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Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber (2014)








I first became aware of Michel Faber when the movie adaptation of his novel Under the Skin (2000) emerged in 2013, starring the mesmerizing Scarlett Johansson as an alien lure for hapless humans. I saw the film, which was creepy and beautifully shot, and made a mental note to read the novel. Instead I bought The Book of Strange New Things, lured by its fascinating premise and beautiful cover art (yes, I have a total fetish for book covers - don’t you?). Typically however, it took me two years to get around to reading it, but I’m grateful I finally did. It turned out not to be the book I initially envisioned it to be, but in the end that turned out to not be such a bad (or strange) thing.

The Book of Strange New Things
is a curious novel. Initially the novel appears to be set up for an exploration of a weird alien culture that will react to humanity’s presence and religion in unpredictable ways. Set on the alien world of Oasis that has been relatively newly settled by a small population of humans attempting to prepare for eventual colonization in what appears to be the near future (within the next 100 years?). The unhurried narrative centres around Peter Leigh, a Christian pastor who is sent by a faceless corporation called USIC to undertake missionary work, as demanded by the Oasian natives. The aliens are quite taken by Christianity and Peter leaves behind his devoted wife, Bea, to dutifully spread the word of God. The aliens are outre enough, with faces described as looking like two human fetuses side by side, and with no discernible sensory organs to speak of. Their speech (“like fruit being thumbed into two halves”), habits and culture are inscrutable and suitably alien, as is the planet itself, which is mostly featureless except for swirling torrents of rain driven by an atmosphere that drives the humans crazy by delving into every nook and cranny. Faber certainly succeeded in creating a profound alien sense of place, however despite some beautiful descriptions of the alien world and a satisfyingly bizarre alien birth scene, the novel is essentially about humanity itself.

The Book of Strange New Things pays mere lip service to the usual science fiction tropes, instead concerning itself predominantly with relationships. Various plot arcs subtly explore interpersonal relationships, the relationship with the self, and the individuals’ relationship with God. Faber’s exploration of these relationships creates both an investment in the characters story arcs and an appropriately strange compulsion to find out how the novel will unfold. As usual I kept on trying to guess what twists could emerge as the novel progressed, but I was wrong on all counts, but in the end it didn’t matter - the very human heart of the novel was enough. Despite nothing much happening, seemingly most of the time, the novel is absorbing; managing to transcend an often sedate narrative. Undoubtedly this is due to the novel’s great psychological depth, including the aliens themselves, who struggle with the very nature of their existence.

After reading The Book of Strange New Things I happened upon an interview that crystallized just why a novel in which nothing much really happens in terms of drama, action or weird plot twists was ultimately just so absorbing. The novel that Faber initially intended turned out differently because as he began the task of writing his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The novel was profoundly influenced by his relationship with his wife as he cared for her and faced the reality of her passing. At the beginning of the interview he states that he “...wanted this to be saddest thing I’d ever written.” Faber also made clear his intention of retiring from writing, citing the passing of his wife as the demarcation point in his career and life. If it is his last novel then it a worthy farewell, representing a unique take on what it is to be human in what is, essentially, a tragic universe of inevitable loss and irreversible change. If you want a science fiction novel full of the usual tricks then this isn’t the book for you, but if you appreciate the kind of literature that explores profound themes in a subtle manner then you will be well rewarded.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter - Mario Vargas Llosa (1977, English translation 1982)








The imperiously named Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa, is a Peruvian writer of some renown, with a prolific career both in literature and in politics. Now eighty years of age, his latest novel has recently been published - The Discreet Hero (2013, 2015) as has a collection of essays, aptly named Notes on the Death of Culture (2015). Llosa also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, among many other prizes throughout his career. I’m quite an admirer of South American writing in general, so I was looking forward to reading Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which had been selected by my library book club group. The novel did not disappoint, proving to be a humorous farce that also featured some deft post-modern experimentation with narrative form.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is set in the Peruvian city of Lima in the 1950’s and is based on the author’s early life, in particular his marriage to Julia Urquidi at the age of 19 (Julia was 29). The principle protagonist, just one character among multitudes, is Marito (or Mario, as he is referred to later in the novel), an 18 year old aspiring writer who works as part of a news team at a local radio station. The much older Aunt Julia, a recent divorcee, unwittingly stirs the youthful passions of Marito and soon they are innocently romancing in secret away from the unforgiving gaze of the extended family (or so they think, of course...). The brilliantly eccentric character of Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian renowned for his ability to churn out brilliant scripts for radio serials, is employed by the radio station to improve ratings. This amazing character was actually based on a coworker of Llosa’s when he worked at a radio station, which makes me wonder just how much of Camacho’s unique idiosyncrasies are based on reality, such as asking the radio soap actors to masturbate so their voices are suitably relaxed for romantic scenes.

Like many South American writers Llosa’s style is intense, detailed and highly descriptive; there’s kind of fever-dream quality about it, although it is not as surreal as his former close friend’s writing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Llosa famously gifted Garcia Marquez a black eye in their final encounter). The novel’s style is influenced by post-modernism, experimenting with form and meta fiction, whilst also providing entertaining light comical farce. Not only is Llosa writing about his own relationship, but also what it is like to be an aspirational writer who sees both situations and the people he meets as potential fodder for stories; essentially Llosa is writing about writing. Camacho’s role in the novel is both as an eccentric mentor for Marito and as a writer of increasingly surreal radio serials. The radio serials provide the material for every third or forth chapter, acting a counterpoint to the chapters involving Marito and Julia as they desperately attempt to be together in the face of family resistance. Toward the novel’s end their story becomes as dramatic and surreal as the serials, of which Camacho has lost control, mixing up the characters and events so much so that these chapters become like parodies of avant-garde writing. Despite Llosa’s experimentation the novel is engaging, funny and features a poignant ending. The novel is also crammed full of arcane and unusual words, so much so that I advise having a large dictionary on hand (or, yes, the internet...).

A film adaptation of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, called Tune in Tomorrow, was released in 1990, starring a young Keanu Reeves as Mario and Barbara Hershey as Aunt Julia. The actor who undoubtedly steals the movie is the late and undeniably great Peter Falk, who plays Camacho with a brilliance that does the novel justice. I actually saw it at the time and I have to say that it makes for a great first date movie. It is worth both reading the novel and watching the film, as there is enough difference between the two to make it worthwhile and both are, in their own particular way, funny, farcical and ultimately touching in a manner that causes you to fondly recall your first love, and that is not such a bad thing.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Dark Forest - Cixin Liu (2008, English translation 2015)








The Dark Forest is Cixin Liu’s sequel to his excellent novel The Three Body Problem (2008) and is part of a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past, although in China they apparently refer to the series by the first book’s title. The Dark Forest finds humanity at the crossroads, with a complex plot that unfolds over four hundred years. Liu imagines a future in which humanity has both achieved enormous scientific progress and yet is also held back by severe constraints. As with the first book, The Dark Forest presents such a unique take on well worn science fiction tropes that its flaws are mere background problems in comparison to the novel’s epic scope.

In my review of The Three Body Problem I went to great pains to not reveal key plot concepts, so that logically means I’m also limited in what I can say about this novel. What I can say however is that the major theme of the novel is revealed, with the help of an ant, in the opening prologue, which establishes a brilliant premise that then unfolds over the course of the novel. Anyone looking for a fast moving narrative had just better read something else (Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat (1961) perhaps...now that’s going back a ways...). The novel frequently moves at a glacial pace, establishing the groundwork for later sudden revelations and events that do not fail to both excite and intrigue. On the whole this narrative structure works well, although it is sometimes hampered by a flat tone that stems possibly from the translator, Joel Martinson. A Chinese writer translated the first novel, which had a more poetic tone, whilst The Dark Forest’s prose can sometimes be stilted. Don’t let this put you off however, regardless of its flaws The Dark Forest is once again an extremely refreshing science fiction narrative, avoiding many of the familiar narrative signposts that feature in British or American novels.
 

Liu’s portrayal of humanity’s future across four centuries has fun with some treasured science fiction themes (underground cities being one), but he steers clear of outright parody, taking the future seriously enough to please the most demanding of science fiction fans. Liu’s vision of humanity’s slow crawl into space is also satisfying, particularly the manner in which it may be achieved and nature of its functioning.  There are also some surprises, such as the unlikely idea that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of Isaac Asimov’s brilliant Foundation series and therefore could be lured into cooperation by being painted as a Hari Seldon figure (I’m not making this up...). At the core of the novel is the meaning of the dark forest concept, an idea that can perhaps be easily guessed at by seasoned science fiction readers; however Liu’s final reveal at the very endgame of the novel is well worth waiting for.

Liu’s dark forest concept caused me to think long and hard about the nature of the universe, something I haven’t done for a while, and the truth is that I felt a twinge of real fear. As simplistic as it seems it is not such a big leap to apply Darwinism to the wider universe, particularly in light of recent discoveries of just how many habitable planets may be out there. Coincidentally recently whilst I was leafing through a copy of The New Scientist magazine at the library I happened upon an article about one of our planet’s most remarkable life forms, the Tarigrade (Water Bear), a microscopic creature that can survive in outer space for up to 10 days, can survive up to 10000 times more radiation than other lifeforms and can also survive extreme atmospheric pressure up to six times the pressure of Earth’s deepest point. The article highlighted a characteristic of Tarigrades that I didn’t know about before - the ability to enter a desiccated metabolic state by expelling the majority of water from their bodies and then survive undamaged for up to five years. What does this have to do with the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series? Read The Three Body Problem to find out, meanwhile I can’t wait to read the third and final book, Death’s End when it is published in September of this year.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Changes








Last week a plot based on an idea I had years ago suddenly came to life fully formed in my mind, triggered by a few simple words written on a random Facebook post, of all things. Later that night I decided that it was time to get really serious about fiction writing and so I’m going to reduce my reviews on Excelsior from two books a month to one. This will give me more time to write fiction and will also have the added benefit of encouraging me to read some of the larger books I’ve had laying around for years, such as The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955) and Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (2004). I will not have the pressure of having to read quickly enough to generate the bi-monthly reviews. 

As good as the regular writing of reviews has been for developing discipline and technique, it’s time to move on to bigger and hopefully better things. I’ve been writing some short stories, but this idea may develop into a novel and the time to start is now, otherwise I’ll still be tapping away whilst groaning under the weight of old age. Meanwhile I’m reading Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest (2008), the sequel to his excellent novel The Three Body Problem (2008). Expect the review shortly, hopefully in June.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Natural Way of Things - Charlotte Wood (2015)








Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem have only one thing in common: they have both won major awards. Cixin won the 2015 Hugo Award and it has just been announced that Wood has won the relatively new Australian award for female writers, the Stella Prize. From that common point both diverge, with Cixin’s novel standing as a brilliantly fresh take on an old science fiction theme, with quality writing and relatable characters; Wood’s novel is thematically heavy-handed, stylistically flawed and unrelentingly bleak. My dislike of this novel could mean that I’m a lone dissenter, after all the novel has garnered many positive reviews and literally just as I finished reading it the result of Stella Prize was announced; but if so I’m not afraid to be a lone voice in the wilderness because any judgement of a novel’s worth is a mixture of objectivity and subjectivity and I can’t deny the fact that I did not enjoy this novel at all.

The Natural Way of Things explores the particularly important and relevant issue of the misogyny that is an inherent feature of our patriarchal society and its sometimes close relationship with the nastier side of capitalism. The novel opens with two young women, Yolanda and Verla, who are struggling to awake fully from a drugged stupor and make sense of alien surroundings. They soon find that they are being held captive along with a group of other young women in an abandoned outback farm. Their immediate captors are two men, Boncer and Teddy, and a woman, Nancy, who seem to be in the employ of a nefarious corporate entity.The novel’s plot is not presented as a challenging mystery the reader can enjoyably try to solve, rather it is an allegory for the manner in which women can be treated by the patriarchy. Just why the women are being held captive is soon solved once they begin conferring between themselves during the rare times they are not being hounded by a stick wielding Boncer. The novel’s oppressive tone and its serious themes are not unusual in literature and can often be a successful technique to get the reader thinking, however in this case the novel’s effectiveness is hampered by Wood’s gratingly self-conscious writing style. I just could not warm to Wood’s writing and this seriously affected my interest in the plight of the women and what would eventually happen to them.

The Natural Way of Things
is a challenge to read, not because it is a brilliant and complex example of contemporary literary fiction, but because it is completely bereft of subtlety and humour. This compromises what would otherwise be the novel’s strong points, such as the friendship between Yolanda and Verla and the psychological challenges the women face as they attempt to stay alive when things don’t go as planned for the captors. Another problem is that the two male characters are basically caricatures. Boncer is like a walking talking definition of misogyny and no one is surprised that despite his confident way with a stick and propensity to bark orders he is essentially insecure. Teddy is a cliched surfer dude who practices yoga when he’s not being Boncer’s sidekick or smoking dope while complaining about the bouts of nagging his ex- girlfriend put him through. The female characters do develop over the course of the novel, however the allegorical necessity for many of them to still be hapless victims by the end the novel proved to be a serious weakness. When the ending finally arrived I threw the book down onto the vacant seat next to me on the train, hoping that I would forget to take it with me when I disembarked.

I feel almost guilty for disliking The Natural Way of Things so thoroughly, after all Charlotte Wood spent a great deal of time and effort writing it, and believe me, it is a difficult thing to actually write a novel, let alone a good one. There is no doubt that the novel explores worthy themes and I am under no illusions regarding the nature of the patriarchal society we live in, however rather than causing me to think about these issues seriously I just couldn’t get past the novel’s flaws. This was a book club read, so I’m wondering how my fellow members will react to the novel during next week’s meetings. I have a feeling that it could go the way of that other infamous prize winner, The Finkler Question, when 33 of the 35 book club attendees thoroughly disliked the novel. For a long time now I wondered whether I’d ever read another novel as completely dreadful as The Finkler Question. Finally I believe that I have and that means that The Natural Way of Things suffers the ignominy of joining The Finkler Question on this blog as being only the second book to be rated as truly and utterly reprehensible.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Three Body Problem - Cixin Liu (2008): Translated by Ken Liu (2014)








Cixen Lie has been described as China’s Arthur C. Clarke, which is mighty praise indeed. The Three Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award in a year beset by controversy caused by a rogue group called ‘The Sad Puppies’ who claimed that the award was unfairly favouring work that represented minority groups, rather than solely on merit. Ursula Le Guin referred to them as “..insecure white guys”, which pretty much sums that issue up. Pay the ‘Sad Puppies’ no mind because The Three Body Problem is quite brilliant and a worthy winner. Cixin takes a well worn science fiction trope and manages to make it all shiny and new, something that is a difficult undertaking in a genre in which pretty much any and every idea has been given a good thrashing.

Science fiction was severely restricted in China for most of the 1980’s, which makes sense considering just how subversive the genre can be in the hands of the right author. The novel’s very existence indicates that things have obviously significantly changed in China, but even more significant is that the novel begins in 1967 during China’s Cultural Revolution, using that era’s shocking events as an unlikely first step in a plot that continues to unfold in unexpected ways. I began the novel knowing nothing of its contents, which meant that I had the rare pleasure of trying to work out what was going on and then finding out that I was wrong. With this in mind I will reveal very little about the novel’s plot. What I will say however is that The Three Body Problem is a beautifully paced novel; keeping the reader intrigued in the slower sections and then enticing with hints and reveals as the novel progresses. Cixen’s style is economically precise, not wasting a word or scene as it flows ever onward. Ken Liu, a science fiction author in his own right, is a skilled translator, even providing footnotes to explain certain important cultural points.

Although plot building and scientific concepts are certainly Cixin’s strong points, the novel’s principle protagonists, Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, are complex enough to make them both interesting and relatable characters. Ye Wenjie’s extreme experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution the 1960s are shocking and the resultant damage to her teenage psyche is central to the novel. Wang Miao, a nano materials scientist living during our time period, is drawn into an investigation of strange and unexplained happenings within the science community. Reluctantly Wang becomes involved in the bizarre world of a virtual online game that challenges participants to solve the difficult ‘three body problem’. Wang’s experiences in the three body game, his dealings with a secret society of scientists called 'The Frontiers of Science' and the mysteries surrounding both result in a sinister undertone that only becomes more prevalent as the plot develops. The science concepts presented during the course of the novel are realistic, but Cixin plays with them in a way that inspires both awe and fascination, particularly during the novel’s endgame. The result is a seriously addictive novel that I found difficult to put down, which is a rarity for me these days.

A film adaptation of The Three Body Problem will soon be released in China and if they get it right it will be an exceptional film. Hopefully it will become available in the West. Half way through reading the novel I discovered that it is only the first part of a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past. The second book, which has just been published in English, is called The Dark Forest (2015). The third, Death’s End (2016), is fortunately due out later this year. Initially I was disappointed that the story would be spread out over three novels simply because narrative greed was getting the better of me, however after reading the novel’s send half I was pleased that there would be more to follow. I feel sorry for those ‘Sad Puppies’ (actually, I don’t really) because if science fiction of this quality is emerging from China then Western dominance of the genre and its most coveted awards may well be on the wane.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Secret Chord - Geraldine Brooks (2015)



Saul and David: Rembrandt - 1650




Geraldine Brooks is a former Australian journalist who turned her hand at writing historical fiction with great success, winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize for her novel March in 2005. Brooks was inspired to write the story of King David by her son, who took up the harp and subsequently played Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song Hallelujah at his Bar Mitzvah. Set in 1000 BCE Israel, The Secret Chord fictionalizes the Old Testament life of King David, of whom Brooks refers to as the first historical character in literature whose whole life’s story has been recorded for prosperity. Although there is very little evidence, aside from the Old Testament scriptures, for King David’s existence, Brooks portrays him in a very realistic light, exploring both the negative and positive aspects of his life and reign as king of the Jewish people.

Brook’s portrayal of early Iron Age ancient Israel is brought to life by evocative descriptions of the landscape and the people. Brooks actually went to Jerusalem and herded sheep for a day to get a sense of the landscape David would have experienced three thousand years ago. Brooks tells the story of King David through the eyes of David’s prophet Natan (Nathan), whom is directed by David to write his biography (Nathan’s Book of David, mentioned in Chronicles but never found). This device allows Brooks to shift back and forth in time to tell the story of David’s beginnings, his rise to be king and his troublesome final years. David was a skilled warrior and tactician who reunited the Jewish tribes, but he was also a ruthless leader and a sensualist; a trait that would ultimately lead to tragedy for his family. David’s rise to power is compelling, however during the latter third of the novel, with David ensconced on the throne, Natan’s narration begins to lose some of its lustre. After David’s initial encounter with supposed seductress Bathsheba and the successful plot to kill of her husband, the brave and respected Uriah, Natan withdraws from David’s side. Thereafter the narrative feels slightly removed from the very dramatic events that follow, resulting in a flattening of tone with little suspense or emotional engagement to propel the narrative forward.

Despite a nagging sense that The Secret Chord is just a replay on the Bible story with little relevance to the secular world, an argument can be made that Brooks has written a Feminist take on King David’s story. A significant portion of the narrative gives voice to many of David’s wives, giving some insight into the lives of the women who both suffered and served during his reign. Most significant is Bathsheba’s take on her infamous tryst with David; that she did not in fact set out to be a seductress, but was actually attempting to find some privacy from prying male eyes in her own household when the troubled King David spied her across the darkened rooftops. From her perspective she was raped and placed into a cruel and untenable position by King David; subsequently suffering the ignominy of victim blaming, an issue that certainly has strong modern relevance.

Perhaps due to my secular upbringing I was fairly ignorant of Kind David’s story, therefore I found The Secret Chord to be a fascinating read. The novel has also compelled me to find out more about Biblical history from that period. I’d love to talk to a Jewish person who has read The Secret Chord to better judge what kind of an impact Brooks’ portrayal of King David has had for those who are closer to the source of his story. Would David’s overt bisexuality be a problem, or Brooks’ Feminist perspectives, or the rampant violence that led to David’s ascension to the throne? One thing this novel did remind me of is that history has indeed been mostly written by the victors, by the patriarchy and also by those who spilled the most blood. It also reminded me, somewhat sadly, that nothing much has changed in three thousand years in terms of damaging belief systems and the worst of human nature.