Author, Book review, England, Fiction, John Wyndham, Penguin, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘The Kraken Wakes’ by John Wyndham

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2008.

When I was a teenager I read all of John Wyndham’s science fiction novels, including Day of the Triffids (which was a set text at school), The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids (my favourite and one that held up especially well when I re-read it in 2009). I know I read The Kraken Wakes^ but I have absolutely no recollection of the story, so re-reading it more than 30 years later was akin to reading it for the first time.

First published in 1953, it’s a rather “traditional” story of aliens arriving on earth and posing a threat. But it’s a bit more complex than that because the aliens can only survive underwater at very great depths and under extreme pressure. No one has any clear idea what they look like — or what they are capable of.

One school of thought suggests these creatures could happily co-exist with humankind because they are colonising parts of the planet that are inhospitable, but there are others who fear the aliens are making changes under the sea that could have harmful impacts, putting all humankind at risk.

Seen through a journalist’s eyes

The story, which is divided into three parts (or phases), is told through the eyes of Mike Watson, a journalist from the English Broadcasting Commission (EBC), and his wife, Phyllis, who is also a reporter.

The couple is honeymooning on a cruise ship when they first witness the start of the alien invasion — although, at the time, no one realises this is what it is. Just a handful of people spot fireballs landing in the sea, but as more and more of these events are reported across the world, it becomes clear these “brilliantly red lights” aren’t just randomly falling into the water; there’s some kind of plan in action that suggests there is an intelligence at work.

The British are particularly worried by the potential threat this might pose and so an investigation is arranged. A bathysphere — a spherical deep-sea submersible — is sent down to the bottom of the ocean (near a known entry point) with two scientists on board. Unfortunately, the mission does not go well; the two men are killed by the aliens and war, in all but name, is declared.

But thanks to the Cold War, which is in full swing, governments on either side of the political divide are unwilling to co-operate and are blaming each other for the situation.

Sinking ships

Later, when the aliens begin sinking ships, international shipping grinds to a halt and the world economy takes a nosedive, but no one really knows how to tackle the situation beyond attack. (The Brits, for instance, drop a nuclear device underwater as if that’s going to calm the situation down.)

To make matters worse, the aliens, now known to be aquatic invertebrates a bit like a jellyfish, begin venturing onto land, arriving in “sea-tanks” to capture humans. There are terrifying scenes across the world as the aliens make their surprise attacks.

The first sea-tanks must have sent coelenterate bubbles wobbling into the air before the men realised what was happening, for presently all was cries, screams, and confusion. The sea-tanks pressed slowly forward through the fog, crunching and scraping into the narrow streets, while, behind them, still more climbed out of the water. On the waterfront there was panic. People running from one tank were as likely to run into another. Without any warning, a whip-like cilium would slash out of the fog, find its victim, and begin to contract. A little later there would be a heavy splash as it rolled with its load over the quayside, back into the water.

Eventually, the aliens begin melting the polar ice caps so that sea levels rise. Civilisation breaks down as cities flood and political and social systems collapse.

Poor old Mike and Phyllis, stalwarts that they are, continue to report on events, before their life in London is so untenable they relocate to Cornwall (via boat through a flooded interior), where they hold up in their holiday cottage that oh-so, fortunately, is built on high ground. It is here that they discover that up to one-fifth of the world’s population has died, but things are looking better: not only have the waters started to recede, but the Japanese have also created a weapon that can kill the invaders…

Call for international cooperation?

Reading this novel, I kept wondering what Wyndham might have been trying to say about the issues of the day at the time he wrote it. In the early 1950s, the aforementioned Cold War was in full swing, so perhaps he was making a statement about the need for cooperation to end it?

There’s a lot of political infighting in this novel, a lot of inaction and poor decisions based on protectionism, patriotism and “the will of the people”, and little strategic what’s-best-for-the-world-as-a-whole kind of thinking.

I underlined many paragraphs that resonated in the sense that the author could have been describing events pertaining to all kinds of current global issues, such as climate change and the covid-19 pandemic. Here’s how Phyllis, for instance, reacts to the British Government’s inaction in helping provide its citizens with weapons to defend themselves:

“[…] I get sick of putting up with all the shams and the humbug, and pretending that the lies aren’t lies, and the propaganda isn’t propaganda, and the dirt isn’t dirt. […] Don’t you sometimes wish that you had been born into the Age of Reason, instead of the Age of the Ostensible Reason? I think that they are going to let thousands of people be killed by these horrible things rather than risk giving the powerful enough weapons to defend themselves. And they’ll have rows of arguments why it is best so. What do a few thouands or a few millions of people matter? Women will just go on making the loss good.”

Lots of detail

Admittedly, I think the reason that The Kraken Wakes didn’t stick in my memory is that it’s a bit bogged down in detail. There’s a lot of back story, of providing enough scientific information to support the theories being presented, but this means it does, occasionally, drag.

I have seen reviews criticising the melodrama, but without this, the story would be exceedingly dull. You need a bit of human tension and panic and fear to make the reader want to keep turning the pages.

That said, the dialogue between Mike and Phyllis is excellent — I like that Phyllis is an independent woman, although she’s often reliant on her “feminine wiles” to get information out of contacts, which is disappointing — and the pair really do carry the story along: they become the world’s eyes and ears, and the processes they use, under strict deadlines and difficult circumstances, to report events are fascinating.

Was it worth re-reading? I’m not so sure. If you’ve not read John Wyndham before, it might not be the place to start. Go for Day of the Triffids or the Chrysalids instead.

 

^ In the US, the book was published under the title Out of the Deeps.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sarah Tolmie, science fiction, Setting

‘The Fourth Island’ by Sarah Tolmie

Fiction – paperback; Tordotcom; 112 pages; 2020.

Loss, despair — and distinctive knitted jumpers* — feature strongly in The Fourth Island, a mesmerising novella by Canadian writer Sarah Tolmie.

It’s set on the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, which comprise Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr, but the story imagines a fourth island called Inis Caillte (directly translated from the Irish to mean the “lost island”).

This island is a secret until a drowned man, Jim Conneely, washes up on the shore of Inis Mór wearing a distinctive jumper that no one recognises.

The fact remains that any knitter in any town on any of the isles, or on any farm, knows a sweater knit, here in the Arans. She can probably tell you who knit it. She will know the wool and the stitches and the patterns common to each district and family and parish. She can probably tell you what saint’s day it was finished on. And if she doesn’t know herself, she knows a woman who will. […] So, when a woman tells you that it is undoubtedly an Aran sweater but it was knit by a woman neither from Inis Mór nor Inis Meáin nor Inis Oírr, you are left with a riddle.

The man is buried but the jumper is kept by Aoife, an old wise woman who wields a lot of power in the community, a kind of antithesis to the priest whose power, said to be divine, is merely in the office he holds.

To keep the jumper is a bad omen, but keep it she does, until she dies, and then “Dirty Nellie”, the village whore who is deaf and dumb, takes it for herself. The warmth of the garment offers comfort, for Nellie has terrible pain in her stomach that no amount of herbal remedies, provided by Aoife, has ever been able to ease.

The story traces what happens to Nell and a small collection of other characters who find themselves unexpectedly transported to Inis Caillte, a magical kind of island where people are happy, restored to good health — Nell, for instance, regains her hearing and her voice when she arrives — and where everyone can understand each other regardless of the language they speak.

It’s also a place where time ceases to have meaning. The story is set in 1840, but there are characters on the island who are from Cromwell’s era, 200 years earlier, which begs the question, what is going on?

Speculative fiction

The Fourth Island is speculative fiction and — SPOILER ALERT, skip to the next paragraph to avoid — I suspect the island is actually a version of heaven and that all the residents on it are dead.

It explores loss in all its many forms, including the loss of life, the loss of health, the loss of reputation, the loss of religion, the loss of pain.

It also posits the idea that loss need not necessarily be negative, for in Nellie’s case regaining her ability to hear and speak after a lifetime of being unable to do so presents her with a strangely unwelcome challenge: she must deal with her newfound loss of silence and come to terms with being a different person.

The one thing she dwelt on was the loss of her deafness — it was a loss, the loss of the person she had been before — and its meaning.

Other positives include the loss of prejudice — all the characters get on with each other and one man, in particular, realises that in his earlier life on Inis Mór he had shunned Nellie because he had rushed to judgement about her lifestyle, but now he regards her as a friend.

Oh, there’s a lot to consider and mull over and cogitate on in this short novella, which is beguiling, unsettling, melancholy and wise. It’s written in hypnotic, fable-like prose, which lends a fairytale quality to the story.

It would make a great book group choice because there’s so much to discuss. Like the best speculative fiction, it’s full of ideas and metaphors, and different readers will bring their own interpretations to bear on it. It really is a little gem of a book.

* I am using the Australian/British term jumper, but the text uses the North American term sweater.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Gollancz, Publisher, science fiction, Ursula K Le Guin

‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K Le Guin

Fiction – paperback; Gollancz; 304 pages; 2018.

First published in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic science fiction novel (and often heralded as a seminal feminist and LGBTQ text).

As regular readers of this blog will know, this is not a genre I usually read (with the exception of John Wyndham, whom I love), but it was chosen by my book group and I was intrigued enough to give it a go.

I had mixed feelings about it. I loved the ideas in it (Le Guin herself describes it as a “novel of ideas” in the introduction to this newly published edition), but I was less sure about the execution.

What’s the book about?

Before I elaborate further, let me give a brief synopsis.

Genly Ai, a human envoy, is sent to the Planet Gethen, 17 light years away, to invite them to join a political alliance of 80 other planets. He befriends statesman Estravan, who can grant him an audience with the king, but through a cultural misunderstanding this does not happen as promised. Instead, Estravan is exiled from his community, forbidden to contact anyone on pain of death. Genly must now go about his business by himself — an alien in a completely foreign society —  trying to establish contact with the political elite to further his aims.

It is this stranger in a strange land concept that makes The Left Hand of Darkness so intriguing, because all the people on Gethen, a planet besieged by an almost eternal winter, are androgynous and celibate, apart from the two or three days in every monthly sexual cycle — which is known as “kemmer” — when they become either male or female and are able to reproduce. No one has control over which gender they transform into, which gives arise to the novel’s most famous line:

The king was pregnant.

What I liked, and didn’t like

This is what I mean about a “novel of ideas”, because Le Guin has posed a really intriguing question — what would happen if we lived in a genderless society without eternal sexual tension? — and explored it in an equally intriguing way. She also plays with the concepts of patriotism and loyalty, friendships and love, but what didn’t really work for me was the structure of the novel.

Instead of focussing on a straightforward narrative, the story for roughly two-thirds of its content is a mixture of first person accounts from both Genly and Estravan interspersed with myths, legends and anthropologist reports which showcase Gethen’s sociopolitical culture and its history. It’s not until about chapter 14 (page 185 in my edition), when both protagonists embark on a daring 800 mile journey across a treacherous ice-ridden landscape, that the book takes on a compelling, page-turning quality. That’s a lot of pages to trudge through before you experience any urgency to the tale.

That said, I guess this isn’t a book that you read for a fast-paced plot. It’s a book that asks questions about the way our own society is set up, how human biological impulses have shaped our culture and the ways in which almost every facet of our lives is dominated by sex, perhaps without us even realising it.

Personally, I also liked the way it challenges our concepts of belonging and cultural identity, because it feels particularly pertinent here in the UK with all the shenanigans related to Brexit and the rise of populism across the Western World.

As I ate, I remembered Estraven’s comment on that, when I had asked him if he hated Ororeyn [a city on Gethen]; I remembered his voice last night, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather be in Karhide…” And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

All in all, this is a fascinating novel, one that feels quite relevant to the times we live in when gender fluidity is such a hot topic and there’s so much discussion about equality between the sexes. And as much as I am glad I took the time to read it, I haven’t been converted into a science fiction fan and I doubt whether I’ll ever read anything by Le Guin in the future. This hasn’t surprised me; and if you are familiar with my reading tastes I doubt it will surprise you either.

2018 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Claire G. Coleman, dystopian, Fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘Terra Nullius’ by Claire G. Coleman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Australia; 304 pages; 2017.

Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius is a damning portrait of colonial settlement in Australia.

Told through a series of intertwined narratives, it seems to mimic the history of aboriginal dispossession at the hands of white settlers, but a clever twist about a third of the way through indicates the story is about something else entirely — and the revelation is unsettling if you’re not expecting it.

(I’m not going to be more specific than that; I already fear I’ve given too much of the plot away.)

Shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, this novel gets full marks for originality, but I’m afraid I didn’t really warm to the story. Whenever I put it down, I was loath to pick it up again. And yet I so wanted to love this book. I bought it long before its prize listing because it had received such great reviews and I had saved it up for months, waiting for the right time and place to begin reading it.

Why I didn’t love this book

I think my main issue is that I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, even those I liked and would normally want to cheer on, such as Jacky Jerramungup, the fugitive on the run from the homestead where he’d been held as a slave. Perhaps it’s because all the characters were poorly drawn; they lacked depth and had little to no interior life, making it hard to understand their motivations or beliefs. Some were even horrendously clichéd, such as the horrid bad nun, Sister Bagra, who treats the stolen children in her care with cruelty and inhumanity.

And for a book that has an important message to impart — about “otherness” and subjugation of indigenous peoples — a message that needs to be told, it just felt too heavy-handed, too obvious. I suspect that was deliberate because the author thought there was no room for nuance in the story she wanted to tell.

I also thought the novel was too long, too repetitive and the pacing was too slow. The bulk of the narrative is a chase story — a man on the run from the law — but it seems to take forever to get to the climax. The editor in me reckons it could easily have been told in half the number of pages and perhaps it might have been even better as a short story.

What I did appreciate

But what I did like was Coleman’s writing, which is stripped back and almost devoid of adjectives unless they’re absolutely necessary. Her descriptions of the landscape, in particular, and the Australian climate are vivid and wonderfully alive. She describes dawn as “tentative tendrils of light”, rugged woodland as full of “dripping trees and scratching, tangling, grabbing bushes”, the heat as being strong enough to “melt the new paint off your walls”.

And I appreciate the way she takes history — including all the ugly bits that have shaped white and black relations in Australia — and presents it as something new, as something revelatory, as something that should make all of us sit up and listen: what if this had happened to us and not them?

So yes, there’s no doubting that Terra Nullius is a powerful book and an important one, but while I appreciate the author’s aims and her motivations, it just didn’t work for me.

This is my 6th book for #AWW2018 and my 2nd for the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Mike McCormack, Publisher, science fiction, Setting, Soho Books

‘Notes from a Coma’ by Mike McCormack

Notes-from-a-coma

Fiction – paperback; Soho Press; 199 pages; 2013.

Mike McCormack’s Notes From a Coma was first published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 2005.

This newly reprinted edition by American publisher Soho Press has a cover adorned in lavish praise: “The greatest Irish novel of the decade” (Irish Times); “The next step in Irish fiction…visionary” (author David Means); and “The finest book yet from one of Ireland’s most singular contemporary writers” (author Matt Bell).

Any wonder I was itching to read it?

Irish setting

At its simplest level Notes From a Coma is the tale of JJ O’Malley, a Romanian orphan who is adopted by an Irish bachelor and raised in the west of Ireland.

JJ’s childhood is a happy one, but his life goes off the rails as a young adult when his best friend — and the closest thing he ever has to a brother — dies. Plagued by guilt and grief, JJ decides to do something radical and volunteers for a Government experiment in which prisoners are put into a deep coma and kept on a prison ship.

So, on one level this is a charming, easy-to-read tale about one boy’s life in small-town Ireland, but on another level there is a strange science fiction element to it.

Strange structure

It gets stranger. This narrative arc of JJ’s life from birth to adulthood is told by five different narrators — his adopted father, a male neighbor, his girlfriend, a government minister and a teacher — who give us a well-rounded picture of a complicated and highly intelligent person.

Each narrator is looking back on JJ’s life and each is trying to put it into some kind of context now that JJ is taking part in a daring and controversial experiment, an experiment which has made him a household name across the globe.

This story is undercut by an excessive number of footnotes, which spark off the main text and delve into all kinds of topics, including neuroscience, incarceration and communications theory. So, while you’re reading about JJ’s childhood you might suddenly be transported, via a footnote, into a philosophical exploration of how the internet has changed the way we communicate with one another.

Of course, you could choose not to read the footnotes, but they do inform the text and add an extra layer of meaning to the novel’s main story arc. And they certainly made me think about many things in a new way.

Highly original read

The big question is: did I like Notes From a Coma? It was certainly odd and I spent most of my time trying to work out whether it was literary fiction, science fiction or complete bollocks, before I decided it didn’t really matter.

I was enjoying the ride and I liked the almost clinically morbid atmosphere it evoked. Indeed, it felt very Ballardian at times (I was occasionally reminded of J.G Ballard’s High-Rise, not least because McCormack seems equally obsessed at the notion of what happens to us when the veneer of civilisation begins to slide). Yet it was written in a graceful, elegant prose style, so typical of Irish writers, that it seemed at odds with the concepts and ideas being presented.

There’s no doubt it is an audacious book, bold and daring, and pushes the limits of what fiction can do. And while it has some unusual elements, the structure of the book — specifically its clever use of footnotes — means the flow of the main narrative is not interrupted. (The structure of J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year tried something similar, but there were three narratives in his novel all vying for equal space, which made it a particularly difficult read.)

Perhaps my biggest problem with the narrative (and the reason I’ve given it three stars and not four) lies more with the fact that almost two months after having read it none of the story has stuck: to write this review I went back to my notes and reread chunks of the book. But on the whole, this experimental novel is an intriguing, highly original read. It covers big themes — politics, crime and science, to name just a few — but at its heart it is a simple story about love, redemption and acceptance.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Liz Jensen, London, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘The Uninvited’ by Liz Jensen


The-Uninvited

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The older I get and the more books I read, the more difficult it appears to be to find truly original novels, because I find so much fiction is just a rehash of stories I’ve read before. But from the opening page of Liz Jensen’s latest novel, The Uninvited, I knew I was about to embark on a reading adventure that would have no parallel. Indeed, it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

A genre-busting novel

The Uninvited is not an easy book to classify, because it’s a heady mix of all kinds of genres, including dystopian science fiction, crime, horror and psychological thriller. Throw in a main character who has Asperger’s syndrome, plus plenty of deadpan humour, and you begin to see why it defies categorisation.

But the one element that really stands out — for me, anyway — is just the spine-tingling creepiness of it all. I’m not sure how Jensen does it, because her writing style is neat and restrained, but the subject matter of this book got under my skin and quietly horrified me, perhaps because it felt so believable. On more than one occasion it reminded me of the very best of John Wyndham’s novels, notably the The Midwich Cuckoos (which has only made me want to go back and reread all his wonderful work), and Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child.

If you are familiar with the latter two references, you might have already guessed that this a novel about children who do terrible deeds. From the book’s shocking prologue — a seven-year-old girl kills her grandmother by putting a nail gun to her neck and firing three times — to the concluding chapters, Jensen catalogues a series of violent incidents, including murder, committed by youngsters around the world.

At the same time, the narrative chronicles a string of incidents involving corporate sabotage in which the adult offender claims to have become possessed by something which made them carry out these usually deadly crimes. But are all these disparate events linked and, if so, why are they happening?

An anthropologist turned detective

Step in anthropologist Hesketh Lock, the narrator of the story, who is employed by an international firm that investigates corporate fraud. Hesketh, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has an uncanny ability to spot human behaviour patterns and, because he in incapable of lying, is always focused on getting to the truth of a matter, which makes him the perfect investigator. (He also has a penchant for languages, the brand names of colours in paint catalogues, origami, Venn diagrams, folk tales and belief systems.)

Over time Hesketh has learnt to mimic human emotions — “But apparently I still lack some of the ‘normal social graces'” — and has developed a close and touching relationship with seven-year-old Freddy, whom he regards as his step-son, despite the fact that he is no longer involved with Freddy’s mother. It is only when Freddy’s behavior becomes more violent and “odd” that Hesketh begins to understand how the pieces of the jigsaw might be falling together. What he discovers is not only deeply disturbing, it threatens the existence of the entire human race…

There’s no doubt that The Uninvited gets my vote for the most original paperback published this year — so far. It’s thought-provoking, unsettling and creepy. It’s a genuine page-turner, too, the kind of novel that is unforgettable in all kinds of ways. And if it’s any indication of Jensen’s usual standard, I’m delighted to discover she has a hefty back catalogue for me to explore.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, literary fiction, Michel Faber, Publisher, science fiction, Scotland, Setting

‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber

Under-the-skin

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 305 pages; 2000.

This may possibly be the most difficult review I’ve ever had to write. That’s because writing about Michel Faber’s Under the Skin without giving away crucial plot spoilers is nigh on impossible.

This is a novel that is cloaked in secrecy — I’ve yet to come across a review online that gives away the bizarre content or the dramatic ending — and I’m not about to become the first to give it all away. Let me just say that it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

An unconventional lead character

First, let’s meet the main character, Isserley, who is “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady”. She drives up and down the A9 in Scotland in her battered red Toyota Corolla and often picks up hitchhikers along the way — well, actually, she seeks them out, but more on that later. This is how one man she picks up describes her:

Fantastic tits on this one, but God, there wasn’t much of her otherwise. Tiny — like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. How tall would she be? Five foot one, maybe, standing up. […] The rest of her was a funny shape, though. Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows — no wonder her top was long sleeved. Knobbly wrists too, and big hands. […] Her face had kind of shocked him. It was small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie’s book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel. But she had puffy cheeks and was wearing the thickest glasses he’d seen in his life: they magnified her eyes so much they looked about twice normal size.

So, now that we know that Isserley looks unconventional, I can tell you about her unconventional job — which is to cruise the main roads of Scotland looking for hitchhikers who are “hunks on legs”. She wants big men, specifically men with muscles, and when she lures them into her car she can’t help “savouring the thought of how superb he’d be once he was naked”.

What happens to these men once they’ve been “caught” — or lured by Isserley’s big bosoms, more accurately — is the crux of the novel. And on that score I’m keeping completely schtum. Sorry.

An “issues” novel

As much as I’m loathe to describe Under the Skin as an “issues” novel, it does contain many ethical, moral and political matters that may well force you to rethink your views on everything from Nature to meat consumption, sexual identity to the notion of mercy. How we view the outsider and our attempts to conform and make sense of the world are also key elements — and to what degree do we judge people by appearance and not substance or character.

While the prose style is not particularly elegant or lyrical,  Faber is very good at describing the beauty of the landscape and the rural sights that Isserley sees while she is on the road.

A luminous moat of rainwater, a swarm of gulls following a seeder around a loamy field, a glimpse of rain two or three mountains away, even a lone oystercatcher flying overhead: any of these could make Isserley half forget what she was on the road for.

And you really get a sense of Isserley’s pain and hardship, and the sacrifices she has made to be successful in her job. She’s a wonderful character — feisty, strong, opinionated and human — and despite her dubious occupation, it’s hard not to feel empathy for her.

While the story swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments, Faber seems to have one hand firmly on the tiller: nothing is overplayed or gratuitous or even fully explained. He takes you on a ride as exciting as Isserley’s adventures in her beat up old car and somehow makes you think about the world in a completely different way.

Under the Skin — which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 2000 is definitely one of the most strange and original novels I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking stories I’ve come across in years — and with all the books I devour, that’s really saying something…

Under the Skin is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Author, Book review, Children/YA, dystopian, England, Fiction, Louise Lawrence, Publisher, Red Fox, science fiction, Setting

‘Children of the Dust’ by Louise Lawrence

Children-of-the-dust

Fiction – paperback; Red Fox; 174 pages; 2002.

When Louise Lawrence’s young adult novel Children of the Dust was first published in 1985 I would have been its target audience. During my teenage years nuclear Armageddon was just around the corner — and even though I grew up in Australia, far from the machinations of the Cold War, we were still mired in the debate over French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

I’m glad I didn’t read Lawrence’s novel at the time though — it would have fed my paranoia and teenage anxiety and upset me greatly.

A tale of the apocalypse

The story is set in England and is about as apocalyptic as they come. It’s divided into three parts — titled Sarah, Ophelia and Simon — and spans three generations over half a century. (Sarah and Ophelia are half-sisters who never meet, and Simon is Ophelia’s grandson.)

When the book opens the world has just erupted into nuclear war and bombs have been dropped on Hamburg and Leningrad. In the UK, Bristol Radio reports that London, Cardiff, Cheltenham and Gloucester have been bombed. Birmingham is next in line.

Sarah, sent home from school, takes cover in the kitchen of her Cotswolds home with her step-mother, Veronica, and her two half-siblings, Catherine and William. Her father, a lecturer at Bristol University, doesn’t have time to drive home, so it’s assumed he never survives the radioactive fallout.

A book of three parts

This first part of the book is hugely distressing as the family shelter in their tightly sealed kitchen, living on canned goods and watching the world outside turn grey and eerie as they await their sure deaths from radiation sickness.

The second part is more upbeat: it’s been 20 years since the war and life has somehow lingered on, albeit in a government bunker in the Bristol-Bath catchment area, where Sarah’s dad, Bill, has been living all this time, unaware of his family’s fate.

And by the third part, another 30 or so years down the line, the human race is mutating into a new species of simian-like albino beings with supernatural powers — they can communicate by telepathy, for instance, and fly planes using psycho-kinetic energy. It is here that Sarah’s grandnephew, Simon, makes contact with some of the creatures, whom he struggles to trust.

Thought-provoking issues

The book is thought-provoking and throws up some interesting issues about society, politics and the ways in which human behaviour and biology dictates who survives and who does not. I’m not sure it’s scientifically correct though — how, for instance, would albinos be better able to cope with a depleted ozone layer than a normal white-skinned person? Surely the lack of pigment in their skin would subject them to terrible sunburn?

That minor quibble aside, I found the book an engaging, albeit gloomy, read. The characters are a bit two-dimensional, but the dilemmas they find themselves in seem believable and anxiety-inducing. There was never a point where I thought, this is ridiculous.

There are some agendas at play, however. There’s a slightly religious undercurrent running throughout the story — which I did my best to ignore — but overall it seems to project a positive message: that if human beings opened their minds, were less prejudiced and less selfish, the world would be a better, more peaceful, place. My 15-year-old self would have loved that.

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Fourth Estate, J.G. Ballard, London, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘High-Rise’ by J.G. Ballard

High-rise

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 176 pages; 2011.

When the recent London riots were in full swing, much of the media commentary was peppered with the adjective “Ballardian”. According to Wikipedia, the term means:

Of or pertaining to the characteristic fictional milieu of author J.G. Ballard, typified by dystopian modernity, bleak artificial landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, societal and environmental developments.

Not having read any Ballard before, I decided it might be time to try, if only to understand why the term was being so liberally applied. I opted for his 1975 novel High-Rise, because it seemed to capture something of what happens to humans when the veneer of civilisation breaks down — and for a few days in August that’s what it felt like in London.

Of course, when I read the opening line — one of the most intriguing and spectacular I’ve ever come across —  I knew I had to buy the book:

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

The building is 40 floors high and contains 1,000 apartments (Laing describes them as “over-priced cells”), a supermarket, swimming pool, gymnasium, bank, hairdressing salon, liquor store, restaurant and junior school. It has so many services that it is effectively a “small vertical city” and most of the residents have no need to leave the building, other than to go to work.

Laing, a senior lecturer in the physiology department of a nearby medical school, moves in to a studio apartment after his divorce, urged in part by his married sister, a resident on the 22nd floor, because she felt it would provide him with total privacy. Initially, he finds “something alienating about the concrete landscape of the project — an architecture designed for war, on the unconscious level if no other”, but later comes to enjoy the “pleasures of a subtle kind of anonymity”.

But  — as the opening line might suggest — all is not as it seems. The building is populated with well-to-do professional classes (“lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, senior academics and advertising executives”), who all appear to rub along together quite well. But the residents are divided into cliques and exclusive groups determined by their occupation and their position in the building — the higher the floor, the higher your standing on the social scale.

The residents might be highly respectable, but it doesn’t take much for petty grievances and little rivalries to come to the fore. (Anyone who has lived on a housing estate or an apartment building managed by a body corporate will find much to identify with here.) When rowdy parties start happening — a bottle of sparkling wine explodes on Laing’s balcony at 11am one Sunday having dropped 50 feet from above — it triggers a complete breakdown in the building’s social order.

Before long this fragile civility slowly morphs into a terrifying chaos in which men and women begin to behave like animals. Violence, looting and murder are not far behind. Ballard charts this social regression in painstaking detail from the perspective of various characters, including the building’s architect and a documentary film-maker.

As much as I admired the cool, rather detached tone of the novel, I found that it didn’t take long for the narrative of affluent residents turning into marauding, sexually depraved, warriors to wear thin.

And while High-Rise is just 176 pages long, I found it a mentally exhausting read, not because the prose is difficult, but because every page is crammed with Ballardian theories. The author has much to say about society in general, but his particular focus seems to be the way in which humans relate to one another when living in confined — and sterile — conditions. Indeed, he seems to suggest that it is not so much one’s social standing or wealth that affects your behaviour, but the urban environment in which you live. In High-Rise the building is the central character, a “huge machine” that looms large and dehumanises those who reside in it.

For that reason, I’m not sure the novel illuminates the causes of the recent riots. But as novel of ideas —  and a good book to discuss in a group — you would be hard pressed to find anything better.

Finally, as an aside, if you purchase the same 2011 Fourth Estate edition as me (ISBN: 978-0-586-04456-8) do check page 167 beforehand: half of the bottom line on my copy was absent, which made for a rather puzzling sentence!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Grand Central Publishing, horror, Octavia E. Butler, Publisher, science fiction, Setting, USA

‘Fledgling’ by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling

Fiction – paperback; Grand Central Publishing; 310 pages; 2005.

While I’ve studiously avoided the current Twilight craze, I’ll admit that I’m not averse to reading novels about vampires. I loved Anne Rice’s early work (which I read in my 20s), very much enjoyed Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and thought John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In was a surprisingly intelligent horror story.

But Fledgling, which presents a new twist on the vampire legend, lacks the spine-tingling horror I’ve come to expect from the genre. Instead, this is a book, deeply rooted in science fiction, which examines issues of race and identity, sex and sexuality, biology and genetic engineering. There’s even some law and politics thrown in for good measure.

In this novel Butler portrays vampires as a much-maligned race called Ina. The central character, Shori, looks like a little black girl but she is really a 53-year-old vampire who has been genetically modified so that she has extra melanin in her skin to allow her to walk in sunlight. This is supposed to be a step forward for the Ina, but there are some who think that Shori poses a threat to the purity of the Ina race, and will stop at nothing to destroy her.

When the book begins we find that Shori is recovering from one of those plots to kill her: she awakens in a dark cave, burnt from head to toe, and with no memory of what has happened to her. Indeed she has no knowledge or awareness that she is a vampire. It is only when she is picked up by a young man, as she walks along a deserted road, that her desire to feed off him reminds her that she is an Ina, not a human being.

Much of the book revolves around Shori and her symbionts (the humans she feeds off in a kind of mutually dependent relationship) going on the run from those who want her dead. There’s a lot of gun-slinging before the story morphs into a kind of courtroom drama in which those responsible are held to account for their crimes.

I have to be honest and say that this book didn’t exactly grab me by the throat (pun fully intended). The prose felt a bit pedestrian and the dialogue awfully contrived. There were elements that just made me go ewwww and there were times I wasn’t sure I really wanted to continue. But… there was something about the narrative that sucked me in (another pun, I’m sorry) and I did want to keep reading if only to find out who was after Shori and how she would go about saving herself and those like her.

Octavia E. Butler was a highly regarded prize-winning author of science fiction. Fledgling, published in 2005, was her last book before she died, aged 58, in 2006.