The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa

‘Research’ indicates Yoko Ogawa (1962- ) must be one of Japan’s most accomplished writers. Until I picked this book up I hadn’t heard of her, though quite a number of you obviously had, from your comments when you saw I was reading it, no doubt from its shortlisting for the 2020 Booker.

Wikipedia says Ogawa “has published more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction” only some of which have been translated into English (9 maybe). I’m most impressed by her co-writing An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, which sadly doesn’t seem to be one of the ones translated.

My first impression of The Memory Police was that it was both slow and dry, and it may have taken me till halfway to get over that. By the end I was entranced.

Is it Science Fiction? Most of the reviews say it is, and I have very little (ok, no) knowledge of the SF tradition in Japan. It is certainly SF in the way that Murakami is SF; which is to say surreal rather than sciencey. One reviewer draws parallels with 1984 and Brave New World. I guess the Memory Police of the title are a bit Brave New World-ish, but for me the dystopian element was minor.

The basis of the story is that a young woman writer living on one of Japan’s lesser islands, in a small village on the coast, a bus and train ride from the regional centre, is writing a novel about a young woman. We see excerpts from that novel, they are not labelled but are in slightly different type – Courier rather than Times, maybe, and I didn’t pick them up straight away.

The story of the novel we are reading is that things are disappearing, that most people quickly forget what it is that has disappeared, and that those who cannot forget are rounded up and interned by the Memory Police.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. … It took patience to figure out what was gone.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast … I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything.

The young woman’s father, an ornithologist, has died. Her mother, a sculptor, is one of those who don’t forget, she shows the then little girl keepsakes, relics long gone, but then she too is gone, or taken by the Police. Her old nanny dies, and so she is alone in the house, her only friend the old man, the nanny’s husband, who lives in a boat stranded on the beach. A ferryman whose ferry has disappeared.

The story of the novel being written is that a girl is in a class learning to type. Lessons are in a church with a clock tower. She becomes the lover of the young man teaching them. Her voice goes away and she can only speak to him by typing. And then the typewriter seizes up. Her lover takes her up to the room behind the clock, a room full of broken, seized typewriters …

A family, friends of the young woman writer’s parents, are rememberers. They come to her, bringing some of her mother’s sculptures, on their way into hiding.

The editor, R, who is working with her on her novel, also remembers. The old man proposes that they hide him, that she hides him, in a space below her study floor. R comes, leaving behind a wife and baby. Every night she brings him food and pages from her writing. They discuss what has disappeared. Her tries to convince her of the importance of remembering even a small part of what has been lost. Of course she is all he sees and they become close.

Then novels disappear. She gives R her manuscript, which already has no meaning for her, and some books selected almost at random. The townsfolk gather to burn books in great bonfires which burn all night. The library itself is torched.

I followed the arc of the last book as it tumbled through the air – and suddenly I realized that long ago, I had stood at this same window with my father and looked out at a similar sight… “A bird.” I remembered. But this memory, too, was soon erased by the flames, leaving nothing behind but the burning night.

Now she cannot write. But R persuades her to keep trying, to write a word, a line, a sentence.

Disappearances continue. Her novel comes to an end. This novel comes to an end.

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Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, first pub. 1994. Translated from the original Japanese, Stephen Snyder, Vintage, London, 2019. 274pp

Enclave, Claire G Coleman

Claire G Coleman routinely reposts reviews of her books on Twitter (as does Nathan Hobby of his). She even reposted my recent review of her Lies, Damned Lies (via a Liz Dexter post). I think they’re both brave to read them in the first place!

But, CGC, don’t repost this one, I don’t think it’s your best work.

Not that I think anyone should be deterred from reading it. I loved Terra Nullius (2017) and I loved The Old Lie (2019). Indigenous.Lit and especially the current wave of women’s Indig.Lit, to which Coleman belongs, seems to me to be both innovative and full of life.

Like her first two, Enclave, which was released just last month, is Science Fiction, though falling easily within ‘Dystopian’ which all you regard as safe, not-really SF. But for me, this one did not flow as easily – the descriptions felt forced and there is a concentration on just one character – a privileged young white woman, Christine – where the other two had a wider cast.

She stared, half-blind,at the cold screen of her smartphone. Safetynet told her the news: updating her on the crime Safetynet and Security were protecting her from; informing her of the dangers outside, the bad people and dangerous criminals being kept outside the city Wall; of the terrorists threatening her life, buildings falling, people dying. Safetynet told her she had no emails…

Christine, a university student in the last year of a maths degree, lives at home with her parents and younger (year 12 ish) brother. Her father is on the committee which runs the walled city in which they live. Her mother, notionally a designer, is an alcoholic, one of the women who lunch, all plastic-surgeoned into near identical faces. The city is patrolled by black-uniformed security forces who live in their own walled compound outside the Wall. Servants, non-white of course, come in by train each day to do all the work. Outside the Wall is a wasteland of broken buildings and scrublands.

The news from outside is of wars, desperate populations, burning cities. No one travels.

Surveillance within the city is constant, by fixed cameras, inside and out, and drones.

A new year starts; her brother begins a Business course which will lead him into the ruling elite; Christine enrols to do her Masters. Her father buys her an apartment which she allows her mother to furnish. Her (platonic) best friend Jack has disappeared and she is lost without him; her mother encourages her to drink.

Coleman seems to have the trick of building the story up in one direction for a while, and then surprising us by taking it down another. This is more muted in Enclave but still, having spent the first part establishing Christine’s life of privilege, she then snatches it away.

Christine takes increasing notice of one of the servants, Sienna. They kiss.

Chill and heat chased each other up and down her skin, fought for the territory of her face.
The hand fell away from her neck. The mouth she would die for pulled away from hers and she chased it, almost caught it before it spoke.
‘Christine’, Sienna warned. ‘We can’t get caught.’

But they do, captured on cameras in Christine’s bedroom.

I currently have two other works of women’s SF on the go, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994). Piercy in a later Introduction discusses women’s SF at some length and I’m going to have to get hold of a written copy (mine is on Audible), before I write a review.

SF is quite often bursting with ideas, and that is true of Enclave, and the whole literary thing suffers at least a little. But Piercy and Ogawa both write smoothly, while developing the characters of their respective ‘heroines’ with some depth – often a strength of women’s SF compared with men’s. Coleman has interesting characters around Christine, but they are not fully developed and I don’t feel that she uses the resulting space to fill out Christine as much as she might have.

I’m also not sure what Coleman was trying to achieve by having a white heroine. Yes, she wanted, as she always does, to highlight racial inequality. But the depictions of Black-white relations are sketchy, and incidental to the main theme which is surveillance and authoritarianism. In my opinion her Indigenous heroines are more effective.

Enclave has two changes of direction, so is a novel in thirds rather than halves. The middle third is an adventure, a struggle to survive, and the last third is – well not a utopia as I’ve seen it described – but Coleman’s current home and my old home, Melbourne, as a model society (and CGC, I love the trains!).

A short review, but what can you do when any description of Christine’s progress must necessarily be full of spoilers. We’ve discussed before that books whose writing I found awkward (Lucashenko!) you found lively and real, so you’ll probably all enjoy this one too. You’ll certainly enjoy the ideas Coleman discusses. Ignore me and give it a try.

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Claire G Coleman, Enclave, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 307pp.

For a much more thoughtful review than mine try Alexander Te Pohe’s in Kill Your Darlings 14 July 2022 (here).

A History of Dreams, Jane Rawson

The best authors in Australia today – and they are among the best in the world – are Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane and Kim Scott. I would certainly drop everything to read new books by them, but my favourite authors are Marie Munkara, Elizabeth Tan, Claire G Coleman and … Jane Rawson. So here we have Jane’s latest (and next month Claire G Coleman’s publishers release her latest, Enclave). Life is good.

We used to see Jane Rawson here blogging, I see her on Twitter, and I don’t have it in me to call her Rawson. Jane’s ‘About’ says she lives in Tasmania – for some reason I pictured her living in Williamstown (Melbourne) – and that she grew up in Canberra. Her first two novels were set in Melbourne, this and her previous novel are set in and around Port Adelaide which she seems to know quite well.

I used to know Port Adelaide quite well myself. I’ve lived and worked for trucking companies based there. Even now, or at least when I’m running Melbourne-Perth, I routinely drop into the trucking/industrial suburbs immediately east of the Port. For some reason though I’ve only rarely been to the residential suburbs, Semaphore, Largs Bay, Taperoo, Osborne, on the peninsula above the Port, where the four young women who are the protagonists of this novel grow up. (If you want to see the real Port Adelaide watch Bad Boy Bubby – warning this movie includes incest and death by cling-wrap). Ok, that’s enough wasting space, but I do like seeing geography-I-know in my fiction.

I have written as recently as last week about Australian SF set in dystopian near-futures. Well this is SF set in a dystopian near-past; a reimagined 1930s and 40s where the politics of the New Guard become dominant and Australia sides with Germany and Japan in WWII.

Jane’s particular focus here is not the War, but to explore the father knows best philosophy of that time – and of two of our three past prime ministers! – if it were to be further hardened in law so that women were unable to work, were forced into marriage and child-bearing.

A History of Dreams starts out innocently enough, with schoolgirls Margaret and her younger sister Esther being bullied by boys on the train home from Adelaide Technical High. Matt, a senior boy Margaret has looked up to (and helped with his homework) all her life, fails to step in, but the boys are eventually dispersed by Margaret’s friend Audrey, a ‘revolutionary’ whose father is a trade union leader.

Margaret was well on her way to securing her spot at the top of the class and privately Esther expected Margaret would go on from Adelaide Tech to beome the world’s most famous lady palaentologist. If not her sister, who else would discover Australia’s first dinosaur skeleton? When she did, Esther would write an opera to celebrate the discovery.

The three girls form a ‘club’. Audrey reveals that she has been trained by her maiden great aunt, the latest in a long line of spinsters, to become a witch, able to put dreams in potions which when dropped in a drink induce dreams or nightmares. A fourth girl, Phyllis, who lives in much poorer circumstances than the other three, joins their group (initially maybe just for the cakes).

Margaret’s father refuses to let her go on to uni, and finds her a job as a clerk in a bookkeeper’s office until she is able to find herself a husband.

At this point I am thinking about Marie Munkara. This is an angry book, a satire on misogyny as Munkara’s are angry, satires on racism; and I am expecting a black comedy. In fact, I wonder now if that is what Jane was initially intending. But it gradually becomes something else, more dramatic, as the political situation worsens and the young women are variously raped, imprisoned, fall apart from each other, then slowly regather themselves to take their places in the resistance.

And then you cannot help but think of Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things; to think of the systemized misogyny Woods’ outback jail implies, which is here made explicit; to think of the escaped internees returning to the cities to fight back.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. That’s for the author to reveal in her own good time, but it is totally believable, and the ‘witchery’ is properly woven in as any unusual power is in good SF (or SFF).

The story is told in the third person mostly from Margaret’s POV, but sometimes from the other girls’. The resistance find Margaret a job within the Public Service. Here she meets her new boss –

‘They tell me you’re very good,’ he said. ‘Personally, I don’t see why we need to get a woman involved. Plenty of excellent fellows here, perfectly capable of understanding what women want. But I’m sure they know what they’re doing upstairs.’ He smiled thinly at her.

In some ways this was the book for a month ago, before the federal election. But on the other hand what is now understood by ‘everyone’, how out of touch the Prime Minister was with women, how the government, the Liberal Party, was just one long chain of white male privilege from private school to university college to political office jobs to Cabinet, was back then barely spoken of.

Jane starts out with Phyllis reading PC Wren and no, not Beau Geste, but my favourite, the book which informed my adolescence, Beau Ideal. The whole point of Beau Ideal is to do the honourable thing, whatever the cost, a lesson which was lost on me when it came to the test, but which maybe Jane wants us to think about as the four heroines push through considerable adversity.

I guess I was hoping for another quirky Formaldehyde but authors have to be allowed to grow and explore, and Jane Rawson has done that here in a big way and has come up with a powerful book for our times.

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Jane Rawson, A History of Dreams, Brio Books, Sydney, 2022. 302pp.

see also my reviews of earlier Jane Rawson fiction:
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, 2013 (here)
Formaldehyde, 2015 (here)
From the Wreck, 2017 (here)

SF & Issues

Journal: 087

Earlier in the week Karen/Booker Talk posted “What I’m Reading : Episode 45, May 2022“, and one of the books she was planning to read was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). I commented: “Good to see you reading some hardcore SF – Fahrenheit 451. OK some SF is just boys toys, rocket ships and guns, but lots of it tackles serious issues that people actually care about.”

Karen’s reply was: “OK, so let me throw down a challenge for you Bill. Give me a few recommendations of SF that does exactly what you say – tackles serious issues that people care about.”

So, given that I’m just an ordinary (lifelong) SF reader, and not a specialist SF lit.blogger – though I have from time to time highlighted women’s SF here, because it tends to have more character development, and often a quirkyness, that ‘straight’ (guy) SF lacks, not to mention a lot less action-for-action’s sake – let’s see what I can do.

We all know Fahrenheit 451, it’s about burning books, something we all care about. So that’s one. Bradbury (1920-2012) was an amazing writer. Sue and Melanie have been chipping me about not reading SF short stories, but I have a number of Bradbury anthologies – I just went off and read a few stories from I Sing the Body Electric. He has a dreamy prose style that is totally unique. There was an android ‘grandmother’; a man alone on Mars 60 years after Armageddon on Earth, with only tapes of his own voice to keep him company; but I didn’t see anything which fit today’s thesis.

My old favourites, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Robert Sheckley, John Sladek slid from straight/pulp SF into postmodernism. They were concerned with how a capitalist world might look in the future. I might recommend Sheckley’s Mindswap (1966) because a) it’s LOL funny and b) in one place the hero swaps into a world, into the body of the president, where change of government occurs by a citizen shooting the president. These writers deal with ‘issues’ all the time, so in Galapagos (1985) Vonnegut explores how evolution might work if a pandemic wiped out nearly all the world’s human population.

We could go on to JM Ballard, Doris Lessing and Ursula Le Guin who are all great writers as well as SF writers. Ballard who as a child was imprisoned by the Japanese in China during WWII, was fascinated by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which set him free. His fiction for a long time dealt only with the world ending. Lessing, as I discussed recently, in Shikasta looks at systems of government and social organisation. Her Mara and Dann (1999) is an exploration of global warming and the resulting mass emigrations or whole countries. Le Guin is an advocate for anarchist governance – The Dispossessed (1974) – for the environment – The Word for World is Forest (1972) – for feminism and for anti-militarism.

A lot of writers, in Australia and elsewhere, are facing up to the imminent end of life on Earth-as-we-know it by writing fiction which is ‘dystopian’ but for which they refuse the label ‘SF’. Over the past few years there has been a rush of such fiction by young Australian women.

The first (to come to my attention) was Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) which posits a Melbourne of widespread poverty, with UN peacekeepers; but the book takes ‘a wrong turn’ into something very much like Magic Realism. I find, as I page through my reviews, that I have a decided preference for quirky in my SF.

Another such novel is Elizabeth Tan’s brilliant Rubik (2017) set in Perth. “This is a novel for our neo-liberal times where corporations run by faceless old white men both know and control everything about us. Tan fights back subtly, with satire, with ‘acceptably brown’ characters, with off-hand analyses of the way we submit to being manipulated.” (my review).

I have reviews for Melissa Ferguson’s The Shining Wall (2019) – an underclass forced to live outside city walls; Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (2017) – innovative uses of a total body suit for recording experiences; Geogia Blain’s Special (2016) – a world controlled by corporations rather than national governments; and a time-travelly climate change one set near Wollongong (sorry, I can’t offer a prize for the first correct answer).

Two important ones though are Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things (2015) which describes the indefinite internment of a group of young women who have been the playthings/victims of men and had the temerity to complain; and Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius (2017). Coleman is an Indigenous Western Australian, a Wirlomin-Noongar woman, and she writes of Settlers arriving and enslaving the local people. As in her second novel, The Old Lie (2019), it only slowly becomes obvious how this is SF. Her third, Enclave, is out in four weeks. My order has been placed.

This last week I have been listening to Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018), the third in her Wayfarer series. It’s actually more of a lecture than a story, on how to create a society which runs without money – real socialism in action! The earlier two were much better as stories, with interesting characters and dealing with the problem of are AIs ‘alive’.

Karen, I don’t seem to have actually recommended any particular book but I hope you enjoyed the discussion as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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Recent audiobooks 

Dina Nayeri (F, Iran/USA), A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (2013)
Emma Viskic (F, Aus/Vic), Those Who Perish (2022) – Crime
Dervla McTiernan (F, Ire), The Good Turn (2020) – Crime
Polly Crosby (F, Eng), The Women of Pearl Island (2021) – SF (actually a soppy inter-generational female friendship thing, but the premise is that the Brits tested an atom bomb in 1955, on an island in the Channel)
Elin Hilderbrand (F, USA), Nantucket Nights (2002) – Mystery
Laurie Halse Anderson (F, USA), The Impossible Knife of Memory (2013) – YA (starts out as grunge, but descends into soppy teenage romance. I skipped the girl’s father’s trendy Vietnam War flashbacks).
James Baldwin (M, USA), Just Above My Head (1979) – Literature!
Tanya Talaga (F, Can), Seven Fallen Feathers (2017) – Non Fiction
Becky Chambers (F, USA), Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018) – SF

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AWWC May 2022

DateContributorTitle
Wed 04Elizabeth Lhuede“Reputed authoress”: Isabel Grant
Fri 06Stories FTAIsabel Grant: The Archangel Michael (short story)
Wed 11Bill HollowayNathan Hobby, The Red Witch (review)
Fri 13Stories FTA“Old-Women’s Stories”: Mrs Langloh Parker
Wed 18BronwynMary Gaunt
Fri 20Stories FTAMary Gaunt, Quits (short story)
Wed 25Whispering GumsEthel Turner’s juvenilia
Fri 27Stories FTALouise Mack, Teens (novel extracts)

All the Friday posts are stories, or extracts from stories, written by the authors mentioned.

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

I posted this review of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists in 2015, my first year as a blogger. I had the sense to link to both Sue/WG’s and Lisa/ANZLL’s reviews, so that made two comments and Jane, then a fellow blogger, made three.

Jane Rawson has written a couple of quirky novellas since, though I think that Formaldehyde (2015) got very little attention. A shame, as it is very funny. Her latest, A History of Dreams has apparently hit the shelves already, though not at Crow Books in Perth where I am still waiting for my order to be filled. A review will follow as soon as I have a copy in my hands.

The reason for this repost is that once again I find myself too busy to write. But Milly has finished moving, and in fact has already sold her old house, accepting an offer the first day it was shown. So that’s the end of that distraction. I’ve caught up with at least some of my bookkeeping; and though I’m still doing one trip a week to make up for the time I took off in March/April I’m hoping that by filling a space with this re-posting I can have my North America read for May, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, written up later this week


Among my many uni first years I luckily included a year of Philosophy which, for me at least, provides a way into understanding this wonderful first novel. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) sets out as pure near-future dystopian SF and morphs into something much more interesting and original.

Rawson makes clear from the beginning that our heroine, Caddy, is in a state of despair at the loss of her home “down by the dirty river, their neighbours a cluster of gigantic, carefully-lettered oil holding tanks”, her cat and her husband Harry. One day when Caddy has ridden her bike into town, a fire breaks out near the tanks, the power supply and therefore the water pressure fail and “[s]he felt the whole earth shake when the tanks went up. She thought it was a terrorist bomb down at the train station, though there’d been nothing like that since 2014.” Caddy heads back towards the fire, “Harry would need her” but “[t]he trees were on fire along the edge of Footscray Road, and by the time she had reached within a kilometre of home there was nothing but black”.

And so, in a couple of pages we are located in time, the near future, in space, the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, and in atmosphere, a time of failing infrastructure, of rising temperatures, and of a growing and displaced underclass.

Caddy lives in a humpy on the banks of the river near Newmarket – and it is one of the joys of reading a novel set in your own home town that the locations are so easy to visualise – supporting herself through prostitution and small scale bartering. There is only a small central cast, all friends of, or at least with Caddy, Ray who buys and sells stuff including his friends, Jason, a street kid, Peira who runs an inner city bar, Lanh, an internet entrepreneur, and Sergeant Fisk from the UN relief force (ie. Melbourne is a place which needs help). Caddy moves through the underside of the city, buying and selling and being sold, becomes ill, finds that the river has flooded and washed away her humpy, and is assisted by Fisk, to whom she finds she is strangely attracted.

Meanwhile Ray buys some heavily creased maps and finds that he is able to fall through the creases into other places, in space and eventually, in time, initially places on opposite folds of the map but increasingly a no-place which he learns is called Suspended Imaginums, the place our imaginings go when we stop thinking about them. There is a reference at this point to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I’m thinking oh no, not more post modern magic bullshit but Rawson is cleverer than that.

Ray takes that wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, within Suspended Imaginums, and finds himself in San Francisco, in 1997, and there bumps into two characters, Sarah and Simon, whose story we have been following in a sidebar so to speak. They have accepted the task of seeing the whole of the USA by dividing it into 25 foot squares and standing in each and every one, which turns out to be the same as a story imagined and partially written by Caddy. And this is where the philosophy cuts in.

Way back in 1971 my course, under the great Max Charlesworth, included Bishop Berkely (1685-1783) who posited that there is no way to confirm that the material world exists and that therefore we may well all be thoughts in the mind of God. I liked this but not being a god-botherer thought (and think) that it is more likely that the thoughts are in my mind, not God’s. A modern version of Berkely’s “immaterialism” is put forward by Nick Bostrom (1973- ) who shows that with computing power expanding exponentially, it is inevitable that at least one society, and maybe that one is ours, will exist as a simulation running on computers.

Hence, in my reading, Rawson implies a universe which depends entirely on Caddy’s imagination, an entirely believable universe but one in which perhaps the postulates, the underpinnings of the simulation, haven’t been fixed as well as they should be and ‘normality’ has begun to fray.

One last thing, don’t be misled by the prize for SF writing. I have read SF incessantly since those long ago uni days and, on the evidence of this book, Rawson is one of those writers like my favourite Williams, Burroughs and Gibson, who write on the edge of what is possible in ‘mainstream’ fiction. Unmade Lists is not Fantasy, is not Space Opera, is definitely not genre fiction. Read it and see.

 

Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Transit Lounge, 2013

See also: reviews by Whispering Gums (here) and ANZ Lit Lovers (here).

Shikasta, Doris Lessing

Shikasta’s full title is “Re Planet 5, Shikasta, Personal psychological historical documents relating to the visit by Johor (George Sherban), Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days”.

Shikasta is Earth, which for eons was bathed in goodness by the system known as Canopus, but the forces of Shammat (Satan) became ascendant and Shikasta descended into squalor and misery, which Johor, who is immortal, as we were once also, witnesses and reports back on until the Last Days, World War III.

Let me be clear at the outset, that yes, this is a very Old Testament view of the world, but it is not religious in the way that CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy is for instance.

That said, Lessing has dead people lining up in Zone 6 (Purgatory?) to return to the land of the living. Johor himself passes backwards and forwards through Zone 6 to go home to/return from Canopus; the last time not as himself, but choosing to be reborn as George Sherban, who grows to become something approaching the new Messiah at the End of Days.

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) is one of the greats. I have loved everything of hers that I have read. The big question is how much of it have I understood? Wikipedia says that her fiction “is commonly divided into three distinct phases”: Communist (1944-56), Psychological (1956-69) and Sufism (1970s). I have no way of knowing if this is correct. In any case, Lessing continued writing up till 2007 (when she was 88).

Shikasta (1979) marks a change in her output to encompass Science Fiction, a step which as you can imagine put a lot of literary noses out of joint. It is a dense work and very difficult to read – maybe I should have first read the Short Introduction to Sufism – and yet I also found it difficult to put down.

The text mainly takes the form of reports back to Canopus of the decline in the ‘natives’ (us) over eons. But the ‘agents’, mostly Johor, tell stories with enough detail and personality in them to hold our interest.

One envoy describes Noah’s flood: “Well before the inundation the Davidic tribe was on safe ground … in the area that is the subject of this report, the rain continued for nearly two months… It was necessary to make a ‘pact’ with them that this visitation of the Gods would not occur again.” And then his next report begins –

Since my last visit, twenty-one cities have been established in the old flood areas… Trade flourishes between the cities and as far as the eastern areas of the main landmass, its Northwest fringes, the northern parts of Southern Continent 1, the isolated Northern Continent.

It helps to have a map or a globe – for most of the novel you have to make your own connections between the ‘reports’ and the world as we know it. So, the ‘Northwest fringes’ is Europe, Southern Continent 1 is Africa (I don’t think Australia is ever mentioned) and the ‘isolated Northern Continent’ is North America.

The first third of the novel describes our decline – from the idyllic, at one with nature to grubby, desperate townspeople – and the increasing influence of Shammat, in mostly general terms. The next third is vignettes of people, Individuals One through Eight, in the aftermath of WWII. Some become terrorists or criminals. Eight is a servant girl, abandoned by the family to whom she had given herself.

Such a female, often to the detriment of her own children, whom she may even have to abandon, may be the prop, the stay, the support, the nourishment of an entire family, and perhaps for all her life. For her working life, for such a servant may be turned out in old age without any more than what she came with. Yet she may have been the bond that held the family together.

Which reflects, I think, Lessing’s upbringing in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

The last third is easier reading, the story of George Sherban, Johor reborn, told mostly by his sister, as he grows and is educated through childhood, to become leader of the world’s young people – as the Chinese become the master race – culminating in the trial of the White Race for their crimes against the Dark Races, before hundreds of delegates in an ancient ampitheatre in Greece

All of the second night’s session was taken up by representatives from South America, young men and women from the Indian tribes. Thirty of them. Several were wasted with disease…

The indictment was even more powerful than that of the Indian from the United States, because the events described were more recent. Some of the victims stood before us . . .

The incursion of Europe into South America. The conquest of brilliant civilizations through rapacity, greed, guile, trickery. The savagery of Christianity. The subjection of the Indians. The introduction of Black people from Africa, the slave trade.

This is an astonishing work, a largely successful attempt by a great writer to create an allegory of the whole of human history in one novel. Subsequently expanded to the five books of the Canopus in Argos series.

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Doris Lessing, Shikasta, first pub. Jonathan Cape, London, 1979 (My edition, pictured, HarperCollins, 2002). 448pp.

Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson

North America Project 2022

My objective in undertaking this project was to discover who were the North American Alexis Wrights and Marie Munkaras. Ok, Toni Morrison is probably the Alexis Wright equivalent (I don’t think I’ve discovered a Kim Scott yet, and I don’t think Australia has an Octavia Butler or Zora Neale Hurston), but who are all those edgy, angry writers, mostly women in Australia at least, at the boundaries of literature and race and gender relations?

Well one of them is clearly Nalo Hopkinson (1960- ).

Hopkinson “was born in Jamaica, in the Caribbean. I lived for years in Guyana as well, and in Trinidad/Tobago. But the bulk of my life so far has been spent in Toronto, Canada. After about 35 years of that, I moved to the USA for a professorship in Creative Writing.” Nalohopkinson.com/About (in a section titled ‘Powered by ADHD’).

Midnight Robber (2000) is Science Fiction but as with much Women’s SF the SF is just a frame for a story about people. Men’s SF, straight SF, is generally about the SF – a universe is established and it is explored by stick figures. Women’s SF quite often follows the conventions of straight SF, a universe is established and its rules are adhered to, but the purpose is to provide an environment in which the behaviours of one or a few people may be interrogated.

Hopkinson has fun with Midnight Robber‘s environment, making her whole universe one giant Jamaican carnival. I of course missed most of the references but they’re here on Wikipedia if you want them. In brief, Earth is uninhabitable; Jamaicans have established themselves on a new planet, Toussaint; prisoners are exiled to another planet, New Half-Way Tree, in a parallel universe from which there is no return (it has a very 1788 New South Wales feel). The Indigenous people of New Half-Way Tree, the Douen, are smallish, I guess around 1.5m, with lizard-ish and bird-ish characteristics, and they live in trees – very reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.

At the start of the book, Tan-Tan is a young girl, her father is Mayor and her mother finds ways to fill in her time while Tan-Tan is cared for by AIs – the house, her nurse, the cook and so on – via an implant in her ear. So a lot of the first part of the book is establishing how that works, and how the family dynamics work.

Then Antonio, the father, comes home early to catch his wife and her lover on the sofa; challenges the lover to a duel; in cheating, accidentally kills him; and to forestall being hanged he ‘jumps’ to New Half-Way Tree, accidentally taking Tan-Tan with him.

But wait, you mean you never hear of New Half-Way Tree, the planet of the lost people? You never wonder where them all does go, the drifters, the ragimuffins-them, the ones who think the world must be have something better for them, if them could only find which part it is? You never wonder is where we send the thieves-them, and the murderers? Well master, the Nation Worlds does ship them all to New Half-Way Tree, the mirror planet of Toussaint. Yes man, on the next side of a dimension veil.

Sorry, I forgot to say the whole novel is in patois, hours of poetry that I occasionally lost track of when the thread of the novel was interrupted for a side story.

On New Half-Way Tree Antonio and Tan-Tan slowly build a new life in a rough settlement in which a couple of strong-minded convicts maintain a reasonably fair order. You might think at this point Hopkinson could be making points about the treatment of Douen as inferiors – in fact, the way they are made to work, the way they look down and mumble when addressed is a direct metaphor for slave behaviour around whites – or about survivalism; but her central purpose is to discuss the treatment of young women by men they trust; and all the SF which follows, the “alien contact” as Tan-Tan goes to live with the Douen, is secondary to this central purpose.

This is a powerful and disturbing work written by a woman who is angry about men, about family men. And we should honour her anger by not skirting around the core of this work, as some of the summaries I read, do –

Over a number of years, from say age 9 to 16, with no one to protect her, Tan-Tan is raped.

Eventually she is driven to kill her rapist. In plunging down on her, he plunges down on her knife and dies. For this Tan-Tan knows the town ‘authorities’ will hang her, so she escapes into the forest with a male Douen, Chichibud, on the back of Benta, a Douen who can fly.

For the remainder of the novel Tan-Tan lives in the forest, with a Douen family, and then after her own “tall people” begin seeking her out, with an outcast Douen her own age; sometimes righting wrongs in isolated “tall people” communities, giving rise to the legend of Tan-Tan, Robber Queen. But she does not, cannot, forget that she was raped and neither can we.

This is a great book, a celebration of Jamaican culture and a masterpiece of Women’s SF, exactly the book I was looking for, hoping for with this project.

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Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber, Warner Aspect, 2000. Audible version read by Robin Miles, 13 hrs


I said I would publish this review at the end of March, but I’m away working for a second or third consecutive week and I’ve run out of draft posts and the time to write new ones. I’ve been reading and listening to  some interesting books so hopefully I’ll knock out a couple of reviews over the weekend.  I’ll name next month’s (April ’22) North American book soon: Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves

Kindred, Octavia Butler

North America Project 2022

First, an apology to anyone who took me at my word that my first up read for Project 2022 would be ZNH’s Their Eyes were watching God. I meant it to be. I bought the audiobook. But when I was halfway through January with no work, no driving in sight I gave up on my chances of getting to Their Eyes and instead began reading Kindred which I had on my shelves (with the cover pictured, from Headline, London).

Of course, as soon as I was halfway through Kindred, I got a job, which turned into two jobs, one up the coast and one back, both overwidth so no nighttime travel, a day in between, plenty of time for reading. What did I listen to? Something stupid and an Amanda Lohrey, The Philosopher’s Doll.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was an African American woman, brought up by her widowed mother in racially diverse Pasadena, California where her mother cleaned houses for white folks and put up with a lot of shit.

The Octavia Butler site features the quote “I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out it was called science fiction.” But in fact Butler was drawn to SF at an early age, through SF magazines, had her own typewriter at 10, and was soon writing SF of her own. In the late 1960s she worked days to put herself through college at night, graduated, went on to writing courses through UCLA Extension, and from there, recommended by lecturer and SF writer Harlan Ellison, to the Science Fiction writers workshop at Clarion, Pennsylvania where she met and became lifelong friends with (African American) SF writer Samuel R Delany.

The first half of the 1970s Butler describes as “five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs … before I sold another word.” But she had already begun work on the ‘Patternist’ series of novels, and after the publication of Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977) and Survivor (1978) she was able to write full time. You can only imagine how fiercely determined Butler must have been, to start writing, to get through school and college, and then to break into the man’s world, the white man’s world, of Science Fiction.

I have reviewed her later novels, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) but I probably knew her before then for Lilith’s Brood, the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). If these are no longer on my shelves I blame my son whose taste in SF is impeccable.

Kindred (1979) is an exploration of why and how slaves put up with what they did, sparked in the first place by seeing what her mother had to put up with. Interestingly Roots, which of course deals with the same issues, and which I read and wrote about last year, came out as a book in 1976, followed by the immensely popular TV series a year later, so two or three years before Kindred. But I haven’t seen any discussion that this is where Butler got her inspiration.

Despite my great admiration for Butler, I was initially disappointed that she was using SF in Kindred as just the frame for another Historical Fiction account of slavery in early nineteenth century American cotton fields. But of course Butler is cleverer than that. The novel covers a few months in 1976 in the life of Dana, an African American woman and her white husband, Kevin, just another middle class couple in California, both writers, late twenties; or a few years if you count the time, the times, they spend on a Maryland cotton plantation in the years before the Civil War.

The room seemed to blur and darken around me. I stayed on my feet for a moment holding on to a bookcase and wondering what was wrong … I heard [Kevin] move toward me, saw a blur of gray pants and blue shirt. Then, just before he would have touched me, he vanished.
The house, the books, everything vanished. Suddenly, I was outdoors kneeling on the ground beneath trees. I was in a green place. I was at the edge of a woods.

There is a child, a white boy of four or five, drowning in a pond. Dana pulls him out, fends off the hysterical mother, begins mouth to mouth. Successfully, luckily. This boy, Rufus, is, or will be, her great great grandfather.

It’s a complex story and Butler uses it well to discuss complex issues. The Sf element is that each time Rufus is in danger he drags Dana back through time (and across the width of the continent) to save him. Each time she is in danger she returns to 1976, to within a few minutes or hours of when she left. If Kevin is touching her he goes with her. And if he’s not he doesn’t, which leaves him one time stranded in the nineteenth century for a ten years, from his point of view.

Dana, works out from her family history her relationship to Rufus, and intuits that his friend, Alice, the daughter of a freed Black family must be her great great grandmother. The thing is to keep saving Rufus until Alice has a child by him. Butler uses Dana’s status as a Black twentieth century feminist to interrogate black-white, and master-slave relationships.

Dana comes to see Rufus’ father in more and more nuanced terms but nevertheless she ends up being whipped by him not once but twice.

As they reach adulthood Alice takes a husband, but Rufus wants her for his mistress. The husband is sold down south, and then Rufus attempts to force Dana to persuade Alice that she has no choice.

We criticize Hist.Fic. authors for writing with modern eyes, but by framing Kindred as SF this is exactly what Butler does, with devastating effect. A wonderful, powerful novel.

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Octavia E Butler, Kindred, first pub. 1979. My edition published by Headline, London, 2018 with Foreword by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. 295pp.

Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) was an American writer of avant-garde short stories and Science Fiction . She started writing short stories in the 1950s, at about the same time as she started having children. Her first collection was published in 1974 and Carmen Dog, her first novel, in 1988.

The Women’s Press, a London publisher – and not to be confused with Onlywomen Press – was founded by NZ/Australian writer Stephanie Dowrick. Her co-publisher, Naim Attalah (a guy) had some connection with Virago and so as a point of difference, The Women’s Press focused on contemporary fiction, and also, as you see, Science Fiction. All this of course is ‘research’, and I see from Wikipedia that their early writers included Alice Walker, The Colour Purple and Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions.

I own and have previously reviewed from TWP SF The Planet Dweller and Moving Moosevan by Janet Palmer and The Total Devotion Machine by (Australian) Rosaleen Love. I’m not sure why this cover does not have The Women’s Press’s familiar black and white stripes (though, inside is the same jokey logo, an iron and ironing board – see the motto: Steaming ahead).

Carmen Dog is a postmodern romp through Science Fiction, Magic Realism and Women’s Lib. The core of the plot is that women everywhere (ie. New York. I’m not sure Americans understand the difference) are devolving into animals and that female animals are evolving*, in the space of a year or two, into women.

There is not really any science in the SF, but also the fantastical elements do not make it SFF. Instead, the implication is that you must read Carmen Dog as you read SF – accept the premise as possible and think about what events in this altered reality tell us about what we think of as the real world.

‘The beast changes to a woman or the woman changes to a beast,’ the doctor said. ‘In her case it is certainly the latter since she has been, on the whole, quite passable as a human being up to the present moment. There may be hundreds of these creatures already among us. No way to tell for sure how many.’

The principal characters are Pooch, a female pedigreed setter who has partway changed into a woman; a baby, in fact the baby of the woman the doctor is speaking about, who is in the process of changing into a snapping turtle; the woman’s husband, Pooch’s ‘Master’; the doctor; the doctor’s wife, whose name we learn is Rosemary; and half a dozen women changing variously to/from a wolverine, a cat, a duck (or maybe a swan), a python etc.

Pooch finds herself being given more of the housework and babysitting, till one day the baby’s mother grabs the baby in her beak and won’t let go. Pooch rescues the baby, but thinking she’ll be blamed for the wound on the baby’s arm, runs away with it, from the suburbs into central New York. There she realises her dream of attending the opera, Carmen of course, but cannot help herself and begins singing in an untrained but powerful voice over the top of the soprano.

Meanwhile, the doctor has applied for a research grant into these changes to women and has constructed a laboratory in his basement where he can keep six women/animals and conduct tests on them.

Pooch is arrested, along with baby, and is put in the pound, where every seven days those unclaimed are taken away to be euthanized. There, out of compassion, she exchanges identities with Isabel, who is becoming a wolverine, enabling the real Isabel to escape when the Master, too busy to come himself, sends Pooch a travel pass for the subway.

Pooch makes friend with those around her; they are handed over to the doctor for his experiments; Rosemary cares for them; and slowly reveals herself as another changeling, preserving her appearance with a rubber mask.

In another part of town the Academy of Motherhood, an exclusive club for men who are attempting to take women out of the motherhood process altogether, has its own laboratories where women test subjects are inseminated –

The academy uses only the best genes in the nation: from governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists as well as the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest countries, oil magnates and so forth. The men picked are splendid, tall and blonde for the most part and all earning over $100,000 a year not even counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are, by now, paunchy and bald.

From here it gets more than a bit chaotic. Pooch escapes and is engaged briefly in a love triangle with a (female) cat and a (male) opera lover. She loses her voice and can only bark. A tall blonde man who had seen her sing is also seeking her. Pooch, being a dog, remains loyal to Master, but when finally reunited and she leaps up on him, he french kisses her and gropes her new breasts.

A protest meeting addressed by a range of women all in Rosemary masks is broken up by the police. The women overpower the police and disguise themselves in police uniforms, the police disguise themselves as Rosemarys. The women march on the Academy of Motherhood.

Pooch finds love. Marries. Adopts baby. Has a litter of setters. Did I enjoy it? I loved it, and you would too if it were available which I suppose it is not.

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Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog, The Women’s Press, London, 1988. 148pp.


‘Evolving’ is Emshwiller’s (mis)usage. Evolution is of course a process covering generations.

Jennifer Government, Max Barry

AusReading Month 2021

Emma/Book Around the Corner had at least two goes at getting me to listen to Jennifer Government (2002) and to appreciate the SF writing of Australian, Max Barry (1973 – ) as I had heard of neither. So thank you Emma, I appreciated the experience so much that I repeated it. Ok, to be honest, I retained so little first time round, that I had to re-listen to be able to write a review.

Max Barry, research tells me, is a Melbourne marketing type guy, who writes fiction, film scripts, computer games and blogs (here). Jennifer Government was his second novel, after Syrup, which was made into a movie, of which I also had not heard.

The setting for Jennifer Government is a near future when Australia and most other countries have been incorporated into the USA. A near future in which every neo-con wet dream has come true and big business is almost entirely free of the shackles of government. And social services are a pipe dream (except in much-derided Europe) because of course big business doesn’t pay taxes (so, much like now).

I found the book both well written and entertaining. Without any info dumping we discover that employees’ surnames are now the names of their employers; schools are sponsored by corporations (whose names the children bear); during the course of a shooting we find an ambulance can’t be ordered without credit card details; when the victim of the shooting dies, her parents are required to pay all the costs of both the investigation and the subsequent prosecution.

We can laugh, but like much SF, this is a fair analysis of the direction in which our society is trending.

There is a large cast and a sweeping story line. It goes something like this: Hank Nike, just a merchandising clerk, runs into John Nike, guerilla marketer and John Nike his offsider/fixit man. They offer him the chance to join Marketing and wave in front of him a multi page contract with very small print, which he signs, only to find that it calls on him to shoot dead 8 shoppers for the new range of Nike shoes, thus demonstrating how desperate shoppers are to get them. All the stores are stocked up in advance. Consumers are led to expect there are only a limited number available. In fact there are 500,000 pairs at $2,000/pair. A billion dollars.

Hank’s girlfriend Violet – no surname, she’s unemployed, working on a new computer programme/virus – persuades Hank to go to the ‘police’, a sort of Pinkertons (if you read Westerns) and they, for a large fee, agree not to prevent the murders, but to carry them out themselves, though it subsequently turns out they in turn subcontracted to the NRA.

One of the shootings, at Chadstone shopping centre – and it is a joy in this (deliberately) American accented read to so often run into familiar Melbourne place names – is witnessed by a French Australian stockbroker, Buy Mitsui who is traumatised when he fails to prevent the schoolgirl victim, Milly, from bleeding to death.

Jennifer Government has had information that the shootings are to occur and is one of many agents stationed outside Nike stores around the country. She is unsuccessful in stopping the Chadstone shooting and is shot herself, saved by her bullet-proof vest but falling four floors through the atrium to land on the roof of a Mercedes lottery prize.

This is an action story, but with a difference. Violence is not glorified. Jennifer is a single mother, her daughter Kate aged 8 at a Mattel school (and hence, Kate Mattel). JG is forever making promises to Kate which she cannot keep, and when John Nike is promoted overseas and she takes off after him, she chooses to leave Kate in the care of the man whom she met and slept with just the previous day.

Meanwhile Violet, beats up on the second John Nike when he attempts to rape her, and is then taken up by Exxon Mobil who want to use her virus to disadvantage a competitor, Royal Dutch Shell; she leaves Hank who takes up with her sister who in turn introduces him to her protester friends.

The corporations, with John Nike somehow in the lead, go rogue and the government attempts to rein them in. It all comes to head in a meeting in the House of Commons in London, at the end of which John Nike has hired an unwilling NRA gunman to assassinate the President.

SF is often outrageous when it is written, and surprisingly close to the mark a decade or two later, and such is the case here. Read it as SF or read it as Satire, it works either way. But read it.

I don’t know why Max Barry and Jennifer Government haven’t been on my radar. Are they on yours? Maybe they are better known overseas than in Australia. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention. But I am now.

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Max Barry, Jennifer Government, 2002. Audiobook: Audible, read by Michael Kramer, 2004. 9 hrs

see also: from Guy Savage/His Futile Preoccupations, a Max Barry fan –
Jennifer Government (review)
Other Max Barrys (here)
Guest post on Whispering Gums (here)