Carnival, Elizabeth Bear

11 Apr
carnival

Cover of Carnival

Carnival
Elizabeth Bear

Bantam Spectra, 2006
ISBN 0-553-58904-0

Review by Paul Kincaid

There was a time, not so long ago, when British science fiction was in the doldrums. What lifted it out and established what has been called the “British renaissance” was a rediscovery through the works of such as Iain M Banks and Colin Greenland of the excitement of traditional SF tropes and topics. Of late we have started to see that same reappraisal of core science fictional ideas in some of the younger American writers like John Scalzi and Elizabeth Bear. Carnival by Bear is a perfect example of such a return. Strip away the sexual politics overlaid on the story, which add complexity to the plot but not necessarily depth to the novel, and this is a book that could have come straight from the so-called golden age.

In broad terms we see Earth and its more local planets under a fascistic dictatorship, while a handful of more distant worlds have retained their more individualistic independence. We follow two diplomats from the dictatorship on a mission to one of these independent worlds ostensibly to return looted art treasures but really to sow the seeds for conquest. Except, of course, that our two diplomats are goodies really, secretly working for the independence movement. Naturally there’s a complication: they discover an intelligent alien on the planet, and it is the alien that provides the means for eventual victory.

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Mappa Mundi, Justina Robson

29 Mar
mappamundi

Cover of Mappa Mundi

Mappa Mundi
Justina Robson
Macmillan, 2001
ISBN 0-333-75438-7

Review by Paul Kincaid

To chart a way through this novel we must begin with the title: Mappa Mundi, the map of the world. The Mappa Mundi is a thirteenth-century map on display at Hereford Cathedral in which Jerusalem is seen to be the centre of the world. It is also a term that seems to have become suddenly fashionable. John Clute used it in Appleseed; now it is Justina Robson’s title and principal McGuffin, and despite the fact that the two novels are set eons and light years apart, both authors are using the term in essentially the same way: the egocentric world view, the world is what we perceive it to be.

Before we move away from base camp, note also that the publisher has chosen to decorate the cover with only one puff, from Zadie Smith, current new young literary darling and co-winner with Robson of a recent writing grant. Smith is not known for writing science fiction, or even, for all we might be aware, for reading it. We can read into this the suggestion that the book is aimed less at the hardened science fiction audience than at the hip mainstream. Should this alter the route we might choose to take through the work?

So, clutching our world map but perhaps uncertain as to our destination, we begin the journey. (On the right you will see the “Thanks”: “I have taken some liberties and made some imaginative leaps with the facts in order to make the scientific element of this story fit the drama”. To our left we are passing the epigraph from Charles Darwin: “Free will is an illusion caused by our inability to analyse our own motives.”) We come first to the Legends, and pause because here, surely, is the key we will need to read the rest of the map.

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The Rapture, Liz Jensen

27 Mar
therapture

The Rapture cover

The Rapture
Liz Jensen
Bloomsbury, 2009
ISBN 978-1-4088-0110-9

Review by Paul Kincaid

What would you do if someone, who had accurately predicted the dates of a series of natural disasters, told you the date of “the big one”?

What if that person were a psychotic teenager who had murdered her mother and whose predictions came as a side effect of Electro-Convulsive Therapy?

And what if you were psychically damaged yourself, confined to a wheelchair as a result of a road accident that killed your lover and your unborn baby?

The situation presented in Liz Jensen’s latest novel situates it squarely in classic thriller territory. But what she does with the novel elevates it far above the conventional, while sacrificing none of the convolutions and dramas we might expect of the form. And it manages to be, along the way, one of the finest novels of global warming I’ve encountered so far.

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The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

16 Mar
flood

The Year of the Flood cover

The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood
Virago Press, 2009
ISBN 978-1-84408-564-4

Review by Adam Roberts

This essay continues on from the review of Oryx and Crake here.

This dry-flood novel is not only a much lesser fictional achievement than Oryx and Crake; it drags the larger project down. There are several reasons for this. Where the first novel was well focalised and paced, this one feels dissipated and disorienting. The shorter chapters and jumpabout points of view fray the effect of the whole. The re-treatment of the same themes rang hollower. So, where the systematic sexual abuse of Oryx (in the first novel) felt ghastly in a real way, the sexual abuse of Toby (she gets a job in a McDonalds-clone burger bar, where the owner, a fat, hairy ex-mafia goon, rapes his female staff during their lunch hours) felt ghastly in a cartoonish way.

Part of the point, and I suppose one of the pleasures, of this second novel is the way it meshes with the reader’s memories of the first; such that s/he reads ‘[Toby] scanned with binoculars … a strange procession appeared. It seemed to consist entirely of naked people, though one man walking at the front had clothes on, and some sort of red hat, and – could it be? – sunglasses’ (The Year of the Flood, p164) and goes, ‘oh! That’s the scene from near the end of Oryx and Crake. Or in The Year of the Flood LindaLee remembers dating Jimmy in High School, and writing ‘Jimmy you nosy brat I know your reading this in her diary (p226), and the reader is sent scurrying back to Oryx and Crake to find the bit where Jimmy recalls reading his girlfriend’s diary and coming across that message. From comparing the one with the other we learn that having sex with LindaLee didn’t mean much to teenage Jimmy, but meant a great deal to teenage LindaLee (‘I loved being in bed with Jimmy, it made me feel so safe to have his arms around me’). Which, we might think, is not news.

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Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

14 Mar
Cover of Oryx and Crake

Cover of Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood

Virago Press, 2003
978-1-4088-0277-9

Review by Adam Roberts

Here are my three favourite Margaret Atwood science fiction novels, in descending order of favouriteness. Of favourableness. Of favoricity.

My all-time favourite Margaret Atwood SF novel is The Blind Assassin. Not the whole novel, of course, but the 40%-or-so of it that is a Pulp SF yarn, supposedly written by one of the characters. Since my purpose here is not to discuss this novel in any detail, I’ll confine myself to quoting the following paragraph from the SFE3 entry on Atwood. That I am in total agreement with the views expressed in this paragraph can, at least in part, be explained by the fact that I wrote it:

Considerable sf content is also concealed in her Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin (2000), a novel whose conventional twentieth-century Canadian frame story of thwarted and secret-ridden family life is folded around a very extensive, and in many ways much more interesting science-fictional Pulp magazines adventure (after which the novel is named). Atwood’s easy command of the pulp idiom contrasts sharply, and to interesting aesthetic effect, with the rather strangulated manner in which the contemporary half of the novel is narrated.

The Pulp idiom frees up Atwood’s treatment of her main theme—broadly, men’s horribleness towards women. I think one of things that makes The Blind Assassin work so well is the way the SF fable is positioned in relation to the ‘realist’ narrative—ironically, obliquely, and not (as in Atwood’s other SF novels) as a satirical extrapolation of perceived contemporary trends.

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