Sunday miscellany 9

Finally got round to reading Martha Wells’s much-touted Murderbot Diaries this week, having been lent the first four novellas in extremely nice box-set edition by my friend Mairi. The characterization—the voice—of Murderbot, a security “construct” with both cloned organic and mechanical parts which has successfully hacked its governor module and achieved (mental) freedom, is definitely as good as everyone says it is. Sarcastic, deeply uncomfortable with eye contact and being touched, trying but failing to continue a life of indifference and media streaming (it loves a dramatic soap opera with six hundred-odd episodes called The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon), Murderbot has been taken to heart by many neurodivergent readers. I particularly liked its strenuous and explicit disinterest in “becoming human”; it’s happy with its own identity, hybrid as it is. The plotting is a bit of a problem; despite being only about 150 pages, each novella’s plot is laid out with such laborious attention paid to every detail that it manages to seem a bit… well, labored. The characterization of virtually everyone else is a bit by numbers, too, although Dr. Mensah is sympathetic and I really enjoyed ART (Asshole Research Transport), an infinitely more powerful AI than Murderbot who assists in the second novella. I was hoping ART would make a return, actually; it’s good for Murderbot to have another non-human to keep it on its toes; but no such luck. The protagonist is really the draw here, I think, but I’d read another (and indeed there are two more, including the novel-length Network Effect, the back-cover blurb for which suggests ART is back! Yay.)

Other than that: fired off a request last week for Lulu Allison’s Women’s Prize-longlisted Salt Lick, which turned up and was promoted to top of the TBR for no particularly good reason. It’s a dystopia, but in terms of its political and social setting, it’s one of the most convincing ones I’ve read in a very long time. I can’t think of a recent novel that projects Britain as it is now forty-odd years into the future with greater plausibility. Extreme media bias, increased food importation, vehicle bans, regular pandemics, the full devolution of all four nations, a combination of urban flight and people returning to decimated villages and forming self-sufficient co-ops—it all just seems bang-on. It’s a shame then that the plot, characterization and style can’t quite carry the weight of the smart and thoughtful background. Not that anything is overtly badly done, here; it’s more a question of impetus and oomph, or the lack thereof. The two point-of-view characters are both vague: they have motives, and emotions, but a thin yet persistent layer of authorial interpretation stands between reader and character, preventing us from knowing the characters as personally as one might like. The plot meanders a little too much: it’s structured, but lacks the drive to arrive at its beats on time or with enough heft. The interjections from a chorus of feral cows (of which much has been made) don’t actively detract from the book, but I’m not convinced they were strictly necessary either; the points they make are too often generic about the righteousness of nature’s way, too little surprising (as, for instance, Laura Jean McKay manages to be in The Animals in That Country). It’s not shortlist level, I don’t think, but for that incredibly convincing setup, I’ll give it a lot of credit.

Finally, a little collection by Alma Classics of Pushkin’s Belkin’s Stories. They reminded me a lot of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, actually: short, dramatic, usually recounted through or by another character to the narrator, frequently with a psychological twist in the tail. Belkin is an invention of Pushkin’s, a slightly feckless young landowner whose desire to write something worthwhile is subtly mocked throughout: he’s painted as a bit dim, a bit under-read, a bit superficial. The conceit is that he wrote all of the stories in the collection before dying young, leaving them to be discovered, edited and published by “A.P.” The metatextual games give the whole a surprisingly po-mo flavour, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising given the long history of metatextuality but which does lend the stories a spice of the unexpected. I particularly enjoyed “The Blizzard”, in which a young couple plan to elope; the groom is caught in a freak snowstorm and misses the appointment. The intended bride returns home and, to all appearances, pines away for the next five years or so, before meeting and falling in love with a man who returns her affections—but there’s an obstacle to their happiness… I won’t spoil it, but the conclusion is both mathematical in its tidiness and, emotionally, a delight. “Young Miss Peasant” is a similar story focusing on the burgeoning love between a young hussar and the daughter of his neighbour, who has anonymized herself by dressing as a peasant girl for their meetings—her wit and humour account for a good deal of the story’s charm. There’s also “The Undertaker”, which has a kind of Aickman-esque flavour of horror, although it’s funnier; “The Post-master”, in which a young woman’s seduction isn’t the total catastrophe we might expect (although her father’s inability to understand that leads him to a tragic end); and “The Shot”, about delayed vengeance, which I didn’t like nearly as much as the others but which did set the Lermontov-y tone from the start. There’s also A History of Goryukhino Village, an unfinished fragment but also supposedly written by Belkin. It isn’t long enough to leave much of an impression on me, apart from an awareness that Pushkin’s using it to poke fun at over-serious writers of history.

AOB: I’m drawing to the end of my Russian Spring—I’m still planning to hunt up a copy of Pale Fire, so it’s not over yet, but I’m thinking about conclusions and about next steps re. a programme of reading. I’m weighing up three summer options: a Southern Summer (the American South, mind you), an African Summer, or a Black American Classics Summer. (I’m also going to participate, or try to, in Cathy’s very relaxed 20 Books of Summer challenge, which this should help with.) Any opinions or preferences?

18 thoughts on “Sunday miscellany 9

    1. Woohoo! I did my undergrad theses on southern lit (one on Faulkner and one using Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor)–it’s a definite area of interest.

  1. Ah, I’m glad you felt the same about the Murderbot Diaries as I did! I’ve only read the first one but from the rave reviews I expected to LOVE them, but I also found everything but Murderbot itself a bit thin. I’ve been put off reading further on in the series by the price of the later novellas. Also good to hear your take on Salt Lick, which was one of the WP longlist titles I skipped – it definitely sounds like I was right to do so, as I think I’d struggle with the poor characterisation (it takes a lot to get me to read a dystopia these days…)

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on some African literature over the summer.

    1. I really did think the Murderbot voice worked brilliantly–just that the plots had no room to breathe. Salt Lick was very promising but I think overall didn’t fulfill all of its potential (though I’m still thinking about it).

      A vote for African lit! Excellent, noted.

  2. Oh I’ve read The Blizzard (I looked up a plot summary to confirm) but I don’t know where. Maybe in a short story Advent calendar? I loved it, a lot more than Eugene Onegin… I love the concept for this collection.

      1. This translation was by Roger Clarke and every one of the titles he gives the stories differs from the usual!

    1. It’s really good, isn’t it! This was the first Pushkin I’d ever read so I had nothing to compare it to, but I liked it a lot and enjoyed seeing how he’d clearly influenced later writers.

  3. I own a copy of Pale Fire – what an extraordinary book. I bought a Penguin Modern Classics edition in 2015. Hopefully you will manage to find your own copy.

  4. I have Salt Lick out from the library as a potential doorstopper to read on the ferry/on holiday in Spain. I’m not big on dystopias, but I’ll give the early pages a go and see if it takes. I’ll look out for your summer theme. Mine is Flora (loosely interpreted!).

    1. Oh, I like Flora as a theme. Some fun lateral choices to be made there! I wouldn’t say Salt Lick is the doorstopperiest doorstopper (page count is in the low 400s I think?), though in retrospect it’s certainly longer than I’d say it needs to be. See what you think.

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