Wednesday, January 4, 2017

December Reads

Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales
Light by M. John Harrison
The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales
Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales
Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
The Race by Nina Allan
All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

As with lots of science fiction I've read over the past few years, The Race was a recommendation from Jonathan McCalmont. And as usual, he was bang on; The Race is an incredibly tricky mosaic novel, one that suggests far more than explains, which is how I'm liking it. I can imagine a fan of David Mitchell enjoying very much Allan's d├ębut novel. Composed of 4 subtly connected novellas, The Race is quick to suggest some possibilities for how everything connects, but these possibilities are sometimes at odds with each other. Two of the novellas, the bookends, concern themselves with a near future in the midst of ecological and economic collapse in which genetically modified dogs perform in illegal races. The middle two novellas suggest they are not in the same "universe" as the other two novellas, though the connections, as I mentioned are more devious than assumed. McCalmont speaks of the novel's ambiguity as its biggest allure. He writes:
Nina Allan’s The Race is one of the finest science fiction novels of 2014 precisely because it encourages you to ask difficult questions of the novel, its plot, its characters, and its themes. Great novels don’t just give you a single well-crafted story; they give you the space to come up with messy ones of your own.
McCalmont's enthusiasm for the novel probably derives from Allan's interrogation of genre, an enthusiasm I share. The Race picks up and plays with traditional realist structures (the English country novel, for example) without sliding into a petulant abandonment of that genre which characterizes much "literary" science fiction. Ian Sales, another critic I'm a fan of (and an accomplished and effective genre writer himself) is a bit more withholding of his praise when he writes:
The end result is, I think, one of 2014’s more interesting genre novels, and certainly proves Allan is a writer to watch. I’m not convinced The Race is wholly successful, but it’s definitely a worthy attempt.
What makes Sales's criticism so interesting to me is that his Apollo Quartet, which I read this month, does similar work with genre. The Apollo Quartet, a series of thematically connected novellas, plays with hard sci-fi and historical fiction, using classic postmodernist strategies such as appendices and false documents to blur lines between fact and fiction, to blur history and fiction. It's pure coincidence I'm reading these two works together in December, but there's a sweet synchronicity to it. Both are prominent critics and both publish less commercial science fiction than say, even Alastair Reynolds or the execrable James S. A. Corey. Based on the little I've read of them, especially Ian Sales, I'm very impressed and excited about their future work.

The Apollo Quartet, as aforementioned, uses 3 novellas and 1 novel to demand difficult questions of genre borders. Each part builds on the other—not in terms of plot, but rather in methodology and thematic interests. The first novella, a hard science alternate history keeps the postmodernism in the appendices, while still offering an exciting sci-fi adventure. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, the second novella, might have a not-so-great title, but it pushes further with the careful game Sales plays; instead of offering simply an alternative history/future, Sales poses a riddle, the solution to which requires work from the reader. I confess I don't fully understand the solution (which is provided in the author's afterword in the second edition), but I do understand the thematic implication of the solution. The quantum uncertainty, a similar principle driving Allan's The Race, supposes a simultaneous binary in which one thing is both at the same time. This echoes Sales's and Allan's forceful critique of and play with genre borders. Instead of slipping back and forth, The Race and The Apollo Quartet are both genre and "not-genre" at the same time—again, without the aggression of, say, M. John Harrison (not that Harrison's grumpiness isn't welcome! it definitely is!).

The third novella, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I wasn't as keen on. It didn't feel as ambitious as the second and it certainly wasn't as wide in scope as the fourth, All That Outer Space Allows, which I absolutely adored. The fourth part, a full length novel, (according the arbitrary rules of science fiction publishing, determined by word count) stars perhaps my favourite protagonist I met all year. Ginny Eckhardt is both an astronaut's wife in the 1960s and a science fiction writer of some repute. The novel follows her point of view as her husband is selected for NASA's Apollo program and as her science fiction writing deepens and matures. In possibly one of the finest sci-fi novels I've read in a couple years, Sales manages to successfully balance an array of complicated themes and goals, all through textured characterization and clever false documents. The crux of All That Outer Space Allows (with its title's obvious but not eyerolling reference to Douglas Sirk) is the parallel made between the gendered supporting duties of an astronaut's wife and the invisibility of a female science fiction writer in the 1960s-70s. Both identities require—or produce—a measure of invisibility, something the novel calls attention to explicitly, not only through a fourth wall breaking narrator but also through the novel's brilliant centrepiece, a full short story written in the voice of Ginny and presented as if published in a 1960s sci-fi magazine. The short story details an accidental solution to a military research project on the nature of invisibility: only the presence of women will turn this military vessel invisible, thus implying the necessity of women in the field. This necessity echoes outwards, from the short story to the novel (the necessity of women as astronauts, who are objectively better suited for the rigours of space) and from there to the rest of the quartet: the homosocial spaces of novellas 1 and 2 are implicitly critiqued by dint of an absence of women (though, "homosocial" is an imperfect word for the rigidly delineated labour space designated for men). My summary of the novel might make All That Outer Space Allows sound dry or academic, but the experience is far from that; instead, Ginny's plight for visibility in both her life of letters and her life with her husband is heartbreaking and... immediate, necessary.

Similarly, Nina Allan's The Race poses some important genre questions as well as the visibility of women's science fiction labour. While laureates such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood get heavy attention (not coincidentally, both of them produced early work which slots comfortably into a now outdated eco-feminist outlook), women writers in the trenches, as it were, are invisible. The Race's second novella suggests, quite coyly, the necessity of women to science fiction: their ability to see what is not seen by the hegemony of sci-fi writers. Allan's writer character is praised for her ability to see the world and present it slightly askew, slightly tilted, familiar enough to be recognizable, but altered enough to produce a feeling of unease. Without explicitly naming it, Allan's character is lauded for her skill in producing the uncanny. Yet, the uncanny isn't instrumentalized for the sake of it; rather, tilting the world on its axis (figuratively, of course; the Earth is already tilted, hence the seasons) allows for new sight, new ways of seeing, new ways of apprehending information and even, in the case of the third novella, apprehending new information.

Still, that new information isn't concretized by either generic signifiers or narrative. Instead, like  The Apollo Quartet's relationship to genre, truth is much more ambiguous, hence, I think, a lot of positive accolades for Allan's work. Both Sales and Allan are writers to watch. The latter has a new novel coming out in June I think and the former maintains a blog.

M. John Harrison's Light is certainly not revolutionary in terms of plot, as it's the same bog standard "aliens meddle in humanity's grasp for the stars." What makes Light so arresting is Harrison's prose and attitude. Here's a science fiction author not terribly interested in perpetuating the same aesthetic status quo which clutters the sci-fi bestseller lists. So much of this novel coasts on its style, its wondrous contortions of words and phrases, to defamiliarize the words we understand, the generic signifiers we're used to, and to present them in fresh and alienating ways. The novum in Harrison's fiction so far appears to be aesthetic instead of conceptual, though he liberally tosses great ideas into the mix, ideas better than most paradigmatic space opera feature. I've been a bit wary of the phrase "all style, no substance" as I think style is in of itself substantial, especially when it's as aggressively anti-genre as this, so I hesitate to levy it against Harrison. Light was aesthetically pleasing, difficult, demanding, funny, and maturely petulant, if that makes sense.

I felt very intelligent to reach the natural conclusion of the implications in The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. I patted myself on the back for finally grasping how I should disentangle the intricate threads of his obfuscation. Alas, the middle novella of this "collection" (really, a novel in three parts) was plodding and full of that shit Neil Gaiman fake fable nonsense I'm deathly allergic to. Still, the first section was fun (the novella always makes you feel smart when you pick up the breadcrumbs) and the third section, a sort of collection of false documents, like John Fowles' A Maggot, which ask the reader to generate their own conclusion, was gripping. The afterword, by another author, spells out the plot for those that didn't figure it out, and it was gratifying for my own deductions to be validated.

I'll say some more about The Book of the Long Sun once I've finished it, but for sure the first half was utterly gripping. Perhaps not as intricate or as impenetrable as his earlier works, but still wholly entertaining.

1 comment:

Kaitlin M said...

Wow, this is such a detailed list! I've been searching for new reading material lately and am so thankful I came across this post! Fantastic writing here. :)