Shelf-Life

Books, reading & writing


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Sci-fi books and sci-fi movies: worlds apart

AC Left hand

Two posts ago I revealed my childhood obsession with all things Star Wars. I don’t remember when I first saw these celluloid monuments. I remember going to the cinema with my dad to watch the re-mastered versions of the original trilogy, when they were released in the 90s, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how old I was. And I must have seen them before this on TV because I already knew my favourite parts: space chess, X-wings, Hoth, Yoda, the Rancour, Ewoks (yes, I admit it). This enjoyment of the films and wish to know more about that galaxy far, far away led me to Star Wars books. Here were my first steps into science fiction, and from then until now I have kept one foot in both camps: projection and print. Both elements seem to be part of the same whole, but are they really.

Having recently finished a female author sci-fi double bill, starting with Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (published 1969) and rounding off with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (published 2013), I have my doubts. Le Guin’s novel imagines a world inhabited by a strand of humanity with only one gender, where male and female do not exist, where a king can get pregnant, and a person can be father to one child while being mother to another. Leckie’s book gives us a main character that used to be a spaceship, or, more accurately, the AI system that controlled a spaceship. She also presents a civilisation where gender distinctions have been all but eliminated. Iain M Banks, another great sci-fi author, gave us ten books set in the galaxy of the Culture, where people have become near immortal, can change gender whenever they wish, where money and personal possessions have been replaced by common wealth and comfort.

These books present challenging ideas, not because they describe worlds we can’t imagine, but because they do precisely the opposite. And because we can imagine these alternate worlds, where civilisation is built on a different foundation and holds to different rules, they reflect the message at the heart of good science fiction: the world we live in today is how it is because we have made it so, and because we choose to keep it that way, but it doesn’t have to be.

Published over forty years apart, Le Guin and Leckie’s books show the continuing drive in sci-fi literature to challenge societal norms. Science fiction, in short, should be radical.

What of the science fiction of the cinema? Unfortunately, when it comes to radical ideas, it is overwhelmingly still stuck in low orbit. I recently went to see Mad Max Fury Road and, while I most definitely enjoyed the pig-iron mayhem being splashed across the Namibian desert, I was surprised to read in some reviews that this film was being hailed as a victory for feminism because it has a strong female lead. It also includes five actual female supermodels, barely dressed in outfits appearing to offer little in the way of protection from the post-apocalyptic sun, let alone the flame-thrower armed, guitar-playing manic on the bungee-cord pursuing them. As such, the minor concession from normal gender roles in casting Charlize Theron as a female character with a degree of independent agency seems a pretty slim victory.

And I’m not the only way that thinks this about sci-fi movies. In his recent review of the Wachowski siblings’ Jupiter Ascending, the film critic Kim Newman commented that this supposedly brave (if misguided) vision from the creators of the Matrix in fact uses ‘cutting-edge special effects to deliver concepts pulp magazines had outgrown by 1935.’ A few years ago, Watchmen author and comic book legend, Alan Moore warned of a cultural catastrophe caused by the current obsession with vacuous superhero movies and this week, the UK’s Prince of Geeks, Simon Pegg, spoke of the over-abundance of childish sci-fi in today’s cinemas. I’m not saying there are no good sci-fi films to be found: Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina, for one, is brilliant. But they tend to be small scale, low budget affairs. The biggest, big budget sci-fi film on the horizon is Star Wars. Forty years and we’re back where we started. I’m still going to go and see it, obviously, but can’t we have something new as well.

Essentially, what I’m saying is: filmmakers, it’s time to boldly go where authors have gone before. Treat us like grown-ups and give us some radical sci-fi.

P.S. Now that I think about it, has it ever occurred to anyone that in Star Trek, the Federation are essentially communists?

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Station Eleven: Train delayed due to global collapse

 Intruder Alert!

Okay, so Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was not on my original list for this challenge. But it is by a female author and it came to me by way of recommendation (and by the grand tradition of book lending, which I have adhered to by not returning it even though I finished it a few weeks ago – yes, this post is late, I am aware).

Like the last book on my list, Station Eleven starts at the end. The first few pages cover the sudden death of aging actor Arthur Leander, a heart-attack during a performance of King Lear on a cold Toronto night. Artificial snow falls on the audience as they watch the faded star depart to stage left on a stretcher, unaware that outside the theatre walls a deadly pandemic is sweeping across the globe on business class wings. One world ends and a new one begins.

We pick up the story twenty years later, following Kirsten and her companions in the Travelling Symphony as they pick their way across a ravaged North America, staging Shakespeare under a slogan borrowed from Star Trek.

The book shares a similar structure to Oryx and Crake, moving back and forth between before the collapse and afterwards, the hole ripped in human civilisation acting as a drain, pulling individuals stories to one central point where they mix and swirl. However the tone is very different. Whereas Atwood can be read as a warning, a glimpse of a possible world, St John Mandel seems to want the reader to step back from the maddening crowd and breathe in the world as it is. Before the pandemic the characters lives are a rush, a confusing torrent of difference all demanding attention. Afterwards, with the need to succeed replaced with only the need to survive, the Travelling Symphony are content. Alone in a hostile land, the collapse of humanity has brought them to themselves, while the characters living before wander lost through ocean of modern life.

So I think that is the point of the book: Find out what really matters to you and do that. Then, even if the world ends, at least you’ll have a chance at being happy.

That’s it. Blog post over. Exit pursued by a bear.


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Oryx and Crake: Literlyptic Scientasy

oryx-and-crake

There is a moment from early in my reading history that has always stuck with me. English class, first year at Alness Academy. When we finished a book we had to write a 100 word summary. The more books you read the more stars you got. I can’t remember how many stars I had, but I had read enough books for Mrs Davidson to notice a trend in the titles I was choosing.

That trend was Star Wars. All the books I read were Star Wars books. Lots of different Star Wars books from lots of different series (from the top of my head I remember the Galaxy of Fear YA series, the X-Wing Rogue Squadron series, the Mandalorian Armour series – all about what Boba Fett does after escaping from the Sarlac’s guts – and the Young Jedi series), but all Star Wars books nonetheless. Noticing that I was limiting myself, staying firmly on Tatooine when there was a whole galaxy to explore, Mrs Davidson quite rightly tried to expand my horizons by giving me a new book she thought I would like. I can’t remember what it was. I have an inkling it may have been a Terry Pratchett book, which makes the coming confession all the worse, but I may be mixing memories with the time a few years later when my brother paid me to read Sir Terry’s Jingo for him and write up a report – again for Mrs Davidson. What I do remember was what I said about it. That is the part that sticks with me. My report was short and to the point (unlike this rather rambling blog post). It simply read: “It was good, but it’s not a Star Wars book.”

The mistake I had made, and continued to make for a long time, was to think that there were types of books, kinds of books, categories. The word I’m skipping around is genre. I used to read by genre. Fantasy and sci-fi: those are the books I like. Anything else, not interested. But the more I have read and the more I have read books recommended by others I have come to realise one simple truth: genres are for people who sell books, not for people who read books (and not for people who write books either).

What has all this to do with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake? It is this. If I told you this book is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, far in the future, with humanity reduced to one single, slinking, stinking individual called Snowman who spends his days hiding from genetically engineered super pigs and rat-snakes, where would you look for it in the book shop? Sci-fi section, surely? But no. It’s in general fiction. Why? Lots of possible reasons. The one I’d go for is that it was nominated for the Booker Prize and the Booker judges won’t pick a Sci-fi book any more than Jeremy Clarkson would pick a bicycle for car of the year. In the end it doesn’t matter why. The moral of the story is that not all the best sci-fi books are in the sci-fi section and not all the books with true literary merit are in literary fiction and some of the books that tell us the most about ourselves and our place in the world do so by building a whole new world and filling it with goblins and trolls or spaceships and lasers or vampires and ghouls.

So don’t stay locking the genre cage. Break out and try something new. Oryx and Crake is a good place to start. I still don’t know what shelf it is supposed to go on so for now I’ll just keep it on the one I use for good stories. It’s the only category that really matters anyway.


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Not what kind of girl?

Proviso: Before reading the below post it is important that you know its author (i.e. me) harbours feelings of resentment, envy and jealousy towards any person in two (or more) of the following categories:

  1. Young people
  2. Successful people (where success is measured by external factors such as wealth)
  3. Successful people (where success is measured by internal factors such as self-confidence)
  4. People who can survive on the fruits of their own creativity
  5. People who have a clear sense of their life goals and have pursued these goals through hard work and dedication.

‘Not that kind of Girl’ by Lena Dunham – the 28 year old creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls, winner of two Golden Globes and now bestselling author – is definitely not the kind of book I would choose for myself. I tend to avoid biographies. I’m not sure why. Most likely it is bitterness (no-one wants to write a book about me – harrumph). So I approached this one with some caution. However, I also approached with a sense of curiosity. The book is made up of a series of essays, diary extracts and anecdotes focusing on the author’s growth from awkward young girl to awkward teenage girl and on to awkward (but successful) woman. Having been none of those things myself, I was interested to see if this would give me new insight into the mysterious world of woman/girlhood.

So did it? In short, no.

In long, I feel like this book has been cast as something it is not (whether this was by me or generally I am not sure). The title, the author’s style and her focus, suggested a book with a distinct gender divide: here are some uniquely female experiences that have shaped my development as a person. And yet to me, the feelings of awkwardness, of being lost and unsure of yourself, of trying at once to prove yourself and at the same time worrying you will be exposed as some kind of fraud, are less related to gender and more to age. This is a book about being in your twenties and not knowing what to do with your life, or how you ended up where you are. Boy or girl doesn’t really matter. It is on this level that I related to it.

The one bug-bear I did have with it, which I can’t remember having with any other similar book (although note above my avoidance of biographies), is that a lot of the time I simply didn’t believe the author’s stories. Dunham herself admits at points that earlier stories may not have happened exactly as she said, and gives altered versions later. However, by introducing doubt into the truthfulness of the telling she undermined my confidence in her side of the story. To expose oneself on the page is a difficult and brave act – one that I certainly wouldn’t be prepared to do – but I can’t help feeling there is another book behind this one, one that contains the truth and I would have rather read that version than the one I did.

Next up is Margaret Atwood’s  Oryx and Crake.


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The Poisonwood Bible

The first book of my female authors challenge is finished and if the objective of the exercise was to better understand the female experience (although I’m not entirely sure if that is the objective) then in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible I got a lot of bang for my buck. The story of the Prices 1959 missionary expedition from the state of Georgia to the village of Kilanga, in the heart of the Belgian Congo, is told in an interweaving series of first person reflections by the five women in the family (mother Orleanna and her four daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth-May). Whisked up in the storm of the religious zeal of their husband/father Nathan Price, they find themselves stuck in a land they don’t understand and a culture they cannot comprehend. Told against the backdrop of Congolese independence, the charting of the coming of age and loss of innocence of the Price girls is reflected in the turmoil and struggle for identity taking place in the nation around them.

There is a great deal I could say about what is good about this book (because there is a great deal of good) however I am trying to avoid writing reviews per se on this blog. So instead I’m going to write about what this book made me think and made me want to do.

Let’s take the second task first. This book made me want to learn more about the Congo. The extensive bibliography presented at the end of the book shows the depth of research Kingsolver completed while writing her book – covering history, language, culture and religion – and while I admit to rushing onto Wikipedia on finishing the book rather than down to the library to pick up one of the listed works, I rushed nonetheless.

Now, first things second, what did the book make me think: That if my objective is to find truths about ‘the female experience’ I’m not going to find them, just as I wouldn’t find truths about ‘the male experience’ in books written by men. I may however find truths about people’s experiences in books written by people (i.e. books).  [check me being all profound and stuff]


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New Year, New Challenge: Reading Blind

A month or so ago I was in the Oxfam Bookshop on Nicolson Street riffling through the sci-fi and fantasy section when a strange encounter occurred. I took a copy of Iain M Bank’s The Player of Games from the shelf, glanced over the back cover then returned it to its slot, when the man wedged into the small, U-shaped shelf capsule alongside me – a man I had, in the grand tradition of book shopping, done my best to pretend was not blocking my access to sections G-P – spoke to me.

Such a clear breach of the unwritten rules of British public life took me by surprise. I once fell on top of a man on the London Underground, grabbing his shirt front to stop me crashing to the floor of the tube carriage where I would have no doubt been crushed with merciless indifference by the shuffling hordes of capital commuters, and he didn’t even cast a pitying gaze my way. As such, the polite interjection by a fellow book shopper took me by surprise.

‘That’s a really good book,’ he said. ‘Have you read any other of the Culture novels?’

I had, I told him, still slightly unsure if he was about to mug me or ask for 75p for the bus. I had read the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, and quite liked it. I wasn’t blown away but it had been a good read. Truth was, I said, I had more or less decided Iain Banks wasn’t for me.

‘You should give this one a try,’ the stranger said. ‘It’s much better. One of his best. You’ll like it.’

Well, I thought, I’m game. Why not? Turns out I did like it. I liked it a lot. My reservations about Banks were blown away, like so much of the wondrous galaxy he delighted in creating and destroying, and I’m sure I will read more of his work in future.

This experience brought home something to me which I have long suspected. I’m not very good at choosing books for myself. I tend to pick books that I either know I will like (because I’ve read other books by the same author) or ones that I think I should like because someone gave them an award. The first kind I enjoy, but like with heroin I never recapture that initial buzz of a new discovery (I’m guessing about heroin here. The hardest narcotic I have ever experimented with is probably extra strong mouthwash). The second kind I tend not to enjoy because I’m too busy trying to find the award-worthy bit: Is this it? No. Is this it? No. Is this it? No. Oh, that’s the end. I must have missed it.

Therefore, after failing in my ‘finish all the books in my to-read pile before buying anything new’ challenge of last year, I am ready to start a new literary endeavour.

Here it is: This year I will only read books recommended to me by other people.

If you have ever been asked ‘What is your favourite book?’ you’ll quickly recognise that this is quite a wide remit. To give things a bit more structure I’m going to split things up by theme. First up is female authors.

Why? Because on reviewing my bookshelf there is an awful lot of swinging genitalia on display (that is literary, not literally, speaking). This seems odd since I like to think I’m a bit of a feminist, and penises can’t grip pens and are therefore not required for good writing (I suppose you might be able to type with one but I wouldn’t recommend doing it at work).

Via the magic of Facebook I now have a list of books by female authors recommended by people other than me. They are:

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Not that kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

A Place of Greater Safety by Hillary Mantel

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

The City of Beasts by Isabel Allende

Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

And

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover

In the next few days I will see which ones I can find in my local book shops and then the adventure begins.


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The City & The City… And the other City?

It was when I was living in London that I first became aware of China Miéville. I remember looking around a tube carriage on the Central Line and seeing four people sitting in a row all ensconced in one of the author’s distinctly covered tomes. It’s taken me some time (and, rather aptly, two cities) to manage to breach into one of his strange, fantastical realms.

 

The City & The City is a crime novel which takes place in… Well, it’s actually quite hard to say where it takes place. The two cities of the title are called Beszel and Ul Qoma. Both are actually city-states, with the former reminiscent of a struggling post-soviet republic and the latter of an eastern European dictatorship that has embraced western consumerism. The confusion results from the fact that the two cities are physically interwoven, with areas of over lapping jurisdiction, or ‘cross-hatching’ and enclaves of each within the boundaries of the other. Sounds strange but there is actually a real world example in the small Belgian/Dutch areas of Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau. The difference in the case of Beszel and Ul Qoma is that citizens of each city are banned from acknowledging anything happening or any person currently on the other side of the divide. To do so is a serious crime called ‘breaching’.

 

The plot itself – following the attempts of Inspector Borlú to investigate the murder of a young student – is fairly straight-forward and, as might be guessed, takes the Inspector to both cities in search of the killer. As he travels back and forth between the two cities, he becomes entangled in an apparent conspiracy, all points of which suggest the existence of a shadowy third city, existing in the gaps between the other two and controlling both.

 

The book is clever, the ideas are engaging and the central premise of interwoven cities very interesting, however on the whole the story left me feeling a bit flat. The grand and intricate setting provides a backdrop to quite a mundane finale and I never felt I got under the skin of the central characters. As a vehicle for exploring interesting themes – on what we choose to see and not see, on divided cities and divided lives, on the little lies that make society work (or at least hold together) – the twin city concept has strong potential. But in this case it seemed like an opportunity missed. Then again, the book has won a whole bunch of awards, so what do I know.

 

Next up we explore more divisions. This time between the haves and have-nots, with the eminent economist Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism. Stranger than fiction? Almost certainly.