Monday, 23 February 2015

Diana Wynne Jones - Archer's Goon (1984)

"But there was this about families, Howard thought, obediently turning to the orchestra's next piece of music. Families might hate one another, but something nevertheless made them stick together."

'Archer's Goon' is a pleasingly complex story about a family of seven power-hungry wizards who run a town, involving time travel and secret identities. It's also a farce of the first order, with Diana Wynne Jones demonstrating her keen talent for comedy. But at its heart, 'Archer's Goon' is about family, and how central our families our to who we are, for better or worse, whether we like it or not.
   Howard Sykes gets home from school to find a Goon in his kitchen, demanding his father produce the two thousand words he owes Archer and refusing to leave until he gets it. As Howard and his sister investigate, they discover that their town is run by Archer and his siblings, seven wizards who want to control the world, and his father's words, which he pays each month to the mayor in lieu of council tax, may be the only thing restricting them to this town. The conspiracy is slowly revealed, with Howard meeting all of the wizards one by one, and soon the Sykes family has the attention of all the wizards, each pressing their own specific field of influence to try to coerce Howard's father into producing the two thousand words from them.
   Diana Wynne Jones plays what could be terrifying and paranoia inducing as comedy.It's an approach that suits her tone, and she manages to wring an almost Terry Gilliam-esque wry humour out of the absurdities of the Sykes family's plight. Archer is in charge of power and so cuts the power to the house, which is bad enough, but Hathaway, who is in charge of transport, sends workmen to dig up their entire street, whilst Torquil, who is in charge of education and music, sends round  an endless parade of street musicians to torment them. The impact of the humour is sharpened by the very real sense of threat the book sometimes crosses over into. Shine, who is in charge of crime, plans to hold Howard and his sister hostage, whilst the Goon's secret identity leads to a moment of genuine fear and doubt over his motivations. Much of the rest of the book's humour stems from its sharply observed comedy about family life. The Sykes family are all well drawn, the jokes coming from keenly-observed family interactions on Jones' behalf. In particular, Howard's little sister Anthea, nick-named Awful because of her temper tantrums, is a vehicle for much humour.
   However, while all the family provide plenty of laughs, the book manages to achieve genuine emotional pathos because it takes these character's relationships seriously. Awful may be bratty and badly behaved, but she and Howard clearly care for each other deeply, and she proves on many occasions to be very shrewd and perceptive, spotting the wizards' characteristics and places in the various schemes long before the other characters. Similarly their father, for all his bumbling pomposity, and the opportunity he provides Jones to make wry jokes about authors and writer's block, has a clear sense of right and wrong and acts as a moral compass for the rest of the family. While they all have their flaws, and on more than one occasion have a flaming row with each other, Jones demonstrates that these are people who love each other and provide a complimentary network of support for each other, which is what being a family is all about.
   This is reflected in Archer's family as well. Though Archer and his brothers and sisters may be scheming against each other for power, they all live in the same small area of the town, living by choice close to each other. And despite their antagonistic behaviour, Awful is quick to suss that not all of them are evil, and she finds that she can easily empathise with why they act out. While Archer, Shine and Dillian are all dangerous, Torquil, Hathaway and Erskine are eventually able to put their grudges aside to team up with Howard and his family to stop them. Their volatile personalities, and the way the family of wizards ties up with the Sykes family, mean that Howard can never fully trust that he won't have to stop them from trying to take over the world later, but they do force Howard to consider how both he and Awful are going to grow up, and what kind of people he'd like them to be.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Diana Wynne Jones - Howl's Moving Castle (1986)

"In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes."

'Howl's Moving Castle' is a fairy tale that plays with the conventions and tropes of fairy tales. Diana Wynne Jones goes for broke, creating the wonderful land of Ingary, a world rich in wizards, evil witches, fire demons, mermaids, animated scarecrows, people who turn into dogs and magical castles. It is clearly a book that comes from a deep love and understanding of fairy tales and what makes them appealing. However it isn't afraid to play with these tropes and turn them on their heads. From its choice of protagonist, the eldest daughter, usually doomed to fail in order to set up the success of the more usual youngest daughter heroine, to its deconstruction of its male romantic lead and the inversion of the damsel in distress rescued by the dashing prince, Jones takes joy in questioning the assumptions and generalisations that fairy tales tend to be built on. 'Howl's Moving Castle' still respects the structural demands of the fairy tale; indeed it is so elegantly designed that every thing that happens in the book ties up with that meticulous tidy logic only found in fairy tales. But it is a mature enough tale to leave its characters emotional space at the end, even as it satisfyingly concludes their character arcs.
   'Howl's Moving Castle' tells the story of Sophie Hatter, who works in her mother's hat shop in the town of Market Chipping until one day she is cursed by the Witch of the Waste and turned into an old woman. Compelled to seek her fortune, she takes shelter in the magical moving castle which roams the hills above the town and belongs to the wizard Howl, who is rumoured to devour the hearts of pretty young maidens. Once there she strikes up a bargain with Calcifer, Howl's fire demon, who says he will release Sophie from the Witch's spell if she breaks the contract binding Calcifer to Howl. The nature of magical curses being what they are, neither Sophie nor Calcifer and Howl are able to tell the other what the curse they are under is.
   'Howl's Moving Castle' sets up all these resonant, comfortable fairy tale elements only to joyously subvert them. Many stories flirt with the idea that nothing is ever as it seems, while providing us with characters and situations that fold out in a tired and predictable way. Jones gleefully inverts all the Fantasy tropes she can get her hands on. Sophie, instead of being rescued by the dashing male hero, rescues Howl and winds up freeing herself from her curse in the process. Calcifer, despite being a demon, is not evil, and Sophie's bargain with him is not a Faustian pact that dooms her, but allows her to save Howl and Calcifer and release herself from her curse. Ingary and its surrounding lands exist in a separate dimension to ours, but rather than showing it to us through the eyes of a protagonist from our world, as would happen in your standard portal Fantasy, we experience the world through Sophie, who has lived in Ingary all her life. Later on it is revealed that one of the doors of the moving castle opens on to Howl's hometown in Wales, and there's a fantastic sequence in which Sophie visits Howl's family, and we see what would be normal and mundane distorted into something Fantastical and mysterious through her eyes.
   One of the things that makes 'Howl's Moving Castle' so compelling is how well-drawn and fully-realised its characters are. The ending only works as well as it does because, while all the loose ends are nicely tied up and various character pairings are implied, all of those characters have been given enough depth and agency to show that they have an existence outside of their pairings. But while it has a wealth of memorable supporting characters, the book truly belongs to Howl and Sophie. The two leads work so well because they are drawn with believable flaws, and their relationship feels all the more well earned because neither character idealises the other. Howl may be dashing and charming, but he is also a cad, a skirt chaser, vain, sulky, selfish and prone to 'slithering out' of things. The nature of his contract with Calcifer has made it impossible for him to truly love someone until he meets Sophie, and the horrific fate of the Witch of the Waste, her will and life essence almost entirely consumed by her demon, is a chilling reminder of where he could have ended up without Sophie's involvement.Yet despite all his flaws, underneath his blustery front Howl does genuinely care for other people and about doing the right thing. He always helps the people who come to him asking for spells or charms, for free if they can't afford to pay, and despite his protestations he was planning all along to rescue Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman from the Witch of the Waste. Indeed, he has the strength of character to find Sophie attractive from the force of her personality alone.
   Sophie is no less complex. Aside from her nosiness, which gets her into trouble often enough, her main flaw is being utterly unable to see things clearly where she herself is concerned. Her journey over the course of the book is her slowly starting to realise that she is a powerful young woman with agency who is able to influence the world and the people around her, and her taking control of that power. Because of her position as the eldest child, and staying at home and being put upon by her stepmother, she has no real sense of self-worth, and 'Howl's Moving Castle' is ultimately the story of how she comes to gain this. Her appearance as an old woman is not so much a metaphor as her coping mechanism; being prematurely old allows Sophie to forego the social niceties expected of her as a young woman and to ask the perceptive and probing questions that cause so much trouble. In this it is a reflection of Howl's desire to appear bad. Getting Sophie to blacken his name to the King, or having Michael spread the rumours about him eating young girls' hearts, is Howl's way of ducking out of society's expectations of him. Sophie discovers that she is a powerful witch in her own right. and that much of the curse is her holding onto the appearance of an old woman because it's convenient for her. Her major blindspot is her feelings for Howl, which lead to her misreading the situation and putting herself and him in danger. But part of what makes her so well suited to him is that she is one of the only characters who doesn't put up with his nonsense.
   Beyond its fine character work and subversion of fairy tale tropes, 'Howl's Moving Castle' has moments of pure wonder and marvelous humour. From its inventive and compelling description of the use of seven-league boots, to the wondrous manifestations of the Witch of the Waste's curse on Howl, which features catching falling stars, mermaids and mandrakes right out of a John Donne poem, to the formalised ritual of the King's palace, Ingary is suffused with Jones' vivid imagination. But it's Jones' humour that provides many of my favourite moments. There is a particularly wonderful scene in which Howl goes into a massive sulk by oozing green slime everywhere, and another one where he kicks up a ridiculous fuss over having a cold. These touches demonstrate just how good Jones is at writing books that are both complex and thought-provoking art and loads of fun.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Adam Roberts - Jack Glass (2012)

"'Ockham's razor,' scoffed Iago. 'The most ridiculous use of metaphysical steel in the history of thought.'"

'Jack Glass' is a melding of golden age detective fiction and golden age SF, which allows Adam Roberts to play with the classic tropes of both genres. Each of the three sections, as Roberts informs the reader in the prologue, is a locked room mystery, a prison story and a whodunnit, and the murderer is always Jack Glass. The mystery lies in the how and the why, which Roberts shrewdly identifies as being more important and more interesting questions. The book is also a deeper exploration into the reasons and motivations of the murderer; 'Jack Glass' asks if there are ever extenuating circumstances in which murder can be justified, and how much the reader can feel sympathy and empathy for a character who is a sociopathic murderer. Roberts also draws parallels between the sociopathy of the murderer and that of late period capitalism. The far future society depicted in 'Jack Glass' is rigidly hierarchical, in which the great number of the general populace are regarded as a cheap, expendable resource, and Roberts compares and contrasts the systematic inhumanity with Jack Glass' horrific crimes and his view of other people as tools, despite the idealism central to his character. This is a fantastically ambitious book, both in what it sets out to achieve, and its tightly structured mysteries, yet it is consistently compelling and enjoyable.
   The first section of the book, 'In The Box', sees Jack Glass and six other prisoners marooned on an asteroid for crimes against the Ulanovs, the dynasty that rules the solar system. As part of their sentence they have 11 years in which to make the asteroid habitable with the limited tools left to them, at which case they will be picked up and the asteroid sold off as valuable real estate, or die in the process. The asteroid itself provides the locked room, as no one can get in or out of it, and the prisoners provide a cast with a suitably varied and suspicious backgrounds to all act as potential suspects for a murder. But the box in the title refers also to another locked room, the part of Jack Glass' brain where he keeps his murderous instincts shut up so that he can function normally in society. What makes Jack Glass, the Notorious Killer, special amongst a group of thugs, especially when, as Roberts slyly reveals over the course of the narrative, almost all of the prisoners are guilty of murder, but have avoided the Ulanovs' death sentence due to various extenuating circumstances? Murder is generally regarded as taboo for obvious reasons, but given certain extreme circumstances one's mileage might vary, and Roberts explores this thorny moral area through these characters. None of the prisoners view themselves as murderers, and all are quick to point out their extenuating circumstances, despite the fact that none of these make them particularly sympathetic. Jack Glass is initially the most sympathetic character here; his missing legs make him an easy target for bullying, yet despite this he is not particularly resentful towards his fellow prisoners. He frequently tries to keep the peace and stands up for and comforts Gordio, the prisoner at the very bottom of the pecking order. This makes the horrific way that he murders all the prisoners, and the way he uses Gordio's body to make his escape, all the more shocking. Yet shouldn't all murder be shocking? Ultimately we are still looking at the extinguishing of another person's life against their will, however gruesome the method or however the killer justifies themselves, why should the moral line crossed be different? Perhaps the issue is clouded by an economic system that values people as a commodity. As one of the prisoners Mo, an economics student who was arrested for people trafficking, puts it:
"Robots are expensive now, but they were vastly more so then. People. though, are cheap, and getting cheaper. They keep breeding, and that means they're always becoming relatively less valuable. We're always the cheapest option. We're always the cheapest option. We're losing absolute value with every generation."

Ultimately Mo's view of people as an expendable economic resource comes directly from the system he was raised in, which in its own way is just as sociopathic as Jack Glass' use of Gordio's corpse to escape the asteroid.
   The second part of the book, 'The FTL Murders', echoes the classic Agatha Christie set up, with a servant being murdered in the servants' quarters of the Argent family stately home. Here Roberts makes up for the entirely male cast of the previous prison story by focusing on Diana and Eva Argent, the heirs to the prestigious Argent family's fortune as data collectors and analysers for the Ulanovs. Roberts clearly has a lot of fun writing Diana and Eva's vaguely Mitford sisters-esque voices, and his portrayal of them as pampered, privileged individuals serves to contrast the desperate lives the servants were plucked from on overpopulated, violent orbital bubbles subsisting on algae. In this case the locked room is the servants' quarters, but Roberts also explores how the Argent sisters' pampered existence in a tightly guarded and heavily watched house is also a kind of prison and locked room, that isolates them from the experiences and existence of the vast majority of people in the solar system. Jack Glass, in this instance disguised as Diana and Eva's loyal and long-suffering tutor Iago, has arranged the murder as a birthday present for Diana, partly because she loves solving murder mysteries, but also in order to shock her into an empathy and understanding of the worth of other people's lives. Ironically Jack Glass' coldly calculated murder disrupts Diana's sheltered existence enough for her to develop into a more sympathetic and empathetic character. Roberts again expertly manipulates the reader's sympathy; after Jack Glass' brutal murders in the previous section it would be hard for the reader to feel sympathy for the character again, but Iago is introduced as a separate and sympathetic character, both more grounded and wiser than both of the girls he looks after and genuinely caring for them. The reader already sympathises with Iago before the reveal of who he is. The book again asks us why we feel grades of sympathy for victims. In this case, the murder victim turns out to be a rapist, and Jack Glass, rather than violently eviscerating him, simply provides Sapho, the rapist's victim, with the means and opportunity to dispatch him. The reader is forced to confront why they might be more comfortable with this than with the previous murders. Diana's fondness for solving murder mysteries adds a layer of meta-commentary to Iago and Diana's arguments about Jack Glass' actions; when Jack Glass points out that part of the appeal of murder mysteries over mere crime stories is their very morbidity, he is addressing the reader as much as Diana. And in 'The FTL Murders', we begin to get an idea of the stakes of the novel. There is another locked room in the novel: the speed of light, which restricts space travel to the solar system and allows the Ulanovs to exert their rule over the entire human race. There are rumours going round that an engineer called McAuley discovered the secret to FTL travel, and that the Argents, being masters of information, must somehow have this secret on them. Everyone is interested in FTL because it would completely disrupt the power structure of the Ulanovs, giving the people the power to escape the rigid power hierarchy the Ulanovs enforce. However Jack Glass understands that any FTL drive would, by increasing the c in the equation E = mc2, produce an incredible amount of energy, allowing the technology to be misused as a species-killing bomb. Jack Glass claims he is acting to prevent the death of the solar system and the entire human race, which justifies his acts of violence. Again it is up to the reader how much they agree with this.
   The third section of the book, 'The Impossible Gun', has Jack Glass' orbital bubble home as the locked room, and in this case the murder victim is Bar-le-duc, the legendary police officer and the Sherlock Holmes to Jack Glass' Moriarty, who is mysteriously vapourised by a supremely powerful gun moments after arresting Jack Glass in return for Diana's guaranteed safety. This section sees Roberts playing with the SFnal concepts he has built up so far, with the FTL drive acting as the impossible murder weapon, its distortion of relativity meaning that its discharge occurs before Jack Glass fires it, thus setting up the mystery. This section also allows Roberts to explore the world he has created in more depth; while the first two parts of the book were limited by their concepts to specific places, here we get to see the orbital bubbles in which the vast majority of the poor live, breaking just as much of the law as they can get away with in order to sustain themselves without drawing the attention of the police. This shows the contrast between the high technology luxury enjoyed by powerful families like the Argents and the subsistence level that everyone else is reduced to living at. The novel points up the unfairness and absurdity of this situation, even as it acts as a satirical extension of the gap between the haves and have-nots in our world at the present. This section of the book also explores Diana's growth of character, which is wonderfully handled. Over the course of the book she matures from the bratty, spoilt heiress she is when first introduced to a more sympathetic character in charge of her own agency. Dealing with the collapse of her house and the betrayal of her sister, as well as seeing how the rest of the solar system lives and having to take part in their world, forces her to mature, to the extent that she is able to confidently brush off Jack Glass' advances at the end of the book. It is here where Roberts' manipulation of the reader's sympathy really pays off. Jack Glass has become a much more sympathetic character, but by the end of the book, whilst she acknowledges everything he's done for her, Diana is smart enough to walk away from him. For all that we understand Jack Glass' reasons and motivations for what he does, Roberts never quite lets us or Diana forget the sociopath hiding inside him.


Thursday, 5 February 2015

Diana Wynne Jones - Fire & Hemlock (1985)

"Only thin, weak thinkers despise fairy stories. Each one has a true, strange fact hidden in it, you know, which you can find if you look."

'Fire & Hemlock' is a retelling of the ballads 'Tam Lin' and 'Thomas The Rhymer', old Scottish folk stories about young men kidnapped by the fairy queen. It is also a deconstruction of the concept of the hero, and a meditation on what it means to be a hero. It is also both a reading list of classic fantastical literature for children and young adults, as well as a primer on how to critique and think about stories. It's also a delicately told coming of age story, an in-depth character study of a girl growing up and becoming an adult. 'Fire & Hemlock' is a complex and ambitious book that demands much of its young audience, but never talks down to them and rewards readers of any age well.
   'Fire & Hemlock' tells the story of Polly, a girl who realises that she has two sets of memories, one entirely mundane, and one in which elements of the fantastical encroach on her life. In the latter, after accidentally gatecrashing a funeral when she was ten years old on Halloween, she meets Tom Lynn, a man who strikes up a friendship with her over their shared love of stories. Over the years, as Polly goes through school and suffers the breakup of her family due to her mother's undiagnosed mental illness and her father's flakiness, she has occasional meetings and exchanges letters with Mr. Lynn, in which the stories they make up seem to take on a life of their own. But in her other set of memories, there's no trace of Tom Lynn or their friendship. As she regains her full set of memories, Polly begins to realise that this is because of something she has done.
   It's worth mentioning the aspect of the book most likely to make the modern reader feel uncomfortable. When Mr. Lynn meets Polly, he must be at least 19, and she's 10. While the Famous Five might have been able to have perfectly innocent friendships with adult characters, in the era of stranger danger it's impossible not to have at least some misgivings about this kind of relationship. This discomfort is heightened when you consider that in the ballad, Tam Lin's relationship with Janet or Margaret is explicitly sexual, and depending on the version, not always consensual. There's an extent to which this is a feature rather than a bug in the text; Jones makes sure Mr. Lynn's relationship with Polly is not creepy or sexual, but she does hero worship him and develops a crush on him in her teenage years, and her friends, parents and Granny treat Mr. Lynn with understandable suspicion and warn her off him. The book goes to great lengths to show the shades of grey in Mr. Lynn's character that could be glossed over by Polly's adulation of him, which is developed in accord with how the book treats fairies and magic. In the end it does transpire that Mr. Lynn was using Polly to escape from Laurel the fairy queen, however he does try to drive her away in order to protect her, and it turns out that almost all the characters, with the possible exception of Polly's Granny, have been using Polly in some way or other. Indeed, one of the main themes of the book is how children lack agency, and the story is really about how Polly gains agency over her own actions and what she decides to do with that. Nevertheless, exactly how much of that uncomfortableness in the main relationship is intended by the author is hard to say.
   Polly and Mr. Lynn bond through stories, and the stories they share act as a springboard for Jones to explore the main themes of the book. To an extent, 'Fire & Hemlock' is a book about stories and why we tell them; Tom Lynn's curse, in a twist on Thomas the Rhymer's, is not that he can only speak the truth, but rather that all the stories he and Polly make up come true. The mechanism of magic here resembles that in Jo Walton's 'Among Others', a book that is in many ways the spiritual successor to 'Fire & Hemlock', both in the way the Fantastical elements subtly encroach on a realistic coming of age story and in the way it references other books. Jones traces Polly's emotional growth through the books that Mr. Lynn sends her, from fairy tales through to Dumas, Tolkien and beyond, and the books also form a series of clues that allow Polly to realise that Mr. Lynn is owned by the fairies. By the end of the book she is so steeped in fairy tales and how they work that she is able to use this knowledge to save Mr. Lynn from having his life taken to sustain Laurel.
   Polly and Mr. Lynn also exchange stories that they have written, about their fictional exploits as trainee heroes living secret lives in the town of Stow-on-the-Water. These stories basically act as a crash course in literary criticism and writing, as Mr. Lynn encourages Polly to think more deeply about the way she constructs her stories, from avoiding sentimentality and wish fulfillment to encouraging original thought. They also act to foreshadow and symbolise events in the real story. Beyond being clever, the way they encroach on reality is thoughtfully handled. Polly and Mr. Lynn find out that characters Polly had imagined as one-dimensional villains become more pleasant and likable when forced to manifest as an actual person with depth; there is a truth here about Polly's simplistic childish view of the world at the beginning of the novel contrasted to the actual complexity of lived life.
   The stories also tie into the key theme of the novel, heroism. Much of the novel is Polly discovering what it really means to be a hero. From the first stories she makes up when she meets Mr. Lynn, we see that Polly is enamored with the idea of heroism. She imagines a hero as someone who is strong and who fights giants and monsters. In her initial hero worship of Mr. Lynn, she casts him as the hero of her story, with herself as his assistant, although from the beginning Polly has aspirations to heroism, as she describes herself as a learner hero. As she goes through school and her parents' messy breakup, she begins to see being a hero as something she could maybe one day do, and starts training for it physically by joining the boys' football team and setting herself tasks running around everywhere. During this period she beats up the school bully, which makes her into a hero at her school, but she is forced to question the genuineness of her heroism, as she didn't actually do it for heroic reasons. Polly comes to understand that one's reasons for doing things are important, and that violence isn't going to solve all problems. By the end of the book, she has come to understand that her actions have consequences, through making a mistake that could have doomed Mr. Lynn, and discovers that true heroism comes from intelligence and cunning as much as physical strength, and frequently means sacrificing what you want in order to save someone. It is a powerful lesson because it is so hard earned; Jones does not let Polly escape without getting her hands dirty.
   A lot of the charm of 'Fire & Hemlock' stems from how it's told. The story starts off rooted in the mundane, a technique which makes the fantastical elements all the more wondrous and frightening as it slowly encroaches over the course of the book. The story is never rushed, allowing Jones the time to fully explore Polly's character as she develops, with a series of quite charming vignettes about school life and growing up that ring true because of how well grounded all the characters are, from Polly's school friends Nina and Fiona to Laurel the fairy queen and her consorts, Morton Leroy and his snotty son Seb. The book is split into sections named after musical movements, which speed up as the tension increases throughout the novel. Jones manages to make the book compulsively readable and an utter joy, despite going to some pretty dark places. This is not just in the horrifying fairy host gearing up to feed on a human life, but also in its nuanced portrayal of Polly's suffering at the hands of her neglectful parents.
   Much as Mr. Lynn's curse is a twist on Thomas the Rhymer's, Polly frees Mr. Lynn from the clutches of the fairies not by clinging on to him, as Janet or Margaret do in 'Tam Lin', but by letting him go. The ending is ambiguous and open to interpretation, which is unusual in a novel aimed at younger readers. This is how I read it. Because Morton Leroy hurt Mr. Lynn, which is against the rules of the contract, Laurel lets Mr. Lynn and Morton Leroy challenge each other, with the loser forfeiting their life in order to sustain Laurel. Mr. Lynn is allowed to use anything that is truly his, but the catch is that Morton Leroy will be able to use it more powerfully. So in order to save Mr. Lynn's life, Polly has to spurn him, when all she wants is to be able to be part of his life again. Polly's actions save Mr. Lynn and doom Morton Leroy, but she cannot go back on what she's said afterwards or Laurel will be able to claim Mr. Lynn. The book ultimately is about heroic sacrifice, and loving someone enough to let them go. This is foreshadowed by Polly's role in the school play as Pierrot, destined to lose the object of their affections. The clue to the ending is in the magical vases inscribed 'NOW HERE' and 'NOWHERE'. If they are unable to spend the present together, at least they now have the past. Polly's actions have removed the spell Laurel cast, allowing Polly to keep her true memories that include Mr. Lynn, and they will both be able to go on through life knowing that they both have that other person out there who truly, profoundly cares about them, even if they are unable to do anything about it.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Anne Charnock - A Calculated Life (2013)

"Our emotions kid us that life is better than the sum of its unremarkable parts... Our delusions are our best defense."

Anne Charnock's 'A Calculated Life' is a coming of age story, in which Jayna, a Simulant - a biologically and technologically enhanced human created to work for corporations, realises that her worldview and perspective are limited by her routine life, and goes in search of new experiences that open up the world to her. Much of the power of 'A Calculated Life' comes from its strong focus on character and setting, allowing the reader to fully inhabit Jayna's everyday life and the fine details of the near-future Manchester she inhabits. The book also uses its central conceit to ask pertinent questions about the interface between humanity and technology, with rare and admirable depth.
   Simulants join a long line of augmented, post-humans and artificial humans in SF literature, film and TV which have been used to explore what it means to be human. However a number of things make 'A Calculated Life' stand out from previous treatments of this idea. The Simulants in Charnock's Manchester aren't used as weapons or for dangerous space mining missions, but their increased intelligence and focus makes them popular as office workers in corporations. Jayna works for a company that analyses data to predict global trends, and much of the book describes her normal routine as she works at her office job, has meals with her friends in the housing accommodation for Simulants, or visits colleagues' houses. Charnock's focus on the everyday allows us to experience first hand the texture and shades of Jayna's life, making it easy to empathise with her. It also shows how the SFnal elements of the story - the Simulants, the genetic enhancements and biological implants - fit into the normal world we recognise and understand. This makes the world of 'A Calculated Life' all the more believable.
   Charnock doesn't just make sure that the Simulants work in the fabric of everyday life; she also demonstrates how they would fit in to the wider political and socio-economic environment. The advent of enhanced humans results in a recodifying of class structures. The best jobs are only available to people with biological enhancements and a clean genetic background, whilst those unable to afford implants or with genetic quirks in their family background are relegated to the underclass, only allowed the most menial jobs and never allowed to rise above a fixed pay grade, and sent out to live in the enclaves. The Simulants themselves, while guaranteed jobs and free from worries of food or accommodation, are essentially slaves, owned by the corporations that bought them. For all their incredible intellect and problem solving powers, they essentially have very little in the way of rights. They can be recalled by the company that makes and sells them for glitches such as taking a passionate interest in anything other than work, or developing personal relationships, in which case they will have their memories erased, be reconditioned and sold to a different company under a different name. For all this, their guaranteed jobs makes them a natural target of resentment.
   It is as a character study of Jayna that 'A Calculated Life' is most emotionally affecting. The effect of randomness on her forecasts cause Jayna to start on a journey of self-discovery. Charnock does an excellent job of describing how Jayna's worldview expands as she interacts with more different people and experiences what life is like for others. Jayna's experience of visiting Dave's house in the enclaves teaches her far more about what life is like for the people living there than her statistics ever could. The book doesn't shy away from exploring the tragic aspects of the Simulants' condition. Jayna visits her boss's house, and her simple fascination with her colleague's family speaks volumes. Jayna has never had a childhood or a family; she has never experienced feeling loved or cared for. Most of the Simulants' glitches manifest in tragically mundane ways - an office affair, visiting a restaurant to find out what curry tastes like, singing passionately at a karaoke contest. It is the simple pleasures that the Simulants are denied; the simple things that give shape and flavour to our lives. Charnock forces us to consider how cruel it would be to deny people theses things. It's also a very nice touch that none of the Simulants' glitches are violent or destructive.
   Despite its dystopian tenor and tragic ending, 'A Calculated Life' is not without hope. The defining relationship in the novel is between Janya and Dave, an unaugmented worker from the enclaves. Despite the differences between them in terms of biology and technology, they are still able to form a meaningful relationship. The book shows optimism that, despite whatever technological or biological enhancements people may have in the future, they will retain a core of humanity that will not be lost, and in a more general sense that there is a sense of common humanity we retain and share across any and all divides. 'A Calculated Life' also shows that it is possible to escape the corporate rat race, and that analytical intelligence can be intensely useful in practical situations if applied sensibly, as, (spoiler alert), Dave and Sunjin, another one of the Simulants from Jayna's accommodation, manage to escape the recallers and make a living for themselves farming. The book also retains hope that humanity can never be completely erased or suppressed, as the end hints that Jayna's mindwipe was not completely effective.