Special, Georgia Blain

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Special (2016), YA science fiction, is Australian author Georgia Blain’s 7th novel and her second ‘Young Adult’. 2016 has also seen the release of Blain’s eighth, Between a Wolf and a Dog, and also the unhappy news that she has brain cancer (SMH story). I’m not sure how I came into possession of Special, I just noticed it one day sideways in a bookshelf, which is what I do with books I’m waiting to read, one of a stack handed to me by an ex-wife or daughter I guess. I have, and vaguely remember reading, Blain’s first two, so I decided to give it a go.

I’ve read some YA but not much. When I was growing up I went straight from Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton (all right, I still read William books) to adult fiction, as I’m sure most of you did too (not counting one blogger with Sweet Valley High addiction!), maybe some Ivan Southall and ES Ellis and, when they came out, Harry Potter. Special is a good story but suffers in my mind, not from being didactic exactly, but from too obviously putting up issues for kids to discuss.

The setting is a near-ish future, in an unnamed location, after ‘the Breakdown’, and is well imagined. Nation-states are gone, corporations are in control, privileged employees live in company towns with manicured surrounds and clean air. Ordinary workers live in little flats with shared facilities in grimy towers and the underclass in shanties around the base of the towers, queuing for casual work or begging from the marginally less underprivileged. Data is currency and the air is full of mediastreams, moving images that cannot be avoided without data.

Fern, the protagonist, is one of four girls who by virtue of their worker parents winning Lotto, have been genetically enhanced and admitted to Halston, a school run by the BioPerfect corporation for the genetically enhanced daughters of rich parents.

“I’m a Lotto girl. They use us. Sometimes it’s just to fill a gap in the market, sometimes they want to try out a new model. They might want to test the success of a teacher with more imagination. They finetune and shape and sculpt and then they have us – a prototype for a possible next version. They encourage our parents or bribe them. Mine were told I would be beautiful as well if they selected the menu option BioPerfect wanted.”

There they are house mothered by Margaret, herself crafted by BioPerfect to be an infertile carer. Fern is proud of her attributes in the field of communications – creating mediastreams – and is happy to lose touch with her parents and her brother. The other three are less so and two of them are deemed failures in terms of BioPerfect’s ambitions for them.

We learn much of this as Fern, aged 17 or 18, regains consciousness and memory after apparently being datawiped and dumped in a worker compound with, according to the data on her mobie, a new identity. She survives as a ReCorp trash sifter and grudgingly accepts the assistance of Chimo, a young man who befriends her. She has a memory that her removal, and that of the other Lotto girls, from Halston was engineered by Margaret for their protection, but as time passes she cannot contact them and no one comes to rescue her.

Eventually, she falls for Chimo and reveals to him her previous life as a Halston girl and her belief that she is in hiding from BioPerfect. Chimo helps Fern to make contact with her long-lost brother and through him, with the resistance organisation to which Margaret seemingly belongs. Blain’s descriptions of data as layered and tactile, of Fern diving into the data and leaving clues in order to be contacted while avoiding surveillance, is reminiscent of the much grittier and more detailed descriptions in William Gibson cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer (1984).

Without giving away too much, Fern ends up once more with BioPerfect and seemingly in control of her own destiny. The dilemma she has to resolve is that throughout the course of the story, neither side sees her as a person. Both the corporation and the resistance seem to be using her as evidence in an argument over genetic design vs targeted education. I’m a black and white kind of guy and although Blain does suggest a resolution I’d have been happier if she/Fern more obviously took sides.

 

Georgia Blain, Special, Random House, Sydney, 2016

For a review of Blain’s earlier work see Lisa at ANZLL here and also a guest review by Karenlee Thompson of Blain’s short story collection The Secret Lives of Men here.

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

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Some time ago I read and enjoyed Sue Monk Kidd’s fictionalised account of the life of C19th (US) abolitionist and feminist, Sarah Grimke (1792-1873), The Invention of Wings (2014), so I was happy to come across in my local library the audio book of her earlier novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2002).

Monk Kidd (1947- ), a nurse and mother who has spent all her life in the South, began writing in her thirties and had published some works of christian feminism. This is her first novel. It seems to me, on the basis of the two books I have read, that she has a project to do with race relations in southern USA which might perhaps be expressed as demonstrating that white women (I think she may have given up on men) can behave ethically in a climate of anti-Black prejudice and discrimination.

While The Invention of Wings is clearly historical fiction, The Secret Life of Bees, although set half a century ago and at least referring to President Johnson, the space race and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is rather a fairy story or fable. I say fable because I think the story describes a series of events, having a moral purpose, which I don’t think could really have happened.

Other reviews describe this as coming of age or Young Adult fiction, and while I can see how this might apply it did not occur to me while I was listening. Over one glorious summer, the main protagonist, Lily, 14 yo daughter of a poor, white farmer engages in a series of adventures which end with her living on a 28 acre farm owned by three middle aged African-American sisters and becoming involved in the bee-keeping business of the oldest sister, August Boatwright.

The two underlying themes of the novel are the death of Lily’s mother 10 years previously, by gunshot in the presence of Lily and her father, and the attempts by Lily’s nanny, Rosaleen, to register to vote following the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Lily and Rosaleen go in to town, Rosaleen gets in a dispute with white men, is jailed, beaten and hospitalised. Lily runs away from her abusive father, frees Rosaleen, and by a series of improbable accidents they end up a couple of counties away at the Boatwrights’ whose honey jar logo had been kept by Lily’s mother in a box of mementos. August gives accommodation and employment to the two runaways in the face of opposition from her sister June.

There are no repercussions for Lily freeing Rosaleen, nor any great opposition from authority for Lily choosing to live with the Boatwrights – in Australia she would have been deemed to be ‘in moral danger’ and shipped off asap to juvie. The Boatwright sisters are clearly middle class in their education and style of living, as unlikely as that might have been at that time in rural South Carolina, Austen’s Elizabeth, Jane and Mary Bennet transported to the New World and less lucky in marriage.

The younger Boatwright sister dies, we engage in some odd religious worship involving a statue of the Black Madonna, Lily has a romantic involvement with the Boatwright’s godson, the story of Lily’s mother’s early life and unlucky death is revealed, Rosaleen is enrolled as a voter, and, yes, they all live happily ever after.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did, not least because the voice of the book’s narrator reminded me of my favourite movie, Badlands (Terrence Malik, 1973) with its haunting voice-over by the young Sissy Spacek.

The Secret Life of Bees was made into the 2008 movie of the same name, which I haven’t seen.

 

Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, Penguin Audio, 2002. Narrated by Jenna Lamia, playing time approx. 10 hrs

The Fur, Nathan Hobby

WP_20151111_002I follow Nathan’s blog A Biographer in Perth and thought I would check out his maiden novel of a few years ago now, The Fur. It must be in stock in a warehouse somewhere as my no. 1 favourite bookseller, Crow Books (Victoria Park, WA), had no trouble getting it in for me.

Interestingly it doesn’t have a copyright page but I see in WikipediaThe Fur … is a science fiction novel by author Nathan Hobby, published in 2004 after winning the 2002 T. A. G. Hungerford Award for unpublished new writers.” I would further categorise it as for Young Adults, probably 16 and over.

I assume Nathan is from ‘down south’, as the setting for the novel is first Collie, in the jarrah forested hills south of Perth, then the provincial city of Bunbury on the coast, and finally Murdoch Uni in Perth’s southern suburbs.

The ‘fur’ of the title is a fungus which grows on any surface, plant, animal or structure, and which has led to WA being quarantined from the rest of Australia. A quarantine enforced by a razor wire fence at the border, and by the occupying army of the ‘Wealth’ – the Commonwealth government. Only Perth’s posh western suburbs, Dalkeith, Peppy Grove, Mosman etc, are apparently immune, and they have their own enclave on the north shore of the Swan incorporating UWA.

Basically, all SF trappings aside, this is a novel of one awkward boy’s attempt to find meaning in life (and understanding in girls!). Its setting invites comparison, of course, with John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993), but Marsden’s book/series has both a broader cast and a greater emphasis on action. Nathan’s main interest is to develop the character of his protagonist Michael from year 11 in Collie, through year 12 in Bunbury and first year uni at Murdoch.

In Collie, Michael lives with his mother, father – the local preacher, and younger brother. The atmosphere is brooding, the great jarrahs loom over the town, many of the shops and houses have been abandoned and looted and the black fur grows everywhere, on tree trunks, buildings and even on the paths and the grass. Michael, like awkward boys everywhere, is keen on the wrong girls, the good looking, confident girls who go out with football players. When skinny, intelligent Rebecca joins his class and attempts to engage him, he pushes her away. Only when he moves to Bunbury does he begin to value her friendship but there too there is a blonde to dazzle him.

He and Rebecca agree to work towards escaping to the East, to Melbourne (Perth people focus on Melbourne far more than they do on Sydney. Weird). At uni they spend more time together, go on rallies and so on, but Michael’s theology studies get in the way. And his awkwardness. And the novel ends with Rebecca gone, presumably in Melbourne and Michael walking home to Bunbury for xmas.

Michael reads a lot, the bible, Philip K Dick, Catcher in the Rye and we are encouraged to draw parallels with John Fowles’, The Collector which I haven’t read but which apparently involves an awkward man kidnapping a woman and unsuccessfully persuading her to fall in love with him. I did get the reference to Friends! Michael is introduced to Emily, a party girl, “‘Oh, hi!’ she said, How you doing?’”. He almost takes the hint, but they are interrupted.

My oldest grandchildren are still a bit young but I have a niece whose children are the right age and I think I will try it out on them.

 

Nathan Hobby, The Fur, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2004