherweird is unmistakably English as a novel.  It is steeped in a certain type of English folk tale, like the Lambton Worm, and draws on iconography around the Green Man and English folk rituals such as festivals and passion plays.  The Rotherweird raft race is straight out of a school of British local customs that bring you cheese rolling, bog snorkelling and Straw Bear Day.  And it is peopled by Great British Eccentrics throughout, all of whom are written with a delightful lightness of touch, while never falling into the trap of becoming simplistic or two-dimensional.

But Rotherweird is also a fantastically rewarding and convoluted mystery story.  Along with Jonah Oblong and friends the reader pieces together the history of Rotherweird and the Lost Acre, a place of fantasical flora and fauna that can only be reached through a special portal.  Although the story wraps up satisfyingly well, there are just enough loose ends left to keep the reader guessing.  Caldecott has a sequel planned: Wyntertide.  I for one, can’t wait.

Goodreads rating: 4*