An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen

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When I was a kid in the late 1950s the only commercial radio I heard was on the farm during school holidays, the radio in granddad’s ute tuned to 3SH Swan Hill (except around midday when he insisted on Blue Hills and the rural stock prices), playing Bobby Darrin, Dion, Ricky Nelson; I can still sing Vic Dana’s Red Roses for a Blue Lady. Even when I was a teenager the most popular singers on radio included Frank Sinatra, Matt Munro, and Tom Jones, and this at a time when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had been around for 2 or 3 years. As the 60s passed I got into the Animals, the Loved Ones, Janice Joplin, King Crimson, the Doors – though sadly my all time favourite was and is Roy Orbison – but Sinatra et al were still around.

It was years before I realised that this confusion of singers hadn’t popped up out of nowhere but represented the continuation of a variety of streams – pre-war Swing (Sinatra), African-American Blues and White Country Rock. And of course over time they merged, continued, threw off new streams (and somewhere around Hip-Hop became unlistenable*).

Literature has as many streams as music. And for some reason – maybe with Climate Change its time has come – the stream that has come to the fore recently is Speculative Fiction and in particular Women’s SF – which I have argued elsewhere differs in significant ways from Men’s (aka ‘Mainstream’) SF. I wonder (idly!) if a part of the reason for this emergence -within Literature, rather than off to one side in genre – is the popularity of Margaret Attwood and her resolute refusal to be genre-ised.

In the past few years I have reviewed Jane Rawson (here, here, here), Ellen van Neerven (here), Alexis Wright (here). Charlotte Wood (here), Claire Coleman (here), and, to throw in a guy, Rodney Hall (here) not just because of my ongoing interest in SF but because they are genuinely at the forefront of new literature in Australia. And then there’s also Georgia Blain (here), Nathan Hobby (here), Robert Edeson (here, here) and Sue Parritt (here), of whom only the last is completely ‘straight’ SF.

Krissy Kneen is not an author I know, but this appears to be her sixth novel. It is a mixture of Speculative and Erotic fiction that I enjoyed. As for “streams”, the only direct predecessor I can think of is Linda Jaivin and the lightweight, amusing, sexy Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).

The novel begins with Caspar, a lecturer in Literature – a guy in the first person, lecturing: “If an author uses first person, a reader is trapped in her or his perspective …” – focusing his attention on the prettiest girl in his class. It soon becomes apparent that Caspar serially has affairs with a girl from each of his classes.

He gets his comeuppence when Liv, a previous afairee, leaves him a gift of a memory stick and a virtual reality suit which enables him to re-live their love-making as she experienced it, and he becomes “trapped in her perspective”. This on its own is a powerful short story. To be a man experiencing his fumblings and shortcomings from the woman’s point of view is intensely humbling,

I still have her skin on me. I still feel her hurt, her disappointment, her terrible bittersweet scent of ennui.

I wonder if the weeks will scour her body from my skin. I will become myself. I will return to myself unchanged because we don’t change, not ever. Or at least, I have not ever before.

 but Kneen’s ambition is greater than this and she leads us on through four more ‘short stories’, each also in the first person, from the POV of a person other than Liv, as Liv ages and refines her use of the suit.

Liv is a researcher working with paedophiles to see if they can use the suit to develop empathy. Her subject, Ronnie becomes a jellyfish, becomes all jellyfish through all time.

Cameron is a – 50 years of science fiction and I can’t recall the word for a robot with human consciousness, ahh, android – an android who looks like a pre-teen boy and who ‘genuinely’ wishes to make love with paedophiles, no. 35 in a sequence of androids who have been progressively “improved” and their predecessors eliminated, happy in his work until he is subverted by a girl his own age, Ellen.

M is trans, in a time when gender reassignment is readily available to minors. She has a genuinely asexual partner but slowly becomes attracted to an old lady, Liv, who is belatedly undertaking her own transition to trans.

Finally the ‘first person’ is Liv, beyond a century old, using all her money to to hire, becoming friends with a beautiful prostitute, in the suit experiencing youth and sex for the last time. In each of the stories Liv is a person who constructs narratives from the captured experiences of herself and others.

If this were one of my narratives I would begin here.

The first time I paid a prostitute to masturbate me was when my body had died. I was nothing more than a collection of thought patterns, memories stored digitally, circuits firing like synapses, and yet this woman was slipping her fingers up and inside me.

Kneen is an accomplished writer, melding metafiction, erotica and speculation to produce entertaining yet thoughtful fiction. If she were a singer I think she would be Ani DiFranco.

 

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017

see also: Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)


*Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer shows how much I know – New Yorker

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The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin

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One of my favourite novelists, Ursula Le Guin (b.1929) died last month (22 Jan 2018). I was barely aware of her children’s fantasy fiction which brought her so much acclaim but her adult novels, which are both Science Fiction and Literature, brought me, Mrs Legend and eventually our children, both pleasure and an awareness of what-might-be. Throughout the seventies and eighties she was the first writer we both looked for in second-hand stores and whose work we discussed, and just this xmas we inducted out oldest granddaughter into the club with Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.

Ursula K Le Guin in her writing and no doubt in herself, was a feminist, an anarchist and a conservationist, a (quiet) revolutionary in the sixties and seventies when it all seemed possible, right up to now when it seems less possible but rather more necessary. She was a fine story-teller who used her adult science fiction to picture and discuss her beliefs and who argued that science fiction was an important and necessary part of Literature. Her obituary in the Guardian says that

… she conveys her strong conviction that science fiction and fantasy, though fascinating in themselves, are also essential literary constructs or tools through which the world could profitably be described – but only if one honoured the tools. She was impatient – though respectfully so – with her friend Margaret Atwood’s disinclination to call some of her own novels science fiction.

Some time in the nineties or oughties I lost track of her and so was pleased when Michelle (MST at Adventures in Biography) wrote of her family’s connection with Le Guin (here) and then came up with Le Guin’s great defense of Harper Lee (here) on the release of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 (my review).

The Dispossessed (1974) was one of three political masterpieces Le Guin wrote at the height of her powers in the sixties and seventies, the other two being Left Hand of Darkness (1969) on feminism and The Word for World is Forest (1976) on conservation and the rapacity of capitalism.

The Dispossessed is the story of a man, Shevek, a physicist working on the Unified Field Theory which eluded Einstein, living on a planet Anarres which 200 years earlier had been colonised by ‘Odonians’ – followers of the woman, anarchist philosopher and revolutionary, Odo. Anarres circles a slightly larger and much more fertile planet, Urras. (The physics of their situation, which Le Guin glosses over by referring to each being the other’s moon, is that they would in fact have orbited each other around their common mid-point and their daily rotations would have synchronised so that they constantly showed the same face to each other.)

Urras, which acts as an analog for present-day Earth, is heavily populated and divided into countries with authoritarian governments. The wealthy country A-Io is an analog for the USA and the communist country Thu of course stands in for the USSR. They are not at war but during the course of the novel fight a proxy war in a third country, putting down a peoples revolt, with A-Io victorious and reinstalling a dictatorship (a reference no doubt to the USA’s intentions in Viet Nam at the time of writing.)

In the background of this story, of all Le Guin’s SF, are the space-faring and long-civilized Hainish who posit that an even earlier civilzation seeded thousands of planets throughout the galaxy with ‘mankind’. The Hainish have near-lightspeed travel, which they are happy to share, but Shevek’s work on ‘Simultaneity’ carries the promise, for the first time, of instantaneous communication. The Hainish, and Terre, almost destroyed by global warming (Yes, that was a thing in 1974. We have been ignoring it for a very long time. The only fiction I ever had published was on a Melbourne inundated by rising sea levels (RMIT Engineering magazine, 1970) ), have embassies on Urras which play a small part at the end of the story. The Terran ambassador tells Shevek:

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species … There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot … There are nearly half a billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do …”

The story follows two paths: chapters of Shevek’s life growing into adulthood on Anarres, from maths prodigy to physicist, working within his chosen field and as a labourer as the people struggle to deal with shortages and drought, meeting women, getting married, having a family, increasingly having to deal with structural rigidities and social pressure which serve to prevent him disseminating his work; alternating with his time as a mature scientist in A-Io, feted but closeted away from ordinary people, becoming increasingly aware that by being the first person ever to make the trip back from Antarres to Urras he has sold himself, sold his groundbreaking work to the State.

I know there is plenty of boy own stuff in SF, lots of militarism and soft-sex fantasies (the mild, clerkish Robert Heinlein was derided for the enormous muscles of his heroes and breasts of his heroines), but there is also social and literary experimentation which did not, could not find a place elsewhere. The Dispossessed is not space opera, Le Guin makes us care about her protagonist, about his inner struggle to conform his conscience with a workable anarchist ethic. She gives him a life partner, Takver, and friends who share and guide his struggle. She is aware of the problems that will confront a working revolutionary society, and confronts them head-on: the decline of systems of work into bureaucratic rule-following; the failure of voluntary work-sharing and rationing when resources are scarce; the problem of inertia in science which Popper describes in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and of analagous failures in the arts. And she balances her male protagonist with an overtly feminist, “womanish”, political philosophy. Odonianism. Anarchism, syndicalism, socialism, pacifism.

Shevek in A-Io struggles with the comfort of his rooms, with the idea of servants, with the absence of women from all areas of work, with his increasing awareness that he is being “duchessed” – inundated with luxuries – in return for the completion of his thesis on Simultaneity. At a ball, consuming alcohol for the first time, he makes a fool of himself with his hostess – the women are naked from the waist up which he takes as an invitation – but in his subsequent hangover determines to defect to the workers, takes part in a massive demonstration which is dispersed by machine gun fire and, finally, ends up at the Terran embassy.

Shevek, a diffident man, is persuaded to address the demonstration. “There might have been a hundred thousand human beings in Capitol Square, or twice that many”. Exactly the situation in Bourke Street, Melbourne on Moratorium Day, May 8, 1970, when the capitalist press attempted to play down our numbers, 20 wide and packed solid all the way, a kilometre, from the GPO to Parliament House and back into the Treasury Gardens.

“I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made two hundred years ago in this city – the promise kept. We have kept it, on Antarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful…”

Ursula L Guin was a great, great woman. We are the poorer not for her passing, but for our failure to pay her the attention she deserved.

 

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed, first pub. 1974. Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2002

see also:

John Clute, Ursula K Le Guin obituary, the Guardian, 25 Jan 2018 here
Ursula K Le Guin, A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman, 3 Aug 2015 here
Ursula K Le Guin, website here


Australia’s First Women Writers – Giveaway

Michelle in her guest post (here) promised a copy of Clarke, P, and Spender, D, Life Lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840 to a lucky commenter. She has written to tell me that the winner is … Jay Hicks. Congratulations Jay. Drop me a line at theaustralianlegend@gmail.com with your postal address and your book will soon be in the mail.

The Last Love Story, Rodney Hall

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Rodney Hall (1935- ) is only a couple of years younger than my mum, which is to say pretty old, and he has two Miles Franklins to his name – for Just Relations in 1982 and The Grisly Wife in 1994 – and has three times been ‘nominated’ for the Booker, and yet I can’t say I have ever been aware of him. Luckily Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is not so ignorant and in googling him I came across her 2012 post ‘Meet an Aussie Author: Rodney Hall’ (here).

The Last Love Story (2004) continues a trend, in my reading, of Australian literary fiction that is slightly offset from reality, the best of them Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, but there’s all of Jane Rawson, Ellen van Neerven, and more recently Claire Coleman and Robert Edeson, who all give reality a dystopian twist to describe a near future which says a lot about our fairly unhappy present.


I’ve had an SF couple of weeks, relistening while I work to Haruki Murakami’s wonderful 1Q84 (46 hours 16 min.s!) and then to The Natural Way of Things whose polite, middle class narration by Ailsa Piper detracts from the vibrancy of the story IMO. Kate W has just reviewed Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (here) which I must read, and meanwhile I have started on The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece of anarchist SF in preparation for a tribute following her recent death.


The subtitle of this novel is A fairytale of the day after tomorrow and Hall, not always successfully, has attempted a fairytale type of story telling, reminiscent perhaps of Angela Carter. The first chapter begins:

First, there is a river. Without the river there would be no story. Like many other rivers this one has a ford for people to cross. And, wherever you find a ford, a small industry of communications tends to spring up – a cable ferry, an inn on one side, then a rival inn on the other…

And so, a city is born, “not often heard of outside its own boundaries and known simply as The City.” But with all the workers and factories north of the river, and all the offices and better off people south of the river. When the workers rise up The City breaks up:

And because there were three times more people in City North than rich people in City South, the stalemate of numbers against superior equipment soon set hard. Both divisions of the army focused their resistance along the river bank and took turns at strategically blowing up every bridge linking them except Friendship Bridge.

That’s how swiftly the Great Day happened. And that’s how swiftly the disaster got out of hand.

As the divisions solidify and rival authoritarian administrations take control, Catholics in the South, Christian Fundalmentalists in the North, one man, a working man, Paul, the man of this love story, is stranded, unable to return to his home in City North, takes a little flat and continues to find work on building sites.

The woman of the story, Judith, is an only child, treated as ‘slow’ by a domineering mother, still home at 22 in the comfortable suburbs of City South. Until she meets Paul, is picked out by Paul, at a dance, just waiting to be asked. Then there are Judith’s mother, Mrs Stott and the sadistic head of the City North border guards, The Lieutenant.

Judith is wooed by Paul, runs off with him, is betrayed, abandoned and imprisoned, then released just as he, filled with remorse, comes back to her and is imprisoned in turn and she must come back for him.

In this middle section Hall loses his already tenuous grip on his folk-tale style and descends into mawkishness:

Here on the railway line, as Paul wept with remorse, wept at the cruelty of his own will … Judith, Judith! He had taken her, that precious woman, as if she were a sexual repository, a vassal. He had taken her carelessly, so carelessly he learned nothing of her needs, nothing even of his own heart.

Kerryn Goldsworthy in the Age writes, “Writing non-comic, non-realist fiction for adults is a fiendishly difficult task; among other things, it requires plain language, and it’s here that Hall’s skills as a poet tend to get in his own way.” Though she has a more positive view of his overall success than I do.

Judith, home again and closely watched, slips out but Mrs Stott sees her:

… she set off in pursuit as fast as her elegant shoes would allow. But she was too far behind. She had simply no idea whether Judith’s mission was a repetition of the previous day, nor whether that long absence had been a mission at all, or a mere whim on the child’s part, or maybe the need to conceal some ongoing trouble. She was getting puffed. Her hat slipped over one ear. Her smartness exposed her ridiculously. Then, at the very moment of abandoning the pursuit, she caught a glimpse of Judith, in the distance, disappearing into the mainline railway station.

First Paul and Judith, and then Paul, and then Judith, and then Mrs Stott, cross the river on the decrepit train which connects the two cities, and each time one or both or all of them are held prisoner in the City North border lock-up at the mercy of the Lieutenant. Until at last it is Judith’s clearsightedness and courage that sets them free.

Hall’s metaphor is not as obvious as Charlotte Woods’ but this is definitely a fairytale for our border/internment-obsessed times.

 

Rodney Hall, The Last Love Story, Picador, Sydney, 2004

Kerryn Goldsworthy’s review in the Age  (26 June 2004) here

 

Bad to Worse, Robert Edeson

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Bad to Worse (2017) is a second novel and suffers from second novel syndrome. Which is to say that all the things which were exciting and new in the first novel are repeated in the second where they are self-evidently not new and nor are they very exciting.

Further, Bad to Worse suffers also from we’re on a roll here let’s go for a series syndrome. So we have the same mix of good guys, though in different proportions, as in The Weaver Fish (here), facing off against a new line-up of villians. As we will again in book 3 no doubt, as Worse believes firmly in permanent threat eradication, ie. killing. And just enough threads are left open at the end.

Worse, the principal good guy, is an independent, Perth-based, secret agent type, deadly in armed and unarmed combat and a supremely competent computer hacker; he has foils in philosopher detective Victor Spoiling of the WA Police, and in his friend philosopher psychiatrist Sigrid Blitt. In fact all the good guys are philosopher scientist poet mathematicians though their philosophy science poetry logic is mostly (ironically) bogus.

Worse’s love interest from The Weaver Fish, Millie Misgivington, almost makes it to Perth in time to be included in the action, but doesn’t. And the other members of the supporting cast – Walter Reckles who survives a mid-air collision, as he said he could, over the Arizona desert, and Millie’s brother Nicholas, and his team leader Paulo on Greater Ferendes play relatively minor parts; while Anna Camenes and Edvard Tøssentern, though frequently mentioned, like Millie stay out of the way in Cambridge.

The Chinese, who in The Weaver Fish were illegally clear-felling and mining the northern coastal plain of Greater Ferende, have been discarded by the author as a source of ongoing conflict/outrage after promising much and delivering little; and neither the Asiatic Condor nor the Weaver Fish is given even a walk on part, though a giant, upright, cave-dwelling crab plays a minor role in terrifying Nicholas and Paulo.

The story this time is that the enormously wealthy and dishonest Mortiss family from Chicago have an ongoing vendetta against the Worse family in Dante, Arizona arising from a shoot-out between Sheriff Thomas Worse and members of the Mortiss family in 1877. When our Worse hears that Walter Reckless has crashed and survived after a collision with a drone from the mysterious Area Pi facility outside Dante he writes and introduces himself to Sheriff Thomas Worse the sixth, and begins investigating, soon finding links to the Mortiss family.

Of course there is stuff going on in the Ferendes that also has links to the Mortiss family, and the family has a fleet of dodgy cruise liners that leads to Worse and Brigit taking an unfortunate trip where they meet Hilario, an apparently telepathic steward, who is clearly destined to play an on-going role (perhaps as chaperone for Millie, if she ever makes it to Perth).

My favourite line: “There was another loud obstructed inspiration from Haberdash” [ie. the villian was having trouble breathing] illustrates perfectly how Ederson uses scientific/medical language to both obscure and enhance meaning. And then amid all the science there is an ultimate ocker moment, billy tea in the bush:

Worse grabbed the lidless billy’s wire handle, using green forest leaves for insulation. He stood back from the fire, and began to swing the billy like a pendulum. Suddenly, from a forward under-swing, it went full circle at high speed, revolving round and round at arm’s length, the boiling tea retained by nothing but centrifugal force. He stopped the exercise by running forward as it slowed.

Eventually, it all comes together in Arizona and the bad guys, and one very bad gal, lose.

Too often the plot is advanced by the characters writing letters to each other, which I find infuriating; there is a conceit about the author of the Worse chronicles being unknown, which you should ignore; and some unnecessary appendices which if you are going to read at all read during the course of the novel because you certainly won’t be bothered when you’ve finished.

I’ve been hard on Bad to Worse because I expected more. The writing in The Weaver Fish sparkled, there was a good balance between experimental writing, action and character development. Some of the ‘experimental’ elements remain in Bad to Worse – particularly long and sometimes amusing footnotes – but the writing is mostly bog standard SF. Long on action, short on character. What was Literature in the first novel is now just Genre.

But. Read it anyway. Teacher son enjoyed though he wished had read The Weaver Fish first. It’s still fun despite all my carping, if a bit on the bloody side, and book 3 is bound to be better. We might even get a bit of cosy, Cambridge, hand-holding romance.

 

Robert Edeson, Bad to Worse, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2017

see also my review of Robert Edeson, The Weaver Fish (here)

The Weaver Fish, Robert Edeson

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The weaver fish, transparent except for its eyes, surrounds its victims in great shoals, “fish bodies tightly woven crisscross, like warp and weft, but layered, as a solid tapestry might be made” surrounding, consuming, dissolving the flesh of its victims down to the bones. There have been few confirmed sightings. In 1916 “a fisherman named Josef Ta’Salmoud, from the village of Madregalo on Greater Ferende” capsized his canoe into a shoal so thick that he was able to escape by running across it, but arrived on the beach to find all the flesh of his feet gone.

Walter Reckles, who has written a book describing how to escape from a catastrophically exploded areoplane by attaching yourself to a wing and gliding to earth, designs a new type of aerodynamic surface, giving rise to tornado-proof roofs and hats.

The rarely sighted Asiatic Condor, native to the Ferendes, has a wingspan of up to six feet and uniform iridescent black plumage. Little is known of its habitat but it is thought to nest at sea.

Norwegian-British logician, linguist and dream theorist Edvard Tøssentern goes missing while flying a Reckles designed balloon out into the South China Sea from his camp on Greater Ferende. Tøssentern’s partner Anna Camenes comes to join the search and is taken to see illegal, Chinese Army-controlled logging at the far end of the island. There they observe condors which have been disturbed attack two Chinese soldiers.

A man is brought in from the jungle, grossly swollen through septicemia, and Camenes who is amongst other things a doctor, commences the procedures which save his life. It seems he has been the victim of a condor attack. When recovered he proposes a revolutionary theory about the life-cycle of the condor which the camp, established to research the Ferendic language, reformulates itself to investigate.

And so through brief, illuminating excursions into linguistics, engineering, physics, medicine and biology and their surprising interactions, we proceed. The members of the camp disperse, to Cambridge, and one, Nicholas, to Perth where he has a consulting job with an international bank.

This excursion to Cambridge, Tøssentern and Camenes’ home base, provides a literary connection to a long tradition of English academic science based fiction, making it easy to read The Weaver Fish as a postmodern take on the SF of say, John Wyndham*.

The author, obviously a polymath, makes no concessions to our ignorance, but if you read closely, the language is not as opaque as it first seems. One professor approaches another after a public lecture:

“One of my students is modelling semantic shift in rumour diffusion within multi-lingual, theocratically oppressed populations enjoying indefinite migratory flux, identity fraud, endemic mendacity, inculturated insularity, constrictive paternalism, pre-Enlightenment censoriousness, congenital absence of humour, sporadic headless mutism, and conductive hearing impairment; it occurred to me Thortelmann’s ideas might be useful. Would you be happy to meet up with her and offer some advice?”

In Perth, where Nicholas is now missing, we meet for the first time Worse, “a weedy little nerd”, who has summarily dealt with one intruder and is about to thoroughly bamboozle another two. After which he meets an attractive young woman, and the search for Nicholas begins.

After serious fun and games in Fremantle and Margaret River (iconic locations in Western Australia) it all comes to a head in Madregalo, now a city, and capital of the Ferendes kingdom. The Weaver Fish is a play on words, on science, on literature, and is at once both thoroughly post-modern and totally enjoyable.

Late this year (2017) Edeson’s next was released, Bad to Worse, obviously a follow-up. I gave it to teacher son who promises to have it read before he goes home while I got stuck into The Weaver Fish, which I had given to his mother three years earlier. I definitely won’t be waiting three years to read Bad to Worse. If you’re wondering, in his turn teacher son gave me a hardback edition of My Career Goes Bung, with a so-so dustjacket, published by Georgian House, Melbourne, 1946.

 

Robert Edeson, The Weaver Fish, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2014

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here)


* Footnotes play an important part in this novel, giving it in places the appearance of an academic treatise, and generally covering topics far more esoteric than a brief intro to the work of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969) who as John Wyndham wrote such SF classics as The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and Chocky (1968). “These tales eloquently sanction a post-trauma middle-class UK style of response to the theme of Disaster, whether caused by the forces of Nature, alien Invasions, Evolution or Man’s own nuclear warfare. Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for-disaster, or what Brian W Aldiss has called the Cosy Catastrophe, for this had reached mature form as early as 1885, with the publication of Richard Jefferies‘s retrospective After London, or Wild England“. Science Fiction Encyclopedia

Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman

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The doctrine of Terra Nullius was the ex post facto justification for British settlement in New Holland (Australia); basically, the continent was regarded for legal purposes as uninhabited. That it was occupied by and subject to the laws of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for tens of millenia was not accepted into Australian Common Law until the Mabo decision of 1992 – a decision which ‘conservative’ governments have been at pains ever since to read as narrowly as possible in order to protect the interests of the miners and graziers who are their principal constituency.

Claire Coleman, the author of this recently released fictional exploration of the doctrine, identifies as Noongar, the indigenous peoples of the south west corner of Western Australia, where Terra Nullius is set. This is her first novel, written while travelling around Australia in a caravan according to this interesting profile (here).

Coleman, like multi-award winning author Kim Scott, is specifically of the people of the Ravensthorpe/Hopetoun region [the Wilomin] and in the interview references a memorial acknowledging the massacre of her family’s ancestors near Ravensthorpe (see my post The Cocanarup Massacre, here) which is also important in Scott’s writing, particularly Benang and Kayang and Me (reviews here and here).

The writer she most reminds me of though is not Scott but Charlotte Wood. Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (review here) is almost a parable, timeless, although probably in a near future, and placeless, set in a generic ‘outback’. As well, the writing of both has a certain flat, unemotional quality suited to the dystopian scenes each is describing.

“The best way to sneak in a statement without people realising is through sci-fi. The best novels are controversial. I wanted to make a connection, so that people sitting on the edge will fall off it.” (Coleman)

The first half of Terra Nullius feels as though it is set a hundred years or more in Australia’s past and it is not until we are half way through that we are made to realise that it is not. Likewise the scrub country which is the novel’s setting has no real place. Perth and the small town of Jerramungup (half way between Albany and Esperance in southern Western Australia) are the only towns mentioned, but they are not important; and the scrub country of the novel borders on the desert, although Jerramungup is in reality separated from the Western Desert by hundreds of kilometers of scrub and temperate woodlands.

The novel consists of a number of stories, told in parallel, which gradually come together [the pedant in me struggles with parallel stories converging]. Jacky runs from a Settler farm where he had been working for no wages and was unable to leave, ie. was a slave. He has only vague memories of being taken from the bush as a child to a mission where he was trained for servitude. Sister Bagra runs the mission:

Her robes, her habit was too thick, too stiff, too warm for this ridiculously hot place, yet to not be dressed in the full dress of her Order was unthinkable. She would never suffer a lowering of the standards of any of the women under her command, and she was always far harder on herself than she was on them… Her role, her duty was to suffer through discomfort if needs be; her job was to be disciplined, to teach discipline, to bring the Word to the ungodly, so suffer she must.

The Head of the Department for the Protection of Natives, known to everyone only as Devil, finds “nothing to like about the job except the satisfaction he received from helping the Natives to help themselves. Natives raising their own children to the primitive ways they lived before he came was unacceptable, they would have to be elevated.”

Esperance runs a camp in the scrub on the edge of desert, her ‘hut’ a single sheet of corrugated iron, her people a motley collection united only in being pushed off their lands by the advancing Settlers.

Sergeant Rohan makes up a party of young Settlers to recapture Jacky, none of them competent trackers, and always on the edge of running out of water as they struggle from one reported sighting to the next.

Jacky finds his way to the mission, breaks in, not for food although he is starving, but for information. A young nun comes on him in the dark, tells him to head east, that he was taken from Jerramungup.

Two young nuns appear to be defying Sister Bagra. Someone has written to the authorities to inform them that Native children reported as absconded may have been mistreated and died. An investigator is coming from ‘home’.

A trooper takes part in a massacre:

Johnny was with them as they chased the terrified, fleeing survivors, in the almost dark, in the glowing red light of scattered coals from campfires, in the light from burning humpies. Some of the Native men grabbed their primitive arms and tried to fight back but men with ancient weapons cannot stand against men with modern guns. They were gunned down… Johnny ran with others of his troop, guns empty – who could be bothered reloading? – running buoyed by their laughter, knives in hands slitting throats and piercing bellies.

but is sickened, as well he might be, and deserts into the bush, meeting up with and being accepted into a party of Native marauders.

Johnny gets ill, is left behind by his mates. Jacky, still heading vaguely east but with no idea of where he is, comes upon Johnny, spares his precious water to revive him.

In her review, Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) writes, “Always have faith that an author knows what she’s doing! As the novel progresses there are odd little incongruities here and there, details that seem like mistakes that an editor should have picked up, until about half way through the novel when the penny drops and the reader’s assumptions fall away…”. What else can I say, except: Well done! Claire Coleman, long may you produce novels as good and original as this one.

Let Johnny, the renegade, have the last word: “Stealing something to eat, that is a crime that would get me flung into jail. Stealing everything, that is just good government.”

 

Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette, Sydney, 2017

 

 

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut

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Player Piano (1952) was the first of Kurt Vonnegut’s 14 novels. His most famous, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) which includes an account of the fire bombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut himself experienced as a POW, was, like Catch 22, an anti-war WWII novel taken up by the anti-Vietnam War movement. This one, however, ahead of its times, is anti-automation.

Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an important American author, writing Science Fiction mostly, though I think he is often claimed as a ‘cross-over’ into ordinary fiction Certainly he was no where near as prolific as some ‘pulp’ SF writers, but he was able to support himself and his young family after the War, writing short fiction for magazines.

I am reviewing Player Piano because I recently listened to it, and because its theme of man being replaced by machines is topical today – more topical today than when it was written probably. I had hoped I would find a paper copy on my shelves of old paperback SF, or failing that in one of my local libraries, but no luck. However, I did find that I owned a biography, or rather as I found when I began to read it, a ‘critical appreciation’, Peter J Reed’s Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1972).

The player piano of the title is coin operated and plays jazz tunes in a bar. It is incidental to the story but the fact that it plays itself – the keys are depressed by a rotating piano roll (wiki) – acts as a metaphor for workerless factories.

The novel is set not so much in a near future (future to 1952 that is) as in an alternative ‘present’. The society and technology are clearly of the 1950s. The difference is that after a major war in which tactical nuclear weapons were used, industry has been reorganized for the sake of efficiency on, although Vonnegut is at pains to ignore it, soviet central planning lines. Engineers are in charge and workers are progressively being replaced by machines. Consequently society is divided into well-off technocrats and a vast underclass who if they do not join the army, or invent little businesses for themselves, are given make-work in Reclamation and Re-construction (‘Reeks and Wrecks’).

All engineers and managers must have a PhD and school leavers are ruthlessly graded by machines into the few going on to College and the rest, though it helps to have a father in a position to ease your way through school and into plum positions. This is the 1950s, so it goes almost without saying that women PhD’s are in secretarial positions for that brief time until they become homemakers.

The story is located in (the fictitious) Illium, NY which Vonnegut used in a number of his novels (Wiki). Illium is probably based on Schenectady, NY, home of the General Electric plant where Vonnegut was at the time a PR writer, and which in turn was a model for the Illium Works. As Schenectady is divided by the Mohawk River so Illium is by the Iriquois, with the Illium Works and senior employees on one side and the underclass – mostly former workers – on the other, and one highly symbolic bridge separating rather than joining them.

Like much SF of this period Player Piano is bursting with ideas, but the characterisations and the writing are rather flat. The central character is Dr Paul Proteus, Illium Works Manager, whose father was “the nation’s first National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs and Resources Director, a position approached in importance only by the presidency of the United States”. He is seemingly happily married to Anita, his former secretary, and in line at a young age for promotion to area manager, Pittsburgh. However, he is dissatisfied with his role in forcing out of their jobs men who were good at, and enjoyed, their work.

He starts going to a bar on the wrong side of the river where he meets out of work anthropologist James Lasher who is now a chaplain with Reeks and Wrecks. And he becomes interested in and eventually buys an old farm – no electricity, no plumbing – that has a preservation order on it and a grumpy old caretaker who turns out to be the last in line of the original owners.

His old friend and workmate Ed Finnerty, a hippyish heavy drinking bachelor, comes to stay just as Anita is planning a dinner with Paul’s boss (and friend of his late father). The dinner is a disaster. Finnerty disappears and is soon rumoured to be prominent in the Ghost Shirt Society of unemployed rebels (the idea of ‘Luddites‘ is all through this book though the word is never used). Dr Lawson Sheppard, Paul’s 2IC, is constantly attempting to undermine him and, as Paul spends more and more time at the bar and on his farm, Sheppard begins to visit Anita, until at a weekend retreat for senior managers from around the US, Sheppard is offered Pittsburgh, and has it off with Anita in the bushes, while Paul is shunted sideways on a special assignment to infiltrate the Ghost Shirts.

Paul soon finds himself on the national organizing committee, with Lasher and Finnerty, of an uprising to take back the factories. The uprising is initially successful in Illium and a couple of other cities, but Vonnegut is not a proponent of revolutions and has the uprisings descend into indiscriminate destruction and drunkenness, with the leadership group surrendering to the Army.

There is a subplot involving a ‘Shah’ being shown around America by Dr Halyard of the State Department, which acts as a device for describing this ‘future’ society where the minimum accommodation is an apartment with prefabricated steel walls and automatic washing machines and vacuum cleaners; and an amusing sub subplot where Dr Halyard incurs someone’s displeasure and loses his PhD and therefore his status because he can’t prove he completed the phys ed unit in his bachelors degree.

Reed takes four or five pages to get this far then another 27 pages analyzing Vonnegut’s style and issues that Player Piano raises. From:

The central conflict in the novel is between the machine and the human, between those forces which have brought about and espouse automation and those which affirm the dignity of man, the warmth and fallibility of his animal being.

Reed finally gets to:

Player Piano, for all its warnings and weariness and nostalgia, remains a funny book. but the mixture of pain and humour results in the kind of comedy which arises when people try to make light of frightening situations, so that here, too, the novel sustains its peculiar tension.

It is ironic that this book was written at a time when the industrial heart of America would go on for another half century employing millions of workers producing steel, automobiles, whitegoods, machinery of all types. Only now in this new century (already one sixth over) are automation and robotics taking over in a big way. Here in backwater WA, iron ore trains, 200 tonne dump trucks and loaders already operate without drivers  – which is why ongoing record iron ore exports are having no upward effect on wages; and the two biggest manufacturers, Mercedes and Volvo have driverless highway trucks well underway as well. However, Vonnegut’s idea of make-work and subsidised housing for all the displaced workers, the least that he thought a US government would provide, is these days not even considered. The Market will provide.

 

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, first pub. 1952. Audio version: Brilliance Audio, 2008, read by Christian Rummel

Peter J Reed, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Writers for the 70’s, Warner Books, New York, 1972