Science Fiction Double Feature

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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.

The Humans

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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.

On being alone

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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.

Women of Genre

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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

Australia Day Book Giveaway

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australiadaybloghopJanuary 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!

Alice Hoffman

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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.

A review of The Remnants

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John Hughes’ The Remnants requires much of a reader. It requires thought, perseverance and a certain stamina, but it is not without its rewards. The central story is taken from a father’s papers – diaries, notebooks and a manuscript – found and translated by his son. The book presents snippets from these sources with a brief heading to alert the reader to their provenance. In some pieces we learn the history of Anna, a Russian immigrant, who is wounded by her experiences of Stalinist Russia, by the torture of the poet Osip Mandelstam and by the murder of her son, Kolya. In other pieces, we learn more of the father, an Australian art historian with Russian heritage, who believes he has discovered lost paintings of the Italian artist Piero della Francesca.
The novel is already complex: there are stories about several characters coming from several sources, some undeniably fiction, some not. The reader must also balance these stories with commentary from the son. This serves, stylistically, as a contemporary “new world” balance to the European and Russian sensibilities. The son has travelled to Italy, where he is having an affair with Angel , but is also thinking about his girlfriend, Monica , back in Australia. He reminisces about his sometimes difficult relationship with his father as he critiques the father’s manuscript. (Incidentally, how cathartic, as a writer, to be able to comment on your own work, possibly more scathingly than any reviewer) There are also footnotes to the manuscript, made by the son, which highlight translation difficulties and decisions and sometimes reveal a little of the father’s history.
The novel is dense with ideas. It is huge in scope – geographically, philosophically and, to a lesser extent, historically. There are moments when The Remnants threatens to disintegrate under its own weight. It is not easy to keep the characters and intertwining plots distinct and there are times when the asides, the footnotes and commentary, jolted. Nevertheless, the very structure of the story is a comment on the nature of memory, described by Hughes as “a cement-mixer jumble of time”. The line between the remembered, the made-up, the true is deliberately blurred. Early in the book, the father’s notes define the remnants (of art) as
“stains, watermarks, fossil imprints, footprints, ash smoke, refuse – what remains”. Hughes has attempted the literary equivalent. Not easy to read, but complex and satisfying.

This review also appeared in Newsbite (the NSW Writers’ Centre enewsletter)

Black Juice

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This is my second review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge: Margo Lanagan’s short story collection, Black Juice.

Lanagan’s worlds are not necessarily places you would want to visit. They are strange and often monstrous. Horrifying angels – noisy, smelly, unknowable – inhabit once place. Terrifying creatures erupt from the ground in another. Alien creatures are difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with. Humans are from worlds with different customs and understandings. And yet their values and motivations resonate with our own and makes the strangeness accessible. There is an emotional pull.

In Singing my Sister Down, probably the best known of the stories, a young boy witnesses the execution of his sister in a tar pit. Other tales: A herd of elephants journey to resuce their mahout. A girl rescues her crush, putting herself in the way of peril, only to be rejected. A travesty of a bride learns perseverance and courage. A girl buries her grandmother in a dystopian future. a boy frees himself from a brutal grandfather. Death and burial are a constant.

Each story features a wounded protagonist. The odds are often great, the possibility of success slim. Courage is the underlying theme and, for some, it is rewarded. Rite of Spring, the final story, is the most hopeful. A shining note to end the collection.

Lanagan’s writing is marvellous, sad, beautiful and tearing. She is able to paint a world through touches of phrasing and dialogue. She never explains, but somehow you know. Truly wonderful.

Women’s Work

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This is the first of my reviews for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge: Overland’s ebook Women’s Work. I will confess to a Thurber moment when first looking at this publication – the small cover graphic seemed to be a robot. Immersed as I usually am in the world of speculative fiction, I did not wonder why a literary journal would choose a robot for the cover, I just accepted it. Perhaps robots were undertaking all women’s work in the future? But, of course the illustration is not a robot, it is a women standing on a chair, bent over, her long hair hanging down and an extremely large present resting on her back. (the robot’s head in my mind!)

Women’s Work is a collection of five new short short stories by Australian women writers. Editor Clare Strahan states in her introduction that each captures “the essence of excellence in short story – the quartet of form, beauty, ease and a sense of the whole.” Each of the stories is very different, but if there is a thread that binds them it is, for me, a powerful imagery which lasts beyond the reading and, perhaps, a slight melancholy. Every reader will have their favourite, and I will not nominate one. None of the stories address that particular meaning of women’s work – domestic chores – except perhaps in passing. Instead we are given something close to fables that offer insight into the human condition.

Anne Hotta’s The Art of Ikebana describes a conscribed world in which symbol and imagination are perhaps more powerful than reality. Calving, by Georgina Luck, takes place on a wider stage, but still one that is constrained by circumstance. Its ending twists your heart. Helen Addison-Smith’s She is raw and sad, bitter and funny. A moving description of loss. Forest, by Susie Greenhill, mourns the loss of a different sort, that of the natural world, as the protagonist moves through loneliness, perhaps to madness, perhaps to another place of being. The final story, Under the Bridge by Cheryl Adam, describes a collision of worlds in which nature is likely to be the destroyer.

It was a pleasure to read each of these very different stories. If you would also like to take a look, the ebook is available at booki.sh.