I’ve been very happily reading a stream of wonderful science fiction lately. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Casual Angel, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, and now William Gibson’s The Peripheral. I’m just at the beginning of The Peripheral and what strikes me most is how Gibson throws you in. You really have no idea, except in the broadest way, what is going on. Not entirely lost, but not exactly sure either. I like that in a novel. There have been some wonderful interviews with Gibson just lately. Io9’s interview talks about cognitive dissonance and the need for a science fiction reader to develop a way of reading that allows them to go with the flow. And yet Gibson is so full of details. Especially of modern materials: polymers, resins, plastics, tech.
And, of course, I’ve seen Interstellar. No confusion there. (I asked my family, who haven’t and won’t see it, to predict in which order the four characters who travel into space die/meet their fate. They got it right.) It’s both magnificent and flawed. So relentlessly American. (Surely some other nations will be up there in space come the apocalypse or even, foolishly optimistic thought, an international team) But wonderful, nonetheless.
All this talk of science fiction and space makes me miss Iain Banks. There’s a 2010 interview he did with Jude Roberts up at Strange Horizons. Sigh.
Matt Haig’s The Humans has a ludicrous premise and a close to laughable plot. But it is one of the most uplifting and beautiful books I have read recently. Perhaps it was because I was trapped at my daughter’s dancing competition which ran three hours overtime on a rainy Saturday night. There was nothing else to do but keep reading, listen to the rain on the auditorium roof and glance up from time to time at the preceding contestants. The room gradually emptied out, but there were still whole sections to go before my daughter’s trio was to dance. I read on!
I don’t think it gives too much away to say the plot revolves around an alien’s attempt to understand humans. At first he sees the obvious: cruelty, small mindedness, greed, mortality, self deception. But then he is sidelined by beauty, by courage and by love. How hard it is to write meaningfully about love. I think Haig manages it.
This is a difficult book to define, not really Science Fiction despite the plot. It does, of course, have resonances of the movie Starman. It also reminds me of a short story that I can’t quite place (although it feels to me like Ray Bradbury) of a woman living on another planet whose husband is replaced by an alien who looks just like him. She comes to realise this, but also to prefer the alien. And, almost inevitably, Haig’s alien becomes more human than other.
Haig has written that the seeds of the book came from a time when he was suffering from a panic disorder. He wanted to write about human life as he then experienced it, as if he were an outsider observing the strangeness. It is so often true that the overt expressions of human nature are the most ugly and violent. Right now the world is clearly demonstrating how strange and disconnected humans can be. But it is also true that softer, less noticeable expressions of care and connection and beauty happen all the time. We each of us contain something of the worst and the best. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a way to bring those demonstrations of love to the fore. I wonder if we humans can manage it.
I’ve just finished Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
I wavered before buying, drawn by the praise of writers like Ruth Ozeki and Ursula Le Guin, made hesitant by the memories of the Jane Austen Book Club (which wasn’t for me) and by the subject matter itself. (Fair warning: read no further if you’re not up for spoilers.)
But it was a compelling, harrowing, unputdownable read. I succumbed to tears just as many prior readers had done. Even though the last section of the book, where it all comes together, where the family lives as best they can with the past, was somehow unsatisfying. Though what else could Fowler have done? Any other ending would have been to deny the nature of Fern and to gloss over the realities of what had happened and what could be done. The last scene, though, was devastatingly sad and altogether beautiful.
But why was it so compelling for so many people? Perhaps because, like Rosie, we all feel a little of the Monkey Girl: out of step, misunderstood, misunderstanding. Wanting to be wild, but choosing the wrong moments to express that wildness. Perhaps this is a quite extreme version of a common story. And if that is so, how can it be true? How can so many of us feel like outcasts? To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?”
So it goes.
I’ve just signed up for the Worlds without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge. I’m using it as a way of discovering speculative fiction written by women. There’s so much there. Huge holes in my reading to fill. I’m still fiddling with the 12 writers I will choose, but having just heard Lauren Beukes interviewed as part of the Sydney Writers Festival, her name moves closer to the top of my list.
Speaking of marvellous speculative fiction: Congratulations to the 2012 Aurealis Award winners. It was Margo Lanagan’s year with four awards. Her writing is both something to aspire to and to be carried away by. I was a judge of Science Fiction short stories last year and discovered some fine writing by men and women both.
Kameron Hurley’s essay “We have always fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ narrative” makes for some interesting reading.
Onwards and upwards
January for me means sifting floating ants from the top of my coffee then drinking it in front of a fan. And it means more time than usual to read books (at least, more time that shouldn’t be spent doing something else). Which makes me glad that I am part of the Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop hosted by Book’d Out and Confessions from Romaholics.
My giveaway is a copy of my book, What the Dead Said, to someone who comments, likes, or follows this blog. The winner will be chosen at random and I am happy to send the book anywhere in the world. Entries close at midnight on 28 January. Good Luck!
I’ve put up a short Christmas story free on Smashwords. It’s really a children’s story, but, you know, time corridors, mechanical mice, and a contemporary, somewhat testy incarnation of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Something fun.
I’ve been drowning in a sea of Alice Hoffman over the past few weeks. Many books, but there are similar strands: love at first sight, ghosts, people who are stuck in tragedy, terminal illness, drug addiction, hope and loss. I like the way in which which she weaves the ethereal into the every day and the way in which she balances the fantastic with a very modern, sometimes harsh reality. For all that is someone who can wish her true love into being, there is another who has found contentment with what life has offered. She portrays men as soulful, vulnerable beings and that, I think, is not seen very often. They are small worlds, most often in contained parts of America. But there are stars and yearning and the feeling that you can touch for a moment the essence of life.
If I read much more I will float away. Perhaps forever.