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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The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

N K Jemisin‘s Hugo winning novel The Fifth Season (the first in the Broken Earth series) is a tour de force about the marginalised, the exploited and the abused.

In Jemisin’s world, humanity lives on a continent riven by regular geological events.  An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or something similar can result in a ‘Fifth Season’, where the natural flow of the seasons is disrupted for a period of time.   Humanity survives these episodes through rigid adherence to survivalist doctrine ( “stonelore”), the protection of communities and the stockpiling of supplies.

A Fifth Season can be civilisation-ending, returning humanity back to primitive subsistence living, surrounded by the relics of predecessor civilisations.  But the Sanzed Empire has survived a number of these seasons.  It has done so through the ruthless exploitation of orogones: a group of people with the skill to control and manipulate geological events.  Because of the threat they pose, those with the talent live apart in the Fulcrum.  Treated as a near-slave class and widely despised, they live a strictly controlled existence, their talents used to maintain and preserve the Sanzed Empire.

The Fifth Season is a braided novel, following three interconnecting storylines that slowly converge.  Essun is an orogene who lives in hiding in a remote village, concealing her power.  She sees her son murdered and her daughter stolen by her husband.  In the wake of a major geological event that is bringing on a new Fifth Season she goes in search of her daughter.  Syenite is a young orogene, still in training and working for the Empire.  She is sent on a mission to clear coral from a harbour with Alabaster, an older, more powerful and much more experienced orogene.  She is expected to conceive a child with him during that mission, as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding programme.  And Damaya is a young child.  As a newly discovered feral orogene she is taken from her family to the Fulcrum to begin her training.

Told from the point of view of the orogenes, this is a story about the oppressed and what can happen when they are pushed beyond breaking point.  Normally in fantasy fiction the conflict is black and white, with a Great Evil being responsible for the world-threatening event our heroes are set to tackle.  But in Jemisin’s novel, the geological event Essun is fleeing was an act of terrorism triggered by one of their number to end the centuries of abuse the orogenes have suffered at the hands of the Sanzed Empire.  And for all that it is bringing armageddon to Sanzed we cannot but come to be sympathetic with that action.  The emotional and physical abuse that Damaya experiences as she leaves her fearful family is intensely chilling, as is the complicity of many orogenes in the self-governing structures of the Fulcrum that control and restrict orogenes.  Jemisin leaves the reader in no doubt about the risk and danger of the geological events threatening her world, but she is also clear that the threat does not justify the appalling treatment of those with the skill to neutralise it.

Jemisin builds a rich world and uses it to tell a genre-busting story that gives us a glimpse of how the world could be different if only we had the courage to stand against prejudice and value the talents and contribution of us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Difference Engine – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

I have a problem with steampunk.  And I say this as someone who grew up reading great Victorian stories of adventure and exploration, like the work of H Rider Haggard.  Steampunk far too often romanticises privilege and Empire.  Anxiety about the direction of contemporary society and its technology manifests as a wistful nostalgia for an alternative future branching out from the Industrial Revolution.  One based on brass and steam rather than the microchip, and where everyone knows their place in society.  It is a sub-genre that very rarely interrogates issues of class, colonialism and gender, instead perpetuating very problematic attitudes under the fiction that this “is just how things were”.  (No, it wasn’t, as any half-way decent scholar of Victorian society would tell you.)  It’s all corsets, tea, gin and brass goggles, not child labour, poverty, disease and worker exploitation.

I had high hopes for The Difference Engine.  It promises conspiracy at the highest levels of government and adventure.  Both William Gibson (famously the inventor of cyberpunk) and Bruce Sterling have great credibility as writers looking at the disruptive impact of technology.  But ultimately, the novel just didn’t deliver for me.

The plot of the novel is a bit of a mess.  It starts well, with a murder that sends a prostitute named Sybil on the run to France with some stolen diamonds and a set of Engine punch cards that are highly sought after.  But we then don’t hear of Sybil again until the end of the book.  The flabby middle section follows Mallory tracking down a rebel called Captain Swing who is threatening to ruin his reputation.  Characters drift in and out, and there is no clear resolution of any of the plotlines.  The promised high-level conspiracy does not materialise in any meaningful way.

The characters are also extremely disappointing.  Female characters are few and far between, and generally prostitutes or identified as sexually promiscuous.  Mallory’s sister is a mere plot device that we never get to meet.  Lady Ada Byron, based on Ada Lovelace, is venerated as the Queen of Engines, but there is no sense of her transformative and visionary genius in the novel.  She is a faded figure with a gambling habit who barely makes an appearance.

As well as being sexist, it’s also crashingly racist.  I winced in particular at the portrayal of some Japanese gentlemen who do little more than be ninjas for hire, while extolling the virtues of Victorian industrial progress and asserting that the Japanese should aspire to replace their culture and language with their English equivalents.  All delivered in a deeply offensively stereotyped set of speech patterns.  There is no examination of colonialism or Empire at all.  Johnny Foreigner is just there to benefit from the wisdom, progress and knowledge of the English.

Goodreads rating: 1*

Starship Troopers – Robert A Heinlein

Several people have raved to me about Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, telling me the movie was awful, missing the point of the novel.

Oh dear.  It’s safe to say I was very disappointed.

Starship Troopers is the story of Johnnie Rico.   He joins the army to impress a girl, but finds a place and career in the Mobile Infantry, the high tech army of the future.  Most of the novel is taken up with descriptions of Johnnie’s training, as a private and then as he trains to be an officer.  It’s a loving exposition of a fictional military culture and discipline, with a lot of detail about training, discipline and equipment.

Heinlein seeks to present a case about the value of the military.  Those who are prepared to put their own lives and safety in jeopardy in order to protect others are, in Heinlein’s hypothesis, the only ones who have shown they can be trusted to express views about the running of a country.  Hence the prerequisite for military service before one becomes a ‘citizen’, entitled to vote.  It’s an interesting hypothesis, but it doesn’t hold water.

Given when Starship Troopers was written, I was hoping for more satire or a bit of social comment.  The Korean War was in full swing, posing real questions about US military might and the fighting of the Cold War by proxy.  But there is none of that here.

Overall, this was a bit of a disappointing read for me.  But I liked it more than Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.  Which is saying something at least.

Goodreads rating: 2*

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

I have a theory.  There’s a certain point in a successful author’s writing career when they achieve a degree of commercial and critical success.  At that point, they become less willing to take advice from their editors (after all, they are the famous and wildly successful writer), their books balloon in size, and they lose some of the edge that has led to their success.  I offer as evidence the following:

  • J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – three times the size of the previous book, and the entire Quidditch World Cup section adds nothing to the plot of the novel.
  • Cryptonomicon.  The moment Neal Stephenson cast off the shackles of his tightly plotted earlier novels in favour of brieze block sized sprawling epics.

The Bone Clocks is the novel that marks that point for David Mitchell.  It’s a beautifully written fantastical story about one woman, Holly Sykes, who at various points of her life finds herself sucked into a generations-long war between immortals.  On one side of that war are the Anchorites, who are either reborn in fresh bodies, or transfer from one body to another.  On the other side are the followers of the Blind Cathar, who sacrifice people to ensure their own eternal youth.

The novel is a braided narrative, visiting Holly at different points in her life.  The novel starts as Holly runs away from home as a teenager, after discovering her boyfriend is cheating on her.  It finishes at the very end of Holly’s life, in a bleak near-future blighted by climate change and fossil fuel scarcity.  Far and away the strongest part of the novel is Holly’s development as a person.  We see her grow and change, becoming toughened and hardened by the experiences of her life, particularly the loss of her brother while a child.

Only two of those sections of Holly’s story are seen through her eyes: the very beginning and the very end of the book.  The others give us external perspectives of Holly’s life, from friends, colleagues and lovers.  Some of these are more successful than others.  Ed Brubeck gives us an insight into the dilemma of a war reporter, torn between loyalty to a family that needs him and a compulsion to report on the conflicts of the world, even if that puts his own life and safety at risk.  By contrast, Crispin Hershey is a privileged, arrogant and self-indulgent writer who seems to act as little more than a vehicle for Mitchell to achieve the feat of writing about a writer who is writing a novel about a writer (if you can follow that string).  That section adds little to our understanding of Holly and her life.

Ultimately, the message of the novel is that the centuries-long war between the ancients has little or no impact or relevance to the lives of ordinary people.  Neither side uses their magic for the good of the ordinary people.  People like Holly and her family are largely bystanders and casualties, whose lives carry on much as before.

I can’t help but feel that a good edit would turn this from a well-written, but somewhat flabby book, into something much more tightly written and with cleaner transitions between each section.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading it – The Bone Clocks is a beautifully written book – but I can’t help but be left with the feeling that it could have been better.  I have high expectations of David Mitchell and this novel doesn’t quite live up to them.

Goodreads rating: 4* 

 

The Snow Queen – Joan D Vinge

For a 35 year old novel, Joan D Vinge’s The Snow Queen still feels relatively fresh.  But that doesn’t stop it reeking of the 1980s from every pore.  The novel is very loosely inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name. But Vinge moves the setting to the colony planet of Tiamat in the far future.  Tiamat is nearing the end of its 150 year ‘Winter’ season, which will lead to great change.  As Winter changes to Summer, and the planet moves too close to its nearby black hole to enable safe interstellar travel, the interplanetary Hegemony (which has a monopoly on all technology) will withdraw, leaving the planet’s inhabitants to revert to a pre-industrial society for a further 150 years, until Winter when the Hegemony can return again.

Like in Anderson’s original story, Vinge flips fairy tale tropes on their heads.  Her female lead, Moon, is the one on a quest to rescue her lover, who has fallen under the sway of Arienrhod, the titular Snow Queen.  The redemptive power of love lies at the heart of the novel.

But Vinge overlays on that, some very contemporary concerns, informed by her background as an anthropologist.  She examines the tension between nature and nurture.  Moon is a clone of the Snow Queen, part of Arienrhod’s plans to buck Tiamat’s apocalyptic tradition of Change.  The queen hopes that by training her successor she can break a pattern that keeps the planet under the control of the all-powerful Hegemony.  But Moon is raised by the pastoral Summer people.  Kept away from the cynical politicking of the Winters, she may share Arienrhod’s charisma and intelligence, but she is raised to become a kind and generous person.

Gender politics is a theme running throughout.  In the interview printed at the end of my copy, the author talks about her frustration with late 1970s feminism.  In her view it was falling into the trap of perpetuating patriarchal gender roles of women as ‘naturally’ caring and nurturing.  This involved painting science and technology as inherently damaging, and advocating a pastoral, matriarchal utopia as the ideal.  Vinge presents an alternative vision, closer to the original ideals of feminism: that women are just as capable of carrying out the same roles and tasks, and are not inherently predisposed to the domestic.  The senior police officer Jerusha PalaThion is frustrated by the conservative gender stereotypes of the Hegemony.  She is promoted to please the Snow Queen, but – despite her obvious competence – has to bear the attempted sabotage of her career by her colleagues.  The tech-smuggler Elsie has escaped from a cloistered existence, but at the expense of personal dishonour and severed ties with her family.

There is also a strong ecological thread running through The Snow Queen.  Vinge does not shy away from showing us the impact of the Hegemony’s technological development.  The planet of Kharemough became nearly uninhabitable from industrial pollution.  Production has been moved off-world, enabling the planet to recover.  Tiamat is starting to show the signs of damage from pollution.  And the slaughter of the sea-creatures known as mers, to make an immortality drug has led to their near extinction.  Tiamat depends on its long Summers to enable the planet to recover its equilibrium.

All of this makes The Snow Queen a vintage piece of 80s “science fantasy”.  It’s easy to see why it won a Hugo at the time.  The novel has long been out of print (I vaguely remember reading it as a teenager), but has recently been republished with a new introduction from the author and other additional material. It’s well worth tracking down a copy if you’ve never read it.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

My Welsh sister-in-law taught me a wonderful Welsh word: cwtch.  It’s a hug, but not just any hug.  It’s the kind of warm, comforting hug that one gets from a close friend or family member, full of love and reassurance and the knowledge that there is always a safe space full of unconditional love.  The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a cwtch in book form.

Cross Farscape with Firefly and add in a hefty dollop of life-affirming goodness and you have The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.  A multi-species crew travel across the galaxy under contract to build a new tunnel connecting the centre of the galaxy and the Galactic Commons, a collection of planets that have formed a loose alliance.

This novel is a love-song to the human condition, and our relationships with one another.  As the crew of the Wayfarer travel across the galaxy to the start point for their tunneling operation, we learn about them and their relationships with one another.  Everyone has secrets, but these are ones that expose their essential humanity – stories of love and loss that have shaped them as individuals.  Rosemary is coming to terms with her father’s arms dealing, Ashby with his love for an alien woman in a dangerous profession, Dr Chef wrestling with the self-destructive urges of his species and Ohan with the beliefs of their people that propel them on a course towards self-destruction.  And then there’s Corbin, the annoying flatmate we’ve all had to deal with at some point or another.

Although this isn’t the deepest or most complex of books (it’s a little too on-the-rails, with little sense of real peril at times), it’s one of those rare and special books that left me in tears.  Jenks’s love for Lovey, the ship’s AI, is real and intensely moving, and there are moments of real connection for all of the characters.  The visit to Sissix’s homeworld, in particular, reveals all that she has given up to travel with the crew of the Wayfarer.

The story of the novel itself is equally life-affirming: Chambers found herself out of work and short of money.  The generosity of strangers through a Kickstarter campaign enabled her to complete the book and self-publish it.  The success of the novel meant it was picked up by Hodder, a mainstream publisher.

Ultimately, what The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet teaches us is that we are all made of stardust.  All essentially the same, and capable of profound  connections with one another, regardless of how different we may seem.  We are enriched by our diversity if we are open-minded enough to appreciate it and let it blossom.  And I, for one, want to spend more time with the crew of the Wayfarer.

Goodreads rating: 4*