Romancing the future

As a satire on the future of our ‘connected’ society, Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh seems extraordinarily prescient and quite diabolical. Wearable computers not only clothe people, but provide an instantaneous and fully-immersive link to a digital realm mediated by one’s peers. This is democracy subverted by the vox populi, where everything from popularity to attractiveness are reduced to percentages.

An interesting side-effect of this technology, the first ominous stirrings of which we are seeing with the so-called Google Glasses, is that social inequality and mundane reality can be replaced by an indistinguishable virtual utopia. Who cares if your local council is not maintaining the city infrastructure, when all it needs is a virtual overlay, the hi-tech equivalent of a lick of paint, in order to appear as good as new.

Where Love Minus Eighty falls short though is in the soft-focus love story that dominates the narrative, as our eponymous hero embarks on a valiant quest to free his ‘bridsicle’, the very woman he nearly killed in a motor car accident and who was put on ice as a result. He inexorably falls in love with her, and is determined that she be resurrected to enjoy the rest of her mortal life … but he faces formidable challenges from penury to being ostracised.

This mawkish sub-plot – sandwiched in-between a totally unnecessary framing story of another ‘bridsicle’, a gay woman who finds herself having to bat her eyelashes at various elderly and vulgar men – sits uncomfortably with McIntosh’s satire. The ending, in particular, seems like it was imported wholesale from some Mills & Boon romance. This is a real pity, as the novel would have been far more powerful if the ending was more realistically downbeat.

The Bone Season

“Nothing’s worse than a story without an end,” our heroine declaims at one point. I was forcibly reminded of this sentiment when The Bone Season breaks off in the middle of the set-piece that concludes the novel. Author Samantha Shannon herself has said that this is number one of seven. Other than the same number of novels in the Harry Potter series, why seven?

Remember the good old days of genre fiction when we thought that a trilogy was pushing it? Or when a master like Samuel R. Delany told us that The Splendour and Misery of Bodies, Of Cities – one of the greatest SF novels ever written – was part one of a diptych … and then he promptly neglected to write the concluding volume.

Now we have a young up-and-coming writer like Shannon telling us, before we’ve even cracked open a single page of The Bone Season, that we will have to commit to six more. I think the Knights of the Round Table had an easier ‘to do’ list in finding the Holy Grail than a modern reader has in seeking resolution in the current book she is reading.

Continuing the theme of derivation, a ‘bone season’ is an event where clairvoyants are harvested to battle mysterious creatures, much as the ‘hunger games’ selects combatants from the 12 districts to battle each other to the death. Both Samantha Shannon and Suzanne Collins feature young plucky heroines and strong but enigmatic leading men. Both novels feature de rigueur dystopias anchored around highly stratified societies.

While The Bone Season is characterised by impressive world-building, I felt there was simply too much info-dumping in this first instalment. A bit here and there is okay, but Shannon’s characters are so busy establishing the over-complicated back story that they forget to be characters. Sadly, we therefore forego the primary joy of reading, which is to savour a great story well told.

Also, the Rephaim are so thoroughly unlikeable, and our heroine Paige spends so much of the novel in a state of acute pain and distress, that there is not much to root for, or like, in the novel. None of the characters make that much of an impression either. The ‘big reveal’ about Nick’s sexuality is handled so perfunctorily that it makes little impact on the story.

Likewise, Paige’s constant state of heightened antagonism towards Arcturus, combined with his aloof coldness, leaves no room for the reader’s emotional investment in the story. This makes for an excruciating, rather tedious build-up towards a thoroughly confusing climactic battle. Just what the dickens happens to Nashira, for example?

It will remain to be seen if Shannon has built a strong enough base here to carry a further six novels. My gut feeling is she will have to introduce some new, quirky and likeable characters pretty fast, as well as lightening the mood a little bit, for readers to commit further to this series.

Losing Steam

Solid – well, actually I think the appropriate word is ‘stolid’ – latest instalment in the glorious Discworld saga (insert trademark logo here), one of the greatest series in modern literature, is disappointingly bereft of magic, let alone humour.

I think this is the first time over the course of 40-odd books (some much odder than others) that I have been so disappointed. Granted, many of the Discworld books have their bad patches, and some have more bad patches than others … but Raising Steam is thoroughly, and perplexingly, pedestrian.

It has the feel of a novel written by editorial committee. There are glimmers of the old Pratchett mischievousness here and there, but these have largely been overwritten to a point beyond satire, let alone being funny. The join-the-dots plot does no favours to the continued evolution of Ankh-Morpork, its citizens and its leadership. Or readership.

The word ‘railway’ has simply been slotted into the same space as the post office / bank / newspaper / clacks; except this time the polite aphorisms about societal transformation and racial integration ring, sadly, hollow, as they are devoid of the passion of such landmark Discworld novels as Jingo and Night Watch.

We all know about Sir Terry Pratchett’s ailing health, and the laborious transcription process he has to embark upon in order to get any writing done. We all wish him well, and commend him for going once more unto the breach. May the Great Turtle never stumble!

Romans in space

If Ann Leckie had switched the first two chapters of Ancillary Justice around, she would have had one of the best opening sentences in an SF novel ever: “Nineteen years, three months, and one week before I found Seivarden in the snow, I was a troop carrier orbiting the planet Shis’urna.” The first sentence of Chapter 1 is, however, still quite dramatic: “The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly grey, spatters of blood staining the snow around it.”

Ostensibly we have the entire plot in these two sentences: the mystery of the identity of One Esk (also known as Honoured Breq, or Justice of Toren), and the mystery of the identity of the person whom One Esk finds dumped in the snow. This intrigue culminates in a series of shattering revelations, a nail-biting set-piece on a glass bridge, and a real doozy of a space battle that would not look amiss in a Star Wars movie.

But there is so much more to this book, which is one of the most interesting takes on interstellar colonialism (‘colonisation’ is a bit of a whitewash of a phrase) since the glory days of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness (Ann Leckie also references C.J. Cherryh as an influence). Invoking these past masters is particularly apt, because Leckie’s book clearly engages dialectically with both Asimov and Le Guin.

In a fascinating author interview in the Extras section, Leckie explains how the Radchaai evoke the Roman Empire, particularly in terms of ‘clientage’ or fealty, and their assimilation of foreign religions and cultures. However, she is careful to point out that the Radch empire is not “Romans in Space”.

At one point a character remarks: “Let every act be just, and proper, and beneficial.” Justice, propriety and benefit are the hallmarks of Radch society, leading to the axiomatic view that “to be Radchaai is to be civilised”. However, what about the alien cultures at the receiving end of Radch annexation?

Such annexations are quite brutal and merciless, even if the subjugated races are permitted to retain the trappings of their cultural and religious identities. “You realise that quite a lot of people outside Radch space consider themselves to be civilised?” someone asks pointedly.

And then there is the Radch concept of ‘ancillaries’, which are a hi-tech version of Rome’s legionnaires. These are humans seconded to sentient spaceships, effectively becoming extensions of AIs and suborning their own identities in the process.

There is an astonishing set piece where we witness the birth or awakening of one of these stored ancillaries aboard a starship. Exposed to her pain and fear, we begin to understand that these are individual, sentient creatures after all, and that what the Radch are doing is nothing more than interstellar slavery. Or is it merely the next step in human/machine interface? Leckie does not opt for easy answers.

Interestingly, the Radch language does not distinguish gender, so all the pronouns used are female, irrespective of actual gender (in Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin used all-male pronouns). I am not convinced that this effectively evokes a gender-free view of language, for as soon as I worked out what genders the main characters were, I instinctively imagined them as ‘male’ or ‘female’, despite the language.

This novel was such a joy to read. It is exciting and engaging from a plot perspective, which combines intrigue with thriller elements. Leckie has an unerring eye for world-building, and knows just what details to include, and what to merely hint at, in order to give an impression of a much vaster narrative canvas (which will no doubt be explored in the remainder of the trilogy).

Of course, this is also very much a ‘novel of ideas’, in the grand tradition of SF, which is something that the genre is particularly adept at. The discussion around assimilation and ‘contamination’ of non-human influences, and how the Radch must maintain their cultural ‘purity’ through merciless annexation, is highly topical today.

If I have one slight gripe, it is that it takes the reader a while to warm to Leckie’s world and characters, as a lot of the book is pretty dour and occasionally grim. There is a sprinkling of humour, but not nearly enough. I sincerely hope that Leckie lets her hair down in the next instalment, and allows herself to have a bit more fun.

A reader’s lament

It is that time of year again when one can be forgiven for indulging in genteel despair: all the books I excitedly bought, but did not read; all the books I wanted to buy, but did not; the burgeoning ‘to read’ list on my Kindle; and the actual books weighing down my bookshelves (by succumbing to the dark arts of technology I, alas, have not been freed from the spell of physical acquisition.)

A fellow reader on Goodreads describes the dreaded ‘to read’ list as the proverbial canary in the coal mine of the mind, keeping one safe from insanity and darkness. Perhaps even more pernicious is the Reading Challenge, which allows you to set a goal for the year, and then tracks your progress in both percentage and book numbers.

The sanest approach is to set a realistic target that you can meet comfortably; there is nothing more dispiriting than logging into the home page, only to be greeted by gloomy statistics announcing to the broader community how far behind you have fallen. (Fortunately, most of my friends are also chasing that proverbial canary in the coal mine of the mind.)

One of the more scurrilous pleasures offered by the Reading Challenge is to check out the ‘community’ statistics, which is a sombre roll call of all participants, and to gloat quietly at how far behind other people are.

At the time of writing this, I have read about 100 novels in 2013 (95 to be precise, although my tally on the Reading Challenge is 115, due to the fact that I place any non-fiction and anthologies that I have read in separate categories). This equates to roughly eight books a month, depending of course on a variety of factors, from work load to book length to my particular state of mind at a given time.

As opposed to any sense of accomplishment, however, I have a mild sense of panic at how much I have failed to read this year. Locus Magazine has just unveiled its ‘Forthcoming Books: Selected Titles through September 2014’ on its website; plus I have yet to read any of the 2013 MAN Booker Prize shortlist, let alone the Lambda Literary Award winners, or the National Book Award. Or the Bram Stoker, never mind the Arthur C. Clarke or Philip K. Dick Awards. The list goes on and on.

This is the time of year when Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, EW, The New York Times, Salon, Time, Huffington Post and others release their ‘best of the year’ listings, which is a fantastic opportunity to tick off how many great books you have failed to read. These lists always make fertile pickings for books to read in the coming year, which means I am always invariably a year behind in my reading, and always playing catch-up.

But then again, given the prodigious rate at which books get published, apart from professional book critics, who is able to keep up? Aren’t we approaching a tipping point where there are too many authors and not enough dedicated readers?

One of the hardest things for me to do is to choose what to read next. It seems to be one of those perverse laws that the more choices I have, the more difficult it is to select a book. Buying books is quite different from knuckling down and reading them. It happens quite rarely that I buy a book and read it straightaway; there is always something else that seems more appealing and immediate.

It also depends on one’s emotional and physical well-being: it is quite difficult to finish a book when you try and read in bed, only to have the Kindle fall on your face when you doze off. And then the following night you have to back-track a couple of precious pages, as you cannot remember what you had attempted to read in your tiredness.

So next year I will set my target on the Reading Challenge yet again, and brace myself to perform some much-needed triage on my ‘to read’ list.

Some of my reading resolutions for 2014 are:

  • To read more short stories, as this is an underappreciated, and under-supported, art form;
  • To read more non-fiction on as wide a range of subjects as possible (I have just cracked open Zealot by Reza Aslan, and boy is it a corker);
  • To stop reading any book I don’t like (I reluctantly created a ‘not finished’ category this year, which already has seven titles in it – these feel like bastard children I have unceremoniously abandoned, but life is just too short for bad books.)
  • To continue to trawl Goodreads and Amazon for new and exciting books;
  • To read as many new and up-and-coming authors as possible.

The Gardens of Cordoba

Recently on the Euronews television channel I watched a report on human rights in Saudi Arabia, focusing on the struggle of women to drive. There was dramatic, clandestine footage of burka-enshrouded women at the wheel of 4X4s, incurring the curiosity, and occasional wrath, of other drivers and bystanders.

This both angered and saddened me. The driving issue is pounced upon by television news because it is so dramatic. Where else in the world is it a criminal and societal offence for women to drive, for heaven’s sake? And where else in the world do the women look so bizarre, like extras from a science fiction movie?

So while these occasional reports are ostensibly about human rights, I think they have the opposite effect of bolstering people’s prejudices about Muslims in general, and Islam in particular.

Ben Daniel writes in The Search for Truth About Islam: A Christian Pastor Separates Fact from Fiction:

“If you want an example of what it looks like when a society is built upon the precepts of Islam, don’t use the Taliban in Afghanistan as your example or even the Wahhabite regime in Saudi Arabia. Instead, look to Cordoba and to the Muslim societies of Southern Spain during the Middle Ages. There you will find an example of what Islamic society is meant to look like.”

At the beginning of the chapter about Cordoba, he quotes some lines from Lawrence of Arabia: “Do you know, Lieutenant, in the Arab city of Cordoba there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village? … I long for the vanished gardens of Cordoba.”

The ruler of modern Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, has stated in his book My Vision that it is his ultimate aim for the emirate to achieve the cultural, social, economic and political ascendancy of this long-vanished city.

In 2009, The New York Times published an article about the plan of a group of “well-financed, moderate” Muslims to construct an Islamic community centre at the site of an abandoned Burlington coat factory in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the World Trade Center site to be named Cordoba House…

The project was given the go-ahead by the New York City Planning Commission, which resulted in an extraordinarily vitriolic and sustained attack by right-wing blogger Pamela Geller. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, also jumped on the bandwagon, decrying that “Cordoba House is a deliberately insulting term” that referred to “the capital of Muslim conquerors.”

The name was eventually changed to Park 51, its street address. How sad that history itself is perverted in the name of bigotry. Daniel writes:

“Advances in hygiene, agriculture and mathematics notwithstanding, the crowning cultural achievement of Cordoba (and indeed of Muslim Spain) may have been the gathering unto Cordoba of a remarkable collection of books. Although a well-stocked library in Northern Europe around 1000BC may at best have had 400 books, the libraries in Cordoba had hundreds of thousands of volumes…”

Why the deliberate and provocative misrepresentation of history in the US? Why are people as divisive as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer allowed to shape the anti-Islamic public debate, sowing constant dissent and outrage?

Daniel asks Dr Hatem Bazian, who has a PhD in Philosophy and Islamic Studies from UC Berkeley, for a message to the Christian readers of his book:

“Remember, we are the ‘strangers’ that you are asked to take care of, and we look at you as the strangers we need to care for. We’re all travelling in this world, and we need to find ways for us to sit down and talk and know one another.”

Daniel notes towards the beginning of his book that “there are significant analogues between the American fear of communism during the McCarthy era and the American fear of Islam at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” He points to the widely-held belief in the US that Barack Obama “is a Muslim because he has Muslim relatives and a Muslim-sounding name.”

With Islam perceived as a threat to Western civilisation, the obvious corollary is that Obama himself is a threat to the US. What is particularly disturbing about this twisted logic is that, even if Obama were Muslim, why would it make an iota of difference to the status quo, given the entrenched freedoms and protections guaranteed by the US Constitution?

How many people in the US know that Allah is always referenced by Muslims as “the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful”, thereby reflecting the tolerance and compassion of this great religion? How many people know the real meaning of such concepts as ‘sharia’ and ‘jihad’? How many people know what the Five Pillars of Islam are? How many people know the difference between the various Islamic sects, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia?

How many people will read The Search for Truth About Islam by Ben Daniel, I wonder? Daniel has done a commendable job of explaining Islam, without proselytising. Reading this will not subvert you to the ‘Islamic cause’, or secretly indoctrinate you. What I really liked is how Daniel approaches his subject with dispassion and empathy, interviewing people from all walks of life, from people on the street to academics, as well as visiting academic institutions, places of worship, homes and communities and sites of historical interest.

A lot of what is written here should be practical commonsense, like notions of tolerance and civic responsibility. I think we rely too much, in this day and age of instant and ‘viral’ communication, for hatemongers like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer to sow fear of the unknown, leading moderate citizens to betray the dictates of their values and their conscience.

On the one hand, it is an indictment of modern Christianity that we need such a book to tell us not to persecute people based on differences of religion and culture. My Christian friends tell me that all non-believers (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, paganists, Wiccans, the list goes on and on) will burn in hell one day because they have not accepted the One True God and been saved by His eternal sacrifice. On the other hand, Daniel’s book is a reflection of the grace that is emblematic of Christianity at its most inspired and visionary. It is up to us to ensure we reflect this grace by embodying the values and standards that Christianity imparts to us.

A kiss to the future

What an extraordinary, beautiful, life-affirming novel this is. Great literature not only defines experience, but shapes it as well. One can’t help but understand the world a little bit better, and your place in the grand scheme of things, after reading this.

This is the sort of book you frantically hunt down any copies of so you can give them to all your friends, their friends and their friends’ friends, urging them to READ THIS NOW. Thank you, David Levithan for writing Two Boys Kissing. This book will change and save lives.

In his Author’s Note, Levithan says that on 18 September 2010, college students Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello kissed for 32:30:47, to break the Guinness World Record for longest continuous kiss. Four days later, on 22 September 2010, Tyler Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. He attended a college a mere 30 minutes away from Matty and Bobby. These two unrelated events percolated in Levithan’s mind to eventually result in Two Boys Kissing.

I generally steer away from YA fiction, as there is nothing that can make you feel older beyond your years than a book about endlessly-longing, endlessly-conflicted youth. Levithan, however, as much as I shudder to use such a hackneyed phrase, has really written a ‘timeless classic’ that transcends genre.

He achieves this by using a Greek chorus of deceased older-generation gays to comment upon, and observe, the characters and events in the novel. Crucially, this is neither camp nor funny. Instead, it is deeply reflective and melancholic, which makes these fragments of the novel indelibly painful and exhilarating at the same time. Particularly the ending. On boy.

While I was reading this, it struck me how dazzlingly optimistic Levithan’s world view is. Gay teenagers fall in love, and live happily ever after. Bullies are revealed as cowards and bigots, who fade into the wings of history. Parents overcome their innate prejudices and fears, and learn to love their children. A lonely teen on the brink of suicide is saved at the last minute.

But then, why can’t the world be exactly like this? Is it wishful thinking? I come from an entirely different generation, where the openness exhibited by the characters of this novel was unthinkable. And in many parts of the world, from Africa to the Middle East and Asia, it is still unthinkable. Not to mention undoable. In public, at least. And never, ever in front of your friends, family or colleagues.

While gay people cannot have children unless they adopt (or remain totally childlike themselves, which is an entirely separate issue), what Levithan is saying here is that our children are the generations that come after us, to whom history has bequeathed a different, freer, more open world. Of course, there is still much hardship and heartache … but you just have to read this joyous, rapturous ode to love and hope to see how much has, indeed, changed.

Another thought that struck me while reading this is that Levithan skirts the issue of religion, perhaps intentionally, because it is so divisive and contentious, particularly in a gay context. If there is any religious sensibility here, it is a kind of pantheistic humanism, as evinced by the dead Greek chorus — which is totally helpless to interfere with, or affect, human affairs. Its only function is to observe.

This is a brave, brave novel. The cynic in me tells me that the brazen title and cover image are likely to turn as many people away as it will attract people to crack its pages open — hopefully those will be the people who need to read this book the most.