Reading Diary: adventures in the unknown

71t4woqu2bnlThe Three-Body Problem has one of the most intensely hard-sf covers I’ve ever seen, and although you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, I reckon in this case you’d be pretty safe. Originally written in Chinese, it’s a fascinating read not only because of the mad-as-pants plot, but because Liu is working in a cultural context that Western science fiction, and Western science fiction readers, absolutely do not have. Starting with a scene in which a professor of physics is beaten to death by a group of over-excited teenage Red Guards in front of his young daughter, Liu meticulously constructs a view of the Cultural Revolution from the inside: not just its physical brutality, but the psychological compromises it forced from every Chinese citizen. Decades later, Ye—the little girl who watched her father die—is a radio astronomer at a top secret establishment called Red Base, tasked not with military surveillance of the decadent West, but with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. When Ye intercepts a radio signal that proves alien intelligence exists, she makes a decision that dooms the human race: reasoning that humanity has proved itself incompetent to rule the planet, she invites them to conquer Earth. This is just the first of a trilogy, so a lot of it consists of stage-setting and maneuvering various bits of plot into place. The writing—not unlike some other books I’ve read in translation from Asian languages, most notably Murakami’s work—feels stilted and unidiomatic, which although frustrating makes me think that it must have something to do with the underlying structures of English vs. Chinese. Characterisation often feels like an afterthought: although Ye’s motivation for welcoming alien overlords is fairly obvious and moving, Liu’s portrayals of, e.g., a man whose girlfriend has recently committed suicide, or a highly educated but nevertheless passive wife, rings less true. However, the experience of reading The Three-Body Problem is so unlike that of reading a Western sci-fi novel—especially because Liu’s politics veer towards the libertarian, which is quite different from the Western sci-fi that’s received critical acclaim in the recent past—that it feels worthwhile just for that.

81oxlxekxxlConvenience Store Woman is absolutely as weird, dark and surreal as everyone has been saying. It’s not that there’s any brutal physical violence in it; the strangeness and discomfort comes from our own reactions to Keiko, Sayaka Murata’s protagonist, a woman whose social skills have always been on the idiosyncratic side. We might think of her as autistic, or neuro-atypical, though there’s never any attempt to diagnose her in the book. Indeed, her family and friends seem unable to understand that she’s not just being willfully weird; constant cries of “can’t you be normal?” baffle Keiko so much that, by the time she’s an adult, she’s decided to aim for social acceptance through mimicry. Most of the time, she manages it: scenes in the staff room of the convenience store where she works show us how closely she pays attention to other peoples’ facial expressions, tones of voice, and lexicons, then regurgitates them in order to fit in. But it’s not really enough; after eighteen years of convenience store life, she still isn’t married, and the demands for normalcy are returning with a vengeance. Her solution is to allow a former employee, the lost, lazy and reactionary Shiraha (he’s your basic MRA/incel/”women are factually inferior to men because the Stone Age”), to live in her flat (well, in her bathtub, technically), which makes everyone else believe they’re dating—maybe even approaching marriage. Shiraha is awful, obviously, but the point is that, this way, they might both have half a chance of fitting in. The crisis of the novel, the choice which Keiko has to make, is: can she give up the only identity that has ever made sense to her (that of a convenience store worker) in order to do that? Murata’s ending, while distinctly odd, is odd in the most joyful and true-to-character way; this is not “the new Eleanor Oliphant”, but something much stranger and, therefore, better.

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979Thomas Page McBee wrote an earlier book, Man Alive, about his transition; this one, Amateur, is about his attempts to learn to box in order to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden. (He did it, becoming the first trans man to box there in the process.) As its subtitle would suggest, this is fertile ground in terms of seeing questions about manhood through the lens of violence, aggression, love, and the moments where those three things can be synonymous, and the moments where they are not. It is, as I said on Instagram, a book about being a good man, and a book about punching someone in the face. McBee is especially good on moments of disorientation, where he sees himself from the outside: not just flashbacks to his changing physique, but also quieter moments when he realises he’s failed to be the ally to women that he thought he was. (There’s a particularly painful moment when he and his brother both talk over his sister despite her knowing more about the topic of discussion. There’s also a thought-provoking incident at the start of the book, where another man tries to start a fight with him on the street. He’s not targeted for being trans; the other man doesn’t register that at all. Rather, McBee sees it as emblematic of a particular kind of male anger, one that lacks the vocabulary to ask to be loved. It acts as something of a catalyst for him in his attempts to discover what kind of man he wants, or needs, to be.) For me, as a woman who has never been either sporty or masculine-presenting, the scenes in McBee’s training gym were like secret dispatches from an alien culture: the men who teach him to hit are also the men who wrap his hands and treat his cuts and pour water into his mouth. At the very end of the book, when he finally comes out to his training coach, he discovers that the coach already knows, and has only been wondering when McBee will trust him enough to say it. The technical stuff about fighting and the more personal, psychological content is beautifully intertwined (and it’s especially nice to know that McBee’s girlfriend Jess, who makes several appearances in the book, usually with a tarot deck nearby, is now his wife). A must-read, and not just for folks interested in LGBTQ writing/issues.

tempestsandslaughter_final-440x655Those of you who grew up in the late ’80s/early ’90s may remember Tamora Pierce’s two YA fantasy quartets, The Song of the Lioness and The Immortals; both were what a theorist might call formative texts for me. The latter, featuring a girl called Daine who can communicate telepathically with animals and even inhabit their bodies, also features her mentor and (spoilers!) eventual lover, the mage Numair Salmalin. Tempests and Slaughter (which, by the way, is something like six years overdue) promises to be the first in a series that follows the boy who became Numair: born Arram Draper, his gift for magic prompts his merchant family to place him at the Imperial University in Carthak at the age of ten. So it is very much the sort of thing that will appeal to hard-core Tamora Pierce nostalgia fandom (a group in which I place myself), but does it hold up as an actual book? Mostly, yes. Arram’s two best friends at university, Varice and Ozorne, are familiar: they appear in Emperor Mage, the third Immortals book, and there’s some inherent tension here in knowing their eventual fates, and wondering how those characters go from being fresh-faced, clever young students to the jaded and fated adults we’ve already met. But Pierce is fairly successful at making us care for them in their own rights: Varice’s magic is very feminine-coded, which causes others to underestimate her (she’s good at food and herbs and hospitality), but she’s brilliant and kind; Ozorne, though he has readily apparent faults, is loyal and brave. The strongest part of the book is the university, which is more of a school, since it takes trainee mages as young as ten. There’s an element of Hogwarts-appeal there, and the diverse, eccentric cast of instructors are great fun. The political element of the book involves slavery, which the Carthakis practice without compunction, and which the young Arram grows to realise he cannot support, particularly as Carthaki high society places a great emphasis on gladiatorial games, which are fought entirely by slaves. As a whole, Tempests and Slaughter is too long. One of Pierce’s great gifts in her earlier books was her ability to compress years of plot into 200 pages, but the industry no longer requires brevity of YA literature—not since Harry Potter—and as a result, Pierce here has the freedom to make her point too many times. Still, the earlier books aren’t perfect either, and that’s not going to stop the legions of fans who’ve been waiting for this one.

668282The Driver’s Seat is the first of the books I checked out last weekend from my local library (which I was very excited about). I’ve read some Spark before (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and A Far Cry From Kensington) but didn’t really connect with it, and I have to say that The Driver’s Seat didn’t change that. Luckily, it’s so short and so twisted that it’s impossible to get bored while reading it; never has the metaphor of watching a slow-motion car crash been so apt. Lise, an office worker, takes her first holiday in nearly two decades. She buys eye-wateringly mismatched clothes in a shop, managing to insult the shopgirls while she’s at it, and flies to an unnamed Mediterranean city, perhaps Rome. These activities take up several chapters, and as they unfold it becomes progressively clearer to us that Lise is unhinged: she laughs hysterically at nothing, has a strangely imperious manner, and—most of all—she lies endlessly. In the airport she seems to be trying on identities; one minute she’s telling a fellow passenger that money has always been too tight for a holiday, and the next she’s holding forth like a seasoned traveller on the need to pack light. It’s impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers, so I won’t; suffice to say that you can only read The Driver’s Seat for the first time once. Subsequent readings might illuminate the pattern and structure of the novel, but nothing will ever make a reader forget that plot. It’s macabre and entrancing, impossible to take your eyes off. My problem with it is Lise’s complete lack of interiority. This is quite intentional on Spark’s part—we’re absolutely not meant to understand Lise’s train of thought—and it’s bound up, I think, with her Catholicism. (The grotesquerie of The Driver’s Seat reminds me in very large part of Flannery O’Connor’s work, although O’Connor’s protagonists are pretty much always more readily comprehensible than Lise is.) That particular form of storytelling doesn’t hold much interest for me. I only like O’Connor as much as I do because her characters, though extreme, make sense; they can communicate their own internal logic to us, and while it might not be our logic, we can at least see how they arrive at their conclusions. Spark has no interest in whether Lise makes sense or not. Her world in The Driver’s Seat is meticulously constructed, but cold, and therefore I think it will always leave me so, too.

a1t-uvhpoalDaisy Johnson’s Man Booker-longlisted novel, Everything Under, is also hard to discuss without giving things away. It is, essentially, not a retelling but a re-working of a Greek myth, and once you work out which myth, everything about the plot falls into place. That’s not to say it’s arid or formulaic—it’s the very opposite, wild and fertile and irreverent. Gretel is a lexicographer now, working on updating definitions of words for a dictionary (implicitly the OED, with its offices on Walton Street in Oxford). But she’s haunted by memories of her mother Sarah, whom she hasn’t seen since she was sixteen, and of the summer when a strange boy named Marcus came to stay with them, living in their houseboat on the river Isis. In the same summer, the river was plagued by rumours of a creature that was stealing children from houseboats, sheep from water meadows. Sarah and Gretel called it the Bonak. When Sarah reappears in Gretel’s life, she has to face what really happened back then. That brief summary reduces Everything Under to mere event, though, when the experience of reading it is actually mostly atmospheric. Johnson shifts back and forth between the present day (with Sarah, now suffering from dementia, living in Gretel’s house), the slightly earlier present (as Gretel searches for Sarah), the past as Gretel’s memory, and the past as seen through Marcus’s eyes. Johnson’s smart enough to trust her readers’ ability to follow these chronological jumps, so they’re not signposted, which gives the whole book an appropriate air of fluidity. And that’s very much an overarching theme: the unshowy but persistent strain of gender-bending in Everything Under works to reinforce that, and is worked against by a sense of rigidity that comes from the book’s adherence to the concept of fate and tragic irony. (This will make much more sense if you’ve read it and know which Greek story Johnson is working with.) It’s a beautiful, feral thing to read, by a highly skilled writer.

Thoughts on this batch of reading: So many of these books have been about unfamiliar or unusual experiences, transformation, change. It all feels rather interconnected: McBee’s book and Johnson’s dealing with unruly bodies, Murata’s and Spark’s disturbing women, the speculative politics of Liu and Pierce. I like it when that happens.

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13 thoughts on “Reading Diary: adventures in the unknown

    • It’s short, so if you don’t get on with it, it hasn’t taken up too much of your time, but I was very pleasantly surprised and impressed by it.

  1. I’m so intrigued by The Three-Body Problem but I don’t have a good track record with SF that’s short on characterisation. I really like what you say about it giving a glimpse of a different literary tradition, however.

    I’m definitely ‘hard-core Tamora Pierce nostalgia fandom’, but I struggled with Tempests and Slaughter; it’s just so long for what it is! I did think the thread with the gladiators began an interesting story that will presumably be expanded upon in later volumes.

    I’m afraid I gave up on Everything Under halfway through; Johnson is a wonderful writer (and I really liked Fen) but I just couldn’t find anything to hold onto. (It also struck me that Gretel’s job is one of the most literary fiction jobs ever; I can imagine an Ali Smith character having a job like it…)

  2. I’ve been wanting to read Liu’s book, so thanks for the review! I heard it’s pretty heavy on the environmental science. Your thoughts about Chinese are interesting, as I just read a book by Murakami and had a hard time connecting with it, partly because the language did feel stilted (and partly because he seems to see women as very “other”).

  3. If you enjoyed Three-Body Problem then it’s worth reading the sequels: The Dark Forest & Death’s End. They share the same issues with characterisation and slightly stiff language (as you say, translation?) but the intellectual ideas they contain are astonishing at times.

  4. I lectured in children/YA literature for many years and I was always particularly interested in fantasy novels, but somehow Tamara Pierce was a writer I couldn’t get on with. Perhaps I should go back and try her again. Where would you suggest I start?

  5. Amateur sounds absolutely like my type of book. I really need to hunt down a copy. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
    Also, I really enjoyed Everything Under (but did think the last 20% let the book down a bit) and I am so it is longlisted; I would have missed the book otherwise.

  6. I also really enjoyed The Three Body Problem! Both the ideas and the cultural context did help set it apart from other sci-fi I’ve read. I also particularly liked the scale of the story.

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