It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.
This year, the list is:
This book – a Booker Prize shortlisted book from a Booker Prize winning novelist – has been sat on my book shelf since forever.
I was convinced I’d read it.
I am sure I’ve had lengthy and enthusiastic discussions about it. Heated debates.
Yet, having downloaded it from Audible as a re-read, expecting something familiar and recognisable and suddenly I realise something.
I have never read this book before. Ever. It has sat as a treasured icon on my shelf … unread. I had never met Kathy, Ruth or Tommy before. I had never been inside Hailsham before.
And what a ride I’d missed out on!
Ishiguro is so adept! Kathy’s knowing but controlled narration, circling back, hinting ahead, foreshadowing and foregrounding the whole narrative. The precisely controlled and delayed the revelations of the book. Kathy narrates the novel from the final months of her life, knowing everything, but as a reader we don’t share that whole knowledge until the final chapters.
And it never seemed like a gimmicky trick – which in the hands of a lesser writer it could have! Kathy’s voice was authentic and real throughout. Clinical perhaps. Resigned. But who the hell wouldn’t be?
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth – who share a tempestuous history and relationship – are clones, bred to be harvested for their vital organs. Raised in Hailsham, which first strikes us as a simple boarding school with all the usual mixture of cliques and friendships and teenage travails, art shows, lessons and teachers, neither the characters nor readers realise that the school is anything unusual. In reality, the school is an experiment to demonstrate the humanity of the clones and, by extension, the inhumanity of the harvesting process.
And the school and Ishiguro succeed: Kathy in particular is as real and human a character as you’d want to meet.
But the novel offers absolutely no hope to its own characters. In fact, worse than offering no hope, it offers a dream of hope which it’s characters cling to desperately but which is illusory.
And heartbreakingly bleak.
It certainly does not have the tenderness and gentility of The Remains Of The Day
It is not an easy read and listening to it, excellently narrated by Kerry Fox I must say, was even more so.
There is a film of the book with Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan.
I’m not sure I could manage to watch it thoug
What the hell was that?
There is this much fuss over … this?
Now, I suppose I should confess: I’m not a great science fiction reader. Especially not hard science fiction. And I’m neither a scientist nor a historian of the Cultural Revolution in China. But this was not a good book.
I didn’t dislike it and it maintained my interest; I also didn’t like it and I wasn’t engaged by it.
I don’t know. Maybe it is the fault of my own limitations and ignorance, or of the cultural divide, or the fact that this is a translation and much of the nuances and subtlety of language may have been lost. But even so. It just didn’t work as a story. Not for me anyway.
The novel itself has three narratives orbiting each other: Ye Wenjie’s account of her trauma during the Cultural Revolution and her time at the Red Coast Base listening for evidence of extra-terrestrial life; Wang Miao’s – somewhat tangential – entanglement with the Frontiers of Science, the shadowy ETO and an investigation of the suicides of a number of high profile theoretical scientists; and a narrative within a computer game or simulation called Three Body.
Apparently, the motions of three bodies is a classic mathematical and physics and quantum conundrum: how can the movements of those three bodies (whether orbiting in space or within the nucleus of an atom)? If the three bodies in question are three suns, with orbiting planets, this novel suggests that the puzzle is essentially insoluble and chaotic. Much to the frustration of the players of the Three Body game and – by analogy – the inhabitant of the Trisolaris planet, whose evolution the game is intended to imitate. Whilst at Red Coast, Ye Wenjie transmits a signal to the universe, amplified through the sun, and eight years later receives a warning reply not to make further contact because it would pinpoint the location of the Earth for an invasion. Because of her traumatic experiences in the Cultural Revolution – with which the books opens in a rather Kafkaesque way – Ye ignores the warning and invites the Trisolarans to Earth. As part of their invasion, they attempt to destroy scientific progress on Earth …
… by creating miracles.
As a result of which scientists kill themselves.
Wang – a nanoscientist – becomes embroiled in the investigation of these suicides and is targeted by the Trisolarans himself.
I find it hard to believe that the ‘miracles’ and disturbances created by the Trisolarans would have had the effect that they did on scientists. I really do. I’ll not put any more spoilers in than already exist, but seriously… the book seems to laud science as a god itself, yet scientists fall apart terribly easily. To the extent that a rather two-dimensional straight-talking cop is drafted into the investigation as well – Shi Qiang – who stole cigars, swore, drank and generally played the role of the provider of a no-nonsense common sense perspective.
The science within the novel appears – to my untrained eye – credible and realistic, as does the politics in both the totalitarian early days of the Cultural Revolution and the more relaxed present day… but I don’t read books for science and politics. The novel expounded huge sections in heavy-handed and clunky sections; its dialogue was turgid and unrealistic without it feeling consciously crafted in that way. And Wang Miao had a family: his wife and child are introduced in one chapter as the ‘miracles’ start to manifest. But they are never ever referred to again! They don’t even appear on the Wikipedia entry for the characters in the novel.
There was not one meaningful relationship between the characters in the novel.
And that – the emotional and human warmth – is what I read books for.
The book was an intellectual stimulation and I did enjoy that. But it left me feeling empty.
I’m also irked that I did not actually ever see a Trisolaran, nor visit Trisolaris save for through the interface of the Three Body game. And the game presents Trisolaris via the medium of human shapes and culture so does not even pretend to be Trisolaris.
Take a look at what I think is the original cover art.
What is that? It looks like something from Stargate or Star Trek, doesn’t it. A portal to Trisolaris? A plucky explorer venturing into the unknown? This is not the book I read! There is no portal. No explorer. No pluck.
No, I’m sorry judges of the Hugo and Nebula awards, I don’t see what the fuss was about.
There is a film adaptation and two further books in the trilogy available (Dark Forest and Death’s End). I doubt I’ll be seeing or reading any of them.
I didn’t like it.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t well written. Clever, credible and smart, yes; well written, not so much!
So the basic premise is as follows: there is a NASA programme of manned Mars landings; on one mission, a storm forces the crew to abort the mission but a terrible accident appears to kill Mark Watney, a member of the team, so they leave without him.
But he’s not dead.
He survives alone on Mars, believing himself abandoned.
The set-up detailed and well thought through: whoever Andy Weir is, he’s had a thorough meditation on how a Mars expedition might work: supplies, habitation, rovers, life support, ascent and descent vehicles. How to regulate atmosphere, create oxygen, hydrogen and water. Credible sounding acronyms. Very techy and reasonable.
He also has thought through Watney’s situation incredibly thoroughly. His procedures for Watney’s creation of viable soil, additional water and hydrogen, modifications to his rover and communications all seem credible and reasonable. I mean, I’m no expert and it may be riddled with plotholes – IMDb will probably identify them soon enough – but it has an air of credibility at a technical level. I mean, check the number of times when characters “run the numbers”. How could the novel not feel credible when there are numbers to run?!
What it doesn’t have any credibility on – for me – is in characters. Watney at no point shows any sense of mental deterioration in the time alone on the planet facing almost certain death. His frequent fist-bump interjections “Yay! Go me!” were neither credible nor charming. It is inconceivable that he suffered no deterioration, however upbeat and positive his core personality.
Nor are the other characters credible at all: having Mindy – who first realises that Watney is still alive – say “Um…” at the start of every sentence is not the same as creating a character. Nor is mentioning that another character squares his papers on his desk. Weir does not do people well!
There is a phenomenon – mainly in fanfiction – of the Mary or Marty Sue character: an idealised wish-fulfilment character which is often an author inserting himself into the novel. I feel there is an element there in the character of Rich Purnell, the geeky pseudo-autistic tech who creates the manoeuvre which allows the Hermes spaceship to return to Mars to try to rescue Watney. I think Rich Purnell is Andy Weir!
As a writer, I also didn’t find the shifts from Watney’s first person log reports (which felt more like a teenager’s diary than a log report!) to third person narrative on Earth (and the dialogue! Oh my god the dialogue!) and especially the flashback episode.
So… did I hate the book? No! It was clever and smart and held my interest.
But it was not a great book. And certainly does not deserve the huge praise and hype it’s received.
“Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.”
I was born in 1973 in a village in Kent. So far as I know, only once. I have to say, when I die, if I were to be reborn as myself in the same village in 1973 again, I’d be a tad surprised! I mean 1973. I’d have to live through the ’80s again. Did anything good happen in the 80s?
But how would that repetition affect your life? Your relationship with your parents? With the world? With history? Immortal, yet destined to only see the same lifetime. That’s the basic premise of The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August. As a premise, it’s unusual and yet oddly familiar: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell was very similar save that you were reborn as a new person and the next generation; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Even Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Harry is a kalachakra or ouroboran, one of many across the world, looping perpetually through their lives. We are never informed how or why these kalachakra exist and the question “What is the point of you?” echoes within the book.
The cyclical nature of the protagonist’s life also affects the narrative structure a little in that occasional snippets and flashbacks occurred but the novel was generally chronological through Harry August’s lives. Certainly it lacked the complexity of structure which The Time Traveller’s Wife had. Nor does the book dwell on ethical questions, beyond the slightly unclear “Don’t bugger about with temporal events”. Harry decides to kill someone in almost every one of his lives because he murdered a friend in one. The lives of linears (normal un-re-born people… muggles I suppose) seem to be treated very poorly. As if their lives didn’t matter.
Philosophical ideas are thrown out: does each new life create its own alternative universe?
None of it is really dwelt on.
The book which this reminded me of the most, however, was I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. It was, at heart, a thriller. Once you stripped out the reincarnation. Harry becomes part of The Cronus Club, an organisation generally aimed at self-preservation and support for themselves to avoid the ennui of repeated childhoods, as well as maintaining a temporal status quo. A shadowy figure emerges with a complex plan which threatens the world. Atrocities are committed. A confrontation occurs.
It is a cracking thriller with a decent plot (the quantum mirror could be substituted for any weapon of mass destruction) and, despite developing over 400 years of linear time (give or take) a snappy pace.
The relationship between Harry and Vincent, antagonists and comrades, loving and hating each other was played out well. With occasional moments of real tenderness and cruelty. Vincent, like Harry, is a kalachakra but rebels against the indolence and inaction perpetuated by the Cronus Clubs and he seeks to propagate the knowledge and science he discovers at the end of one life at the beginning of his next. In each lifetime, knowledge speeds up, discoveries are made sooner, boundaries are pushed further. The end of the world comes quicker. Harry and Vincent are two sides of the same coin, spinning together through their lives. Which reminds me of another Harry: young Mr Potter who carries around a portion of his nemesis’ soul with his own.
The opening lines to the novel are addressed to Victor and encapsulate this:
I am writing this for you.
You know, already, you must know.
You have lost.
Time for a brief diversion.
Books and authors and publishers are odd beasts, categorising each other and themselves… and then frequently deriding those categorisations. “What’s wrong with genre fiction?” is a frequent lament; “Literary fiction is so pretentious”.
What is genre fiction anyway? Isn’t all fiction a genre? Isn’t fiction a genre? Well yes. My take on it though is this: if the author consciously adheres to the expectations of a genre then it feels like genre fiction; whereas, if the novel coincides with those expectations and conventions, it is not genre fiction just fiction. Within a genre but not for that genre. And then you get some clever buggers who write within a genre, consciously breaking the expectations, conventions and tropes.
Me? I’m as guilty as anyone! I pigeonhole and categorise and shelve certain books together. I know I have a predilection for historical, crime and fantasy (especially with fairytale or Steampunk elements) and I enjoy that labelling process. Quite literally. When I moved house I enjoyed handing over my boxes labelled Gothic, Lesbian, Fantasy, Fairytale and the like! Like many reviewers on WordPress, my list of categories demonstrates this rationalist love of classification!
But I also like to think I am using those categories knowingly, with a half turned smirk. Post-modernly. Ironically. Because I also know that what makes a story work is utterly independent from its genre (literary or otherwise): characters, voice, language. Fun. Inventiveness. There is great genre fiction out there with all those features; there is also some very poor literary fiction. I think that the reason genre fiction has come to be seen as a perjorative is that some writers adhere to the conventions as if they were rules.
Now this has been a bit of a lengthy sidetrack. But it is because of a review I read of this book claiming that it was a crossover or breakout piece between science fiction genre fiction and literary fiction. I’m sorry if that was you and I’ve not credited you (let me know and I will if you want!)
I’m not sure I agree. I’m not even sure I’d agree it was science fiction. Sure, it’s sort of time travelling in a way but the science is pretty low impact. As I have said, it is a thriller more than anything else. A pretty damn good and different and unusual thriller but a thriller nonetheless.
I’ve been considering reading this for a while. I do like Sanderson’s world building, especially in the Mistborn series; I also have a penchant for superheroes, dating back to a misspent youth. Sanderson’s take on superheroes was appealing and tempting, especially as the sequel to Steelheart, entitled Firefight, came out in January this year.
And yet… For some reason I’ve hesitated, not quite prepared to part with cold hard cash for it. Thank goodness for libraries! Got the book out, paid nothing. And, in all honesty, I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.
So, the basic premise is that something called Calamity appeared in the sky and people were gifted the powers we are so familiar with from superhero movies: Steelheart himself has very obvious echoes of Superman with invulnerability, flight, strength and energy bolts, albeit from his hands, flapping cape. He also has the ability to turn matter to steal. We also come across characters who can phase through walls and command shadows, create illusions and turn invisible, generate electricity, and demonstrate precognition. We also hear of people with powers to control earth or fire, to heal or to reduce people to ash with a thought or a pointed finger. These gifted people become known as Epics and quickly become warped, homicidal and power-hungry.
A small group of rebels known as The Reckoners and led by the enigmatic Prof try to fight back by eliminating individual Epics. The novel commences as David infiltrates the Reckoners and shares his plan to defeat Steelheart.
This is very much a Young Adult read: it rattles along with the pace of a computer game from set piece battle to set piece battle. The pace, however, led to somewhat two dimensional characters for me, again reminiscent of video game stock characters: a tank sporting an oversized gun, a sharpshooter, a hacker, a planner. There was never any time to feel as if I knew them, or even that there was anything to know.
Sanderson’s world here was also not an original world such as he created in the Mistborn or Way of Kings. It is Chicago, transformed to steel by Steelheart and cloaked in eternal night. Sanderson does like to identify his worlds with individual features: the ash and fog of Mistborn; the rock and winds of The Way Of Kings; and now this steel cityscape.
In many ways, Steelheart feels very similar to Mistborn: a city dominated by an apparently invincible tyrant; a plucky band of rebels; mysterious powers. What it lacks though was the charisma of Kelsier or the depth and humanity of Vin. The Prof and David simply didn’t have the same power.
There are some fabulous and thoughtful Young Adult books out there – nodding to Phillip Pullman and Patrick Ness, Julie Berry’s All The Truth That’s In Me – and some cracking fun one – Derek Landy and Skulduggery Pleasant. This book falls somewhere in the middle. It is a decent read but it takes itself too seriously to be joyously fun and doesn’t have the depth to really explore the characters.
And it really annoyed me that Sanderson – or David anyway – cannot differentiate between a simile and a metaphor. It is David’s character trait that his similes are lame:
“Wow,” I said. “It’s like … A banana farm for guns.”
“A banana farm, Megan said flatly.
“Sure. You know, how bananas grow from their trees and hang down and stuff?”
“Knees, you suck at metaphors.”
I blushed. An art gallery, I thought. I should have said “like an art gallery for guns.”
These are not metaphors. Similes!