Oct 30

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Toward the end of his second decade in the airport, Clark was thinking about how lucky he’d been. Not just the mere fact of survival, which was of course remarkable in and of itself, but to have seen one world end and another begin. And not just to have seen the remembered splendors of the former world, the space shuttles and the electrical grid and the amplified guitars, the computers that could be held in the palm of a hand and the high-speed trains between cities, but to have lived among those wonders for so long. To have dwelt in that spectacular world for fifty-one years of his life. Sometimes he lay awake in Concourse B of the Severn City Airport and thought, “I was there,” and the thought pierced him through with an admixture of sadness and exhilaration.

If there ever needed to be a post apocalyptic antidote to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Station Eleven is certainly that book.  Beginning with the death of Arthur Leander, who collapses on stage during a performance of King Lear, Emily St John Mandel’s National Book Award nominated novel injects a degree of hope into the end of the world scenario.  Leander’s death presages the coming of the Georgia Flu, a virus that kills most of humanity. But if there’s one clear message in the book it’s that just because civilisation as we know it is over doesn’t mean we can’t salvage something worthwhile from the wreckage.

The book focuses on four characters whose lives were influenced by Arthur Leander.  There’s Jeevan the once paparazzo training to be a paramedic who tries to save Arthur’s life; there’s Kirsten the child actor who befriends Leander in his last days, there’s Clark the best friend who in recent times has drifted apart from Arthur and there’s Miranda the first ex-wife whose self published comic book, Station Eleven, miraculously survives the end of the world.

One of the neat structural elements of the novel is the way it jumps backwards and forwards in time, detailing the subsequent days and weeks following the virus’ arrival in the States and exploring what happened to society twenty years later.  At the story level, the non-linear approach gives the book a jigsaw puzzle effect which Mandel takes full advantage of.  Part of the joy of the novel is watching how she draws an intricate web that connects each character to Arthur but also directly and indirectly to each other.

These time jumps also allow Mandel to view Arthur, Kirsten, Jeevan, Clark and Miranda from different perspectives.  For example, we briefly meet Kirsten when she’s eight years old performing, like Arthur, in a production of King Lear.  At different stages of the novel we flashback to that eight year old girl, coddled and privileged and innocent, befriending the older actor. But the bulk of Kirsten’s story is set twenty years in the future where she is part of the Travelling Symphony, a ragtag group of twenty actors and musicians who provide entertainment – mostly Shakespeare – to the communities that have survived post the virus.  It’s here that we see how her brief contact with Arthur, and the Station Eleven comic he gave her, influenced the person she’s become.  It’s Kirsten who has spray painted on the lead wagon the statement that “Survival is Insufficient”. (Believe it or not it’s a quote from Seven of Nine said in an episode of Star Trek Voyager – Survival Instinct).  It’s a message that’s in direct dialogue with a book like The Road where survival is all the unnamed protagonist and his son can look forward to.  For Kirsten and her friends it’s critical that entertainment – whether it’s Shakespeare or classical music – endures into the future.

Kirsten and the Travelling Symphony’s wish to continue the traditions of the past is also a key element of Clark’s part of the narrative. Through sheer luck and a soupcon of coincidence he, and 137 others, including Arthur’s second ex-wife and son, don’t contract the virus while flying to New York.  Due to the emergency they land in Severn City, and once it’s clear no-one is coming to save them, decide to make the abandoned airport their home.  As the year progresses and the community in Severn City airport flourishes, Clark begins to collect items of the past – iPhones, money, credit cards, engines from cars and motorbikes – and forms a museum of sorts. It acts as a learning tool for those children born after the virus, children who struggle to understand that the once parked up planes on the tarmac used to travel in the sky.  It’s through Clark that we get a series of poignant observations about the transition from the old world to the new such as the one that tops this review and the following:

Clark looks up at the evening activity on the tarmac, at the planes that have been grounded for twenty years, the reflection of his candle flickering in the glass. He has no expectation of seeing an airplane rise again in his lifetime, but is it possible that somewhere there are ships setting out? If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain? Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side? If nothing else, it’s pleasant to consider the possibility. He likes the thought of ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.

Again, there’s that sense of hope, the sense that while so much has been lost, the transition to a new world and new way of life doesn’t mean we have to give up on everything that was good and worthwhile about the past..

Transition is also key to Jeevan’s story.  His life and future career was already in the midst of change when the Georgia Flu hit.  Jeevan had been a paparazzo, once making a bundle when he took a snap of a vulnerable Miranda, Arthur’s first wife, late one night outside their house.  But he comes to hate his job and trains to be a paramedic.  This one decision saves his life.  In the post Georgia Flu world he becomes the closet thing his community has to a Doctor. In a world where billions have died, Jeevan finally discovers meaning in his life, discovers among the tragedy a sense of self-worth.

And finally there’s Miranda, Arthur’s first wife.  In some respects her role in the novel is more influential, more important than Arthur’s because it’s Miranda who draws and self publishes Station Eleven, the comic that will capture Kirsten’s imagination and will somehow survive the flu.  The comic also tells a story of survival – Earth has been enslaved by aliens – as Doctor Eleven and a group of rebels take a space station (Station Eleven) and steer it through a wormhole.

Unlike Clark, Jeevan and Kirsten, Miranda is the one character who succumbs to the Georgia Flu.  In a scene that’s both heartbreaking but written with nuance and skill, Miranda spends her final minutes on a Malaysian beach looking at out sea:

Miranda opened her eyes in time to see the sunrise. A wash of violent color, pink and streaks of brilliant orange, the container ships on the horizon suspended between the blaze of the sky and the water aflame, the seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven, its extravagant sunsets and its indigo sea. The lights of the fleet fading into morning, the ocean burning into sky.

It’s fitting that her last thoughts are of Station Eleven.  It’s ultimately her legacy and while her name is forgotten her work continues to influence.

If the novel has a weakness it’s those post Georgia Flu sections dealing with a crazy religious cult headed by a young man who calls himself The Prophet. While there’s a nice wrinkle to the prophet’s identity, it’s a shame that Mandel felt the book needed a villain to keep the narrative flowing.

That quibble aside, Station Eleven is a magnificent piece of post apocalyptic writing.  As a response to The Road it argues that the end of the world shouldn’t mean the end of love and art and a sense of self-worth.  These things can and should endure.  It’s also one of the best genre novels I’ve read this year with an understanding of the genre that’s reinforced by the book’s many and self-aware (but never annoying) pop culture references.  It’s a shame then that, aside from Larry Nolen, this book has garnered little interest from genre reviewers.  It deserves the sort of buzz that was generated by Ancillary Justice.

Oct 24

Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Since its publication, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See has, for the most part, received adulation and praise from readers and critics.  The novel has been described as textured, intricate, mythic and haunting with Amanda Vaill of the Washington Post describing the book as “enthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears.”  This adoration has further been reinforced with the novel’s appearance on the shortlist for the National Book Award.

While I agree that the writing is gorgeous, and appreciate the book’s almost fairytale quality, unlike most of the critics I never completely engaged with the novel.  Or more accurately, I was engaged with the first half of the book but gradually found my interest waning.

Before I can explain why, I need to provide some context.  All The Light We Cannot See is set during World War 2 and alternates between Marie Laure, a blind girl who escapes Paris with her father during the Nazi invasion and Werner Jutta, a German orphan whose expertise with all things electronic catches the eye of a member of the Nazi party.  The book skips around in time, starting in 1944 just as Saint Malo is about to bombed by allied forces and then drifting back to the mid 30s and the childhood of Marie and Werner.

Also introduced in these early sections is the Sea of Flame, a precious diamond worth “five Eiffel Towers” that may also be cursed.  As the Germans advance on Paris, the Museum holding the Sea of Flame manufactures three facsimiles of the precious jewel.  These copies and the real diamond are then sent from Paris.  One of the couriers is Marie’s father and it comes as no surprise to the reader which version of the diamond he is protecting.  The subsequent search for the Sea of Flame by Nazi treasure hunter Von Rumpel, tasked to collect and value the jewels of Europe, drives the plot of the novel.  But really, at its heart, The Light We Cannot See is a story about abbreviated childhoods and how love and beauty and a sense of wonder can shine a light on the darkest moments.

And for the first half of the novel, the character work and the plot is matched perfectly with the lyrical writing. This is especially the case as Marie and Werner discover the world around them. For Marie it’s coming to terms with her blindness:

Her hands move ceaselessly, gathering, probing, testing. The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle. The pollen at the tips of tulip anthers is not so much powder as it is tiny balls of oil. To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.

For Werner it’s falling in love with science and radio:

The Frenchman’s voice is velvet. His accent is very different from Frau Elena’s, and yet his voice is so ardent, so hypnotizing, that Werner finds he can understand every word. The Frenchman talks about optical illusions, electromagnetism; there’s a pause and a peal of static, as though a record is being flipped, and then he enthuses about coal. [...]  Time slows.  The attic disappears.  Jutta disappears.  Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?

However, as the novel progressed my cynicism and prejudice started to kick in.  This can partly be attributed to Von Rumpel’s search for the Sea of Flames.  With Marie’s father imprisoned by the Nazi’s she’s becomes the caretaker of the diamond.  Because we know she has the real McCoy it’s inevitable that Von Rumpel and her path will cross.  By the time Von Rumpel arrives in Saint Malo in 1944, the place is about to be bombed and he has gone from a suave Christoph Waltz-type to an over the top villain who believes the diamond can cure his cancer.  It all gets a bit predictable and by the numbers as crazy Von Rumpel hunts for Marie in her Great Uncle’s large house.  And with Werner somewhere in the background, it ends exactly as expected.

But predictability aside, my biggest problem with the novel can be leveled at Werner’s story.  After he catches the eye of the Nazi party member, Werner is sent to the National Political Institutes of Education, a boarding school where young boys are taught to be good Nazis.  He befriends a boy named Frederick whose slight frame and odd love of birds makes him an outlier among the other boys.  (It’s implied that Frederick only got in the school because his father is high up in the Nazi party).  Werner tries to protect Frederick, but the inevitable happens and Frederick is bashed senseless and forced to return home with a brain injury.  Soon after Werner – who is still only 16 – is sent to the front lines so he can use his expertise in radio to triangulate the broadcasts of partisans.

At no point throughout the events described does Werner grow beyond that boy fascinated with radio and science.  Oh he has doubts and concerns, the treatment of Frederick bothers him, but it doesn’t seem to change him.  He neither rebels against the system or becomes a fully fledged Nazi.  He just is.  A young man who understands radio and broadcast wavelengths.

I wanted Werner to get dirt under his fingernails.  I wanted him to either run off and be a partisan or swallow Nazi propaganda whole.  But it’s clear that this is not the story Doerr is interested in telling.  In an excellent interview with Jill Owen’s from Powell’s Books, Doerr states,

I wanted the reader to get to the point where he or she is actually cheering for Werner’s first find in Russia when they track down that resistance transmission and Volkheimer goes ahead and kills those people. I wanted that to be a very morally complicated moment for the reader when they’re saying, I want Werner to succeed here, but I understand what that success entails, which is murder.

The fact that Doerr expects us to be cheering for Werner leads me to believe that for him Werner never grows up, he’s always the boy who discovers radio for the first time who we cheer as proud parents when he achieves something special.

But my prejudice tells me that Werner, for all his good intentions and the fact that he had very little choice in the matter, is still a Nazi who aided and abetted in the killing of partisans and civilians.  And so for me the situation is not morally complicated.  I stopped feeling any sympathy for Werner once he became a Nazi.

I’m not arguing that Werner should be transformed into a foaming at the mouth villain who constantly goes on about racial purity.  We have Von Rumpel for that.  I’m arguing that given what he sees and what he does, we need to do more than cheer for Werner as his character progresses through the novel.  If anything we should feel a sense of tragedy that an innocent life has been twisted toward such evil.  But for the meeting between Marie and Werner to have any impact we still have to love them equally, we still have to be cheering them on.  And so Werner is stuck in amber, a boy who just wanted to understand science and play with radio.  A boy who seems magically protected from the vileness of Nazi propaganda.

Yes, I grant that I seem to be asking for a different book than what was intended.  And it’s hard to blame the author for following his vision and not mine.  And yet I can’t get that sour taste out of my mouth, the feeling that for all its gorgeous prose and thematic richness, All The Light We Cannot See is a contrived novel where at least one of the characters has been stuck on pause to provide for a particular effect.

Oct 21

Book Review: Life On The Preservation by Jack Skillingstead

While it may not have been a box office success, the praise afforded to Edge of Tomorrow indicates that there’s still mileage in the Groundhog Day concept. This shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a SFnal idea that’s ripe with dramatic and comedic potential. The liberty bestowed to someone who is self aware and stuck in a time loop – you can do anything to anyone (including yourself) and get away with it – is also the loop’s curse – without consequences to our actions life quickly stops having meaning.

Jack Skillingstead is aware of all this, both the story potential and the fact that the concept is not, yet, tapped out. Life on The Preservation, based on Skillingstead’s 2006 short story of the same name, is set in Seattle on a single day in 2012 that keeps repeating. Ian, a twenty something graffiti artist who is still coping with the suicide of his mother when he was a young boy, is made aware of the time loop by his gamer friend Zach.

But that’s only part of the story. Unwilling to cover similar ground to other writers who’ve played in the Groundhog Day sandpit, Skillingstead decides to throw an alien invasion, post-humanism, post apocalyptic Earth and time travel (beyond just the loop) into the mix.

A couple of these science fiction tropes are picked up in the story-line that, for the first half of the novel, runs alongside Ian’s plight in Seattle.  We’re told the story of Kylie and her struggle to survive in a post apocalyptic Earth where most of the population is either dead or dying from a plague. Kylie happens to be the one healthy person in town, which angers the local lunatic, Father Jim.  He decides that the only way to deal with Kylie and her health is to circumcise her.  After escaping Father Jim’s clutches, Kylie and her sick boyfriend decide to make their toward the strange dome covering Seattle.

Of the two story-lines, Ian’s section is the more intriguing mostly because of the Groundhog Day phenomena and partly because of hints of an alien presence that might be manipulating events.

The sections involving Kylie are not as gripping. This isn’t the fault of Kylie who I found to be the strongest character in the novel, but rather the post apocalyptic setting which is really no different than any other post apocalyptic setting I’ve encountered. It’s not helped by Father Jim, the mustache twirling villain of the piece who is quite happy to employ sexual violence (he’d previously raped Kylie before the apocalypse) just to show us how bad he is. It’s all a bit tasteless and generic and if not for Kylie’s unwillingness to relent, or for that matter the sections dealing with Ian and Seattle, I’m not sure I could have continued with the book.

Things do rocket along though and in Part Two of the novel Kylie and Ian meet. A love story ensues, which while predictable makes sense within the context of the novel. Sadly for Ian, and the novel, Kylie vanishes seemingly taking the plot with her. The book stalls for the second half of Part Two as the Groundhog Day element again comes to the foreground and Ian and his friends (including his sister) go back to treading the same old ground – is this all real? Will I remember what happened during the previous time loop?

Fortunately things pick up again in Part Three. I won’t explain how why, but the actual climax is more then satisfying. Even the re-emergence of Father Jim isn’t as annoying as I thought it might be.

Overall, while Life on The Preservation could have lost its flabby middle and done without Father Jim and his penchant for female circumcision, the mash-up of SFnal ideas and some decent character work makes for an entertaining read. I’m interested to see what Skillingstead does next.

Oct 16

Book Review: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Over the last three months I’ve fallen in love with a comic published by Image called, ALEX + ADA. Written by Jonathan Luna, with gorgeous art by Sarah Vaughn, ALEX + ADA tells the story of Alex who, against his wishes, is gifted by his grandmother a X5 android. Ada is programmed to follow the commands of her owner, which can range from cooking dinner to offering more intimate services. It transpires that like an iPhone, Ada can be jail-broken. But rather than provide free apps, a hacked android gains sentience.

I mention ALEX + ADA because it’s important to know that it’s possible to write thoughtful fiction about android / human relations and self awareness. I had to keep reminding myself of this while reading The Mad Scientist’s Daughter.

The novel is set on a post-Disaster (with a capital ‘D’) Earth where androids and robots have been built to “replace all those lost people” and reconstruct the cities that were destroyed. Cat’s father, the mad scientist of the title, one day brings home an android named Finn to home-school five year old Cat. Over the course of the novel Cat and Finn’s relationship develops from teacher, to older brother, to best friend, to, eventually, lover.

As a love story with science fiction trappings, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter fails miserably on both counts. In the case of the science, the world building has the feeling of something that’s been sketched on the back of a napkin. The Disaster, for example, while never adequately explained, seems to be ecological in nature. Kansas has become a dust bowl and the weather patterns are completely out of whack; spring turns into winter ice overnight. But there’s no sense of the lasting effects of the Disaster. Millions might have died but a couple of generations after this terrible event and everything seems fine. The economy is strong enough to (a) allow for the continued mass production of androids and (b) pay for the maintenance of a lunar base on the moon and a manned mission to Mars. And there seems to be no indication that food production has suffered. If rationing is happening, it’s not experienced by the characters in this novel.

In fact, other than a couple of minor advancements in technology and, of course, artificial intelligence, the Mad Scientist’s Daughter might as well be set in 2014.

But Ian, I hear you say, this novel isn’t meant to be about the world-building, it’s about Cat’s relationship with Finn. And I’d be willing to accept all that if the love story element of the novel worked in its own right. But it doesn’t and most of the problem here can be laid at Cat’s fictional feet.

I don’t believe Clarke intended to write Cat as an unlikeable character. I believe we’re meant to see her as a flawed, but sympathetic person, who struggles to make friends due to her upbringing. However what we get is someone so self absorbed, so caught up in her desire and love for Finn, that she couldn’t care less about anyone else in her life. Conversation, whether it’s with friends or with her parents, seem to always track back to Finn. Even her one interest, weaving yarn the old fashioned way, is linked back to her android boyfriend.

The cliche is that true love can be all consuming. In the case of Cat it literally sucks the life out of her. Following her marriage to Richard she becomes so passive, so inward looking, that to move the plot along Clarke turns Richard – a thumbnail sketch of a character – into an abusive partner. It’s cynical, tasteless written, engineered for the sole purpose of freeing Cat from Richard.

The thing is, it’s not like Cat’s anymore likeable when she’s with Finn. And again this comes back to the issue of world building. I appreciate that due to the aloofness of her parents and Cat’s own struggle to make friends, she turns to Finn, initially for companionship and then intimacy. But what’s not clear, because the novel never bothers to make it clear, is how self aware these androids are. We know that Finn is a special case, he doesn’t have a registration number on his back like other androids, but I never got the sense that Finn had a mind of his own, that he had interests that existed outside the desires of both Cat and her father.

And because it’s not clear whether Finn is aware, it’s also not clear whether he’s providing consent when he has sex with Cat, or whether he’s simply falling in line with his programming. When they first make love, the scene is expressly all about Cat and her feelings:

She felt something: not grief, not mourning, but desire, and it twisted up inside her like a flame until that was all she was, a pillar of lust… When he finally slipped inside her Cat cried out at the unexpected intensity of it: how long had she wanted this, without realizing it? How long had she wanted to feel him pressed against her? To understand the shape of his body? She buried her face in his shoulder and whispered, Oh God.

Finn’s response is to ask, “Was that acceptable?” In other words, no indication that sex was anything more than just a mechanical act performed because he was asked to do so. So, as a reader, it’s very hard to cheer on their relationship because from a power dynamic it seems so one-sided.

Rather than explore the power dynamics further, Clarke takes the easy way out by having Cat’s father bestow Finn with software that not only unlocks his emotions but also his love for Cat. Or to put it more melodramatically – Finn always loved Cat he just never had the ability to express it.

Finn discovers that love comes with a side order of jealousy when the woman you adore is about to be married to another guy. So he decides to flounce off to the lunar colony so he never has to deal with Cat again. See, androids can be passive aggressive as well.

Finn’s departure takes an already self absorbed character and adds more angst. Throw in an obsessive search for Finn’s origins, an abusive husband, a pregnancy, a dying father and the ‘surprise’ re-appearance of Finn and the last third of the novel becomes an unreadable mess of predictable melodrama and manufactured emotion.

The thing is, as ALEX + ADA proves, you can have a nuanced story about android / human relations without having to forgo the world building, questions of self awareness and power dynamics. But it feels like that Cassandra Rose Clarke hasn’t bothered to try.

P.S. Matt Hilliard provides a far more balanced critique of the novel here at Strange Horizons

Oct 16

National Book Awards Finalists for Fiction

The National Book Award finalists have been announced. They are:

  • Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press/ Grove/Atlantic)
  • Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner/ Simon & Schuster)
  • Phil Klay, Redeployment (The Penguin Press/ Penguin Group (USA))
  • Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)
  • Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I intend to read the four novels and a short story collection over the next two weeks. Other than the Doerr, they’re all less than 100,000 words so I should be able to fit them in. Expect reviews over the coming days.

Oct 15

And the Winner of the Man Booker Prize is…

… Australia’s very own Richard Flanagan with his brilliant, ambitious novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North.

In my roundup of the Booker novels I thought Flanagan would take home the cold hard cash. The fact that I was right not only boosts my already large ego but fills with nationalistic glee.

Seriously, it’s a wonderful book and while not my personal favourite (thank you Karen Joy Fowler) it’s well worth the read. It’s also half the length of last years winner (also an ambitious and worthy winner) The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton.

Oct 13

Review: Mummy On the Orient Express





Marvellous. Absolutely and utterly marvellous. A wonderful cast, a witty script, a plot that – aside from some science hand wavium – actually holds together without the need to squint, stick your fingers in your ears or call the story an allegory.

While I’ve really enjoyed a number of stories this year, I think this is the first episode where all the threads and themes of previous stories come together. We have the callous cold Doctor who also gets to play the hero. We have an episode that’s a near perfect mix of fun… it’s the Orient Express IN SPACE!… and horror… the mummy deaths are tense and gut wrenching without a drop of gore and the shot of the kitchen staff floating in space is so very sad. And we have a story that moves both the story arc – was Missy behind it all? – and the character arc – Clara finally comes to terms with this Doctor.

About thirty five minutes in I started to have my doubts as to whether Jamie Mathieson was going to land the dismount. And when the Doctor did the heroic, but predictable thing, of becoming the weakest in the crew by somehow taking on Maisie’s guilt my doubts grew. But the revelation that the Mummy was a soldier who could only stop killing once the enemy surrendered was just brilliant. Not only did he land the dismount but Mathieson did that rare thing of provide an explanation and ending that was actually unexpected.

If only the episode had ended there. If there’s one weak point to Mummy On The Orient Express it’s the final scene between Clara and the Doctor. Unlike the fantastic intensity of last week’s final moments, this discussion between the two stretched credulity. Clara goes from doubting the Doctor to blaming those doubts on Danny to deciding that now that Danny is OK with them travelling together there’s no need for them to stop.

I understand that the intent of the scene is to show that Clara is addicted to the adrenalin rush of travelling in the TARDIS. Her near whiplash change of mind is symptomatic of that addiction. It’s just it’s so abrupt and sudden it feels less like an issue with addiction and more like Moffat deciding to abruptly end this character arc. Having said that, if Facebook is anything to go by my thoughts on this scene are in the minority.

At the end of the day, whether that final scene works or not doesn’t effect the genius of the episode as a whole. In a season that’s definitely shaping up to be the best in New Who’s 9 year history, Mummy on the Orient Express is a genuine contender for best episode of the year.

Oh and Peter Capaldi’s channeling of Tom Baker was magnificent.

Oct 11

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar nominated film Django Unchained where slave owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, cuts open the skull of a slave named Old Ben to prove, though phrenology, that people of colour are more submissive than the white man. Phrenology aside, the scene is problematic because the rest of the movie does very little to refute Candie’s claim. Yes, Django kicks arse, but the film goes at lengths to show that he’s exceptional, that aside from him the other slaves are exactly as submissive as poor Old Ben.

While James McBride’s National Book Award winning novel, The Good Lord Bird, isn’t specifically a response to Django Unchained (for one they came out around the same time), it does provide a more nuanced approach to slavery than three dimples on the back of a coloured man’s skull.

Brown pre beard

The novel tells the story of Captain John Brown (Old Man Brown), the devout abolitionist who believed that armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the evils of slavery. Brown, a white man with twenty-two children, spent a number of years trying to form an army of white and coloured folk that would fight the good fight against slave owners and the Federal Government. A bit like Ned Kelly, opinion is divided as to whether Brown was a true American hero, an iconoclast who stood for liberty, freedom and God, or a total nutter, who murdered innocent civilians (not all of them slave owners) and whose actions ultimately led to the Civil War.  Either way, there’s a mythic quality to Brown that’s ripe for story-telling, something that McBride takes full advantage of.

Sporting scary beard

Brown’s worldview is filtered through the eyes of Henry Shackleford, a young coloured boy, whose first encounter with the freedom fighter leads to the death of Henry’s father. Feeling guilty that he might have been the cause of Henry’s father’s death (and he most certainly was), Brown does two things, he takes Henry with him and mistakes the young boy for a girl. This leads to the books magnificent opening line, “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.”

This gender confusion immediately gives the novel its comedic tone.  This is entirely intentional on the part of McBride.  As he noted in an interview with Edan Lepucki he was looking to counter the more serious books written about Brown with something that informed and also made people laugh.  And so, at least in the first half of the novel, much is made of Brown’s capacity to drop everything and pray at a moment’s notice, even if this means shouting Biblical passages to Federal soldiers as they’re shooting at him.  As Henry describes:

The Old Man’s prayers was more sight than sound, really, more sense than sensibility. Just when he seemed to wrap up one thought, another come tumbling out and crashed up against the first, and then another crashed up against that one, and after a while they all bumped and crashed and commingled against one another till you didn’t know who was who and why he was praying it, for the whole thing come together like the tornadoes that whipped across the plains, gathering up the sagebrush and boll weevils and homesteads and tossing them about like dust.

Also, as noted above, humour is generated from the fact that Henry is dressed as a girl for the bulk of the novel.  This results in all sorts of sit-com like hi-jinks and shenanigans as Henry alternatively finds older white man trying to bed him, while coloured men and woman attack him for acting like a “sissy”.  While some of these comedy moments are genuinely funny, Henry’s ability to hide his true nature from people like Brown and his family start to stretch credulity.

Fortunately, there’s more to the novel then the comedy generated from Old Man Brown’s over the top prayers and Henry wearing a bonnet.  At it’s best, The Good Lord Bird explores the question of slavery and why someone like Captain Brown was able to attract so much attention and support and yet not achieve his aims – at least not in his lifetime.  In contrast to Calvin Candie’s simplistic take on the world, what McBride makes abundantly clear throughout the novel is that the black community was not a single monolith with a single voice.  Yes, fear and submission, as evidenced by slaves like Nigger Bob who want to be free but are too frightened to fight for it, does partly explain why there wasn’t a black uprising.  But as The Good Lord Bird illustrates there were those people of colour, like Frederick Douglass, who never submitted to slavery but eschewed a violent response in favour of showing white folk that a person of colour could match it with them intellectually.

And then there’s Sibonia, an old coloured woman cooped up like a chicken in a pen next to the whore house that Henry is staying at.  In one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, Sibonia and her cohorts and taken to be publicly hanged after it’s discovered that they planned to kill a Reverend.  Just before she’s executed, Sibonia explains to a wide eyed Reverend why she planned to kill him:

‘Reverend, it was you and your wife who taught me that God is no respecter of persons; it was you and your missus who taught me that in His eyes we are all equal. I was a slave. My husband was a slave. My children was slaves. But they was sold. Every one of them. And after the last child was sold, I said, ‘I will strike a blow for freedom.’ I had a plan, Reverend. But I failed. I was betrayed. But I tell you now, if I had succeeded, I would have slain you and your wife first, to show them that followed me that I could sacrifice my love, as I ordered them to sacrifice their hates, to have justice for them. I would have been miserable for the rest of my life. I could not kill any human creature and feel any less. But in my heart, God tells me I was right.

It’s Sibonia’s execution that lingers in Henry’s mind, and when the time comes for him to make his own choice – to run or to fight – he ultimately chooses to go back to Harpers Ferry and join Old Man Brown on his raid of the Federal armory.

The Good Lord Bird isn’t a perfect novel.  Laughing at a boy dressed as a girl isn’t exactly the height of comedy and also has a nasty connotations attached to it.  And yet, while it might provide a broad caricature of Old Man Brown and his mission it gives a nuanced understanding to the question of slavery, one that not only refutes Calvin Candie’s simplistic view on the world but also counters the idea that Django was exceptional, that he was the only person of colour who refused to submit.

Oct 09

So Who Is Going To Win The World Fantasy Award? (Best Novel)

The World Fantasy Award will be announced later this month at the coincidentally named World Fantasy convention. The Best Novel nominees for the award are:

  • Richard Bowes, Dust Devil on a Quiet Street (Lethe Press)
  • Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (Tor Books)
  • Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow/Headline)
  • Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press)
  • Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni (Harper/Blue Door)
  • Gene Wolfe, The Land Across (Tor Books)

Richard Bowes’ Dust Devil on a Quiet Street and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria are the two standout nominees. I reviewed Samatar‘s novel in September last year calling it “a masterclass in imagery, clarity and sense of place.” While it doesn’t necessarily do anything new with the fantasy genre – Olondria is a secondary world with the vaguest sense of magic and the supernatural – the way Samatar conjures up Olondria with gorgeous, poetic writing, gives the novel a distinct literary quality.  A World Fantasy award would be an appropriate accompaniment to both the British Fantasy and Crawford Awards.

My favourite novel on the ballot,though, is Richard Bowes’ Dust Devil on a Quiet Street.. Just like Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Kirstyn and I will be discussing Dust Devil on the next episode of the Writer and the Critic podcast. It’s a mosaic novel that knits together Bowes’ autobiographical short fiction about his life in New York. It also perfectly blurs that line between the mimetic with the fantastic. It’s personal and sad and nostalgic and precisely the sort of fantasy novel that forces the reader to re-evaluate what the genre is capable of.  While this is the book I’d like to see take home the bust of Octavia Butler H.P. Lovecraft I don’t think it will.

However, if I was a betting man, my money would be behind Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End of The Lane. This is no great piece of speculation on my part. It’s a book written by probably the most popular genre writer working in the field, George R R Martin aside, and also happens to be a good, and at times excellent, piece of writing. If The Ocean At The End of The Lane didn’t work for me it’s because I didn’t connect with the novel’s protagonist, something I expound on in my review of the novel. But my issues aside, I would be genuinely shocked if this book didn’t win.

A bit like Neil Gaiman’s protagonist, I found little to care about the final three books on the ballot. Actually, that’s a tad harsh. Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is, for example, a fun novel with two very sympathetic main characters. My problem was with Wecker’s Disneyfication of Jewish mysticism, which led me to conclude that the book was all gloss, no substance.

On the other hand, Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across is all substance and layers but ultimately I didn’t care about any of it. The novel, which is this crazy mix of Kafka, Orwell and Lynch, features a European country that has a strict legal code, a possible haunted house, freaky mannequins and a travel writer protagonist named Grafton who’s quite the douche bag. It’s also, according to this almost hysterical review by Mordicai Knode, a Transylvanian novel. I’ve no doubt that The Land Across reveals more of itself on re-reads. But at the end of the day, even if I was interested in unpacking all the purported layers the book holds, Grafton is such an unlikeable prick I’d rather not spend anymore time in his head.

Talk of unsympathetic protagonists neatly segways into the weakest book on the ballot, Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent. While I acknowledge that in a man’s world Lady Isabella Trent had to fight for every achievement and discovery this doesn’t change the fact that, like Grafton, she’s an awful person to spend time with. She comes from a place of privilege, not only brought up in an aristocratic family in her world’s analogue of the UK but also marrying into money.  And yes, as a woman she’s not meant to go on voyages to uncharted places to make world shattering discoveries. The fact that through will of personality alone she gets to fulfill her dreams is admirable. Unfortunately, in the case of this – the first book in her memoir – when she arrives in Vystrani, the destination of her first adventure, all she can do is complain about the weather and the superstitions of the locals. It’s snobby cultural imperialism and given that this is an old woman looking back at the adventures of her younger self, the lack of commentary regarding her elitist, imperialist opinions means that the less time I spend with Lady Isabella the better.

Added to that is the fact that the dominant religion in this UK analogue is something akin to Judaism, which is a cute idea but handled so poorly that I wished Brennan had gone the cliched route of making everyone a Christian. I wasn’t offended by the appropriation of my faith. I just don’t think it was done very well.

Overall, the WFA list for Best Novel provides us with mix messages.  On one hand it extols the virtue of literary fantasy and left of field works like the Samatar and the Bowes and on the other hand the list is made up of populist novels, two of which mishandle the execution (the Brennan and the Wecker).  If the list feels inconsistent, this might have something to do with how the ballot amalgamates choices from the judges and a popular vote.  I personally don’t like this hybrid approach because it leads to shortlists that are, to coin the cliche, six of one and half a dozen of the other.  Still, I can’t be too sour.  Greater exposure to books like A Stranger in Olondria and Dust Devil on a Quiet Street can only be a good thing for the genre.

Oct 05

Kill The Moon


This is an episode that lives or dies on whether you can accept the premise. That is, that the moon is in fact a fertilised egg for a dragon-like creature. You also need to accept the science (or lack thereof) that goes with that concept. For example, if the moon is in fact an egg for an alien species, then why wasn’t it always 1.3 billion tonnes heavier? I mean how did the embryo go from weighing nothing to weighing a shitload more in what appears – going from the story – to be a short space of time? And who, or what, fertilised this egg? We see the “baby” lay another moon at the conclusion of the story. Does this mean that the egg is self fertilised? Or is the male of the species going to come flying along some point to add his genetic material to the moon?

So, like I said, if you’re willing to let questions like those above fly – probably by sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming LALALALALALALA – then there’s plenty to like and love about Kill The Moon.

For one, the first twenty minutes is genuinely dark and scary. Murray Gold’s music has been toned down, which means there’s no musical cues to key us in that something nasty is about to spring from the darkness. And the spiders on display here are fucking nasty. Probably the scariest looking monsters in living memory. The scene where Courtney is trapped with one of the spiders is horrifying in the sitting on the edge of your seat sort of way.

And there’s the moral dilemma that lies at the heart of the story. Once you’ve got past the bug fuck insanity of the moon being an egg, there’s the sobering realisation that the only choice for Earth is killing this creature before its born. The fact that the Doctor leaves humanity to make this decision for themselves is a brilliant moment – and completely unexpected and yet so very much like this Doctor. It does mean that the next fifteen minutes becomes a bit of a gabfest as Clara, Courtney (who steals the episode) and Lundvik heatedly discuss whether to detonate the nukes. Hermione Norris is excellent here giving these scenes the moral weight they need. (I understand that some have seen this scene as a debate between pro choice and pro life, as a result they’ve found the final decision to be tasteless. I’m not sure I buy the interpretation, given that the life cycle of this creature is so very alien. But I also admit that I might be missing something here).

The second half of the story isn’t perfect though. The bit where Clara asks the Earth for its opinion is very NuWho its silliness, also undercuting the debate between Lundvik and Clara. I’m not even sure how Clara could have seen the whole planet in 30 minutes. Putting the science of moon eggs aside, this is the weakest point of the episode.

Also, the spider monsters are mostly forgotten in the second half. There’s at least two shots of them crawling across the face of the moon, but in the 40 minutes that are left to Clara and co, they never seem to reach the base, which seems a little convenient. Having said that, it’s pretty hard to have a moral debate when you fighting off a horde of moon spiders.

But this is all a minor irritant when put against the TARDIS scene between Clara and the Doctor. It’s been along time coming and the argument played here – is the Doctor a patronising git or was he genuinely trying to help by leaving the decision to humankind? – is played perfectly. Yes, the Capaldi Doctor is abrasive and aloof and cold, but in his mind he was genuinely helping. Clara can’t see this – the line “is music playing in your head when you say these things” is both funny but very apt – and she makes the very good point that given how many times he’s saved the planet, it’s a bit rich for him to turn his back on all them now.

The episode ends with this agrument unresolved and the next week trailer – which looks a bit crazy as well – does its best not to show shots of Clara.

Overall, I mostly loved this episode. It’s crazy and insane like good Doctor Who should be and it also pushes the characters in ways that makes for good drama. Yes, the science is complete crap, but I’m willing to forgive it for an episode this crazy and bold and interesting.

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