My thoughts on 2010 in Science Fiction are up today at Strange Horizons. So, too, are the reflections of the rest of that organ’s host of thoughtful reviewers. The three works I mention – Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, and Deboarah Biancotti’s A Book of Endings – are all, naturally, well worth your attention. In selecting them, however, I rather consciously mentioned books I feared would otherwise pass without a word. Fortunately, SH’s other reviews manfully stepped into the breach to big up books which very much deserve the more universal praise they have for their part enjoyed.
Readers of this blog will remember how taken I was with The Dervish House, which gets plenty of plaudits in today’s piece: Nic Clarke sagely remarks that the book is “a giddy microcosmic mosaic of life in a near-future Istanbul, and a welcome return to form after the slightly uneven Brasyl.” Likewise, Jonathan McCalmont isn’t far off the mark when he says this of Adam Roberts’s latest: “New Model Army saw Roberts on really top form with some lovingly nuanced characterization, some brilliant descriptive passages (including a flight over Europe and some of the best battle scenes I have ever read) and more ideas than you can shake a Stick 2.0 at.” Nor can I disagree with Farah Mendlesohn that Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is both “fascinating and moving.”
All of which is by way of saying: 2010 wasn’t so bad a year for the genre, all told. Take a look at it.
I usually try to write at (greater) length on a Friday, but I’m not sure my equivocal thoughts about Ali Shaw’s debut novel, The Girl With Glass Feet, quite support that. Allow me, then, the sin of appropriating the views of others as a frame. Plenty of reviewers have tackled this quirky, bleak little fantasy, not least Robin Romm in The New York Times: “The hybrid form of the book — fairy tale, myth, psychological realism and fantasy — impresses. But Shaw’s most delightful offerings are the vivid details he provides to make the magical real.” Certainly, one of the book’s great strengths is the telling detail, memorably expressed: “A black seabird dipped into the ocean like a nib dipping into an inkwell.” [pg. 181]
Shaw is very good at landscape and place in this way. The over-riding impressions of the novel derive from the grey, bleak mulchiness of St Hauda’s Land, the fictional northern islands on which his story is set.
From an aeroplane the three main islands of the St Hauda’s Land archipelago looked like the swatted corpose of a blob-eyed insect. The thorax was Gurm Island, all marshland and wooded hills. The next was a natural aqueduct with weathered arches through which the sea flushed, leading to the eye. That was the towering but drowsy hill of Lomdendol Tor on Lomdendol Island, which, local supposition had it, first squirted St Hauda’s Land into being. The legs were six spurs of rock extending from the south west coast of Gurm Island, trapping the sea in sandy coves between them. [pg. 22]
It goes on, but that gives the flavour: this sort of description is Shaw’s principal talent, and it is a significant source of pleasure, and the main source of character, throughout the novel. “I think places take hold of us and we become mere parts of the landscape, taking on its quirks and follies,” one character explains. [pg. 267] This trick is expertly done. And yet I find it hard to echo Romm’s full-throated endorsement of the novel as a whole. This despite the fact that, on the book’s back cover, Patrick Ness – a reviewer whom I was only a few days ago citing as a trusted source – assures me that “Ali Shaw has written a rare orchid of a book.” I find myself, in fact, closer to the position of that esteemed literary organ, the Metro: “Ali Shaw’s debut novel is a bravura conceit but it’s virtually weightless in execution, striving for a mythic depth it never achieves.” Strangely, ‘virtually weightless in execution’ is treated as a positive comment by the book’s blurb writers, and a part of that two star review appears on its cover. Perhaps there’s hope for Ness yet.
So why this equivocation, despite Shaw’s obvious talent? Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic, another reviewer more positive about book than I can be, puts it like this: the book’s “interesting cast of characters is not fully developed outside the main heroes.” I’d go further than that, and say that even Ida, the girl with the feet of glass, is under-developed; that, essentially, the book whose title she inspires is the story of the St Hauda’s Land native who falls for her, the socially awkward Midas Crook. The problem, though, is that – either deliberately or otherwise – Shaw’s prose matches in its scope a character who admits to himself that he is “plainly incapable of social interaction.” [pg. 220] All the character relationships are consequently written in the same brittle, spare way. I am happy to suppose that, in a book about the fragility and entropy of human relationships, this is a carefully selected, and ruthlessly executed, strategy. But it’s hard not only to care about, but to get to know, characters who are all quite so constipated.
“Quite, quite. I couldn’t agree with you more.”
“Yet you still don’t want him in your house. The two of you fell out, he said.”
“He hasn’t told you why?”
“Did he … tell you anything at all?”
“Only that he’d found you. He said the two of you talked about his mother. He said you knew her once.”
“I … That is, I … ” He scratched his beard. “Did he tell you what I showed him in the bog?”
“No. What did you show him?” [pg. 166]
This exchange was taken at random – its style and content characterises most of the conversations which take place in the book. Shaw has moments of human observation as acute as those he reserves for the landscape (“He had wanted to kiss her but when the moment arose his head had been yanked away as if nerves were a bridle.” [pg. 197]), but they are too few and far between. The unfortunate consequence of this strain is that his female characters recede into the distance, whilst only the male characters who are his real protagonists come into Shaw’s overly harsh and excluding focus.
Even Ida seems almost to exist merely to precipitate the plot. Her character is largely flat and expressed in terms of clear and straight-forward desires: to be cured of her condition, or for “a warm body at her side and some recognition that she was alive.” [pg. 199] Naturally, it is Midas who is the focus of this unambiguous desire. More problematically, it is only he and his other males – his deceased father, or the conflicted Carl – who are asked the complicating questions. Kari Sperring at Strange Horizons has rolled out this issue rather well: “I don’t know if I enjoyed The Girl with Glass Feet, although I admire it and I’m glad to have read it. […] Everyone suffers in this book, but the women suffer most while the men (or at least some of them) achieve some level of understanding and enlightenment.” If the book is against this objectification, it is so only obliquely.
Over at Torque Control, Niall is positive about the book, although you detect something of a wish on his part that he didn’t have to be. He’s right that The Girl With Glass Feet is a challenging read, but he’s also right to feel a little uncomfortable about it: even if it is doing what it does deliberately, I’m not sure that is a defence of either its problematic execution or its consequently dubious gender politics. Even if both are a function of its sceptical vision of people, and that vision is certainly a compelling one worthy of exploration, Shaw’s execution speaks of a lack of balance: he allows his story no countervailing view, no opposite movement, and this makes it less rich than it might have been. To return to Romm, however, he on the other hand seems spot on in his conclusion: “The end of the book, saturated with color and emotion, is risky and brave like the message it imparts. Only a heart of glass would be unmoved.”
The ending, despite all the awkwardness that has gone before it, is indeed a devastatingly well executed bit of writing. Shaw is, on the strength of that last-minute save alone, one to watch. But perhaps he needs to allow his at times quite beautiful prose a little more room to breathe.
As trailed, we’re off to Edinburgh tomorrow, to try and squeeze in as much as possible. We’ll try and update while we’re away, to share our adventures (or just our holiday snaps). In the meantime, a few things we’ve spotted over the weekend:
In the Sunday Telegraph, reviewing John Carey’s new William Golding biography, Jonathan Bate doesn’t trust those women people: “Various other unseen remarks about the female of the species will not be pleasing to feminists. Given that English literature is now a subject predominantly taught and srtudied by womne, Golding’s future in the canon may be under threat.” The review doesn’t seem to be online.
Dan’s been reading Sunnysideby Glen David Gold; halfway through it, it was in the running for his book of the year. Almost finished, he’s finding it tedious. (See Patrick Ness’s review in the Guardian.)
The gardening pixie’s been at work clearing out the greenhouse! She and Anna have planted autumn’s crops, so more on that soon…
The Daily Mail recycles old content today, in another story about how fiction for children is corrupting the poor things. The paper reports what were probably some thoughtful words spoken by Anne Fine at the Edinburgh Book festival, then characteristically spins them out into an unwarranted attack on violent and sexualised kidlit, Patrick Ness yet again included. The sight of such a very fine newspaper simply reprinting old sidebars is a very sad one – who would have thought the quality of journalism at that organ had sunk so low?
We had a very quiet and lazy weeked, which we weren’t very happy about, but which did at least afford us both some time to read. Anna’s been reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest, Nocturnes, of which more may be said on this blog at some future date. My book, meanwhile, was Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, which, as Niall Harrison has said before me, barely needs any more praise: winner of the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Guardian Award and the 2008 James Tiptree Jr. Award, and raved about by everyone from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Nicholas Tucker, its brilliance is already widely acknowledged.
Never let it be said I come too early to parties.
The story of Todd, the last boy to come of age in a town full of men, The Knife of Never Letting Go is set on a colonised planet which, Todd has been told, was at some point before he was born riven by a war between the arriving humans and the indigenous Spackle. His history lessons teach Todd that, in an attempt to win the war, the Spackle released a virus into the ecosystem which killed the women and made mens’ innermost thoughts audible to all those around them. As a result, Todd’s home of Prentisstown is a testosterone-fuelled, all-male enclave of endless Noise – the term coined to describe the telepathic fizz which emanates from every man’s mind.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is, as Martin Lewis pointed out on Strange Horizons, “an archetypal bildungsroman” – and much of Todd’s development is driven by the discoveries he makes about his world as his experience of it widens beyond what he has been told by the inhabitants of Prentisstown. To describe the book’s plot, then, spoils the book – and it’s such a very good book, so well told and executed, that I’ll refrain. Suffice to say that, as Todd moves outwards from his male-centred world, Ness is simply brilliant at deepening, broadening and altering the way in which his central character interacts with his world and those who live in it. This is really the heart of the book – Todd’s slow dawning that people exist outside of him, outside of his conceptions and understandings – and this growth is beautifully and subtly done.
The novel is characterised by this spirit of inquiry, and by a refusal to condescend to the book’s putative Young Adult audience: if at times Ness has coyness forced upon him by the conventions of his market (Todd repeatedly ‘effs’ – and equally repeatedly reminds us that, “I don’t say ‘eff’, I say what ‘eff’ stands for”), then in his own considered way he also takes few prisoners in his weighing of such serious themes as misogyny, racism, sexuality and violence. On this last point, Adam Roberts has quibbled that the book is too violent, which puts him closer to the Daily Mail end of the spectrum than I might previously have thought. Certainly the book has a lot of beatings and stabbings, and I do have sympathy with Roberts’s view that violence powers Ness’s narrative, and that it is this more than the existence or quantity of that violence which makes it questionable. Ness’s defense that “teenagers have always sought violent fiction” just about works for me, though: not only would it simply be daft to ignore its power, but violence drives Todd’s narrative because it fuels the culture he has grown up in, the criteria by which those who have given him his understanding of the world judge a man. His story is a broadening out of this position – and if, by the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, violence has still not quite been abandoned … then, well, there’re two more books for that.
All this put me in mind of Black Man, another book powered by violence which, it seems to me, tries to explore much the same ground as The Knife of Never Letting Go. Somehow, Ness’s subversion of his book’s own assumptions struck me as better wrought – a more convincing achievement of dissonance between form and content. It also executed, I think, a far more satisfying – because far more rigorous – rug-pull than The Island at the End of the World – which sought, too, to look at similar issues of religious mania, misogyny and gender to those tackled by Ness. His book may be a mite over-long, and, given that it is almost 500 pages of Todd being chased around, it may have also set itself a structurally shallow hurdle to vault; but its intelligence, empathy and sheer event-laden readability far outweight these tiny niggles – Todd’s voice in particular is a thorough joy. In short, here is a book with real heft. Naturally, The Ask and the Answer shall be purchased very shortly.