Too little access to nectar, not enough for the bees

The History of Bees
by Maja Lunde
translated from Norwegian by Diane Oatley

This is a novel intertwining three stories in three time periods – past, present (ish) and future. The three narrators are linked by bees and their importance to agriculture. But they’re also great individual stories.

We open with the strangest of the three: Tao, in Sichuan in 2098. She hand pollinates flowers – painstaking, delicate, long days at work that give her only an hour each day with her three-year-old son Wei-Wen. Tao lives in an agricultural region that grows fruit, but throughout China hand-pollination is necessary to keep the increasingly slim food chain chugging along. She dearly wants her son to learn all he can so that he stands a chance of being sent away to school rather than to the fields but her husband Kuan wants to enjoy spending time with Wei-Wen, for him to be happy.

“I stretched as far as I could, but couldn’t quite reach the blossom at the very top. I was about to give up, but knew I might be punished, so I tried once more. Our pay was docked if we used up the pollen too quickly. And our pay was docked if we used too little. The work was invisible. When at the end of the day we climbed down from the trees, there was no evidence of our work except for the red chalk Xs on the tree trunks…It wasn’t until autumn came and the trees were laden with fruit that we would know who among us had actually succeeded in their work.”

Continue reading “Too little access to nectar, not enough for the bees”

The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit

ugliesUglies
by Scott Westerfeld

This is the first part of a sci-fi young-adult trilogy – not my usual fare, but having sampled and quite liked The Hunger Games earlier this year, when my book club picked this title I figured it couldn’t hurt. It got a similar reaction from me: quick easy read, engaging, characters I cared about the fates of, but occasionally clunky and/or predictable.

The Uglies of the title are all the people born in the City from the age of 10 (I think) to 15, between being a Littlie (i.e. a child) and a Pretty. On their 16th birthday, everyone has the operation – a kind of extreme plastic surgery with the aim of making everyone look, while not identical, an identical degree of beautiful. (As the operation is so extreme I was a little bothered at the lack of detail about how it could possibly be done in a single day and with zero recovery time, but I guess I can let that go.) New Pretties live a life of drinking and partying, indulging in clothes and other superficial delights for a few years until they choose whether they want to return to studying.

“The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit. Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavoured cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold”

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Autumn reads in brief

These are some very brief reviews indeed because I have had so much else on this month, I’m frankly amazed I’ve found time to read at all. Before I zone out in front of another half-dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, here is what I’ve been reading.

 

pride of baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)

This is a beautiful, moving and unusual perspective on war. It takes as inspiration the 2003 news story that four lions escaped Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the Iraq War. Vaughan and Henrichon give the lions names and personalities, and this does result in some anthropomorphising, but that can be forgiven because the result is so good.

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He could almost feel his psychosoma being buoyed up

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula le Guin

Le Guin is one of the big names in modern science fiction and I had been meaning to read her for years, so I was glad to persuade my book club to join me in the adventure. Sadly, it turned out to be one of my less successful ventures into the genre, or at least a mixed result.

I loved the idea and the story built around it, and the opening chapter was for me quite attention-grabbing. George Orr is strung out on drugs in a version of Portland, Oregon that is suffering from runaway global warming, overpopulation and intense policing. As such he soon catches the attention of the authorities, who refer him to drug rehab in the form of the psychiatrist Dr Haber. Here we learn that Orr had been taking drugs to stop himself from sleeping, because when he dreams, his dreams change the world around him. Haber is initially sceptical but quickly discovers that it’s not only true, but that he can use hypnosis to influence Orr’s dreams. So begins the tug of war between the two men, fighting for control of Orr’s power.

“Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and dark enters it…Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defence the violence and power of the whole ocean.”

It really is a wonderfully original premise that remained original and fascinating throughout. At its heart it’s such a simple idea, but one with almost infinite possibilities, so I was glad that Le Guin kept the story focused quite narrowly on Orr. She does throw in a romance, but it’s done well, sans cheese and gives Orr another facet to consider when making major world-changing decisions.

But I must admit, for all that the idea and the story and even the details of the story thrilled me, I was not hugely impressed by the prose. I found it a little workmanlike, with sometimes wooden dialogue. Perhaps partly I was noticing aspects of the book that haven’t dated well. For instance, there’s a whole storyline revolving around skin colour that was clearly well intentioned and potentially fascinating, but the language used was so old-fashioned it made me cringe.

“Damn the stupid little bastard! He had got out of control. Haber cocked his head and maintained a tolerant, noninterfering silence; it was all he could do…
‘You said you remembered the Plague; but don’t you also remember that there wasn’t any Plague, that nobody died of pollutant cancer, that the population just kept on getting bigger and bigger? No? You don’t remember that?’
…Orr was quite white; the cheekbones stood out in his face. He sat staring up at Haber. He said nothing.”

I also struggled a little with the character of Orr. He’s so very passive, even when he tries to take control. Of course, he had to be a bit wet for the whole story to work, but it certainly makes him difficult to engage with.

However, there were elements I loved about this book. There’s a fantastic (and surreal) sense of humour that nicely balances out the more serious parts. And I like that Dr Haber is almost inscrutable, certainly neither wholly good nor wholly bad. He’s like a parable of a politician, telling himself he has the best of intentions, but in reality with all that power at his fingertips if he can just keep Orr in line… It really is a very interesting dynamic between the two men.

“After a week’s solid rain, barometric pressure was up and the sun was out again, above the river mist. Well aware from a thousand EEG readings of the link between the pressure of the atmosphere and the heaviness of the mind, he could almost feel his psychosoma being buoyed up by that bright, drying wind. Have to keep that up, keep the climate improving, he thought rapidly, almost surreptitiously.”

I have for a long time linked Ursula le Guin with Margaret Atwood because they are female North American writers of a similar age who have included a lot of SF in their back catalogues and are also friends and have discussed Big Ideas together publicly. So I suppose I expected Atwood-style prose. Instead I got an idea that was, I’d suggest, far more impressive than the basis of any Atwood book I have read, but without the mastery of language to make the most of it.

I will certainly try Le Guin again – at the very least the others of her titles included in the SF Masterworks series along with this one – but I am not yet convinced.

First published in Amazing Stories Magazine in 1971.

Source: Borrowed from Tim (who hasn’t actually read this yet, so I will have to get him to read it and have another mini book club about it!)

Most stories about the past have an element of pain

Maddaddam

Maddaddam
by Margaret Atwood

This is the third instalment in Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, following on from Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, so this may review contain spoilers for the previous two books. Once again we are in a post-apocalyptic future that feels at once entirely alien and all too possible.

Like the previous two books, this novel looks back to a pre-“flood” story, while also dealing with the post-flood present, but there is more of the present than there has been previously, because really here that’s the emphasis – is this the new way of things? Can humanity survive and if so, how?

The pre-flood story that is slotted into the narrative is mostly about Zeb, who was a fairly minor character in The Year of the Flood but turns out to be an important link between everyone and everything else. However, this wasn’t clear at first and it seemed strange that the flashbacks should linger for so long on him. In particular, there’s an early episode about him having killed a bear that frankly dragged a bit. But once the pace of his back story picked up and some of the links to the wider story became clear, I did enjoy getting to see all the same events again from yet another fresh perspective.

“Will this be a painful story? It’s likely: most stories about the past have an element of pain in them, now that the past has been ruptured so violently, so irreparably. But not, surely, for the first time in human history. How many others have stood in this place? Left behind, with all gone, all swept away.”

The post-flood story is less contemplative than it had been in the previous two books; in fact there’s quite a bit of action. The plague-surviving humans (a mix of God’s Gardeners and Maddaddamites) and the Crakers are learning to understand each other and co-exist, and this raises a lot of issues. Are the Crakers human – and indeed, what is the nature of humanity? Are culture and storytelling innate or taught? Can/should the humans protect the Crakers from bad stuff and teach them knowledge, or should their innocence be maintained as Crake intended? Are the Crakers the only hope for the future?

“He could sense words rising from him, burning away in the sun. Soon he’d be wordless, and then would he still be able to think? No and yes, yes and no. He’d be up against it, up against everything that filled the space he was moving through, with no glass pane of language coming between him and not-him.”

One of the recurring scenes in this book is the Crakers’ story time. The Crakers insist on the daily ritual that Jimmy/Snowman began in Oryx and Crake, and though the storyteller now varies, the style is the same – a somewhat stilted, sanitised version of the truth. These sections are at first odd, irritating even, but gradually become familiar and often humorous, and finally they become the backbone of the whole novel.

“In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you. Yes, good, kind Crake. Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story…All around the Egg was the chaos, with many, many people who were not like you. Because they had an extra skin. That skin is called clothes.”

This was a satisfying end to the trilogy but it didn’t quite match up to the high point of The Year of the Flood for me.

Published 2013 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Bought at an author event run as part of Bristol Festival of Ideas.

It burned through cities like fire

Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood

This is the second book in Atwood’s trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and will conclude with Maddaddam, out next week. I suspect you don’t need to have read Oryx and Crake to enjoy this book, but that said I did really love spotting all the connections before they became explicit.

The story follows two women who, separately, have lived through the “Waterless Flood”, some form of apocalypse that has left both women struggling to survive and wondering if they are the only human left alive. So far, so much like Oryx and Crake, but unlike that book’s hero, these women are not going mad and their memories are more coherent.

“In the night there are the usual noises: the faraway barking of dogs, the tittering of mice, the water-pipe notes of the crickets, the occasional grumph of a frog. The blood rushing in her ears: katoush, katoush, katoush. A heavy broom sweeping dry leaves.
‘Go to sleep,’ she says out loud. But she never sleeps well, not since she’s been alone.”

Ren is an exotic dancer trapped in the high-end sex club she worked in. Toby has created a rooftop garden on her former workplace, safely away from the prowling animals out to steal her food. Both women used to belong to God’s Gardeners, a group of outsiders who strove to heal the planet through vegetarian self-sufficiency and reuse/recycling. Pretty much hippies, but in the name of religion and at a time when the Earth depicted is far along the road to destruction, the two being linked by the fear of an imminent tipping point when human society will collapse – the Waterless Flood.

“This was the Waterless Flood the Gardeners had so often warned about. It had all the signs: it travelled through the air as if on wings, it burned through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror, and butchery…It looked like total breakdown, which was why she’d needed the rifle.”

I wasn’t sure at first where I was in the timeline as compared with Oryx and Crake but it comes together, in fact more so than I had expected. Of course this means many of the issues dealt with are the same or similar, but I felt that The Year of the Flood was far more emotionally engaging. Maybe I connected better with Ren and Toby than I did with Snowman, or maybe the overall storyline cut closer to issues I care about – this book really did put the emphasis on the environmental angle rather than the bioengineering and I know I said in my review of Oryx and Crake that that could get preachy but actually it did the opposite – it made it all more real.

“It’s daybreak. The break of day. Toby turns this word over: break, broke, broken. What breaks in daylight? Is it the night? Is it the sun, cracked in two by the horizon like an egg, spilling out light?”

I think I also liked that most of the characters in this book really cared about things, rather than floating through the world. I know both types of people exist and are equally capable of good or bad but I am a carer, so I guess I empathise better with characters who care. I even forgave them all the God stuff (which was in any case heavily loaded with irony in places) because, after all, facing imminent apocalypse who knows what I’d turn to?

I found this a thrilling, wonderful read and I’m really looking forward to Maddadam and to hearing Atwood talk about all three books in Bristol next week.

Published 2009 by Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought it from Waterstones.

Human society was a sort of monster

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood

When I saw that Margaret Atwood was coming to Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas I got very excited about it and bought tickets. Only then did I realise that she is coming here to talk about her new book Maddadam, which is the third part of the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, and I had read neither of those. Cue a hurried purchase of both…

This dystopia is hauntingly desolate, a lonely existence for our hero Snowman, who may be the only human left, though not the only person. The devastation of society appears to be quite recent, as Snowman not only remembers the world as it was before, but played a key role in the tragedy, something that is gradually elucidated by his unreeling memories.

“The salt water is running down his face again. He never knows when that will happen and he can never stop it. His breath is coming in gasps, as if a giant hand is clenching around his chest – clench, release, clench. Senseless panic.
‘You did this!’ he screams at the ocean.
No answer, which isn’t surprising. Only the waves, wish-wash, wish-wash.”

However, the world as it was, the world Snowman knew before, back when he was Jimmy, was also a place that might be called a dystopia. Global warming was wreaking havoc, claiming coastal cities and changing climates unrecognisably, with widespread droughts and species becoming extinct with alarming frequency. Society in North America had become unruly and dangerous, with only those living in heavily guarded compounds safe from crime and disease.

“Too many things were coming back to him, too much of what he’d lost, or – sadder – had never had in the first place. All that wasted time, and he didn’t even know who’d wasted it.”

But how did the world change from there to here? Who are or were Oryx and Crake? Who are these people who look human but aren’t, called the Children of Crake, whom Snowman feels compelled to protect? And can he keep them safe in this post-civilisation Earth?

There’s a lot going on in this book. It’s a pretty complex set-up and I can see why it’s a trilogy, because there’s so much more that could be said with this setting. The central theme is an environmental one, pressing home the point that the Earth will go on, it’s humans who will lose out and risk making ourselves extinct if we continue to mess with our habitat. And in this respect it’s a very sad story, because what’s depicted is so believable.

“Maybe there weren’t any solutions. Human society, they claimed, was a sort of monster, its main by-products being corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain.”

However, there is another major theme that is, perhaps, less believable, more sci-fi conceptual idea (and possibly saves the whole from being too preachy or moralising, or perhaps is actually more of the same). The pre-disaster society depicted is a world where genetic modification/bioengineering has gone to sometimes ludicrous extremes. I found this sometimes annoying, often strange, but ultimately it all makes sense.

The world we are left with is a beautiful but terrifying devastation, with nature reclaiming control, and I look forward to seeing where Atwood is going to take this next.

“Everything in his life was temporary, ungrounded. Language itself had lost its solidity; it had become thin, contingent, slippery, a viscid film on which he was sliding around like an eyeball on a plate. An eyeball that could still see, however. That was the trouble.”

Published 2003 by Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought it from Waterstones.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Back to the classics

The Time Machine
by H G Wells

The Time Machine

This is one of those greatly revered classics that made people look on with admiration while I was reading it, but actually isn’t a particularly hard read. It’s also not the most engaging, but it is full of Big Ideas.

And that’s both its strength and its weakness: this is an intellectual exercise more than it is a piece of entertainment. Wells was a scientist and drew on new exciting ideas in science to create a vision of the future that in its time would have been shocking, provocative, beyond credible and startlingly different from anything else, whereas now the science is widely known and accepted, what is left is a slightly bald political parable.

Somehow I came to this without really knowing the story. I mean, I’ve seen and read references to it (both Family Guy and Futurama have episodes devoted to this story) but I hadn’t seen any of the film versions or read a synopsis so some of it was a surprise to me.

The Time Traveller (as he is known throughout the book) has gathered together a meeting of London intellectuals to tell them about his new invention, the Time Machine. When they don’t believe him, he tells them to come back a week later when he will have seen the future, and it is his account of this trip to the future that forms the bulk of the novella. The format is slightly odd, in that an unnamed (indeed, un-anything) first person narrator attends these two meetings and records them in a manner somewhere between a journalist and a scientist, so that it’s fairly dry but with the occasional interjection of emotion.

The first thing that struck me was that this isn’t that familiar narrative of jumping a few years at a time into humanity’s future, finishing with a quick trip to the end of the world. The Time Traveller jumps straight beyond the human race as we know it, to the year 802,701 AD, and most of the story is set in that one time (though there are a couple of further jumps forward). In this future, human beings have evolved into two distinct species – the gentle, childlike, darkness-fearing Eloi and the ominous, monstrous-looking, light-fearing Morlocks. The Time Traveller can only conjecture how these races came to be and recounts more than one theory that he subsequently rejected upon further observation.

This means that we cannot necessarily trust the Time Traveller’s interpretation, and indeed his descriptions are a little sparse. Can we be sure that these creatures are all that human-like? When he acquires a female Eloi companion he tells us that she is called Weena and she is really the only character to have a name, almost as if he is trying a little too hard to humanise her.

Without being shocked by the conceit of suggesting that mankind might one day evolve, the political allegory seems a little heavy-handed. Wells paints an extreme end to the widening gap between rich and poor, with the idle rich becoming the Eloi and the industrial working class becoming the Morlocks. There is also an interesting point about both having lost the need for intellectual capacity, because “Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I will admit I was more scientifically interested in the descriptions of the further future, with geological timescales having passed, where Wells describes not only an ice age but also changes to the Sun, the Earth’s orbit, various stars, the Moon, tides, even other planets in our solar system. He was building on recent discoveries in physics and this description was no doubt just as revolutionary (and possibly just as provocative) as his evolved humanoids, but it is also beautiful. The story of the Eloi and the Morlocks is essentially a sad one but the continuation of Earth through immense changes in the solar system is somehow uplifting and inspirational.

As a story, I was a little disappointed in The Time Machine – I didn’t find it engaging, the characters are deliberately insubstantial and many of the ideas no longer appear original or daring. However, it is still a clever, inventive take on the travellers’ accounts that it is built on.

First published 1895.

Future terrors

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood

My immediate reaction on finishing this book was “Oh wow” (in fact, I think I tweeted exactly that). I am so grateful to my book club for getting me to read it and suspect it will be a book to come back to, time and again.

This is an amazing, intense, important story that is also gripping and immensely readable. Atwood cleverly dripfeeds information about what exactly is going on, which makes it a little difficult to describe without any plot spoilers, and because of this I’m extra glad I was able to have a book club discussion about it.

The book’s title and the Bible quote at the start of it (Genesis 30:1–3) make reasonably clear at least one element of the story, even if the details are only slowly filled in. The society in which this book is set, the Republic of Gilead, designates certain women as handmaids and their sole purpose is to bear children. A handmaid is assigned to a married couple who have been unable, for whatever reason, to have children themselves. The handmaid is stripped of her former name and must wear a uniform that immediately identifies her role and hides her body and face, as well as obscuring her view of the world. It is a curiously old-fashioned situation in what appears to be a near-future North American setting. But it is of course far more complicated than just this and has its reasons for being as it is.

One other thing that is clear from the start is that there is a great fear of the state, via hidden spies or cameras or just loyal citizens willing to speak up about any trangressions of the many rules. One of these rules is that handmaids may not read or write at all, a rule so strictly enforced that the heroine obsesses over one written word that she sees every day. This society places a lot of emphasis on role and status, with the privileged as well as the less so immediately marked out by their clothing. It is a terrifying vision of a totalitarian state (and not just because of the reading and writing thing) partly because as you trace the steps that were taken to create it, it is conceivable that it or something similar could happen. As the narrator says in a prayer:

“If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.”

But it’s not at all a difficult or even challenging read because its narrator is so engaging and real. The handmaid of the title never reveals her former name, but between documenting her life as a handmaid she reminisces about life before and through that we learn about the background of the current regime as well as about her. It is her job, as a handmaid, to be a vessel and no more and as a narrator she is also a vessel for revealing an exercise in science fiction, but she is also an ordinary, relatable human facing extraordinary circumstances (to us, anyway). She vacillates between embarrassment of and admiration for her mother. She is trying desperately to survive, no matter what it takes, and yet contemplates methods of suicide. She has a fondness for flowers and word games.

Though by no means a comedy, there is a certain wit to Atwood’s writing. Even in the loneliest moments when the world is cold, a small detail seen or heard or remembered will be warm, familiar even.

****Spoiler warning – you might want to skip this paragraph if you’ve not read the book ****

This book was first published in 1985 and to an extent it reveals the fears and preoccupations of its time. Gilead might be described as a fundamentalist state, making it a crime to follow any other than the state religion. The world has suffered as a result of chemicals in the water supply and nuclear reactor meltdowns. There has been an AIDS epidemic and there have been riots over abortion. The same book written now might choose slightly different background events than these, though they are all, of course, still relevant.

****End of spoiler****

At book club we discussed how this future vision is not only possible but could almost be said to be happening in certain strict Islamic states. Indeed, in the decade before this book’s publication Iran suddenly went from being a modern, egalitarian place to a totalitarian, fundamentalist country with women suddenly driven out of higher education and most jobs, suddenly forced to dress and behave differently.

“Women” really is the key word. Though not militantly so, this is a feminist text. It is the story of men either choosing to or being complicit in the subjugation of women. Because we see the world through the handmaid’s eyes, we never really learn much about the lives of men in the Republic of Gilead, but from what we do see their lives are not nearly so bad as for women.

This is not the first Atwood I have read but it is probably the best. It definitely makes me want to read more of her work, particularly any that fall into the speculative/science fiction category.

First published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985.
Winner of the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize and the 1987 Prometheus Award.

See also: review by Connie at The Blue Bookcase.