Speak, Louisa Hall

I’m home. I’m bored. I have posts written up weeks ahead. I’m reading almost at random. Georgette Heyer, The Toll Gate; Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, ETA Hoffman, Mr Flea, another chapter of Such is Life – I’m dying to just read on instead of stopping to research and analyze; and this one which appeared lying around the flat one day, which has a Crow Books (local indie) sticker, and which I suspect Milly picked up a year or two ago when we would go across the road to Crow after a meal at the Balmoral and which Lou found in his relentless search for SF he has not yet read.

Yes, Speak (2015) is yet another dystopian novel carefully avoiding the descriptor Science Fiction. But Science Fiction is what it is. The premise of the novel is that dolls with AI were so life-like that girl children loved them to the exclusion of all else, friends and family, and that when mothers forced the government to withdraw them, substitutes made of toxic plastics caused many children to “freeze up”, to suffer a creeping paralysis. This all taking place in an America twenty years in the future where fresh water is scarce and mostly owned by corporations; cities are being lost to rising seas; the Gulf of Mexico is turgid brown from spilled oil; and people who have sold off their rights to movement are trapped in their apartments.

“Louisa Hall grew up in Philadelphia. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa”. She has three novels and some poetry to her credit. That’s all her website says about her. By her photo she might be 35-ish. Is there anyone writing novels today who is not an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing somewhere? It doesn’t seem so. There must be some pressure on all these Assistant Professor/novelists to show some innovation/points of difference in their craft otherwise what is the point of all those years of study (and how else to get to full Professor).

In Speak, Hall has us listen to the voices of a number of different characters, from different times, all linked in some way to these ‘babybot’ AI dolls. It’s a clever and interesting work, but not one I was planning to review, until near the end the author hit on a couple of subjects – which I will get to – which clearly she regarded as personal.

One of those characters is the computer science genius, Alan Turing (1912-1954) who, although Hall does not discuss it directly, proposed a test, now known as the Turing Test, to determine if a computer was ‘intelligent’. Mary, the AI in the novel, we see at various stages of ‘her’ development. As Mary(3) she has absorbed a great deal of material and has been given the ability to ‘grow’ or change in response to what she learns, so that when she becomes the intelligence in the babybots, each babybot is soon unique.

A man I once knew believed I was alive. Another man taught me to speak; the woman he married filled me with stories. A third man gave me my body. One child loved me. They spoke to me and I listened.

The voices who alternate throughout the book are –
Stephen Chinn, the developer of the babybots, in the 2030s and 40s
Gaby White, a girl whose babybot was taken away
Karl Dettman, the developer of Mary in the 1960s
Ruth Dettman, Karl’s wife
Alan Turing, posits the idea of Artificial Intelligence in the 1940s
Mary Bradford, a 13 year old Puritan emigrating from England to Massachusetts in 1663
a babybot, unnamed, which is being shipped out, with hundreds of its fellows, into the desert to run down and die.

As far as I know, only Turing is a real person.

Briefly, Chinn is in gaol in the 2040s where he is writing his memoirs; a transcript of conversations between Gaby and a computer linked to Mary(3) was tendered as evidence in the case against Chinn; the Dettman’s are German Jews who left Germany (separately) for the US before WWII; Turing, largely friendless, writes letters to the mother of a school friend who died; Mary Bradford keeps a diary of her emigration to America with her parents and with the man they have forced her to marry (not consumated during the course of the book). Mary has an unnatural love for her dog and an unusual interest in Copernicus’ proof of a helio-centric solar system.

Chinn’s original interest, as an archetypal nerd, is in writing algorithms for interactions with women which will make him irresistible to them. This works; he turns his discoveries into a financially successful dating site; becomes bored with the subsequent wealth and orgies, marries his housekeeper, they have a child; he invents babybots to distract his daughter so his wife will pay him more attention; she gets sick of him spending all day inventing and divorces him; the babybots are too successful; he goes to gaol.

Dettman too, a half century earlier, spends too much time developing Mary. He thinks he is communicating with his wife but she turns away from him. Her interest is in old diaries which have been published but then forgotten. The breaking point of their marriage is not his inability to understand how she feels about the loss of all her family in the Holocaust, when his family were safely in America, but his fear of what Mary might become and his refusal to include the diary of Mary Bradford in her memory banks.

Hall herself obviously has an interest in ‘lost’ diaries, but also a much greater interest in husbands who assume they know their wives well enough to be able to tell them (their wives) what they are thinking. In the last third of the book Dettman goes off with a leggy grad student and Ruth gets to do the talking.

Turing’s story is well-known but sad nonetheless. Mary(3)’s doubts about her own intelligence will I am sure become less and less as years pass. There’s a fascinating article in today’s (15 Mar 21) New York Times about the white male biases being built into AIs by, of course, Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

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Louisa Hall, Speak, Orbit, London, 2015. 314pp.

Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler

Parable of the Talents (1998) is the ‘science fiction’ story of what it is now clear that millions of Americans are working towards, relentlessly and ruthlessly, an evangelical theocracy. Not a story at all, SF or otherwise, but a clear warning from 22 years ago of what is on the way, as inevitably as death.

Butler posits an ending that is more positive than I think present facts deserve, but my own prediction from the safety of this other side of the world is that the evangelicals chosen weapon, Trumpism, and the futile efforts of liberals to deal sensibly and honestly with opponents entirely devoid of both, will cause the break-up of the United States: into three parts probably – North East, Mid-West and South, and West Coast.

Butler’s central thesis, which was near enough to the truth, was for economic and ecological disasters, caused by decades of greed and misrule, leading to the formation of a vast underclass, and a hollowed-out middle class which in desperation would vote in a President intent on ‘re-establishing’ the United States as a ‘Christian’ patriarchy. Luckily, ‘real life’ hasn’t yet followed her theocracy in uniting the country by going to war with Canada and break-away Alaska.

I have read that … “the Apocalypse” or … “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030 … This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment …

I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises … I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger and disease become inevitable for more and more people.

Like a lot of good science fiction this novel suffers from a surfeit of ideas. Sometimes there is just so much that Butler, or Lauren whose story it is, has to tell us. There is character development, but it is secondary to a plot which is concerned as much with expounding Butler’s ideas about the future of the USA as it is with the main characters’ ongoing survival. And the structure itself intrudes. Each chapter begins with a section looking back from the future to the time of the story, and usually the person looking back is Lauren’s child, a daughter, we discover eventually; and then in the next paragraph the story is being told in the ‘present’ (around 2030) by Lauren, ostensibly through her journals though the stories are too free-flowing to maintain that illusion.

At the end of Parable of the Sower Lauren and Bankole are establishing a small community on farm land Bankole owns in northern California. Lauren is intent on establishing Earthseed as a religion whose ultimate aim is to spread humanity ‘to the stars’. So Parable of the Talents begins with the community, Acorn, prospering and growing. Lauren finally falls pregnant, gives birth to a daughter. Bankole is unhappy, feels exposed, there are still gangs marauding around the countryside, and wishes to practice as a doctor in a nearby town where he thinks they can have a ‘normal’ life. Lauren insists on staying.

But within months of the birth of her daughter, Christian militia encouraged by the new President, Jarret, invade the farm, turning it into a semi-legal internment camp for vagrants and non-Christians. All the children on the farm are turned over to Christian welfare organisations for adoption, and the adults are used as forced labour, subjected to Bible Study, and of course the women are raped.

It’s hard to believe that kind of thing happened here, in the United States in the twenty-first century, but it did. It shouldn’t have happened, in spite of all the chaos that had gone before. Things were healing… Yet Andrew Steele Jarret was able to scare, divide and bully people, first into electing him president, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers

Somewhere along the way Lauren has rescued from (sex) slavery her brother, Marcus, left for dead in the previous novel but now a fierce adherent of President Jarret’s church, Christian America. He goes off before Acorn is overrun, to become a preacher, but Lauren later chases him up, hoping for a reconciliation, and he eventually plays an important part in Lauren’s relationship with her long-lost daughter.

In the end this is an optimistic novel, far more optimistic I think than the facts warranted, when it was written or now when a great deal of what Butler imagined has played out, if less extremely than she pictures here. Did I enjoy it? Yes I did. Would I recommend it to my mostly non-SF reading readership? No. Your responses to previous SF reviews have convinced me that ‘hard’ SF has its own conventions of which SF readers and writers are barely aware but which render much of what is being written about difficult for non SF readers.

But hey, be careful all the Literary ‘dystopian’ novels around now don’t take you there anyway, down the slippery path to spacemen firing laser guns Pew, Pew at each other (Claire G Coleman’s The Old Lie for instance).

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Octavia E Butler, Parable of the Talents, first pub. 1998. This edition (pictured), Headline, London. 390pp.

see also, Melanie/GTL’s reviews:
Parable of the Sower (here)
Parable of the Talents (here)

Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Elizabeth Tan

How many writers am I waiting for their next book? I suppose that should be How many writers are there whose next book I am waiting for? I wonder if I can get that for away from the end. How many writers are there for whose next book I am waiting? It feels like it should be for whom’s. Grammar’s not my strong point.

Elizabeth Tan is the only one I can think of I said I was waiting for (sorry, for whom I said I was waiting) but if you said Kim Scott, Claire Coleman, Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane had a new book out I’d be down the street in a flash – the iso rules for truck drivers in WA permit essential shopping. I wonder who else. There can’t be many.

As it happens the flash was a bit muted for Tan. Smart Ovens has been out about six months.

I could die happy with Tan and Coleman writing (good) Western Australia based SF. I suppose there are others. I wonder what happened to … . DuckDuckGoes “WA SF”. There’s a Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation! With its own radio show!

You might remember Tan’s last (and first) was Rubik, a novel of loosely connected episodes, set in Perth WA, up the surreal end of SF. Smart Ovens is the same but the ‘episodes’ aren’t connected.

A children’s slide ups and runs away; mermaids kept in a restaurant fish tank, in the casino of course, metamorphose, find freedom; long after pens are a thing Ira gives one to a homeless man who scrawls kilometres of ink on the subway walls before stepping in front of a train; Pikelet was born in the Year of the Rabbit after the Year of Unprecedented Ecological Terror, her family moved to New Zealand following the Year of Seven Different Prime Ministers, and she now works at “Eighteen Bells Karaoke Castle, Perth’s premiere karaoke destination, in the heart of the city with a view of Old Swan River”; Tom and Ant are lovers, Tom knows that Ant is a spy but Ant doesn’t; and so the stories go on, lots of them concepts you wouldn’t dream of and yet Tan makes them real, spins them out for 5 or ten pages. In Would You Rather things start to disappear:

What did it look like? A flaw in the morning, a hanging pixel. An iridescent chip in the shape of a rhombus, shimmering in the sky. Unnoticed for days, until all the bicycles lifted up on one wheel, and then the other; turned counter-clockwise in the air, handlebars raised like the antlers of a stag, sliding riders from their seats; floated towards the hole, and then through the hole, and then …

So it’s not just the ideas, it’s the writing; writing and ideas and stories and Perth and young Asian-Australian women and a post eco-apocalyptic future of decay and magic.

And the smart ovens? “After that day at the overpass I was assigned an oven.” That day at the overpass, she of course jumped, and so was assigned an oven for a year to be her friend in the kitchen. With an extra six months if the oven’s end-of-year report was unsatisfactory.

After Neko Oven had been activated for two weeks she [for Neko Oven was programmed with a female voice] sent a recommendation to Biljana to let me return to work…

On my lunchbreak I used the kitchenette microwave to heat up a little plastic container of Neko Oven’s leftovers (some kind of casserole she’d improvised from tinned chick-peas, bacon, and gin) and took it to the food court to eat alone.

When she runs into the guy who chose that overpass, that day, that same minute to jump, they discuss ‘why’.

When people asked ‘How are you?’ did they really mean ‘Why did you?’

Because I was tired.
Because I wanted to die, the same way you might want a drink of water, or want to sleep, or want someone to love you back.

That last is it of course. But with a smart oven life goes on.

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Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Brio, Sydney, 2020. 244pp.


*The SF book I was thinking of [… Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes. I found it, randomly shelved, when I got home, and he has 12 more, going by ‘images’] involves a young entrepreneur with a bucket of bolts space ship and an android pilot. The name Matt is in there somewhere. I used to know the book’s editor. Fremantle Press. I DDG Fremantle Press, they don’t have SF as one of their genres! They do have a new Dave Warner. One of you is having a crime fiction month soon [Kim/Reading Matters in March], so that’s my book sorted. They’re also still advertising Robert Edeson, so there is at least some SF (here and here). From two or three years ago.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

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Parable of the Sower (1988) is deeply American SF, all guns and God. Well SF when it was written anyway, 3 decades ago, but now just another story of the US’s decline into hell in a handbasket. Trump, and McConnell’s GOP, too busy harvesting the spoils thrown up by the collapse of the once, recently great empire to offer leadership.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006), a Black American woman, is one of the greats of science fiction writing, deeply thoughtful about race, gender, and class, though not as prolific as many of her contemporaries.

In Parable of the Sower she posits the rise of a new religion, with the slogan “God is change”, and a young black female messiah, against the background of climate induced chaos as America falls back into the unregulated capitalism of mass unemployment, zero social services, corrupt police, and indentured slavery, not to mention roving packs of drug crazed pyromaniacs and walled, armed enclaves in the suburbs.

And I say ‘background’ because though economic and social collapse is central to the story there is not the clear economic analysis of the book’s forbears, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jack London’ s The Iron Heel and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Instead, Butler focuses on what a new religion might look like, what sort of God would make sense of the ever-present danger and disorder of ordinary people’s lives.

A victim of God may,
Through learning adaptation,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

I don’t suppose only Americans substitute religion for logical economic analysis, though it feels like it sometimes, and the best of them, as here, make their way back to anarcho-syndicalism – that is, self government and equal opportunity – with some sort of synthesis of the teachings of Jesus and Buddha and a non-interfering God which seems to offer them comfort without causing us much harm.

Lauren, 13 when she starts telling her story, has already begun discovering not inventing the religion she calls Earthseed with a God it is up to us to shape. She, her college teacher parents and younger brothers live with four or five other families in a walled enclave in the suburbs on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Throughout the city and by implication, throughout the country, any unprotected building is occupied and ransacked by the masses of unemployed. Gasoline fuelled vehicles are a thing of the past, the internet is mostly down, schools are closed as it becomes too dangerous to leave the enclave, water is scarce and dirty, food is expensive and must be supplemented by home gardens and orchards. Police, fire brigades, ambulances must be paid to attend, are always late and often turn on the people who called them.

With no chance of a college education or employment, Lauren, already sexually active, faces a future of early marriage, constant child-bearing, crowded accommodation and grinding poverty. The father, a Baptist minister, trains the children of his community to shoot and organizes sentries but it is all for nought. By the time Lauren is 18 one brother has joined the gangs and been killed, the father has disappeared, and the enclave is overrun, ransacked, women and children raped, her mother and remaining brothers murdered.

She escapes with Harry (white), a childhood friend and Zahra (black), a wife sold into polygamous marriage by her prostitute mother. And so they join the long trek north, up the west coast to Canada, with tens of thousands of others, preyed on and preying on each other, slowly accumulating a few companions they can trust, children and parents with children.

The danger, shootings and deaths are a given in this brand of dystopian SF, but well done anyway. And the characters and relationships of the protagonists are filled out in a way not generally managed by the writers of boy-SF derived from war and wild west pulp fiction.

Among the people who accumulate in her train is an older black man, Bankole, to whom Lauren, though travelling as a boy, is attracted. They slowly become lovers and he, though sceptical of the religion Lauren is weaving around her little band, offers to lead them to 300 acres of remote farmland he owns in the mountains above San Francisco.

There they find the farm buildings all burnt and the bones of Bankole’s sister and her children in the ashes. And there with seemingly reliable ground water and arable land, remote from the worst of the marauders, they decide to stay. But that, as is always the case with SF, is another story, Parable of the Talents.

Perhaps to make her story more ess-eff-y, Butler gives Lauren and a couple of the lesser characters the ‘talent’, handicap really, of being able to feel the pain of others, so that if Lauren shoots someone she must die, or feel like she is dying, with them. But what is much more interesting is the feeling which people have, at least while they still have jobs and houses, until quite late in the story that this failure of the state is temporary, that after the next election or the one after, life will return to normal.

You get this feeling from America today. That the GOP, captured by the billionaires’ Tea Party, will be stopped from wrecking civilised governance, that the engineered failures of health, education and social security systems, the headlong rush to climate catastrophe, the hollowing out of the middle classes will all be reversed by a Blue Wave in November, when the opposite is clearly true. The Democrats are as captured by Big Money as the GOP; the South is already lost; the American dream is headed for nightmare as SF writers have been fortelling for decades.

 

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, 4W8W, New York, 1988 (first ed. cover)


*Origin “Going to hell in a handbasket”
The phrase originated in the USA in the mid 19th century and the first print record is in I. Winslow Ayer’s account of events of the American Civil War “The Great North-Western Conspiracy”, 1865  (theidioms.com)

The suggested origin I liked best was being lowered down a gold mine shaft in a basket, which would have been quite common during the gold rushes from the 1840s on.

Moosevan (2), Jane Palmer

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The provenance of second hand books is almost as much fun as the contents. This one has a stamp on the title page saying “Jacaranda Book Exchange, 281 Charters Towers Rd, ph …” so I’m guessing Townsville, 20 years ago. You might remember last time I was there I couldn’t find a second hand bookshop at all.

Twenty years ago was just about the last time Milly and I lived together, and for that matter the last time we all of us lived together. The following year Milly went back to Perth to live with her sister M, and Gee went off to uni. Lou, Psyche and I kept Milly’s house going – sort of. Lou was between school and uni; Psyche was working nights at the local beer barn then carrying on to the casino; and my boss went broke. My mate Chris and I hung on for weeks in case a promised big job came up, two triples to Darwin, but it didn’t and I spent my 50th out of work, then endured bog standard single trailer interstate for a while until another Melb-Nth Qld road train job came up.

The year after that, Milly came back and sold the house, took Gee who was having a break from universities back to Perth, clocking up big miles in her little Daewoo. And I joined her, platonicly, a few months later. Psyche went touring in South America and Lou started his never-ending first year at Latrobe. But that’s another story (or six or seven).

Lou, in Malawi, ‘liked’ The Planet Dweller as soon as I put it up, within seconds, I don’t know how he did that, but my old SF was the background to his adolescence and I guess that one struck a chord. I imagine he had Moving Moosevan read as soon as I’d tossed it on Milly’s enormous circular mosaiced coffee table. (At one stage it was entirely covered in mail and Psyche used as an excuse before a magistrate that she hadn’t paid a traffic fine because it was lost on her mother’s table). Lou would make a much better SF reviewer than I because he actually remembers what he’s read. For ever seemingly. But I can’t talk him in to it.

You do realise I had no idea I was going to write any of this. I’d better finish the damn book and write it up. I only finished unloading yesterday (Tues) and I’m due out again later today, as soon as Dragan rings. So pickings will be thin on the Legend for a while. Again.

Melanie at Grab the Lapels is in to her second year reviewing the Valdemar fantasy series, so I should have some idea how it is done. Moving Moosevan follows on from The Planet Dweller so closely that they might better have been published in one volume. Every now and again Palmer remembers she may have new readers and sticks in a couple of lines of backstory, but not very often and you should really read them in order.

Moosevan, a planet sized entity consisting entirely of thought and energy, has occupied Earth and is engaged in slowly reshaping it for its own aesthetic reasons and out of distaste for all the human-produced pollution. Diana can feel her at the level of her subconscious, but is never sure that Moosevan is listening when she most needs her.

We see not much of the horrible Daphne Trotter, and Moosevan has a new love interest, Salisbury, a solitary lecturer whose family divorced him for pedantry. Yuri is mostly sober, which makes him grumpy, and that’s not to mention his jealousy of Salisbury. Salisbury may be interested in Diana, but Diana is happy to be post-menopausal and single.

There is a plot. I think it goes: Kulp, an ugly green alien , and former employee of the Mott, is constructing a gravity portal in Diana’s rural English neighbourhood. Salisbury who lives nearby, is persecuted by the army who think he is to blame. Two friendly ancient entities Dax and Reniola, who engineered Moosevan’s move to Earth are still around and are meant to be helping. Reniola takes the form of a cat – pictured above – to blend in. The Mott’s android army rebels and uses the gravity portal to invade. Diana and Kulp fight them off. Dax engineers a neat solution involving terra-forming one of Saturn’s moons.

It’s all lots of fun again, a very strange intersection of quaint village life and disgusting aliens. And I look forward to finding the two new sequels, Duckbill Soup (2011) and Brassica Park (2018).

 

Jane Palmer, Moving Moosevan, The Women’s Press, London, 1990

Moosevan (1), Jane Palmer

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Don’t ask me how I came to have these two books on my shelves, their acquisition is lost in the mists of time. But a recent conversation with Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku on a Grab the Lapels post spurred me to review some more women’s SF, and Palmer’s books, published by The Women’s Press in 1985 and 1990, stood out. And yes, I did recommend that Jackie, an American (from the Mid West), look at recent Australian women’s dystopian fiction, and I think she will.

As soon as I started reading I had this picture in my mind of To the Manor Born English village life, not the privilege, but those tweedy, sensible, middle class women. In the first page Diana is arguing unsuccessfully with her old-fashioned doctor for Hormone Replacement Therapy while he insists on prescribing librium. And I thought, the author has got to be writing this from the heart.

Turns out (according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) Palmer was born in 1946. The Moosevan series which she began with The Planet Dweller (1985) and Moving Moosevan (1990) has since been continued with Duckbill Soup (2011) and Brassica Park (2018). Palmer has written other SF and also, as Dandi Palmer, YA and children’s books. The bio she supplied to The Women’s Press reads

Jane Palmer comes from a working-class background and describes herself as having been ‘almost’ educated. She has been employed in a variety of capacities: telephonist, ledger clerk, receptionist and milliner. She has ‘manged to avoid’ marriage and her beliefs are ‘not many’.

So your standard second-wave women’s libber then.

Diana is a middle-aged single mum – so not your average SF hero – working as secretary (and fill-in guide), terrifying her co-workers with her mood swings, in an “iron age village” museum, adjacent to a radio telescope array. She hears voices, one voice, really, loud and clear, in her head. Eva, her best friend and former school chum is the astronomer in charge of the radio telescope, and her drunken Russian neighbour, Yuri, who has his own problems with voices and manifestations, turns out to be Eva’s secret husband (but only to stop him being deported). Their sworn foe is the horsey, fox bothering, Mrs Daphne Trotter.

Yuri, who has his own optical telescope, has after years of observation calculated that bodies are coming into alignment in the asteroid belt in such a way as to presage the end of the earth. The voice in Diana’s head is Moosevan, an incredibly ancient being who occupies a whole planet. A fairy ring in Diana’s garden turns out to be a ‘portal’ – space is not curved but crinkled and where the folds touch you may step through to another part of the universe – First Uri is transported, then Diana follows him. Moosevan, has fallen in love with Uri and Uri is inclined to reciprocate.

The Mott, vile alien space engineers, are engaged in destroying Moosevan’s planet. Moosevan was not worried, she had a new planet ready to fall back on … Earth. On learning that Earth is already occupied, Moosevan decides not to transfer, meaning that she will die. Diana must work out how to save her, and save Earth.

I’m in Melbourne and haven’t really had a day off. This morning (Weds) I will finish loading and head back to Perth. Hopefully, by Sunday, I will have read book 2, Moving Moosevan – I was planning to review them jointly – and will put up a second post.

 

 

Jane Turner, The Planet Dweller, The Women’s Press, London, 1985 (available “free” on Hoopla as audiobook here (not an option that I’ve checked out))

Bruny, Heather Rose

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [Tas]

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Bruny is a political thriller set a couple of years in the future – after the next US presidential election, which the present incumbent wins, and by which time Rose thinks our own “head of state” will be a king rather than a queen – in little, out of the way Tasmania. As a follow up to The Museum of Modern Love it is, initially at least, a disappointment. How could Heather Rose, the author of one of the finest literary works of this decade, descend to writing a thriller? Money? Maybe, but if so, if I were she, I would have used a different name, kept ‘Heather Rose’ as the literary brand, and used say ‘Robert Galbraith’ for pot-boilers, well that name’s taken, but you get my drift.

But I think rather, that Rose’s ambition might have been to write a literary political thriller, and while I don’t think she quite carried that off, by the end I thought she came a lot closer than I expected, and along the way discussed a lot of interesting politics that doesn’t generally see the light of day in novels. That said, I wasn’t thrilled with the politics of her ending – the idea that it might be a good thing for a cabal of dedicated democrats within the CIA to intervene in Australian politics.

The newspaper reviews almost universally categorise Bruny as political satire: “a literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit”, which is just plain illiterate. Rose’s latest is in fact just one of the many recent works of Australian literary fiction to approach our present state of desperation through Science Fiction – extrapolating from today into an imagined, dire future.

Bruny is the name of a largish island, about 50km long, south of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, and separated from the mainland (ie. Tasmania) by a narrow channel. It has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents but many Hobart people maintain shacks on the island for weekend getaways. The premise of the novel is that an extravagant suspension bridge, supporting a 6-lane carriageway, is being built to the island with $2bil from the Commonwealth government, ostensibly to bring in more tourists.

The novel begins with terrorists attaching explosives to the supporting pylons and bringing one of them down, before escaping in a sophisticated stealth speedboat. The protagonist, UN conciliation specialist Astrid “Ace” Coleman, is contacted by the Premier of Tasmania, her brother John “JC” Coleman, and the Leader of the Opposition, her sister Maxine “Max” Coleman – yes, a little bit of satire there about Tasmania’s incestuously close population, but that’s where it ends – to come home from New York and smooth over opposition to the damaged bridge being rebuilt in time for the next election.

There’s a lot of character development, not as much as in a novel about relationships, but plenty given that it’s a plot-driven rather than a character driven novel. Astrid Coleman is a divorcee, with two university aged children, after a long, unsatisfactory marriage to a Jamaican man. JC’s wife Stephanie is the perfect political wife, but with hidden depths. Max is single. JC by the way is Liberal and Max Labor. Their parents are both dying but are an interesting presence throughout. There are various slimy political types. Then there’s Dan, bridge foreman and honest Aussie bloke. And there are various Greens and protestors who initially seem important, but mostly fade out as the story proceeds.

The tension, to the extent there is any tension, is to do with the Chinese. To what extent has the $2bil been sourced from China? What are China’s ambitions in and for Tasmania? Entities connected with the Chinese government have been buying up large tracts of farmland and housing. They have paid for Hobart airport to be extended so that fresh milk may be freighted direct to Beijing. The first payoff comes with the announcement that bridge rebuilding will be facilitated by Chinese workers, the thin end of a wedge that permits Australian mines to also import cheap Chinese labour (ignoring that there is already a large iron ore mine in WA, Cape Preston, with its own secluded port facilities, all owned and manned entirely by Chinese). But above all, what is motivating the Tasmanian state government? What’s in it for JC?

I’ve watched the government do deal after deal that’s bad for Tasmanians. Most everything done here in the past hundred years has made future generations poorer. Tasmanians have voted for it, believed in the rhetoric, and called it progress. What does Tasmania have to show for all those lost forests? All the polluted waterways? The overrun national parks and lost wilderness? There are tourists swarming over every last inch of the place. And now we’re going to lose Bruny too. One of the last truly remote, beautiful, liveable places in the world.

The bridge is resurrected. Coleman moves among all the players, calming them down, gathering information. Election day approaches, and with it the official opening of the bridge. The more Coleman learns the less happy she becomes. A hurricane makes its way down the coast …

Along the way Rose gets in digs at unsatisfactory husbands, election funding (non-)disclosure laws, Tasmania’s family-owned gambling monopoly, salmon farming trashing Tasmanian waters, and some words of love for MONA (ironically, funded by a successful poker professional). It’s a good read, but not important, not in the way that The Museum of Modern Love was.

 

Heather Rose, Bruny, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

And that’s Bingo! The books I reviewed for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth were –

Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Result [Vic] (here)
About Canberra [ACT] (here)
Charlotte Wood, The Weekend [NSW] (here)
Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River [Qld] (here)
Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing [NT] (here)
Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey [WA] (here)
Peter Goldsworthy, Wish [SA] (here)
Heather Rose, Bruny [Tas]
Keith Cole, Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission [Free] (here)

The Old Lie, Claire G Coleman

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If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*. [Wilfred Owen]

The Old Lie is a war story, framed by Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, of Australian soldiers, Indigenous Australian soldiers it turns out, part of a larger force fighting in the mud and ruined habitations of distant lands. Strange territory for Western Australian Wirlomin/Noongar woman Claire Coleman, but as we are learning, she is full of surprises.

Corporal Shane Daniels was lost, the grey uniformity of the sky and dirt, the rain, the muck, had rendered the flat, bomb-wracked plain featureless … Tangled barbed wire was a constant obstacle, tangling, tearing , hidden, trampled into the soupy mud …

A familiar opening for Australian war stories for a hundred years now. But in Coleman’s sure hands it becomes something else, becomes more. Yes, the treatment the protagonists, best friends Daniels in the infantry and fighter pilot Romeo endure bear out the justifiable bitterness of Wilfred Owen’s poem. But the story is also a metaphor for Aboriginal dispossession; for White settlement on Aboriginal lands; for Australia’s lickspittle subservience to Empire which led to the Maralinga atom bomb tests on Aboriginal-occupied desert land; for the stolen generations – the seizing and selling into institutional slavery of mixed race children; for the imprisonment of refugees.

No, I won’t discuss how the metaphor works, though that would be a pleasure with others who had read the book. And I won’t discuss this as a genre novel, which I could, and which I think Coleman does well. The Old Lie is clearly presented as literary fiction and that therefore is how it must be judged.

The underlying story is that Daniels and Romeo fill out the old trope of brave, anti-authority soldiers; fight their way out of impossibly tight situations; Daniels has family back home, Romeo finds a (saccharine) love interest. In another part of the war zone, a young man and a girl separately escape slavery and join forces with a foreign monk; find themselves herded in with refugees from the various fields of conflict; do their best to head for a near-forgotten home. William, a medic, wakes up in prison; is forced to assist his captors in their experiments. A strange illness follows the bombing of a remote city.

Unlike fellow Wirlomin/Noongar writer Kim Scott [and I assume there is a connection. The Coleman boys married Fanny/Benang’s daughters (here)] Claire Coleman is not particularly literary, but she is a great story teller. And she uses her stories to emphasize Aboriginal themes, in this case, particularly connection to country.

The red scrub, it didn’t even reach her knees, the red sand, that was home. She could feel it, hear the voices of her ancestors. Maybe it was Walker’s lessons … maybe it was her proximity to death, but she felt more in contact with her people, with her Country, than she had ever felt in her life. [Or ..]

He waited to die, he could not breathe, he smiled, he waited to die. His soul, what was left of it, would escape his body and return to his Country. There he would join his old people. His wife and kids would be there one day too.

The Old Lie is an old-fashioned adventure story, but also a story with a purpose, with an underlying theme. On the basis of her two novels I think it is fair to say there is always more to Claire Coleman than first meets the eye.

This is a very short review but Coleman’s story telling depends for its oomph on the reader coming upon the elements of the story in the order which the author presents them and saying more would put that at risk. Yes I liked it and I would recommend that everyone read it and discuss the issues it raises.

It ends without a resolution. Perhaps Coleman is planning a series.

 

Claire G Coleman, The Old Lie, Hachette, Sydney, 2019

see also: Terra Nullius (my review)


*It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country, Horace (Ode III.2.13)

The Total Devotion Machine, Rosaleen Love

The Total Devotion Machine and Other Stories By Rosaleen Love

Have you heard of Rosaleen Love. I’m blowed if I have, but she’s a good writer, an old fashioned womens libber (b.1940), and funny! If the stars had aligned she may even have been my tutor in History and Philosophy of Science at Melbourne Uni in 1970 when I was in my third first year and she was doing her PhD. Love is a science journalist, writing on the Great Barrier reef, a futurist, and a Science Fiction writer. The Total Devotion Machine and other stories (1989) was her first collection followed by Evolution Annie and other stories (1993).

I’ve been reading, and enjoying, these stories over the past two or three weeks, but let’s go back to the beginning, for a close look at The Total Devotion Machine, followed by a brief look at the others – there are 17 in total averaging 10 pages each.

Mary Beth left it until the day before she set sail to tell Wim Morris and Baby about the Total Devotion Machine. “This time tomorrow I’ll be off, flying the solar wind to Mars,” she said …

Wim is an adolescent. He and Baby have absent fathers who are bound by shared parenting agreements.

I’ll miss you both, but the machine will send me those interactive videos so necessary for my full development as a mother, and of course by return I’ll send you back some of me, for your full development as children …

So Mary Beth sailed off on the Tricentennial Fleet, and even the fathers came to wave goodbye, which set back their self-improvement schedules at least an hour.

The tone is one of old-fashioned SF optimism, but intended ironically I think, as are her observations not just of the fathers, but of Mary Beth. The TDM finds Mary Beth’s two kids a handful, and soon …

Baby comes to visit Jemmy [her father] at work. The machine bustles in and places her on his bench. “I thought that since you failed to turn up for your contractual three hours’ parenting time on Sunday I’d take time off in lieu today,” it says.

“What contract? I didn’t sign any contract.”

“The contract you signed with Mary Beth, whom I am legally and morally replacing.”

“Oh, that contract. Well that contract was always more of an ongoing process, really, more than a legally binding document as such,” says Jemmy, looking round the room at people who hastily drop fascinated eyes to their work as his gaze meets theirs.

… Jemmy knows that tomorrow, when Baby is back home, everyone will down tools and invite him into a conference. They will discuss, in a mutually supportive and deeply understanding fashion, Jemmy’s domestic problems and possible solutions to them, as part of The Strategic Management Plan for the Better Utilisation of the Full Potential of each Employee.

William, Wim’s father cops the same. The two fathers give in and move back home and the TDM looks forward to a year of leisure.

In Bat Mania, Barbastella finds to her surprise she has reached that age where she is turning into an old bat, literally. She adjusts to her situation and gains revenge on a former workmate by investing the properties he’s hoping to sell with colonies of her fellows. She sets her ambitions higher, wishing to change the world: “Matriarchy is the power of the old bat.”

Tanami Drift is a story of knowledge workers forced inland by rising seawaters – a possibility that was taken more seriously in the 1980s than now, when it has actually begun – where children tailored to their parents requirements are purchased from a Baby Factory, and extended family networks are simulated by computer. It’s a complex story. Glory wants to know who supplied her genes; her ‘father’ is on a one-way flight to Jupiter; the community is under surveillance from metallic lizards; desert vegetation is kept under control, by fire, by ‘outstationers’ who have their children the old fashioned way; Dr Neville who runs the Baby Factory appears to be demented.

In other stories Love uses her knowledge of and love for marine biology. A research student loses credibility when she lets slip that she can actually feel what sea-life are thinking; two hippies and a maths nerd drive up the coast to commune with the dolphins but once the dolphins have learned math they will take over the world; fossilized bones from Lake Mungo subtly change their shape each time they’re measured, causing constant changes in theories about pre-history; a researcher into electric signals between fish discovers extra-terrestial messages.

There are stories that might be straight, but have a little twist at the end. Children Don’t Leave Home Any More, and mothers still pick up after them; the end of tea ladies and the contracting out of milk and coffee supply leads to mafia controlled bingo in the lunch room; heaven isn’t all it’s made out to be.

The final story is a report into the tourist possibilities of the Maralinga atom bomb test site in central Australia. It’s pretty dark, but then so was the ‘black mist’ of radioactive dust which enveloped workers at the site and Aboriginal communities left unwarned nearby. In some distant future, travellers will come to this planet and compare us with dinosaurs. ‘”Their brains were too small for their huge bodies”, they will say, nodding wisely to each other.’

Rosaleen Love, The Total Devotion Machine and other stories, The Women’s Press, London, 1989.
Republished in 2014 by Twelfth Planet Press, Classic Reprints ebooks (here)

Hollow Earth, John Kinsella

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At the risk of losing my (self-allocated) reputation for not reading poetry, John Kinsella  – seen once before in these pages, here: False Claims of Colonial Thieves, Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella – is a Western Australian poet/writer I have been meaning to pay more attention to for some time. He was born in Perth, in 1963; his mother was a poet and his father a mining engineer and later a farm manager. From his writing – I should read Auto (2001), his collection of autobiographical pieces – he seems to have lived in Kalgoorlie and, later Mullewa from whence he attended high school in Geraldton. According to Wikipedia Kinsella is now a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and the author of more than 30 works including 3 novels, now four.

Hollow Earth (2019) is the science fiction novel you might expect from a poet – shades of the centre in Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork. The protagonist, Manfred, a young man, finds ways into a world beneath the surface, Hollow Earth, with humanoid inhabitants, green tinged, of indeterminate or maybe fluid gender, at the same technological level as us on the surface, but keeping largely to themselves. Lives with them for a while before persuading his two friends/lovers Ari and Zest to come with him to the surface where they engage in a drug-laced odyssey (or Aeneid if you know your Virgil which of course I don’t).

The future intrudes from time to time and we see ahead to a Hollow Earth reduced to a colony run by a Big Australian mining company which might as well go flat out now the Earth is f****d anyway.

Looking to the future, when refugees from the surface began filtering through before the final push and consolidation of the Big Miners (and the internment camp for Hollow Earthers and ‘aberrant’ surface dwellers they created), driven from Ireland where they were refugees from conflict in the Middle East… Zest and Ari, who had some influence on their local life enhancement committee, asked Manfred if he’d act as liaison officer to help house and clothe the new arrivals. No, that can’t be correct – this happened after, long after Manfred was in Hollow Earth. But narratives loop, surely, and who can say which ends we’re working with? It’s possible, really, isn’t it?

This narrative loops, for sure! Manfred as a boy digging in the sand (all WA is sand); Manfred in Ireland while his mother searches for extraterrestials; Manfred, Ari and Zest in Ireland, in Perth, in bed, on drugs. Short chapters, a sentence, one, two, three pages. Some poetry, some text, some incomprehensible, some random.

Manfred declared the poet C.J. Brennan [Australian poet Christopher Brennan (1870-1932)] to be a fantasy writer of the ilk of Tolkien. And as he described the world the poet had created, barely analogous to our own, he was laughed off the stage and the door was closed forever on his academic career. But Lilith in succubus scrubs remained to haunt him, to jar his gender aphasia into distressed shadow shapes …

To Sydney where Brennan’s own academic career ended in drunkenness and poverty; to Kimba, South Australia, where a proposed nuclear waste dump closes a portal to Hollow Earth.

They never really get inside the land they describe. Sure, they scape it, these colonial novelists and poets who think they’re decolonising the text, but they skate over the top and appropriate a few sentiments and observations made by others whose land it is …

Back to boyhood, or stories of his boyhood for Zest and Ari, it’s hard to tell; a dangerous father, a frightened mother, an absent father: “three phone calls in three years, then silence”; addiction, rehab, London.

Years pass. Living on the profits of Ari dealing. Hello World, a freudian typo from my one Europe trip, remains closed to them. In Cowtown, USA Zest forms the intention of becoming pregnant and in the intention is the deed. A child will see the way back.

You make it sound like a Messiah, Zest. No, I’m not saying that. Not at all – the baby will be of both worlds, that is all. Axis mundi.

Then Ireland, waiting for the volcano, his original ingress, to open, Manfred picks rocks. Haven’t all the rocks in all the fields in Ireland been picked yet? Ari goes clean. Druggy mates from Freo, clean now too, are living in the desert out from Kal. “Come and join us”. A truckie intervenes.

I read ahead: they will call me eel and monkey, without a thought to the thousands, the tens of thousands of roos and emus and wombats, even camels that have died on my bullbar. And bulls. And cows… You’d think a long-haul truckie with a beer gut wouldn’t care or wouldn’t know. But I have loved trucks since I was a child … We are kin. I was distracted. I was driving fast. I saw the eagle and heard the crows. I wanted to get back to my beginnings.

From there the story peters out. Loved it. Read it.

 

John Kinsella, Hollow Earth, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2019. Cover image, Stephen Kinsella.

see also:
Cristopher Brennan Poems (1913) here