Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Moving Toyshop and female biology

While reading I often come across useful facts about the psychology of women - that we are changeable, that we like shoes, that poison is our preferred method of murder and so on. These are all practical and worth knowing, but I rarely (outside of pornography) come across a startling physical revelation. This happened yesterday when I was reading Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop. In the scene from which I quote, the poet Richard Cadogan has just discovered a corpse.

She was dressed in a tweed coat and skirt and a white blouse, which emphasized her plumpness, with rough wool stockings and brown shoes. There was no ring on her left hand, and the flatness of her breasts had already suggested that she was unmarried.

Huh.

This bit of biological hilarity aside, The Moving Toyshop is great fun. The only other Crispin I'd read was Holy Disorders, which was entertaining but not remarkable. This is entirely different.

Considering that Crispin's detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of English, it makes sense that the book should be very literary. But while literature is important to the plot (the whole thing hinges on a knowledge of a particular poet but I shall say no more) and the title comes from Alexander Pope, I was surprised by how aware of it's own status as fiction the book was. Catherynne Valente has just posted about her love of books talking about books, and books that know they're books, and it's a love I share. And I think with genre fiction in particular there's an opportunity for texts to demonstrate awareness of the fact that they are part of a genre, and to be in conversation with said genre.

So you have a villain who kindly sits the detective and his companions down before explaining everything to them-only to be shot through the window of the opposite house (and could that be a reference to "The Adventure of the Empty House"?) just as he's about to reveal the name of the murderer. You have a whole array of suspects, a completely absurd plot, and ridiculous car chases around Oxford during which this sort of thing is said:
"Lets go left," Cadogan suggested. "After all, Gollancz is publishing this book."*
And you have the narrative commenting on Fen's love of the deus ex machina as a technique, and attributing to this the fact that a deus ex machina has just occurred within the text. This is the sort of thing you'd complain about in most mystery stories; here, as an affectionate comment on fiction, it's hilarious.

Conclusion: I need to read more Crispin. What next?




*My copy is published by Vintage, but a perusal of the copyright page proves Cadogan to be correct.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

A version of this appears in yesterday's Guardian20, though I don't think it's on the site yet. I don't think there was ever any way I was not going to like an Ian McDonald book set in Istanbul, but this was just gorgeous - rich and dense and stimulating.


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The 2009 movie District 9 opens with an observation about the arrival of an alien spaceship. "To everyone's surprise, the ship didn't come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead it costed to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg." There is an awareness here that the terrain of science fiction (when it has been on Earth at all) has been rather limited.

That is, to some extent, changing. Both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke awards for 2010 were awarded to novels with plots that played out in non-traditional settings. China Miéville's The City and the City took place between two fictional Eastern European countries, while Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind Up Girl was set in a future Thailand.

Since 2004, British science fiction writer Ian McDonald has been exploring alternative settings for speculative fiction. His works in that time have included River of Gods, an award-winning novel set in future India; Cyberabad Days, a collection of shorter fiction set in the same world; and Brasyl, set in Sao Paulo and the Amazonian jungle, and in the future and the past. His latest novel, The Dervish House, takes for its setting near-future Istanbul.

It is 2027 and Turkey has been a part of Europe for five years. On a Monday morning the head of a suicide bomber explodes in a tram. McDonald begins his new book with a number of separate threads, all seemingly connected only by the explosion and the fact that the protagonists all live and work around Adam Dede square, "small enough for two tea shops but big enough for rivalries". The square is also home to an old tekke, or Dervish House, and it is around this building that the stories revolve.

There is Cam, the boy detective who must wear special earpieces to shut out sound, and who experiences the world through his shape-changing robots. Georgios Ferentinou is a Greek economist and the brains behind the "Terror Market". Necdet is a young man with a troubled past. He lives in the Dervish House with his brother, and after witnessing the explosion begins to see djinn everywhere. Leyla Gültaşli, a young woman who is trying to escape the pressures of family, finds herself forced to accept a job with a cousin after the tram explosion prevents her from getting to a job interview. Adnan Sarioğlu is a businessman and his wife Ayşe Erkoç an art dealer. Ayşe accepts a commission to find a "Mellified Man", a saint whose body has been turned into pure honey.

As the novel progresses these stories connect in other ways as well. The ways in which people's lives and pasts intersect and come together to form parts of the larger narrative are an appropriate method of telling this story. This is because McDonald's major preoccupation here seems to be those fundamental concerns of storytellers, scientists and sociologists everywhere: how things fit together, how they become parts of a bigger whole, and what constitutes individual identity. So we have Cam’s robots, joining together, breaking apart, joining again to form new shapes; the cells that make up a human body turning into computers; a silver Koran that is cut in two, each half supposedly yearning toward the other because the Koran is one thing; the entire history of the city in its individual stones.

Istanbul is the perfect location for this novel. It seems terribly cliché to point out that the city sits at the point where Europe meets Asia, straddling the East-West divide. McDonald's Istanbul works as a natural connector of things. East and West, Islam and Christianity, various empires and names layered one on top of the other. The city's history ("twenty-seven centuries") is skillfully woven into the story, moving from historical Byzantium and Constantinople to more recent events. Ataturk, relationships with Kurds and Greeks and attempts to be a part of Europe all inform the plot.

And then there's McDonald's prose that somehow manages to bring together art, economics, and the sounds of the city and make them all surprisingly lyrical
The Baku Hub opens before him. It’s a beautiful, intricate flower of traders and contracts, derivatives and spots, futures and options and swaps and the dirty menagerie of new financial instruments; micro-futures, blinds, super-straddles, fiscalmancy evolved in quant computers so dark and complex no human understands how it makes money; all folded like the petals of a tulip around Baku’s fruiting heart of pipes and terminal and storage tanks. Istanbul is a barker’s tent, a street hustle by comparison. Baku is where the gas goes down.

The Dervish House is dense, both in its language and its content, and is occasionally somewhat intimidating in the level of engagement it demands from the reader. But it is precisely because of this that it is a book that does engage the reader fully. As a work of science fiction it is vast in its scope and bursting with ideas. As a work of fiction it is as exquisitely crafted as one of the miniatures it occasionally uses as a metaphor. McDonald is a gift, and it's high time readers outside science-fiction discovered this fact.

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Other people have reviewed this and seen that it is good: see Strange Horizons, Punkadiddle, @Number 71

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Kate Bernheimer (ed), My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Yesterday's Indian Express carried a short review of Kate Bernheimer's anthology of fairy tales. A 500 word review was never going to be enough to discuss a collection of 40 stories (many of which could do with posts to themselves) and I'm very tempted to do a longer version sometime this week that discusses some of the individual stories in depth and goes into some of the wider themes that I was forced to leave out. For now, here's the short version.

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There is a sense in which all fairytales are retellings. The Brothers Grimm collected their tales from a long tradition of oral storytelling. Charles Perrault adapted his for the drawing rooms of 17th Century France. My Mother She Killed Me My Father He Ate Me opens with an Angela Carter quote: “Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup?” Carter’s own 1979 work, The Bloody Chamber, was a seminal act of fairytale retelling. Bernheimer’s collection of forty fairytales by various writers is dedicated to Carter, and her shadow looms large over many of the stories.

Many stories in this collection are entirely original works that use fairytale tropes. Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” takes the good-sister/bad-sister theme that runs through many fairy tales, but adds aliens, artificial tan and police reports. Kelly Link’s “Catskin” has links to Rapunzel and Puss-in-Boots but is an entirely original piece.

Writers like Brian Evenson, Susan Shuh-Lien Bynum, Hiromi Ito and Joyce Carol Oates base their pieces on established stories. Evenson’s “Dapplegrim”, based on a Norwegian folktale, is dark, obsessive and full of bloodshed. Ito’s “I Am Anjuhimeko” is powerful and epic in scope. Oates and Bynum tackle stories previously riffed off by Carter but take them in entirely different directions. Oates’ version of the Bluebeard myth is clever and surprising, while Bynum’s “The Erlking”, about a mother's anxiety over her child's education, was one of the highlights of the anthology for me.

The Grimm brothers’ “The Six Swans” forms the starting point for some of the best pieces. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Halfway People” in particular is a gorgeous, brutal story about yearning and incompleteness. Shelley Jackson’s “The Swan Brothers” is, hands down, the best thing in the book, partly story, partly a loosely connected set of observations about the fairytale. Here, for example, are the Things You Learn From Reading:
Women are trouble—if it isn’t an evil wife, it’s an evil stepmother. Or mother-in-law. Mothers are usually all right, unless they’re witches—watch out for witches. And their daughters.

You might be all right with kings, princes, and fathers, unless, as is usually the case, they’re under the influence of someone else, usually a woman. Men are weak. Sometimes they rescue you, but they always have help—from ants or birds or women. Sometimes you rescue them. This is kind of sweet.

You can trust animals. Sometimes they turn into people, but don’t hold that against them.

Children had better watch out.

To retell a story inevitably leads to thinking about how narratives work, and many of the pieces in this collection are, like Jackson’s, stories about stories. Kim Addonizio’s “Ever After” has seven dwarves reading “Snow White” as a religious text. Karen Brennan’s “The Snow Queen” and Francine Prose’s “Hansel and Gretel” both have their narrators thinking through their own relationships with fairy tales. Notes from the authors explain the genesis of each story and provide further insight into the mechanics of these narratives.

My Mother She Killed Me My Father He Ate Me is an impressive anthology, featuring some of the most exciting writers in the world at the moment. There are some real treasures in this collection, with all the menace and magic of the traditional fairy tale.

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Saturday, 13 November 2010

Various Links

The Carl Brandon Society are having a fundraiser to benefit the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. If you enter you could win an eReader that comes pre-loaded with work by some amazing spec fic writers. Details here.


Via Queen Emily, this study seems to show that our brains can predict the future. Or something.


Here is a much (much!)-belated link: As most people who read Indian blogs will know by now, a few weeks ago there was a case of plagiarism involving the magazine India Today - editor Aroon Purie's letter at the beginning of the magazine contained some rather distinctive lines that had been lifted from Grady Hendrix's Slate piece on Rajinikanth. A number of blogs reported the incident - very few mainstream news sources did so (Aditya Sinha, who I like and respect, did a piece in the New Indian Express. His is the only article on the subject that I saw).
And then Mitali Saran, whose funny, indignant, personal column Stet is one of my favourite newspaper things, wrote a column on both the plagiarism and the Indian media's reaction to it. Guess what happened?
Much respect to Mitali for standing up and making a big deal of this. And I hope Stet will soon be appearing elsewhere.


From plagiarism to piracy - Celine Kiernan would (understandably) prefer for you to buy/borrow her books, rather than illegally download them. The Speculative Scotsman did a post on the numbers involved, and this led to some fascinating discussion in the comments.


From piracy to pain - Aadisht had an article in yesterday's Mint Lounge about the phenomenon of the 100 rupee novel. I am all too familiar with some of the books from which he quotes (I lent him some of them).


Catherynne M. Valente has a new book out and I am waiting most impatiently for my copy. The book is based in the Prester John myth and in order to explain who he was to those strange people who did not read Mandeville for fun (I know, right?) she wrote a post on Scalzi's blog and made this magnificent and totally authentic video:



Wednesday, 10 November 2010

E. Nesbit, The Enchanted Castle

As I mentioned last month, I'm writing a monthly column for Kindle Magazine. In each installment I'll be talking about a book that is out of copyright and available for free on the internet. For the November issue of the magazine I decided to revisit E. Nesbit and her gorgeous children's story The Enchanted Castle. Five hundred words simply isn't enough space to really discuss something as rich and layered as this, and the piece ended up being a mere summary. But I'm glad I reread it and am hoping to do a longer piece on Nesbit's children's fiction soon.


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In an article I read recently, the writer bewailed the degeneracy of today's youth. Her proof? That modern children did not read exactly the same books as they had when she was young.

I do not ever wish to be that writer. I love the explosion of children's and young adult fiction that we've seen in the past couple of decades, and hopefully am not arrogant enough to believe that what I read when I was a child was somehow superior by virtue of my having read it. And I quite understand why no one seems to read E.Nesbit anymore. But I'm not entirely resigned to it.

Edith Nesbit is a fascinating figure. She was one of the founders of the Fabian Society, had an open marriage, and lectured on socialism. She's best known for her children's stories but she also wrote fiction for adults, including one of my favourite horror stories, "The Shadow".

Nesbit's fiction (children's and adults') is notable because there's always so much going on beneath the surface. "The Shadow" is all about the insecure narrator and's jealousy and fascination. The Railway Children (perhaps Nesbit's best known work) is at its subtle best when it is referring (never too directly) to the heartbroken wife of a wrongly imprisoned man who must hide their situation from her children.

The Enchanted Castle is far from the most famous of Nesbit's books, but it's in many ways her best. Three children are prevented from going home for the holidays by illness, and they resolve to make their own fun. In exploring the area around their school they come across a castle (or possibly a country house) a princess (or possibly the scullery maid) and a magic ring.

Noel Coward praised Nesbit's ability to evoke hot, summer days in the countryside. But these are never the comfortable, middle-class idylls that his words might seem to suggest. The children play at being explorers, secure at first in the knowledge that they have a picnic lunch and that magic probably isn't real. They move to a sense of wonder and from there to growing unease. Nesbit's world is all golden and sunlit on the surface, but underneath it is shifting and layered and strange and horrible - this is why she's such an effective horror writer as well. The Enchanted Castle contains grotesque, nightmarish scenes in which statues and gods and creatures made by the children themselves come to life. Plenty of children's writers have tackled the idea of games of make-believe gone horribly wrong (Antonia Forest's Peter's Room is incomparable) and with the popularity of role-playing games they will probably continue to do so. But this is the most viscerally terrifying take on the trope that I've ever encountered.

And this is why, though her situations are hopelessly dated and her characters are frequently too good to be true, I hope people continue to read Nesbit. There's a weirdness at the heart of her fiction that is unlike almost anything else for children. And The Enchanted Castle may just be the strangest of her works.