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)

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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

 

The Swan Book, Alexis Wright

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Waanyi, Gulf of Carpentaria woman Alexis Wright (1950 – ) is older than I am, which is to say retirement age, but The Swan Book (2014) is only her third novel. Her second, Carpentaria (2006) won the Miles Franklin. I listened to it a few years ago, but didn’t like it, found it an uncomfortable combination of standard outback story-telling and magic realism. I commented on this after a Whispering Gums post and she, Sue got me started on Indigenous Lit, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance first-up, until now I have a much better idea of how Indig.Lit works – and the crossovers between spiritualism and magic realism in non-Western Lit generally – and anyway I think now I probably confused Wright with white Australian author Alex Miller, and that shaped my expectations.

The Swan Book is a great, swirling confusion of words that gradually coalesces into the story of Oblivia, an Aboriginal girl, mute after being raped, living in a coastal swamp in northern Australia, some time in the future after the countries of Europe have been lost in the Climate Wars.

Through this cyclone of words drift scraps of the local, Waanyi language, lines of old songs, phrases from books and poems about swans, sly digs at the language of Indigenous Affairs – ‘Intervention’, ‘Closing the Gap’.

Here are the elements from which we may construct a story: Oblivia’s people are the caretakers of country which includes a vast lake; the armed forces tow a flotilla of old and wrecked ships into the lake and abandon them there, to be used for target practice by the airforce; great dust storms close the channel to the sea and turn the lake to a swamp; Oblivia sleeps for decades in the bowels of an old eucalypt until she is rescued, still a young girl, by Bella Donna, an old refugee woman from Europe, and taken to live in a hulk in the middle of the lake; the army fence the lake, turn it into an internment camp, the better to protect the children.

An elder, a healer for the country arrives, a wululuku, “an Aboriginal man with an Asian heritage … a half caste, yellow fella, or mixed blood urban Aboriginal … Someone with special healing powers who travelled anywhere he was needed, just by thinking himself into a sick person’s mind”, the Harbour Master.

Bella Donna in her travels has seen all the types of swans, was led to safety by a white swan, swaps swan stories with the Harbour Master, carries books of swan stories which she reads to Oblivia. Black swans come up from the south and settle on the shores of the swamp.

The old man and woman daydreamed themselves into every swan image on earth, and off they went again. There they go – la, la, la, the wild girl Oblivia whinged under her breath, excluded from entering their world of knowledge.

The drought ends, the sand is blown away, the Harbour Master departs, Bella Donna dies, Oblivia lives on in the hulk. In a neighbouring community, the Brolga Nation, golden boy Warren Finch is being trained for leadership.

Twenty years later Warren is a modern Moses,  a saviour, deputy President of Australia, solving problems around the world:

He was the lost key. He was post-racial. Possibly even post-Indigenous. His sophistication had been far-flung and heaven sent. Internationally Warren. Post-tyranny politics kind of man.

He comes to the swamp to claim Oblivia as his promised bride. They make a journey through the desert, escorted by bodyguards who are natural scientists, cataloguing wildlife – owls and snakes living on a plague of rodents. Warren in constant contact with the world through his mobile phone, until at last they leave behind their vehicle, leave behind the bodyguards, take a small plane from a remote outpost to a crumbling city on the coast.

Oblivia is dressed in borrowed finery – “The girl looked into an oval mirror and saw herself like golden syrup in a cream dress with the same colour arum lilies of the land of the owls” – nods in the right places, is declared married, stands off to one side at the reception as Warren circles through his hordes of admirers and benefactors, is led by Warren through filthy streets to a flat on the upper floor of an apartment block, where he leaves her.

The Harbour Master joins her. Food is left at her door. Over the years they see Warren, now President, on TV, accompanied by her, the promised bride. The swans find her again though many are injured swooping between the buildings, and she rescues them, keeps them safe in her flat.  I’ve already told you a lot, elements of story gleaned from torrents of words. I won’t tell you the ending, though it’s not a great shock.

As we have been with paintings, we are blessed to have been given this gift of literature derived from 50,000 years of oral tradition. Treasure Indigenous Lit. Treasure Alexis Wright, she is a great, great talent and we have had too little from her. I’m going back to re-read Carpentaria.

 

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book, Giramondo, Sydney, 2013

see also Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
and Lisa at ANZLitLovers review of The Swan Book (here)

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

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Geology daughter, a single mother with two infants and a teenager, and half-way through her PhD, obviously has time on her hands. She recently joined a book group, suggested they do The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which up to that stage she hadn’t read, and then according to her sister who went along with her, gave a rousing presentation. I asked her to write it up for me, and she has, and if you knew her you would know it could only be called:

Things I hate about the handmaid’s tale

Thanks to a nicely timed mini-series this book is having a public resurgence and so my book club (the meeting ground for middle aged women sans children) decided to review it – everyone liked it except me. I just couldn’t get past some major inconsistencies in the plot which totally undermined the story.

To sum it up, the story is set in post 1985 USA when far-right white Christians have mass murdered everyone in Congress and taken over most of the country, replacing the government with an extreme patriarchal, evangelist, totalitarian regime.

The birth rate of middle class Americans has been declining, following a series of environmental disasters, and the ‘handmaids’ of the title act as vessels or surrogates for infertile privileged women, apparently based on a precedent in the Old Testament.

So much here makes no sense scientifically. I’m not a big science fiction reader, but in my experience SF books tend to take a concept or a time period where history could change and then move on into their fiction, but this novel has no clear historical divergence point. Flashbacks into the handmaid’s memories of her mother’s life do not correlate with my knowledge of 1940-50 USA. I’m a scientist by trade, so I like facts and I find this lack of historical basis just research-lazy and really annoying to read.

There are also major geographical issues in the novel. During the Coup the handmaid travels for days to presumably the Canadian border, but when captured ends up back in the same town she has lived in before, full of memories of her daughter. Geographically this is extremely unlikely- if I was ruler I would not put prisoners in their home town where memories would make them resistant and they would have increased knowledge of buildings, people etc. Also does the regime cover just this little town? No, it covers everywhere to at least the border so plenty of presumably bigger towns and cities to choose from.- it’s weird.

So many issues with the character Moira. Moira is an old friend of the handmaid’s (from before the takeover) who the handmaid meets again in the red centre, and later working in the brothel. But 1. Handmaids are women who have proved fertility by having a live child, and Moira is childless so, no, Moira should not be a handmaid. 2. Handmaids are fertile, and in the brothel Moira states she has had her tubes tied (something only available to women “before”) so again- obviously she wouldn’t be a handmaid.

I have more issues- like why are the women suddenly infertile in just three years? Where have all the non-white people gone? That’s 60% (??) of USA disappeared. Why are the Japanese tourists seemingly not bothered by infertility or environmental issues?

People are hailing this as a feminist book and I think that’s nonsense. The main character is so wishy washy, and the two strongest female characters are both punished to die inconceivably horrible deaths- Moira in the brothel where women do not live longer than three years, and the handmaid’s mother in some toxic clean-up zone (where your skin may literally peel off).

Furthermore, the epilogue is set at an academic conference 200 years in the future where all the speakers appear to be male, and they make fun of women (calling the female rescue rail road the “frail-road”). Actually, that’s pretty much the same as academic conferences today.

This book indisputably highlights a number of key topics effecting women, however it is not a pro-feminist novel, by which I mean it fails to show women as capable of equality. Two major topics which appeal to present day audiences are Attwood’s predictions that the perceived threat of Islamist terrorism will be used to further a far right Christian agenda and limit civil liberties, and that the “protection” of women will be used as an excuse to limit their freedoms. For anyone who saw the recent image of Trump and seven wealthy white men signing the Planned Parenthood restrictions, the concept of the White right controlling women’s reproductive rights is not science fiction.

 

Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985

By coincidence, Kim at Reading Matters has also just posted a review (here)

 

After Dark, Haruki Murakami

After Dark

Translated by Jay Rubin

Haruki Murakami (1949 – ) is Japan’s “best-known novelist abroad”. I came to him late, borrowing an audio book version of 1Q84 from my local library one or two years ago. The opportunity to read this one came up when I saw our house in the Rue de la Tombe Issoire had a shelf of English language Murakami’s, selected this one as the shortest, and knocked it off in one night (that is, I read it, I didn’t take it with me). But I’ll have to make room in my posting schedule to fit it in.

After Dark (2004) is both short – 200pp – and unlike 1Q84, relatively straightforward, but still with elements that occupy the space between SF and magic realism. A young woman is sitting in a cafe, a Dennys, late at night, reading.

She is probably college freshman age, though an air of high school still clings to her. Hair black, short, and straight. Little make-up, no jewellery. Small, slender face. Black-rimmed glasses. Every now and then, an earnest wrinkle forms between her brows.

She’s pretty, but we learn that she doesn’t think so herself. A lanky, young man with long, tangled hair comes in and, after a minute, joins her at her table. It appears that he has met her before,  on a sort of date with her spectacularly good looking older sister. The name of the young woman is Mari, and her sister is Eri. It is only later that we discover the young man’s name, Takahashi.

Takahashi leaves. He’s a trombonist in a band having an all-night practice session in a near-by warehouse. Later, a big, athletic woman, Kaoru, comes in, a former wrestler now managing a love hotel. A Chinese prostitute has been beaten and abandoned. Takahashi who sometimes helps out at the love hotel, has told Kaoru that Mari speaks Chinese. Mari goes off with Kaoru.

Murakami’s voice alternates between narration and observation.

The room is dark, but our eyes gradually adjust to the darkness. A woman lies in bed asleep. A young, beautiful woman: Mari’s sister, Eri. Eri Asai. We know this without having been told so by anyone… We allow ourselves to become a single point of view, and we observe her for a time.

There is a television in the bedroom. The screen shows a seated man staring out into the room. Sometimes the screen flickers. Later in the book Eri’s bed is empty, the bedding undisturbed, but through the screen we see that, somewhere, she sleeps on. When she eventually wakes she seems unable to make her way back.

With Mari translating, Kaoru and her workmates patch up the Chinese woman. Mari feels they might have been friends if circumstances weren’t dragging them in radically different directions. The Chinese woman is picked up by her minder on a motorbike. Throughout the night the bike cruises past Mari and Takahashi. They don’t notice.

Mari talks to the women at the love hotel, to Takahashi who has cut short his rehearsal. Mari’s parents have concentrated all their attention on Eri and her modelling career, Mari is the ‘plain’, sporty one. She can’t go home, something is wrong with her sister, she, Eri won’t wake up. Takahashi has decided to give up music and concentrate on his studies to become a lawyer. We find that Eri has confided in Takahashi, who was in her year at school, but not in her circle. The night passes.

Allowing ourselves to become pure point of view, we hang in midair over the city. What we see now is a gigantic metropolis waking up. Commuter trains of many colours move in all directions, transporting people from place to place. Each of those under transport is a human being with a different face and mind, and at the same time each is a nameless part of the collective entity.

Mari finds a way to begin bridging the gap to Eri.  After Dark is a good read, and  just sufficiently weird to keep you intrigued.

In the rue de la Tombe Issoire we are sitting up late, watching new episodes of Big Bang Theory on British TV. Geology daughter says “if it’s written by a man, with that cover” then she doesn’t want to read it. She’s right, Murakami is telling us women’s stories, of being in the beauty industry, of being a sister, so now I am unsure. You will have to decide for yourself.

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Staircase and skylight

Haruki Murakami, After Dark, first pub. 2004, this ed. translated by Jay Rubin, Harvill Secker, London, 2007

see also this comprehensive guide to reading Murakami in the blog Book Oblivion (here)