Nina Allan, The Race (Titan Books: 2014)

A little over a year ago I read The Race by Nina Allan, science fiction writer and critic. I found the book interesting, reviewed it on Goodreads, and wrote a little about it in my notebook. Then, apparently, I forgot about it so much that I was looking at it in the shelf trying to remember when, exactly, I’d read it. Looking back at my notes, this is a real shame – the novel (story suite?) is thoroughly interesting.

Now that Pod Bay One is defunct (RIP) I’m looking at my notebooks and thinking that I really should get back into writing this blog again. So I’m going to write up my notes on The Race for you, whomever is reading this, with some additional notes that I discovered about the paperback version of the book after I wrote my review/these notes.

The Race

I was not expecting The Race to be anything other than a normal, ‘mundane’ science fiction novel. I use ‘mundane’ in the sense of the literary movement – Earth-bound, ‘hard’ science fiction, no extraterrestrials or interstellar flight. Throughout the whole of Jenna’s story I was expecting this narrative thread to continue, with Marce’s part, number 4, being about the missing Lumey. Well, I was half right. It took a bit of Christy’s narrative for me to realise that this was not the same world, not the past, but another reality in which Jenna and Lumey’s stories were written by Christy Peller. It took even longer for me to realise that ‘Brock Island; by Christy Peller was not an unannounced novella by another author, but part of this novel. But really, it’s that inclusion that really complicates what’s going on in The Race.

The Race is not exactly a story-suite. While the stories are thematically linked, they also tell a consistent, on-going narrative that means they don’t fully work disconnected. While it might be possible to say that Jenna and Marce are fictional characters created by Christy, a little more reflection reminds us that Christy, too, is fictional – the creation of Nina Allan. Well, we might think, so what? The conceit is still that Christy created Sapphire, Jenna, and Lumey/Marce. But the inclusion of “Brock Island” complicates that. In the story attributed to Christy, we read a thrid-person narrative of Marce’s middle age. The chapters/sections “Jenna” and “Marce” are both first person. Christy writes them, we might suppose, but they ‘exist’, really, as much as she does. It complicates the readers relationship to their fictional narratives, realistic and science fictional. What is real? we might ask. What is realism and why/how is it different to the unreal narratives of science fiction?

An additional question follows: Why is Alex’s narrative told in the third person? Because he’s male? Or, like “Brock Island”, because this story is an invention of Christy’s, a kind of consoling narrative she tells herself because she cannot face investigating Linda’s disappearance herself?

Beyond this statement about the significance of science fiction as a literary genre, there’s also a narrative function behind these shifting narratives. Christy, like the character Laura Christy in her “Brock Island”, has an experience where she ‘sees’ another world, through a mirror, which is like-but-unlike her own. Another life, somewhere different. We are given the impression that Jenna and Marce’s lives, presented to us both as Christy’s fictional narratives and through their own thoughts (also fictional narratives of Nina Allan), are not so much Christy’s creations as her hearing messages from this other world.

Afterward

After I’d written the version of this blog that I wrote last Decemeber in my notebook, I started looking into other people’s readings of this novel. In doing so, I discovered that Allan had written “Brock Island” separately to be added to the Titan edition of The Race and that it was not supposed to be understood as a ‘new ending’ to the novel. Well, oops.

I don’t really think that this undermines my reading of the novel – I didn’t have the information at the time, and who are authors to control how I, the reader, understand a text just because they wrote it?! In all seriousness, in the event that I re-read this novel (which I’m keen to do, but I’m more inclined to get my hands on Allan’s other novels first) this information probably will affect my understanding of the novel and how these worlds interact. But maybe it won’t. After all, for a year this reading was just for me, and even on this blog it’s unlikely to be read by more than 2-3 people.

I am glad to have had this reading, though, because in investigating Emily St John Mandel’s follow-up to Station Eleven (Knopf: 2014), The Glass Hotel (Picador: 2020) I discovered that advanced readers were confused about the novel’s relationship to Station Eleven. One reader speculated that the plague of Station Eleven was in the imagination of one of the characters who appears in both novels. But The Race, and the conversation in Station Eleven about parallel universes, suggest otherwise: these are different, parallel, fictional narratives that invite us to question how we receive fictional stories.

Good Greeks

As I implied in my last post, when I found out that Ursula K. Le Guin had died, my instinct was to dive into her words and worlds to find solace for the surprising amount of sorrow I was feeling. Thus, I ordered the collection No Time to Spare from my local library, which collects several of Le Guin’s blog posts.

While at the library, I decided to pick up their copy of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, even though I had been listening to the audiobook. I was trying to write something about that novel for Ancient World Magazine (which has since been published), and I wanted to check certain references (easier to do with a physical copy).

These withdrawals turn out to be a little more thematic than I had intended. No Time to Spare includes Le Guin’s June 2013 essay on Homer, “Papa H”, in which she says (p. 53):

People keep going to him and discovering new things, or old things, or things for the first time, or things all over again, and saying them. This has been going on for two or three millennia. That is an amazingly long time to mean anything to anybody.

Much of what she goes on to say is more her area than mine – Homer as fantasy – and cannot be applied to the more historical approach to the texts I take in my work. But there is a point here about how mythological stories can have a meaning beyond that which they had in the ancient world (something I tried to apply to the Return of Hephaestos in an earlier AWM piece). As Le Guin wrote in her October 2011 blog post “Readers Questions” (p. 41):

Meaning – this is perhaps the common note, the bane I am seeking. What is the Meaning of this book, this event in the book, this story . . . ? Tell me what it Means.

But that’s not my job, honey. That’s your job.

In my piece on The Song of Achilles, I quoted one scholar, discussing the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, who thought that teasing out the subtext seemed “to concern more the reader-response than the explicit intentions of the texts.” (Marco Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love. Intertextual Studies (2012) p. 190-91). But when you can produce a story as good as Miller’s Song of Achilles, I wonder if reader-responses aren’t more interesting. This is especially true of ancient reader responses, if we can discern them at all.

It was with this in the back of my mind that I read an Aeon article by Catherine Nichols yesterday, “Why is pop culture obsessed with the battle between good and evil?” The article has several themes: nation building while the Brothers Grimm were collecting their fairy tales; the idea that nations have a particular ‘character’ , othering other nations. She points to the Iliad and the Mahabharata as examples of older tales that avoid this dichotomy. Le Guin, too, argues that the true tragedy of the Iliad is that Homer doesn’t take sides (No Time to Spare, pp. 53-54):

“The Trojan War is not and you cannot make it be the War of Good vs. Evil. It’s just a war, a wasteful, useless, needless, stupid, protracted, cruel mess full of individual acts of courage, cowardice, nobility, betrayal, limb-hacking-off, and disembowelment.”

After reading the article, I Tweeted about whether or not I thought this was true. In modern versions of the myth, it seems to me, the Trojans are increasingly becoming the ‘good’ side of this war. The creator of the forthcoming BBC/Netflix series Troy: Fall of a City claims to be telling the Trojan side of the story – but this is what Homer did, as well as the tragedians of fifth-century BCE Athens. I can’t think of a version of the story that presents the Greeks as blameless. Even Le Guin admits that the Trojans are her favourites (No Time to Spare, p. 56):

Hector is a good guy on any terms – kind husband, kind father, responsible on all counts – a mensch. But right does not make might. Achilles kills him.

Whether or not we agree with Le Guin’s assessment of Hector, we can admit that the actions of the Greeks take some work to fit with modern social values. In The Song of Achilles, Miller’s Patroclus cannot be taken as an ancient character, and even Chiron and Odysseus spout ideas that are thoroughly modern. In this setting, Achilles seems quite strange. His pursuit of fame, even at the cost of his life, is so alien to the modern world, as are the reactions to Agamemnon’s threat to it. Le Guin can’t stand him – “a sulky, self-pitying teenager” (ibid. pp. 55-56) – but does not mention the artistic skills, which Miller’s Patroclus thinks should be his true glory: “His skill with the lyre. His beautiful voice.” (Song of Achilles, p. 366)

But then there is Briseis, the most difficult obstacle for the modern rehabilitation of Achilles. Le Guin isn’t having it: “his big snit is over a girl he was given to rape but had to give back to his superior officer, which to me rather dims the love story.” (No Time to Spare, p. 56). In Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) the attempt to make the story true love is undermined by the fact that she is his war captive – it all feels very unsavory, as I suspect Le Guin would agree. (I go into more detail about this on a forthcoming AWM podcast, so look out for that!)

Miller avoids this difficulty in part because Achilles’ true love is Patroclus – he distrusts Briseis and is happy to see her taken by Agamemnon (the subtext being that he suspects Patroclus’ closeness to her). But Briseis in turn distrusts Achilles because he slaughtered her family and her people – his values cannot be modern, but at least he can avoid being a mass rapist. (Incidentally, Patroclus’ insistence that Achilles take the captured girls so that they would not suffer at the hands of another king feels like one of the more obviously modern parts of the story.)

If I have a concluding point, it’s that one of the values of Miller’s work is that she manages to maintain some of that ancient tragedy by not making the Trojan War ‘Good vs. Evil’, even as she gives the characters modern moral stances. For all that Le Guin and Nichols praise the Iliad for not being the war between good and evil, the actions of the Greeks mean that it is difficult for their side to easily elide with modern morality. Miller has to cut Achilles’ sacrifice of twelve Trojan captives on Partroclus’ funeral pyre, for example (but maintains the sacrifices of Iphigenia by Agamemnon and of Polyxena on Achilles’ tomb by Neoptolemus, comfortable immoral or amoral characters). The Iliad may not be the war of good versus evil, but the modern world appears to have chosen a side.

Words for Ursula K. Le Guin

This Monday, Ursula K. Le Guin died. The news broke yesterday. I don’t know what to say, but I’ve written so much about Le Guin since I started reading her work in 2009 that I thought I would just go through it and post whatever seemed appropriate here from my own notes and the quotations I’ve taken from her work. I hope that it can be taken in some way as being in honour of her. There was no one else quite like her.

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Top Ten Books 2017

Twenty Seventeen was a strange year. After the political turmoil of 2016, we started facing the repercussions of those choices, which were largely – but not exclusively – terrible. From my perspective as a citizen of the UK (albeit one who lives in Canada), the political highlight came just after 5pm EST on Thursday 8th June when, after a dispiriting build up the exit poll from the General Election revealed a hung parliament with Labour gains in extraordinary places. Nevertheless, this was not a victory (depending on how you define victory, that is); it was, however, a salient reminder that we must not give up hope, and that fighting towards a better future is always a good idea.

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Return of the Jedi and The End of History

“Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.” – Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Return of the Jedi is my favourite Star Wars film. Kind of. Sort of. I know it has flaws, that it’s long been hated, that it doesn’t even include many of the aspects I myself think define what makes a Star Wars film great. And I stress that when I say “my favourite” I certainly don’t mean “the best”. But every single one of the original trilogy has been my favourite Star Wars film at some point and, since re-watching all six previous films after the release of The Force Awakens, it has been Return of the Jedi in my top spot. The thing is, it’s not the quality of the film that makes it my (current) favourite. It’s what it represents as part of the series as a whole.

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