Monday, 25 March 2013

Nicola Griffith - Ammonite (1993)

"And these places you go, the people you find, do you come to care for them? Or do you only study them, like strange shells you might find on the beach?"

Marguerite Angelica Taishan is sent by the Company to visit Grenchstom's Plantet, or GP, pronounced Jeep, for short. The Company, being paternalistic, militaristic and colonial, had tried to take Jeep in the past, but now the planet is in quarantine because during the Company's previous attempt to colonise it a virus wiped out the entire male population. Nevertheless the completely female population is still flourishing and procreating. Marghe's job is to test a new vaccine against the virus, and to try to establish a dialogue between the Mirrors, Company's muscle, and the indigenous population. However, there is a Company warship in orbit ready to sterilise the planet if the vaccine fails, and a woman, Uaithne, from the Echraidhe tribe in the north, is spreading death and destruction through the local population. 

At its heart, 'Ammonite' is about the human ability to change and adapt to our surroundings versus the drive towards stagnation and death. Marghe undergoes a physical transformation when she is infected by the virus, gaining augmented senses and abilities, but she also changes as a person as the experiences she undergoes on Jeep force her to confront her issues. Marghe starts the book as an angry young woman. She has no love of Company, having worked for them on the mining planet Beaver and suffered at their hands, and has only signed up for the job on Jeep for the unique opportunity to study its population, and she's very bitter about her mother's death and her relationship with her father. Following being captured by a violent tribe and a grueling escape across winter wastelands, she is taken in by a family of indigenous people. One of them, a woman called Thenike, is a viajera, a sort of travelling story-teller/healer. She nurses Marghe back to health, and asks Marghe the quote at the top of the page. I have to say, as someone who in their youth moved from place to place a lot, and who has difficulties making connections with people at times, I found it a deeply resonant scene. This is the catalyst for Marghe's transformation; she makes a conscious decision to stop taking the vaccine, to become a part of Jeep and its people, and to become a part of Thenike's family. It's really moving stuff, and the tone is expertly handled by Griffith.  

As Marghe enters into a relationship with Thenike and starts to become a viejera herself, Company intercepts a garbled message from Marghe to Commander Danner at the Company base, and mistakenly believes that the vaccine has stopped working. Danner and the other on-planet Company personnel have to escape the base before the Company warship destroys their base, and figure out how to cooperate with the other tribes in the face of the oncoming winter and Uaithne's swathe of destruction. Marghe and Thenike return to meet the Mirrors, to help the negotiations, and Marghe winds up confronting Uaithne. The Echraidhe live by their strict traditions to help them survive the harsh winters of the north, but their numbers are dwindling. Like the stranded Mirrors and Marghe herself, they are faced with the choice of change or death. Uaithne sees herself as the Spirit of Death, and has whipped up the Echraidhe and other tribes in the north to go out in a blaze of violence.  She represents the forces of stagnation and death. Marghe defeats her by using her new skills as viajera to adopt the mantle of the spirit of change, and is able to talk the tribes out of war. This provides a nice little meta-narrative, about the power of symbols and the importance of story telling, as in The Book Of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe. However Griffith wisely doesn't let our characters off the hook by short-circuiting the conflict; while disaster is averted, some people on both sides still die, and while everyone agrees to sit down and talk, the solution necessarily involves compromise and so is not perfect for everyone. 

'Ammonite' is a pretty incredible book. Its concept of a world where women are the only gender is reminiscent of Whileaway from Joanna Russ' classic 'The Female Man', and in its story of a representative of another planet undergoing a journey of discovery both about themselves and the people they find themselves interacting with echoes Ursula Le Guin's 'The Left Hand Of Darkness'. However, 'Ammonite' is very much its own beast, and Griffith brings her own talents to good use here. The relationship between Marghe and Thenike is done really well; I've read a lot of SF and Fantasy where relationships are either cursorily chucked in so that the protagonist could have a love interest, or characters are forced together simply because the author wants them to be together, but here the relationship develops organically and believably. Most of the characters, however minor, are well developed, and it's a nice touch how Danner's character arc parallels Marghe's. Jeep is also positively crawling with inventive alien fauna and flora, Griffith clearly has fun inventing all sorts of bizarre plants and animals while somehow managing to stay within the range of scientific plausibility. At the end of the book there are still unresolved tensions between many of the characters, which is a more realistic and adult approach than just tying everything up with a happy ending. After all, as Marghe herself notes:

"Marge thought about her mother, of the miners on Beaver, of Danner, of Aoife; of herself. People could not be made to change. It had taken her a long time to learn that. People had to want to change themselves."

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Roger Zelazny - The Dream Master (1966)

   "She said, 'What is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?'
   Yes, he decided, he had guessed correctly. 
   He replied without hesitation: 'The sinking of Atlantis.'
   'I was serious.'
   'So was I.'"

   Poor Charles Render. Witty, intelligent, good with the ladies, nigh-on all powerful and somewhat smug, he's your typical Zelazny protagonist. But while Sam from 'Lord Of Light' or Prince Corwin from 'The Chronicles Of Amber' face their fair share of sticky situations, they unflappably come out on top. However, Render is stuck in 'The Dream Master', in which Zelazny deconstructs his go-to lead character. Suffice to say it ends particularly badly for him.
   Render is a neuroparticipant therapist who, thanks to the technological innovation of the Omnichannel Neural T & R Unit, treats patients by directly entering and manipulating their dreams.

It goes over your head like so. 
  While in the machine the therapist's and the patient's nervous systems fuse, and the therapist is able to discover and directly confront the source of the patient's neurosis. In the quote above, Render treats a patient who had become obsessed with their own dreamworld by causing the dreamworld's destruction. And there's certainly enough neuroses about to keep Render living in style; technological advances have improved the quality of life, but the combination of overpopulation and future shock are taking their toll on the human psyche, with high incidences of mental disturbances and suicides.
   In the course of his work, Render agrees to treat an ambitious young blind woman, Eileen Shallot. Shallot herself is a psychiatrist who longs to go into neuroparticipant therapy like Render, but is not allowed to do so for fears that, when she experiences sight through her patient's nervous system, she will not be able to achieve the necessary emotional distance required to retain control of the dream. Against the advice of his colleagues and his family, he agrees to help her. Unfortunately for him, Shallot is also completely insane, and eventually wrests control away from Render and traps him within her own dreamworld.
   Despite its short length, 'The Dream Master' does a number of things incredibly well. Firstly, the world building is very impressive, and is done largely through dialogue and context-setting scenes rather than by clunky exposition. Zelazny's style is always clear, engaging and slangy, but it's really quite impressive how much detail he is able to impart about the world in this story just through the characters' conversations and actions. As with 'Lord Of Light', the narrative is coloured heavily by allusions to myths and legends. This is something that naturally makes sense here, as the characters are frequently exploring the human psyche. Mythological archetypes stand for various aspects of the human character, which is where much of their resonance comes from, and having the plot involve dreams provides a very natural way for Zelazny to incorporate some of his favourite themes.
   But what makes all of this truly compelling is Render's fall from grace. Zelazny's protagonists always had a tendency towards the self-satisfied, so it's both fitting and necessary that he explore what happens when this goes too far. Render's hubris is his downfall, but when your job involves creating and destroying imaginary worlds, pride is a natural pitfall. Throughout the book, Render likens himself to a god numerous times, usually in a faintly ironic way but it's clear to see underneath it all he kind of believes in his own hype. He genuinely believes that there is nothing that he will not be able to handle, and initially it looks like everything is firmly under his control. Dr Shallot is introduced as someone who is ambitious, intelligent and engaging. She's admirable, and her plight is sympathetic. The initial scenes of Render helping her to experience a sense she's never experienced before, and the sense of wonder as her perception of the world changes, is a playing out of the conceptual breakthrough central to so much of SF. It is only as we witness more of her sessions with Render that the full extent of her insanity is gradually revealed. At the same time, the more we get to know Render himself the more we are able to see his own flaws, the ones that he is too self-satisfied to see, let alone acknowledge. This all comes together incredibly elegantly in the end. Render winds up trapped inside Shallot's dream, with pieces of him gradually being violently destroyed. Having shown us the glorious, flowering vistas of the imagination, the novel finishes on a note of nightmarish horror.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Yasutaka Tsutsui - The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1967)

Listen: Kazuko Yoshiyama has come unstuck in time. Kazuko is exposed to a strange chemical while cleaning up the school lab with her friends Goro and Kazuo. Which winds up being fortunate. The next day, an earthquake and a fire wind up making Kazuko and Goro late for school and in their hurry they get hit by a truck. Just before the impact, Kazuko wakes up in her bed two mornings earlier. Kazuko has to convince herself and her friends that she really did travel through time, prevent the accident from occurring  and stop herself from travelling through time. Will she manage? Spoilers to follow!

Yasutaka Tsutsui is a Japanese SF author who I was initially familiar with through his short story collection 'Salmonella Men On Planet Porno'. This is an excellent collection of bizarre, sardonic and somewhat Ballardian dissections of modern culture in an SF framework. Most feature unpleasant or unreliable protagonists and a sadistic twist at the end. 'The Girl Who Leapt Through Time' could not be more different in tone. It's a sweet, nostalgic YA novella with a bittersweet ending, both breezily engaging and moving. However, bubbling underneath is just enough of a sinister undercurrent to remind you that this is Tsutsui we're dealing with.

The story's short length means that it moves along at a good pace. When faced with evidence, rather than sitting around hand-wringing, Kazuko's friends and teacher opt to believe her and help her find the solution to the problem. She manages to leap back in time to just before she encountered the chemical in the lab, where she finds out that all this was caused by Kazuo, who is actually a time traveler from the far future trying to get home. He confesses that he has developed feelings for her, but has to return to his own time. Kazuko loses the ability to time travel, Kazuo erases everyone's memories of him, and he returns to the future, promising that they will meet again some day, but that she won't remember who he is.

There's a lot to like about how this all plays out. On the surface, you have a deceptively simple story arc - two young people just realise they have feelings for each other when circumstances force them apart - which is both poignant and relatable. The mechanics of the time travel is never explained, but it all works out in an intuitive and pleasing way that doesn't leave any unstable time loops or contradictions. The story is told simply, elegantly and straightforwardly, with no narrative flab.

However, there's a little more going on here than meets the eye. Kazuo winds up being a thoroughly ambiguous and mysterious character. He provides us with the big chunk of exposition towards the end which explains what's going on, but we only have his word for it. The future he describes is subtly dystopian. Tsutsui very neatly avoids any hysteria in describing it, but there are some nice parallels with Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' thrown into the central conceit. Kazuo hints that a violent war is looming, and the spectres of overpopulation, poor people exiled to colonies on Mars and the Moon and computerised ice-schools all rear their ugly heads. While Kazuo suggests that things do eventually improve, again we only have his word to go on, and he admits that he prefers Kazuko's present to his future, perhaps because in this time he is able to make friends and connect with people in a way that's no longer possible in the future.

And of course, there's the whole memory wipe. Kazuo created a false identity and implanted false memories of himself into all his classmates and teachers, as well as the childless old couple who are supposed to pass as his parents. He then proceeds to erase everyone's memories of him without a qualm, to save himself from being arrested by the temporal police when he returns to his present. This is both creepy and manipulative, however believable his arguments that this will be the safest course of action for everyone may be. It is this sinister undercurrent, part of the narrative but wisely left uncommented on by the author, that gives 'The Girl Who Leapt Through Time' both shade and depth as a story.

The Alma Books translation, which I have, also appends another Tsutsui YA novella, 'The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of', which is a welcome addition. While it is less haunting than 'The Girl Who Leapt Through Time' and has no SF trappings, 'Nightmares' is perhaps more in the vein of the 'Salmonella Men' short stories, with its vivid, horrifying and somewhat Freudian dream imagery. Its story, about a young girl overcoming her fears, is perhaps more typical YA fare, but the reveal at the end, with its trauma-induced amnesia, is typical Tsutsui territory, albeit with a more optimistic and uplifting outcome than is typical in 'Salmonella Men'.