The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell November 12, 2011Posted by futurewired in Mary Doria Russell, Reviews.
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There’s a moment in The Sparrow which, for me, seems to express the idea at the heart of the book. A Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz is presented with an account by his rescuers, that accuses him of acts of prostitution, and of murder on an alien planet during a disastrous first contact mission. He is asked whether this account describes the truth; his answer, is that it is all true, with the qualification lost amid the uproar, that it is also all wrong. Facts are given meaning by context, by interpretation. The same sequence of events can be seen as the operation of divine providence and as a cruel joke, a gift can become a curse and beauty transmutes to ugliness when placed in its proper surroundings.
Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel won a heap of prizes on first publication and it certainly has the ambition and intrigue to back up these credentials. Its a novel featuring interstellar travel that spends the bulk of its time on earth, a first contact story that focuses as much on interpersonal relationships between it’s human character’s as anything else, and a book with expressly religious concerns in a genre that can appear almost resolutely godless at times. I found it a gripping read, poignant and thought provoking in equal measures.
Briefly it tells the story of first contact between earth and an alien world; a mission organised by the Jesuit order, responding to musical broadcasts from another planet, travels across the stars to make contact with the mysterious ‘singers.’ Something goes terribly wrong however, and the book centres on the debriefing of the mission’s sole survivor, the struggle to obtain from him the ‘truth’ behind the events that led to the deaths of his companions and to his own degradation and disgrace.
We have therefore a central mystery – what happened and why, – and the book alternates between two narrative streams, the gentle interrogation of the mutilated and traumatised Father Sandoz by the leaders of his order, and a series of flashbacks detailing the origins and course of the mission itself. We learn that the apparent failure of the Jesuit endeavour has led to the disgrace and virtual ruin of the order, (due to the relativistic effects of high velocity space travel decades have passed on earth compared to the handful of years for Sandoz and companions.) Sandoz is a broken man whose reluctance to discuss what happened is palpable, it is only through the carefullest manipulation that the truth begins to emerge. Parallel to this we get to know the other characters, their past, their personalities and history; it is one of the book’s strengths that we are made to care, even as from the first chapter we know, approximately, their fates.
As I mentioned it’s a surprisingly long time before the book really leave earth and even when the mission reaches Rakhat, the descriptions are pointedly sparse. We are given a few details, general descriptions of the two alien species encountered but there is no prolonged visualisation of a new world as you might expect. There is however, a great emphasis on language; Sandoz is a linguist and there are lengthy discussions of the ways in which language reveals facets of cultures and societies, as a concrete iteration of a way of thought – form is as revealing as content.
This gap between content and context plays out in a number of different ways. A first example would be various actions by the crew, innocent by intention that in the context of an alien society have potentially disastrous consequences; the introduction of the concept of agriculture to a group of hunter gatherers being a prime example. They consider all the consequences at the time but there are always factors beyond their knowledge at any given time; in this case the nature and structure of the society in which the group operates. An experiment in growing earth plants on another world triggers a series of events that culminate in gut-wrenching violence.
One of the central aspects in which this features s the way in which the narrative itself is viewed. The expedition begins so fortuitously; it is apparently only by chance that the group of people present to first hear the alien broadcasts possess between them the skills and contacts to organise this mission. Everything proceeds almost without a hitch, the planet itself is amenable to human life , Sandoz himself turns the first encounter into a success confidently, empowered by faith. The notion of divine providence is repeatedly brought up by the characters. The problem with this is when things go wrong, there is nowhere else to turn – God is cruel or God is dead. Sandoz is trapped by the human need to construct narratives, unwilling to reveal the depth of his shame. Ultimately it is only through telling his story, constructing a shared narrative out of what had been solely personal events that he can begin to move on.
The worldbuilding in the book is done well; just enough detail to be convincing – widespread use of AI, asteroid mining, virtual communication, – but it isn’t laid on too thick, something that really helps considering that the narrative covers such a long period of time. The changes in technology that would be expected to have occurred aren’t such an issue however as the entirety of the action set after Sandoz’s return is in an enclosed environment, a retreat for the Jesuit order.
The Sparrow is a really interesting book, different in many ways from a lot of the stuff I normally read in terms of its concerns and its reference points. The criticism I can make really relate to the choice to have certain passages narrated by one of the aliens (the whole book shifts between different third person narratives.) This is just a personal thing, I feel like it would have been more powerful for the book to be from a solely human perspective, but I appreciate that this might have made it more difficult to follow or appreciate certain elements.
Minor quibbles aside I’d definitely recommend giving this one a go. There’s a sequel Children of God that has now made its way on my ever expanding reading list. I’ve seen on some reviews the recomendation that if you’re not religious or interested in religious concerns then you should give it a miss; I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; the issues it deals with might be expressed in the language of religion but they run much deeper than that.
Dune (1984) November 1, 2011Posted by futurewired in Film, Frank Herbert, Reviews.
Well it’s been a little while since I’ve written anything for this blog, a new job and new shift patterns meant that finding the time to do anything even remotely constructive was getting a bit difficult. I have however been keeping up with my reading so I’ve got a couple of reviews on the back burner at the moment. Just finished Mary Doria Russell’s fantastic novel The Sparrow and I’m halfway through Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn at the moment so expect vaguely formed responses to these to pop up on this page at some point soon.
Today however I’m going to move sideways a bit, as a way of easing back in to the blogoverse, by – horror of horrors! – talking about a film. Namely the 1984 film adaptation of Dune.
Now I have seen this film before, many years ago when I was a lot younger and my memories of it were a bit blurry at best – there was a guy who looked like a walrus? And Al from Quantum Leap kept going on about a tooth for some reason?
I’m a huge fan of the book and I think it’s a telling sign of my geek status that a boxed set of all six of Herbert’s Dune novels was one of the best Christmas present’s I’d ever been given in my early teens. I’ve also seen the TV minseries which I thought was a pretty fair adaption of the book.
This film though is really quite something. In some ways it reminded me of the Flash Gordon movie, which suppose makes sense considering Dino De Laurentiis had a pretty big hand in making both. The key difference is that while Flash Gordon never comes close to removing toungue from cheek, Dune seems to take itself completely seriously.
My second thought was that it must have made no sense at all to anyone watching who hadn’t read the book. Somehow despite all the exposition and internal monologue it manages to remain completely opaque – words like Landsraad, Gom Jabbar, Sardaukar are thrown in with pretty much no explanation, even those terms which are explicitly explained ie Kwisatz Haderach still remain slightly mysterious and I get the sense that if you miss a couple of lines of dialogue in the first hour the rest of the movie would be pretty much impenetrable. The film is narrated intermittently by Princess Irulan, who, unless I missed something, has pretty much no onscreen role apart from appearing in the background of a few scenes, there was no mention of Paul marrying her at the conclusion.
The dialogue as far as I could remember seemed fairly true to the book, the effects were idiosyncratic, a bit clunky in places but overall pretty convincing I thought. I know a lot of people have said that the worm attack sequence hasn’t aged well but I thought it still looked not too bad.
The mystic elements of the story were played up quite a bit, Paul’s messianic status being taken quite literally at the film’s ending – how exactly did he make it rain again? There were a couple of liberties taken that I thought worked quite well too- the reinterpretation of the weirding way as amplified sound and movement was a really interesting idea.
The real issue with the film is probably the pace – it takes an astonishingly long time to get going, and the heavy use of internal monologue means there are a lot of scenes of people basically sitting staring at each of other.
The performances are quite impressive as well – Kenneth McMillan hams it up as Baron Harkonnen, and Kyle Mclachlan is actually believable in his transformation from boyish dauphin to militant messiah.
More than anything however I seem to just be left with a bunch of slightly unsettling images. A mulletted Patrick Stewart charging into battle, clutching a little dog under one arm with a gun in the other. Sting in his underwear winking at the camera. The Mentat’s eyebrows.
Awesome soundtrack though.
All in all probably a glorious failure of a film, bewildering with some real pacing problems, but I still really want to watch it again!
There may be something wrong with me…
Back soon with more literary fare hopefully!
We Who Are About To… By Joanna Russ July 24, 2011Posted by futurewired in Joanna Russ, Reviews.
Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To… is a strange, brief and and almost unrelentingly bleak book. It is a harsh account of an interstellar shipwreck in an unfriendly universe, a feminist reworking of the ‘new Adam and Eve’ trope associated with stories of that kind, but ultimately much of the book is an uncompromising meditation on death.
NOTE – Spoilers ahead
The set-up is a relatively simple one – an accident on a spaceship, an interstellar liner leads to a handful of survivors being stranded on an unknown planet with no possibility of rescue. They have six months worth of supplies and, as might be expected in this kind of narrative, they set out to colonise the planet and rebuild civilisation, in the style of Robinson Crusoe. All except one.
The narrator denounces these activities as pointless; if the local flora and fauna don’t kill them, without medical supplies, with no adequate shelter and no knowledge of the climate or weather patterns of their new home, disease, accident, childbirth, will do for them all in the end. And if they do survive, to what end? To live in a new stone age, with the lifespan and lifestyle that entails? Civilisation, she points out, continues on quite happily – they just happen to no longer be a part of it. Life for life’s sake holds neither temptation nor obligation. All she asks is to be left alone.
Of course she knows that won’t happen. Survival, society, these are the fantasies that are keeping her companions together. A regressive, elemental patriarchy reasserts itself – clumsily at first, when a male character realises he can assert his dominance through physical force, then over the crucial issue of reproduction. Swiftly, the women’s freedoms are restricted, as child-bearers they are now too valuable to put at risk. Interestingly though, and slightly contrary to my expectations, this isn’t really the real line of division – as the narrator puts it, the disagreement is what matters. The act of dissension, not the subject of the dispute.
The more the narrator struggles against the group, by keeping things back, a supply of drugs that could be used to end her life, and eventually by fleeing, the greater the level of confrontation. Eventually things come to a head and the narrator kills most of her pursuers. Of the rest, one has died of natural causes, another has come round to her way of thinking and kills herself. The narrator returns to the camp and kills the two remaining survivors, once as a pre-emptive act of defence, the other as an act of mercy.
If it sounds like I’ve given away the ending you might be surprised to hear that the above events all occur in the first half of the book. The action, as it were, is all over. The initial conclusion the narrator came to is made inescapably clear; dying is all there is left to do.
For the rest of the book we follow the narrators thoughts as she slowly starves to death. The narrative is presented as her words recorded on a dictaphone and so there is an element of stream of consciousness. She remembers past incidents, time spent as a communist activist, as a neo-Christian. She hallucinates, berates herself, offers justifications for her actions. Her ‘victims’ return to accuse or forgive her, she explores the possibility that she killed them because she wanted to rather than because she had to. She is still not suicidal as such, all she wants to do is die with dignity, to be delivered from the demands of the body. But there is no escape from herself, she has to stay with ‘this awful, awful woman, this dreadful, wretched, miserable woman, until she dies.’
It’s a fascinating read, though not necessarily an easy one. A lot of people seem to have found it dull or tedious, which is partly the point I suppose. Ultimately she never sways from her convictions, her determination to live and die on her own terms and there is something moving about the way she endeavours to ensure her death is in a manner keeping with her life. She is an outsider, who has in her life drifted further and further outwards as a way of coming to terms with the failure of political activism, of religion, and now she has effectively stepped outside the intelligible universe. Is that the only option for someone at odds with the ways of the world? Like I said, a strange, bleak little book, in some ways like nothing else I’ve really read.
We Who Are About To… was published in 1977 a few years after the publication of The Female Man, Russ’ best known book which I might give a go when I have a chance. There are a lot of elements which feel very much of its time but a lot of others that go beyond that. It was reprinted in 2005 and is definitely worth a look if you fancy a bit of feminist sci fi that turns into something quite different.
Personally I think I need something a little lighter now to balance things out. Perhaps a little P.G Wodehouse…
Tags: David Mitchell
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One thing I’m really interested in exploring on this blog is the overlap between genre fiction and what is commonly termed ‘literary’ fiction. I’ve mentioned before the Bruce Sterling coined phrase ‘slipstream’, referring to a sort of literary feeling of strangeness, of slight dissonance with what we would consider recognisable reality in fiction. Another grouping you might see as being along the same lines would be magic realism, in which fantastic elements occur in ‘realistic’ settings. Both of these have been disputed – Terry Pratchett once notably described magic realism as a name for fantasy that happened to be written in Spanish. These kinds of arguments over terminology are fairly common, like Margaret Atwood’s insistence on the use of the term speculative fiction rather than science fiction to describe her dystopian novels, to differentiate them from books about ‘talking squids in space.’
Now putting aside the awesomeness of that particular concept, I tend to be fairly relaxed about labelling. It seems fairly clear that there are differences between, say, to pick two random examples from a nearby bookshelf, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, and that to class one as science fiction and the other as literary fiction, or even mainstream fiction would not be a problem. When books arise that straddle that gap a little more – The Time Travellers Wife for example, a book that has a classic sci fi conceit but tends overwhelmingly to be shelved with general, mainstream fiction and treated as such – I think it’s fine to talk about them as either, depending on the point you wish to make.
What I think is particularly interesting to explore however is the idea of using devices, tropes and elements from what is normally considered genre fiction, in this case sf, for what would normally be considered more literary purposes. To explore topics relating to that hackneyed phrase, the ‘human condition.’ Now I’m not saying that writers of straight sci-fi or fantasy novels can’t do this in their own right, there are many that do, far better sometimes than most of their more ‘literary’ counterparts. There are however some books, often by writers more associated with literary fiction, that use sf ideas to explore these issues in a distinctively, for want of a better word ‘literary’ way.
Two examples of this that I’ve read recently are David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Both were short-listed for the Booker and Arthur C Clarke awards, a sign perhaps that they successfully bridged the gap between genre and mainstream. Both use fairly staple ideas from certain areas of science fiction – an underclass of clones created to serve the purposes of the rest of the population is common to both. Both use these as a device to explore other issues, human nature, predation and authenticity in Mitchell’s case, the loss of innocence and the shortness of human life in Ishiguro’s. I really enjoyed both of them, particularly Cloud Atlas but they were the books that came to mind when I read an article by Iain M Banks a couple of months ago.
‘Science Fiction is Not for Dabblers’
Here, Iain M Banks, a writer of both literary and science fiction, describes a scenario he has seen multiple times; a respected literary author has a great idea to write a science fiction book that isn’t really science fiction (because of who is writing it.) Said author does not do their research, doesn’t engage in the necessary dialogue with the history and legacy of the genre and so can’t help but replicate pre-existing ideas without really adding anything new.
Do Mitchell and Ishiguro fall into this category? Both are literary authors, at that certain point of their careers who have written books involving familiar science fiction concepts, but as to the charge at hand, for me, the answer would have to be no.
I’ll start with Cloud Atlas. The book consists of six related narratives, spanning perhaps hundreds of years, from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future. The author has described them as ‘nested’ stories, that sit over each other like a matrioshka doll. Each one gets interrupted, apart from the last, and each refers to the previous one in some fashion. The characters are implied to be reincarnations of the same soul, this being indicated by a comet-shaped birthmark, a device reminiscent of Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetrology (Mitchell used to live in Japan.) There are lots of recurring elements, common themes, as well as self-references. The two chronologically last stories could be said to have sf elements. In one, a clone servant in a fictionalised fast food restaurant in a future North Korea becomes slowly conscious of her position and is recruited by a rebellion against the totalitarian society she lives in; the story is narrated to an archivist prior to her execution. In the last civilisation has more or less disappeared. Zachry, a Tribesman living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, narrates the story, as an old man, of his encounter many years before with a member of the last technologically advanced group in the world.
The whole book consciously adopts different literary styles to tell each story, incorporating the devices of each into the narrative. So, we have a South Pacific tale in the style of Herman Melville, an Evelyn Waugh style story set in the 20’s, a slightly satirical section telling the story of vanity publisher in the style of Martin Amis, and ‘the first Luisa Rey Mystery’ a fairly formulaic thriller. Each of these are delivered in the style of documents however – the Luisa Rey mystery is a thriller, a manuscript delivered to the publisher, one character comments on the suspiciously neat narrative style of an earlier section.
When it comes to the more sf chapters, the pattern continues. The author has stated that Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker was an inspiration for the post-apocalyptic Hawaii section, and while this shows, the story nonetheless has a life, a rhythm and a vernacular all of its own. Similarly the clone story could be seen as drawing on numerous sources, from 1984, to Zamyatin’s We, and it’s big reveal towards the end is wholly predictable. None of this takes away from its impact however, nor from the novel as a whole, which is definitely more than the sum of its parts. What it has to say about predation, exploitation, about the individual and society, progress and technology, goes beyond the limits of the formats of the individual stories.
So, Cloud Atlas seems to evade Ian M Banks’ charges. David Mitchell is clearly aware of some of the history and tradition he draws upon, he engages in the dialogue, and he uses the tropes to create something, that feels to me, genuinely original
Never Let Me Go then. This book was made into a film last year, with initial trailers that made no mention of the basic premise, leaving the impression that it was a coming of age story, with a love triangle set at an exclusive boarding school. This is all true of course, but it just happens to be a boarding school for clones created for the purposes of organ donation.
A familiar enough concept then, featured in a number sf books and films; Michael Bay’s The Island released at the same time as the book was based around the same idea. But the key difference is in the type of story Ishiguro tells; rather than a thriller, where the characters struggle against their fate, or try to escape to some off-stage utopia, Never Let Me Go is a melancholic coming of age story, in which the characters essentially just live out their lives in the only way they can.
There’s no real antagonist, no authoritarian state holding society in its thrall. Ishiguro imagines a world seemingly more or less the same as our own, with one key difference, the use of cloning for transplants resulting in the elimination of many medical conditions. This ‘real’ world is kept at arms length – an early and recurring image in the book is of Kathy, the main character driving on back roads at night, never encountering another soul. We follow her, Tommy and Ruth through a series of more or less closed environments; school, a sort of half way house complex called the cottages, and as carers and donors through various hospitals and homes We see the loss of the constructed innocence of their childhoods, the slow obliteration of fleeting dreams, betrayal, resignation.
The shortened lives of the characters serves as an amplifying effect, heightening the impact of individual actions on each other, creating an impression by the end of the book that whatever they do, it’s always already too late.
The book’s focus on the everyday in the three characters lives, on the strange but mundane world they live in, makes it somehow completely convincing along with the way that individuals and rumours form a sort of collective mythology in their hermetically sealed world. There are oblique references to outside events, everyday notions like working in an office that seem fantastically alien and desirable, and ominous euphemisms. The result is a book that can seem cold, bleak even, but one that is beautifully written, an exploration of life, love, the loss of innocence and death.
A review in the New York Times suggested that Ishiguro intended to upend science fictions banal conventions with this book. Stepping aside that slight to genre fiction, Never Let Me Go seems more like a case of combining different conventions from different types of writing; a science fiction conceit with a narrative structure and tone more usually found in literary fiction.
Now, I’ve just focused on the sf aspects of these books and as such, as a review this is pretty rubbish. There’s so much more to both of these books than what I’ve discussed here, so many more ways in which you could read them than the slightly shallow way in which I’ve approached them here. The point is, partly in response to that Iain M Bank’s article, it is possible to write ‘literary’ books using perhaps unoriginal concepts more usually found in genre fiction, and that the results can be fantastic. The answer might lie, not in the style of writing, nor the devices employed, or the conventions flouted, but in something more simple than any of that; whether the author has anything real to say. Both David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro clearly do, and by having the freedom to explore different styles, to adopt elements from genres sometimes frowned up by mainstream literary critics, they have each managed to create something original and worthwhile.
Heres a link to Iain M Banks’ article;
and heres one to a response by Jeff Vandermeer that makes a lot of better points than mine