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Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster

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E. M. Forster is best known for his exquisite novels, but these two affecting short stories brilliantly combine the fantastical with the allegorical. In ‘The Machine Stops’, humanity has isolated itself beneath the ground, enmeshed in automatic comforts, and, in ‘The Celestial Omnibus’, a young boy takes a trip his parents believe impossible.
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The first story in this Penguin pairing is the title story for a reason; rather longer than the second, it’s also rather more famous. Often seen as a prescient story about the insulated and isolated artificiality of C21st life, as it largely reflects on the idea of mediated experience as being better than first-hand experience – another aspect of modern life, arguably, as the intellectual world internalises the idea of second-hand objectivity and as mass-communication allows experience of an event without actual presence (hashtags such as #ICFA, for instance). Whilst good at despicting the extreme end-results of these as ongoing trends, the descriptions are well-written, the humanity of the characters is missing; they’re thin, paper-thin in fact. The Machine Stops is a great read for its ideas, but for any other purposes, I’d leave it aside.

The Celestial Omnibus, on the other hand, is a more interesting, although slimmer, story. It is in dialogue with both a literature of ideas and of innocence, a story about poetry and the imagination, and ironically for a story so layered in learning it is a story about how, sometimes, lack of knowledge is more important than knowledge. Again the characters are pretty simplistic and the way they work together doesn’t really follow logically from each other, but the ideas and imagery of the poem are very effectively conveyed, and the refusal to specify absolutely certain things is incredibly well calculated; indeed, Forster’s use of implication in place of absolute statement is truly brilliant. All in all a fantastic piece of work, even if not well-characterised.

Comics Haul 26/3/2014

Marvel’s insistence on not letting its line stagnate – or on conning folks like me into buying lots of #1s every week – dominates this week’s haul, although DC gets a one-shot in – and it’s one beside which all Marvel’s offerings for the week, even combined, pale!
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An Open Letter to Chris Grayling

Dear Mr Grayling,

In your capacity as Justice Secretary for the Coalition Government, you have responsibility over the prisons system. In that capacity you recently banned prisoners from receiving books from friends, family members, charities, or rehabilitative organisations, as part of a general “tightening up” of prison rules. A brief round-up of Guardian coverage over the last few days can be gleaned from their original piece on the matter – ‘Mark Haddon helps launch online petition against prisoner’s book ban‘, ‘Don’t stop prisoners receiving books, they’re a vital rehabilitation tool‘, ‘Crime and punishment: psychology and book bans‘, ‘Grayling hits back at critics over ban on sending books to prisoners‘, ‘Ban on sending books to prisoners: ‘a very clumsy sledgehammer’‘, and of course, the Letters and Editorial pages have both had things to say.

Mr Grayling, I have to ask, what happened to compassionate, modern conservatism? This move, an attempt – in your own words – at populism, with no clear single reason behind it (is it about rewards and punishments, or about drug smuggling? Both have been put forward), seems to have been ill thought through. In a government that is pushing austerity measures for the fourth year in a row, a new prison regime that undermines the efforts towards rehabilitation that are driven by access to a wide variety of books undermines any attempt to cut spending on the criminal justice sector.

Books are a vital part of the rehabilitative process. Apart from their role in education (many prisoners being unskilled, and thus unable to earn a living after leaving prison; this adds to recidivism), reading fiction has a proven effect on the empathy of the reader, an important factor in a system of justice that increasingly focuses on ensuring criminals understand the emotional impact of their crimes. This move undermines the policies of the current and previous government in furthering that goal. Similarly, allowing books to be sent to prisoners keeps them in touch with the culture outside prisons; given cuts to library services across the board, which are expected to fund prison libraries, newer books, especially novels but also basic textbooks, are increasingly unlikely to be available in prisons, undermining the potential for rehabilitative action. This is where the ‘Big Society’ voluntarism proposed by Mr Cameron is stepping in to cover, and mitigate, the damage done by budgetary cuts; the new policy, however, undermines that voluntarism, denies its value, and indeed, focuses on populist politics over good policies.

The new directive also has severe impact within prisons. In a situation where a prison can be praised for “only” ‘containing the children in their cells for 16 hours a day during the week and 20 hours a day at weekends” (source), preventing these prisoners from accessing books to fill their time – even a limited, censored selection, but broader and more tailored to individual tastes than that a prison library is able to offer – leads directly to bored prisoners forced to turning to cause trouble to relieve the monotony. This is a disturbing possibility; books, however, provide an alternative to trouble-making, and while not every prisoner would necessarily take up the opportunity, removing it totally seems unwise.

Fundamentally, this is a question as to your priorities as Justice Secretary. If you simply want to play to the tabloids as a populist, “tough-on-crime” politician, this is indeed excellent politics, harking back to the days of the Conservatives as the Nasty Party. However, if you want to institute an effective criminal justice system that encourages reform of prisoners, and aims to put them in a position to turn away from crime, this policy must be overturned as soon as possible. Incentives to good behaviour are an intelligent, useful, indeed necessary part of a justice system. This, however, should not be among them.

Yours,

Daniel Franklin

Glasgow/Manchester

 

This letter has been sent to Mr Grayling, and modified versions to my local MPs.

Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman

BetweenTwoThorns-144dpiSomething is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s secret mirror city.

The new season is starting and the Master of Ceremonies is missing. Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, is assigned with the task of finding him with no one to help but a dislocated soul and a mad sorcerer.

There is a witness but his memories have been bound by magical chains only the enemy can break. A rebellious woman trying to escape her family may prove to be the ally Max needs.

But can she be trusted? And why does she want to give up eternal youth and the life of privilege she’s been born into?

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The Split Worlds are novels seemingly born of Newman’s fascination with the Georgian or Victorian period, and how it contrasts in a number of ways with the modern world. The same gentility on evidence in her Tea and Jeopardy podcasts is also clear here; however, so is the more brutal, repressive, ugly side of that period of our history, and here Newman pulls no punches. This is a novel of contrasts, standing between two possibilities, refusing to grasp either thorn.

That ambivalence, that sense of the greyness of things, starts with the four (count ’em!) viewpoint protagonists of Between Two Thorns. Each is utilised to show a different aspect of the world; Max, the suspicious, emotionless Arbiter, hating the Fae, sniffing out corruption, plots and crime. Cathy, the Fae-touched runaway, off to university and to Manchester, escaping her family duties… until she no longer can. William, the Fae-touched middle child, returning from his Grand Tour to an arranged marriage in which he had no say. Sam, the mundane human dragged into all this by being in the wrong time at the wrong place. Each brings their own perspective to bear on the three worlds – the modern human world, the Victorian upper-class world of the Faetouched Aquae Sulis, and the Exilium – the bucolic dream-land to which the greater Fae Lords were exiled. The characters work very well as a selection – Cathy, through having run away, needs to brush up on the intricacies of etiquette, allowing the reader to get a handle on those; Sam needs a general primer as he’s slowly dragged further in; William is engaged with Faetouched politics, giving us a deeper insight than Cathy allows; and Max hates the Fae, giving us an opposed view to both William and Cathy.

Newman’s recreation of Victorian life is very faithful, with snobbery and society intermingled. What she really brings forth, though, is a two-pronged attack on Victorian nostalgia; one, in its misogyny, highlighted especially through the treatment of Catherine, through her lack of freedoms, through her subordination to the needs and desires of her family. The recreation of the brutal suppression of women is lent especial power by the use of physical and emotional abuse of Cathy; there are scenes in the novel that are incredible hard to read and, indeed, may trigger readers by their power and graphic nature. The other attack is on the class system; mention of the Peterloo Massacre is an early warning that the book has a strong concern with the modern British class system, and Newman’s anger at the current government shines through in her portrayal, rather akin to Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, of the upper classes of a society blithely waltzing away whilst grinding down on its poor.

The elegance of Between Two Thorns belies its anger; a gentler mask for a bile every bit as strong as Warren Ellis’ Constantine, it feeds into a plot that is intricate and self-contained for the most part, whilst leaving itself very open to future books. This is a novel without happy endings, without clean finishes, but with the degree of closure afforded by life; indeed, the plot is very realistic to life. Bargains struck, complex plans falling apart and recovered, human characters interacting with their different takes on the world; despite the magic, this is a very believable novel, no one acting extremely out of character except Max, whose seemingly emotionless nature seems not to hold true at times without Newman seeming to realise she’s written him as having emotion. There are no twists on offer here, no sudden swerves, no complex hidden plans-within-plans revealed at the end, and that is almost refreshing in its straightforwardness; this book is not sold on the complexity of its plot but the veracity of its characters.

This simplicity of plot is also reflected in the writing style. Newman isn’t executed a grand literary tale, and even in the sections set in Aquae Sulis, the prose is modern, smooth, fast-paced, simple to read; dialogue reads as a cut-down Austen, not simplified but rather decluttered of many of the markers of status, class, and so on that litter Georgian and Victorian prose. It’s a style that draws the reader through the book, concerned with ideas, descriptions and characters rather than literary flourish; it isn’t pulpy, by any means, but it has that same sense of intense immediacy, which – in some scenes, such as those depicting Society – seems almost out of place in the narrative.

In sum, Newman’s anger and historical fascination (she gets the Grand Tour as upper-class brothel-crawl right!) create together a compelling, believable, readable novel with characters whom, even if you don’t like them, you’ll want to follow along with. I heartily recommend Between Two Thorns, not as a literary accomplishment, but as a fun breezy read.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

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From the internationally bestselling author, praised for her “beguiling, lyrical prose” (The Sunday Times Review, UK), comes a brilliant, provocative novel about an artist, Harriet Burden, who after years of being ignored by the art world conducts an experiment: she conceals her female identity behind three male fronts.

Presented as a collection of texts, edited and introduced by a scholar years after the artist’s death, the book unfolds through extracts from Burden’s notebooks and conflicting accounts from others about her life and work. Even after she steps forward to reveal herself as the force behind three solo shows, there are those who doubt she is responsible for the last exhibition, initially credited to the acclaimed artist Rune. No one doubts the two artists were involved with each other. According to Burden’s journals, she and Rune found themselves locked in a charged and dangerous psychological game that ended with the man’s bizarre death.

From one of the most ambitious and internationally celebrated writers of her generation, Hustvedt’s The Blazing World is a polyphonic tour de force.  It is also an intricately conceived, diabolical puzzle that addresses the shaping influences of prejudice, money, fame, and desire on what we see in one another. Emotionally intense, intellectually rigorous, ironic, and playful, this is a book you won’t be able to put down.
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It’s unlikely I’ll forgive Amal El-Mohtar for this one for some time. Her review of the book for NPR, and her in-person and online joy in it, convinced me to pick the novel up. It’s not one I’ll ever really be able to put down again. Treating themes familiar to readers of queer theory, of Russ’ How To Suppress Women’s Writing, of the hidden female history of art and indeed of history, The Blazing World blazes a trail of feminist conciousness across its pages, leaving an indelible trail in the mind of the reader. But what about it as book, rather than as feminist conciousness-raiser?

It’s a palimpsetic novel, a collection of various parts – reviews, diary entries, notebook entries, written recollections, stories, interviews, and often footnoted in scholarly fashion by Hustvedt’s mask in the narrative, I. V. Hess. Indeed, that intertextual complexity, that layering of masks, reaches its apotheosis on page 272, wherein Burden and Hess both discuss Hustvedt’s novel The Blindfold, commenting on its meaning and content – a layering of masks, complexity, and content the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen before in any novel. The layering of different voices and points of view is fantastically executed, and “Hess’ curation” gives us a narrative that, even though we know how it turns out in the end, unfolds and refolds and changes shape as we delve further into the book, and reflecting back on previous parts, they never look the same having read the next element. The footnotes add to this, explaining the scholarly references in an accessible manner, but also drawing attention – not explicitly, though – to continuities, links, chains of circumstance.

However, this brings me to a problem with the book. I had to put it down from time to time not because it was affecting – although it was certainly that at times – but because the narrative voice had switched to one I couldn’t deal with, couldn’t accept; not necessarily because the speaker was vile (as in the case of Oswald Case, for instance) but because the writing style was one I struggled to get into. Whilst obviously a mark of both Hustvedt’s talent as a writer able to utilise a multiplicity of very different voices in the same story for this particular reader it at times made the book hard going, and I found it rather jarring.

Despite this rocky element, the novel is more than worth persevering with; the cast of characters – those who speak actively, such as Harriet Burden herself, those who exist in the margins around the speech of others, such as Hess, and those who only exist through the eyes of others, such as Rune – are all fascinating individuals, however appalling we may find them. The three most fascinating characters, Burden aside, are Phineas Q. Eldridge, the mixed-race genderqueer queer mask Burden works with for her second experiment; Rune, whose strange past, multiple stories and impossible-to-pin-down life and personality reminded me strongly of the Joker of Nolan’s Dark Knight; and Hess, the ungendered mask of Hustvedt, following Burden in pinning down her references, the academic curator of a strange compilation of different kinds of document into an overlapping narrative. Every character is richly painted, often from multiple angels by multiple people, and that authenticity of writing is absolutely wonderful, with different people seeing different facets of the personalities of different characters.

As far as fiction with a message goes, it’s a truism that writing a novel to make a point degrades both novel and point. The Blazing World completely undermines this; especially in the wake of the furore over The Cuckoo’s Calling, the idea of pseudonymous art and the effect of creator on perception of creation has been in the public eye, and Hustvedt turns it to excellent advantage in The Blazing World. The point is conveyed forcefully, undoubtedly, but by casting it as the central feature of the life of the protagonist, it is the story, rather than the message taking over the story. Feminist-theoretical discussions and asides mingle with discussions of conciousness, AI, the role and purpose of art, irony within art, and more, but we return again and again to the central message: women are not encouraged to make art, and – when they do make it – it’s devalued, even by other women, as compared to if it were made by a male artist. This heartbreaking truth is undeniable, and Hustvedt refuses to pull any punches in conveying it.

The Blazing World is a complex, brilliant, moving, painful book; not without its flaws, but Siri Hustvedt may have written the single most important book I read this year.

Descent by Ken MacLeod

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HOW FAR WOULD YOU GO FOR THE TRUTH? Ball lightning. Weather balloons. Secret military aircraft. Ryan knows all the justifications for UFO sightings. But when something falls out of the sky on the hills near his small Scottish town, he finds his cynicism can’t identify or explain the phenomenon. And in a future where nothing is a secret, where everything is recorded on CCTV or reported online, why can he find no evidence of the UFO, nor anything to shed light on what occurred? Is it the political revolutionaries, is it the government or is it aliens themselves who are creating the cover-up? Or does the very idea of a cover-up hide the biggest secret of all?
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Descent forms part of MacLeod’s move towards a more literary tradition begun with Intrusion; both focus on a white middle class in the near future, both have one particular major SFnal concept they’re built around, both are excessively concerned with the debate around the banning of smoking (indeed, the novels almost feel like excuses to write about the ban rather than anything else); and both heavily involve a paranoia about government, both the Secret State and the open one, straight out of an anarchist conspiracy theory.

Unfortunately, his character here is even more unlikeable than the hapless protagonist of Intrusion; Ryan is, by his own admission, directionless, bouncing around in his life with no real purpose in mind, and seriously self-satisfied even when talking, in retrospect, about things he calls his greatest mistakes. It’s not just those that are problems with Ryan – his lack of any actual character other than arseishness, his obsession with women, the way MacLeod is largely using him to pillory groups the author finds amusing or despicable (Ryan has traces of the New Atheists strongly in his system; “political correctness” comes in for a good bashing; and, again, there’s an obsession with smoking as cool, a mark of maturity, perfectly fine). The rest of the cast are even more like cyphers for Ryan to react to; there’s not a single actual human character in this novel, even the first-person narrator being more a collection of reactions to events than actually a being himself.

The women are even worse served than the men; society appears to have advanced significantly economically and technologically, but women and the perception of women has barely changed, with them appearing as prizes to be won and social status symbols for the men, with no real agency of their own (a male wants a female, and therefore the female wants the male; there’s no real thought as to why). That’s not to mention the racism that creeps into the portrayal of Travellers; using a whole host of the relevant stereotypes, Descent both buys into and expands on the idea of the Travellers as a weird, insular people and as a sleeper-threat to humanity in the ugliest way. Similarly, Africans are apparently the “Pure People”, because they’re genetically distinct having never breed with Neanderthals; this, of course, just emphasises the idea of physiological differences being the most important between humans, and comes up despite not a single non-white person appearing, even briefly, in the novel. While MacLeod is by no means a racist, and tries to undermine these positions even as the novel posits them, I don’t think the balancing act is successful.

The plot is equally frustrating. Descent focuses on Ryan throughout his life, leaping forward a chunk at a time, from the point when he had an abduction experience followed by a seemingly-related dream. MacLeod uses this as a sort of motivation for Ryan, either to obey the instruction given in his dream or to simply waste away his life in chasing the rabbit down the hole; the various plot strands hang more on coincidence than on an actual sensible narrative strategy, with no decisions anyone makes appearing to actually have consequences – the status quo ante litteram appears to be basically unchanged by the end of the novel, despite the fluctuations that MacLeod wants us to believe have happened. Combined with the use of conspiracy theory as both joke and plot point, you’d actually be better off reading a David Icke website for an interesting story, and you’d hear less about how awful modern liberalism is.

In the end, the biggest problem with this novel is that MacLeod got critical acclaim for Intrusion, and decided the way to top it was to write the same novel again… but more so. The result? Descent, a characterless, purposeless, plotless mess, virtually monochrome, monotonous, racist, misogyistic, and more concerned with the awesomeness of cigarettes than anything within the novel itself. If you want to read MacLeod, read the fantastic Fall Revolution books; this is just a mess.

Comics Haul 19/3/2014

A number of new first issues of interest came out this week, including American Vampire: Second Cycle #1 and Daredevil #1, plus the start of a new Iron Man storyline (#23.NOW) and Ms Marvel #2; plus, I picked up a copy of a slightly older comic, Avengers World #1… all are reviewed below!
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