Coming up: Lavinia

Next up in reading the Future Classics is a novel set in ancient Latium.

For November, what’s left of it, I’ll be looking at Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin’s retelling of part of the Aeneid from the perspective of a character who, in the original, has no lines. The book was contentious as science fiction at the time: does it even count as part of that genre? Whether or not it does – we’ll reconsider the arguments – it’s certainly a fascinating and admirable book. It won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was shortlisted for the BSFA Award.

Lavinia was published in 2008 (meaning we’ve skipped 2007). In that year, Fidel Castro resigned as president of Cuba, Bill Gates as chairman of Microsoft, the island of Sark lost its distinction for preserving feudalism, the summer Olympics were held in Beijing, and the Large Hadron Collider was officially opened. Arthur C Clarke died, and Terry Pratchett announced that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The BSFA began its experiment with running Matrix as an online magazine.

I can promise you a discussion of Lavinia before the end of the month. I’ll be posting on it starting a week from today.

P.S. These year recaps paid off at the BristolCon quiz for me, when, thanks to doing them, I knew in which year Pluto lost its planetary status.

Coming up: Farthing

The next book in our ongoing Future Classics series is Jo Walton’s Farthing.  Niall will be leading discussion, likely starting before the end of September.

Farthing was published two years after Gwyneth Jones’ Life, which means 2005 is the first year of the last decade we have skipped. None of the books published that year made it onto our list of the top-10 science fiction novels by women of the last decade.

2006, however, gave us Farthing, the first of Walton’s Small Change trilogy. It was also the year that Pluto was demoted from being a planet; novels by five male authors were shortlisted for the best novel for the Hugo Award; and Octavia Butler, Stanislaw Lem, Jack Williamson, and Jim Baen died.

Farthing was shortlisted for a slew of awards, including the Nebula, the John W Campbell Memorial Award, the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and the Locus award.  It won the Romantic Times 2006 Reviewers’ Choice Award for Science Fiction.

I hope you will be able to join us in reading and discussing Farthing.

Out of this World: Four Days Left / Frankenstein

Until I started reading up for my short presentation on Lucian and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the “Science Fiction and Religion” panel* at Bradford the other weekend, I had no idea that Shelley had notably revised the text between its first 1818 edition and the better-known 1831 edition.

Small, frequent amendations and revisions** altered the text’s focus towards a much greater concern with Christianity, in particular, giving Victor Frankenstein a greater religious consciousness. Frankenstein, in the later text, refers at various points to a guardian angel, and to an angel of destruction leading him on. Although these need not necessarily have come at the cost of sacrificing descriptions of Frankenstein’s scientific practice, they have, such as a youthful scene in which he experiments with electricity, cut from the later version. Even the references to historical practices of natural magic are revised, in order to cast them in a more negative light.

I was conscious that there were many versions of Frankenstein simply because it has been memorably reworked in film numerous times over the years. I hadn’t realized how much the focus of the story was adjusted in Mary Shelley’s own revisions as well.

Some edition of Frankenstein (offhand, I cannot tell you which one!) is currently on display at the British Library as part of the Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It exhibition. You have four days left, including today until 18:00, to see it.

*  See also the contents of the talk which Una McCormack gave, on sf and religion in Dr Who and Star Trek, for the same panel.

** I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the 1818 text with its list of changes by Marilyn Butler in Appendix B.

Out of this World Countdown

Here in London, it’s been a fantastic summer of science fictional events at the British Library, thanks to the show Out of this World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It; but it’s not over yet.

After today, there are still six days left in which to go to the British Library and see the (free!) show.

There is still one more scheduled event remaining in conjunction with it, on J.G. Ballard, this Friday.

I’m planning on going back one more time. And just in case you’ve been thinking about it, haven’t gotten around to it, live vaguely in or around London or will be passing through in time…. I’m planning on posting something on science fiction history each day for the remaining six days of the show as a reminder that the show is still on.

Also, conveniently, this takes advantage of recent reading I did in preparation for the British Science Festival’s panel on “Science Fiction and Religion”.

The good news is that major shows in London on inspirations for science fiction and fantasy won’t be stopping when Out of this World closes, since John Martin: Apocalypse at the Tate opens on Wednesday.

Life: Recap

(Isn’t that a fantastic title for a post?)

Over the last few weeks, Nic has posted a series of thought-provoking explorations of Gwyneth Jones’ Life, looking at its relationship with institutions and attitudes towards scientific practice; its self-consciousness as feminist sf, as a commentary on the role of women in a science fictional world; the core of the relationships which define the plot of the book; and the fictional scientific discovery at the heart of the story and how it affects gender.

Life, the seventh book we’ve examined in the Future Classics series here on Torque Control, is our last book from 2004, the end of the first half of the decade this book list covers.  The remaining four books cover the rest of the decade. For planning ahead, those are

  • Jo Walton, Farthing (in late September)
  • Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North (October)
  • Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia (November)
  • Gwyneth Jones, Spirit (December)

My thanks to Nic for joining us for this discussion (and perhaps more in the future?), and to those of you who read along and participated in the discussion. It’s never too late to come back to these posts and do so.

Discussion: Part 1 – Science and Sensibilities; Part 2 – Feminisms; Part 3 – Roles and Relationships; Part 4 – Gender and Conclusion

A recent, related post:

bookgazing asks for insights into what new things cis-gendered women could become “in the middle of a pre-existing world full of pre-conceptions about gender and behaviour?”

Cat Women of the Moon, Part 2: Bibliography

Here are the books mentioned in the second and final part of the BBC Radio 4 documentary, Cat Women of the Moon, hosted by Sarah Hall. Some of the duplication from last time is because their authors featured on the both programmes.

  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
  • HG Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau
  • China Mieville, Embassytown
  • China Mieville, Perdido Street Station
  • Ian M Banks, the Culture novels
  • Urusula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Geoff Ryman, The Child Garden
  • Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex
  • Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Nicola Griffith, Ammonite
  • Nicola Griffith, Slow River
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Plus Star Trek and the titular Cat Women of the Moon.

Edited: It’s now available, for at least the  next week, on Listen Again.

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.

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

[previously]

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.

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