The Windup Girl

Every now and again, it’s my turn to suggest something for my book group (which tends to alternate between fantasy and sci-fi reads). How do I choose? Simple — I just look at Hugo and Nebula award winners (well, I guess there’s a further process of winnowing that happens afterwards, but that’s my starting point). Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl won the Nebula in 2010 and was joint winner of the Hugo (alongside Miéville’s The City and the City — which I very much liked and which I have recalled several times over the last few months after visiting the Korean DMZ and seeing wreckage of the Wall in Berlin). Badabing, badaboom — choice made.

An immediate point of comparison (assuming you’ve read him) is Ian McDonald, who’s done rather a good job of setting post-cyberpunk (genepunk) sci-fi stories in places that are typically off the radar for sci-fi authors. River of Gods was set in India and The Dervish House (recommended) in Istanbul. Here, the story is set in Thailand, some time after a fragile status quo has emerged following a world-wide environmental catastrophe.

At the root of this catastrophe is hubris and greed — exactly that same hubris and greed that humankind currently suffers from. Some time in the future global warming has caused the oceans to rise, and Bangkok is spanned by an enormous sea-wall. Oil and coal are a memory for most people. In their place are wind-powered sailing cargo ships, zeppelins, gigantic genetically-engineered mammoths (replacing the pre-industrial horse), and exotic spring technology (replacing the battery). These are all sensible solutions (well, as sensible as gigantic mammoths and zeppelins get) to the problems that emerge when one extrapolates from current trends towards a hotter Earth and inevitable carbon poverty. However, the most original, compelling, and horrifying aspect of the book is the consequences of agricultural genehacking. American biotech firms have unleashed genetic plagues that have wiped out the vast majority of Earth’s biodiversity. Only their own commercial seed stocks are immune to these viruses, which must then be bought by countries lest they starve. As a further kick in the teeth, these seeds are sterile, which means they must be bought year after year (see the wikipedia page on the banal sounding “genetic use restriction technology“).

However, virus mutation means that even these seed stocks are immune for only so long. As a result, “calorie men”, amoral spies and agents of the American biotech firms, must scour the globe looking for fresh genetic material to fuel their research. This same mutation has also led to plant diseases spreading to humans. Many of the characters have family members who have died of blister rust, cibiscosis, or genehack weevil. Between starvation, disease, and nationalistic slaughter, there is a lot of death in this book.

There are a few protagonists: Anderson, the despicable calorie man who wants to plunder the secret Thai seedbank; Emiko, the eponymous windup girl, a high-end genetically-engineered courtesan; Jaidee and Kanya, two principled soldiers in the Thai Environment Ministry; and Hock Seng, an entirely unprincipled Malaysian-Chinese immigrant who works for Anderson and will do anything to claw his way back to a position of power. Hock Seng was probably my favourite character. He is tremendously flawed, greedy and selfish, but has endured so much and is so driven that it’s hard not to root for him.

The plot likewise has a few strands: Anderson and Emiko forming a relationship, Emiko trying to escape her horrendous existence in a brothel, Hock Seng attempting to sell Anderson’s tech to the local criminal head. All of this occurs in a city and country where it seems that phenomenal violence could break out at any minute (as happened in neighbouring Malaysia), not least due to the constant tension between the powerful and autonomous Trade and Environment Ministries. The former courts international contact, while the latter has an isolationist agenda.

Emiko is genetically programmed to be loyal and obedient, and to orgasm at the drop of a hat. This programming (plus the fact that she’s technically an illegal abomination who should be killed on sight) keeps her in her place in the brothel. Things start to come to a head in the novel when Emiko is raped (a depressingly repetitive event) for the last and most traumatic time. Essentially she unlocks her special powers and kills the defacto head of state. This idea, that rape turns you into a bad-ass superhero, seems a bit dodgy to me (and also something that only a man would come up with). It reminded me of a debate going on in comics at the moment about how necessary rape is as a plot device or a mechanism by which to develop characters (mostly it seems to be Grant Morrison having a go at Alan Moore). The general consensus seems to be that it is over-used, and I felt that to be the case here too.

The conclusion of the book, without giving too much away, involves some pleasingly poetic justice for Anderson, and a thoroughly hopeful trajectory for the much misused Emiko. But that’s rather beside the point. This isn’t a book that you read for the plot (which is solid), or the characters (who are almost uniformly unpleasant), but for the world building. It is an evil, how-to manual for Monsanto, plausible and terrifying. Let’s pray they never read it.

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I read Robert Harris’s Fatherland on my return from Germany. I spent the entirety of my stay there in Berlin, just south of the Reichstag, with a view over the Tiergarten and the Holocaust Memorial. Over the few days I was there, I became quite familiar with the streets heading south and north of Unter den Linden. This familiarity made Fatherland, which is set in Berlin, evocative in a way that Code Name Verity wasn’t.

Fatherland is a major landmark in alternative history fiction, but it was so popular when it came out that it occupied a similar space in my head as The DaVinci Code. In short, I was worried that it was going to be a bit trashy. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case (at least, I didn’t think so anyway). The book is, at its heart, a hard boiled detective procedural — the twist is that it is set in a Germany that essentially won World War Two.

At some point during WW2 events diverged from those in our own world. The key turning point seemed to be the success of the German offensive against Russia. Without strong resistance on the Eastern Front, Germany can turn its attentions fully on Britain, which is eventually starved into submission. The Reich becomes a bloated state streching far into the east, while the rest of Europe consists of puny vassal states. After the defeat of the Japanese via the bombing of Hiroshima, Germany too develops nuclear weaponry and a Cold War develops between America and Germany.

In 1964, detective Xavier March discovers a dead body apparently drowned in a wealthy suburb of Berlin. As his investigation develops, he gradually unravels a complex conspiracy that runs throughout the upper echelons of the Nazi regime. He’s an obsessive worker and a hard drinker, alienated from his party-line spouse and son by his sense of irony and stifled humanism (He jokes at one point when accused of working too hard that “Arbeit macht Frei”). Over the course of the novel he allies with a mouthy and brave American jornalist, Charlie Maguire (the love interest), and comes into increasing conflict with the Gestapo who want the case closed.

In this world, three was no march west by Russians, and the mass graves of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were never discovered. What happened to those who were “sent east” is an uncomfortable mystery to the people of Germany and to the world at large. Instead, the great crime against humanity that came to light during and following WW2 is the vast number killed in Stalin’s purges. The novel’s central conspiracy concerns an attempt to conceal documentary proof of the Final Solution. The final few pages involve Xavier fleeing from the Gestapo, travelling to Auschwitz, now a razed ruin, recalling the Jews who have intersected with his life, only now fully realising the horror on which the Nazi state is built.

It’s a strange big reveal, since we in the real world are so familiar with these events. Nonetheless, I found these scenes to be highly affecting. Harris was working with powerful clay in crafting this book, but that alone wouldn’t have been sufficient. I finished the novel impressed with his writing. His characterisation, plotting, and prose are rarely exceptional, but demonstrate a consistent craftsmanship. In sum, it was a tight package wrapping up an intriguing tale that deals with the most momentous events of the 20th century from a novel and unique angle.

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Minipost! Code Name Verity

I was in Berlin recently. I preceded my trip by reading Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and on my return read Robert Harris’s Fatherland.  Yes, I could have read some Goethe or Hesse, but these were what I had on my bookshelf…

The former is a lovely wee novel.  Sometime near the outset of WWII, two English women, one upper class, one working, become friends.  The first becomes a spy (Queenie), the second a pilot (Maddie). Through an unlikely sequence of events, Maddie ends up flying into occupied France with Queenie, who has been tasked with an infiltration mission.  Things do not go as planned and Queenie ends up a prisoner at a Gestapo-controlled Chateau.  The first two-thirds of the book is “written” by Queenie, who is forced to compile a confessional diary for the cruel but human Gestapo torturer-interrogator.  She tells the tale of her past and that of Maddie, their friendship and her involvement with the war, detailing, as she does, all sorts of juicy tidbits of intel for the Germans.  She is a beautiful, strong, sympathetic, and oh-so-clever character surviving in truly awful circumstances. 

The latter third of the novel is not quite as strong.  Here the perspective switches to Maddy who is hiding out in the barn of a partisan family nearby.  She makes connections with the resistance network, and ultimately, plots an escape for Queenie.  Though the voice, the characters, and the setting of this section are less compelling there are still some tremendously powerful episodes.  Without giving too much away, there is a wonderful frisson when we learn that Queenie is not quite as reliable a narrator as we had thought.

There’s no shortage of “Fucking Nazis!” moments* (torture and arbitrary guillotining will do that), but the Germans in the novel are in no way one-dimensional. Wein does a great job of creating nuanced characters.  There are no shades of grey, no doubt that the actions of these people are abominable, but there is a fundamental recognition that people and people’s acts are two quite different things.

I very much enjoyed it.

*You know — moments where you just have to put the book down, aghast not only that people could do such things, but that an entire state existed that supported them doing so.

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The End of Mr. Y

I love being part of a book club. Apart from the extremely rewarding social aspect, you get to read or re-read some extremely good books (and then have a nice chat about them). Unfortunately, you sometimes have to read some extremely poor books too. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas was one of the latter. I would never have read this book if it hadn’t been for book club, and if, by some chance, I were to have started I would have stopped a lot sooner. As it is, I felt compelled to finish, all the while moaning and cursing my lot.

Ariel, a PhD student in her mid/late 30s, is studying the works of Thomas Lumas, a 19th century novelist. After her supervisor mysteriously disappears, she comes across a copy of The End of Mr. Y, a novel by Lumas which is amazingly rare. On reading it, she discovers the means to access the Troposphere (or Mind Space). The Troposphere, far from being a layer of the atmosphere as you might expect it to be (what with it having the same name as said atmospheric layer), is a realm of pure thought (or language) that seems to underlie our physical reality. Ariel meets some people, flees from some heavies who want the formula that allows ingress to the Troposphere, and figures out the rules of this new place. Basically, she is able to jump from mind to mind, shifting about in time a bit as she goes.

It’s all a bit Matrix (by way of Shadow of the Wind), a similarity that is only strengthened when Ariel finds out that she’s basically Neo. Unlike others, she is able to enter the Troposphere at will. Further, she can use her position there to manipulate the mind in which she resides.

I had various problems with the book, but two in particular stand out. First, I absolutely could not stand the astoundingly heavy-handed undergraduate-philosophy name dropping.

Here, for example, is some sample “dialogue”: “Basically, phenomenology says that you exist and the world exists, but the relationship between the two is problematic. How do we define entities? Where does one entity stop and another begin? Structuralism seemed to say that objects are objects, and you can name them anything you like. But I’m more interested in questions about what makes an object an object. And how an object can have meaning outside of the language we use to define it.” This is followed by more earnest questions from Ariel’s rapt interlocutor that allow her to continue to wax lyrical on the relative merits of Baudrillard and Saussure, Derrida and Heidegger. Self indulgent wankery.

The only excuse for this sort of nonsense is that the metaphysics of the Troposphere are given a patina of post-structuralism. However, I’ve read the works of some great world builders, and I found this world building to be very weak. But even sketchy world building can be saved by some good writing. There’s a point where Ariel has to escape from the Troposphere on a train made of fear. I think that could be pretty cool in the hands of Neil Gaiman, but here it was just dumb.

Near the end, her love interest tells her, “You’ve got the potential to be the kind of thinker who can change the world. You could be the next Derrida”. Nothing so clearly positions this book as a work of wish fulfillment. And the saddest thing is just how paltry that wish is. Who the fuck wants to be Derrida?

Philosophical thought is a wonderful resource for literature, perhaps especially sci-fi and fantasy (e.g., Neil Stephenson, Ursula LeGuin, Ted Chiang), but rarely have I seen it so abused as it is here.

My second problem is just how desperately the author wants to inject some emotional gravitas into a book that is basically an ephemeral adventure story. Ariel’s character is entirely chipper and optimistic. There’s absolutely no sense of depression or anxiety in the way she thinks about things or the way she approaches problems. However, we are frequently bludgeoned by passages like the following “[I want] to go through the kitchen drawers until I find the sharpest knife, and then I want to spend a few hours alone convincing myself that I’m real and I’m human and I mean something”. There’s an enormous disconnect between the character and these supposed compulsions, which means they have literally no emotional weight whatsoever.

Apart from the self-harm angle, there’s also this amazingly depressing conjunction of sex and morality. I think it’s fairly well established now that sex and morality have little to do with one another, and yet here sex is rarely considered anything but dirty and perverse. And sex is discussed an awful lot. For example: “Real life is letting men fuck you over their desks (and enjoying it, which is somehow the worst thing).” Then, later: “I want to suck your cock and lie back and let you fuck me but not in a priory because it makes me feel dirty and evil.” (Cocks are frequently mentioned in the novel, generally in relation to mouths.)

I don’t know what foibles of personality the author was trying to evoke with Ariel’s character, but I feel that delusional paranoiac was not one of them. Nevertheless, that seems to be the one that she has best succeeded at: “[The women in the cafe] are the kind who would never wear flattering clothes because looking attractive equals sex. [A guy] looks at me and I see a familiar desire in his eyes: for sex, raw sex, and it’s because I look like I’d be up for it. Compared to everyone else in here , I look like a whore.”

At some points, the sex becomes so miserable that it transcends misery and enters the realm of the hilarious: “I didn’t even desire her — she looked like a slab of melting butter”.

It’s a common complaint in the world of comics at the moment that rape is the lazy, go-to device to ensure readers know just how serious shit just got. What’s true for comics is also true for books, so, of course… “I was in this reporter’s head, supposedly getting information on the gang who’d kidnapped her. I ended up getting raped by three of the men.” Then, later, (on the fear train) Ariel encounters a “misty representation of someone being fisted by their own father.” Exsqueeze me?!?

Later still, I was thinking, you know what we haven’t had yet? Some sexual abuse by priests. Wait, what’s that? “When the priest from the village rapes my sister, I feel as though I did it”? Phew!

And then Thomas invents entirely new dimensions of pain and misery – a multi-page epic journey flitting from the life of one agonised lab mouse to another: “I don’t know what death is [but if I did, I would want to die]. [I know] I should be able to move, and that there shouldn’t be metal spikes in my eyes.” Well.

I could start attacking the plot, but I feel like I’ve gotten my catharsis at this stage and I’m well over 1000 words, so I’ll leave it at that.

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City of Sorcery

This is one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. I read MZB’s Avalon books when I was in my early teens and remember enjoying them. What, I wondered, would I make of her sci-fi?

A preliminary note from the author positions it as a stand-alone novel. However, I’m not sure I agree with this claim. Almost all of the characters have complex and involved back stories and inter-relations, and the world itself has a social structure that is very different from our own and essential for understanding people’s motivations. If you read the book as part of a sequence, this would all be fine. Of course, this was not the case for me. I had to struggle through rather a lot of awkward, and frankly inefficient, info-dumping in the first few chapters, and I still felt that I was missing something at various points in the book. None of this stopped me from appreciating the central thrust of the narrative, which involves a group of women journeying towards a mysterious city that may or may not exist, but I do think a lot of the content that relied on events and characters from previous books could have been cut without damaging the plot unduly, making it easier for a newbie like me to get up to speed.

The Darkover world is former colony of Earth. The two worlds were separated for millennia, before being reunited relatively recently (presumably the first book in the series deals with this). In the meanwhile, Earth has continued to rely on high technology (including the space travel that allowed them to return to Darkover), while Darkover has returned to a mediaeval level of technology. On the plus side, they’ve also figured out how to unlock their latent psychic powers (this mix of sci-fi, a fantasy world, and psychic powers just screams “1980s” to me for some reason). There’s also strict and conservative gender role segregation. The exact nature of how society works is quite unclear (based on the information in just this novel) — there seem to be a number of dominant lineages within which particular psychic powers inhere, and ubiquitous lesbian relationships that exist parallel to procreation-orientated bonds. In this book, all of the protagonists (and antagonists) are women, making it even harder to appreciate just how men and women interact in this society.

The focus on gender roles, and the preponderance of women characters in the book make it (and the series overall) a valuable contribution to a generally male-dominated genre. I certainly found many aspects of plotting and characterisation refreshingly different from what I’m used to. Foremost amongst these was the sense of camaraderie on the journey between all of the women. There’s a theory that suggests that when women are presented with stressors they respond by strengthening social bonds (“tending and befriending”). The amount of care and love demonstrated by the characters for one another here, as they have to surmount challenge after challenge, would never be seen in a group of male travellers. There’s a scene where the group “hugs it out”, another where one character spontaneously gives a little gift to her lover, and a (sensible but generally unnoted) obsession with bathing. The “womanliness” of the book comes through in other ways too. For example, at one point one of the women curses another: “I hope the headman’s wife goes into labour tomorrow with an obstructed transverse birth!”. I found this pretty peculiar — awkward and artificial sounding and grotesquely vicious — but, again, not something that one would expect to read in any other SF novel.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The characters are all flawed (often arrogant or smug), but generally likeable once the book gets going; the world, and the focus on gender issues that’s built into it, is interesting and refreshing; and the set pieces — the fights scenes and the perils encountered on the glacial mountains — are lively and convincing. My main problem is that, though presented as a stand alone novel, it is anything but. Even well into the book, you are presented with details that are unexplained and given no context (Camilla has six fingers? Vanessa has animal eyes?) leaving the reader feeling somewhat adrift. More importantly, The book is all journey and no destination. The characters only really meet the antagonists of the novel in the last 50 pages, and only reach the eponymous City of Sorcery at the very end. The book finishes just when it feels like it’s getting started. It would be like calling The Two Towers (the middle volume of the Lord of the Rings) a stand alone book. I would be happy to return to the world of Darkover, but, next time, I’ll treat it for what it is — a progressive series.

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Minipost! Bone – Tall Tales

I’m a huge Bone fan.  I’ve got the collected volume, Rose, and Stupid, Stupid Rat-tails.  I spied on a friend’s bookshelf, though, something I hadn’t seen before: Tall Tales.

Bone, if you don’t know, is a tremendously enjoyable comic series.  It’s in the same general vein as Lord of the Rings, Stardust, and The Princess Bride, and is just utterly delightful in every way.  It’s got beautiful art, hilarious dialogue, thrills and chases, and peril aplenty.

Tall Tales collects three very short and equally slight tales set in the Bone universe.  Each is told around a campfire by Smiley Bone in a framing narrative where he, three young Bones, and Bartleby (the cute rat creature from Bone) have gone on a camping trip.  The first involves Fone Bone and Phoney going on a brief and fruitless treasure hunt, while the second two depict tales from the youth of Big Johnson Bone (bombastic founder of Boneville and protagonist of Stupid Stupid Rat Tails).  There is a final fourth tale that is much longer (accounting for about 50% of the volume), which is the story told in Stupid Stupid Rat Tails.

So, if you own SSRT, then you already have 50% of Tall Tales.  The other stories recounted in the volume really are pretty ephemeral, so I couldn’t recommend that you purchase it in addition to SSRT.  That said, if you don’t already own SSRT, then I think Tall Tales would be the better purchase.  You would miss out on the extra story that’s in SSRT (drawn by Usagi Yojimbo’s Stan Sakai), but you would be getting extra Bartleby (sooo cuuuute).  More importantly, the stories are in colour (instead of SSRT‘s black and white), which looks fantastic.

It was lovely to have an opportunity to return to the world of Bone.  If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, do try to make time…

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I came across this on the year’s best round up over at Comics Alliance. It’s a  two-part comic written and illustrated by Sam Alden that’s freely available via Study Group (a site I hadn’t encountered before but which seems to be as full of riches as a temple ripe for the plundering).

haunter cover

First of all, you should definitely just go and read it now (link above).  It takes all of 5 minutes.

Some comments:

  • The artwork is rather beautiful.  The lines are simple and clean. The ragged hunter protagonist is practically monochrome, while the world he moves through is as bright and psychedelic as a tie-dyed t-shirt.
  • There’s a hint of the post-apocalyptic about it, which I love.  The bow and arrow wielding hunter finds a cache containing a gun and a phone (both discarded as useless).
  • The antagonist is similar to Hyperion‘s Shrike.  Relentless, implacable, incomprehensible, spiky.
  • The temple design, the otherworldliness of it, reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus.  It has a similar sense of eerie trespassing, of things ancient and forbidden.
  • That said, it also reminded me of Zelda — a resourceful young man armed with a bow exploring a mysterious temple.  I guess it depends on your perspective.  The site of action is brooding, ancient, solemn, and unknowable.  The action (and actor) is optimistic, surgent, and curious.
  • The rhythm of reading is like nothing I’ve ever encountered.  There’s no dialogue. The panels are rigid and ordered, but each moment is given ample room to breath (there’s a particularly beautiful section where the hunter lies comatose as the day passes and the light gradually changes).  Progress is entirely linear, and you find yourself scrolling, scrolling, the colours and narrative washing over you.
  • The story ends on a magnificently unsettling moment of body horror.

Very good stuff.

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