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Archive for June, 2012

Can science-fiction be ‘literary’?  Many in the literary fiction community would say ‘no’.  These folk look down very long noses toward the genre of science fiction, so much so that whenever sci-fi novels do make onto, say, the Booker shortlist – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for instance – they are invariably reclassified as literary fiction.  The 2011 Booker Prize judges’ panel chair, Dame Stella Rimington, caused a stir when she said that the quality she was looking for when selecting the longlist was that the novels should be ‘readable’.  (At this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival she admitted she regretted the choice of word, saying she should have used the word ‘accessible’, though me thinks this new word is six-of-one territory frankly.)  Jeanette Winterson’s response to Rimington’s remarks in The Guardian left little room for doubt about her views.  She has a simple test for literature: “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?”  If we apply Winterson’s test, where does the protean China Miéville fit given his pure sci-fi novel Embassytown?

The protagonist of Embassytown is Avice Benner Cho.  She lives on Arieka, an alien world whose native species are the enigmatic Ariekei, known ‘Hosts’.  The town she lives in is known as Embassytown.  Arieka is so far distant from anywhere else it is on the edge of the universe.  To get there, transport ships known as ‘miabs’ travel through ‘immer’, a kind of sub-space medium which makes most people sick.  But not ‘immersers’ like Avice.  The ships arrive sparingly.  For most of the time the society is cut-off, alone.  The Hosts are strange creatures who communicate using ‘Language’, speaking to each other using two-voices spoken at the same time.  They cannot hear humans.  They can only hear Language.   They also cannot lie.  But they do try.  They run a ‘Festival of Lies’ in which a few of the more adventurous step forth and attempt to say something untrue.  Over time, some get quite good at it.  One of them eventually succeeds.  The crowd is giddy with deceit.  There is a sadness about this lie just as there is excitement.  Can the lie lead to anything good, or is it just the first step toward a oblivion we sense coming?

The Hosts occasionally ask humans to perform odd tasks so that they can be used as similes.  Avice was asked to do something as a girl and has been known as a renowned simile amongst the Hosts ever since.  So how do humans communicate with the Hosts?  They do so through a small band of unique, specially-bred human pairs known as Ambassadors, who are so in-tune with each other they can speak at the same time.  But when a new pair of Ambassadors arrive who are very different from all the others, something goes horribly wrong when they first speak to the Hosts.  The world is thrown upside down.  Avice needs to find a way to communicate with the Arekei to stop certain oblivion.

So far, so sci-fi.  But is this any different to, let’s say, Kate Grenville’s lovely novel The Lieutenant (see my review), in which an indigenous people have to deal with newcomers who threaten everything?  Are the divides of communication that exist any different?  No, they’re not.

One of the joys of the novel is Miéville’s world-building.  There are so many made-up things – and the words used to name them – that it’s sometimes hard to grasp what he’s talking about.  Many are obvious in context.  Others take time to decode.  Some remain, even now, indefinable.  He challenges the reader to immerse themselves in his world just as Avice immerses when she travels away from it.  There is bio-rigging and alt-animals and floaking and so many others mysterious things.

Embassytown is about language, about communication.  Language is the bridge that spans an impossible divide.  There are large themes being played out here.  Can the truth, for instance, be best said with lies?  If so, what does that mean?  Okay, so there are the usual thriller tropes.  But there is also emotion, also dedep thought.

When asked about the rift between sci-fi and literary fiction Miéville replied that the ‘real schism lies between the literature of recognition versus that of estrangement.’  He went onto say, “I think there is something more powerful, ambitious, intriguing and radical about the road … less feted. I’d rather be estranged than recognise[d].”  There is an irony here, of course.  Miéville is one of the most feted authors going.  He’s won the Arthur C Clarke Award three times, the British Fantasy Award twice, and in 2010 won the Hugo, World Fantasy and BSFA Awards.  He’s even seen as the father of the speculative-fiction genre known as ‘the new weird’.  But there’s still the sense that the literary establishment ignores him.  (The double irony is that Embassytown – his most ‘literary’ book didn’t win any of the major awards.)  Perhaps it’s as sci-fi doyen Ursula Le Guin says: “When he wins the Booker, the whole silly hierarchy will collapse, and literature will be much the better for it.”

The answer to my question is of course sci-fi can be literary.  There are many examples in addition to the ones mentioned above.  You can add Embassytown to the list.  I dare say even Winterson would approve.

Embassytown by China Miéville

2011

Macmillan

405 pages

ISBN: 9780230754317

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Regular readers will know that Salman Rushdie is one of my favourite authors.  I’ve read many of his novels, including favourites Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh.  Luka and the Fire of Life is a sequel to the delightful Haroun and the Sea of Stories (see my review here).  They are both children’s adventure stories that are aimed at ‘tweens’ or YA – it was written for Rushdie’s 13-year old son – but are equally entertaining for those adults, myself included, who just love a good tale well told with lots of entertaining wordplay on almost every page.

Luka is the younger brother of Haroun, and at twelve years of age is due an adventure.  The beginning sees Luka and his story-telling father Rashid, the so-called Shah of Blah,  walking home from Luka’s school.  They pass a circus, run by the cruel Captain Aag.  Luka laments the maltreatment of its many animals and wishes that Aag’s animals rise up in revolt against him.  The wish turns out to be a curse which works and soon Bear the dog, and Dog the bear, appear on Luka’s doorstep and become his loyal companions.  Aag retaliates by placing a curse on Rashid who falls into a deep state of unconsciousness.  Nothing can wake him.

One day Luka looks outside and thinks he sees his father in the alley.  He rushes out to greet him but  as he crosses the threshold he stumbles into the World of Magic.  The man he saw was no man and no father, but a sort of ‘pre-ghost’, who calls himself Nobodaddy, who is slowly sucking hte life out of Rashid and who will ‘un-be’ when the real Rashid finally carks it.  The only way Luka has of saving his father is to steal the Fire of Life.  He sets out with Nobodaddy and his dog and bear friends, entering a kind of video-game world where he and his friends store lives to begin with and then lose them along the way as they try to get to the next level and the next, all the way to level 8 where they can steal the fire, then level 9 where they make their way home.  While in this world, Luka has a three-digit number in the corner of his vision which indicates how many lives he has left.

There are so many wonderfully inventive touches throughout.  Rashid has given names to his two hands: No one and Nonsense.  When he tickles Luka, he says he’s not tickling him at all, that in fact ‘No one’ is tickling him.  When Luka protests he tickles him with the other and tells him it’s Nonsense.  When Luka is on his adventure, they pass along the River of Time in which worms live that “made holes in the very fabric of Time itself” (ie, ‘wormholes’).  And there’s a wonderful swirling maelstrom known as El Tiempo and the Loops of Time, which Rushdie playfully uses to repeat sentences and sections of prose over and over while the band of adventurers are stuck, freeing up new prose as soon as they exit.  There’s also enough ancient god references – Greek, Roman, Persian, African, Asian, American – to satisfy a classical history professor!  It’s wonderful stuff.

Along the way, Luka learns good morals, like the need to run towards your problems rather than away from them.  Ultimately, Luka and the Fire of Life is a story about the power of story.  How else to rescue the life of a story-teller?  If you enjoyed Haroun and the Sea of Stories, you’ll love Luka, (though there’s no need to have read the first to enjoy the latter).  It’s great fun from cover to cover.

Rushdie’s next book is to be his memoirs.  For someone who has lived through the fatwa after publishing The Satanic Verses, during which he lived in protective custody for years, it should be a fascinating read.  Before then, though, there’s a film version of Midnight’s Children to see, which Rushdie wrote the screenplay for.  It has just premièred and I can’t wait to see it.

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

2010

Random House

218 pages

ISBN: 9780679783473

Source: a friend!

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The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien is one of the most influential books of the twentieth century and a classic in children’s literature.  It follows the quest of Bilbo Baggins and a party of dwarves, lead by Thorin, as they set out on a quest through treacherous landscapes to reach the Lonely Mountain and reclaim a horde of old dwarf treasure from the dragon Smaug.  Along for the ride for part of the way is the wizard Gandalf.  Bilbo is not exactly your quest-type of character, but the Tookish blood in him sees adventure and wants in despite himself.  He manages to get into and out of trouble, is separated from the dwarves, finds the ring of invisibility which he takes from Gollum (which forms  the basis for the Lord of the Rings trilogy that follows The Hobbit), plays the part of the burglar for which he was chosen, and otherwise brings together a whole cast of strange characters – both helpful and harmful – in a final climactic confrontation which decides who gets the treasure.  No wonder it was instantly successful and has never been out of print.  Bilbo starts out as someone of limited ambition and develops skills that save himself and the dwarves on numerous occasions, much to their surprise.

At a recent Sydney Writers’ Festival session on adapting classics for the screen, there was a debate about how a screenwriter necessarily has to change things in order for a movie version of a book to work on-screen.  I can’t wait to see what Peter Jackson et al do with The Hobbit.  It is known that it will be a two movie story, and there is a magical trailer which suggests that every bit of fun, danger, wisdom, malevolence, and triumph that form part and parcel of this story will be part of the much-anticipated adaptation.

There is such a huge appetite for epic fantasy of which Tolkien is perhaps the father.  Witness George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, also recently adapted for the (small) screen – and countless other such juggernaut series.  A more circumspect (okay, excoriating) reflection on Tolkien’s influence is voiced by hugely successful British author, China Mieville, superstar of the ‘New Weird’ sub-genre of fantasy, who says of Tolkien:

[T]here’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

There’s no denying Tolkien’s influence.  His work is escapist and perhaps consolatory.  And maybe there is a lack of moral complexity.  This doesn’t diminish it in my view.  That said, I think Mieville has a point about some of the vast bandwagon of authors who have since followed in his well-trodden footsteps.  They have not extended the now clichéd tropes.  I think there is room enough for both types of fantasy: the escapist and the confrontational.  (And Mieville himself has edged away from these early comments in more recent interviews.)  There are times when we want the epic quest, and there are times when we demand moral ambiguity and complexity and uneasy, challenging reads.  After all, variety is the spice of life, is it not?

You can see a layout of Bilbo’s home here (along with some other famous houses in classic literature).

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

1937

Harper Collins

351 pages

ISBN: 9780261102217

Source: a friend leant me their copy!

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