Retro Post: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

I’ve been meaning for years to use entries from my old diary (23rd May 2010-2nd July 2012) as the inspiration for blog entries. Now that I have some distance between then and now, and as many of my more recent entries are based more firmly on notes from my current diary, I feel more able to do this. The plan is to copy out slightly edited versions of the entries themselves, perhaps with annotations [in square brackets]. In some cases (such as the entry on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino) I may re-read the books in question and add new comments; in others (such as the entries on The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin) I will have to check that there isn’t already information on this blog which matches them. I guess I will try to make these updates regular, once or twice a week, rather than just whenever I can be bothered with them. It might help the blog keep going, and prevent further four-month gaps in updates.

The entry with which I am going to begin is from 23rd May 2010.

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding was alright. As good as I really expected it to be, not at the level of the best fantasy like the Earthsea cycle but it was a readable, Firefly-esq jaunt in a fantasy world. The problems which I have with it [are typical:] towards the end, especially when dealing with the character’s feelings, he over-indulges in telling rather than showing. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by his female characters – they were minimal, and exclusively introduced with sex in mind: Frey thinking about how useful it was that Jez was plain, the beauty of the female Century Knight, and the others being primarily Frey’s conquests in one form or another.

The other part is setting. Much of the geography of the world in Retribution Falls, besides some of the NSEW locations, is indistinct. I couldn’t figure out my way around the Ketty Jay, nor even precisely what it looked like. [I think my gist here is that the type of ship the Ketty Jay was – airship? Aeroplane? – was unclear, so there were no clues about how it should look apart from the cover.] Greater descriptions would have been nice, but there was also the chance to imagine it for yourself, which was quite good.

[I think the comparison of this novel to Firefly was over privleging, but I know what I mean. The idea was that there was a group of misfits, on the run, on a ship. You’d like them because they were roguish, although I don’t remember them being funny. I have a lot more to say about this book in later entries concerning the rape of all the female characters; a theme of this diary was how many of the novels I read approached rape, as a vast number of fantasy novels seem to do. Perhaps also worthy of note is that this book has two sequels now, neither of which I have read or really intend to.]

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Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

On the planet Jeep there are only two options: change or die. A virus centuries ago wiped out all of the planet’s men and altered their women, who survive somehow reproducing despite the lack of males. Anthropologist Marghe Taishan is sent to the planet to find out the secrets of their society, and to test out a new vaccine which will allow Company to exploit the planet for its natural resources. But she soon finds that she is changing, and the women of Jeep are much more than they seem. A profound and moving novel, Ammonite stands in the tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man as an evocative study of the role of gender in society, and what it means to be human.

This was not Earth; this was Jeep, a planet of alien species, a place where the human template of dual sexes had been torn to shreds and thrown away.

Or . . . that’s how it was sold to me. At least, that’s how it seems that it has been sold, ever since it’s publication in 1992. But it took me some time to fathom while reading and since finishing the novel why Jeep needed to have had its men eradicated. There are hints: Company cannot come to the planet (and exploit it) because they are men and the will not survive (although the virus kills about 20% of women, too); the virus represents the male in society, it is destructive and kills (this one does not hold up at all through the narrative of the book). What I have ultimately settled on is that Griffith is aiming so show that a society without men could work – it is imperfect, stone age in its technology, but it works. Having found a way to reproduce without men the human race goes on, and it is not that unfamiliar. But further speculation has made me think a little further: perhaps, perhaps, Griffith has taken a world like, say, Middle Earth (or perhaps more likely Gethen) where the default is male (the use of the male pronoun in Left Hand) and only when a character’s sex matters is that particular character female. Except that Griffith’s default is female – there are no men. And for most of the characters, it doesn’t really matter. What can’t a female character do that a male can?

In that last instance, I used the word “sex” carefully. Because I think that is, really, what Ammonite is about – the quote above from page 56 of the recent Gollancz Masterworks edition seems to reinforce that. The virus has wiped out everyone with a Y chromosome; it does not care about gender identification. This, is feel, is really the fault at the heart of Ammonite and The Female Man – having removed one of the sexes, rather than replaced the binary concept of gender as in The Left Hand of Darkness or, uh, reality, the situation becomes about biologically determined characteristics rather than culturally defined concepts.

But then again . . . Ammonite is sold, as I suggested above, on the basis that it has profound things to say about the sexes, and it won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for precisely that. But after about three chapters there is no real discussion of sex or gender. There are possibly three mentions of something male (although I can only remember two of those, off the top of my head). Non of the female colonists think about how they might miss men, whether male family members or the male member, even those dissatisfied with the way that things are going on Jeep. In fact, it is either implied or shown that several of them have engaged in same-sex relationships. To take a non-utopian approach, Griffith could be showing how easy it is to have a science fiction novel where lots of the characters are female (indeed, all but one of the speaking characters). Slightly more troubling for me is that she is showing that society could exist perfectly well without the male. And I actually find myself convinced.*

Beyond this major issue, Ammonite is a serviceable SF book. Occasionally suffers from telling-over-showing; we do not see the action from a varied enough perspective, and Griffith has far too much faith in the conviction of Marghe, the main character, which is not entirely warranted. There are, I feel, a few too many loose plot ends, threads started unnecessarily which disappear or are never resolved. I’m willing to let this slide as it was a first novel, although that seems a little patronising. The natives are not alien, and they work as humans who have learned to live on this planet, in these climates, with this virus, without men. The colonists seem to be coping well with those things too (except I really do feel they could have spared a thought for the last one). It is both enjoyable and food for thought, although not quite as much food as I was hoping.

* Since finishing the book I have listened to the In Our Time podcast on Modernist Utopias, which mentions that most utopias are reductive (something has to be taken away from society to make it perfect); through that I learned of Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, perhaps the first example of an SF story about a land occupied only by women (Amazons notwithstanding, of course); and discovered this page on Lesbian utopias on Wikipedia. Of course, Ammonite never uses the word lesbian (fair enough, none of them are from Lesbos) but there it is on that Wikipedia page.

Do you remember the first time?

A couple of things have prompted this blog, which is about authors’ first novels. Primarily it is a combination of reading Endless by Matt Bone and the fact that my girlfriend’s first novel is currently being edited for release in January next year. But a second prompt came from the author Sam Sykes, whose work I have never read and whom I do not follow on twitter, but the publisher Gollancz re-tweeted this a few days ago:

[View the story “A message to independent writers” on Storify]

Now, I don’t agree 100% with the sentiments expressed in these tweets. As Sykes himself confesses, he hadn’t found his voice by the time he was published. And there is a reason, for example, that I “publish” this blog rather than keeping a diary or something which would be private, rather than public. Even though only a few people look at it the response of the public, of people I don’t know, can generally be very interesting. Sometimes it can be offensive or rude, but those can hopefully be ignored. But some of the most constructive criticism you can get is from people who will be blunt, because they don’t know you. And in this way, you can improve.

The idea that a first novel should be very good is in some ways an anathema. After all, it is the curse of many bands that, after an exceptional first album, the second just cannot live up to the hype. Arcade Fire suffer from having an excellent and well-loved first album despite their later success and I firmly believe that by most other bands Neon Bible would be regarded as a classic and one of their best; for Arcade Fire it is sidelined, hidden away, simply because it could not live up to Funeral. Fortunately, The Suburbs was magnificent enough that it challenged the first album for greatness. A better position to be in, however, is that of a band like the White Stripes who, as far as I can tell because I wasn’t really paying attention at the time, had two fairly OK albums, and then two magnificent ones a bit later on. As Sykes argues, the first books often don’t have a voice. If you emerge with a voice fully formed, then all you will attract later is complaints when you try to change and develop it.

To apply this to novels, the first author who springs to my mind is, as ever, Ursula Le Guin. Her first novel, developed from short stories, was Rocannon’s World, a fairly good science fiction/fantasy novel which, as she would later comment herself, is not as good as what Gene Wolfe does with similar concepts. The ensuing trilogy, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions is fine, but much of what is done with these books – the ethnographer on a strange planet in Rocannon’s World, the permafrost of Planet of Exile – is picked up again and developed in The Left Hand of Darkness, an undoubtably superior book. At around the same time she began the Earthsea series, and again we see improvement as the trilogy goes along, but personally I feel that the trilogy as a whole shows a lot more competence as a writer because she had grown more, learned by doing, and reached a better point in her skill to do what she wanted as an author. Should Rocannon’s World have remained unpublished? Of course not! Then the series may not have developed, and we would not have Left Hand nor The Dispossessed, and the world would be a more impoverished place.

A counter-argument perhaps emerges when a first book is phenomenally successful, or belongs in a series which becomes phenomenally successful and relies on reading every volume. I’m thinking of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. I don’t think I’m going to be expressing too controversial an opinion if I suggest that Stone is not the best of the Harry Potter books (it’s Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban) but it has to be good enough to fit with the standard of the rest of the series. And I would say it does, perhaps because in the latter part of the series the books become too long and perhaps were less successfully edited. But here I would suggest the problem is more Arcade Fire, and the series has to be considered as a whole rather than as individual parts. The “second novel”, therefore, is not Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets but The Casual Vacancy. Comments on the internet are already being bitter about the success of the well-loved by all ages Potter and the fact that Rowling can’t write anyway so it will be rubbish blah blah blah; these are people who will never be pleased. But even for those who devoured the Potter books as children, writing something different after such a long time poses difficulties, and it might be a lot easier (if not necessarily better, or more successful) were the first series not to have attracted the attention which I did, and if there were less pressure and fewer assumptions about how the book needs to be.

I think I will have some more thoughts on this topic in the future, when I have read King Rat, China Miéville’s first book, which is unlikely to be as good as The City and the City. As a concluding thought I would perhaps say this: when my literary intentions were greater, and I was reading about the publishing industry, I kept on being told that most authors have an unpublished first novel. Others, for example The Flood by Ian Rankin, are published but sink without a trace only to find a new lease of life when the author finds success elsewhere, such as in the phenomenal Rebus series. The first is not the most important. It is important, as a foot in the publishing door if nothing else. But, really, the follow-up is much more important. Showing that you have longevity, and can keep on going – that’s what you want in an author.

Prometheus Unbound (2 of 2)

I started to write this blog immediately after I had written the previous Prometheus blog, which can be found here. That was some time ago. My life has kept me away from writing this blog and the film has faded into memory a little, now generally only refered to as a joke (saying “So that’s what Prometheus was about!” whenever someone says something profound, or stupid) or as a proverbially bad film. Furthermore, what I wanted to do with the blog changed after I read Film Critic Hulk’s very long analysis which I felt covered everything which needed to be said about why the film was bad, and what needed to be done with it.

After reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell I began to have some more profound thoughts about the questions prodded by Prometheus. One of my problems with The Sparrow was that the aliens did not feel to me to be suitably alien, as they engaged in what was basically a Capitalist system, and while there were a couple of fundamental differences the aliens were fairly similar to humans, with similar motivations and desires. One of the beautiful things about the Alien franchise was that the xenomorphs were so completely alien in so many ways. The lethal, perfect predator desired by The Company, evolved for survival. It did not appear to be intelligent in the way that we are, but it was smart and skilled. It adapted. In Prometheus we learned that, contrary to known facts about the evolutionary process, they shared the same creators as us, which were basically massive humans (even having the same DNA!).

In the Hainish Cycle/Ekumen books I find that Ursula Le Guin has a good excuse for the similarity all the species have to human beings: they are descended from the same ancestors, the Hain, who colonised the universe in a far distant past. Some, such as the Gethen, appear to have been the result of genetic engineering, while the Athsheans have evolved to be very different indeed. There differences are intended to reflect on aspects of Earth society and this works. I suppose that in The Sparrow they are intended to look very similar, but to turn out very, very different. In Alien, it seems to me, they were intended to be absolutely terrifying. In Prometheus they were designed to… what? To generate a question. To ask “what if we were made by another species?” But the answer is provided by the film: “Ah, but who made them?” It’s not actually an answer. It’s a deferral of the question. It’s like asking what a Lego structure is made from and answering “Lego”. The real answer is plastic, but it’s being deferred to sound clever, even though it isn’t.

With the xenomorphs ruled out the most alien aliens I know of are the Areikei/Hosts in China Miéville’s Embassytown. The Areikei are very different to the human beings whom they host but are changed by their contact with the outside world in a number of ways which make them more similar to humans, but they are still incredibly different in both biology and social structures. This is perhaps due to my ignorance with a lot of SF but they seem very alien in ways that I can’t see being easily topped. But what, then, is the point of creating an alien species? It is different in Embassytown, which explores the nature of language, to the use in Prometheus, which is closer to The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience by James Blish. These three narratives aim to ask questions of the place of human beings in the universe and in relation to god when there are other intelligent beings in the universe. One of the key questions, both in the fictions and for the Catholic Church, is the importance of the crucifixion in the wider universe.

I didn’t notice the correspondence in Prometheus between the disaster which occurred on LV-223 and the crucifixion – that they were both 2000 years ago. Once this is pointed out one can begin to see that the problems began to occur because humanity killed the Engineer’s embassy to Earth who was Jesus Christ. I’m not entirely certain what Prometheus is trying to say with this. Catholic dogma always taught me that the crucifixion was necessary to the forgiveness of human beings for the sin of Adam (who they also taught me was fictional). Also, it is followed by the resurrection. Removing the divinity of Christ from the question and the resurrection as the proof of the power of god’s love seems to me to render the story of Christ fairly meaningless. He is not much more profound than any other ancient philosopher, it’s just that his story thrived in a way that others didn’t. It suggests to me a great ignorance about the religions of the world in the early Roman Empire – why, for example, was it not Mithras, or Alexander of Abonoteichus who was the Engineer, and the rejection of their teachings the problem? It seems to me that Christ has done very well, and being annoyed because he was sacrificed (when individual Engineers had been sacrificed to create life anyway, in the opening scene of the film) disregards the fact that he was the most influential figure on the last 2000 years of human history. Although I suppose portraying god as a petty, stupid creature actually comes as close to the god in which I could actually believe as any representation of god I have heard.

The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience never directly reference the crucifixion, as I recall. Jesus plays something of a side-part in their narratives; perhaps analogous to contemporary Christianity? But they do question, if there is other life in the universe, what part do they play in creation? Like Prometheus they don’t really provide an answer – how can they? We have not yet encountered extraterrestrial life and it is questionable whether religious belief will play much of a role if we actually do so. The likelihood is generally decreasing. But they ponder the question in a way Prometheus completely fails to do. Blish mentions that the Catholic Church has guidelines for the treatment of extraterrestrial life, but the internet is not very forthcoming with them. It involves the question of whether the beings have a soul; if they are fallen (as we are) in which case they need to be saved; if they are not fallen then how do we interact with them? A Case of Conscience was written before he knew of this guide, if it exists; The Sparrow appears to exist in ignorance of it.Prometheus doesn’t even seem to think that it will cause a problem, except in the sense of deferring the question which I mentioned above.

Something which is acknowledged by The Sparrow but which appears beyond the grasp of Prometheus is that science and religion aren’t actually in competition. Not really. The argument is that while science can tell you what happened it cannot tell you why it happened. As The Sparrow puts it (and I have heard elsewhere, an In Our Time on the subject can be found here) “God is in the why”. This is a fault inherent in both modern religious thinking – which tries to insert god into science where it doesn’t belong, as in the intelligent design hypothesis – and in modern atheism – which in general can prove that religion probably isn’t right, and has no real basis, but can’t actually prove it wrong in most cases. I believe that there are actually some biological arguments to suggest that religion is actually wrong, but I don’t know them so I won’t come down on that side of the argument. Instead, I will resort to popular culture. For you see, the real answer to this question (which a lot of proper atheists will accept and probably tell you) comes from a lesser-known quotation of the Jedi Master Yoda in the film The Empire Strikes Back:

There is no why.

This is fundamental to being an atheist. If you think there is a reason why, then you are agnostic. That’s OK too. Here we have reached the state of philosophy, and there are no right answers. Or rather there should be no way of confirming the right answers. If a god appeared to me and explained all the whys to me in a logical way which made sense to me I’d start believing that there was one. Or would I know there was one? I’m afraid my philosophical education was cut short when I decided archaeology was the most interesting part of Classics.

Does this make life pointless? Is this a negative attitude? I believe Jean-Paul Sartre had something to say on the matter, but in this circumstance my actual source for my personal philosophy is Mr Joss Whedon again,* in his second greatest television series (bearing in mind I haven’t watched Dollhouse) and, if you are reading this Jonathan, this is a SPOILER ALERT but I am going to remove character names and not mention where it is from to reduce that, if you want to read it nonetheless.** This is what I think:

“[…] it’s like nothing I do means anything.”

It doesn’t.”

Doesn’t what?”

Mean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win.”

You seem kind of chipper about that.”

Well . . . I guess I kind of worked it out. If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if . . . nothing we do matters . . . then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long for redemption, for a reward, finally, just to beat the other guy. But I never got it.”

Now you do?”

Not all of it. All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

Yikes. Sounds like you’ve had an epiphany.”

That’s what I keep saying, but nobody’s listening!”

So where to conclude? That I got more out of an episode of one of Joss Whedon’s shows than I got out of the entire film Prometheus? Is that such a surprise? I think I get more out of that than I get out of most of the ancient literature I’ve read, except perhaps Lucretius, which taught me not to believe in an afterlife and won me a lollipop from Josie Long. Perhaps that asking the question isn’t enough, proposing an answer is necessary? But I have admitted to believing that there is no answer. Accepting, then, that there is no answer. But this is not good for everybody. Some people want an answer. Sometimes it is hard, believing or understanding the universe to be pointless.

But perhaps it is this. I loved The Sparrow. I liked A Case of Conscience. And I was raised Catholic. While I was wondering around colleges the other day I commented to the girlfriend that I was glad we’d had religion, as it had produced so much or beauty. And it still does, if you would like to look at Aaron Sorkin’s question of theodicy in the excellent West Wing episode “Two Cathedrals” below. I don’t believe in a god, and I don’t think that it is necessary to do so. But I do think that it is essential to come to that conclusion yourself, and to have a reason, and to understand that it means no reason. But no reason doesn’t matter. If there’s no reason, everything is important.

Which perhaps is the more scary answer, after all.

* This episode of this particular series is actually written by Tim Minear, but as he was an executive producer on Firefly and worked on Dollhouse too, we can say fairly strongly that he was close to Mr. Whedon.

** Obviously it’s from either Buffy or Angel, as you’ve seen Firefly and Dollhouse (which I haven’t). And a later point than I know you to be at. But you can get an idea about it, if you don’t read the quotation, from the commentary on Objects in Space, if you have the Firefly DVDs. Or if you know anything about Sartre, which neither I nor Joss Whedon really do.

Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I mention my girlfriend a lot in this blog lately, but that’s because in the last four months she’s had a profound effect on my life. This is only a minor effect, but she recommended The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell to me several times, ultimately as a book asking similar questions to the film Prometheus, but which actually engaged with those questions. I have been reading it for a little over a week. For the girlfriend, it was the last book she called in sick to work to finish. I thought that my equivalent was staying up late to finish a book, as I dutifully did last night until about 12:30 (it’s late for me these days!) but then I also failed to go into the library to do work today, so I guess that I do both. A plot summary can be read on goodreads. It is about a Jesuit mission to another planet; the review below contains mild spoilers. It is also a fairly raw review with little meditation on the story besides what I did while reading, and a few minutes afterwards.

First, my problem with the book. The alien societies, while in some ways very different to our own, had too many remarkable similarities. They were capitalists, which highlights a distinct problem with this world that we can’t envision a way of life which is complex and yet different to capitalism besides communism. Even The Dispossessed only manages anarchism, rather than envisioning something entirely different to our own experience. The closest a science fiction book has come to achieving this in my opinion is Embassytown by China Miéville, a book which I already feel like re-reading even though I only read it last year. This theme will be discussed a lot more in my forthcoming second Prometheus blog, which should appear tomorrow.

The next point is one of ambivalence, which will depend on your own subjective experiences of reality to interpret. I believe that, had I read The Sparrow as a teenager, perhaps before the age of twenty-one, it might have made me feel Catholic and believe in a god for a little bit longer. This was the effect of the film Dogma (which I now find to have a fairly juvenile answer to the question of belief, but there you go). I think in many ways it fairly represented the challenge of faith under fire and showed how compassionate and good some priests can be. It mentions but does not explore the darkness which can come from celibacy, or perhaps motivate it. This may simply be a product of the time, but personally I would say that sexual abuse by priests is an issue of the church not of the faith. It is man, not god, who is responsible; thus it is not a concern for this book. Furthermore, I think this would be a very different (and not substantially improved) book had it been written after September 11th 2001. We cannot complain about what the book does not discuss, but in what it does discuss I find many reasons and justifications for faith.

I enjoyed all of the characters, especially Emilio Sandoz, although I would understand how much more difficult the book would be if you didn’t like him. Some of the others fall into the background when they reach Rakhat, which is a shame. But I did not find a single one of them unlikable. In general, I would say the book is a bit better in the build-up to the mission rather than when they are on the planet itself; however it is well paced with revelations and reflections throughout. I would suggest that my (very mild) disappointment with the mission itself is that I did not find the aliens to be as alien as I had been led to believe that they would be; rather much of it seemed like some less developed Earth societies. But this is perhaps because I have focused on the similarities rather than the quite horrific differences. There are a few differences in evolutionary path which make all the difference, and I suppose that is what should be emphasised.

So there we have it: an excellent book which should be food for thought for both the religious and the atheist. I would recommend it to most of the people I know and despite the qualifier I can’t think of a person to whom I would not recommend it. I would be especially interested to hear from anyone who has read it while questioning their faith and the response which they had to it.