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Review Catch-up #2 - Speculative Fiction

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Imperial Radch #1

Orbit 2013
Trade Paperback
384 pages
Science Fiction; Space Opera; Science Fantasy

The last book I read in 2016 was easily one of the best. I had read a short review of this trilogy in the Review section of the Weekend Australian (the Review section is much less right-wing than the newspaper itself, perhaps because it’s mighty difficult to marry conservative values with the confronting and questioning nature of art and literature) some months earlier, ordered this, the first, book, and then forgot all about it. While looking for something to take with me on a beach holiday after Christmas (we went to Byron Bay), I thought this might do the trick – and I was right. I suffer from terrible travel sickness on domestic flights (something to do with the lower altitude, air pressure and the inner ear??), and even though I had my ear plugs, music and was taking a tonne of Travel Calm, I still felt incredibly nauseous, breaking out in a cold sweat and feeling close to vomiting. Usually, I can’t read a thing, nothing can take my mind off how awful I’m feeling and how much concentration it takes not to throw up (I’m not always successful). And yet, Ancillary Justice was up to the challenge – and won. What a fantastic book! It absolutely deserves the praise it received in the review I read, not to mention all three major Science Fiction awards: the Hugo, the Arthur C Clarke and the Nebula (2014).

It will be hard, though, to explain the set-up of this story, because it is beautifully original without being too complicated or esoteric (I’m currently having that problem with another book, Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink). The Radch empire is centuries old and extends across a vast reach of galaxy. Their massive starships are artificial intelligences that not only run, manage, control and monitor absolutely everything on board (there is zero privacy), but also serve as soldiers through their thousands of ancillaries. An ancillary was a human but is no more – their brains are empty things. After being kept in storage in the holds until needed, they are connected to the ship and the ship’s consciousness is thus split into all these different bodies, alongside and within the ship itself. Think of it like a computer tracking through thousands of cameras, able to think different things at the same time. On the ship, the ancillaries are like servants, and they are divided into different levels to match the many floors of the ship. On colonised planets, they are soldiers, spies and servants.

Breq is an ancillary soldier on a mission, a mission of revenge. As a starship, the Justice of Toren, she was blown up. This one ancillary was given last-minute orders and escaped in a pod. Her quest is one which no sane human would attempt, for Breq is going after the ruler of the empire, Anaander Mianaai, who also uses ancillaries to the point that there is no ‘original’ Anaander Mianaai anymore. Not only that, but Justice of Toren, before being destroyed, had discovered a truth that no one else realises: there isn’t just one Anaander Mianaai anymore, one consciousness embodied in many ancillaries, there are two – and they are at war with each other/itself. This split, Breq has worked out, began when Anaander Mianaai ordered a whole planet destroyed as punishment for an attempted assassination: her conscience split over the decision.

As awful as the demise of a whole planet is, it has also given Breq the form of her quest: while the incredible guns used in the attempt were seized – guns that evade detection – one slipped through. It is in pursuit of this one special gun that Breq now finds herself on an ice-bound planet.

There is so much to love and enjoy here, not least of all Breq’s first-person voice. As an artificial intelligence, as the remainder of the Justice of Toren, she is clearly not human, but she is understandable, sympathetic and vastly interesting. She can be quite deadly at times, able to make quick calculations and deductions, and very strong – much stronger than she appears. This is another aspect of the world that is interesting: in the Radch culture, they do not distinguish between men and women, and use the female pronoun for everyone. The actual, biological gender of the people Breq meets is irrelevant to her, not important. But we learn that the ancillary who calls herself Breq is gendered female; others, we never know for sure. The Radch are not particularly evil, intimidating, cruel or vicious. They are, however, superior-minded, and like many worlds, have a very clear idea of what it is to be civilised, and who is to be considered ‘civilised’.

Alongside the exciting space-adventure story lie these thought-provoking ideas, and such is Leckie’s skill at character and world-building, this complex story is rendered entirely clear without being simplified. It was beautifully layered, the backstory – Breq’s story – parcelled out at just the right time, with just the right amount of new information revealed, and by returning to past scenes and events now and again, our understanding is solidified and expanded upon. A wonderful, wonderful story cleverly told – this is going on the favourites list!

Read in December 2016.

The Circle by Dave Eggers
Penguin Books 2014 (2013)
Trade Paperback
491 pages
Speculative Fiction; Dystopian Fiction; Satire

The Circle is a perfectly timed book and will be timely for quite some time, ha ha. The question of our right to privacy has long been debated and is not altogether a given – even less so since 9-11. The right to privacy has taken on a new dimension since the world wide web took off and social media became ‘the thing’. While social media can be empowering and has been used to a means to redress a power imbalance (think of those who film police beating someone up, or the Arab Spring), it can also have the reverse effect. Pair this up with the amazing power of the internet – or rather, specific software programs and companies – to track our usage, our spending, our habits etc. in order to ‘better’ or more ‘efficiently’ target us with ‘tailored’ products, and it can seem like the whole world is watching you. (There is the interesting case, in the United States, of the teenage girl who started receiving advertising for baby products; her father, outraged, complained, but it turns out she was pregnant and didn’t even know it – but the companies did. They knew she was pregnant before she did because of the things she was buying, which apparently, women who are pregnant tend to buy. Such is the vast volume of data at their disposal that their algorithms are able to work that kind of thing out.)

When Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle (modelled on Google), she feels giddy and in awe. Sure, it’s in a call centre division, answering customer service emails, but in a company like the Circle, people notice when you prove yourself, and Mae is determined to prove herself. At first, though, it seems that her values and ideals are at odds with the Circle’s: they want total transparency in people’s lives, while she still goes out in a kayak for peace and solitude and, horror of all horrors, doesn’t post about it on social media. Mae mends her ways and becomes a staunch supporter of everything the Circle does and says. But in a company that has eyes and ears everywhere, who is the strange, enigmatic man who slips in and about, undetected? The name he told her doesn’t show in the system, and Mae soon doubts that he works there at all, but it’s not long before she realises that he may be planning something. So when he asks for her help, Mae is faced with a momentous decision.

As someone who is not on her mobile phone constantly, or who uses her social media accounts with any frequency (I visit maybe once a week, and post even less), and as a teacher who is constantly in competition with the distraction of mobile phones (or rather, their internet connectivity) at a period in our civilisation in which the boundaries between work/study and social time seem ever more blurred by users, I found the Circle and its creed disturbing, even frightening, but all too real. The Circle represents the kind of oppression – through the denial of a right to privacy – that the people not only buy into, but enforce. In effect, people police themselves, a kind of brainwashing. It all comes down to the power of language, and the power of public relations (the other name for PR is ‘propaganda’).

Mae is something of a frustrating heroine because she’s not very bright. She’s easily impressed, and other people’s arguments – in particular, the people who run the Circle – completely blindside her. Mae represents the vast blob of humanity in this: she is the everyman, a simple, ordinary person with modest ambitions and modest intelligence. It doesn’t make for easy reading, in the sense that she makes you, the reader, feel more superior – and I’m not someone who is all that keen on feeling that way.

In true literary dystopian fashion, this has an ending that you probably won’t like, but it is the right ending for the story. While the understanding of dystopian fiction, as a genre, has been skewed by the slew of Young Adult adventure novels – in which the dystopia serves as setting and premise, but which aren’t, really, dystopian stories in and of themselves (more like coming-of-age stories for young teens with a message of hope and freedom through collaboration, resilience, perseverance and rebellion against an oppressive regime) – really, the dystopian genre is concerned with a satiric representation of authority and socio-political commentary. They’re not meant to be thrillers or romances or coming of age stories or exciting adventures. They’re meant to be dark, troubling thought experiments that emphasise flaws in our political structure, social values and to show us where we might end up should we follow a certain path. Here, Eggers has taken on Google’s vast reach, the influence of social media and the troubling infringements on privacy through laws that are passed with little fanfare, all in the name of protecting us and freedom – an irony that is best served through the satirical nature of dystopic work – and his ending is apt. As such, I value this novel for its ideas and the disturbingly realistic depiction of twenty-first century westerners, even though it is at times slow and Mae herself is rather too realistic for comfort. But that’s the point, surely: you shouldn’t get too comfortable, reading a dystopian novel.

Read in September 2016.

The Children of Men by PD James
Vintage Books 2006 (1992
Trade Paperback
241 pages
Speculative Fiction; Dystopian Fiction

Finally, finally, I have read – or rather, finished – a PD James book. My first foray was back in, oh, 2007 or ‘8, a colleague lent me one of her detective novels, I don’t remember which one. I couldn’t get into it at all; it had all the traits I struggle with in detective fiction: superficial, cardboard characters whom you never get to know or understand; not enough detail (ironic, isn’t it, in a crime fiction book?); and, therefore, no real interest on my part in the crime or ‘whodunit’. I never finished it, and returned it rather shamefaced and apologetic. But The Children of Men is a completely different kettle of fish. I saw the 2006 film adaptation when it came out and really enjoyed it. While I can’t remember much of it, a few scenes have stuck in my head – enough for me to know that it’s very different to the book. As such, seeing the film first isn’t going to ruin the tension or the ending of the novel which, while first published in 1992, remains timeless in its themes and ideas. and what it has to say about human nature.

It is 2021 and the human race is at crisis point. It has been twenty-five years since a baby was born on Earth, and as Theo’s journal begins, the last baby to be born has just died in a pub brawl. Theodore Faron is a historian at Oxford University, history being a subject that people have lost all interest in. When there are no babies being born, there is no future, so what it the point to it all? People are facing the extinction of centuries of civilisation, everything. Apathy and ennui have set in, not to mention the ghost towns, the depletion of food and the Omega violence. Omegas – named after that last year of babies, Omega – are the last year of babies; now grown up, and having been raised in a pampered way, they have become utterly self-absorbed and, for some at least, have turned into gangs that mete out senseless, ritualistic violence on the unwary.

England responded swiftly, and has more stability than many countries. The Warden of England is a powerful man. He and his Council – Martin Woolvington, Industry and Production; Harriet Marwood, Health, Science and Recreation; Felicia Rankin, Home Afairs; and Carl Ingleback, Minister for Justice and State Security – manage the whole country with utter authority. The Warden’s authority is underlined by his promise to the nation: Freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom. One of his measures is to use the Isle of Man as a prison, where anyone caught committing a crime, even petty crimes, are sent for life. Another aspect of this new England is the Quietas: state-sanctioned and supported euthanasia.

The Warden (or dictator) is Xan Lyppiatt, and he is Theo’s cousin. Theo spent nearly every summer holiday, as a boy, at Xan’s home, a grand estate called Woolcombe – now it is a nursing home. And many years later, Theo spent two years as a kind of adviser to the Warden, sitting in on Council meetings, ostensibly to offer his insights. [It’s a truism not acknowledged anymore that a history degree – and many other Arts degrees – will equip you for analytical roles; it’s true, historians make amazing analysts, and people with philosophy degrees are strong CEOs. The problem, as always, likes in marketing.]

It is due to this connection that Theo is approached by a small group of revolutionaries, who want him to meet with the Warden and put forward their demands. They want the transportation of criminals to the Man Penal Colony stopped, and better conditions for the prisoners – the island is like a gulag, ruled by thugs where violence and starvation are rife. Escape is believed to be impossible, but one young man, Henry, managed it. He sought out his sister, Miriam, and before he was arrested again and executed, he told her about life there. The other demand is an end to the Quietas, which they say is performed against people’s will. Theo is doubtful, but attends one: a busload of old people are driven to a pier, put on a boat and then the boat is sunk at sea. What Theo witnesses shakes him to the core: one of the women, someone he had known for years, resisted and tried to escape her fate. She is clubbed, and Theo, in trying to assist her, is also beaten.

But it is one of the other women, Julian, who draws Theo to the group like a magnet. She is beautiful and intelligent, but one of her hands is deformed – this deformity excludes her from the regular sterility check-ups that ‘healthy’ people must undergo. She is married to one of the other group members, Rolf. Aside from this couple and Miriam, whose trade before Omega was as a midwife, there are two others: Luke, a priest, and an older man, Gascoigne. Theo goes ahead with the meeting with Xan, though it is as futile as he predicted, but there is a much deeper secret driving the group than human rights: Julian is the first woman in twenty-five years to be pregnant. A deeply religious (Christian) woman, Julian does not want the protection of the Warden; she doesn’t want hospitals and strangers at her side. She wants a hut in the forest, and just her group by her. But hiding her, protecting her from gangs of Omegas and keeping her from Xan’s knowledge is no easy feat in a country where he controls everything and knows everything.

This is a fascinating story of humanity with a premise that is both compelling and terrifying. It’s interesting just how scary the idea of ‘withering’ really is: of just slowly dying out, and with full knowledge, of so many people facing the knowledge of the extinction of the human race. Perhaps it’s just me, but the knowing is frightening (though I’m not on the side of “ignorance is bliss”; I acknowledge the fear but think it’s worse to lie to yourself or maintain stupidity). The sense of ennui (a French word meaning “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement”) pervades the novel; it’s always in the background, thanks to Theo so thoughtfully describing the situation in his journal, which takes up the first several chapters, providing much-needed exposition. The atmospheric quality of this apathetic despair makes the tension and fear around Julian’s pregnancy all the more vivid.

Being a novel of and about western civilisation, Christianity and questions of God are throughout – Theo is a calm non-believer, and Julian’s religious fervour is one of her less attractive features. Below the level of discussion and debate, though, the novel alludes to the birth of Christ in its ending; yet, because of what Theo does in the denouement (and I am trying hard to hold back from spoilers), it seemed to me that James was writing a clever critique of humanity, and the connection between power and religion. Of doing ‘wrong’ things for the ‘right’ reasons. Of the force of symbolism and the compromises we make for the sake of bigger things, or rather, the things we believe in. And, as in all good literature, it doesn’t offer answers but raises discomfiting questions, emphasises ideas that many of us don’t like to dwell on – not least of which is, do we deserve a second chance?

Read in September 2016.

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K Le Guin
Tor 2010 (1972)
Trade Paperback
189 pages
Science Fiction

This short novel is a super-quick read and seems hardly dated at all, perhaps because it is more about humanity and colonisation than space travel or aliens. Everything and anything can be viewed as a representation or allusion or allegory, and The Word for World is Forest is just as easily about what humans have already done to each other as it is about our potential wrongdoing in the future.

In this futuristic world, the Earth has been depleted of resources and other planets have been colonised for their resources. Or perhaps ‘colonised’ isn’t quite accurate here: there are outposts and small settlements, but our purpose there isn’t really to colonise but to exploit. Or maybe that’s the point: the two are so closely related as to be interchangeable. There are certain rules in place, and Earth’s humans’ sense of their own superiority is carefully sheltered within this moral righteousness. On Athshea, a green, densely forested planet, they are harvesting trees and using the natives to do most of the work. These small-statured, furry green beings, which the colonisers call “creechies”, are in all reality slaves, and ones that the resident humans have no respect for. They aren’t violent, so one Athshean, Selver, is the exception. When his wife is killed by Captain Davidson, one of the camp leaders and an incredibly bigoted man, Selver reacts so violently Davidson almost kills him to get him to stop. He is nursed back to health by another human man, Captain Raj Lyubov, who is looked down on by his peers for being ‘soft’ on the natives.

Selver’s plan goes further than revenge: he wants to stop the felling of trees and get the humans or – ‘yumens’ – off the planet entirely, but to do that, he must become a god and lead his people into a new world of violence and killing. In short, they must become more like the humans in order to defeat them, attacking and destroying and killing. As such, will they lose their true natures? What is the price of peace and is it worth paying? Such are the philosophical questions raised by Le Guin, but the difference here is that the Athsheans aren’t human, and don’t think or behave the same way we do. The clash of cultures, thought processes and values is quite clear and, I found, invigorating. The story might feel a bit ‘done’ for some readers, based on the books and films that have come after its 1972 release, but I think there’s still much here to offer, and a critique on humanity that will probably never be irrelevant.

Read in June 2016.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne
Play by Jack Thorne

Little, Brown 2016
330 pages
Play; Fantasy

Harry Potter needs no introduction, but this play needs some context. It is set several years after the events of the final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry and Ginny’s children are getting ready to start a new school year at Hogwart’s, alongside Ron and Hermione’s children. The story revolves around young Albus, now eleven years old and embarking on his first year away from home. Albus is worried, soon with just cause: to the shock of everyone, he is sorted into Slytherin house – and comes to love it.

But Albus is no Tom Riddle or Draco Malfoy – he’s a Potter-Weasley and adventure is never far away, nor good intentions. He becomes determined to save Cedric (he of the incredibly tragic ending in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) by going back in time – more than once, causing disturbing changes in the present.

This is a wonderful coming-of-age story for young Albus, who is marginalised and judged as somewhat lacking by others. His new best friend is Scorpius Malfoy, son of Harry’s old nemesis and also a disappointment to his family: Scorpius is a lovely kid, but not appreciated for who his real nature. It is also the story of Harry as a father, a loving father but a father who is floundering, struggling to connect with his youngest son and making some big mistakes. His hero status drops quite a bit, and you see the flawed human that is within us all.

While it is, in many ways, a homage to the novels, The Goblet of Fire in particular, it offers some wonderful new characters and a less polished glimpse into this world of witches and wizards. Harry is tarnished, a middle-aged bureaucrat who – perhaps because he never had a real father himself – is making a hash at connecting to Albus. Other beloved characters from the original series, now older and tired and less patient (that is to say, typical adults who frown upon the kinds of ideas, decisions and antics they themselves engaged in as children), seem more human than ever, which nicely balances the fantastical elements of the world and the story. It also does a sound job of using new crises to build strong relationships between friends, family and old enemies.

I loved this story, this play, but gosh it made me miss the full-length novels! It was just so damn short! A novella, really, in terms of length and how fast you can read it (give yourself a day or two, depending on distractions). Because it’s a play it reads super fast, and I have always loved Rowling’s writing and how she fleshes out her characters, settings and situations. Jack Thorne has done an admirable job here, and as I loosely string these pitiful sentences together, I am overtaken by an intense urge to re-read it straight away.

Read in August 2016.

Slated by Teri Terry
Slated #1

Orchard Books 2012
Trade Paperback
439 pages
YA Speculative Fiction; Dystopian Fiction

Slated is quite simple in premise at first, but a story which becomes more interesting at the end when it takes a new turn and makes you wonder afresh. To be ‘slated’ is to have your mind wiped clean – as clean as a slate, that old piece of slate tile that children used to learn to write on, a long time ago – as punishment for some crime. It only works on people up to a certain age (sixteen? Seventeen? I forget), but after being slated they must stay in the hospital for some time, learning to walk and talk again, building new memories. The slated wear a Levo on their wrist, a device that, connected to a chip in the brain and their pulse, measures their levels of fear, anxiety, excitement and will make them pass out if it drops to a certain level. It also tracks them, and they cannot be removed – doing so would kill them.

Kyla has been slated. She doesn’t know why, and it’s not something you ask, but everyone assumes kids who have been slated have done something horrible, like murder or terrorism. Certainly, in this era of frequent terrorist attacks and surveillance in a country ruled by an authoritarian regime, punishments are severe. Kyla is not her original name but the one she has been given; she is also given a new family. She is already a bit different from the other Slateds, though: she draws, with exceptional skill, and she recovered quickly from the operation. Later in the story, she discovers something else that troubles her: at a moment of pure terror, and another of white-hot rage, she doesn’t shut down – she is even able to exercise violence. Her Levo should have instantly rendered her unconscious, but it didn’t. She also has troubling dreams – but are they dreams, or are they memories that have survived the slating process?

The first half of this book was a little … quiet, for me, but at some point it picks up and you start wondering more and more. There’s a lot that is unexplained, but what is is intriguing and thrilling. I’m not entirely sure where it’s going, but it seems like a fairly standard YA dystopian, in that the setting is dystopian but the story itself is really a thriller, and a coming-of-age story. Whether it has any deeper socio-political commentary or is responding to anything beyond nonconformity and terrorism, I’m unconvinced at this point. But it is nicely written and the characters are well drawn. Dr Lysander, in particular, is an interesting character – so ominous and frightening at the start, but is she actually kind-hearted and compassionate? I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with the other two books, Fractured and Shattered.

Read in October 2016.

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
Lorien Legacies #1

Harper 2011 (2010)
Trade Paperback
440 pages
YA Speculative Fiction/Fantasy; Thriller

I don’t often bother commenting on books I don’t finish, as usually it’s more of a case of not being in the right mood for something, or too much happening in life and I forget what’s going on to the point where I’d have to start from the beginning again. In the case of I Am Number Four, however, I know I’ll never pick it up again and attempt to finish it. It’s so dreadfully written, the narrator’s voice is eye-rollingly lame and, even worse, creepy, and the plot has too many holes to survive. It’s a sinking ship, and one I wouldn’t want to rescue. And can I just repeat that the narrator, the ‘hero’, is super creepy? Ugh, the way he ‘charms’ the girls, *shudder*.

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