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I'm continuing to work my way through Gwyneth Jones' Top Ten novels by Women SF Writers. This was Fowler's first novel, which I read when it was published in 1992, and it's just as rich and strange as when it first came out. To call it science fiction is to acknowledge that it was published as such. It's by no means a traditional genre novel. A strange babbling woman shows up in the Washington Territory in 1873. She becomes attached to a Chinese railway worker named Chin, whose uncle is concerned that a white woman in Chinese company will lead to trouble for the Chinese, so he asks Chin to return her to her people -- a risky business. Along the way they acquire other followers, including the innocent, delusional dreamer, BJ, and the menacing, guilt-ridden Andersonville survivor, Harold, and the crusading feminist lecturer on the female orgasm, Adelaide.

As much a story of the Old West and an American quest novel as a work of science fiction, Sarah Canary features a protagonist who is all thing to all people -- an immortal, a madwoman, an incomprehensible alien. It's full of folk lore, scientific speculation, tall tales, and magic realism. It's an extraordinary literary debut by a writer I haven't kept up with, although she's gone on to great success.
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cover of Gwyneth Jones' LifeI first encountered the fiction of Gwyneth Jones when her novel White Queen was published in the US in 1991. I immediately felt I'd discovered the heir to Joanna Russ and went back and read what I thought were her earliest novels, starting with Divine Endurance, although I see that Wikipedia now list four earlier novels. Her American editor was David Hartwell, and we discussed the rest of the Aleutian Trilogy, which started with White Queen, as it came out. Something about the third book, The Phoenix Cafe, with it's cavalier attitude toward men as an eternal danger to women and children, really put me off, however, and I gave up on Jones after that, although I was still curious enough about her to pick up the first book of her next series, Bold As Love at the Eastercon on my TAFF trip in 2003. I don't think it ever had a US publisher, nor did the rest of that series. I took it off my To Be Read pile not long ago, and bounced off what I found to be a very confusing story about European politics (seemingly very prescient in the post-Brexit world) and countercultural defiance. I switched to another book of hers in the Pile, Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which I found completely fascinating. Having consulted with Claire Brialey about her own experience reading Jones, I settled on Life as the next novel to try.

Suffice it to say that I liked it a lot better than Bold As Love. In the meantime I also realized that one of the things that makes her an heir to Joanna Russ is her pessimism about the battle between the sexes and the ability of feminism to solve the problem. Life is a very complex meditation on this question. It's a story of gender and genetics, which poses the idea that genetics is what makes the difference an unbridgeable breech. She then imagines a genetic solution to this problem that is probably beyond my ability to describe, but basically it's a non-Darwinian way for genes to be selected. The upshot of this is that genetic sexes (based on Y and X chromosomes)seem to be on their way out evolutionarily.

It's also a novel about life as she is lived, following a group of friends who meet at university, fall in and out of love, and fall in and out of contact later in life. The protagonist, Anna, is a geneticist who discovers the change in the X/Y exchange and spends her life trying to prove it to a disdainful scientific establishment, where her gender is held against her. Spence is her husband -- the apparently ideal house husband and lover -- who still manages to interfere with her research with his emotional neediness. In many ways their frenemy, Ramone, is the most interesting character -- a feminist who despises women and becomes a media star as a pundit, along with her mentor, the mystical old schizophrenic Lavinia. Jones' novels are always sprawling, contradictory affairs, full of crisis and pain, and Life is no exception. Two of the female characters are raped under circumstances in which they are unable to report it without unacceptable repercussions, there's also a heartbreaking miscarriage, and Anna's career seems to be a long series of firings by petty assholes.

What kept me going through all the carnage was the fascinating characters grappling with their messy lives. In her note about the book "Life: an Explanation" Jones writes, "The story of Anna Senoz is not my life story (the scruffy and pugnacious Ramone, Anna's shadow girl, is more like me, if I could imagine myself a feminist media star). But in many ways it's the story of my life as a writer: the experiences that shaped me, the changes that swept over my world, the ideas that made me write the novels I've written, the people who have inspired me; the future I imagine." There's a personal, heartfelt, career-summarizing quality to Life that's refreshing. The science fictional content is relatively small scale, but it has a lot of layers, and I appreciate how Jones confronts the limitations of feminism while tackling the underlying problem with a grand SF concept that ultimately completely reimagines what it means to be male or female.
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I read Synners not long after it was published in 1991, but I don't remember what I thought of it. I liked it a lot the second time. It's a novel full of furious energy and lots of ideas. What surprised me a little bit was how much it's about a counterculture, but also how realistically the countercultural life is depicted. At time it reminded me of Delany's Dhalgren on that front, with free spirits squatting in utter squalor, eating badly in filthy surroundings. It's not a very romanticized portrait.

Cadigan is also more sympathetic to the corporate drones than I remembered, especially to Gabe, who is a mid-level corporate toady just ttying to get by as best he can, which is not actually very well. Of course the corporation he serves is an amoral profit-consumed machine that makes a bad situation worse by trying to capitalize on a new neural computer interface that threatens to integrate human brains into the internet and thus expose them to hackers who have nothing but chaos and viruses on (and in) their minds.

This is a novel of many characters that weaves back and forth between the members of the large cast. I had a hard time at first keeping track of everyone and their agendas, but eventually I mostly figured it out. After that the weaving of character points-of-view and ideas about consciousness and perception became hypnotic. This came out at a peak moment in cyberpunk history, and it is loaded with tropes and ideas of the era, practically an encyclopedia of the form.

Basically one character -- a video artist who wants to be a machine -- creates a video that goes viral and and starts to cause people to stroke out. The novel has a romantic resolution to this problem that seemed a little out of tone with the rest of the story. The other problem I had with it was the attempt to create a future slang -- e.g. "stone home" this and "stone home" that -- which sounded just as phoney as any attempt to create future slang. TANSTAAFL, anyone? For the most part, however, I found Cadigan's linguistic riffs to be rich and dense.
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Russ The_Two_of_Them.jpg
She thought that it wasn't David, it wasn't even sex; it was some kind of deeper trouble, not only painful but unbearably, exasperatingly boring, something that would've been a lot better if it had been tragic and easier if it'd been sad.

Something unbearably disillusioning.

And old. Very, very old.

I've been working my way through a couple of different lists of Best/Favorite science fiction by women in Gwyneth Jones' Imagination/Space, mostly recently Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World and McIntyre's Dreamsnake. For Joanna Russ, Jones quite rightly recommends The Female Man, but because the Tiptree and McIntyre were both published in 1978, I chose to re-read The Two of Them, which was also published in 1978 and has long been one of my favorite Russ novels. I've always found it a difficult novel, and it's hard to imagine that I could provide a better reading of it than Jones' "Postscript to A Fairy Tale," which finds in the novel a Cinderella story and a parable of the failure of what's now called second wave feminism to achieve gender equality.

The Two of Them begins with two agents of the Trans-Temporal Agency, Ernst and Irene, arriving on a hollowed out asteroid that houses a neo-Islamic culture where women are treated like ornamental birds in a cage, supposedly for their own protection but really to keep them under control. What Ernst and Irene's mission is, and what the nature of the Trans-Temporal Agency is, is left unclear, but when Ernst and Irene discover the twelve-year-old daughter of the emmisary who greets them and discover that she wants to be a poet but will never be allowed to in this culture (where her aunt Dunya was declared insane for wanting the same thing), we flash back to Irene's adolescence as a bright, awkward, misfit in the USA of 1953. This is pretty clearly an autobiographic element in the story, and I feel that Russ used a similar situation in her Alyx story, "The Second Inquisition." Like the girl Zubeydeh, Irene is unhappy with her options in a culture that is repressive of women like her housewife mother. When a mysterious friend of her mother's named Ernst shows up at the house, Irene is fascinated and soon finds out that he is an agent of a mysterious agency that exists somewhere in an alternative reality. (It seems to me that the agency is not Trans-Temporal so much as Trans-Reality, where Reality conforms to the Many Worlds Hypothesis).

Back in the neo-Islamic asteroid, we find out that Ernst recruited Irene into the agency, rescuing her from the limited future she was facing in her home reality, and that they have been lovers and colleagues in the agency for many years since then. They have a very close, loving relationship, and when Irene decides that she wants to rescue Zubeydeh by recruiting her as Ernst recruited Irene, Ernst is willing. But as Irene mulls the situation, she realizes that rescuing Zubeydeh doesn't accomplish much. What about Zubeydeh's pill-popping housewife mother, who seems to prefer her cage to freedom, or her mad aunt, or Irene's own mother left behind in the home timeline, or her disabled best friend Chloe, who is so socially isolated that she lives vicariously through operas that Irene dismisses as heartless stories about women trapped and killed by social rules while men (especially the morally-ambivalent baritones) are free to have fun while they suffer.

The Two of Them is difficult partly because it's so conflicted. Irene is consumed by guilt for her failures and limitations. She wants women to be as free as men, but she can see that women are often their own worst enemies and complicit in their own oppression. The novel is also self-aware of its own contradictions. This self-awareness starts out as awareness that all stories are artificial, as Irene dissects the cliches of operas and the neo-Islamic poetic fables on TV on the asteroid. Trashy romances that Zubeydeh consumes with a passion and wants to eventually write herself. The fact that Irene and Ernst are moving between probabilities also emphasizes that in some ways they are choosing which story they want to inhabit, which in turn underlines the fact that the one we're reading about is just as arbitrary and full of plot holes as any of the others. Russ takes glee in mocking her own story, in fact, and examining the ways in which it doesn't make sense. Eventually a shocking death occurs, and the novel seems to start unraveling before our eyes, as Irene tries to fix it by imagining that it is a comedy instead of a tragedy.

Yet the nightmare of history won't allow Irene wake up in a comedy. Irene has to face the reality that the oppression of women is deeply engrained in the world and is always working against her, constraining her choices. Ironically, once she cuts herself loose from the agency, which she comes to see as a conspiracy against women, granting freedom to a select few such as herself while abandoning the rest throughout the multiverse, she loses all power of self-determination.

I've always found the end of the novel hair-raising, as Irene dreams of a dream of the mad aunt Dunya, about a valley of dry bones: "Innumerable skeletons are spread from wall to wall, and piled up immeasurably into the half-grey, half-lost rocky ceiling so far from any open love or light, are skeletons lying as they fell long ago in aeons-old attitudes of terror or flight, bones intermingled with bones, heaps of bones choking the dry watercourse and stretching back between the valley walls, a dry, silent carpeting as far as the eye can see." These are pretty clearly the bones of all the women who have died in servitude to men, and nothing in that valley has changed for a very long time. This is an expression of hopelessness and fear that true gender equality can never be achieved in the face of the long history of inequality.

But then, magically, a voice begins to whisper, "Shall these bones live!" and creates a breeze that begins to rustle through the bones, promising new life. I never really understood this ending until a couple of years ago when I discovered that it's a reference to a passage from Ezekiel, where Ezekiel has a vision of a valley of dry bones and then hears the voice of God, '“Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel."'

I'm still not sure what Russ intends with this reference. I don't think she believes gender equality will be wrought miraculously by a supernatural being. It seems more likely that the miracle will be caused by books like The Two of Them, in which women are given a voice, even if only a bare whisper. Of course, while Russ kept writing for a short while after this book was published, she all too soon fell silent herself. But of course Russ was a Jew and would have been well aware that throughout history the people of Israel have never long been free of oppression, enslavement and exile. There's a deep sense of pessimism in this book, for all the agile acrobatics and humor of the narrative. One thing I noticed this time through is that Irene is furious the whole time, but she is also aware that her anger causes her to make strategic and tactical mistakes. Looming over all of this is the question of whether sympathetic men -- such as Ernst -- can be allies in the project of equality, or whether we are doomed by our culture to keep replicating the same power relationships that our culture has stabilized for thousands of years. It's a powerful meditation, if ultimately a gloomy one.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Dreamsnake.jpegI don't find this novel in my book log, which I started in March 1979, which is kind of remarkable. It implies that I had already read it by that time, which is logistically possible because the hardcover was published in March 1978. But I couldn't afford hardcovers back then, so I either got it through the SF Book Club (May 1978) or borrowed it from a friend. The paperback didn't come out until June 1979. I read McIntyre's first novel, The Exile Waiting, in July 1979, and I'm pretty sure I read those two novels out of order. I don't remember for sure, but I probably met Vonda when I came to Seattle for Norwescon in March 1979, so it's interesting to consider that I had probably already read something by her by then.

In any event, my memory is that I had problems with Dreamsnake, although now having read it a second time it's hard to reconstruct what my objections would have been. I think I probably didn't understand some of the subtler things McIntyre was up to, and I probably found it lacking in the kinds of swashbuckling adventure I still looked for in those days. Not that there's no action in Dreamsnake, and in fact the kind of action there is is one of the subtle things McIntyre is up to.

This is above all a novel about snakes and horses. Earth is a post-nuclear holocaust wasteland, and other than one domed city that has contact with offworld aliens or colonists, which is what The Exile Waiting is about, people live an agrarian or nomadic life at very low tech levels, at least on the surface of things. For example, when they travel long distances they travel by horse, so horses are important characters in the story. I was thinking of it as a kind of post-apocalyptic Arcadia, because the nuclear catastrophe provides a kind of civilizational reset that allows McIntyre to explore some utopian or countercultural ideas about how things might bet organized more equitably. The setting is a little reminiscent of Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast series, or even Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow.

As we follow the Healer, Snake, through this wasteland, we begin to learn that there's other tech at work, however. The Healers use genetically-engineered snakes to treat disease, specifically by modifying the venom glands to produce healing enzymes that are then injected into the patient via snake bite (ow!). The dreamsnake of the title is an alien life form that produces a venom that seems to be like an opiate in killing pain and causing people to enter a dreamlike state of consciousness. Amongst other things, it's used as palliative care for people who are dying a painful death. The crisis of the novel is that Snake loses her dreamsnake. Come to think of it, the primary use is probably to numb patients before they're bitten by the big snakes with the medicinal venom. Dreamsnakes are extremely difficult to come by, so her career as a Healer is in jeopardy. Snake sets off on a journey to try to solve the problem, and through her journey we learn more about this world.

Along with the genetic engineering, the post-apocalyptic people have also learned to control their own fertility through a mechanism that I'm not sure is fully explained. For men it's a matter of controlling the temperature of their testicles so that the sperm is killed. For women, one supposes they are either able to dissolve the ovum or block it from being released or something along those lines. One of the smart things McIntyre does is explore the ways that useful tools like this somatic self-control and the gentically-engineered snakes can be used badly or mistakenly. For example, people can become addicted to the dreamsnakes. This aspect of the novel reminded me of Sonczewski's A Door Into Ocean, which was published later.

There's also a connection between the two novels in the shared interest in nonviolent solutions to conflict. This is perhaps where my younger self would have been most out of step with Dreamsnake. The thing that McIntyre is inventing here is how to tell a dramatic story about a female protagonist in which the climax isn't the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. Throughout the novel she shows problems being solved through cooperation and consensus. The brilliant thing she does in the final climax is resolve the overriding crisis of the novel through cognitive breakthrough. Cognitive breakthrough is a common trope in science fiction, but it often comes on top of the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. McIntyre was part of a movement of New Wave and Feminist writers who challenged this paradigm, and she cleverly points out that cognitive breakthrough -- the scientific Eureka moment -- can work dramatically to replace the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist.

Although I should add here that McIntyre does embrace one conventional heroic -- and indeed traditionally female -- trait: endurance. Like every Andre Norton protagonist ever, Snake is pushed to the limit of endurance and beyond. Her toughness and ability to take the pain is a token of her heroism, alongside her ability to solve the scientific problem.

Without getting into spoilers, the cognitive breakthrough in Dreamsnake also connects the novel to Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, which was also published later. It's a brilliant stroke involving the explanation for how the dreamsnakes reproduce, and again, how human scientists failed to understand it for so long through their own cognitive biases. This is gripping stuff once you're attuned to it.

McIntyre is modifying a very traditional kind of science fiction story here. I can see why it won a Hugo, because it both embraces the conventional and tweaks it for the current moment. For example, group families are at least as old as Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, and McIntyre rings some variations on it based on the counterculture of her time, from the polyamory of the Healers to the way that they don't marry or bear children but only adopt orphans. When one Healer adopts an orphan, the child becomes the responsibility of all Healers, and it will be raised to be a Healer.

On a final, personal note, I have to say that throughout this review I've had to fight the inclination to refer to the author as Vonda rather than McIntyre, because I do know her and consider her a friend. I have one of her awesome bead creatures sitting right here on my desk. [Stops to fondle bead creature.] I was frequently distracted while reading the book by the fact that some of the characters were clearly based on other people I know, or at least people like them. Maybe that's another reason I liked it better the second time around. It's not that I was in it, but my friends were.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Diski In Gratitude.jpgThis book was recommended to me by [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond. It's a cancer narrative of sorts, but it's also a memoir. Diski had a highly unpleasant childhood, with two dysfunctional and abusive parents, and an adolescence spent in and out of psychiatric institutions. Eventually, because she had gone to school with her son, Diski was invited to live with Doris Lessing, which she did for four years before Lessing decided she was a lost cause and kicked her out. Diski was the basis for Lessing's novel, The Sweetest Dream.

Diski eventually realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and published a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. In 2014 she was diagnosed with cancer and given two to three years to live. This book was the result of the diagnosis, and it was published in 2016 right before she died at age 68. I really struggled with it. I found her a very sour personality -- understandably so considering her difficult early life -- and I found her inability to reconcile herself to death strangely alien. (We'll see how that goes once my cancer really starts to eat me.) Her writing style is allusive in an almost stream of consciousness way, and I found the allusions hard to follow at times. I almost bounced off the book in the very first chapter, as she wrestles with how to write about cancer in a non-cliche way, going through all the conventional approaches that she desperately want to avoid. The self-consciousness was deeply unappealing.

Then, however, she moved on to her life with Doris Lessing, which I found more interesting, even if neither she nor Lessing comes off as a person I'd want to spend time with. But ultimately I was impressed with her honesty and willingness to delve into difficult, unresolvable feelings. As Ron said, she explores the way that gratitude and ingratitude define each other, and she's never sentimentalizes the way in which her own feelings about Lessing and life shuttle back and forth between the two poles. I'm prone to irrational optimism and sentimental romanticism myself, which is one reason I really struggled with the book, but I think her relentless investigation of fear, depression, and mental illness was a reality check I needed to receive. Not everybody has the privilege of a sheltered upbringing or of a loving family and circle of friends. In this section Diski also writes about the famous people Lessing hobnobbed with. Suffice it to say that Idries Shah comes off as a creep and an asshole in her accounting, but R.D. Laing comes off better.

By the end of the book, her free associations had a kind of magical realism to them, tying together completely disparate ideas and alternative, if not contradictory, theories into a unique vision and response to the conundrum of her life. I doubt I'm capable of resisting the cliches as powerfully as she did, but I ended up admiring her for the ability to do so and for creating a vivid depiction of the people she knew and the crazy, messy era of sex and drugs, literary heavyweights and mental hospitals she lived through.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Upwallsworld_cover.jpgI had to look it up in my book log (fortunately it was near the beginning), but it turns out I read this novel before I read any of Tiptree's short stories. It appears that I read it when the paperback came out in 1979. This time I read the first edition hardcover that I picked up used somewhere along the way. (Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons! Boy, that was a different era of publishing, wasn't it?) So it's funny that my memory was that I was disappointed by the novel. Apparently I wasn't disappointed because it wasn't as good as her short fiction but because I didn't think it worked as a novel.

That's the standard criticism of Up the Walls of the World, and it's justified. For example, it doesn't so much end as trail off, with the characters still ferociously imagining multiple alternative futures for themselves. Tiptree tries to finesse this by having the last viewpoint character conclude, "Let's try it all!" It's not a bad hand wave, because what the characters (and the reader) gradually realize over the course of the novel is that the characters are now facing eternity.

Which is to say that what Up the Walls of the World lacks in structure it makes up for in sheer scale. It's as if Tiptree told herself, "I'm writing a bigger story, so I'm going to expand my speculative scope accordingly." It's pretty literally epic in scale. At times it reminded me of the Star Trek original series episode about the planet destroyer and at others the first Star Trek movie about V'ger. The novel opens with a chapter from the point of view of an absolutely enormous but nebulous space-roving entity that thinks of itself as an evil murderer. I vaguely remember that when I first read the novel I didn't like the use of all-caps to represent the voice of this entity, which eventually becomes know as the Destroyer, because what it does as it roams through space is destroy star systems. I still think the use of all-caps is a clumsy, ugly way to represent vastness, but it certainly didn't bug me as much this time.

So we start big, and then we switch to the POV of a manta ray-like alien living in what seems to be something like the great storm of Jupiter located on an alien planet called Tyree. Tyree is in a star system that's undergoing attack from the Destroyer, and the aliens are desperately looking for a way to survive extinction. Part of what Tiptree has accomplished here is what Gwyneth Jones calls "some the most convincing non-humanoid aliens ... I've ever met." My only caveat is that the characters of the aliens still feel very human to me, and I'm not sure how it could be otherwise without staying out of their minds entirely. But the way they communicate with light and color, and the way they navigate through their environment, have sex, raise kids, perceive the world, all feel very different than any other aliens I've seen depicted in any format, rivaling the Jotoki in Donald Kingsbury's "The Survivor".

On top of these two bits of speculation we are then introduced to a group of humans who are part of a military test of psi powers. The central character in this group is a doctor who suffered a horrible loss in his past and has been self-medicating with opioids ever since. He is skeptical of the experiment, and worse he finds himself overly-sensitive to the pain all of the experimental subjects feel. He falls in love with a black computer scientist, but she is very distant and hard to approach, having suffered a traumatic injury in her own past. The band of experimental subjects is quite various and outstandingly characterized, from the paranoid, to the motherly, to the lesbian couple who are a mix of exuberant and victimized. The only thing all the experimental subjects have in common is pain and fear and lives lived as outcasts, because they are freaks of nature.

Jones says the novel is in a different mode than the short stories -- "a joyous and starry-eyed sf." It's true, but it still has a heavy serving of Tiptree's signature anguish, not least in the genocidal annihilation perpetrated by the self-hating Destroyer, but also more intimately in the fears, injuries, and losses suffered by the Tyreens and the humans. It's one of those stories about endurance of extreme suffering in the cause of a greater vision. That vision does end up being "starry-eyed," but not till the very end. Still, the sheer spectacle of the frantic, star-spanning action and the incredible world-building were enough to keep me happy through all the anguish. The awkward interaction between the aliens and the humans is very smartly portrayed, as is the gradual way they incorporate each other into a new community. This is widescreen baroque SF at its finest, despite the structural problems. As Jones notes, it's also a good example of an ethical solution to the problem of power that doesn't involve domination and exploitation. Echoes of Star Trek in that too?
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Slonczewski A-door-into-ocean.JPGGwyneth Jones writes about this book a number of times in her collection, Imagination/Space. She has a conflicted response to it: "Don't do it! was my cry. Don't claim the moral high ground; the sf guys' club will love you for it; doesn't that tell you anything ...? A woman doing just what she's supposed to do, being gentle and nurturing, looking after our spiritual growth, being moral so we don't have to be ... That's not the revolution. I feel differently now, because these are different times. Best feature: A Door into Ocean works like mainstream sf. Okay, it's about the sixties US under the skin, but the skin is proper, sciffy, rich, and strange sfnal skin." (in "(Re)reading for a Chapter on Feminist SF")

This novel won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for 1986, which is certainly a mainstream SF credential, and it was eventually followed by three more novels comprising the Elysium Chronicles. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes it: "The planet (in fact a moon) is in this case a water-covered Utopia inhabited solely by parthenogenetic web-footed aquatic female Shorans ... whose pacific culture suffers a savage Invasion at the hands of the male-dominated rigidly-hierarchical culture from the neighbouring planet of Valedon, whose leader is called the Patriarch." Sloncewski is apparently a Quaker, and her pacifist beliefs are definitely explored in this novel. What's interesting is that the Patriarch is light years away from and thus invisible to the planets he rules through an intermediary called the Envoy, and so he works as a kind of metaphor for the Christian God that the Quakers also worship. Perhaps Sloncewski's willingness to explore her conflicted feelings about her religion is part of why the novel feels so personal and honest, despite the way it stacks the moral deck in favor of the Utopian female society.

Like a lot of '70s feminist Utopias (cf Russ' Whileaway, Charnas' Motherlines, or Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time) Slonczewski's matriarchy reflects the political division within the womens movements of the time, with more militant factions, some that are more spiritual, and some that are more separatist, for example. Nobody gets let off easily, and a lot of the novel is taken up with the anguish various characters (including the militarist males) feel about the decisions they make. The deep history of the novel seems to be that the Shorans are descendants of people they call the Primes who thousands of years ago destroyed their civilization with "fire," probably of a nuclear nature. This forced them to change their culture and their science. Now perhaps the Patriarch is interested in resurrecting that old technology for his own purposes, or whatever other weapon technology the descendants of the Primes are capable of creating with the new science.

As Jones implies, what makes A Door into Ocean particularly fascinating is that the women of the ocean moon Shora are advanced genetic scientists, using only organic means to manipulate genes and cells. Slonczewski's background as a microbiologist shines through in the marine ecology she creates on Shora, where all life forms are interdependent and healing is practiced through enzymes and specially-bred lifeforms rather than pharmaceuticals and scalpels. (The split is reminiscent of Sterling's Shaper/Mech stories, I guess.) It's a work of hard science, and a highly original one. The only similar worldbuilding I can think of is in Varley's Eight Worlds stories and Gaia trilogy. Slonczewski goes much deeper, to my mind, creating a fully-imagined world that brought me that vicarious pleasure of exploring the alien that I remember from my adolescent encounters with science fiction. The sexuality in the novel is interesting too, with the one relationship that we see most closely being between one of the merwomen and a male (or malefreak, as the all-female Shorans think of him) from the planet that is invading their world. They are biologically incapable of having reproductive sex (in fact they are basically toxic to each other on that level), but the sex they are able to have is smoking hot.

Despite the painful subject of genocide and resistance, there is a joy to this novel that is a pleasure to behold: a science fiction writer in her prime hitting on all cylinders of imagination and speculation. Great stuff, highly recommended.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Imagination Space.jpegI went through a Gwyneth Jones phase when the Aleutian Trilogy was being published by Tor. Dave Hartwell was her editor at Tor, and I used to talk about her books with him. I went back and read all of her adult SF and fantasy, starting with Escape Plans, and I read one Ann Halam YA book too. My favorites were Divine Endurance, White Queen, and North Wind. In her I found an heir, both literary and feminist, to Joanna Russ. I found the third book in the Aleutian Trilogy, Phoenix Cafe, a big disappointment, and between that and the fact that Tor dropped her after that, I lost track of her career.

On my TAFF trip in 2003, however, I did manage to pick up a British paperback of her next novel, Bold As Love, which I'd heard her read from when she taught at Clarion West in 1999. (I wouldn't have remembered that date, except she mentions it in the acknowledgements to the novel, where, alas, she also refers to the Crocodile Club, which is actually called the Crocodile Cafe. Ah well, a very minor error in the grand scheme of things.) So as part of my ongoing project of reading mostly books by women, I finally pulled it off the Pile a couple of weeks ago. Alas, I found it completely impenetrable -- which was also true of her first two novels, now that I think of it. I didn't care about the characters and couldn't keep some of them straight, I couldn't figure out the political factions, I couldn't distinguish the different bands or which characters were in which band. In short, I found it completely incomprehensible. On the off chance that it was the chemo causing the confusion, I consulted with the temporarily-retired [livejournal.com profile] fishlifter, who I knew had had some problems with the book too, and she confirmed that she had had many of the same problems I was having. Worse, she told me it was the first in a five book series, not the diptych I expected. I gave up on it at the point.

I was considering the semi-retired [livejournal.com profile] fishlifter's recommendation of another novel by Jones called Spirit when I recalled that I had one of Jones' non-fiction books on my Pile. Since I'd been vaguely feeling that I've been reading way too much fiction lately anyway, I started reading Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which was published by Aqueduct Press out of Seattle. Two days later, I had read the whole thing. Although I had read some of the excellent reviews and essays on her website during my period of infatuation with her writing, I hadn't heard that in 2008 she had won a well-deserved Pilgrim Award for Lifetime Achievement in the field of science fiction scholarship. She turned out to be an heir to Joanna Russ as an incisive critic and reviewer as well as an author of self-critical feminist science fiction.

However, at first it seemed like a bad sign when the first essay in the book -- "What Is Science Fiction?" quoted extensively from the book I'd just bounced off of, Bold As Love. But I admired the essay greatly for not trying to pin the origins of SF to one book or one literary movement. Instead she cites multiple roots in the Gothic (expecially Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula), travel writing of the ancient past (e.g. Herodotus), the Romantic concept of the Sublime (citing Burke's essay on the subject), and the more modernist genre of the Grotesque (e.g. Kafka's "Metamorphosis"). I love this kind of genealogical, very literate, influence-spotting approach to genre history, so this was a perfect essay for me.

Another favorite piece was "Postcript to the Fairytale", subtitled "A Review of The Two of Them by Joanna Russ." This is one of Russ's most slippery, shifting, difficult works of fiction, and Jones does a brilliant job of tracing Russ's wrestling match with the contradictions of exercising power as a woman in a patriarchal society and her resistance to the common feminist urge to retreat into fantasies of female superiority. Like Russ, Jones is not much for the easy answer, and she is as pointed and balanced in her criticism of feminists as she is of sexists. Of course The Two of Them is partly about the ways women are complicit in their own oppression. Jones sees her own complicity too in brilliant passages like this:

The story behind the fiction, the story of a generation, always starts the same way: I was a girl-child in the fifties. I was attracted to the alien culture (indubitably alien!) of a set of books with rockets on the spines. Maybe I was influenced, though I didn't really know it, by my mother's memories of the halcyon days of World War, when women's work was needed outside the home and she had a life. Maybe I felt her unease, though she never talked about it, at being socially engineered back into the kitchen and the negligee. (Maybe I called this "not wanting to be like my mother.") The books were exciting and adventurous, and there were plenty of tomboy girl characters. I didn't know they were there for decoration, I thought it meant the genre had a place for me! So I ran away with Science Fiction, to start a new life. And here I am, still happy to be dressed in long underwear, with my raygun, but sorely disillusioned about those tomboys ... And then the story divides. The unregenerate tomboys keep their rayguns; the alpha female fans create a female, womb-friendly space within sf; but aren't both playing by the rules of the boy club? The Two of Them examines this dilemma, with illustrations. (p.48)

Jones is frequently provocative. Her essay about the links between horror, sexual arousal, and science fiction is called "String of Pearls," which although derived from a work of criticism, it is a work of criticism about pornography, which leaves the sexual suggestion intact. Her essay on video games connects that industry to the science fiction field in ways that I haven't seen anyone else talk about, although that likely reflects my own lack of interest in video games. She provides fascinating insight into her own working methods as a writer, specifically in "True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural" about tagging after a female molecular biologist, Dr Jane Davies, while researching her novel Life, which is about a non-Darwinist concept of evolution.

As with any good work of criticism, I come away from it with a list of other books I now want to read. Jones provides not one but two lists of top feminist science fiction, and I've already started reading Joan Sloncewski's A Door into Ocean, which she mentions more than once, not necessarily disparagingly, as an example of "a female, womb-friendly space within sf" and has long been on my big list of books I'm interested in, largely due to the advocacy of a feminist writer-friend of mine. Indeed Jones' Life now seems like the next novel of hers I want to try, but based on this collection I'd also like to track down her previous non-fiction collection, Deconstructing the Starships. I thought Imagination/Space was completely fascinating and riveting, and I'd like to read more of the same.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Norton X Factor.jpgI guess I'm done with crime novels about psychologically bizarre characters, so I'm not going to read the last two novels in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus. I got one chapter into Margaret Millar's Beast in View and thought, "I can't take any more mental illness!"

So I retreat to some comfort reading: Andre Norton. The X Factor is classic Norton. Like Kilda in Dread Companion, Diskan Fentress is the child of a three-year marriage contract between a Survey scout who was soon reassigned to another planet and a planet-bound mother who was unable to raise him because she died during his birth. So he was raised in a government creche. Unlike Kilda, she had no mentor to look after her, and Diskan became an outcast held in contempt for his mental slowness and physical clumsiness. So a typical orphan/outcast protagonist for Norton, and soon he's jetted off to an unexplored alien planet, where he undergoes a survival ordeal while exploring ancient abandoned ruins and encountering a race of sentient furry aliens (the brothers-in-fur) who see potential in him where his fellow humans saw only disability.

Norton likes nothing better than to have her characters wandering around lost in an underground labyrinth of ruins. Diskan finds allies, both human and alien, to wander through the ruins with him, and eventually he discovers the talent within himself that only the aliens could see before. Once again, a human protagonist in a Norton novel survives either by becoming alien or by learning from aliens. There are archeologists also trying to understand the ruins, and Jacks (basically pirates) looking for buried treasure. It's a survival adventure with some great action and a coming-of-age story, and I found it very satisfying in a comfort-reading kind of way. Norton takes me back to the Golden Age of science fiction, which is the age of twelve.

I know that Norton eventually made contact with fandom even while she was still living in Cleveland, where she lived until 1966 -- the year after this novel was published -- and where she knew Harlan Ellison, for example. If she didn't understand that it was a proud and lonely thing to be a fan, her love of ostracized-alienated protagonists seems ready-made to appeal to the fannish subculture.
randy_byers: (wilmer)
Blunderer.jpgI've long been interested in Patricia Highsmith, largely because of the number of films based on her books, including the excellent Carol (based on Highsmith's The Price of Salt.) Now that I've read one of her crime thrillers, however, I'm not sure I'm going to like her books. The Blunderer was her third published novel -- a crime novel about three repulsive characters being cruel to each other. I admit the structure is quite interesting, but I found the execution a little repetitious.

The basic set-up is that the story opens with a man murdering his wife at a cross-country bus stop. We then switch to the protagonist, Walter Stackhouse , who is a lapdog to his neurotic harridan of a wife, Clara. I guess I should say the novel is about four repulsive characters being cruel to each other, but Clara really only interacts with Walter, not the other two main characters. One of those two is Melchior Kimmel, an obese, mostly blind dealer in collectible books who is suspected of being the murderer of the wife that we saw in the opening chapter. Walter visits him through some bizarre compulsion after Clara dies under similar circumstances, although apparently by suicide. The fourth protagonist is the police detective, Lawrence Corby, who starts investigating Clara's death and then becomes fascinated by the Kimmel case, too. Like all the other characters, Corby has an ugly and possibly psychotic personality. He hammers at both Walter and Kimmel, including physically torturing the latter, in an attempt to get them to confess to the murders.

And that's pretty much the material of the novel. These four characters go at it over and over, chewing on each other like a dog on a bone. That's the part that I found repetitive after a while. Highsmith repeatedly soaks the reader in these charged episodes of people being psychologically (and sometimes physically) abusive to each other, while Walter blunders from one idiotic misstep to another under Corby and Kimmel's pressure. What's interesting is that who is guilty and who isn't almost becomes moot after a while. Everyone is guilty, at least in their own minds. Desires and paranoia and dominance games abound. Highsmith keeps it interesting enough with the intricate, submerged parallels between the Kimmel and Stackhouse cases, and then by capping it off with a satisfyingly bloody, apocalyptic ending. But I found it a slog to get to the ending.

On the other hand, this does make me more interested in The Price of Salt, since the movie is intricately psychological in its own right and isn't a genre crime novel. This one may have suffered from the demands of genre.
randy_byers: (wilmer)
Holding The Blank Wall.jpgThe Blank Wall is a 1947 crime novel that's been adapted to film twice: once as a film noir called The Reckless Moment (1950) and the other a contemporary thriller (that is, set in the present day of 2001) called The Deep End. The basic scenario in all three versions of the story is a suburban mother trying to hold the family together while her husband is away at war. Her underage daughter becomes enamored of a sleazy crook who wants to blackmail her, and the mother is sucked into a criminal underworld that is completely outside her mundane experience as a home-maker. (In The Deep End, the gender of the child who is imperiled is changed from female to male, and the son is gay.) I don't believe it's a major spoiler to say that the sleazebag is accidentally murdered, and the mother gets involved in covering up the murder only to have another blackmailer show up with letters her daughter wrote to her exploiter/boyfriend, which he threatens to send to the newspapers unless the mother pays him five thousand dollars.

The novel is very much a melodrama, in the sense that it's about a woman unhappily trapped in a social role that doesn't fit her. Lucia is deeply insecure and very bad at being a housekeeper and mother. She writes letters to her husband that are complete torture to her, because they are so inane and disconnected from the turmoil she's going through, which she feels she must hide from him. Her daughter and son are both spoiled brats who torment her with their back talk and disobedience and contempt, and she is helpless to do anything about it. In fact, she's so helpless in general that I had a hard time maintaining my sympathy for her. The novel was initially serialized in Women's Home Journal, and it seems aimed at women who are bored with their domestic lives and maybe wishing for some excitement or adventure. The woes of the protagonist probably appealed pretty directly to the experience of the women who read the magazine.

As a crime story it's unusual for focusing on domestic issues like motherhood, the limits on women's power to run their own lives, and suburban gentility and pretense. Poor Lucia has to run around town trying to deal with grocery shopping during war time rationing, trying to get her refrigerator fixed when the repair company is already overbooked, trying to borrow money to pay the blackmail when she has no collateral to offer, and generally having no idea how to deal with the problems she's facing without her exposing her whole family to shame and criminal charges. The other unusual thing about The Blank Wall is that the second blackmailer she meets is a gentle man named Donnelly who gradually falls in love with her. In the film noir version, directed by the great Max Ophuls in his brief Hollywood sojourn, it's implied that maybe the feeling is mutual and maybe it goes further than just feelings. The book is very clear that, despite the fact that she does have feelings for him, nothing happens between Lucia and Donnelly, but Lucia agonizes over the appearance that something has happened between them, which is constantly thrown in her face by her horrible children. The 1950 film also implies that the daughter did more than write letters to her sleazy boyfriend, whereas the book again maintains her innocence of sexual involvement.

The unusual setting and stakes is what sets this book apart from most crime novels, although the focus on romance aligns it with the other three novels in the Library of America series of mid-century crime novels by women. The thing that really made the book stand out for me, however, is the character of Sybil, the black woman who helps Lucia run the household. It's interesting to me that Sybil is missing from both film adaptations, because she is absolutely key to the novel. Basically, she's the person who makes sure that the house is run properly, handling everything that Lucia is incompetent to do, and she makes sure Lucia stays out of trouble with both the criminals and the law, interceding whenever Lucia starts losing her grip. Lucia depends on her entirely, and there comes a point when Sybil tells her the story of her husband, who has been in prison for something like twelve years for hitting a white man who hit him first. Through Sybil, who is portrayed very vividly through Lucia's eyes, we get a vivid portrait of the husband, who is an idealist who still believes justice can prevail despite the cruel injustice perpetrated on him by Jim Crow America. It's an utterly fascinating burst of raw social realism in the midst of an oddball romantic crime story. The best part of the story, for me, was the unexpected portrayal of the deepening friendship, even partnership, between Lucia and Sybil. Sybil is Lucia's true better half, not the absent husband. It's not clear to me whether Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was expecting us to see these two women as the real domestic partners of the story, but that's how it came across to me. It makes The Blank Wall feel at least obliquely radical for its time.
randy_byers: (wilmer)

This is the second time I've read In a Lonely Place. The first time was because I loved the famous film noir adaptation so much and was curious about its source, and I was astonished at how different the movie was from the book -- starting with the fact that in the book the protagonist, Dixon "Dix" Steele, is a serial killer of women, whereas in the movie he's just a tormented guy with a violent streak who is a suspect in the murder of one girl. The novel struck me as a tour de force in its first-person depiction of a psychotic personality. This second reading was because I'm working my way through the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus, and this time I was able to identify some of the strands that the film-makers took hold of as they transformed the crime novel into a personal story about how the Hollywood Dream Factory crushes dreams. In the book Dix claims to be a writer, and in the movie he really is one -- a bona fide artiste, in fact, who detests Hollywood's focus on selling popcorn. The novel also does have a love affair between Dix and his neighbor, Laurel Gray, who has dabbled in acting in both the book and the movie, but who primarily seems to be looking for a man she can love. In the movie, Laurel leaves Dix because she's afraid of his violent temper, although she still loves him.

Having now watched the movie again since re-reading the book, it's interesting how the book is changing my view of the movie. I've always loved the tragic romanticism of the movie: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." The novel is if anything anti-romantic. Compare Hughes' description of the end of Laurel's love for Dix: "He knew but he did not admit. It might have been a week. It might have been a day or two, or perhaps there was no time. But the restlessness was coming into her. She could not be content too long to be bound within the confines of his dream. It might have been the way her shoulders moved to a dance orchestra over the radio. It might have been the small frown as they sat again for dinner in the living room. It could have been her evasion to his questions about her hours of that particular day. Or the way in which she stood in the doorway, looking out into the night." The transition is more dramatic in the film, more dreamlike in the novel.

But perhaps more importantly the two main female characters, Laurel and Sylvia (the wife of Dix's best friend, Brub, who is also the detective investigating the murders, in a clever touch from the novel) are both stronger characters in the book. This is debatable when it comes to Laurel, who, as Curtis Hanson points out in a featurette on the DVD I have, basically becomes the point-of-view character in the second part of the film. We go from sympathizing with the tormented Dix to fearing for Laurel, as his paranoid anger transfers to her. That's a very powerful switch, but the novel never portrays Laurel as a woman-in-peril. Instead she's ahead of the game, knows Dix is trouble, and teams up with Brub and Sylvia, who also recognizes immediately that Dix is a psycho. Laurel is an ambivalent character in the book -- she clearly has gold-digger tendencies -- but she's been around the block enough to know that Dix can't be trusted. Sylvia is a severely reduced character in the film, although I'll give the film-makers credit for beefing up the role of the housemaid, Effie, and creating an interesting masseuse/confidante for Laurel who may be a lesbian and who recognizes Dix as a disaster in the making.

Like the other two books in the LOA omnibus, this one has a pretty blunt take on sex and sexuality. Dix is a rapist as well as a murderer, whereas the film explicitly says that the murder of Mildred Atkinson is not a sex crime. Dix and Laurel have a torrid sexual affair. This is hinted at in the movie, with some suggestive shots of Gloria Grahame in the shower, naked in bed under the covers, and getting a massage, but the novel makes no bones about it. Dix relishes the physical intimacy and yearns for it when he loses it. As in the film, there's a suggestion that the sexual fling reduces the tensions inside of him, and he stops his predation on women while he's with Laurel. It's also interesting that in the novel Dix is shown to be very fashion conscious. ("He dressed in the suit he liked best; he didn't wear it often. It was distinctive, a British wool, gray with a faint overplaid of lighter gray, a touch of dim red.") He's always very precise about what clothes he's wearing, and he frequently notes what other people are wearing and judges them for it. I'm not sure whether that's just Hughes indulging her own interests, or whether we're supposed to read anything into it.

The main thing about the novel is the way Hughes captures Dix's psychosis, the ebb and flow of his frantic emotions, the tides of his self-confidence, his constant scanning of the people around him to try to read their thoughts and reactions. Dix is constantly pretending, constantly preening about his awareness of what's happening and his ability to control how other people perceive him. (Is *that* part of the fashion consciousness?) When he's feeling good, the world is his oyster and there's a kind of romanticism akin to the movie, but when he's feeling out of control, his paranoia turns the world into a giant closet full of monsters. Hughes' great triumph is her ability to capture the way his mood swings and flows, unhinged from everything but his own deranged caprice. Dix is almost a textbook case of hysteria, and that may be Hughes' secret joke/irony: the murderous misogynist with the classic feminine dis-ease. He's so nervous and twitchy he reminded me of an AE van Vogt character: "He felt Sylvia cringe at Laurel's use of the word dick for detective. He didn't see it; he saw nothing. His mind was knotted too tightly, so tightly the room was a blur. He steadied himself against the table."

Hughes is perhaps a little too obvious at times in pointing out the variety of lonely places in her story, but it's still a potent metaphor for psychological isolation, post-war social alienation, romantic abandonment, and even the kind of dark coastal gully or suburban cul-de-sac where someone might get away with murder. It's a remarkable novel that was turned into a remarkable movie that's about something completely different.
randy_byers: (cesare)
Jackson Castle.jpgI read this novel after a discussion on Facebook when I posted a picture of an Aminita muscaria mushroom and Rich Coad quoted the opening of We Have Always Lived in the Castle:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Aminita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom."

This is a very odd, uncategorizable book. A lot of people call it gothic, and it certainly has elements of the gothic: an old, gloomy, isolated house; an atmosphere of the uncanny and the macabre. Others have called it a fairy tale, which also make sense, because it seems to take place in a magical Never Never Land remote from mundane reality. As the books opens, we learn that Merricat (short for Mary Katherine) is living in the old Blackwood mansion with her sweet sister, Constance, and doddering uncle, Julian. We learn that six years earlier, Merricat's parents, brother, and aunt (Julian's wife) were poisoned to death with arsenic. Julian also ate the poison, but while mentally and physically damaged, didn't die. Constance was accused of the murder but acquitted.

The book consists of Merricat's descriptions of their strangely idyllic life and their mutually hostile relationship with the hateful village they live outside of. Merricat is a complete savage, constantly dreaming of the deaths of those she hates, while at the same time living in a sweet adolescent world of the imagination that infuses every aspect of her life with magic. She loves her sister and her cat, Jonas. The novel as a whole is a psychological study of Merricat, and she is one hell of a character: agoraphobic, cunning, childish, loving, hateful, terrified, brash, murderous, and whimsical.

Eventually the isolated world of the three survivors is punctured by a greedy cousin who comes looking for the family fortune, and things start to spiral out of Merricat's tight control. Yet the action of the novel, such as it is, settles in a highly unusual way. The whole thing is highly unusual. I can't think of another book like it, and that's kind of an amazing accomplishment. The setting is gothic and morbid, but Merricat's observations are frequently very funny or absurd, so the only people I could think to compare this to were Charles Addams (The Addams Family) and Edward Gorey. Jackson seems like one of those oddball American writers -- Charles Portis would be another -- who aren't easily categorized and don't fit easily into American literary history.

Joyce Carol Oates has a much more detailed review at The New York Review of Books.
randy_byers: (wilmer)
eustis1.jpgThis is the second novel in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and '50s. I reviewed Vera Caspary's Laura previously.

I had never heard of Helen Eustis before. She apparently wrote only two novels and enough short stories for a collection. Her second novel, The Fool Killer, which was adapted as a film, also sounds fascinating: a boy’s adventures wandering the Midwest with an amnesiac veteran shortly after the Civil War. The Horizontal Man was published in 1946 and won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1947. It's a very eccentric, ambitious murder mystery that starts out with the brutal murder of a professor of English at a small college near the Berkshires. (Eustis got her bachelors degree at Smith.) We then get a tour through the heads of a number of characters, many of whom are mentally or emotionally imbalanced and one of whom turns out to be the killer.

The novel is called a satire of liberal arts colleges, and certainly it comically mocks the types of people found on such a campus. But what most struck me was the psychological derangement of some of the central characters. In his appreciation of the novel, Charles Finch, calls it a novel of hysteria, and indeed it's almost Lovecraftian in the way that characters seem to be always on the verge of going completely mad and losing all touch with reality. Here's a passage that illustrates the tone I'm trying to describe:

And the snow, the delicate fragile snow, lying crystal on crystal like a thousand thousand lovers in a common bed, and the blue blue sky, blue as a steam whistle or a loud blast on a brass trumpet. He was strung and humming stripped like catgut, over bridge and around key. He shook and vibrated in response to the breath of the universe like the tautest violin string.

There are at least three characters who have basically lost their minds, and I actually got a little impatient with their inability to maintain a grip. Therefore, the most fascinating character by far was the splendidly-named Freda Cramm, who is a forceful ramrod of a woman who is beholden to no one, completely self-assured to the point of arrogance, seductive, fleshy, imperious, and really altogether unlike any other fictional character I can think of. In my review of Laura I said I couldn't detect the free love sexuality that Vera Caspary practiced and apparently felt was embodied in the character of Laura, but sex is all over the place in The Horizontal Man. Freda is a woman of voracious sexual appetite, the murdered professor at least likes to brag of his many sexual conquests, whether they were real or not, and two other characters have (off-stage) sex during the course of the novel.

Between the multiple points of view from multiple unreliable narrators and the raging sexual energy running through the story, it feels very modernistic. Eustis started working on a PhD in English Literature before she turned her hand to writing and translation, and while this is definitely a genre work, it feels very literary in its own peculiar way. Eustis perhaps announces her literary intent with an epigraph from Auden that gave the book its title (although I confess that I don't understand this little poem):

Let us honor if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.

Of course, the title refers to the dead professor (reverse-fridging decades before the critical term "fridging" was even coined), and perhaps the poem is meditation on how we value the dead more than the living? Whatever the case, I thought this was a firecracker of a novel, and I recommend it highly. It reminded me of Laura in its multiple contesting points of view, and it reminded me of Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place (next up in the LOA omnibus) in its use of psychotic first person narrators.
randy_byers: (wilmer)
Laura cover.jpgTHERE ARE SPOILERS.

I read this 1943 novel in the Kindle edition of Library of America's Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s. (Obviously the cover I'm using here is from a previous book publication.) I've seen the film adaptation several times -- and twice more since reading the novel -- and it's one of the classic film noirs. In a wonderful overview of the collection and analysis of the methods of mystery/crime fiction, film scholar David Bordwell paints Vera Caspary as quite a character: "Vera Caspary was a woman to be reckoned with —- Greenwich Village free-love practitioner, Communist party member, occasional screenwriter, boundlessly energetic purveyor of suspense fiction, passionate paramour of a married man, and advocate for women in prison." In her appreciation of the novel, Sarah Paretsky says that Caspary had strong feelings about how Laura was presented in the movie: "Caspary fought with director Otto Preminger over the way he depicted Laura’s sexuality in his 1944 film version. Caspary’s rage, as she herself called it, remained so intense that decades after the film’s release, she attacked Preminger (verbally) when she found herself seated near him at a restaurant."

I actually didn't get any sense of a strong sexuality in Laura from my own reading, but I'm willing to admit that I may have just been obtuse. I didn't get any sense that she'd had sex with her boyfriend, Shelby Carpenter, or any of her previous boyfriends, nor did I get any sense that she wanted to have sex with the detective, Mark McPherson, with whom she ends up falling in love. The only depiction of what might be considered sexual feelings on her part that I can remember is when Waldo Lydecker accuses her of a weakness for men with lithe, hard bodies.

The one major difference from the film that I picked up on is that the novel is told from four points of view: It opens (like the movie) with a section from Waldo's point of view as he tells McPherson about the history of his friendship with Laura, then (like the movie) it switches to a section from McPherson's point of view as he prowls around Laura's apartment and begins to develop feelings for her. (To my mind, this is the most sensual part of the novel, as McPherson sniffs her perfume and strokes the fabric of her clothes, almost as if he's trying to become her.) The third section is a transcript of an interview with Shelby Carpenter, which is also depicted in the film, but without the immersive flashback that characterizes Lydecker's narration. Then we get a section from Laura's point of view, and this is more or less completely missing from the film. I wonder if that's what enraged Caspary, because it turns Laura into someone without her own perspective on things; someone whom we only see through the eyes of the men who desire her. Finally the novel switches back to McPherson's point of view, which he shares with Lydecker by quoting some of his thoughts about Laura. Again, this is mimicked in the movie by giving Lydecker the last words spoken.

The film seems like a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel, other than the elision of Laura's point of view. What it helped me to see is how carefully Caspary melded the conventions of the mystery novel and the romance novel. What I'd especially forgotten is that once we learn that Laura isn't the person who was murdered at the beginning of the book, she becomes one of the prime suspects for killing Diane Redfern, who is the person who was mistaken for Laura after her face was blown off by a shotgun while she was staying in Laura's apartment and wearing Laura's clothes. (One change in the movie is that forensics establishes the true identify of the corpse, but only after the detective has already figured out who it was.) The detective is thus not only trying to determine who the killer is, but whether Laura is someone he can trust with his love. It's also a story about a woman trying to pick her ideal kind of man, and it seems very traditional in the way it depicts her choices. Lydecker is a control freak, Shelby is a fop, and McPherson is a manly man. As Paretsky points out, self-control seems to be the redeeming quality. Another major difference between film and book is that in the book Lydecker is a grotesquely fat man who enjoys food and drink too much. He represents an effete parasite class of snobs trying to turn the commoner, Laura, into an artificial treasure removed from her roots, whereas the working class detective can recognize her true value. While the romance aspect of the novel gives it a vastly different feeling from the hardboiled tradition, it's still the hardboiled dick who gets the girl in the end. However, Laura is an agent of her own fate, and the key conflict is the psychological battle between her and Lydecker, which she ultimately wins all on her very own.
randy_byers: (Default)
Everfair cover.jpgI'm starting to think I should just read Andre Norton novels for the rest of my chemotherapy, because I'm finding complex, ambitious novels like this one difficult to parse in my current mentally-lethargic state. There are a lot of characters, a lot of locations, and a lot of story thrown at us in short bursts that form a kind of shifting mosaic. It's dazzling, but I tended to lose my way at times.

I know Nisi Shawl socially, and I remember a conversation with her when she had just started writing Everfair in which she said that steampunk was too Eurocentric and that she wanted to write some Afrocentric steampunk. So this is an alternate history about King Leopold II of Belgium's atrocities in the Congo, which amongst other things inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. What Shawl does is posit the creation of a new nation in the vicinity of the Congo, founded by a coalition of British Fabian socialists, freed American slaves and American missionaries, and local African tribes. This nation is called Everfair. At first I thought the steampunk aspects of the story -- steam bicycles and airships -- were tangential and extraneous to the alternate history, but what I eventually realized is that Shawl was speculating on how advanced technology could have been introduced into Africa in the late 19th century and how that technology might have allowed the Africans to defend themselves against Leopold. Leopold's forces were infamous for maiming their victims in gruesome ways, and Shawl makes good use of steampunk prosthetics as a response to these atrocities.

It seems from her Historical Note that Shawl sees Everfair as a kind of multiracial Utopia, but it's an ambiguous Utopia full of tension and conflict. Colonization of Africa by Europeans does not completely stop because of Everfair, and Everfair itself is depicted as having colonial aspects. The white members of the nation are still racist in the ways that white people of that era were. Despite the fact that Leopold is ultimately defeated by the forces of Everfair, it of course doesn't stop World War I from happening or Everfair and other African nations from being sucked into the war as proxies. Africa as a whole is still subject to European power rather than a driving force in the international economy. In the end, however, a balance is struck between contending forces in Everfair that could well be called Utopian.

One of the things that confused me as I was reading the book was the approach to technology. The way the airships are powered initially has to do with special earths provided by a tribe in Africa. I couldn't tell if this was a reference to something real, or whether it was kind of magical property. Likewise, characters have special powers such as being able to inhabit animals, that seemed like pure fantasy to me. Shawl seems to be incorporating African folklore into the supernatural elements of the story, which fit well with what was going on, but to my mind militated against reading this as science fiction.

This is a high concept novel that's worth reading for it's offbeat take on a piece of history that has, as far as I know, been largely ignored in the science fiction world. The closest thing to it that I've read before is Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain, in which a slave rebellion in the US connects with European revolutionaries and creates a socialist state in North America called Nova Africa. Shawl delves more deeply into the details than Bisson did, but alas that made it harder for me to understand in my current state of mental incapacity.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Cost of Hope.jpgLabeled "A Memoir" on the jacket, this book is actually trying to do a lot of different things. The subtitle is "The Story of a Marriage, a Family, and the Quest for Life." In the blurbs, Judy Woodruff is quoted: "This extraordinary, memorable look inside the life of a loving family facing a terrible diagnosis raises urgent questions all of us need answered about the delivery and cost of medical care in our country." This book was given to me by my brother months ago, and now that I've read it I'll be curious to find out what he took from it, because I had a hard time with it.

It's a portrait of a man, Terence Foley, and of the author's relationship with and marriage to him, and it's the story of his battle with cancer. Scattered throughout is evidence that the book started out as two magazine articles about how much money that battle with cancer cost. I had problems with most of this, to be honest. Amanda Bennett was obviously deeply in love with her husband, but her portrait of him makes him seem like a Type A jerk to me. She portrays him as a larger than life genius, and he clearly was extremely bright and ambitious and driven. All of it seemed out-of-proportion to me. He comes across as over-bearing and arrogant. She portrays their relationship as tempestuous, with constant arguments and shouting at each other. Again, I think this is meant to show that they were passionately in love and deeply engaged and connected in ways that surpass reason, but I found the portrayal of their relationship just as irritating as the portrayal of Terence Foley. Maybe I just don't know enough super-ambitious, super-accomplished people, so they just seem alien to me. Their lives didn't look like much fun to me, but Bennett keeps insisting it was fun turned up to eleven.

As for the cost of battling cancer, I almost stopped reading the book because I found that part of the book so perverse. Who is it aimed at? Is she asking me to stop and think about what my treatment costs before I agree to try it? She ultimately admits that they didn't do so, because they had insurance that covered it. Me too! I don't think it's up to the patient to figure out whether the price of treatment is "worth it." If I was paying out of pocket (like one friend of mine is) it would be different, because then I'd have to think about debt, but the evidence seems to indicate that people who are about to die don't really give a shit about debt, for fairly obvious reasons. Ultimately I thought she might be aiming that part of the book at policymakers, because one point she makes is that through looking at the insurance bills after her husband died, she learned that different hospitals charge different prices for the same procedures and that different insurance companies pay different amounts/percentages for the same procedures. I would agree that this probably ends up making our health system inefficient and too expensive, but again, I think that's something that needs to be dealt with in law, not in my decisions about what treatments to take.

What kept me going through a book that irritated me over and over again was the story of Foley's struggle with cancer and Bennett's struggle to accept her beloved husband's mortality. There's another dimension to "the cost of hope" that she at least flirts with, which is whether the hope that the loved one will survive leads one to make bad decisions that cause suffering. She gets into the nitty gritty of their research into different treatments for kidney cancer that were just going into clinical trial at the time Foley was diagnosed, and that's all quite interesting. Yet while it shows you the difficulty of the some of the decisions they had to make, in the end it seems that they made good decisions that didn't prolong his suffering. So is this book going to help me make good decisions when the difficult decisions start to come? It's hard to say. The bottom line seems to be how much you are willing to suffer for a chance to live a little bit longer. When it gets to the point where they have to take drastic measures to keep you alive, that's probably not such a hard decision, but I have no idea what will happen if/when the tumor returns and they ask if I want to do another round of chemo, more surgery, or a new treatment for which they don't have much data yet. Reply hazy, ask again later.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Sussex My Lady Tongue.jpgLucy Sussex is an Australian writer whom I've actually met. In fact, she gave me the copy of this collection of short fiction when Sharee and I visited her and her partner, Julian Warner, at their Melbourne home just over a decade ago. I've run into her socially in Seattle at least once since then, too.

In any event, I've tagged this post "science fiction," but these stories are mostly not what I would consider science fiction. A lot of them are tales of the uncanny or the weird, frequently with touches of horror. It took me a while to get into what she was up to. My best guess as to why is that her prose is so terse and blunt that the exposition was often hard for me to absorb. I often had to go back and reread earlier parts of the story to figure out what was going on, because I'd missed some clipped clue. This isn't exposition, but here's an example of her pared style: "Shane looked astounded and the lawyer, daggers." Even someone with as blunt a style as Octavia Butler gets her exposition across through repetition, describing the same process over and over in different contexts until the ideas sink in, like tendrils into flesh. However, that's in novels, where space/wordcount is basically unlimited, not in short fiction where space is at a premium.

I'm not going to go into every story in the collection, which would frankly require me to reread most of them to remember the plots. The title story, "My Lady Tongue," which is probably the longest, won the 1989 Ditmar award, which is the award for Best Australian SF handed out at the national science fiction convention. It's the closest thing to a classical science fiction story in the collection, by my standards, reminding me of Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr, and Angela Carter. It's set in an enclave of isolationist dykes who refuse all contact with men. They reproduce through artificial insemination, although they're working on a process to turn eggs into something that fertilize other eggs. In this future, there are circles of less ideological/separationist feminists surrounding this inner core. The protagonist was raised by two woman, or rather born to one and raised by another. She's a troublemaker who is in love with the daughter of a woman who doesn't appreciate trouble. She looks up her biological mother and relates a story about an adventure she had when she was younger, scouting for some territory where the separatists could move to isolate themselves completely from men. Sussex has a satirical eye for ideologues and their contradictions, and the irony of the story is that Raffy (short for Raphael) was rescued by a man on her adventure and forced to spend months in his company while she recovered from an injury. She is furthermore exposed to the poetry of another man, William Shakespeare, in the process. As confused as I sometimes got by the different layers of the society portrayed, I found this an immensely appealing, humanistic, wry story. Of the writers I listed as influences, it seems most closely allied with Angela Carter and her eye for impurity and contradiction, although Carter was a much more sensual prose stylist than Sussex is.

"Red Ochre" is a strange story set in a future Australia where there are mutants, which are related in some mysterious (magical? religious?) way to Aboriginal rock paintings. It's worth noting, perhaps, that another part of my difficulty with understanding her prose sometimes was her copious use of unfamiliar Aussie slang. "Go-To" is a horror story about vivisection, animal rights, and unintended consequences. "The Lipton Village Society" is perhaps a meditation on Utopia and the process of trying to inhabit our ideals, although it can also be read as a story about fandom and its escapist tendencies. "God and Her Black Sense of Humour" starts out being a lark about the '60s groupies who made plaster casts of their rock gods' dicks, and turns into a weird variation on Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood. Black sense of humor, indeed! Bonus points from me for the bizarre alternative Frank Zappa who seems all too credible as a businessman and curator of cult items. In fact, there's a lot of fun name-dropping in this story, betraying a penchant for arcane research that's on display throughout the book.

Despite my initial difficulties, by the end of the collection I'd been won over by the off-beat ideas, off-beat humor, and embrace of the perverse that I found in Sussex's stories. This is not escapist fiction, but challenging, probing literature.
randy_byers: (Default)
Pym A Glass of Blessings.jpgBack in March I read Pym's Excellent Women -- an excellent novel -- and when I enthused about it on Facebook the Australian writer Lucy Sussex recommended A Glass of Blessings as another good one by Pym. The two books could be read as a dialogue of a kind, and they even share a character: Rocky Napier, who shows up in Excellent Women as a possible object of romantic interest who was known to have been a ladies man among the WRENs (military nurses) while serving in Italy during WWII. Here the protagonist, Wilmet, and her friend Rowena, were WRENs in Italy during the war and knew Rocky and perhaps even dated him.

Excellent Women takes place pretty shortly after the war and is very much about the reduced circumstances of Britain in that era, before the economy had recovered from the devastation. A Glass of Blessings, which was published in 1958, seems to be set a few years later, when the economy has recovered somewhat. Certainly Wilmet is in a more comfortable situation than Mildred is in Excellent Women. In fact, Wilmet seems to be too comfortable. She's pretty, fashionable, married to a successful member of a Ministry. She doesn't work and has no children, the domestic chores are handled by servants, so she is a little bored with her aimless life.

Both novels are centered on Anglican parishes, but I find it hard to parse Pym's attitude toward religion. She has a satirical eye toward everything, including the Church, but at the same time she is not unsympathetic to the Good Samaritan qualities of the religious people in her novels. The excellent women in the novel of that name are indisposable in the functioning of society through their volunteer and charitable work, mostly under the auspices of the Church. Wilmet, however, unlike Mildred, comes across as more of a parasite than a Good Samaritan, and therefore initially she is quite a bit less sympathetic. However, I identified with her inadequate helpfulness to others and her self-deprecating self-awareness of her inadequacy.

Wilmet is a passive dreamer who wishes she were a better, more giving human being. A lot of the satire in the novel is a satire of her muddled lack of motivation to do anything with herself, her vanity about her looks and fashion sense, and the tawdriness of her romantic dreams. Wilmet is bored with her husband, Rodney, and she's looking for an admirer to help her feel that she's still attractive and wanted. She finds a potential admirer in Piers, the brother of her friend Rowena. '[Rowena] usually spoke of him as "Poor Piers", for there was something vaguely unsatisfactory about him. At thirty-five he had had too many jobs and his early brilliance seemed to have come to nothing. It was also held against him that he had not yet married.'

A Glass of Blessings is in some ways a romance novel about Wilmet's futile daydreams about Piers, which are flailing, tentative, and unexpressed for almost the whole novel. Like Mildred, Wilmet dreams of some kind of romantic passion worthy of the trashy novels she reads, but she is helpless to actuate such a thing. In the wry perspective of the novel, this is probably just as well, because such dreams are completely detached from the reality that we all have to settle for less than our ideal.

I'm going to commit a SPOILER here, because what is in many ways the most interesting thing about this novel is a major spoiler. After a whole book of dithering and waiting and misapprehending the signals various characters are trying to send her, Wilmet eventually does make a move on Piers to the extent of actually bulling her way into his household. There she finds that his roommate is a beautiful young man who dotes on Piers, does all the cooking, and cleans the house. Pym never comes right out and says it, but it becomes clear over the final couple of chapters that Piers and his housemate are in fact a gay couple, and the novel gives us an interesting, if oblique, glimpse of gay life in the suburbs of London of that era. One question I have coming away from the novel is, if Wilmet is looking for (and finding) an admirer in Piers, what is Piers looking for in her? Acceptance of his sexuality? If you go back to his sister's characterization of him, does "he had had too many jobs" indicate that he'd been fired for being a homosexual? Does the "early brilliance come to nothing" mean he has been ostracized? In any event, Pym's attitude toward Wilmet's romantic dreams is captured in the fact that the two admirers she attracts over the course of the novel are the husband of her best friend who half-heartedly wants to commit adultery and a gay man who seems happily coupled with a young beauty of a boy.

If Wilmet becomes a more appealing as the book goes on, it's because her self-awareness, while it may not motivate her to good works. allows hers to accept the fundamental absurdity of her situation and her dreams. She *does* accept Piers and the beautiful young man he lives with, and her eccentric, acidic, atheist mother-in-law (a wonderful character), her stodgy husband, the strange trio of parsons in the local parish, and her doormat of a friend, Mary Beamish, and Mary's selfish, domineering mother. This is a novel of colorful characters, even if some of the colors are drab and faded. Pym doesn't overplay the romanticism of her protagonists, which is I think a common problem with satires of romanticism, but she keeps it in scale with the limited choices and constrained circumstances and day-to-day humiliations her characters have to deal with.

One final note: the title comes from a poem by the metaphysical poet George Herbert called "The Pulley" that supplies the epigraph of the book:

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by,
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can;
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

I admit that I couldn't make heads or tails of this epigraph, especially the last line, but having read some commentary about the poem, it appears to portray God as raining blessings on humans, but not unlimited blessing. Always a little is withheld, to make sure humans are aware where the blessings are coming from. The unlimited blessings will be awarded in heaven, so "the span" in the final line might be "the mortal span of life." God withholds blessings during life to keep humans yearning for more:

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

"Repining restlessness" seems a good metaphor for what the characters feel in A Glass of Blessings, and "rich and weary" might characterize Wilmet. Yet is it an irony that the characters in the book seem largely unaware of God or His blessings?


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