Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Sofia Samatar - A Stranger In Olondria (2013)

"But preserve your mistrust of the page, for a book is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears."

'A Stranger In Olondria' is a gorgeously written first novel by Somali American author Sofia Samatar, which has deservedly just won the World Fantasy Award. Written in prose that is ornate but never overripe, the book tells a story that is primarily about how important the act of storytelling is in how we make sense of our world, whilst managing to explore themes of privilege, conflict and the use of religion as a tool for social control. It is an engaging read, and pleasingly ambitious. The power, passion and depth with which Samatar explores her ideas reminded me of Ursula Le Guin in 'The Dispossessed' or 'The Left Hand Of Darkness', but ultimately 'A Stranger In Olondria' is very much its own beast; pleasingly unique.
   'A Stranger In Olondria' tells the story of Jevick, a rich pepper merchant's son who grows up on the Tea Islands, fascinated by stories of Olondria, the land in the north on which his father's trade is based. Jevick's people have no written language, only an oral tradition of story telling, but Jevick's father hires him an Olondrian tutor to teach him to speak and read Olondrian to help him when he inherits his father's business. When his father dies, Jevick can't wait to finally go to Olondria with the next shipment of peppers, but once he is there he becomes haunted by Jissavet, the ghost of a girl from the Tea Islands who died of an illness and wants Jevick to write the story of her life so that she can continue to live on in story. As news of Jevick's ability to speak to a ghost spreads, he finds himself embroiled in the political struggle between rival religious sects, the Priests of the Stone, who currently hold power, and the Priests of Avalei, a goddess of love and chaos, whose worship has now been outlawed.
Beautiful map at the beginning as well.
   The worldbuilding in 'A Stranger In Olondria' is simply incredible. Starting with the physical locations, the depth and range, from  Jevick's pepper farm in the Tea Islands to the bustling Olondrian capital of Bain, the temples of the Blessed Isle and the sparse bleak plateaus of the east, all rendered in exquisite detail, is impressive in and of itself. Beyond that, Samatar also invents numerous legends, stories, philosophies and tales to flesh out the different peoples and cultures that inhabit the book. Over the course of the book we are shown poems, folk songs, legends, folk tales, and quotes from academic writings. The sheer amount of skill and dedication required to write each of these, and have them convincingly portray a different voice from a different physical, social and cultural background, is staggering, yet Samatar proves herself a dab hand at this.
  A frequent criticism of worldbuilding is that it isn't necessary to the story telling, it simply provides window-dressing. 'A Stranger In Olondria' proves how profoundly worldbuilding can actually contribute to the story and characters. 'A Stranger In Olondria' is about how universal the desire to tell and hear stories is, and this is shown through how the thread of storytelling is constant throughout all the different settings, from the rich merchants in the city of Bain and the decadence of the priests in the Holy City through to those living in poverty in the countryside. However it is also a book about how story telling is a political act, and this is reflected in the different stories that different characters tell, and the reasons they tell these stories. Jissavet's story tells of her growing up in poverty in a small village in the Tea Islands, and her ostracisation both as a person with a disease and as a child of rape. She needs to tell her story because she is a person without a voice, disenfranchised, beautifully symbolised by her nature as a ghost who can only be heard by Jevick. Jevick's decision to write her story, which involves him devising a written form of his own native language, and translating it into Olondrian, are intensely political actions, giving this disenfranchised young girl a voice that more privileged individuals might finally hear and pay attention to. Auram, the High Priest of Avalei who manipulates Jevick's status as a mystic to gain power and traction for his sect, also constantly tells stories, from myths and legends, which he uses to reframe and justify his own manipulative actions, and to clarify how he sees other characters' roles. This reminds us how stories can be used to reaffirm political narratives, to maintain power over others. A main theme of the book is how subversive and dangerous the act of reading and writing can be, as shown by how it can be used to prop up or to subvert existing patterns of power, depending on who uses it.
   In addition to all this, 'A Stranger In Olondria' also has fantastic character work. At its most basic, it is Jevick's coming of age tale, as he goes from a state of innocence to one of experience, and to work the book relies on him being well developed. The book also contains Jissavet's story, which Samatar manages to make tragic and deeply moving without falling into the trap of idealising her; particularly important as we are experiencing her through Jevick's eyes, and he falls in love with her. Jissavet is a fully developed character with flaws and foibles, and her own distinctive voice that we can hear clearly underneath Jevick's writing of her. Auram, for all his manipulative nature, is also well developed and sympathetic. While his actions may have plunged Olondria into a vicious religious war from which its written culture may not survive, we understand that his actions are motivated by the state sanctioned violence meted out against his people. The relationship between Miros, Auram's son who helps to free Jevick from the Priests of the Stone, is another compelling aspect of the book. The two characters' desperate journey through the frozen wastes of the east recalls very much Ai Genly and Estraven's similar journey in Ursula Le Guin's 'The Left Hand Of Darkness', as two friends from very different cultural backgrounds come to better understand and respect each other, and is similarly moving. However what really makes Samatar's character work noteworthy is the extent to which she develops every character who appears, no matter how minor. Samatar goes to great length to ensure that everyone who appears in the book, such as the poor families who shelter Jevick and Miros on their journey east, all have interior lives and motivations for their actions. This deep understanding and empathy for all her characters is part of what gives the book its extraordinary depth.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Poul Anderson - Three Hearts And Three Lions (1961)

"Hasten, hasten, best of horses! Oh, run, my comrade, run as no horses ever did erenow, for surely all men are pursued with us. Haste thee, my darling, for we ride against striding Time, we ride against marching Chaos. Ah, God be with thee, God strengthen thee to run!"

'Three Hearts And Three Lions' is another charming and hugely influential Poul Anderson fantasy. While it lacks the strum und drang atavistic intensity of 'The Broken Sword', much of that book's invention and storytelling deftness is on display here. Whereas 'The Broken Sword' is fully emerged in its brutal Fantasy world of vengeful doomed Vikings and manipulative gods and elves, in 'Three Hearts And Three Lions' Anderson uses a modern day viewpoint character who is swept into a magical realm, who acts as a viewpoint character for the audience. Holger Carlsen is an affable everyman who finds himself transported into a different world where it seems like he is destined to play a key role. As such he's the ancestor of all the subsequent modern day viewpoint characters thrust into fantastical situations they don't understand, from Michael Moorcock's Erekose to Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, and 'Three Hearts And Three Lions' has provided a blueprint for subsequent variations and deconstructions of the chosen one story.
   Holger Carlsen is a Danish engineer who, during World War II, is hit by a shell and wakes up naked in a forest, in a world where it turns out that magic is very much real, elves, trolls and giants exist alongside the legends of our world, and the history of our world is just myths and legends. Carlsen finds that he is the knight of Three Hearts and Three Lions, a figure that appears to be of great importance in this world. Duke Alfric and Morgan le Fay, the leaders of the Faeries, are incredibly keen to have him either killed and out of the way, whilst a Saracen is looking for him. With the help of Hugi the dwarf and Alianora the swan-may, Carlsen goes in search of the sword Cortana, which is tied with his destiny as the knight of Three Hearts and Three Lions, and may have the power to send him home.
   Anderson uses Carlsen as a viewpoint character, through which the audience gets to vicariously experience the wonder and confusion of being plunged into a strange and fantastical world. However, while characters such as these can make an easy entry point for the reader into what might otherwise be a strange and disorientating world, they also run the risk of being so much of a blank slate that they come off as bland, or worse, as a wet blanket, oblivious to the wonders around them as they try desperately to get back home to rural Kansas. Anderson avoids this quite elegantly and inventively. Carlsen's stolid engineer's mind allows him to succeed as a knight by coming up with very modern and practical solutions to the fantastical challenges that face him. So he defeats a dragon not by expertise with a sword, but by using cold water to make it overheat like a boiler, and he works out that the curse of the troll's gold is caused by the radiation released when the carbon in the troll turns to silicon when it turns to stone in the sun.
   This rationalism extends to Calrsen's ontological understanding of the fantasy world he finds himself in. Calrsen theorises that, as quantum theory allows for an infinite number of alternate universes, it's possible that a universe exists in which all the myths and legends of our world are fact, and magic exists as a physical force, and that he has somehow been transferred across the boundaries between alternate realities. Michael Moorcock would later develop this idea as the basis for the multiverse, the ever shifting alternate realities through which the Eternal Champion wanders. It's interesting that a writer like Anderson who is so adept at writing wonderful fantasy stories should be so concerned with rationalising them, perhaps coming from his need as a writer of hard SF to make sure the worlds in his writing follow the laws of physics, and have vaguely plausible excuses for when they don't. Rather than making his fantasy world less magical, the fact that the non-magical aspects of the world are so realistically rendered makes the fantastical aspects of the world more believable.
   'Three Hearts And Three Lions' also presents another idea that would provide a cornerstone for Moorcock's Eternal Champion series, namely that of the eternal struggle between the forces of Law and Chaos. In Anderson's book, Law, as represented by humanity and Christendom, is under threat by the forces of Chaos, as represented by the forces of Faerie, which is mirrored by the conflict between the Allies and the Nazis in our universe. While the idea has the seeds of its origin here, Moorcock would go on to develop the idea of the balance between Law and Chaos more fully in his work. In 'Three Hearts And Three Lions', Law is basically the equivalent of good, whilst Chaos is evil. In Moorcock's work, neither Law or Chaos is good or evil in and of itself; they are two natural forces that need to be in equilibrium, and evil arises when there is an imbalance in either direction. This allows Moorcock to fully explore the nuances only hinted at in Anderson's work.
   Moorcock would later echo Carlsen's fate with that of Erekose. Carlsen discovers his identity as the knight of Three Hearts and Three Lions is that of Holger Danske, a knight of Arthur's round table who returns during times of chaos to save the world. Having saved humanity from the encroaching forces of Faerie, he is whisked back to our world where he helps to defeat the Nazis. But this means he is separated from his love, Alianora, as Erekose is from his love Erminzhad, and he is destined to search for a way to travel across alternate universes to find her again.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Cordwainer Smith - The Best Of (1975)

"You have waited for me. I have waited too. It is time to die, perhaps, but we will die the way people did in the beginning, before things became easy and cruel for them. They live in a stupor and they die in a dream. It is not a good dream and if they awaken, they will know that we are people too."

 'The Dead Lady Of Clown Town', 1964

"Scraps of knowledge have been found. In the ultimate beginning of man, even before there were aircraft, the wise man Laodz declared, 'Water does nothing but it penetrates everything. Inaction finds the road.' Later an ancient lord said this: 'There is a music which underlies all things. We dance to the tunes all our lives, though our living ears never hear the music which guides us and moves us. Happiness can kill people as softly as shadows seen in dreams.' We must be people first and happy later, lest we live and die in vain." 

'Under Old Earth', 1966

Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym of Paul Linebarger, a man who lived a colourful life, (among other things, he wrote the book on psychological warfare). He also wrote a series of science fiction short stories, and his lone SF novel, 'Norstrilia', all set in the same vast future history. 'The Best Of Cordwainer Smith', (later reissued by Gollancz as 'The Rediscovery Of Man' in the SF Masterworks series), collects twelve of these stories and presents them in order of internal chronology. Written between 1950 and 1966, while the stories show their vintage, at their best they are a compelling mixture of untethered imagination and striking imagery.
   Smith's future history, extending from around the year 2000 through 16,000 odd years beyond that, is held together by a couple of key concepts. The stories trace humanity's early attempts at braving the dangers of space travel, through to the formation of intergalactic empires, all under the guiding hand of the Instrumentality, a group of powerful people who rule humanity. The main narrative thread, alluded to and foreshadowed several times before it actually happens, is the Rediscovery of Man. The Instrumentality creates an environment for humanity free of pain, suffering and death, where most of the manual labour is carried out by robots, computers, and the underpeople - artificially uplifted animals with the intelligence and appearance of humans who are forced into menial servitude and treated as second class citizens because of their animal origins. This society soon slips into decadence and despondency. The Rediscovery of Man, humanity's salvation, can only be achieved not just by returning pain and suffering into human life so that it has meaning, but also by the emancipation of the underpeople.

The Future, mapped out for your convenience. 
   Cordwainer Smith wasn't the first SF author to set all his stories in a mapped out, shared universe. What gives his stories their distinct flavour is in the telling of them. Smith sought to imbue his stories with the feel of future myths and legends, going so far as to base some of them on myths or stories from around the world, and adopted several techniques from Chinese fiction, learned from his time spent studying there. Although in practice this is hit and miss, this results in his writing being more ambitious and more interesting than many of the other pulp writers of the time. Like an SF Lord Dunsany, his stories are full of archaic words and fanciful turns of phrase; when it works, it gives the stories a genuine sense of mythic wonder, when it doesn't, his prose becomes repetitive and knotty. Perhaps more interesting is how this mythic approach effects Smith's attitude towards continuity. While there is a clear underlying narrative thread building up to the Rediscovery of Man, continuity between stories is frequently vague, making their exact nature in the overall chronology possible to guess at but difficult to pin down with any accuracy. There is a genuine sense of fragments of stories and history long since past, passed down through different media and contexts, from which the reader has to unpick the historical threads. The fact that all this happens in the far future, dressed up in the style and language of the distant past, creates an engaging disconnect.
   The other thing that makes Smith's work distinctive is their sheer oddness. SF is frequently guilty of overexplaining. In a particular strain of the most traditionally science fictional SF, what is important, over characters, situation or novelty, is the extent to which the science of the fictional world is rationalised and thought out. Smith's stories are notable for how much they don't explain. Stories like 'Scanners Live In Vain' assault the reader straight out of the gate with a disorienting blend of bizarre imagery and neologisms. The future technology described, from the various dangerous ways of tackling space travel to the ambiguous powers of the computers, have seemingly been chosen for their power and resonance as images and ideas rather than functionality. Everything Smith describes, from solar sales so large they block out the sun to cat pilots hunting invisible space dragons to gorgeous golden ships bigger than planets, is gloriously impractical yet possessed with a strange, haunting beauty.

The SF Masterwork 'The Rediscovery Of Man' is in fact this collection reprinted, and not the 1993 NESFA omnibus of the same name, which collects all of Cordwainer Smith's short fiction. 
   The stories do show their age in places. While Cordwainer Smith's stories do frequently feature female protagonists who are at least as well developed as his male characters and imbued with a fair amount of agency, from the pilot Helen America in 'The Lady Who Sailed The Soul' to the messianic D'joan and reluctant resistance leader Elaine in 'The Dead Lady Of Clown Town', they are presented as being exceptional to their gender. 'The Crime And The Glory Of Commander Suzdal' features a planet whose inhabitants are violent, all-male homosexuals. To be charitable to Smith, he portrays the people of this planet in sympathetic detail as they death of all the planet's female population by a virus, and one could argue the appearance of a single sex planet that reproduces parthenogenesically in a work of pulp SF paved the way for later, radical LGBT and feminist readings of the same idea, so that, say, when Nicola Griffith wrote the excellent 'Ammonite', it was ably accepted into the mileau of SF. However none of this makes up for the fact that this is a thoroughly offensive portrayal of homosexuality, especially as Smith outright states that their homosexuality was responsible for turning them villainous. The casual homophobia makes 'The Crime And The Glory...' the least palatable of Smith's stories on show here, and means that it is impossible to recommend the book without reservations.
   This is a great shame, as many of the other stories have much to recommend them. In other places Smith's work shows signs of being quite open minded. The Lords and Ladies of Instrumentality tend to be equally as powerful as each other, and from their names one presumes of reasonably diverse backgrounds. The whole story arc of the Rediscovery Of Man is that humanity can only achieve transcendence after it treats the underpeople as actual people. Smith never portrays the underpeople as any less than fully human, and the stories that focus on their struggle for equal rights are the most moving in the book. 'The Dead Lady Of Clown Town' reworks the story of Joan of Arc as D'joan the dog girl leading a tragic and inevitably doomed non-revolution of the underpeople, and is genuinely heartbreaking. The story is recapitulated more hopefully in 'The Ballad Of Lost C'mell',  and here Smith shows that he has a good understanding of systematic injustice:

"Perhaps the policewoman thought that raw hatred would be shocking to C'mell. It wasn't. Underpeople were used to hatred, and it was not any worse raw than it was when cooked with politeness and served like poison. They had to live with it."

   Smith's work also shows a healthy cynicism about how Empires achieve and maintain power, informed one suspects by his day job. The Instrumentality are not meant to be nice or pleasant, and the reader is not meant to approve of them. They hold their power over humanity by brainwashing, drug monopolies and manipulation. 'Golden The Ship Was - Oh! Oh! Oh!' shows that the Instrumentality is wily, deceptive and manipulative, and is willing to go all the way to genocide to maintain its control over humanity, while 'Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons' shows just how jealously the Norstrilians guard the drug that grants longevity to humans. Perhaps the most powerful story in the book, and almost certainly the most strikingly odd, is 'A Planet Named Shayol'. Shayol is the hell planet that the Instrumentality uses as the ultimate punishment for criminals, and in a sequence that would make both Dante and David Cronenberg shudder Smith reveals just what that punishment is. The damned of the Instrumentality are exposed to parasites which cause extra organs to grow on their bodies whilst preserving their life for thousands of years in excruciating agony, and the Instrumentality harvests these extra organs for medical use. It is intense and nightmarish, yet oddly lyrical and moving in places. It demonstrates both Smith's understanding of and his contempt of the extreme punishments governments use to maintain their power. As such it displays all of Smith's strengths as a writer, and nicely summarises what made him unique.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

M. R. Carey - The Girl With All The Gifts (2014)

"She also knows that not all the evils that struck this land had the same cause and origin. The infection was bad. So were the things that the important-decision people did to control the infection. And so is catching little children and cutting them into pieces, even if you're doing it to try to make medicine that stops people being hungries."

'The Girl With All The Gifts' is a competent and thoroughly readable post-apocalyptic thriller, a good example of the kind of consistency that can be achieved late in a genre's run simply by cannily assembling or recombining the best ideas and tropes a subgenre has to offer. It has solid main characters that it develops thoughtfully along the way, a reasonably original concept for the lead and a powerful and even moving ending. Unfortunately, the novel fails to rise above its influences. For all that it plays with the tropes and ideas it evokes, it never quite manages to synthesise anything new or particularly striking from these component parts. Perhaps more problematic is the way the lack of balance and nuance between the characters means that the book ultimately falls short of doing justice to its big themes. Be warned, there will be spoilers from here on out.
   It's impossible to talk about 'The Girl With All The Gifts' without giving away the Big Twist, which is that Melanie is a zombie, and the book is a zombie book. Melanie, the protagonist, is a ten year old girl who has spent all her living memory in an underground base, restrained to a wheelchair and locked in a cell when she's not in class. She and a bunch of other children are educated by teachers and minded by soldiers, while outside the world is overrun with hungries (what we're calling zombies this time round, not one of my favourite terms for them). The book keeps Melanie's ontological statues a secret from the reader and from Melanie herself for the initial portion of the book. This is an interesting idea, used to immediately humanise Melanie and her classmates and so to start the discussion about what it really means to be human, which is the major theme of the book. I have to say I liked this portion of the book the best by far, with Carey very effectively subverting the trope of the creepy child. Melanie is instantly likable, and the treatment she and her classmates receive from the adults tips the reader off immediately that something is very wrong. That something of course is ultimately the dehumanising treatment the zombie children are receiving at the hands of the adults at the facility who fail to see them as human. Now, none of this is particularly original. The set up and its execution echoes Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go', which unfortunately for Carey is a much better written exploration of similar ground. Science fiction in general has a long history of engaging with the Other to explore how people dehumanise those they deem less than human, and frequently does so very effectively via children, as John Wyndham does in 'The Chrysalids' and 'The Midwich Cuckoos', books whose influence is felt very strongly here. Perhaps some of the problem is Carey's lack of subtlety. The Big Twist is so heavily foreshadowed that, if you're familiar with the kind of games that genre fiction likes to play, you're unlikely to be surprised when the reveal comes. I also suspect he misses a trick by slipping out of Melanie's viewpoint into that of the teachers and the soldiers. It's possible to imagine a shorter, more intense book set entirely in the underground bunker, making the most out of Melanie's unusual perspective to create a work of Wolfean ambiguity.
   However, Carey soon moves us away from the bunker. Melanie is chosen by Dr. Caldwell for vivisection - the entire point of the base is to study these sentient zombie children in the hopes of developing a cure - and avoids having her brain removed by a fortuitously timed attack on the base, which leaves Melanie, Dr. Caldwell, her favourite teacher Miss Justineau, and Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher from the military detail guarding the base, stranded outside. The book quickly changes into a post-apocalypse survival thriller, as the mismatched group of civilians and military men must make its way through zombie-infested terrain to Beacon, where the last remnants of humanity is holed up. From here on out the book takes a disappointing nose-dive into utter predictability. Carey takes us through all the stations of the crash, running through a virtual checklist of post-apocalyptic tropes. Does the stolen car break down almost immediately? Check. Does Sergeant Park get frustrated at the civilians for not following his orders, but the civilians ultimately come to realise that under his gruff exterior he genuinely has their best interests at heart? Check. Did the government try to contain the spread of the zombie infection by using increasingly unpleasant and heavy-handed methods against its panicking population? And so on. Carey faces the problem that anyone writing a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller in the year 2014 faces, which is that this is ground that has been very well trod on. Yet one does not need to be heavily versed in the genre to be familiar with everything he wheels out here. Anyone who's read 'The Death Of Grass' by John Christopher and seen the Romero zombie films is going to recognise nearly every scene and scenario that plays out. 'The Girl With All The Gifts' doesn't do enough to distinguish itself from these predecessors. By the end of the story, the largest shadow cast over the book is Richard Matheson's 'I Am Legend', which plays exactly the same trick with humans assuming that the monsters they are fighting are, well, monsters, instead of sentient living beings who will replace them, and indeed the endings of the two books converge, to the extent that the not inconsiderable emotional impact of Carey's ending is attenuated by how similar it is.
   This is a shame because there is a lot of stuff that Carey does well. Sergeant Parks' character arc may be familiar, but it is done very well here, with Parks developing into a genuinely likable and sympathetic character from his early portrayal as a vicious meathead. Both Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell are female characters with agency, strength and some depth. And Carey's explanation of the zombie apocalypse is very well thought out. Carey's zombies are caused by infection with a variant of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the fungus that manipulates the brains of ants, as popularised in the David Attenborourgh documentary 'Planet Earth' and various zombie-themed Cracked articles. While post-Max Brooks and '28 Days Later' the infection model for zombies is nothing new, Carey thinks it out and its relationship to its human host, and how this allows for the zombie children like Melanie to retain control of their higher brain function unlike the first generation of zombies, in convincing biological detail. However I wonder if this isn't part of the book's problem. 'The Girl With All The Gifts' commits the very SFnal sin of explaining everything in incredible and often unnecessary detail. One of the advantages of operating in such a well-worn corner of genre is that you can actually assume that the vast majority of your readership will be familiar with at least the general shape of the story you are trying to tell; so you can show the reader the charred fields between the towns without having to explicitly point out that this was caused by the government raising the villages to try to stop the infection, say. Suggestion and insinuation, followed by leaving it to the reader's imagination, can be a more powerful technique than exposition.
   However I felt the book's biggest problem is the treatment of Dr. Caldwell, and to a lesser extent Miss Justineau. Dr. Caldwell represents science untethered from its moral and ethical responsibilities. Whereas Melanie is a person who happens to look like a monster, Dr. Caldwell is a person who happens to be a monster. She is the kind of person who is totally happy to remove a child's brain without anesthetic. Dr. Caldwell's brutal experiments recall the worst technological horrors of the 20th century. For the book to succeed, it's vital that she works as a character. However she is easily the least convincing character in the book. Carey tries to set up Caldwell in opposition to Justineau, with Caldwell claiming that her research will save lives, whereas Justineau's kindness to the children won't help anyone in the long run. However not even Caldwell believes this; her characterisation is ultimately that of a sociopath. She is not remotely interested in saving people, she is only interested in solving the intellectual puzzle that the zombies pose for her. You suspect she'd happily vivisect her own mother if it brought her closer to the truth. This renders her argument and any counterbalance she's narratively meant to be against Justineau entirely moot. The thing is, history has taught us that there are people who would do such unethical experiments, and whilst a good many of them may well have been shrieking psychopaths, a good many of them probably weren't. 'The Girl With All The Gifts' misses a chance to explore the banality of evil; the SS officer who goes home and has dinner with his family. Additionally, Dr. Caldwell's failure as a narrative counterbalance to Miss Justineau winds up having a negative impact on Miss Justineau's characterisation. Without a well-developed opposite to bounce off, in order to stop her from coming off as too perfect Carey decides to give her a back-story in which she accidentally ran over a kid and never reported it, getting away with it because society collapsed straight afterwards. It's a tin-eared decision that would probably have been avoided if Dr. Caldwell was a deep enough character to be able to make Miss Justineau reflect on her own complicity in Dr. Caldwell's programme.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Ben Aaronovitch - Rivers Of London (2011)

   "'It's all real,' I said. 'Ghosts, magic, everything.'
   "'Then why doesn't everything seem different?' she asked.
   "'Because it was there in front of you all the time,' I said. 'Nothing's changed, so why should you notice anything?'"

"'I never worry about the theological questions,' said Nightingale. 'They exist, they have power and they can breach the Queen's peace - that makes them a police matter.'"

For all of Tolkein's fetishisation of the countryside, Fantasy lends itself particularly well to describing cities. Cities that have been around for any length and time develop their own mythology alongside their history, urban legends growing entangled around generations upon generations of memories. For a city as old and as rich in history as London, one can well imagine every street corner having stories to tell, every alleyway rich with secret histories. From there it's not hard to imagine a secret world of magic operating right under our noses.
   'Rivers Of London' is a supernatural police procedural. Peter Grant is a young police officer who winds up taking a witness statement from a ghost at the scene of a murder. As a result he finds himself working for the branch of the London Metropolitan Police that deals with supernatural crime, under the mysterious Inspector Thomas Nightingale. What follows is both an entertaining supernatural whodunit and a heartfelt and vivid evocation of the history and mythology of London.
   A lot of the appeal of the book is Peter Grant's narrative voice. Aaronovitch nails the instantly likable cockney charm of the character, whilst conveying that Grant is far more canny than he lets on. Grant's charm and deadpan humour make him instantly sympathetic and an effective audience viewpoint character as well as a compelling and well-drawn character in his own right. Aaronovitch's proficiency with Grant's voice makes the book a breezy and enjoyable read, despite the darkness and violence of much of its subject matter.
   The book is far from just the Peter Grant show, however. Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last officially sanctioned wizard working for the police force, is a fascinating character whom we learn all too little about. He is openly gay, drives a jaguar, is considerably older than he looks, and lives in a Folly on Russel Square with his maid, Molly, a being of undisclosed origin with sharp teeth who practices haemodivination. There is also Lesley May, Grant's colleague and potential love interest. At the beginning of the book, Peter Grant and Lesley have just completed their probationary period for the police force, but whilst Grant is destined for a lifetime of paperwork before being rescued by Nightingale, Lesley is a promising, competent officer about to be assigned to active duty. She is a well-written and developed female character, and her friendship with Grant is very well done; although it never becomes romantic they have a solid and enjoyable friendship that you could imagine leading to something more.
   And so we embark on a journey into the heart of London, through its history from the Roman times to the establishment of the police force and the justice system and back to the present day, with a varied cast and a compelling re-imagining of supernatural lore. 'Rivers Of London' is very well researched; Aaronovitch's eye for historical and architectural detail made me regret not reading this book while I was still living in London. However he is also aware that most of his readers in the modern age will be coming to his books with an awareness of 21st Century popular culture, and doesn't try to ignore it or sweep it under the rug. Thus, Peter Grant can make snarky jokes about Twilight vampires and point out his own book's similarities of premise with Harry Potter. Aaronovitch gets away with it because his book is clearly its own beast, and he comes up with some interesting takes on vampires and ghosts, whilst hinting at other mysteries to be explored more fully in later books. Another part of what makes Aaronovitch's London so well-realised is that Aaronovitch manages to capture the city's teaming diversity, from Grant himself who is half Sierra Leonian on his mother's side to Mother Thames, a Nigerian immigrant, to Dr Abdul Haqq Walid, the Scottish cryptopathologist.
   Aaronovitch is also very good at laying out how the police force works. In order for a supernatural police procedural to work, it helps for the procedural part to be well grounded. While Aaronovitch has the excitement and affection for the puzzle-solving aspects of an investigation, as well as a way with dramatic and destructive action sequences, he also has a good sense of how the intricate bureaucracy that ties the whole police force together works. His descriptions of the modern workplace are dryly amusing, with Grant having to work around how much of the magical world he should be including in his paperwork. There is much wry humour in the hierarchy of the police force as well, with Chief Inspectors Seawoll and Stephanopoulos grudgingly letting Nightingale and Grant bring magic into their murder case whilst trying to hide the actual truth from their boss.
   The narrative glue holding the whole murder mystery together is Punch and Judy, with the murders fitting the pattern of those carried out by Punch in the original Punch and Judy script. The culprit is a revenant, a vengeful spirit comprised partly of Punch and partly of Henry Pyke, an actor whose murder by a successful colleague went unpunished. As well as clever way of providing structure to the narrative, this works because Punch is the spirit of chaos and disorder, the breakdown brought about by the high stress life of living in a big city. Aaronovitch realises that you can't evoke the city without also taking into account its downsides. The Punch side of Henry Pyke's personality goes beyond an angry spirit's desire for revenge; what makes him effective is that he is able to channel all our worst impulses brought about by living in confined spaces together. As well as the murders, Punch's presence causes ripples of violence throughout the city, resulting in a series of minor incidents in which normal people snap under pressure and commit disproportionate acts of anger or violence. I particularly like that the book doesn't stereotype the poorer or immigrant communities as being more prone to violence; many of the outbursts are perpetrated by respectable-seeming middle-class types, and the book wrings some wry humour out of the fact that the climactic riot is set off in Covent Garden by opera goers. There is an excellent scene where Punch manifests on the tube to an exhausted and down-heartened Peter Grant and tries to break him, but Grant sees Punch for what he is and is able to resist.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Angela Carter - The Passion Of New Eve (1977)

"Here we were at the beginning or end of the world and I, in my sumptuous flesh, was in myself the fruit of the tree of knowledge; knowledge had made me, I was a man-made masterpiece of skin and bone, the technological Eve in person."

'The Passion Of New Eve' is powerful, hallucinatory and deeply angry. It tells, in language alternately mythic and grittily realistic, of Evelyn, a young man who forcibly undergoes a sex change to become Eve, and then goes on a journey of sexual discovery across a post-apocalyptic USA. Along the way it explores the mutability of gender, society's expectations of gender roles, and the horror of sexual violence. It is a harrowing and striking piece of writing, made all the more so by Angela Carter's poetic language.
   I'd like to get the negative part of the review out of the way first, because, being central to the conceit of the novel, there's no way around this. The book's portrayal of transition is problematic at best. Evelyn's transition to Eve is an act of sexual violation and violence, performed on an unwilling victim. The other trans character in the book, the actress Tristessa, has lived her entire life as a woman, and the fact that she has male sexual organs is used as a shock reveal, which plays into the negative portrayal of trans people as deceptive. This is unfortunate as Carter has a lot of interesting and positive things to say about how unhelpful and arbitrary gender stereotypes and society's expectation of gender roles are, and the book does have moments where it quite sensitively explores how Eve and Tristessa live and come to terms with their sexuality as people trapped in bodies whose biological sex they don't relate to. Eve and Tristessa are both sympathetically portrayed and well-drawn characters, and I suspect in these respects the book would have been reasonably progressive in the 70's. However the book still makes the error of portraying transition as either an act of sexual violence or an act of deception, and this lets it down in a big way.
   'The Passion Of New Eve' follows Evelyn, an English man who has moved to New York just as society is starting to crumble. Following an abusive relationship with Leilah, an African American stripper, which culminates in Leilah being sterilised by a botched abortion, he runs away into the desert, where he is captured by the women of Beulah, an underground city of radical feminists who surgically turn him into a woman, Eve, and plan to birth a new humanity from the ruins of the old by impregnating her with his (pronoun trouble) old seed. Eve escapes back into the desert, where she undergoes a series of degredations and experiences as she comes to terms with her new sexuality and her place in the collapsing world.
   The book is unflinching in its portrayal of sexual violence against women. Evelyn's treatment of Leilah is sickening, not least because, as Evelyn himself points out, it is far from out of the ordinary. Her injury and sterilisation as the result of an abortion decided by the man have plenty of historical and real life precedent, and the characters' backgrounds give the abuse a racialised aspect, recalling the sexual abuse of African-American women by white slave owners. Eve's treatment once she becomes a woman is no less horrendous. She is captured by Zero the poet, an old man with one eye and one leg who lives in filth with his pigs and dog, and forced to become one of his eight wives. Eve and the other wives are raped multiple times by Zero and subjected to sexual humiliations and degredations. This isn't a case of rape being used as backdrop, to make the story seem more gritty, or as a cheap way of providing character depth; Carter exhaustively catalogues the ways women are subjected to sexual violence in order to show just how messed up gender relations between the sexes are. It's meant to be deeply unsettling and horrifying, especially when it's pointed out how common place this all is. The sexual violence Evelyn suffers at the hands of the women of Beulah is juxtaposed with this; although experiencing life as a woman allows Eve to achieve a sympathy and empathy with women that was previously unavailable to him, the act of violence itself is only ever portrayed as that. Evelyn may be an abusive shit, but he doesn't deserve what happens to him, and the book never suggests that he does. Evelyn's enforced transition into the new Eve is simply another act of violence in the struggle between the genders, the brutally logical outcome in a collapsing society where violence is met with violence.
   The world of 'The Passion Of New Eve' alternates between being realistically delineated in stark detail, such as the grimy interior of Leilah's flat, or the stomach-churning filth and squalor of Zero's farm, and mythic, deeply symbolic lanscapes, such as the womb-like underground city of Beulah, or the system of underground caves through which Eve experiences a reverse birth at the end. The ultimate effect is intensely disorienting, as Eve journeys through vivid dreamscapes such as the rotating labyrinth full of waxwork effigies that is Tristessa's secret desert home, and has bizarre encounters with religious child soldiers. The world never quite coalesces into something that parses for reality. Like Ballard's 'The Drowned World' or Moorcock's 'The Shores Of Death', the warped and ravaged apocalyptic landscapes exist as much to reflect the inner world of the protagonist. Like Moorcock, Carter is adept at adapting psychedelic, symbolic and frequently thoroughly Freudian imagery and working it into a fantastical or SFnal context. As well as Adam and Eve, Tiresias is frequently evoked, as well as the Amazons and the Cybele. This aligns 'The Passion Of New Eve' both with the more inventive end of the pulp spectrum and with the myths and legends from which pulp frequently draws.

Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy (1985-1987)

"Brains and guts, the insides of a man. We always talk about trying to get inside a writer to understand his work better. But when you get right down to it, there's not much to find in there - at least not much that's different from what you'd find in anyone else."

'The New York Trilogy' by Paul Auster comprises three linked novels that work together as a deconstruction of the noir detective genre. 'City Of Glass', 'Ghosts' and 'The Locked Room' all offer variations on a similar, outwardly simple detective plot: a man gets pulled in to a seemingly straightforward private investigator job, and his fascination with his target ultimately consumes him. This framework allows Auster to explore themes of obsession, alienation and loneliness, as well as to play various metafictional games, as his hapless PIs find themselves playing the roles of Don Quixote or Captain Ahab as they obsessively hunt down their missing man, with the increasing suspicion that they are merely characters in a novel, acting out a preordained part, all against the backdrop of a hyper-real, magical realist New York. Auster draws parallels between the life of a writer and the life of a private detective - seemingly glamourous, but in reality composed of large stretches of the dull and mundane, while they diligently untangle the correct thread from an infinite tangle of possibilities, whether that thread be the truth about a crime or the perfect sentence. Ultimately the trilogy reveals itself to be about words; the space between words and their meanings and the impossibility of objective observation.
   All this makes 'The New York Trilogy' sound pretty compelling, and while it is certainly a striking, ambitious work with many interesting ideas, I did enjoy it but not without reservations. Auster's metafictional conceits are reminiscent of Italo Calvino's, yet he frequently lacks Calvino's dazzling wit and invention. His exploration of unresolved ambiguities and a mutable city recalls the work of M. John Harrison, without ever quite achieving Harrison's insight or expertise with prose. The premise of the trilogy is similar to that of Jonathan Carroll's 'The Land Of Laughs' and Christopher Priest's 'The Affirmation', yet Auster doesn't ever go as far as Carroll and Priest do in deconstructing their protagonists and the worlds built around them. Paul 'The International Bestselling Author' Auster is also guilty of a certain smugness, whether in the way his narrator expresses surprise that, "given the seriousness and difficulty of Fanshawe's work, and given the public's tendency to stay away from such work, it was a success beyond anything we had imagined possible," in the way he tells the reader at several points the reaction he ought to be having to the text, or in the way he carefully explains all the literary allusions he invokes in case the reader is not well read enough to have spotted them. Although as a cultural ignoramus who only reads grubby paperbacks with garish spaceships and dragons on the covers, actually I found the latter rather helpful for writing this review. Were I being charitable I would say that this actually quite effectively sets up the reveal that the narrator of all three stories is not Auster himself, something that is played with in 'City Of Glass' anyway, but the character that narrates 'The Locked Room' all along. More problematic than any sense of retrodden ground or problems with overall tone on my part is Auster's treatment of his female characters. 'The New York Trilogy' is clearly intentionally in dialogue with the noir detective genre, a genre not renowned for its well balanced portrayal of female characters in the least, so it is unsurprising that the male protagonists only see the female characters in the book in terms of their attraction to them. This is actually quite interestingly explored, as Daniel Quinn's infatuation with Mrs. Stillman is part of what makes him come a cropper, and Mr. Blue assumes that his girlfriend will indefinitely wait for him while he spends all his time on this one case and never even bothers to call her, and of course she doesn't. What is still problematic is the way that all the female characters in the book are entirely defined by their relationships to the invariably male protagonist and antagonist. Which again is genre appropriate, but surely the whole point of post modern engagement with the genre is that you can deconstruct and explore these limitations without falling into them yourself. To go back to 'The Land Of Laughs', Jonathan Carroll manages to make Saxony a likable and engaging character with agency, whilst using how oblivious Thomas is to his poor treatment of her to show us how messed up Thomas actually is. It shows that its possible to give your female characters depth and agency even if your first person narrator is incapable of acknowledging this; I would have liked to see at least an attempt at something like that here.
   Limitations aside, there is a lot that 'The New York Trilogy' does right. 'City Of Glass' explores the relationship between language as a series of words and the abstract concepts it is designed to convey, and likens writing to detective work in that the writer must find the correct word to convey these concepts to the reader, despite the gulf between them. This dissociation is reflected in the characters, the narrator and the author himself. Daniel Quinn is a writer of detective novels who is swept up into a mystery when someone phones him asking for Paul Auster, Private Eye. Quinn winds up masquerading as Auster and taking the Private Eye job. Auster later turns up, but it turns out he is a writer, not a private investigator, and the narrator even takes Quinn's side against Auster in the end, claiming that Auster has treated the character poorly. Quinn's nature as a fictional character is explored, as he disappears after he runs out of pages in his notebook. The lavish meals left for him in the empty house after his breakdown could even have been written in for him by the narrator looking out for him. Of course this is only effective in so much as Quinn is convincing as a character. Auster goes to great lengths to give him personality and depth, hopes and dreams. We spend enough time in his head that we buy him as a person, which provides the tension when we are faced with his nature as a fictional character.
   Quinn's job is to trail Peter Stillman, a man who went to jail because he locked up his son in a basement and didn't talk to him as part of an experiment to discover the original language of humanity before the fall of the Tower Of Babel, and so get closer to the words that hold the true meaning of that which they describe. Stillman has now been released and his son fears that he will try to harm him in some way. The longer Quinn trails Stillman and tries to untangle the sense from his seemingly random actions, the more tenuous his grasp on reality becomes. Quinn eventually has a complete breakdown, and winds up living in an alleyway opposite the Stillman house and going with as little sleep as he can deal with so that he can watch the house as diligently as possible. He later finds out that by this stage Stillman has already killed himself, so he has been in effect watching a man who no longer exists, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. By this stage he has become the lead character in the retelling of 'Don Quixote' that Auster discusses with him when they meet, leading to the narrator's sympathy with him.
   'Ghosts' plays with similar themes and ideas. In a very Calvino-esque move, all the characters in 'Ghosts' are named after colours that represent them. The main detective is Blue, his mark is Black, indicating his shadow-like status as Blue's double, and the man who set up the job is White, indicating his status as an unknowable blank. As Blue holes up in his apartment to watch Black, it slowly dawns on him that Black has been hired by Mr. White to watch Blue, locking both of them in an existential stalemate where they are both relegated to the ghost of each other. Blue and Black ultimately have similar breakdowns, and it ends the only way it can; the two attack each other, and once Black is killed, Blue is free to walk off the page at the end of the story to whatever fate awaits him. 'Ghosts' explores the obsessive nature of both the writer and the detective. Blue and Black's lives are reduced to a life of solitude as might be favoured by a writer; they spend all their time shut in their rooms, composing their reports on each other. Both their actions are so dependent on the actions of the other that, by the time they realise the true nature of their situation, neither of them can walk away from it.
   'The Locked Room' is the final book in the trilogy, and actually by far my favourite of the three. The eponymous locked room is not the classic murder mystery set up, but the secret part inside all of us that is essentially unknowable to anyone else. The story follows the narrator, later revealed to be the narrator of the other two stories in abortive attempts to relate this story, who discovers that his childhood friend Fanshawe has disappeared. Fanshawe's wife, Sophie, gets in contact with the narrator on Fanshawe's instructions. Fanshawe was, naturally, a writer, and left instructions that on his death Sophie should contact the narrator to look through his manuscripts and decide if they are worthy of publication. The narrative takes on the aspect of 'Moby Dick', as Fanshawe changes from the Ahab to the narrator's Ishmael to the narrator's own personal white whale as he becomes obsessed with tracking the missing man down. I think I find this novel the most compelling of the trilogy partially because it has more moving parts, a wider cast for Auster to play with, and partly because Auster gets those intense male friendships so right, the experience of living in each other's pockets to the extent that your identities begin to merge, and being unable to shake it off even after that other person's gone. There is something sexually sublimated about this; Auster explores this in the way that every sexual encounter the narrator has he is standing in for Fanshawe in some way. It gets pretty Freudian. Everything gets tied together, but not in a way that allows any of the characters or the reader to make any sense of it. Quinn and Peter Stillman show up, their incidental role to the story showing how they manage to take on the archetypal roles required of them in 'City Of Glass'. In the end, 'The Locked Room' is about how unknowable somebody else's life is. You can have all the facts and dates, but these tell you nothing of that person's internal life; any life can take unexpected turns at the last moment, and no life story is over until that life is over. As much as the narrator's identity merges with that of Fanshawe, the inner core of Fanshawe that makes him himself is forever unknowable to him.
   'The New York Trilogy', with all its questions about identity and meaning, ultimately deconstructs the very nature of the detective. The detective is the person who walks into the chaos of the crime scene and, through his superior powers of observation and his ability to understand other people's motives, creates order and resolution by solving the crime. However the contradiction at the heart of the detective is that, because he has to be a compelling character, because he has to have some stake in solving the mystery, this makes him as far from an objective observer as possible. What makes Philip Marlowe compelling is that he cannot walk away from a mystery; he has this internal sense of justice that means that he has to solve the mystery even if he doesn't wind up bringing the criminal to justice. However he cannot stop himself from becoming emotionally involved in the case, and the man's an emotional trainwreck as it is; an alcoholic loner prone to violence. How can he possibly hope to understand the objective truth without his subjective position, the thing that makes him narratively compelling, colouring it? With his lack of patience and tendency to jump to conclusions, he's utterly unfit for long term surveillance or collecting evidence. He is a creature who acts on instinct and hunch. Auster's three iterations of the detective novel explore how these qualities, the qualities we most associate with private detectives, make one utterly unsuitable for carrying out the job. They also show how a tendency to get inside other people's minds can be something that completely drives you mad, whilst not providing you with that critical information that might help you solve the case.
   With all its unexplained ambiguities, characters shifting identities, missed opportunities, and unsolved mysteries, Auster also explores how unlike real life crimes the crimes in mystery novels are. A good mystery novel is a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine; marvelously intricate, beautifully designed, fascinating, and incredibly impractical. The idea that murderers leave a series of clues that interlock in just the right pattern for the detective to solve the mystery is compelling, but not at all like how solving murder cases works in real life. Real life is built on ambiguities, misunderstandings and coincidence; there is rarely a logical pattern to be discerned that can give the keen observer the unadulterated truth.
  At the centre of the three novels is New York City itself; a Borgesian labyrinth fraught with hidden significance, secret messages and red herrings, as much a state of mind as a physical city. Each street corner is laden with historical or literary significance, each building haunted by the passions and dreams of those who lived there before. Ripe with decaying grandeur, it is exactly the right place to set a deconstruction of the noir detective genre.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

James Blish - A Case Of Conscience (1958)

"Belief and science aren't mutually exclusive - quite the contrary. But if you place scientific standards first, and exclude belief, admit nothing that's not proven, then what you have is a series of empty gestures. For me, biology is an act of religion, because I know that all creatures are God's - each new planet, with all its manifestations, is an affirmation of God's power."

"Almost all knowledge, after all, fell into that category. It was either perfectly simple once you understood it, or else it fell apart into fiction. As a Jesuit - even here, fifty light-years from Rome - Ruiz-Sanchez knew something about knowledge that Lucien le Comte des Bois-d'Averoigne had forgotten, and that Cleaver would never learn: that all knowledge goes through both stages, the annunciation out of noise into fact, and the disintegration back into noise again. The process involved was the making of increasingly finer distinctions. The outcome was an endless series of theoretical catastrophes.
   "The residuum was faith."

'A Case Of Conscience' is a truly unsettling work of fiction. It is a nuanced exploration of the often fraught relationship between science and religion, focusing in particularly on the theological question of if there are other forms of sentient life out there, did Jesus die for their sins also? This is a genuine issue that has been debated by theologians of different backgrounds. The question forms the basis of C. S. Lewis' Space Trilogy, ultimately a much less intense work than Blish's. The aliens on Lewis' Mars and Venus have no Original Sin, and so never fell from their state of grace; Earth is the only planet where Jesus had to be sent because the Fall of Man only happened to us. 'A Case Of Conscience' is much less comfortable. Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, the Jesuit priest and biologist sent to the planet of Lithia to determine its suitability for humanity, decides that because the Lithians live a perfectly moral Christian life without any need for God, the whole planet must be a trap designed by Satan to dissuade people from believing in God. What follows is one of the most potent dissections of Catholicism outside of Graham Greene's 'The Heart Of The Matter', Like Greene's novel, 'A Case Of Conscience' explores how a person with courage and integrity can wind up making a horrific choice that, from the point of view of his own convictions, is the moral choice.
    A lot of this works as well as it does because of how closely Blish plays his narrative cards, and how well Blish develops Ruiz-Sanchez as a character. The entire edifice of the book would come crumbling down around itself were Blish to make the nature of Lithia explicitly demonic, but equally Ruiz-Sanchez's struggle would be meaningless if he were simply an easily-manipulated or self-deluded buffoon. Ruiz-Sanchez is instantly likable, clearly a dedicated and perceptive biologist who's faith enhances rather than detracts from his interest in science. Out of the humans who have visited Lithia, Ruiz-Sanchez is the only one who can speak their language anything close to fluently and the only one who has friends among the Lithians. The first half of 'A Case Of Conscience' focuses on Ruiz-Sanchez and the three other humans who have been sent to assess Lithia, mostly as they discuss their reasons for and against opening the planet up to humanity. Before we hear Ruiz-Sanchez's argument, we hear the arguments of his colleagues. Cleaver, a materialist and physicist, argues that Lithia should be cordoned off from the rest of humanity, so that he and the other free can turn the planet's vast natural resources into a munitions factory and make a fortune by using cheap local labour. Michelis, a humanist, points out just how unethical and paranoid Cleaver's intentions are, and points out how much humanity could learn from the peaceful and prosperous Lithian society. Naturally, from what they know about Ruiz-Sanchez's character, and from his own repeated assertion that his decision about Lithia will be based on conscience rather than reason, Michelis and Cleaver, and indeed the reader,expect him to side with Michelis. So it is genuinely shocking when Ruiz-Sanchez declares that Lithia be isolated from all human contact forever.
   Ruiz-Sanchez's argument is an interesting one, not least because it damns him in the eyes of his own church. By acknowledging that the devil could have created the Lithians, he is committing heresy, because the doctrine of the church states that only God can create things. Very often in science fiction we come across alien cultures that share morals similar to our own, and it very rarely commented on how incredibly unlikely this is. Ruiz-Sanchez points out that for the Lithians to live entirely by an arbitrary code of conduct that just so happens to completely match Christian ethics, which they do, simply because they find it works for them, is an incredibly unlikely thing to come about by chance. Because the Lithians are able to live this life as paragons of good Christians in their perfect society, far more so than any human struggling to live their life by Christian tenets ever achieves, demonstrates that it is possible to live a good, Christian life without the existence of the spiritual side of Christianity, that is, without God. This is reflected in the biology of the Lithians, who, as bipedal reptiles with young that have aquatic and amphibious lifecycle stages, undergo recapitulation of evolution outside the womb. Everything about the Lithians supports the theory that intelligent life can develop, thrive and live a full moral existence without the interference of God at any stage in the process. The planet's very ecosystem, comprising of lush Jurassic forests, even resembles an image of Eden before the Fall. Ruiz-Sanchez can only assume that the entire thing is a trap to draw people away from God and towards damnation, and hence he feels responsible for any souls lost as a result of contact with it.
   Whatever one's spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, there is something terrifying about a devil that subtle. And of course in reality evil is capable of subtlety, as Ruiz-Sanchez himself points out. But the idea that the very existence of an entire planet could be an intellectual trap is deeply disturbing. It is also incredibly solipsistic and arrogant, and is an interpretation that completely robs the Lithians themselves of any kind of agency. 'A Case Of Conscience' also doubles as a critique of colonialism. Ruiz-Sanchez sees the Lithians in terms of how similar their society conforms to his idea of a good society as both a Jesuit and a product of however many years of Western civilisation. However this blinkers him from seeing them as their own people, and ultimately from seeing them as anything but a threat to his own ingrained system of belief. So Ruiz-Sanchez is entirely capable of having pleasant conversations with Chtexa in Chtexa's own language and expressing genuine interest in the Lithian's own culture whilst in his mind labeling him as a product of the mind of Satan, only existing to drag him into temptation. It is this attitude that leads him to side with Cleaver over Michelis, which instead of letting the cooped up, frustrated and paranoid Shelter society on Earth learn from cultural exchange with the Lithians allows Cleaver to exploit the Lithians behind the UN's back, and ultimately to the book's tragic conclusion, all whilst believing he is doing right by his conscience.
   Chtexa gives Ruiz-Sanchez a flask with one of his young in it in the spirit of cultural exchange, and the second half of the book focuses on Ruiz-Sanchez and Michelis's attempts to raise Egtverchi, Chtexa's son, on Earth, Egtverchi becomes a celebrity with is own TV show, where he incites chaos amongst the Shelter society's disillusioned millions. Egtverchi's mantle of dark messiah feeds into Ruiz-Sanchez's and the church's view of the Lithians as demonic in origin, and the rioting he unleashes threatens to turn into a full-scale apocalypse, spelling out the end of the Shelter society that has allowed Earth to survive in the shadow of potential nuclear annihilation since the end of the cold war. However Egtverchi doesn't stir anything up that isn't already there; like Shevek in Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed', his presence as an envoy from a different way of life means that he acts as a catalyst to all those disillusioned and suffering under a deeply unfair and unstable system. The' Shelter system has built up by essentially forcing people to live underground in structures that were built to survive the nuclear apocalypse, and the cramped and paranoid living conditions has bred generations of people with undiagnosed and untreated psychological conditions. There's also a subtle undercurrent here of how parents bring up children into their own psychoses and neuroses, in Egtverchi as much as the people of the Shelter society. Lithians don't look after their young; the process of development allows the Lithians to become at home in every type of ecosystem present on their planet. On Earth, being looked after by his reluctant surrogate parents, rather than becoming a well-developed adult, Egtverchi behaves like a stroppy teenager, resentful of both his biological and foster parents. Ruiz-Sanchez and Michelis also fail Egtverchi as parents in multiple ways; Ruiz-Sanchez in particular being utterly unable to provide moral guidance to a creature who, were he in his natural environment, would not need it. In the end, Egtverchi escapes aboard a freighter bound to Lithia, a snake on his way to spread corruption to Eden.
   The ending of the book is spectacularly bleak. Ruiz-Sanchez is not immediately excommunicated from the church, as he expects. The Pope shares his view that Lithia is demonic in origin, but rather than being a world of intelligent beings created by the devil, he views the entire planet as a hallucination designed to test people's faith, and insists that Ruiz-Sanchez perform an exorcism on the whole planet. Ruiz-Sanchez's exorcism coincides with the exact moment that Cleaver's mining for munitions goes catastrophically wrong, and the end result is the destruction of the planet. The clever thing about how Blish plays this is that depending on one's theological bent you can read this as you choose. Is Ruiz-Sanchez's exorcism responsible for destroying the planet? The important thing is that Ruiz-Sanchez believes so. Now, as a result of consistently doing what his moral code tells him is the right thing, he is damned again because he caused the deaths of Cleaver and his excavation team, who would have been unshriven at their death and so are damned as well, not to mention that he has wiped out an entire sentient race and his own alien foster son.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Michael Moorcock - The Shores Of Death (1966)

"There comes a point in a situation like this where you become so far removed from actuality that your own system of lies defeats you. It has happened often enough in the past. Your lie becomes your reality - but it is only yours. You begin to operate according to a set of self-formulated laws that conflict with the actual laws of existence."

'The Shores Of Death' is Michael Moorcock's post-apocalypse novel. Whilst Moorcock has always had a penchant for destroying the world in creative ways, and the situation here is as imaginative as one would expect, the real focus here is on how people react to the end of the world and the knowledge of the impending extinction of the human race. It's a novel about fear, and how both individuals and societies react to it. In the introduction, Moorcock compares the structure of the novel to that of J. G. Ballard's 'The Drowned World' and Brian Aldiss' 'Greybeard', in that the book first explores the effect of the disaster on society before focusing in on its effect on one individual. As in those books, the SF-nal set up of the apocalypse provides a stark setting that reflects the psychology of the characters. But whereas Ballard explores the atavistic primal unconscious buried beneath the veneer of civilisation, Moorcock concerns himself with how even a utopian society can slide into extremism when faced by fear, and how when confronted with our own mortality even intelligent and well-adjusted individuals can wind up making terrible, selfish decisions.
   In 'The Shores Of Death', aliens stopped the rotation of the earth, using a form of radiation that eventually makes people infertile. Life is only possible on the hemisphere facing the sun, or in the band of twilight between that hemisphere and the freezing cold dark of the hemisphere stuck facing night. Clovis Marca escaped from the twilight region where he was born to become a popular government official in the utopian society on the light side of the Earth. Following the discovery that the entire human race has become infertile, people must face the fact that they will be the last generation of humans ever to live before the race becomes extinct. As fear spreads, the formerly utopian society degenerates into paranoia, violence and extremism. Meanwhile Clovis becomes unhealthily obsessed with tracking down Orlando Sharvis, a brilliant scientist charged with crimes of horrific human experiments, who nonetheless could be the only person capable of saving the human race from extinction.
   Moorcock's portrayal of a decadent society on the verge of collapse is compelling and disturbing. The continuous thread throughout all of Moorcock's work is the balance between Chaos and Order, and how both are necessary for change, which itself is necessary for a healthy society. Like the planet frozen on its axis, the society in 'The Shores Of Death' has stagnated, and its utopian nature is the flipside to a darker side. The news of humanity's imminent extinction shows up how fragile this well-ordered society is, how quickly it descends into destructive decadence. People move from one party to another, trying to hide how frightened they are behind the mask of hedonism. Moorcock perfectly captures the undercurrent of nervous tension, people desperate to convince themselves that they're having a good time so that they won't have to dwell on their own mortality. This volatile atmosphere leads to the formation of a fanatical cult, the Brotherhood of Guilt, who are convinced that humanity's fate is a divine punishment, and a group of masked, uniformed vigilantes, lead by Clovis' old colleague and friend Andros Almer, who decide to take stopping the cult into their own hands. As the government collapses due to apathy, the power of Almer's vigilantes grows, and Almer uses more and more extreme methods to garner and maintain control, until he winds up the dictator of a fascistic society ruled by fear.
   Now, none of this is particularly subtle, but that's actually kind of the point. The people in the book are just as capable of seeing the historical parallels as the reader, and know exactly where this is going as well, yet they are unable to stop it. The point is that people should know better when extremism comes knocking at our door, but it thrives on fear, which all too often strips away our ability to act rationally. At the end of the day there usually isn't anything particularly subtle about a despot's rise to power, and that's what makes 'The Shores Of Death' so unsettling. There's a fantastic scene in which Clovis confronts Andros Almer and pleads with him to see reason, but it turns out that Almer knows damn well the consequences of what he is doing, and is consciously playing the villain. Faced with the same fear that everyone else is facing, Almer is stepping into the role of dictator not so much to gain control of the situation as that it provides him with a set script and rules to work to. Even if the role is villainous, it's still a clearly defined role, which he finds preferable to facing his own mortality, something for which there is no script. Moorcock gets a lot of mileage out of showing how Almer is ultimately swallowed up by the one dimensional pantomime villain role that 'dictator' is.
   Clovis deals with his fear in a different way that is no healthier. He withdraws from his social responsibilities and becomes obsessed with tracking down Orlando Sharvis, despite frequently being warned off him by the mysterious Mr. Take. Sharvis represents science completely uncoupled from its ethical responsibilities. A post-human who has modified himself to be a giant with a snake-like head, Sharvis takes no actions for himself but will happily grant any request asked of him, for a horrific price. In order to reach his secret base on the inside of the moon, which is now submerged in the ocean on the dark side of the Earth, Clovis first has to make his way through a village inhabited by those who have made a bargain with Sharvis, a horrifying vision of hell filled with people suffering the ironic consequences of their poorly phrased wishes. The nightmarish fates of these people and Mr. Take's own explicit warnings are not enough to dissuade Clovis from making a Faustian pact with Sharvis. Again, it's not difficult to see exactly where this is going, and the power Moorcock generates from this is that the reader can clearly see the intelligent and streetwise Clovis driven into this terrible bargain because of his own fear, when he could have lived the rest of his life happily with the woman who loves him. Fear of our own mortality frequently results in us not living our lives to the full. And so Clovis is granted immortality, and the ability to reproduce with his girlfriend, ensuring that both himself and humanity will continue, but at the expense of ever being able to feel anything again.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Jo Walton - Among Others (2010)

"If you love books enough, books will love you back."

Jo Walton's 'Among Others' is an incredibly special book. It's a wonderfully charming magical realist coming of age story, but it's also an acute and perceptive dissection of SF/F and its fandom, as well as an exploration of and a tribute to the transcendent power of books themselves. A lot of the appeal of 'Among Others' is that it understands what its like to fall in love with fictional characters and worlds, and is able to connect with the reader's own experience of doing so, whilst subtly pulling them into its own world. The end result is a book that celebrates both the escapist power of fantastic fiction, its power to give us comfort and solace when everything around us is at its grimmest, but also its power to open our minds to new perspectives.
   The book is written as the diary of Mori Phelps, a Welsh teenager growing up in the late 70's who has lost her twin sister and had her leg injured in a magical conflict with her mother. In the aftermath she has run away and social services have put her in the care of her estranged father rather than with the Aunt and Uncle she's known all her life. To her chagrin, she finds herself living in England and being sent to a public boarding school. The constant through this period of change, as she adjusts to her new surroundings, begins to recover from her trauma, and starts to make friends, is the solace she finds in reading SF and Fantasy. 
   Walton uses the fantastical elements sparingly, having come up with a magic system based around coincidence and chance connections. So one can, if one chooses, read them as Mori's coping mechanisms for dealing with the trauma of her mother's abuse and the death of her sister. Setting it after the original confrontation with her mother - Mori even compares her life now to the end of 'The Return Of The King', with the characters recounting the cost of their adventures as they try to return home - allows the book to structurally focus on how Mori faces life after this event, leading to a more mature, reflective book. It also allows Walton to focus on things closer to the reader's experiences, such as how dismal school is when you are a loner and a bookworm, or the joy of discovering new books with new ideas. SF is supposed to be about new ideas, so it's perhaps not surprising that a love of SF is generally fostered at a young and impressionable age. For all the foibles of the genre at its most adolescent, some of why it strikes us so strongly at that age is because at its best it does open young minds to new ideas, whether the gee whiz sensawonda of the pulps, genuine physical and scientific concepts in hard SF, or sociopolitical ideas in soft SF. 
   Mori's voice is a deft tool in Walton's hands. She is precocious and instantly likable. She comes across as eminently level headed and sensible, which helps ground the magic and fairies, and is quite the balancing act on Walton's part to boot. Much of the appeal of 'Among Others' is in the way that Walton deftly traces the journey that many of us go through as avid SF/F fans. Mori fell hard for 'The Lord Of The Rings', and has read the entire SF section in her local library alphabetically, from Poul Anderson through to Roger Zelazny. She spends a lot of time reading and processing various SF novels, and Walton brilliantly uses this to illustrate Mori's taste and her personality. I will admit that possibly all this is less resonant for people who have not grown up on 70's SF. But 'Among Others' doesn't reference SF classics just to give the reader the fuzzy glow of nostalgia. However, with the perfect attention to detail - the Ace Double paperback of Delany's 'Empire Star' WAS packaged with a truly atrocious book ('The Tree Lord Of Imeten' by Tom Purdon, since you ask); Theodore Sturgeon's 'A Touch Of Strange' DOES have a very fetching cover - I defy any enthusiast for 70's SF paperbacks not to get a warm glow. Walton uses her references to advance the plot or to develop Mori's characters. For instance, Mori has her perspective on sexuality widened by reading Le Guin, Delany and Heinlein, which prepares her for her developing feelings towards Wim, and means that later on in the book she is able to decide for herself that the boarding school's vilification of homosexuality is unjust. In this way, 'Among Others' shows the importance of young people having access to a wide range of books by writers from diverse backgrounds. The book also shows how speculative fiction and fantasy can introduce young readers to other fields of education and learning; Mori winds up reading Plato because she's interested in what she learns about him from Mary Renault's historical fantasy books.
   Walton also succeeds because she just gets taste right, which I suspect is more difficult than it sounds. I should be careful here, because the temptation for the reviewer is to assume that Mori's taste directly reflects Walton's, and while I'm sure the book is informed by Walton's experience growing up as an SF fan, this is a work of fiction. So Mori's taste needs to hang together, to feel like a real person's taste. She doesn't just enjoy everything she reads uncritically; she is very much not a fan of Philip K. Dick, she doesn't know what to make of Christopher Priest's 'Inverted World', and she refuses to read Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series because the publisher has the audacity to compare it to her beloved Tolkien on the front cover. However she is both passionate and perceptive when it comes to the books she loves. She points out that Robert Silverberg's range, while impressive, is as much a curse as it is a blessing, which anyone who's made their way into the massive output of his golden age will appreciate, and how much of the appeal of Zelazny's Amber series is down to Corwin's voice. There's a great section where she intelligently argues that Thomas Hardy could have learned a lot from Delany and Silverberg. Naturally, there is a lot on Tolkien, and Mori is insightful about what makes 'Lord Of The Rings' so special - it does feel like a journey in a fully realised world, and I think this goes some way to explaining its enduring appeal and almost talismanic significance for multiple generations of fans.
   But all this would merely be very impressive window dressing if the story itself did not succeed on its own terms. Following on from her twin's death, Mori has to decide that life is actually worth living again. As she struggles to relate to her estranged father and his extended family and makes friends at the library's SF/F book club, she slowly moves towards acceptance and moving on. By showing us her protagonist's mundane every day life, Walton is able to build to this organically, and to weave in the fantastic elements in a way that feels organic as well. When she helps the fairies to build a gateway for the dead to escape her mother's evil clutches, the thing that saves her from being pulled into limbo by her dead sister is that she's only halfway through Delany's 'Babel-17', and if she dies now she'll never finish it. This is a beautiful moment because it seems like such a trivial thing not to die for, but sometimes it genuinely is the little things that keep us hanging on. By the time of Mori's next confrontation with the fairies and her mother, she realises that not only does she have group of friends and relatives who care for her, she wants to continue living, to grow and to experience new things. It is this realisation that allows her to finally move on, and to take agency for herself. This realisiation, that the real world is not only worth fighting for, but worth living for, is a genuinely powerful and moving moment.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Octavia E. Butler - The Patternist Series (1976-1984)

Octavia Butler started writing the Patternist series after watching an awful SF film entitled 'Devil Girl From Mars', which prompted her to think that she could do better than that. 'Patternmaster', her first published novel, amply proves that and then some. One of the earliest female African American writers to come to prominence for writing SF, Octavia Butler's striking talent made her stand out in a field dominated by white men. Butler's work deals unflinchingly with race and sexuality; 'Kindred', perhaps her most famous novel, deals with a modern African American woman who is transported back in time to before the American Civil War, where she must safe the life of a spoiled, vicious slave owner so that her ancestors will be born. These themes are also present in the Patternist novels. Butler is concerned with power imbalance. She has a keen understanding of the process of dehumanisiation and the absolute worst of how humans treat each other, of how any relationship with inbuilt hierarchies hampers communication and understanding. She is also interested in the compromises those without power are forced to make in order to live in these situations. The Patternist series focuses on psychic powers, which had long been a staple of SF, but Butler is one of the few writers to recognise just how much of a paradigm shift these powers would be, and more importantly, how this would affect how people with such powers relate to each other and people without those powers. All this makes her work very tense; however she still retains a hope that people can rise above themselves and improve themselves.
   The first book in the series to be written, 'Patternmaster', takes place last in terms of interior chronology. Rather than writing sequels, Butler wrote three prequels. Unlike most prequels, the other books in the sequence enrich the original by expanding and enhancing on aspects that 'Patternmaster' only hinted at. I have reviewed the series in order of internal chronology, as that is how they are presented in the 'Seed To Harvest' omnibus, but I shall talk about elements that arise in earlier-written books when appropriate. 
   Octavia Butler also wrote an additional novel set in the Patternist universe, called 'Survivor', but she disowned the book. It is not included in this omnibus and is only peripherally related to the main Patternist narrative.

Wild Seed (1980)

"Anyanwu looked away, spoke woodenly. 'It is better to be a master than to be a slave.' Her husband at the time of the migration had said that. He had seen hiself becoming a great man - master of a large household with many wives, children and slaves. Anyanwu, on the other hand, had been a slave twice in her life and had escaped only by changing her identity completely and finding a husband in a different town. She knew some people were masters and some were slaves. That was the way it had always been. But her own experience taught her to hate slavery. She had even found it difficult to be a good wife in her most recent years because of the way a woman must bow her head and be subject to her husband. It was better to be as she was - a priestess who spoke with the voice of a god and was feared and obeyed. But what was that? She had become a kind of master herself. 'Sometimes, one must become a master to avoid being a slave,' she said softly."

'Wild Seed' can stake a good claim towards being Octavia Butler's finest work. The third book written in the sequence, it is responsible for giving the series much of its scope, complexity and emotional power. The book tells the story of Anyanwu, a female shapeshifter with extraordinary healing abilities, who is taken away from her home in West Africa by Doro, a malevolent psychic parasite who consumes people's souls and inhabits their bodies. Doro has been breeding people with latent psychic and telekinetic ability for centuries, in the hope of building a new society of more powerful people, partly so he can feed off and control them, and partly so that he can build a society that he can belong to instead of being a hated and feared outcast. Never having met anyone like Anyanwu before, he desperately wants to breed her in his programme. 'Wild Seed' follows Anyanwu and Doro's relationship from the 1600s through to the 1800s as on-again off-again lovers and frequent antagonists, as Doro tries to frighten, bully and coerce the strong-willed Anyanwu to bend her to his will, and Anyanwu tries to keep Doro in touch with what little humanity he has left or to escape his clutches for good.
   The story allows Butler to explore different forms of slavery and subjugation. One of the ways that Doro controls the people he breeds from is by buying and selling slaves, which allows him to collect various people from different areas in Africa and transport them to the United States, which is what happens to Anyanwu. Butler uses well-researched historical detail to enrich the novel to great effect, from the conditions on the slave ships, the bartering for slaves and the system of slavers Doro has set up to help him collect the people he wants, to Anyanwu's reactions on arriving in an utterly different culture where she is viewed as property. But the power imbalance between master and slave is not the only one Anyanwu encounters; she is living in a time when women have very little rights, and are meant to be subservient to their husband, and she sees a clear parallel between the husband/wife relationship and the master/slave one. The book explores how sex can be used as a weapon to reinforce both. Once they arrive at Doro's plantation, he forces Anyanwu to marry his son Isaac and have children by them, both so that he can breed from her children and so that he can tie her down.    'Wild Seed' is frequently a frightening and horrifying novel, and much of it hits home because it is derived from the deeply unpleasant ways African Americans were genuinely treated by whites in the slave trade. Doro is a truly terrifying antagonist, and part of this is because he is an energy vampire who can devour your soul and steal your body, but part of this is because the way he manipulates and bullies people is based on unpleasant historical reality. 'Wild Seed' gives the reader a powerful and unforgettable sense of what it's like to live in fear, trapped in what is essentially an abusive relationship sanctioned by the law with no rights or legal protection. This reality helps to anchor the more abstract horror of psychic threat.
   However the power imbalance works to dehumanise both ways. Doro is so much more powerful, so much more long lived than other people that he finds it difficult to relate to them any more. So naturally he has fewer and fewer qualms about treating people as objects, and putting what he wants above the needs and safety of others. One of the reasons he needs Anyanwu so much is that she, as the only being whose power and longevity can remotely compare to his, is someone he can still relate to and who can help him still relate to other people. Doro and Anyanwu, as Emma, originally appear in 'Mind Of My Mind', and exploring their origins in 'Wild Seed' was a canny choice by Butler. They tie the Patternist series to our lived-in history.
   'Wild Seed' also explores compromise. Anyanwu has to decide how much she is willing to compromise her freedom and the freedom of her children, given that she is operating in a system that is wildly stacked against her favour. In the book's climax, she is planning to kill herself in order to escape Doro for good. In Butler's books, suicide is not an easy way out; all of her characters want to live, however poor the odds, and suicide is only considered when there is absolutely no other way out. This forces Doro to realise how much he needs Anyanwu, and ultimately they are able to come to an arrangement where he won't put her children in direct danger. The interesting thing about this is how morally complex it is. At the end of 'Wild Seed', this is played as a victory, and it's very much earned by the characters. Anyanwu has sacrificed what she can, but will continue living and will mitigate the damage that Doro is capable of doing. However, she has still capitulated to an incredibly unfair and unpleasant system which she knows is run on kidnap, rape and abuse. By the time of 'Mind Of My Mind', the emerging Patternists see her as fully complicit in all of Doro's crimes, and there is no place for Anyanwu in the new world that the Patternists create.
Mind Of My Mind (1977)

"I recall warning you about underestimating young women."

'Mind Of My Mind' tells how the psychics Doro has been breeding for centuries in 'Wild Seed' finally come together in one great psychic Pattern. It was written second in the sequence. While less intense than 'Wild Seed', it's still a compelling tale, and brings Doro and Emma's story arcs to a satisfying conclusion. The protagonist, Mary, is a young woman bred by Doro in an experiment to create more stable psychics who are able to stand being around each other, unlike the frequently psychotic and dangerous individuals they usually turn out to be. The experiment turns out more successful than he could have hoped, with Mary establishing the Pattern, a psychic net that eventually pulls all of Doro's people together. However, soon this mean that her power challenges Doro's own, and he challenges her in a final confrontation.
   Doro gets his karmic comeuppance, and it's wonderfully appropriate. He lives to see the society he built mature into something powerful that will inherit the earth, just as he realises that he himself can have no part in this. Ultimately he remains just as lonely and outcast as ever. Emma decides to die shortly after he is consumed by Mary and the Patternists, realising that after building her life around Doro she can't go on without him.
   Mary is a compelling protagonist. An African American young woman who was a tearaway as a youth, she outgrows Doro's shadow and realises that she can do things differently, building a society in which the psychics look out for each other and educate their children, with anyone unwilling to change from being too violent or destructive cast out. Like Anyanwu before her, she is able to go some way towards healing these marginalised people. Ultimately she is able to defeat Doro by drawing on the strength of her fellow Patternists, which they are willing to let her do because they realise she will be a better leader than Doro.
   Butler is on fine form exploring racial tension. When Doro sets Mary up with Karl, a white man he wants her to breed with, after seeing his large house and servants, she asks him:

   "'How do you feel about black people?'
   "He looked at me, one eyebrow raised. 'You've seen my cook.'
   "'Right. So how do you feel about black people?'"

I really like that Mary calls him out on his crap. Jan, one of the first psychics that Mary draws to her once she gains her powers, is overtly racists at the start. Just because the characters share special powers does not mean that the old social divisions immediately evaporate. However in order to be part of the Pattern, Jan has to learn to accept people as they are. This is treated as part of the healing process, along with alcoholism and prostitution. Doro's people have been marginalised and outcast because of their powers; now that they are coming together as a society their vices, prejudices and bad behaviour need to be weeded out.
   Also, you can see early signs of the Patternist treatment of people without psychic powers, or 'mutes', as they call them. Karl has a non-psychic girlfriend that he programmes not to get jealous or angry. The disparity in power between those with psychic powers and those without leads again to this dehumanisation, even as they decry Doro for treating them like animals. While the brave new world may be better for the Patternists, things are not going to be so good for the mutes. And the system of the Pattern, with one single Patternmaster holding all the power, is still based around a hierarchy with a massive power imbalance. As seen in 'Patternmaster', this can lead to problems.

Clay's Ark (1984)

"They were watching a movie from the ranch's family library - a 1998 classic about the Second Coming of Christ. There had been a whole genre of such films just before the turn of the century. Some were religious, some antireligious, some merely exploitive - Sodom-and-Gomorrah films. Some were cause-oriented - God arrives as a woman or a dolphin or a throwaway kid. And some were science fiction. God arrives from Eighty-two Eridani Seven.
   "Well, maybe God had arrived a few years later from Proxima Centauri Two. God in the form of a deadly microbe that for its own procreation made a father try to rape his daughter - and made the daughter not mind."

'Clay's Ark' was the final novel written in the Patternist series. The other novels explored the history of the Patternists in depth, but until this book Butler hadn't dealt with the Clayarks, the Patternists' enemies in 'Patternmaster', since their appearance in the first book. 'Clay's Ark' rectifies this, giving the Clayarks the depth and history they were previously lacking, in a book that is almost as complex and compelling as 'Wild Seed', the Patternists' own origin story. 'Clay's Ark' artfully echoes 'Wild Seed', with its themes of agency, control and abusive relationships, and again winds up exploring the compromises people make when up against powerful forces they can neither fight nor control.
   Clay's Ark is a spaceship powered by telekinesis, invented by Clay Dana from 'Mind Of My Mind'. It went on a mission to Proxima Centauri Two, where its entire crew was quickly infected by a disease which gives the victims enhanced strength and healing but with a compulsion to spread the disease and to procreate. The individuals born from infected parents are the Clayarks from 'Patternmaster', sphynx-like humans who run on four legs. Eli, the sole survivor from the mission, lands on Earth and tries to contain the disease and his compulsion to spread it to a small community. There are obvious parallels between the parasitic Clayark disease and Doro, as well as between Doro and Eli, two patriarchs trying to build a community they can live in on the fringes of society by dubious means.
   The story is told from the point of view of a family - Blake and his two daughters, Rane and Keira, the latter who is dying of a terminal disease - who are captured by Eli and his community. The Clayark disease has a compulsion to spread, and Eli knows this will mean the end of humanity as we know it, so he tries to control it by living in an isolated commune and only picking up new people when they need to. 'Clay's Ark' follows Blake, Rane and Keira as they are captured and try to make their escape, before realising that for the sake of humanity they will have to make a new life in Eli's commune. Unfortunately a disastrous shoot-out with a rogue biker gang ends in tragedy and with the Clayark disease being spread across the world.
   Like Doro, much of Eli's control is sexual in nature. In this respect Eli's commune resembles a cult, only the alien infection itself is part of what is reinforcing this control. However Eli has been doing this for a lot shorter than Doro, and he still has doubts and qualms of conscience. He does care for the well being of his people, especially the Clayark children, who he knows will be outcast by the rest of human society, caged and studied and hunted, simply because of people's difficulty extending human empathy to those who look different to them. He is sympathetic to Rane's illness. But at the same time, he knows that the nature of the Clayark disease is robbing him of his humanity; a lot of the decent things he does are a conscious effort on his part to maintain the humanity left to him. One of the more frightening aspects of the Clayark disease is that because it rewrites so much of a person's personality and biology, everyone infected has to question whether or not they are still truly human or if they are meat puppets being driven around by parasites under the delusion that they are still humans, a kind of extreme extrapolation of parasite modification of host behaviour seen in something like Toxoplasma gondii infection. Butler doesn't give her characters or her readers any easy answers on this one.
   While 'Wild Seed' is set in our historical past, 'Clay's Ark' is set fifteen minutes into the future. As a result we get to see a different side of Butler's skill in world building and extrapolation. Her depiction of a future United States in which the middle classes live in gated communities while outside of these social order has broken down and violent gangs rule the motorways is vivid and disturbing. But once again, it is Butler's talent for creating memorable characters and putting them in morally complex situations that carries the book. Blake, Rane and Keira are all sympathetic, well developed characters, and Butler is brutally unsparing with them. Blake's attempt to save his family ultimately winds up dooming humanity as he knows it. Once the Clayark disease has spread through the world, there will be nothing left for the mutes, and the Patternists and the Clayarks will inherit the Earth.
Patternmaster (1976)

"Patternists and Clayarks stared at each other across a gulf of disease and physical difference and comfortably told themselves the same lie about each other. The lie that Terray's Clayark had tried to get away with:'Not people'."

'Patternmaster' is the last book chronologically in the Patternist series, but it is the first book that Octavia Butler wrote. While it may be a little rough around the edges compared to the rest of the entries in the series, all of the major themes and ideas of the series are present and correct. It's clear that many of the ideas that Butler would go on to explore in the rest of the series were already in place from day one. Writing a book set in an unfamiliar future and then extrapolating back how we got from our present day to there is an ambitious and unusual way to go about writing a series. The world of 'Patternmaster' does give Butler a lot to work with though. the book is set in a post-apocalypse future in which the Patternists and Clayarks fight for the Earth, and mutes only exist as programmable slaves to the Patternists. 'Patternmaster' demonstrates that however people change, they are still human, and as such prey to human foibles. Both the psychic powers of the Patternists and the superhuman abilities of the Clayarks are utterly paradigm shifting, and both of these warring tribes of posthumans have set up their own different societies with their own different rules, customs and taboos. However, because these powers naturally set up a power differential, there is still a power hierarchy and so there is abuse of power. Power imbalances dehumanise, making it difficult for Patternists to communicate with mutes or lower level Patternists, or sometimes to even think of them as human. The physical differences and antagonism between the Patternists and Clayarks results in prejudices and misunderstanding. People are still motivated by greed, jealousy and hatred, as well as by love and compassion. Some things about human nature do not change.
   'Patternmaster' tells the story of Teray, a young man who has recently graduated from school, and Coransee, a powerful Patternist Housemaster. Both are sons of the Patternmaster Rayal, who is dying from the Clayark disease. Coransee has plans to become the new Patternmaster once Rayal has died, which would make him the most powerful Patternist on the planet, and sees Teray as a potential threat, so he tries various means to put pressure on Teray to allow him to put psychic controls in place so that he can control him. Coransee promises him control of his House after he becomes Patternmaster versus being a servant on the fringes of the House, and steals his fiance. But Teray wants his mental freedom, so he escapes with the help of Amber, a powerful healer, and they attempt to reach Rayal to claim sanctuary from Coransee.
   The battle of wills between Teray and Coransee is intense and compelling, and shows up the problem at the heart of the Pattern, which is the same as any power hierarchy: basically, you're stuck hoping that the person in the big seat isn't a dick, and power corrupts. Coransee is much more similar to Doro than Mary, frighteningly more powerful than our protagonist and with a vicious, petty streak to go with it. At the end of the book we learn that Rayal has been holding on to life just long enough for Teray to become strong enough to defeat Coransee, because he knows that Coransee would be a horrible, despotic leader who would make life a misery for all the Patternists.
   But the real standout character is Amber. A powerful healer who doesn't owe allegiance to any fixed house, a rarity in the rigidly hierarchical Patternist society, Amber is an African American woman who is openly bisexual. While in some ways, with her strong will and independence, she is a prototype for Anyanwu/Emma, but whereas the latter character is ultimately defined by the compromises she has to make, Amber finds a way of living on the fringes of the repressive society she's stuck in without compromising her ideals. Coransee tries to hold her against her will, leading to the grimmest part of the book, but together with Teray she is able to defeat him and to escape his poisonous influence. We never get to find out if Teray is able to shape the hierarchy of the Pattern into something fairer, or whether there is any possibility of real communication and understanding between the Patternists and the Clayarks, but with Teray in control rather than Coransee, at least there is hope.