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Body of Glass by Marge Piercy

Penguin, 1992, 590 p.

Body of Glass cover

In a post-environmental disaster, post-nuclear war world dominated by commercial multis Shira Shipman has returned to her domed home of Tikva after Y-S, the multi she worked for, awarded custody of her son, Ari, to her husband. In Tikva she finds that Avram has created a(n illegal) cyborg, Yod, named for the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (He – Piercy depicts Yod as male and to all intents and purposes fully human – has had nine less successful predecessors.) Shira’s grandmother Malkah has helped Avram to construct Yod’s persona as the previous efforts had lacked, for want of a better word, humanity. Complicating Shira’s return is the presence of Avram’s son, Gadi, Shira’s first lover and a producer of computer generated entertainment, but who is constitutionally incapable of keeping himself to one woman. There is an ongoing effort to keep Yod’s nature secret within Tikva, always under threat of attack by information pirates, and to prevent Y-S from gaining control of him for itself.

Paralleling this narrative and taking up one out of every three of the book’s chapters we are treated to the story of the golem of Prague (called Joseph,) created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Prague ghetto’s inhabitants from their gentile neighbours. This is presented as if Malkah is telling it to Yod and is interesting enough but is really meant as a counterpoint to Tikva’s situation – though there are perhaps too many similarities between the two strands of the book (the would-be independent woman in Prague, Chava, is what Malkah considers herself to be) – and also to act as an illustration of the struggle against the perennial prejudice Jewish people have suffered throughout history. The inhabitants of Tikva seem all to be Jews but that is more or less incidental to the plot in those sections, whereas in Prague it is the central consideration.

The contest between Shira and Y-S for custody of Ari and of Tikva with Y-S makes up the meat of the plot and provides most of the science-fictional interest – she and Yod themselves undertake what is in effect a cyber attack on Y-S, very William Gibson – but these are in many ways the least satisfying aspects of the novel as Piercy is considering what it might mean to be Jewish (Jewish words and customs are liberally sprinkled through both strands) and, in the characters of Yod and Joseph, interrogating what it means to be human. While Joseph and Chava do not, Yod and Shira become close and eventually lovers. Yod is of course more accomplished than either Gadi or Shira’s husband ever were – or could be. In one of their conversations Shira tells Yod telepathy is a prominent human fantasy – usually of women, who wish they could understand what men want and tell men what they want. Not that their relationship, and that of Shira with Malkah, is without complication. This is a fully fleshed out narrative, more intricate than I have room to set down here. It’s easy to see why it won the Clarke Award in 1993.

I noticed the phrase, “my wee installation.” Is there perhaps a Scottish influence on Piercy there?

Pedant’s corner:- The publication date given is 1992 but the author information tells us this won the Clarke Award in 1993, so it must be a later reprint. Otherwise; Fernandez’ (Fernandez’s,) hung (several times, hanged,) “a epiphenomenon” (an epiphenomenon,) “conveyer belt” (conveyor belt,) “Each people has their own road, their own destiny” (has its own road, its own destiny. People is treated as singular two lines below this!) “If she were Gadi, she would not be careless in turning his back to Yod” (if she were, then she would not be careless in turning her back,) “a group of Jews … follow after” (a group … follows after,) “the doctor yanks it free as she streams, the blood spurting out” (as she screams,) “to staunch the rush of blood” (stanch.) “Malkah shuffled after here” (after her.) “Because the house disapproved of him so strongly she wondered sometimes if an occasional message did not get lost” (she wondered sometimes if an occasional message got lost,) “eighteen hundred point fifteen hours” (eighteen hundred point one five hours – especially as this is an AI [the house] speaking,) plasticene (plasticine.)

Clarke Award 2019

I see this year’s winner* of the Arthur C Clarke Award is Rosewater by Tade Thompson.

I’ve not read it but I’ll put it on my to seek list.

*At least it wasn’t the Yoon Ha Lee.

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

47 North, 2017, 219 p.

This was on the short list for the BSFA Award last year and subsequently won the Clarke Award.

 Dreams Before the Start of Time cover

It is, however, less of a novel than a series of vignettes featuring characters with some sort of relationship to each other but unfolding over a timescale of 83 years starting in 2034. The one big change to society involved in all this is the advent of technology to nurture human fœtuses outside the womb and to tweak the genetic composition of embryos for desired traits. The slow evolution of approved standards of child gestation into outright disapproval of the natural process – how can you be so uncaring of your child’s welfare as to carry it yourself? – is well served by the form of the narrative; it comes on us gradually, as the attitude would. The choice is not, however, so easy if you lack the resources to purchase the services and provides another stick with which to beat the poor, to go along with all the traditional ones.

As a Science Fictional thought experiment this is almost text book; consequences of a change thought out and demonstrated. I can see why it has garnered the acclaim it did. As a novel it’s less so, though, coming over as bitty and too pat. Moreover I wasn’t convinced by the implied background. Even in 2120 daily life in Dreams Before the Start of Time doesn’t appear to be very different from that in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps this appears so because most of the characters are well-to-do, or at least comfortably off. Charnock writes well, though. The book is never less than readable and in places surpasses that.

Pedant’s corner:- practiced (practised.)

2019 Clarke Award Shortlist

I see the short list for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award has been announced. I missed it at the time as I was away.

The list is:-

Semiosis by Sue Burke (HarperVoyager)
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Oneworld)
The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag (Simon & Schuster)
Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Orbit)
The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

I’ve read none of them but note the Tade Thompson was on the BSFA Award list this year (despite doubts as to its eligibility – which would apply equally to the Clarke Award I’d have thought.)

Also on both lists is the Yoon Ha Lee. Having read his Ninefox Gambit I have to say I’m depressed by this.

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Faber and Faber, 2015, 728 p.

 Arcadia cover

This was shortlisted in 2016 for the Clarke Award. I can see why, but I also wonder why. A part of it is set in the future (two parts if you accept the book’s premise,) it deals with time travel and parallel worlds, yes, but one of the futures is rendered rudimentarily at best and some of the writing is … is sketchy too harsh? Yet, despite that, the book plays with genre. There is a spy story here – and a romance – to go along with the SF. Neither does it wear its allusions lightly. However, the information dumping is obtrusive and many of the characters read as if they are from stock casting. Zoffany Oldmanter in especial, as cartoon a Bond villain as you could wish for. The Clarke has a history of grabbing at SF from authors generally reckoned to come from outwith the genre. This may be an example of that. I do note however that Arcadia didn’t win (though the novel that did ought not to have when Europe at Midnight was on the shortlist.)

It all starts promisingly enough, with a 1960 academic, Professor Henry Lytten, describing to some of his colleagues the fantasy world he has invented (“‘I am creating the world,’”) and reading extracts from his novel set there. This gives Pears the ventriloquised opportunity to animadvert about C S Lewis’s “bloody bore of a lion” and how his invention of a world resulted in only a middle-class English suburb with a few swords. Pears also acknowledges early on a source of inspiration in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.

Then Rosalind (Rosie,) the fifteen-year-old girl who looks after the Professor’s cat, while searching for it in his basement draws back a curtain on a glowing pergola (disguised as a sculpture) and steps through it into that exact fantasy world. This could have been an intriguing premise for the book but Pears then adds layers of complication with the addition of a scientific outpost on the island of Mull centuries in the future investigating the possibility of travelling between parallel worlds. The institute’s Director Hanslip refuses to believe that the mechanism produced to do this is actually a time machine, though its creator, Angela Meerson, knows it is since past and future are thoroughly inter-related, there is none without the other, cause and effect are mirror images. If the past changes so does the future, and vice versa. To resolve the departmental conflict she despatches various bodies, eventually including herself, through the machine. It is she, using the Professor’s notes, who has created the world beyond the portal in his basement.

That fantasy – now actual – world, Anterwold, is ruled by the Story, its primordial text to which all disputes are referred, and is a place where storytellers are lauded, “‘There is no higher achievement or honour in the world.’” An assertion to which Rosie replies (presumably as an acerbic comment by Pears himself,) “‘In that case, it must be a very different world from mine.’” It is more or less mediæval in tone, though apparently more kindly. Despite its flimsy nature it is there the most important aspects of the novel are worked out and it and the 1960 domestic setting both seem far more real to the reader than the future world, dominated by the authoritarian Oldmanter, from which Meerson has fled. In one of her ruminations she says of the English “whose lives were so dreary and constrained, the fanciful exuberance of the human spirit was forced to take refuge in the imagination, which was the only place it could exist without attracting disapproval.” (I did wonder, whatever would she make of the Scots… ?)

By way of information installed in the head of an agent sent by Hanslip to track down Meerson in (his) past we are also introduced to the concept of deep lies, “in which the speaker simultaneously says something he knows to be untrue and genuinely believes it nonetheless: politicians are particularly adept at this.” How true.

In her act of creation Meerson has set up a tension between past and future which can only be resolved by the elimination of one or other of the scenarios. To get there from here in the real world implies catastrophe. As part of the novel’s working out, the Professor himself appears in Anterwold as a literal deus ex machina where Rosie tells him, “‘You steal ideas from everyone.’” As does Pears whose Arcadia, partly as a result, is a bit of a curate’s egg.

Pedant’s corner:- Great-aunt Jessie (Great-Aunt Jessie,) New Year’s (New Year’s Eve that would be,) “took every scrap of paper referring to the missing cleaner and incinerated them” (incinerated it,) “‘the folly of mankind, their infinite capacity for self-importance’” (its infinite capacity,) Mr Williams’ (Williams’s,) span (spun,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “‘for kindness’ sake’” (kindness’s,) staunched (stanched.)

2018 Clarke Award

This year’s winner is Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock.

I’ve not yet read it but it’s on my list.

Clarke Award 2018

The shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award has been announced.

It is:-

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill
Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock
American War by Omar El Akkad
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

It’s a list shorn of the usual suspects and I’m delighted Spaceman of Bohemia is on there. I really enjoyed it.

I note, too, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time again appearing on a short list.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Solaris, 2016, 317 p.

 Ninefox Gambit cover

This was on both the Clarke and Hugo Awards shortlists last year, which is why I read it. After two or so pages I wondered why I was bothering. The first chapter is a morass of information dumping and telling rather than showing with a battle described in terms that dwell on the grisly details yet are also bathetic. Plus, for an interplanetary conflict some of the weapons seem far too prosaic; bullets for instance.

We are in a milieu ruled by an all-powerful hexarchate – Shuos, Kel, Andan, Vidona, Rahal, Nirai – each of whose adherents at first seem to stick to one aspect of life (for example the Kel are soldiers whose “formation instinct” is their greatest asset) but turn out not to be quite so restricted. Some time in the past there was a heptarch (Liozh) but that tendency was expunged for calendrical heresy. Lee makes much play on this notion of keeping order by specifying time intervals. Calendrical rot is presented as a constant menace.

In Chapter One main viewpoint character Kel Cheris (Ajewen Cheris) is on a military mission to take an objective but is told to pull out as soon as she achieves it. She reflects that “Kel luck was frequently bad” – in which case why would anyone take part in it, then? Oh, of course. “Formation instinct,” (which seems more like indoctrination than instinct but is injected so must be chemical and which in any case comes over more as hidebound obedience. Yet occasionally some of the Kel do question orders so the instinct can’t actually be all that binding.) Later we are told, “It was one thing to sacrifice Kel soldiers. That was the purpose of the Kel.” Soldiers are for sacrificing are they? That might explain US military tactics down the years.

Cheris has been extracted as a possibility to lead the response to a calendrical rebellion at The Fortress of Scattered Needles. (Quite why she has been identified as a potential candidate is a mystery to this reader.) Her suggestion to resurrect the notorious, never defeated general Shuos Jedao, killer of millions in Hellspin Fortress centuries before and whose personality has been preserved in the black cradle to be trotted out from time to time when needed, is immediately accepted. His essence is implanted in her brain and off they go to challenge the rebels who are influenced by the Liozh tendency and in particular are on the way to implementing democracy, which general Jedao characterises as, “An obscure experimental form of government where citizens choose their own leaders or policies by voting on them.” Kel wonders how that could possibly work. Having Jedao in her head of course changes her by the book’s end, which sadly leaves ample scope for sequels.

The author’s apparent relish in describing body parts on the various battlefields makes his later attempts to induce sympathy or pity for victims of such extreme violence seem hollow, bordering on objectionable, while sentences such as, “It didn’t make him a mathematician, let alone one specializing in calendrical techniques, let alone one trained in this kind of evaluation,” with a phrase repeated after just four intervening words shows the lack of care in the writing (or editing.) This is only one example of many pieces of clunking prose in the book which is more or less a standard piece of military SF and not ground-breaking in any way.

Thankfully Ninefox Gambit won neither of those awards. What it was doing on the shortlists goodness only knows.

Pedant’s corner:- staunch (I prefer stanch,) “all the Kel weren’t as straightforward” (not all the Kel were as straightforward,) indictaed queries from other moth commander as well” (commanders,) “a small team of deltaform servitors were cleaning up the messes” (a team was,) practicing (practising,) “about what about what” (it doesn’t need the repeat,) “it didn’t take long for him long to respond” (either take out “long for” or “long to”,) damndest (damnedest,) a closing quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue. “An infinitely brief pause.” (How can anything be infinitely brief? Infinite and brief are total opposites,) “alternately gold and bronze and silver” (successively gold and bronze and silver,) “‘They weren’t for the heretics, were they.’” (That sentence is a question; so needs a question mark not a full stop.) “‘I could care less.’” (The context is, “I couldn’t care less.”) “clear white” (there is no such thing, clear = see-through, white = opaque; so-called “white light” is actually colourless,) dodecahedrons (dodecahedra,) Nirai (the character has been called Niaad up to here – and later.)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Fleet, 2016, 373 p (plus an additional 16 pages extract of Colson’s first novel, none of which I read.)

 The Underground Railroad cover

Even if this was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2017 I might not have got round to it for some while had it not also won this year’s Clarke Award (- not to mention the shadow Clarke Award.).

The main viewpoint character, Cora, is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, whose grandmother bequeathed (informally of course) to her descendants a small patch of ground in the slave quarters on which she grew scrubby vegetables. Cora’s mother ran away when she was small – the only runaway from the plantation not to be recaptured – and Cora tries to defend the patch as best she can, before she is pushed out to the Hob (a kind of depository for the less fortunate slaves.) This demonstration of the hierarchy that existed within the slave community is one of the features of Whitehead’s book. While Cora lives on the relatively benign half of the plantation this benignity is still only relative. Whitehead does not go overboard on the indignities and horrors but nevertheless portrays slave life in all its wretchedness, yet he doesn’t skirt over the harshnesses they endure nor can themselves inflict. Cora is female: no more need be said. Things change when the Randall brother in charge of her half of the estate dies and the whole plantation becomes subject to the whims of Terrance Randall. When she steps in to absorb his blows on a slave boy he becomes her implacable enemy and so she accepts the offer of male slave Caesar, who has been in contact with the Underground Railroad, to escape with him. They do not make it to the Station without mishap and in a confrontation with a group of whites Cora, in order to evade capture has to kill one of them by striking his head with a stone. This makes her even more of a target for tracking down.

At the Station they descend below the cellar and come to a tunnel along the floor of which run two parallel steel lines. Thus is the metaphor of the organisation which helped runaway slaves, and gave Whitehead his title, made literal. This literalisation is the sort of thing Science Fiction does and I suppose is what allows the book to be classified as such (or, indeed, an Altered History) and thus eligible for the Clarke. In other respects though the story the book tells does not rely on this speculative element – could have been written without this device – and so would lie outside the boundaries of the genre. The book might not have received as much attention without this presence of steel and steam, though.

The main sections are titled for the various States in which Cora finds herself, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and “The North” while shorter chapters relate aspects of the lives of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, captured and enslaved in Africa; slave-catcher Ridgeway; an anatomist and “resurrectionist” called Stevens; Ethel, the wife of one of the Railroad’s agents; Cora’s escape companion Caesar; and the ironical fate of Cora’s mother.

Cora ponders the US Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident truth” that, “All men are created equal,” with the thought “unless we decide you are not a man.”

Set in the time and place it is there are of course frequent uses of the “n” word, which therefore appears in full in some later quotes here.

It is not just slave-catchers – and Ridgeway in particular – that Cora has to be wary of. In South Carolina she and Caesar find the authorities are collecting data about and performing medical procedures on the “coloured” – controlled sterilisation, research into communicable diseases by pretending to give treatment but really allowing the disease to run rampant, perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit – to protect “our women and daughters from their (the coloureds’) violent jungle urges” which was understood “to be a particular fear of southern white men.”

Whitehead tells us, “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. More slaves led to more cotton.” But more slaves represented a problem. “Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable: all those niggers.” North Carolina’s response was to advertise for Europeans to be indentured for a while to pick the cotton. “In effect they abolished slavery. On the contrary, Oney Garrison said in response. We abolished niggers.” Coloured men and women were banned from North Carolina soil on pain of death. Bodies of those unable to flee lined the so-called Freedom Trail for mile upon mile.

The resurrectionist anatomist reflects on the irony that, “when his classmates put their blades to a coloured cadaver, they did more for the cause of coloured advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

About the excesses of his fellow slave patrollers Ridgeway ruminates, “In another country they would have been criminals. But this was America.” And later, that justification of acquisition, “If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property. slave, or continent. The American imperative.” Later he tells Cora about the country they are travelling through after she is captured, “Settlers needed the land, and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless, Ridgeway said, they deserved what they got.” Ridgeway describes the American spirit, “to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”

Cora is freed from Ridgeway’s clutches and finds a temporary refuge in Indiana where a black speaker orates, “‘Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are. And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

On her first journey underground Cora was told, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” But, “It was a joke then from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”

All nations have their darker shadows. Slavery is the USA’s original (and in the form to which it evolved, racism, its besetting) sin. Whitehead shows how the patterns it produced were engrained, embedded by the “Peculiar Institution”. The Underground Railroad is extremely well-written, its characters far more than ciphers or types – and Whitehead gives due consideration to the views of the slave-holders – but the tale it tells seems, sadly, to be as relevant today as the organisation it was named for was all those years ago.

Pedant’s corner: a pile of ball and chains (balls and chains,) “The doctors were stealing her babies from her, not her former masters” (is ambiguous. “The doctors, and not her former masters, were stealing her babies from her,” would make it clearer,) forbid (forbade, x 3,) “Every town … held their Friday Festival” (its Friday Festival,) hung (hanged,) “the fire had eliminated the differences in their skin” (in their skins,) laying (lying,) “The two rifles turned to him” (on the previous page it had been “his pistol” and “A second man held a rifle,” so not two rifles then.)

Clarke Award Winner

This year’s winner is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I’ve not read but from what I’ve read about it seems to be an Altered History.

This verdict coincides with that of the Shadow Clarke jury over at the Anglian Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

One for the “to look out for” list.

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