Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Jo Walton - Among Others (2010)

"If you love books enough, books will love you back."

Jo Walton's 'Among Others' is an incredibly special book. It's a wonderfully charming magical realist coming of age story, but it's also an acute and perceptive dissection of SF/F and its fandom, as well as an exploration of and a tribute to the transcendent power of books themselves. A lot of the appeal of 'Among Others' is that it understands what its like to fall in love with fictional characters and worlds, and is able to connect with the reader's own experience of doing so, whilst subtly pulling them into its own world. The end result is a book that celebrates both the escapist power of fantastic fiction, its power to give us comfort and solace when everything around us is at its grimmest, but also its power to open our minds to new perspectives.
   The book is written as the diary of Mori Phelps, a Welsh teenager growing up in the late 70's who has lost her twin sister and had her leg injured in a magical conflict with her mother. In the aftermath she has run away and social services have put her in the care of her estranged father rather than with the Aunt and Uncle she's known all her life. To her chagrin, she finds herself living in England and being sent to a public boarding school. The constant through this period of change, as she adjusts to her new surroundings, begins to recover from her trauma, and starts to make friends, is the solace she finds in reading SF and Fantasy. 
   Walton uses the fantastical elements sparingly, having come up with a magic system based around coincidence and chance connections. So one can, if one chooses, read them as Mori's coping mechanisms for dealing with the trauma of her mother's abuse and the death of her sister. Setting it after the original confrontation with her mother - Mori even compares her life now to the end of 'The Return Of The King', with the characters recounting the cost of their adventures as they try to return home - allows the book to structurally focus on how Mori faces life after this event, leading to a more mature, reflective book. It also allows Walton to focus on things closer to the reader's experiences, such as how dismal school is when you are a loner and a bookworm, or the joy of discovering new books with new ideas. SF is supposed to be about new ideas, so it's perhaps not surprising that a love of SF is generally fostered at a young and impressionable age. For all the foibles of the genre at its most adolescent, some of why it strikes us so strongly at that age is because at its best it does open young minds to new ideas, whether the gee whiz sensawonda of the pulps, genuine physical and scientific concepts in hard SF, or sociopolitical ideas in soft SF. 
   Mori's voice is a deft tool in Walton's hands. She is precocious and instantly likable. She comes across as eminently level headed and sensible, which helps ground the magic and fairies, and is quite the balancing act on Walton's part to boot. Much of the appeal of 'Among Others' is in the way that Walton deftly traces the journey that many of us go through as avid SF/F fans. Mori fell hard for 'The Lord Of The Rings', and has read the entire SF section in her local library alphabetically, from Poul Anderson through to Roger Zelazny. She spends a lot of time reading and processing various SF novels, and Walton brilliantly uses this to illustrate Mori's taste and her personality. I will admit that possibly all this is less resonant for people who have not grown up on 70's SF. But 'Among Others' doesn't reference SF classics just to give the reader the fuzzy glow of nostalgia. However, with the perfect attention to detail - the Ace Double paperback of Delany's 'Empire Star' WAS packaged with a truly atrocious book ('The Tree Lord Of Imeten' by Tom Purdon, since you ask); Theodore Sturgeon's 'A Touch Of Strange' DOES have a very fetching cover - I defy any enthusiast for 70's SF paperbacks not to get a warm glow. Walton uses her references to advance the plot or to develop Mori's characters. For instance, Mori has her perspective on sexuality widened by reading Le Guin, Delany and Heinlein, which prepares her for her developing feelings towards Wim, and means that later on in the book she is able to decide for herself that the boarding school's vilification of homosexuality is unjust. In this way, 'Among Others' shows the importance of young people having access to a wide range of books by writers from diverse backgrounds. The book also shows how speculative fiction and fantasy can introduce young readers to other fields of education and learning; Mori winds up reading Plato because she's interested in what she learns about him from Mary Renault's historical fantasy books.
   Walton also succeeds because she just gets taste right, which I suspect is more difficult than it sounds. I should be careful here, because the temptation for the reviewer is to assume that Mori's taste directly reflects Walton's, and while I'm sure the book is informed by Walton's experience growing up as an SF fan, this is a work of fiction. So Mori's taste needs to hang together, to feel like a real person's taste. She doesn't just enjoy everything she reads uncritically; she is very much not a fan of Philip K. Dick, she doesn't know what to make of Christopher Priest's 'Inverted World', and she refuses to read Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series because the publisher has the audacity to compare it to her beloved Tolkien on the front cover. However she is both passionate and perceptive when it comes to the books she loves. She points out that Robert Silverberg's range, while impressive, is as much a curse as it is a blessing, which anyone who's made their way into the massive output of his golden age will appreciate, and how much of the appeal of Zelazny's Amber series is down to Corwin's voice. There's a great section where she intelligently argues that Thomas Hardy could have learned a lot from Delany and Silverberg. Naturally, there is a lot on Tolkien, and Mori is insightful about what makes 'Lord Of The Rings' so special - it does feel like a journey in a fully realised world, and I think this goes some way to explaining its enduring appeal and almost talismanic significance for multiple generations of fans.
   But all this would merely be very impressive window dressing if the story itself did not succeed on its own terms. Following on from her twin's death, Mori has to decide that life is actually worth living again. As she struggles to relate to her estranged father and his extended family and makes friends at the library's SF/F book club, she slowly moves towards acceptance and moving on. By showing us her protagonist's mundane every day life, Walton is able to build to this organically, and to weave in the fantastic elements in a way that feels organic as well. When she helps the fairies to build a gateway for the dead to escape her mother's evil clutches, the thing that saves her from being pulled into limbo by her dead sister is that she's only halfway through Delany's 'Babel-17', and if she dies now she'll never finish it. This is a beautiful moment because it seems like such a trivial thing not to die for, but sometimes it genuinely is the little things that keep us hanging on. By the time of Mori's next confrontation with the fairies and her mother, she realises that not only does she have group of friends and relatives who care for her, she wants to continue living, to grow and to experience new things. It is this realisation that allows her to finally move on, and to take agency for herself. This realisiation, that the real world is not only worth fighting for, but worth living for, is a genuinely powerful and moving moment.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Octavia E. Butler - The Patternist Series (1976-1984)

Octavia Butler started writing the Patternist series after watching an awful SF film entitled 'Devil Girl From Mars', which prompted her to think that she could do better than that. 'Patternmaster', her first published novel, amply proves that and then some. One of the earliest female African American writers to come to prominence for writing SF, Octavia Butler's striking talent made her stand out in a field dominated by white men. Butler's work deals unflinchingly with race and sexuality; 'Kindred', perhaps her most famous novel, deals with a modern African American woman who is transported back in time to before the American Civil War, where she must safe the life of a spoiled, vicious slave owner so that her ancestors will be born. These themes are also present in the Patternist novels. Butler is concerned with power imbalance. She has a keen understanding of the process of dehumanisiation and the absolute worst of how humans treat each other, of how any relationship with inbuilt hierarchies hampers communication and understanding. She is also interested in the compromises those without power are forced to make in order to live in these situations. The Patternist series focuses on psychic powers, which had long been a staple of SF, but Butler is one of the few writers to recognise just how much of a paradigm shift these powers would be, and more importantly, how this would affect how people with such powers relate to each other and people without those powers. All this makes her work very tense; however she still retains a hope that people can rise above themselves and improve themselves.
   The first book in the series to be written, 'Patternmaster', takes place last in terms of interior chronology. Rather than writing sequels, Butler wrote three prequels. Unlike most prequels, the other books in the sequence enrich the original by expanding and enhancing on aspects that 'Patternmaster' only hinted at. I have reviewed the series in order of internal chronology, as that is how they are presented in the 'Seed To Harvest' omnibus, but I shall talk about elements that arise in earlier-written books when appropriate. 
   Octavia Butler also wrote an additional novel set in the Patternist universe, called 'Survivor', but she disowned the book. It is not included in this omnibus and is only peripherally related to the main Patternist narrative.

Wild Seed (1980)

"Anyanwu looked away, spoke woodenly. 'It is better to be a master than to be a slave.' Her husband at the time of the migration had said that. He had seen hiself becoming a great man - master of a large household with many wives, children and slaves. Anyanwu, on the other hand, had been a slave twice in her life and had escaped only by changing her identity completely and finding a husband in a different town. She knew some people were masters and some were slaves. That was the way it had always been. But her own experience taught her to hate slavery. She had even found it difficult to be a good wife in her most recent years because of the way a woman must bow her head and be subject to her husband. It was better to be as she was - a priestess who spoke with the voice of a god and was feared and obeyed. But what was that? She had become a kind of master herself. 'Sometimes, one must become a master to avoid being a slave,' she said softly."

'Wild Seed' can stake a good claim towards being Octavia Butler's finest work. The third book written in the sequence, it is responsible for giving the series much of its scope, complexity and emotional power. The book tells the story of Anyanwu, a female shapeshifter with extraordinary healing abilities, who is taken away from her home in West Africa by Doro, a malevolent psychic parasite who consumes people's souls and inhabits their bodies. Doro has been breeding people with latent psychic and telekinetic ability for centuries, in the hope of building a new society of more powerful people, partly so he can feed off and control them, and partly so that he can build a society that he can belong to instead of being a hated and feared outcast. Never having met anyone like Anyanwu before, he desperately wants to breed her in his programme. 'Wild Seed' follows Anyanwu and Doro's relationship from the 1600s through to the 1800s as on-again off-again lovers and frequent antagonists, as Doro tries to frighten, bully and coerce the strong-willed Anyanwu to bend her to his will, and Anyanwu tries to keep Doro in touch with what little humanity he has left or to escape his clutches for good.
   The story allows Butler to explore different forms of slavery and subjugation. One of the ways that Doro controls the people he breeds from is by buying and selling slaves, which allows him to collect various people from different areas in Africa and transport them to the United States, which is what happens to Anyanwu. Butler uses well-researched historical detail to enrich the novel to great effect, from the conditions on the slave ships, the bartering for slaves and the system of slavers Doro has set up to help him collect the people he wants, to Anyanwu's reactions on arriving in an utterly different culture where she is viewed as property. But the power imbalance between master and slave is not the only one Anyanwu encounters; she is living in a time when women have very little rights, and are meant to be subservient to their husband, and she sees a clear parallel between the husband/wife relationship and the master/slave one. The book explores how sex can be used as a weapon to reinforce both. Once they arrive at Doro's plantation, he forces Anyanwu to marry his son Isaac and have children by them, both so that he can breed from her children and so that he can tie her down.    'Wild Seed' is frequently a frightening and horrifying novel, and much of it hits home because it is derived from the deeply unpleasant ways African Americans were genuinely treated by whites in the slave trade. Doro is a truly terrifying antagonist, and part of this is because he is an energy vampire who can devour your soul and steal your body, but part of this is because the way he manipulates and bullies people is based on unpleasant historical reality. 'Wild Seed' gives the reader a powerful and unforgettable sense of what it's like to live in fear, trapped in what is essentially an abusive relationship sanctioned by the law with no rights or legal protection. This reality helps to anchor the more abstract horror of psychic threat.
   However the power imbalance works to dehumanise both ways. Doro is so much more powerful, so much more long lived than other people that he finds it difficult to relate to them any more. So naturally he has fewer and fewer qualms about treating people as objects, and putting what he wants above the needs and safety of others. One of the reasons he needs Anyanwu so much is that she, as the only being whose power and longevity can remotely compare to his, is someone he can still relate to and who can help him still relate to other people. Doro and Anyanwu, as Emma, originally appear in 'Mind Of My Mind', and exploring their origins in 'Wild Seed' was a canny choice by Butler. They tie the Patternist series to our lived-in history.
   'Wild Seed' also explores compromise. Anyanwu has to decide how much she is willing to compromise her freedom and the freedom of her children, given that she is operating in a system that is wildly stacked against her favour. In the book's climax, she is planning to kill herself in order to escape Doro for good. In Butler's books, suicide is not an easy way out; all of her characters want to live, however poor the odds, and suicide is only considered when there is absolutely no other way out. This forces Doro to realise how much he needs Anyanwu, and ultimately they are able to come to an arrangement where he won't put her children in direct danger. The interesting thing about this is how morally complex it is. At the end of 'Wild Seed', this is played as a victory, and it's very much earned by the characters. Anyanwu has sacrificed what she can, but will continue living and will mitigate the damage that Doro is capable of doing. However, she has still capitulated to an incredibly unfair and unpleasant system which she knows is run on kidnap, rape and abuse. By the time of 'Mind Of My Mind', the emerging Patternists see her as fully complicit in all of Doro's crimes, and there is no place for Anyanwu in the new world that the Patternists create.
Mind Of My Mind (1977)

"I recall warning you about underestimating young women."

'Mind Of My Mind' tells how the psychics Doro has been breeding for centuries in 'Wild Seed' finally come together in one great psychic Pattern. It was written second in the sequence. While less intense than 'Wild Seed', it's still a compelling tale, and brings Doro and Emma's story arcs to a satisfying conclusion. The protagonist, Mary, is a young woman bred by Doro in an experiment to create more stable psychics who are able to stand being around each other, unlike the frequently psychotic and dangerous individuals they usually turn out to be. The experiment turns out more successful than he could have hoped, with Mary establishing the Pattern, a psychic net that eventually pulls all of Doro's people together. However, soon this mean that her power challenges Doro's own, and he challenges her in a final confrontation.
   Doro gets his karmic comeuppance, and it's wonderfully appropriate. He lives to see the society he built mature into something powerful that will inherit the earth, just as he realises that he himself can have no part in this. Ultimately he remains just as lonely and outcast as ever. Emma decides to die shortly after he is consumed by Mary and the Patternists, realising that after building her life around Doro she can't go on without him.
   Mary is a compelling protagonist. An African American young woman who was a tearaway as a youth, she outgrows Doro's shadow and realises that she can do things differently, building a society in which the psychics look out for each other and educate their children, with anyone unwilling to change from being too violent or destructive cast out. Like Anyanwu before her, she is able to go some way towards healing these marginalised people. Ultimately she is able to defeat Doro by drawing on the strength of her fellow Patternists, which they are willing to let her do because they realise she will be a better leader than Doro.
   Butler is on fine form exploring racial tension. When Doro sets Mary up with Karl, a white man he wants her to breed with, after seeing his large house and servants, she asks him:

   "'How do you feel about black people?'
   "He looked at me, one eyebrow raised. 'You've seen my cook.'
   "'Right. So how do you feel about black people?'"

I really like that Mary calls him out on his crap. Jan, one of the first psychics that Mary draws to her once she gains her powers, is overtly racists at the start. Just because the characters share special powers does not mean that the old social divisions immediately evaporate. However in order to be part of the Pattern, Jan has to learn to accept people as they are. This is treated as part of the healing process, along with alcoholism and prostitution. Doro's people have been marginalised and outcast because of their powers; now that they are coming together as a society their vices, prejudices and bad behaviour need to be weeded out.
   Also, you can see early signs of the Patternist treatment of people without psychic powers, or 'mutes', as they call them. Karl has a non-psychic girlfriend that he programmes not to get jealous or angry. The disparity in power between those with psychic powers and those without leads again to this dehumanisation, even as they decry Doro for treating them like animals. While the brave new world may be better for the Patternists, things are not going to be so good for the mutes. And the system of the Pattern, with one single Patternmaster holding all the power, is still based around a hierarchy with a massive power imbalance. As seen in 'Patternmaster', this can lead to problems.

Clay's Ark (1984)

"They were watching a movie from the ranch's family library - a 1998 classic about the Second Coming of Christ. There had been a whole genre of such films just before the turn of the century. Some were religious, some antireligious, some merely exploitive - Sodom-and-Gomorrah films. Some were cause-oriented - God arrives as a woman or a dolphin or a throwaway kid. And some were science fiction. God arrives from Eighty-two Eridani Seven.
   "Well, maybe God had arrived a few years later from Proxima Centauri Two. God in the form of a deadly microbe that for its own procreation made a father try to rape his daughter - and made the daughter not mind."

'Clay's Ark' was the final novel written in the Patternist series. The other novels explored the history of the Patternists in depth, but until this book Butler hadn't dealt with the Clayarks, the Patternists' enemies in 'Patternmaster', since their appearance in the first book. 'Clay's Ark' rectifies this, giving the Clayarks the depth and history they were previously lacking, in a book that is almost as complex and compelling as 'Wild Seed', the Patternists' own origin story. 'Clay's Ark' artfully echoes 'Wild Seed', with its themes of agency, control and abusive relationships, and again winds up exploring the compromises people make when up against powerful forces they can neither fight nor control.
   Clay's Ark is a spaceship powered by telekinesis, invented by Clay Dana from 'Mind Of My Mind'. It went on a mission to Proxima Centauri Two, where its entire crew was quickly infected by a disease which gives the victims enhanced strength and healing but with a compulsion to spread the disease and to procreate. The individuals born from infected parents are the Clayarks from 'Patternmaster', sphynx-like humans who run on four legs. Eli, the sole survivor from the mission, lands on Earth and tries to contain the disease and his compulsion to spread it to a small community. There are obvious parallels between the parasitic Clayark disease and Doro, as well as between Doro and Eli, two patriarchs trying to build a community they can live in on the fringes of society by dubious means.
   The story is told from the point of view of a family - Blake and his two daughters, Rane and Keira, the latter who is dying of a terminal disease - who are captured by Eli and his community. The Clayark disease has a compulsion to spread, and Eli knows this will mean the end of humanity as we know it, so he tries to control it by living in an isolated commune and only picking up new people when they need to. 'Clay's Ark' follows Blake, Rane and Keira as they are captured and try to make their escape, before realising that for the sake of humanity they will have to make a new life in Eli's commune. Unfortunately a disastrous shoot-out with a rogue biker gang ends in tragedy and with the Clayark disease being spread across the world.
   Like Doro, much of Eli's control is sexual in nature. In this respect Eli's commune resembles a cult, only the alien infection itself is part of what is reinforcing this control. However Eli has been doing this for a lot shorter than Doro, and he still has doubts and qualms of conscience. He does care for the well being of his people, especially the Clayark children, who he knows will be outcast by the rest of human society, caged and studied and hunted, simply because of people's difficulty extending human empathy to those who look different to them. He is sympathetic to Rane's illness. But at the same time, he knows that the nature of the Clayark disease is robbing him of his humanity; a lot of the decent things he does are a conscious effort on his part to maintain the humanity left to him. One of the more frightening aspects of the Clayark disease is that because it rewrites so much of a person's personality and biology, everyone infected has to question whether or not they are still truly human or if they are meat puppets being driven around by parasites under the delusion that they are still humans, a kind of extreme extrapolation of parasite modification of host behaviour seen in something like Toxoplasma gondii infection. Butler doesn't give her characters or her readers any easy answers on this one.
   While 'Wild Seed' is set in our historical past, 'Clay's Ark' is set fifteen minutes into the future. As a result we get to see a different side of Butler's skill in world building and extrapolation. Her depiction of a future United States in which the middle classes live in gated communities while outside of these social order has broken down and violent gangs rule the motorways is vivid and disturbing. But once again, it is Butler's talent for creating memorable characters and putting them in morally complex situations that carries the book. Blake, Rane and Keira are all sympathetic, well developed characters, and Butler is brutally unsparing with them. Blake's attempt to save his family ultimately winds up dooming humanity as he knows it. Once the Clayark disease has spread through the world, there will be nothing left for the mutes, and the Patternists and the Clayarks will inherit the Earth.
Patternmaster (1976)

"Patternists and Clayarks stared at each other across a gulf of disease and physical difference and comfortably told themselves the same lie about each other. The lie that Terray's Clayark had tried to get away with:'Not people'."

'Patternmaster' is the last book chronologically in the Patternist series, but it is the first book that Octavia Butler wrote. While it may be a little rough around the edges compared to the rest of the entries in the series, all of the major themes and ideas of the series are present and correct. It's clear that many of the ideas that Butler would go on to explore in the rest of the series were already in place from day one. Writing a book set in an unfamiliar future and then extrapolating back how we got from our present day to there is an ambitious and unusual way to go about writing a series. The world of 'Patternmaster' does give Butler a lot to work with though. the book is set in a post-apocalypse future in which the Patternists and Clayarks fight for the Earth, and mutes only exist as programmable slaves to the Patternists. 'Patternmaster' demonstrates that however people change, they are still human, and as such prey to human foibles. Both the psychic powers of the Patternists and the superhuman abilities of the Clayarks are utterly paradigm shifting, and both of these warring tribes of posthumans have set up their own different societies with their own different rules, customs and taboos. However, because these powers naturally set up a power differential, there is still a power hierarchy and so there is abuse of power. Power imbalances dehumanise, making it difficult for Patternists to communicate with mutes or lower level Patternists, or sometimes to even think of them as human. The physical differences and antagonism between the Patternists and Clayarks results in prejudices and misunderstanding. People are still motivated by greed, jealousy and hatred, as well as by love and compassion. Some things about human nature do not change.
   'Patternmaster' tells the story of Teray, a young man who has recently graduated from school, and Coransee, a powerful Patternist Housemaster. Both are sons of the Patternmaster Rayal, who is dying from the Clayark disease. Coransee has plans to become the new Patternmaster once Rayal has died, which would make him the most powerful Patternist on the planet, and sees Teray as a potential threat, so he tries various means to put pressure on Teray to allow him to put psychic controls in place so that he can control him. Coransee promises him control of his House after he becomes Patternmaster versus being a servant on the fringes of the House, and steals his fiance. But Teray wants his mental freedom, so he escapes with the help of Amber, a powerful healer, and they attempt to reach Rayal to claim sanctuary from Coransee.
   The battle of wills between Teray and Coransee is intense and compelling, and shows up the problem at the heart of the Pattern, which is the same as any power hierarchy: basically, you're stuck hoping that the person in the big seat isn't a dick, and power corrupts. Coransee is much more similar to Doro than Mary, frighteningly more powerful than our protagonist and with a vicious, petty streak to go with it. At the end of the book we learn that Rayal has been holding on to life just long enough for Teray to become strong enough to defeat Coransee, because he knows that Coransee would be a horrible, despotic leader who would make life a misery for all the Patternists.
   But the real standout character is Amber. A powerful healer who doesn't owe allegiance to any fixed house, a rarity in the rigidly hierarchical Patternist society, Amber is an African American woman who is openly bisexual. While in some ways, with her strong will and independence, she is a prototype for Anyanwu/Emma, but whereas the latter character is ultimately defined by the compromises she has to make, Amber finds a way of living on the fringes of the repressive society she's stuck in without compromising her ideals. Coransee tries to hold her against her will, leading to the grimmest part of the book, but together with Teray she is able to defeat him and to escape his poisonous influence. We never get to find out if Teray is able to shape the hierarchy of the Pattern into something fairer, or whether there is any possibility of real communication and understanding between the Patternists and the Clayarks, but with Teray in control rather than Coransee, at least there is hope.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Nicola Griffith - Slow River (1995)

"She has read many fairy tales and understands instinctively that those who are dragged places unwillingly must find their own way back."

'Slow River' by Nicola Griffith shares many of the concerns of cyberpunk. Set fifteen minutes in the future, it explores the intersection between technology and identity, as well as being deeply concerned with corporate ethics, or lack thereof. Reading it, I found myself thinking of the famous William Gibson quote, "The street finds its own use for things." Yet, whilst most of the original cyberpunk texts are noir-infused SF thrillers, 'Slow River' is a much more thoughtful, reflective book. It achieves its impact through character development and Griffith's eloquent, lyrical writing. The end result is a powerful, haunting novel, and its anger is all the more effective for being carefully revealed. It is also a deeply feminist novel, both in its themes of female characters searching for and ultimately achieving their own agency, and in the way its almost entirely female cast effortlessly spans a wide range of motivations, viewpoints and morality.
   'Slow River' is very much about the quest for identity, so it's appropriate that the novel opens with the main character having hers stolen. Lore van der Oest is the daughter of a powerful family at the head of a global corporation, who is kidnapped just before her eighteenth birthday. She escapes, and finds herself naked on the streets of a city, injured and with her Personal Identity, DNA and Account insert removed. She is rescued by Spanner, a thief and con artist. The fact that her family didn't pay her ransom, coupled with the recent suicide of her sister after years of abuse at the hands of her mother, leads Lore to turn her back on her origins and try to make a new life with Spanner. The narrative is split into three threads told concurrently, reflecting Lore's fractured identity. One thread, told in the third person present tense, follows Lore throughout her early life, from five years old up until the kidnapping. The second thread, told in third person past tense,  details Lore's life with Spanner. The final thread is told in first person past, and tells of Lore's attempt to start afresh with an honest job after splitting up with Spanner. The different voices in which these threads are written tells you something about how well structured the book is; the present tense of the early life sections give them an immediate yet child-like quality, while the switch to the first person for the chronologically last thread highlights Lore's attempt to take control over her own life. Yet the fact that the narrative threads run concurrently until the end of the book show that Lore has not yet achieved full control over her own identity until she confronts her past.
   Another effect of telling all three parts of the story at the same time is that we get to see the corruption of Lore's spirit at the same time as we see how innocent she was and how hard she is working to redeem herself. As a member of the powerful van der Oest family, Lore's childhood is shaped by both the spectre of abuse and her parents' ambitions for her. During her relationship with Spanner, she is finally able to leave the influence of her family behind, but she winds up being subject to Spanner's much stronger personality. Spanner may be effortlessly charming, but she is ultimately a damaging influence on herself and anyone who comes into her range. She ekes out a living on the margins of a digital society, involved in various types of internet scams of varying unsavouriness. At first, Lore doesn't question who is being hurt by her and Spanner's actions, and is just glad after her abuse at the hands of her kidnappers to be on the other side of the equation:

"She knew that sometimes Spanner made money from other people's suffering, but she did not have to see that, and she had suffered, too. Everyone suffered. It was just a question of making sure she was using them, and not the other way around."

But ultimately she gets to the stage where she cannot live with what she and Spanner are doing, and realises that Spanner's outlook on life is flawed, and that she can only truly gain agency and heal from the wounds of her past by living a life that allows empathy for her fellow humans.
   The book draws parallels between Spanner's prostitution and the van der Oest's business practices. The van der Oest's wealth comes from their jealously-guarded monopoly over the bioremediation biotechnology necessary for cleaning the drinking water and environment. Whilst this technology is a good thing that improves people's lives, gives them safe drinking water and fixes the mistakes of the industry-driven past, it is corrupted by the van der Oest's greed. The van der Oest get their way by wining and dining politicians, and when that doesn't work they have a black ops group happy to resort to kidnap and blackmail. Both Spanner and van der Oest operate happily in their own social strata, unaware and unconcerned by those that they harm. In the third narrative thread, Lore is forced to come face to face with the victims of one of her and Spanner's pornography scams and a man born without limbs as a result of an error in one of the van der Oest's bioremediation projects, both people who have had their lives scarred by Lore's complicity. The book's anger at complicity is a theme that recurs at the end when Lore confronts her father for failing to notice that his wife was abusing his children.
   However, for all its anger, 'Slow River' ends on a hopeful note. The three narrative threads meet, Lore is able to reclaim her own identity but on her own terms, and begins a much more healthy relationship with Magyar, a colleague at the wastewater treatment plant where she has been working. After all her trauma, she is ultimately able to heal and move on with her life. It is a powerful and moving ending, all the moreso for being hard earned.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Rachel Bach - Paradox Book One: Fortune's Pawn (2013)

"Whole truths usually just made things worse anyway. I avoided them whenever I could."

'Fortune's Pawn' by Rachel Bach is something of a missed opportunity. On the one hand, you have a well drawn female protagonist who not only kicks ass but is realistically flawed successfully inhabiting a genre archetype usually reserved for males, a bunch of interesting aliens and a brisk, page-turner-y plot. On the other hand, you have a plot so riddled with cliches that the book as a whole struggles to carve out its own identity outside of its well-worn source materials. This is a pity as there are the seeds of a very good book in 'Fortune's Pawn' struggling to make itself heard over tired space-opera trappings.
    'Fortune's Pawn' tells the story of Devi Morris, a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mercenary kitted out with power armour, laser swords and guns. Hoping to fast-track her career, she follows a tip and takes up a tour of duty as a guard on board the Glorious Fool, a ship with luck so bad as to be legendary. Is the crew a rag-tag bunch of misfits? Do the captain and the ship have a dark secret that they're determined to make sure Devi doesn't find out? Is there a handsome and mysterious love interest with a plot-based reason why he and Devi can't be together? If you answered yes to all three questions, pat yourself on the back and help yourself to a biscuit. All of this stuff is good fun, and these are elements that have become cliches in space operas for a reason, and they're certainly not done badly here, but everything feels second hand at best. The influence of TV space operas Firefly and Farscape figure strongly here, as well as, say, Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers' or Haldeman's 'The Forever War', though with significantly less philosophical heft than either. And while Rachel Bach clearly has good taste and a firm understanding of what makes these sources of inspiration so beloved, she brings precious little new to the table. This isn't the worst sin in the world to be guilty of, but it says something about how deeply indebted to the past your work is when you can comfortably reduce any given scene to, "Oh, I really enjoyed the bit where Aeryn Sun fought the Dunwich Horror until River Tam came in and rescued her."
   This is a shame, because there are things that 'Fortune's Pawn' does particularly well. Devi Morris is a very successful gender-flip of the standard male meathead mercenary you usually get in these stories. Not just a female character who is strong, Devi is believably flawed - she's impulsive, reckless and bigoted. Likewise her romance with Rupert, Mr. Handsome and Mysterious, is very well handled, for all the predictability of its arc. The two have a natural chemistry and rapport and clearly enjoy each other's company. What's more, Devi refuses to be patronised or rescued by him, or have him  make big decisions about their relationship without her input.
   In some ways, 'Fortune's Pawn' suffers being read after 'Ancillary Justice'. Devi's world of Paradox is a technologically advanced feudal society. This is an amusing conceit and a nice comment on the imperialism prevalent in much space opera, and there's clearly a lot of potential for witty subversion here, however I felt this was not used to the extent it could have been. Additionally, Rachel Bach has some really interesting aliens that I would far rather have spent more time with than sitting through another shoot out. The xith'cal are basically space dinosaurs (think halfway between Scarrans and the Jem'Hadar) who can choose their biological sex, with the males being the hunters but also butchers and cooks, and the females being engineers and scientists, or, in the case of Hyrek, the ship's doctor on the Glorious Fool, they can just choose not to differentiate. Hyrek was by far my favourite character and I would easily have read a whole novel about gender queer book snob space dinosaurs. But I digress, one must review the book at hand and not the book you wanted it to be. The point is that there is some actual original invention here, that could have been used to explore themes of gender and identity, which were sadly overlooked to provide a simpler, action-heavy but idea-lacking plot.
   In many ways I think this is the crux of my problem with the book; even after I finished it it still didn't feel like it had been about anything. There's nothing wrong with a bit of action-packed fun, but there's no reason that action-packed fun can't make us think a little as well once all the smoke's cleared. While I found some of the ideas in the book very promising, and I thought that Bach's execution of a female version of a traditionally male archetype was very well done, overall the book left me cold. I am willing to admit that I may be doing Rachel Bach a huge disservice, seeing as 'Fortune's Pawn' is very much conceived as part one of a trilogy. Perhaps books two and three explore the subtle themes of book one in more depth. (Perhaps it makes more sense of the abrupt and frankly bizarre mindwipe decision at the end of the book). However my experience reading 'Fortune's Pawn' has not inclined me to rush out to the shops to buy the sequels, so I may never know what I'm missing.