We who had known the shifting sky as our ceiling

man_i_became_webThe Man I Became
by Peter Verhelst
translated from Dutch by David Colmer

How do you approach a book narrated by a gorilla? Or, at least, a character who started life as a gorilla? Honestly, if I hadn’t received this book as part of my Peirene subscription, based on the synopsis I would not have picked it up. And I would have missed out.

This novella treads a line between science fiction and fairy tale – the dark kind of fairy tale, not light and fluffy Disney fare. The result is an odd allegory of…what, exactly? A few different things, I think, and no doubt many more things than I picked up on.

Our narrator was a gorilla snatched from the jungle, along with most of his family, and taken by boat to “the New World” to be turned into a human. So far, so clearly related to slavery, right down to the overcrowded boat and casual lack of consideration for the gorillas’ lives.

Continue reading “We who had known the shifting sky as our ceiling”

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.

Future possible?

More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon

I generally trust the SF Masterworks series to be of a high enough standard that I can pick any of its titles and I greatly enjoy scouring the shelves in Forbidden Planet in search of a new read. This was one of my random picks and, as usual, proved to be excellent despite my never having heard of it before.

This book centres around a small group of characters who are outsiders in various ways, a glimpse of the future of humanity, the next development beyond Homo sapiens. The story is told from various characters’ perspectives, and there are a couple of big jumps in time that have to be filled in by recall. This is something the author repeats – you are just getting to know a character well and then suddenly the story switches in time and perspective so that you’re lost again and need to piece together how this fits with the previous section.

It’s a valid reflection of the main characters’ experience. Because they are different, but take a while to understand their differences, they spend time struggling to fit in to the rest of society before discovering their place.

Their place seems to be together. As a group they can function as one sort-of superhuman, which is a very interesting idea and one that could have been explored over a lot more pages. But this book is a nice length and manages to fit in background, self-discovery, group functioning, romance, disagreements, relationships with “normal” humans and a lot more besides. I was a little discomfited by the ending, which seemed to go a bit religious experience-y.

The first character we get to know well is Lone, an adult with learning and possibly social difficulties. He is not named for a long time and his section, of drifting through the world being misunderstood/hated for no reason until he seems to find his place was very powerful. Sturgeon has done an impressive job of fully fleshing out a character who speaks only a handful of words and never truly understands what he is a part of.

I hugely enjoyed this book. SF Masterworks has yet to let me down!

First published in 1953.

In the future there will be war

The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman

Tim has been bugging me for a year to read this so I finally gave in. I can see why it instantly became his favourite book. It’s an immensely clever look at war and humanity, with some very interesting ideas about space travel and the future.

This is one of those books that I think is brilliant but I didn’t hugely enjoy reading. I tend not to like war-set stories, particularly those that focus on the fighting and the tactics. While there was much more to this novel, there was a lot of war stuff to wade through and that meant that my overall enjoyment took a big hit. It was all, of course, necessary. The clue was in the name.

It wasn’t in any way a slog to read. The storyline is clever and the writing is accessible even for people like me without the greatest background in physics or military tactics.

I don’t want to give away too much of the storyline but it begins with the conscription of William Mandella into Earth’s army in space. Space travel is near light-speed and makes use of black-hole-like gateways so that vast distances can be covered, but the cost of this is that space travellers do not age as fast, so when the first soldiers return to Earth they are still in their 20s but decades have passed (it’s something to do with general relativity), which is reflected both in the age of their loved ones and in the great changes that have happened – socially, politically, environmentally and technologically. It’s a clever way of adding emphasis to the returning soldiers’ sense of displacement.

This is one of those rare occasions where I think the background of the author and the time of writing are relevant when honing your thoughts on the book. Haldeman is a veteran of the Vietnam War and wrote this shortly afterward. He even starts the book in a future near enough so that the officers who train Mandella are Vietnam vets themselves. This drives home the parallels between the fictional war and the real one, though they at first seem starkly different.

For instance, there’s the great changes that happened in the USA while soldiers were away in Vietnam. Hippies, free love, rock music, drugs, civil rights, feminism. These are not hugely dissimilar from the changes that Mandella struggles with. There’s the use of drugs and hypnotism to condition the troops to hate the enemy (I’ll admit here that I don’t know that much about the Vietnam War besides what I learned in A-level history many years ago but I believe there was drugging of the troops – is that right?) There’s the use of old-fashioned military tactics against a little known enemy who fights very differently.

What I liked most was the personal struggle to deal with so much unknown and so much change. By making Mandella the narrator this book keeps its focus on an individual’s reactions to news and events, however huge those events get.

The political and sociological changes to mankind as time passes are completely believable and the way that information drip feeds out to the soldiers, light-years away from Earth, is very well crafted. I did find the middle section hard-going because it paints a dark, depressing picture of the future that was all-too believable and I suppose that frightened me. But it was worth reading on. I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the first.

As a depiction of mankind’s future this is a great book. Shame about the war but it’s an unlikely future that doesn’t have war in it, right?

First published as a serial in Analog magazine. First published as a novel in 1974. Revised by the author 1991.