Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Genevieve Cogman - The Invisible Library (2015)

"That was the whole point of the Library: as far as she'd been taught, anyway. It wasn't about a higher mission to save worlds. It was about finding unique works of fiction and saving them in a place out of time and space. Perhaps some people might think that was a petty way to spend eternity, but Irene was happy with her choice. Anyone who really loved a good story would understand."

'The Invisible Library' by Genevieve Cogman is a thoroughly enjoyable Fantasy adventure featuring alternate worlds, a steampunkish setting, great detectives, fairies, dragons, strong female characters and books, not to mention a compelling central concept. In its inventive use of alternate realities as a series of settings for the ongoing conflict between rival forces of order and chaos, it harks back to classic Fantasy works such as 'Three Hearts And Three Lions' by Poul Anderson or Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion books. It is held together by its overarching love of fiction, and its steadfast belief in the value and importance of books; that stories are worth preserving because they tell us something important about the culture that produced them, and simply for the joy a good story brings.
   At the centre of 'The Invisible Library' is the Library itself, a vast, interdimensional space that a secret society of immortal dimension-hopping Librarians use to store fiction from alternate realities. It's an inspired creation, drawing on both Borges' infinite library and Edgewood, the house that acts as a portal between the worlds of humans and fairies from John Crowley's 'Little Big'. The Librarians themselves are a classic manipulative secret society, a force on the side of order but filled with dark secrets and arcane power games. Appropriately for a book about libraries, 'The Invisible Library' treats fiction as its playground, cheerfully mixing up Moorcockian Fantasy in its use of alternate dimensions and sinister, chaos-worshiping Fae, the Sherlock Holmes stories beloved of protagonist Irene in the form of the great detective Vale, and the scientific romances of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne in its steam-powered, Victorian-esque London. There are even elements of Lovecraftian cosmic horror in the villain Alberic, a rogue Librarian who has turned to the side of chaos to sustain his immortality. Cogman meshes all these disparate elements together seamlessly, and the book has gonzo invention to spare with its giant mechanical insects and clans of warring werewolves, vampires and fairies. It recalls the mad alchemy of the original steampunk novels by Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K. W. Jeter, rather than the more tired and cynical trappings of the genre that have been overused since.
   In keeping with the book's faith in the power of language, the Librarian's magical powers stem from language itself. The Librarians can speak the Language and force the physical components of reality around them to do their bidding, a literalised form of reification, which links thematically back to Borges. Cogman makes good use of the concept, exploring both the limitations of the technique - you have to phrase your requests very specifically for it to be useful, thus limiting its use as a 'get out of jail free' card for the heroes - and the extent to which it could be abused, in a troubling scene in which Irene uses the Language on a person to hijack an airship.
   As well as an intriguing set-up, 'The Invisible Library' also has well drawn and memorable characters. Vale, the Holmes-esque detective and Kai, Irene's assistant, trainee and secret dragon in human form, are compelling characters, all the more so for having the ability to act against Irene's and each other's interests when appropriate. Much of the philosophical weight of the book comes from Irene's attempts to keep Vale on her side. Vale is a rational and caring person who believes that the Library should use its powers to help people rather than just preserving books. One of the good things about 'The Invisible Library' is that, while the Librarians are unquestionably on the side of order, this does not necessarily mean that they are all good or nice; some of the Librarians will use any means necessary to acquire the books they are after, no matter how damaging the consequences to bystanders. We see this personified in the most interesting relationship in the book, between Irene and her ex-mentor Bradamant. Bradamant cares about completing her mission at any cost, and has thrown Irene under the train in the past to achieve this; as a result, Irene is especially conscious of how her actions affect other people, and wants to do her job without causing harm and to help people on the way if she can. Irene has to prove that she can get results whilst showing Vale that she is ultimately a moral person, unlike Bradamant. Cogman handles Bradamant and Irene's relationship very well; there's no denying that Bradamant is incredibly selfish, manipulative and unpleasant, even going so far as to drug Irene at the climax so that she can finish the job her way without Irene's interference, but she isn't the main villain, and by the end of the book there's a sense that she has learned to respect Irene, whilst Irene, by showing that she is both moral and competent is able to leave behind her hangups about being in Bradamant's shadow.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Barry N. Malzberg - Galaxies (1975)

"The novel itself cannot be written, at least by this writer, nor can it be encompassed by any techniques currently available, because it partakes of its time and that time is of the fortieth century, a time unimaginably distant... and it could be perceived only through the idiom and devices of that era which, to be sure, will not exist for more than eighteen hundred years.
   "Nor - continuing to be straightforward - will that idiom or those devices ever exist because science fiction is not a series of working models for the future but merely a sub-genre of romantic fiction which employs the future as historicals would use the past, as Westerns would use the West, as pornography would use fornication - in short as a convention, which is the focus of their appeal. By virtue of these reasons then, not to say others which are more personal - but which will be revealed - these fifty-five thousand words are little more than a set of constructions toward a construction even less substantial. It, as the writer himself, will not be finished in this world."

'Galaxies' is a bold, post modernist science fiction novel that deals explicitly with the nature of science fiction itself. Set out as the notes for the author's unwritten novel, also entitled 'Galaxies', Barry N. Malzberg uses the book's meta-narrative to unravel the impossibilities of writing science fiction and to comment on the many failings of the genre. However along the way the story the author is trying to write, about a space pilot trying to escape from a black galaxy caused by a collapsing neutron star, and his struggle to write it, wind up echoing each other and highlighting the metaphysical concepts and questions the author is intending to explore in the finished novel. The end result is both a compelling story in its own right and some of the sharpest criticism I've ever read of the SF genre. 
   In his earlier work, 'Herovit's World', Malzberg had satirised the poor writing found in much golden age SF using meta techniques and a narrative about a pathetic, struggling SF writer who understands human nature almost as poorly as his badly written space opera protagonist. However the structure of 'Herovit's World' was still that of a straightforward novel. The meta techniques in 'Galaxies' are much more sophisticated, with the framing device being that the text is the author's notes describing a science fiction novel which he has intentionally not completed. Thus the author becomes the main character as much as Lena Thomas, the captain of the Skipstone in the unfinished story 'Galaxies'. The story is ultimately recursive. The author's struggle to write 'Galaxies', as he engages with and attempts to subvert the expectations and demands of what is essentially a commercial genre in order to make a profound piece of art, as he writes himself into a hole he can't get out of, as he attempts techniques and reaches for affects that are beyond his skills as a writer, are metaphorically echoed in Lena's impossible attempt to escape from the gravitational field of the collapsing neutron star, and ultimately the author's preferred ending to the story has these two struggles converge, with Lena perhaps becoming the author and the writing of 'Galaxies' becoming the metaphor for her trials in the black galaxy.
   'Galaxies' is left as a series of notes in deference to the fact that if science fiction really were the medium of the future, it would need to be expressed in the idiom of the future, which of course does not exists yet. From this initial confession, and the observation that science fiction frequently simply uses its futuristic setting as an exotic backdrop rather than even attempting to engage with current modes of expression such as post-modernism, let a lone future modes of expression, or to engage with genuine scientific premises, the book engages with many of the genre's failings. Malzberg's criticism from the genre comes from both a genuine fascination with science fiction - its unique potential to engage with interesting scientific theories, its ability to tackle deep metaphysical ideas, its unparalleled scope - and his disappointment with a genre that he sees as frequently formulaic and subject to the conformity of market specifications as dull and all-encompassing as the manipulative Bureau which controls space travel in Lena's future. Much of the black humour in 'Galaxies' comes from Malzberg's cynical understanding of the demands of the science fiction market, which manifests in the author's notes as he talks about where he could pad out the story into a series of novels in order to make money, or about where he might add gratuitous sex scenes to keep the reader's interest.
   Throughout, Malzberg deftly uses the author's voice to betray the author's personality; the writer of 'Galaxies' is prolix, self-important and self-pitying, frequently going off on amusing tangents to complain about the difficulty of his life as a writer or to bitch about his professional rivals. However it is these failings that make the author ring true as a character in his own right, and it is clearly meant to be part of the joke. There are sections where the author criticizes Lena for having many of the characteristics that he has, utterly unaware that he is doing this. This also helps to foreshadow the ending. Making sure the reader is aware of the humanity, the failings of the book's two central characters helps the book sell its metaphysical aspects, as the author himself points out. And 'Galaxies' does succeed on a philosophical level, as well as a biting piece of satire. The author underlines the religious imagery involved in the central concept of the story 'Galaxies', with Lena as Job being tested by the author, and the cyborg advisers playing the role of the consolers. Lena's journey to achieving her own agency in defiance of the rigid control of the Bureau, even at the possible price of destroying the entire universe and all of existence, and hence the author's decision to write, or not write, 'Galaxies' as he sees artistically fit, is genuinely powerful and moving. It is in this integration of story and ambitious meta-narrative construction that 'Galaxies' is such a success.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky - Hard To Be A God (1973)

"How I'd like to let out some of the hatred that's accumulated over the past twenty-four hours, but it looks like I'll have no luck. Let us remain humane, forgive everyone, and be calm like the gods. Let them slaughter and desecrate, we'll be calm like the gods. The gods need not hurry, they have eternity ahead."

In 'Hard To Be A God', Arkady and Boris Strugatsky explore the rise of totalitarianism, and the inadequacies of theories of history to deal with actual history unfolding. The story is set on a planet with medieval level technology, where the kingdom of Arkanar is undergoing a power shift as the king's minister, in a flurry of anti-intellectual paranoia, is creating a pervasive and controlling state based on fear and oppression. The main character, Anton, is a historian from a utopian Earth of the future, sent to study the unfolding of history on an alien planet, is bound by a rule of non-interference similar to the Prime Directive in Star Trek; he does what he can to save the lives of the intellectuals hounded by Don Reba's storm troopers, but he is not allowed to interfere with the natural unfolding of history. As the situation in Arkanar grows more and more violent and out of control, Anton finds himself increasingly at odds with his superiors, who insist that, as their theory of history does not allow for the development of totalitarianism out of a medieval society, the situation cannot be as desperate as he paints it.
   'Hard To Be A God' deals with the key theme that runs through much of the Strugatsky's work, censorship and the artist's struggle against it. As in 'Definitely Maybe', the novel features artists who come up against powerful forces wishing to silence them, in this case Don Reba's storm troopers, and, as they would in that later novel, the Strugatsky brothers explore the different ways in which different people respond to censorship and state-sponsored oppression. The Strugatskys quite rightly identify censorship of ideas as a key sign that something has gone deeply wrong with a society. Arkanar is being manipulated by Don Reba into fearing and distrusting new ideas and perspectives, vilifying and persecuting the very people who are capable of dragging them out of the middle ages, something that can only lead to its stagnation. Anton tries desparately to save the artists and scientists of Arkanar, some of whom are stripped of honour and property and beaten, imprisoned, executed, or else compromise their art and integrity by pandering to the strictures set out by the state.
   The book's setting allows it to mingle the tropes of science fiction and Fantasy, and to subvert the standard middle ages setting of much Fantasy in interesting ways. Because we experience the world through the eyes of Anton, in the guise of Don Rumata, the well-connected noble he pretends to be in  Arkanar, we see it through a perspective closer to our own than those who live in it. Anton is disgusted by both the social injustices of the rigidly feudal system and the technological backwardness of the people who live in it. By pointing out how bad the people smell because of the lack of modern hygiene makes the medieval setting, which could be overly familiar to readers of genre fiction, especially vivid and resonant for the reader. This allows the Strugatskys to humourously satirise the upper classes, who strut around assuming their natural superiority whilst appearing to Anton and the reader as drunken buffoons. It's also part of how the Strugatskys subvert the general tropes and expectations of the book's medieval, Fantasy-esque setting. 'Hard To Be A God' deconstructs the idea of chivalrous noblemen as brutally as George R. R. Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire, with the Strugatskys portraying them as self-interested, aggressive, drunken boors. Similarly, the book plays with Fantasy mythology. There's an excellent passage where the authors describe the legends and myths that have built up around the Hiccup Forest, before revealing that they have been put in place there and exaggerated to hide the Earth people's secret base.
   'Hard To Be A God' is thoroughly cynical about human nature. While it features, on its periphery, a utopian society on Earth, it is fully aware of the horrors of history that humanity has had to go through to get to its current state of enlightenment. Don Reba's name is derived from Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's brutal secret police chief, and his horrific methods and brutality echo those of his real life basis. His betrayal and destruction of his own storm troopers when they get too powerful echoes Hitler and Himmler's destruction of Ernst Rohm and the SA, and his torture chambers are reminiscent of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. The Strugatskys acknowledge the violence and suffering which have shaped human history, but also the pettiness of human nature that drives much of history. The noblemen make ludicrous decisions because they're permanently drunk, which makes them particularly easy for Reba to manipulate. The feudal rights of the Barons Pampa wind up having to be fought for each generation in a wasteful, expensive and unnecessary war which always has the same outcome, all for silver mines which cost less than the war does and laughably trivial privileges for the Barons. The Stugatskys have a hope for what humanity can become, but despair at its violence, cruelty and idiocy. This despair ultimately overtakes poor Anton, as circumstances get to the stage where he is no longer able to stand by dispassionately. He reaches the point where whatever he does he winds up with blood on his hands, but his decisive action only causes more death and destruction.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Nnedi Okorafor - Lagoon (2014)

"We are change."

"Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It's your greatest flaw."

Nnedi Okorafor's 'Lagoon' is a first contact novel, in which the aliens land in Lagos. It is a fresh and original take on the subject, not least for its setting, which is vividly and powerfully evoked by Okorafor. However as well as providing a welcome antidote to all the British and American-centred stories in which the aliens land in New York or London, the aliens in 'Lagoon' have not just come for the President and the protagonists; their arrival is a cataclysmic event with enormous implications for everyone living on Earth. 'Lagoon' portrays the reactions of a diverse cross-section of all the various walks of life and perspectives in Lagos, as well as the effects it has on fish and animals - human beings aren't Earth's only inhabitants after all. The end result is an ambitious, powerful and complex story, in which the city of Lagos plays as central a role as Okorafor's characters.
   Okorafor portrays Lagos with passion and in great depth. She clearly has a great love for and fascination with the place, its energy and bustling vitality, but also has a canny understanding of its many and complex problems, the poverty, corruption and religious tensions. This allows her to portray the good and the bad about Lagos as it reacts to alien visitors, with considerable nuance. This is aided by the fact that Okorafor is interested in everybody's response. Her narrative takes in not just her main characters, but expands to follow 419 scammers, the students' LGBT society, the military, gangs, prostitutes, manipulative religious leaders and differently abled street kids. So many depictions of anywhere in Africa by Western media portray the entire continent as one homogenized culture, so it is both refreshing and necessary as a British SF reader to engage with a work that portrays Lagos in all its complexity. Okorafor understands the value and importance of giving all of these different, and frequently marginalised characters, a voice. Everyone reacts to the news differently, coming as they do from different backgrounds and with different perspectives, and the cumulative effect of this is that it allows Okorafor to portray first contact as the cataclysmic, perspective altering event it would not doubt be.
   'Lagoon' also subverts the standard human arrogance which assumes that we would be the only species on Earth that the aliens would be interested in interacting with. Okorafor's aliens land in the sea, and their first interaction is with fish. Throughout the book they are just as interested in interacting with animals as they are humans, offering them the same help. The uplifted animals provide us with the first hint of what the aliens are doing; they don't see their job as being to add anything, but to act as a catalyst for the animal or person's desire. In this way they act as instigators of social change. One of the results of the aliens landing is that the sea life now has the weapons to fight off humans polluting their environment. The new world that the aliens will create will have to be fairer not just for people but for animals as well.
   As well as interacting with Lagos' people and wildlife, the aliens also interact with the spiritual forces that have been living in Nigeria along with the humans. Ijele, the Igbo Chief of Masquerades, Legba, the spirit of the crossroads, and the Bone Collector, a road monster that consumes human victims of road accidents, all manifest and interact with the aliens, and it is revealed at the end that the entire story has been spun by Udide Okwanka, a giant story weaving spider who lives in a cave underneath the city, and who has been inspired by the aliens to stop weaving and take part in the story. These are all forces that have been in Nigeria before the arrival of the aliens, forces which give the country the strength of character and history to react to something as big as alien visitors. This is also shown in the supernatural powers of the three main characters, who were specially selected to be ambassadors. Adaora, a marine biologist, was born with webbed hands and feet, and has a natural affinity with the water. Anthony, a famous rapper, is able to tap into the cosmic rhythm and use its power. Agu, a soldier, has super strength. These characteristics have put them on the edge of human society and the spiritual world, and allows them to interact with the aliens on more equal footing and as ambassadors of both.
   Part of what gives the book its unique flavour is its dialogue, much of which is written in Nigerian Pidgin English. Okorafor has a great ear for dialogue, and the different registers, how much slang the characters pepper their speech with, gives the reader more information about their background and their personality, as well as greatly contributing to the sense of place. The book's structure is interesting as well, moving from the third person present for much of the book to sections related by minor characters in the first person when the aliens are mingling with the humans and chaos has broken out. These sections help to deliberately disorientate the reader in the midst of all this chaos, creating a sense of disorder and speed as the reader is rushed around different places and viewpoints. There are also more poetic sections, as rendered directly by Udide Okwanka the spider, harking back to the oral tradition and linking this thoroughly modern work of SF to the traditional. The book ends on an appropriately ambiguous note; the aliens have arrived, Ayodele's sacrifice has made humanity open to interacting and sharing with their alien visitors, all possibilities are open for a new dawn for Lagos. What happens next is left to the characters, and to the reader's imagination.