Life, #1: Science and Sensibility

In her recent column ‘On Science, Emotions, and Culture (Part 1)’ at Strange Horizons, Vandana Singh offers the following quotation from Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

This seems to me as good a place as any to begin our discussion of Life (2004) by Gwyneth Jones, the Future Classics book of the month for August (I know, I know). Because whatever else happens – and it really does all happen – to the novel’s protagonist, Anna Senoz, one of her touchstones remains her passion for science:

[W]hy do I work so hard? Why do I dream of doing something important, even if it’s something only another nerd would understand? It was inexplicable.

[...] They call me Mr Spock and think I’m unemotional: but I like marvels. I have a taste for extraordinary things. That’s why I’m here at the Forest University of Bournemouth, instead of in Manchester: why I’m doing Biology Foundation instead of specializing. I wanted to do something different, to see another world. And to know. I want to know my subject, not just get a job. She returned to her reading, thrilled by a romance and a magic that was invisible to Ramone. (33-34)

It’s a presentation of science – of the why of science, of the compulsion and fascination that keeps someone in the lab until anti-social-o’clock every evening – that perhaps isn’t communicated to the non-scientist world enough. For perfectly understandable reasons – on which I’d be very interested to get the input of Torque Control readers – science is so often thought of as the cold fish, the antidote to wonder. One of the things Life does so well, I think, is reminding us that this is not so: that there is an awe to be found in explanation, in understanding. (And also, of course, that such understanding may not always be comforting, or welcome.)

As an academic, albeit within a non-science field, I also found Jones’ exploration of how intellectual passions come into conflict with egos and institutions both telling and familiar. I’m not just talking about smug Charles Craft, Anna’s contemporary and rival at undergraduate level, whose insecure, destructive posturing Jones manages to draw with some sympathy and nuance even while making me want to kick him for every word that comes out of his mouth. It’s also there in the dynamics of every single one of the labs Anna works in later in her life: the hierarchies that must be maintained, the obstructive nonsense that must be obeyed; the supportive camaraderie and the petty backstabbing that both come with trying to pursue the objective among the hopelessly subjective. And let’s just say that the comment on the woeful inability of her doctoral supervisor, KM Nirmal, to provide anything approaching actual, well, supervision, rung far too many bells (“The better you are what you do, the more time you’re doomed to spend doing things you’re no good at” (98)). Not about my own (entirely splendid) supervisor, though, thankfully…

Being a woman in this environment carries its own set of challenges. Most obviously, during her doctorate Anna is sidelined for her pregnancy, which is taken – by Nirmal and others in the lab – to indicate a lack of dedication to Science on her part, a signal that she is on the “Mommy track” and will thus not put in the hours and never become a serious intellectual force. But the impact upon Anna of, as Ramone puts it, “being born female” (109) is felt in all manner of subtler ways. Charles Craft’s overwhelming and frankly undeserving sense of entitlement may make him deeply unpleasant – and unable to deal with competition from lesser beings without belittling mockery or brittle aggression, to boot – but it is hard to imagine him deciding not to defend his corner, and demand respect, when faced with someone else plagiarising his work (as he does to Anna), or the reflection of low status that is Anna’s below-minimum-wage stipend during her doctorate. Yet Anna has been trained not to call attention to herself; she knows, from everything she sees around her, that unlike men, women who rock the boat get remembered not as go-getters but as trouble-makers.

“No one likes a whistleblower, Simon. Not in any business. I’ve been thinking about it, while I walked. The cheating’s trivial, not worth worrying about. If I make a fuss the story might stick with me. I might never live it down; I’d be an awkward bugger.” (79)

It probably doesn’t help that on the occasions she tries to assert herself, and take control of and credit for her own work, she is slapped down; what is Charles’ rape of her, after all, but a reminder of her status – as an attractive object, so beautiful when she’s angry, not an intellectual equal (or superior) whose objections are to be taken seriously. I’ll discuss this, and how Anna’s reaction to such episodes contrast with Ramone’s, in the next post.

This setting of the science fictional – Anna’s personal mission to understand the phenomenon that she comes to call Transferred Y – within its social, human context, is of course central to the book’s purpose. Science does not stand alone, either in the way it is conceptualised and investigated, or in how it is understood and how its effects are felt; not just because there are limits to human rationality but no limits to the human capacity for denial (as the reaction to Transferred Y shows), but also because society is itself a complex organism. I’ll discuss the sfnal specifics of Anna’s discoveries, and the book’s examination of gender, in the last of these posts on Life. But I think there is room to start that discussion rolling now, in outline: how well do these twin aspects of the novel’s concerns mesh? In what ways do the ups and downs of the lives of Anna, Spence, Ramone and the rest reflect and comment upon the Big Ideas that the book sets out to broach?

Above all, does Life offer some answers to the questions that Singh poses at the end of her column?

Are only some emotions permissible in the culture of science[?] [...] What is the connection, if any, between the paucity of female scientists and the culture of science? Is the content of science ever affected by the culture of scientific practice?

Cat Women of the Moon, Part 1 – Bibliography

Cat Women of the Moon, the two-part documentary of science fiction and sex hosted by Sarah Hall, was on BBC Radio 4 just now. (Part 2 will be next Tuesday at 11:30 BST).

Part way through the episode, I realized that this was a prime opportunity for book recommendations, and to consider just what the show has collectively mentioned. Here, then, for your contemplation, are the books mentioned in the program for whatever reason.

The programme is now available on Listen Again.

  • Nicola Griffith, Slow River
  • Nicola GriffithAmmonite
  • Mike Ashley, Out of this World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It
  • Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
  • Jane Webb Loudon, The Mummy, or A Tale of the Twenty-second Century
  • Joanna Russ, The Female Man
  • Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army
  • Geoff Ryman, The Child Garden
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  • Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
  • Iain M Banks, The Player of Games
  • China Miéville, Perdido Street Station
  • Isaac Asimov, Robot series
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula (Mentioned in such a way it could be a film reference instead)
  • John Christopher, Death of Grass

Also, in other media, Bladerunner, the titular movie, Cat Women of the Moon,and Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco of the Creation of Man.

Awards to come

This weekend’s awards were the Hugos. (See the survey of initial reactions at Strange Horizons.) The UK and the UK SF community did fairly well out of them, even if this country-as-setting was, by many accounts, the weak point in the best novel winner of Blackout/All Clear. Still, between Claire Brialey, James Bacon, Dr Who episodes, and relatedly Chicks Dig Time Lords, Britain would not have done half badly, if this were a country contest. Which it is not.

But the BSFA awards are to some degree, and, although BSFA members can nominate year-round for them, we are coming up to that time of year when nominations are officially open for the awards: the beginning of September.

In the meantime, the rules and guidelines for the 2012 BSFA awards have just gone live over on the BSFA website.

August: Life

It’s the eighth month of the year already* and we’re still back in 2004 in reading the Future Classics here on Torque Control.

August’s book is Gwyneth Jones’ Life. It is the second of two books from 2004 (the other was City of Pearl) and one of three by Jones on our list this year. It did very well for itself, winning the Philip K Dick award for that year and being shortlisted for the Tiptree Award.

Nic of Eve’s Alexandria, a new poster on Torque Control, should be joining us to discuss the book before the end of the month. I hope you will join us in reading and discussing it!

* It’s almost still the first half of the month, right?

City of Pearl: Recap

The book of this long, lingering July* was Karen Traviss’s City of Pearl, which Niall discussed in a series of posts. It was the first of two 2004 books we are reading here at Torque Control this year as part of the Future Classics series of the best science fiction novels written by women in the previous decade.

Niall examined the difficulty of writing aliens, especially with respect to gender; the role of humans in the context of those aliens, and the problems with the way the book presents scientists; an examination of the main viewpoint character, Shan Frankland; and a look at a few of the book’s other major themes and the way they affect the conclusion.

Continuing the post-9/11 notes, this book too had a plot  thread about terrorism, by that name, in the context of moral ambiguities.

My thanks to Niall for the thoughtful examination of this book, and to all of you who joined in the discussion about it. (There’s always time to do so in future weeks… or months… or years.)

Discussion: Part I (Aliens); Part II (Environment and humanity); Part III (Characters); Part IV (Transparency)

I can’t, offhand, find any other discussions of this novel online from the last month, which is why  I am not providing them for you this month. (I though I did run across another fantastical “city of Pearl” as a result: more in Jeff VanderMeer’s post here.)

* Summer, with all its life disruptions to put us in places we aren’t normally and disrupt posting habits.

City of Pearl: IV

City of Pearl cover


Here’s another quote, from rather later in the novel, just after Lindsay, who managed to get herself pregnant before the mission left Earth, has given birth.

“He could do with some more milk, if you’re up to expressing some.”

Not more tubes. He was too weak even to feed properly. She laid him down in the cot again with a breaking heart. Every instinct in her body said she should forget common sense and take him somewhere quiet to comfort and nurse him. But Hugel was a doctor, and knew better. And Lindsay was an officer, the ranking officer now that Shan was out of action.

“I’ll get on with it,” she said. (311)

This is such a brusque examination of the maternal instinct that it feels little more than functional, a device to remind us that humans are animals, but set up and dismissed in a couple of sentences so that Lindsay, and the narrative, can get on with it. Quite a lot of City of Pearl felt like this to me: it is an almost exhaustingly direct novel, with a quite narrow emotional range; like a more cynical John Scalzi, or a less schematic Isaac Asimov. What’s interesting is how this style dovetails with the novel’s content.

Constantine, we are told, is “a transparent sort of place” (61), not somewhere of great complexity or nuance, with a symbolic fascination with glasswork. More than that, the native life on bezer’ej is often see-through, as a camouflage strategy; the planet, Shan concludes, “was a transparent world” (194). The wess’har, as I’ve already described, are a moral position embodied as its extreme to enable contrast and conflict, and deployed with no ambiguity whatsoever, the dilemmas their laws produce being the equivalent of 24’s ticking bombs, in that they distort a situation beyond all likely reality to justify an extreme response. And the grand climax of Shan’s narrative is an audience with a wess’har matriarch for which she is told that she must speak with absolute directness: “Shan made a conscious effort to remove the automatic tendency to edit what she thought before it escaped her mouth. It had taken many, many years to learn to do that. Now she had to unlearn it” (355).

Not infrequently, this all starts to feel like an indulgence of the worst of sf’s world-simplifying tendencies. Yet running alongside all of the above is a determined effort to complicate choices and confuse boundaries. The wess’har are imposing their morality on others, and are resisted by the isenji. A third group of humans arrive completely without warning, with their own agenda. Constantine turns out to be not just as transparent as glass, but as fragile, an artificial ecology maintained within the native bezer’ej landscape. And – most symbolically – towards the end of the book, Aras deliberately infects Shan with c’naatat to save her life, and Shan begins to change. Judged alone, I think I would have to find City of Pearl wanting; but the dynamics it establishes are so clearly set to evolve over successive books that I can easily believe the series ends up in a more complex place.

City of Pearl: III

City of Pearl cover


We’re presumably meant to see the decision to arrange the execution of the offending scientist as the sort of thing Shan Frankland’s recruiter had in mind when insisting that the expedition needed “a government representative there who isn’t afraid of hard decisions” (16). And if the decision isn’t that hard in the end, it’s a shame not only because it simplifies Aras for our consumption, but because it diminishes Shan, who is otherwise probably the best thing about City of Pearl.

An efficient ex-cop, Shan is – according to Eddie Michallat, the expedition’s rather irritating journalist – “not plump big, womanly big, but tall, athletic, hard big”, and deeply, occasionally comically, cynical about human nature. She is a baseline human, primarily, we a told, thanks to the pagan beliefs she inherited from her mother, giving her — in a world where the unaltered are becoming less common than the altered — a “hint of wildness and savagery”. She has a temper, and a brain; and most important, to me, she is a professional. For all her physical capability, called on several times over the course of the novel, she is a serious person who takes her job seriously: a rare enough type in science fiction at all, but particularly distinctive amongst the impoverished array of contemporary female characters. Her self-confidence makes her an effective counter to the eternally mutable Aras, and in fact makes her somewhat irresistible to his matriarch-conditioned brain: he finds her no-nonsense manner distinctly wess’har, and increasingly has to fight the urge to defer to her will.

Shan’s other important relationship in City of Pearl is with Lindsay Neville, who would have been leading the expedition had Shan not been installed at the last minute. Lindsay is young military authority, Shan is older civilian authority; unsurprisingly they have rather different ways of doing things. For Lindsay, death is “nothing personal [...] all neat and sanctioned and under rules of engagement. After you’d killed them, you would stand at memorial parades and say what an honourable enemy they were”; while Shan “got to know her targets far too well, and honor never came into it” (211). Their headbutting, and eventual tentative respect, is rather nicely done.

It’s hard to say that Shan’s interaction with the rest of her expedition’s members is handled as well. That she doesn’t like the scientists she has to look after – describing them almost exclusively as “payload” – is fine, but there is never an equivalent of the detente with Lindsay, or even the potential for one. What’s missing – aside from brief diary extracts at the start of a couple of chapters – is the viewpoint of a scientist, which leaves them little more than ciphers, and makes incidents like that involving the bezeri child feeling even more lopsided. The payload are the ones who cause trouble, the ones who – astonishingly – we are meant to believe see sentient aliens as just a kind of animal, the ones who just won’t follow orders, god dammit. They are, in fact, the villains of the piece; which would be more interesting if they weren’t also the novel’s truest Other.


City of Pearl: II

City of Pearl cover


City of Pearl is, on one level, another entry into the proud tradition of brutal challenges to the Campbellian notion that humanity is a special case. Its particular lens for focusing this argument is ecological: the wess’har, or at least the ones we meet in this novel, are environmental fundamentalists who consider all living things to have equal rights – Aras refers to rats as “people” – and who live with as little imposition on other beings as possible. They’re also possessed of a technology level capable of wiping out large cities – say, those of the isenj – and restoring the landscape left behind to a wilderness state without too much difficulty, which makes them exactly the people you don’t want to have taken custody of a planet when you’d like to settle on it.

The first humans to reach Bezer’ej are spared by dint of the fact that they carry a gene bank of Earthly life, and found the agrarian Christian commune of Constantine. A later expedition of scientists with a military guard, led by City of Pearl’s protagonist Shan Frankland, is allowed to land because Aras is curious; it’s a decision he comes to regret.

The conflict between wess’har and human psychology and morality has strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, having a viewpoint character with such an absolutist worldview as does Aras enables Traviss to throw her readers off balance every so often, to make them question their assumptions – as with the remark about rats noted above, or as when Aras corrects Josh, the leader of Constantine, about humans “detecting” other alien species, rather than “discovering” them; or when Josh himself mentally tuts that Shan only recognises Bezer’ej as “inhabited” when there are sentient aliens in the frame. And the colonists of Constantine, who carried their own ecological morality with them from Earth but have followed the wess’har’s lead, philosophically, during the decades of their tenure, are an interesting bunch that I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with.

But as the narrative (inevitably) heads towards conflict, it stumbles. When he allows Shan and her companions to land, Aras sets some ground rules, of which the most important is “no samples of living material”: not a blade of alien grass. It’s clear almost immediately that for most of the scientists in Shan’s party this is an unacceptable restriction on their research, but it’s not until half-way into the book that one of them manages to pick up what appears to be a dead organism from the shore and bring it back to base camp. When that happens, some of the party do object, but the scientist in question locks herself away and begins a dissection before Shan arrives to stop her.

This, of course, is enough to initiate a diplomatic crisis, and for a few pages it looks like a quite interesting one: the scientist’s actions are against wess’har morality, and though they surely have the right, and the power, to set the local rules, they can’t help seeming excessive to us; while even as we disapprove of the scientist’s actions, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her curiosity. (She has, after all, given up her life for the opportunity to visit another world: with slower-than-light journeys and cryogenic suspension, nobody she knew on Earth is going to be alive when she returns.) But quite quickly it’s revealed that the organism wasn’t dead, after all; and moreover that it wasn’t just any organism, it was a juvenile bezeri; and so the scientist, monstrously, has been dissecting a living child. This, I can’t help feeling, is much less interesting, because it horrifies us as much as the wess’har, which means that when Aras demands the death penalty for the scientist’s crimes, it’s a demand that comes from a recognisable place (even if we abjure capital punishment ourselves). How much more challenging it would have been to empathise with Aras if the scientist’s actions had been a crime by wess’har standards only.


City of Pearl: I

(With profuse apologies for belatedness, here’s the start of my discussion of the Future Classic for July, Karen Traviss’ first novel City of Pearl. A bit of a curate’s egg…)

City of Pearl cover


Here are a couple of sentences from very near the start of City of Pearl:

Aras mimicked the lettering, copying it into the unspoiled snow beside him with a steady claw. He considered it, then brushed it away. (1-2)

Does anything here bother you? Personally, I’m bothered by that pronoun. From the claw at the end of the first of these sentences, and the fact that we know we’re starting a science fiction novel, we infer – correctly – that Aras is an alien. But for an organism not from our biosphere, how meaningful is the male pronoun likely to be? It would be understandable as the imposition of a human point of view, as in, say, Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, but there are no human characters in this scene, or indeed on the planet at this point. Later, we are told that Aras’ species, the wess’har, are matriarchal: their women are big and few and occupy ruling positions, while their men are in thrall to the feminine, and have stronger nurturing instincts. But because that initial pronoun is pure narrative imposition, the complication of the pronoun seems like an arbitrary trick. Had Traviss chosen to make Aras “she”, she could have almost as easily described wess’har society as ruled by men with enormous harems. And that bothers me, because it makes the authorial fiat involved in constructing an alien society more visible than I would like it to be.

That aside, the fact that City of Pearl includes a non-human perspective is something to be admired, and the other ways in which it is complicated are more satisfying. Aras is the last of a soldier caste, infected with a virus or micro-organism (it’s not entirely clear) his people call c’naatat that exacerbates the already-high mutability of his genetic code to enable him to adapt rapidly to environmental threats – such as, say, otherwise lethal wounds – and incorporate useful traits from other species with whom he comes into contact. This is junk science, but a very useful fictional device. As soon as Aras has touched a human, we have an excuse for the inevitable humanness of his point of view; and once (inevitably) one of the human characters becomes infected by c’naatat, you have a beautiful model system in which to play out some ideas about the self and the other.

As the first in a series of six, City of Pearl doesn’t push this notion as far or as fast as you might hope, and there are other things in its portrayal of the alien that don’t quite work – including some spectacularly ill-judged names, such as the capital city of F’nar. But by the end of the novel you do believe in the wess’har as an independent species with their own distinct culture and behavioural principles, literal and logical but without the obtuseness often assumed to accompany those characteristics. Moreover there are reasons to believe that the cultures of two of the other three species who claim a stake in the world Aras guards – namely the native, squiddish bezeri and the expansionist, arachnoid isenj – will be further developed to similarly satisfying effect. The fourth species with skin in the game, of course, is us.


August BSFA London Meeting: Kim Lakin-Smith Interview – 24th August 2011 – Free entry

On Wednesday 24th August 2011 from around 7pm:

KIM LAKIN-SMITH (science fiction and dark fantasy author - Tourniquet and Cyber Circus) will be interviewed by Paul Skevington (reviewer for SFCrowsnest and twice Arthur C. Clarke Award Judge).

Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.


Upstairs Room
The Antelope Tavern
22, Eaton Terrace

Nearest Tube: Sloane Square (District/Circle)
All welcome! (No entry fee or tickets. Non-members welcome.)
Interview will commence at 7.00 pm, but the room is open from 6.00 (and fans in the downstairs bar from 5).
There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.


28th September 2011 – JO FLETCHER interviewed by Tom Hunter

26th October 2011 – TANITH LEE interviewed by Nadia Van Der Westhuizen

23rd November 2011* –  STEPHEN BAXTER interviewed by Paul Cornell

* Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.


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