Lavinia, Part 2: Audience

Lavinia is one of the most recent installations in a long history of what is, in effect, Aeneid-related fan fiction. It was a particularly popular topic for authors in the seventeenth and eighteen century, when the well-educated were quite likely to have read it in Latin as part of their education. The ancient Latin work spawned a slew of elaborators and continuations, best know of which is Purcell’s opera, written about Dido and Aeneas.

Indeed, one of my own extremely rare forays into fan art was when a friend at university asked me to draw a series of small images of Aeneas and his escape from Troy. The images were quite tiny and in watercolour pencil, so barely more than stick figures at that scale. Further, I hadn’t read the Aeneid yet, so relied entirely on my friend’s description of each of eight or nine scenes. That’s how I first met Ascanius and Aeneas and their household Lares, the house gods they saved from Troy, and which find their home, ultimately, with Lavinia in Le Guin’s novel. In Lavinia, Aeneas’ first point of personal commitment to the title character is in entrusting her with their care; and one of the few moments proposed as potentially-supernatural intervention occurs when the Lares move themselves back to her custody.

I’m sure other Aeneid-related works are still being produced, if not so many as in their heyday. Certainly Troy-related works have been going strong lately, if more focused on the Trojan War itself than its aftermath. Equally certain is how well known the stories of Troy are, from their related epics to the ongoing archeological investigations into the history of a city long-since defunct. It’s as inspiring as Atlantis.* Just the other day in Paris, I saw a Trojan dog in the window of some upscale mass-market clothing store, big enough for at least three people.

So the stories generally are known. But how well is the Aeneid in particular known these days among those who haven’t studied Latin? I wonder, not in terms of judging whatever count as “reading the classics”, but in term of who the target audience for Lavinia might be. And does knowing the source material even matter?

My copy of the book is printed in a nice, clear, big font, which leaves me wondering if it was marketed – as many of Le Guin’s books have been – as that relatively-recent classification, Young Adult fiction. The story does deal with a young woman coming of age. How accessible would this book be to someone with no background in Aeneid, whether or not they were a teenager? The story itself provides a summary, in effect, of the last three books of the Aeneid, plus quite a big of its contextual background, but equally the book is written in conscious dialogue with the poem and its poet, who himself appears as an influential character in the book. Lavinia herself tells the reader that her very existence is contingent on his having told of her having been.

Le Guin’s books often deal with historically-rich civilizations, burdened from and benefitting from their layers of past. Might that mean her books would intrinsically appeal to readers with a greater historical consciousness and interest? Or perhaps it is largely through partially-derivative works like this that audiences are most familiar with the Aeneid these days, if at all?

I first read Lavinia specifically because it had been nominated for the BSFA Award for best novel of 2009. Le Guin is, of course, one of the most important authors of science fiction and fantasy; but is this book even targeted at readers of those genres? (I’ll consider the degree to which it even is science fiction in my next post.)

It’s a Le Guin book, and a good and well-reviewed book, so of course it sold at least moderately well. It’s been published at least in the US, the UK, and Japan, and had both hardback and paperback editions; but who is the book’s audience?

* I was recently looking through a brochure of things to do while in Dubai. It includes a theme park devoted to how the residents of Atlantis might have lived.

John Martin: Apocalypse – Reviewed by Andrew M Butler

This review will appear in Vector 269. I encourage you, if you’re able, to go see the show before it closes in mid-January!

John Martin: Apocalypse

Tate Britain 21 September 2011  –  15 January 2012

Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler

The Deluge, engraving by William Miller after the painting by John Martin

There is a moment in a mid-1820s etching by John Martin when Biblical narrative collides with archaeology, and with market economics — in The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Paradise the couple are running out of the Garden of Eden through a rocky landscape, a tongue of lightning in the background. Down to their right is some sort of prehistoric creature, almost certainly depicted with the latest theories of what dinosaurs would have looked like, at a time when such palaeontology was in its infancy — the word dinosaur being coined by Richard Owen in 1842. In Martin’s earlier oil painting of the same title, dated about 1813, the image is broadly similar, but lacks the creature. The addition would help him sell the print. This was no one-off — he illustrated for Gideon Mantell’s The Wonders of Geology (1838), in the form of The Country of the Iguanodon, and Thomas Hawkins’s The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons (1840) [PDF], as well producing other images of antediluvian fauna. Such depictions suggest that Martin is one of the first science-fiction artists, and his paintings of Biblical, historical and mythological scenes, often featuring disasters and tumultuous landscapes, reinforce this sense. His uneasy status as a provincial outsider having to earn a living from a metropolitan élite also anticipates the struggles for mainstream respect of genre writers.

Martin was born in 1789 in Haydon Bridge, Hexham, Northumbria, the youngest of four sons. Apprenticed to a coachmaker, he intended to learn heraldic painting, but after a dispute about terms his indenture was cancelled and instead he went to work with Italian artist Boniface Musso. Musso had already given him lessons in drawing and oil techniques in Newcastle; now Martin learnt to paint plates and glass as part of a commercial operation. In 1806, he moved to London, where he supplemented his income by producing watercolours and, in time, became a professional artist. The key place to be exhibited was the annual Royal Academy of Arts summer show, then held at Somerset House, although his first painting was rejected in 1810. The same painting, retitled, hung the following year; the breakthrough came when a member of the board of governors of the Bank of England, William Manning MP, offered fifty guineas to buy Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812). This painting had been inspired by James Ridley’s Oriental fantasy Tales of the Genii (1764), where the hero Sadak crawls across a mountainous landscape toward amnesia-causing waters. Further large canvases followed over the next forty years, with Martin in search of wealthy and influential patrons. But Martin also found popular acclaim, with the Biblical painting Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (1816), and was to both show his work in London exhibitions and to tour them around the world — it is thought that two million people saw his Day of Judgement triptych (1849-53) in the UK, the USA and Australia.

Martin’s paintings typically invoked a sense of the sublime. Longinus, writing about rhetoric in the first century, argued that “the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy”, whereas the eighteenth-century Edmund Burke argued that “delightful horror […] is the truest test of the sublime”. In Martin’s case, the feeling is invoked by vast landscapes containing tiny figures in the fore- to midground to give a sense of scale — and his canvases tend to be portrait in orientation, allowing for the composition to tower above the viewer. The terrain is often bowl-shaped, with cliffs and trees taking up the left and right sides of the frame, and then, further back, rivers, lakes, seas and classical cities in the haze of the background. Sometimes the sky forms an answering semicircle, perhaps with clouds of fire, and in some canvases the patina of the painting is cracked in concentric circles. Frequently, the sky is scarred with lightning, scratches across the canvas. In The Deluge (1826), the sea curves around the bottom of the canvas, sweeping the boat clockwise, with storm clouds completing a circuit around the top of the composition, an oval of fairer weather and a glimpse of cities in the distance between them.

The Deluge is one of several paintings Martin made of the Biblical flood, alongside The Eve of the Deluge (1840) and The Assuaging of the Waters (1840); the painting of The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Paradise, alongside The Garden of Eden (1821), The Fall of Babylon (1819), Belshazzer’s Feast (1820), Adam and Eve Entertaining the Angel Raphael (1823) and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), suggests an Old Testament theme running through his work, especially the sense of a powerful, destructive, vengeful God. The success of Belshazzer’s Feast, which was reproduced in several versions, clearly suggested that there was a market for such apocalyptic thrills, in a Britain which in the process of being changed forever by the industrial revolution and a network of railways threading its way between mines and factories and ports, and between London and the provinces. The aristocracy and the upper middle classes could go on Grand Tours across Europe, to the Matterhorn, the Alps, Venice, Sicily and beyond, but Martin had been on no such journey and locates such landscapes within England. It is tempting to see the valley of the Tyne with Newcastle perched above it as one inspiration for his topography.

It was apparently a journey through the industrialised Black Country which pointed him to the New Testament subject of The Great Day of His Wrath, a book of Revelation style destruction of Babylon in which volcanic powers rip open a landscape, and vast boulders — on which ruined cities can be glimpsed — are thrown through the air. A second painting, The Last Judgement (1849-53), has a landscape riven in two, beneath Christ and the Angels sitting in court at the top of the picture against a more heavenly sky. On the left of the canvas are the saved, including a range of politicians, poets and artists from antiquity to the present day, on the right, across a chasm filling with corpses, are the damned. Before the painting was damaged, there was a train being driven towards the abyss. The trilogy is completed by The Plains of Heaven (1851-3), a gentler pastoral of the era after the Second Coming, the green of grass and trees surrounding a rich azure of sky and sea. But Martin also looked to Pompeii and Herculaneum for his subjects, and its destruction by volcano (1822, 1822-6), and a classical story of Marcus Curtius being swallowed up by a chasm in a city street.

From the 1820s onwards he was developing plans for canals across London to provide a water supply for London and Westminster, for a sewage system to improve London’s hygiene (and to provide fertiliser for farms) and for a network of railways circling central London and along the banks of the Thames. In this work he anticipated Joseph Bazalgette’s improvements to the London drains and the Embankment and the piecemeal engineering of the London Underground network and overground lines, then in its infancy. Funds were never quite available to translate Martin’s plans into practice. He was also friends with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and other scientists such as Georges Cuvier, a French palaeontologist. In the painting Arthur and Aegle in the Happy Valley (1841), inspired by a Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton poem, Martin insists that the background constellations are accurate in astronomical terms, even if the topic was fictional. He drew on the latest science and engineering.

Martin also knew Charles Barry, who won the competition to design the neo-gothic yet classical new Houses of Parliament, and it is likely this architecture also fed into his work. One could scale his painting of Balshazzer’s Feast to discover how many miles long his palace interior was — or so Martin argued — and contemporary archaeology was another source of inspiration and publicity. Pamphlets and handbills listed details of the people painted in crowd scenes and drew attention to details. All of this contributes to the showmanship which Martin clearly possessed in spades — but also, perhaps, to the sense of insecurity from being an outsider, a working-class artist with little training. Conspicuous testimony to his sense of pride is a piece of furniture, shown in Apocalypse: a bureau with drawers labelled for Martin’s various projects and honours. At the 1851 Great Exhibition, he presented himself as an engineer rather than as an artist.

Salespitches remained necessary, as the art market ebbed and flowed in the era of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, the former artist stopping at nothing to gain advantage and positioning in the Royal Academy summer exhibitions. Whilst it was possible to sell similar paintings in several sizes, this undercut their exclusiveness, so Martin made a virtue of copying through the comparatively mass medium of the mezzotint. But the mezzotints enabled Martin to revise his earlier compositions — hence the appearance of a prehistoric creature alongside Adam and Eve. Martin employed other engravers to make plates of his images, although he was not always happy with their work and would sometimes reject it. Other times he would do his own engraving, and for a period set up a state of the art press in his own home where he supervised the production of mezzotints by professional printers.

One series of mezzotints were commissioned in 1824 by Septimus Prowett as illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), returning to Old Testament scenes, but also paving the way for scenes from Revelation and the New Testament in general. The most striking of these depict Satan, especially Satan in Council, whose composition seems to anticipate the council chamber in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (and Lucas apparently was inspired by Martin’s work; the empty landscape of Solitude (1843) is echoed in the climax of THX 1138 (1971) or the deserts of Tatooine). Martin went on to work on illustrations of the Bible, a less successful project than he had hoped, as was his attempt to sell direct to customers, bypassing the established English network of print emporia. Worse, he undercut himself by designing cheaper plates to be printed by Edward Churton. Nevertheless Martin still made more money from his mezzotints than his paintings — Michael Campbell, a Martin collector and scholar, suggests up to £25,000 — although the market declined through the 1830s.

Perhaps such mentions of money are vulgar — but I see in Martin a kindred spirit of today’s science-fiction writers. He might not have quite been competing for the reader’s beer money, but he knew how to exploit a successful image in more than one format, and he knew how to bring showmanship to his exhibitions. In the lack of official recognition from membership of the Royal Academy nor was he knighted — although the Belgians honoured him — we might also think of the anxieties over the injustices of the Booker Prize or snootiness about the Granta Best of Young Novelists lists. But mostly it is in his fusion of science and art, his use of the sublime, and his creation of apocalyptic imagery that never quite feels reducible to allegory or political parable. (His painting The Last Man (1833) is inspired by an 1823 Thomas Campbell poem rather than Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, but his accommodation of Jane Loudon as a house guest might put him somewhere in the genesis of The Mummy! Or A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827).)

His work remains sublimely astounding. If you want to see the inspiration for a hundred ends of the world, or be inspired yourself, immerse yourself in Martin’s art, which is, in the words of curator Martin Myrone, “suspended or caught between mass production and the unique, the popular and the rarefied, the industrialised and the artistic, the sensationalist and the scholastic.” And that, after all, is the place where we often find sf.

Reading List

Adams, Max (2010) The Prometheans: John Martin and the Generation That Stole the Future, London: Quercus.

Aristotle/Horace/Longinus (1965) Classical Literary Criticism, trans. T.S. Dorsch, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Burke, Edmund (2008) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Feaver, William (1975) The Art of John Martin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Martin, John (2011) Sketches of My Life, ed. Martin Myrone, London: Tate.

Myrone, Martin (ed.) (2011) John Martin: Apocalypse, London: Tate.

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.

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?”

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: 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.


July: City of Pearl

I exaggerated a little about 2003. It is pretty astonishing that three books out of the 11 best science fiction by women from the last decade were published then, but it was part of a larger lumping in the decade. Two more of the novels on the list came out in 2004, adding to my mild suspicions about how we mentally process novels, and how long it takes to pass judgement on a book’s staying power while still remembering that one has read it. It would be interesting to do similar surveys every five years and see how they evolve.

In any event, this month on Torque Control, we will be looking at Karen Traviss‘s novel, City of Pearl. Given how prolific Traviss has been since, it’s worth remembering that City of Pearl was her very first published novel, one of two which came out in 2004.  Also note that it has not been published in the UK, although used copies are certainly available here. Her Wess’har War series, which it begins, would have five more volumes by 2008.

Traviss will be at ComiCon in San Diego later this month. She was also part of a three-way interview on Women’s Hour of BBC4 in June, which Niall transcribed here.

And speaking of Niall, he’s the one who will be leading discussion of City of Pearl later in July. I hope you will be able to join us in reading and discussing it.