Sunday, 15 September 2013

Michael Coney - Cat Karina (1982)

Prophecies bug the crap outta me. 

Prophecy is religious rhetoric. It attempts to create a situation where people can only react in limited ways. Thus the prophecy of Judgement Day: it's coming soon and only the worthy will be able to enter Heavenso you damn-well better be worthy. 

In a book with prophecy, even if the character struggles to avoid their destiny, they are only going to bring it about all the sooner. There is no lesson or growth because there was no other way that the story could have happened. Thus Oedipus will return to Thebes having killed his father and will take his mother, the queen, to wife. So also does Shere Khan, the Tiger, hate humans and seek out Mowgli because he fears he will one-day die at human hands. And, all for a prophecy, Garion treks across the world to fight men he has never met because of an age-old battle that he should have no reason to care about. 

Prophecy avoids the need for human motivations: at its best it is pointless, at its worst it is lazy.

This being said, chaos theory is an area of prophecy that doesn’t have so much of a ‘nails on a chalkboard’ effect. Scientific prediction, in this day and age, is infinitely less painful to believe. Obviously I don't expect this argument to hold up in a strict debate, chaos theory is a hypothetical concept that can only be effectively calculated in retrospectlike prophecy.

Right then. 

Cat Karina is a story told in the shadow of an intergalactic and immensely knowledgeable entity called Starquin. We don't meet him, but his presence is the reason for the story. This entity has found himself trapped in Earth's galactic sector and in order for Starquin to escape the tiny universe, one person must make three important choices that will set one of her descendants on a path to aid Starquin's release.

The sci-fi novel is set within a posthuman society in Earth's post-apocalyptia. Humanity on Earth is still attempting to resurrect itself from the detritus of a series of catastrophic mistakes that have brought technology down to a primitive level. The various humanoid races that inhabit Earth are kept in check by a religion that preaches cooperation with nature rather than the domination of it. Meat-eating is frowned upon, fire is avoided (even for cooking), and the ‘working of metal’ is seen as evil. 

The book opens at a period of transition in this peaceful society. Despite the taboo, humans are once more beginning to work metal and use fire and the day is coming when people will once more begin to deliberately kill each other.

The story begins with the protagonist, Karina, lying trapped on a wooden train track, soon to die when the train hits. She is met by an emissary of Starquin, who saves her life in exchange for her oath to obey Starquin's orders.

Karina is descended from a race of humans who were genetically spliced with leopard genes. The ‘felinos’, as they are called, are a volatile, attractive and extremely vicious race loosely based on the cultures of Latin America. True Humans are still the dominant race on Earth, but there are a lot of other humanoids of the 'specialist' races, including crocodile folk, monkey folk and bear folk.

The story’s prophetic premise perhaps works because Karina is exactly the type of person you don’t get in prophecy books. She doesn’t agonise about her promise to Starquin or worry about her future, sometimes she doesn’t even believe that Starquin exists. She is a slave to instinct and acts without thinking about the consequences. Most of the time she forgets about her promise completely. This way the prophecy is only incidental to her life, not the reason for it. 

One thing that truly struck me about Cat Karina is Coney's use of a religion that completely forbids the social and technological advancements that humanity has always moved towards. The humans and their client races are meat eaters denied meat, they are territorial creatures forbidden from war and they are technologically dependent yet they cannot use materials other than wood and stone. Despite the hundreds of years that these humans have spent, desperately clinging to the ideal of a cooperative and nonviolent society, they have not been able to relinquish their violent and competitive instincts. The book illustrates, in evocative and vivid words, that despite our advancements and concern with technology, philosophy and religion, humans are still as animalistic as we always were.

Karina is a compelling character born into an unforgiving world and surrounded by a society about to erupt into violence. The book is funny, fast-moving and perceptive, the characters are convincing and well-rounded and the cover art by Kelly Freas is beauuuutiful!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Jo Clayton - Moongather (1982)

Feminist fantasy!

Fantasy, at the genre’s commercial inception, could be divided into two camps
those inspired by Arthurian legends and tales of chivalry (Lord of the Rings, The King of Elfland’s Daughter), or the pulp and action style Sword and Sorcery tales (Conan the Barbarian, The Worm Ouroboros). 

Although Robert E. Howard is an exception of sorts, the fantasy tale (until the 70s really) was driven by the male quest, male protagonists and male gods. Women were often incidental to the process of a protagonist’s actualisation. In the Lord of the Rings, for example, almost every protagonist—both good and evil—is a man and celibate.

Between the 50s and the 80s, the amount of women writing commercial fantasy and science fiction grew exponentially. By the time the 70s rolled around there was a feminist boom in speculative fiction. Female characters in fantasy, however, were limited by the strictures of its world-building and, as it was often based on the archaic traditions of the Medieval period, this initially limited the scope for feminist stories within the genre. Moongather is one of the earliest examples of feminist fantasy that I have come across.

Jo Clayton’s 1982 trilogy places fantasy in a world of feminist conflict. In Moongather, the universe is ruled by a theology of gender duality, though it is not harmony but conflict between the ultimate male and female figures: a God and a Goddess.

The goddess is the triple goddess, a fertility idol—existing in three life stages: the maiden, mother and hag—whose avatar is Reiki Janja, a Shaman of a desert tribe. The counterpart of the Goddess is the God (whose domain is order and knowledge), his avatar is Ser Noris, a Master of a gelded order of sorcerers. The story is set by these two avatars of the God and Goddess who, as symbolic representations, decide to play a game for the fate of the world. 

 begins with the ‘misborn’ child, Serroi, born in a bad-luck season and outcast by her tribe. The chapters alternate between two stories: every even numbered chapter follows Serroi’s childhood and adolescence as she is taken in by Ser Noris and taught the rudiments of mental commands, the ability to alter natural things, the use of alchemical ingredients, magic to the effect of domination and control. In contrast, every odd numbered chapter follows her older self after she has escaped from the domineering world of Ser Noris to the conflicted world of the Goddess and has proven her place as a warrior. Even though Serroi has escaped the world of Ser Noris, she is still caught up in the battle between the two gods. The continent is about to erupt in a war that mirrors the ‘game’ between Ser Noris and Reiki Janja.

The story shows heavy criticism of Judeo-Christian religions
their facsimiles in the book are concerned with the celebration of ‘pure sex’ that equates to only heterosexual marriage and monogamy, and the demonisation of female sexuality. Interestingly, both cults of the male and female principle in Moongather seem to canonise celibate roles within the priesthood. Women of the ‘Biscerica’ are forbidden from conceiving a child, and men of the ‘Nor’ are gelded as the final rite of passage to become a sorcerer. Thus both sexes are isolated from each other and the angry feelings that they harbour toward their counterparts deepen into hatred and intolerance.

Well-written and compelling, Moongather is one of the few fantasy books I’ve read that openly discusses gay, lesbian, and bisexual feelings and relationships, their conflicts and their reception in society. Lesbian warriors of the Goddess are tolerated and even honoured, but are often forbidden from 'tampering' or discussing sexual differences with the women of the tribes. Similarly gay relationships are tolerated, even within small villages, but are found to be morally indecent
complex dynamics that are very similar to today's society. However, whilst this book falls into the category of feminist fiction and succeeds in informing the reader of the complexity of relationships and gender roles, the book itself doesn’t show whether Clayton came to a conclusion about the female principle, beyond it being the centre of all fleshly desires.

The wonderful cover is by Ken Kelly.

The other two books of the trilogy are Moonscatter and Changer's Moon.

Terry Brooks - The Sword of Shannara (1977)

Illustration by Greg Hildebrandt

When I was 12, my dad handed me The Sword of Shannara. He said that Terry Brooks was the man that everyone in the 70s expected to succeed Tolkien. 
Now cometh the question: 'Why are you reviewing The Sword of Shannara? Isn't it a bazillion-and-one times famous?'
Answer: ''Cause it's a book that people dismiss, despite its popularity, as a rip-off of Tolkien.'

... And I'm writing this to argue differently!

It’s hard to go to university and return to fantasy and science fiction books without becoming overly critical, but the fact is that these books were immensely popular amongst both children and adults. Fantasy in particular is about lifting the reader from mundane reality so that they become the eyes and ears of a heroic figure, growing and learning with them. Of course you can critique it on the ‘quality of writing’, however unspecific that is, and compare it to Dostoyevski, but a story is more than its words.

A story evokes something. A story captures the imagination of its reader, and if it does that ... well it’s a good book, isn't it? 

The Sword of Shannara recalls Tolkien’s Middle Earth trilogy in myriad ways without ever becoming offensive or clich├ęd. I want to say this because every fantasy book ever published has 'THE NEW TOLKIEN AND BY GUM SHE/HE'S BRILLIANT!' written by some reviewer on the back.

The book is set in a world that has passed millennia beyond the final battles of humankind’s scientific arms race. The technological world is gone, ne’er to return. Besides humanity, four other races have appeared: Gnomes, Dwarves, Trolls and Elves. The intervening time has mutated humans into Trolls, Gnomes and Dwarves and although they are gifted with their Tolkienesque traits, they have a human life-span and are not indicated to be all that different beyond body types. Elves are another matter … it is indicated that 'elves have always been here'.

The story opens with Shea, a half-elven orphan living with a tavern-keeper in a small isolated hamlet. Shea is a stereotypical country boy, insular, marginally educated and eager to stay that way. That is until the infamous Allanon, a man of mysterious heritage and vast reserves of knowledge, blows into town with stories of a rising evil in the northern lands. The evil, once a man called Brona, is a faceless power identified only by the image of a Skull. The Skull Lord and his minions lie behind the last two great wars that pitted race against race and destroyed the once great civilisations of Earth. Allanon reveals that it is Shea who holds the greatest chance of destroying Brona and saving the races of humanity, through his blood-link to the greatest of heroes in history–the long dead elven king Jerle Shannara, and through him to the magical sword that could bring about Brona’s defeat.

Torn from their home, Shea, his brother Flick and their flighty friend Menion find themselves joined by four tough and warlike folk, the dwarf Hendel, the great prince Balinor and the two elven brothers, Durin and Dayel. Together they trek north through a hostile world filled with the dangerous mistakes of the ancient technological era. As they travel, they find a land filled with enemies already amassing for war. The book moves slowly at first, as the brothers Shea and Flick attempt to come to grips with a world that they’d never imagined, but one-by-one the characters are tested by the forces against them and their personalities begin to unfold.

As to the links between The Sword of Shannara and LOTR, I would add that the greatest similarity is also its greatest divergence. Tolkien, a religious man converted to Christianity by C. S. Lewis, always wrote with the strength of biblical mythology: the tests of Middle Earth were the tests of God in the final days as the Fellowship fought under the banner of Eru against the demon Sauron. Unlike Tolkien, there is no greater spiritual realm in Brook's world—where Tolkien has Gandalf who always had a touch of the angels about him, Allanon is a very human character: impatient, secretive, and quick to anger. He is driven not by a compulsion to do good, but because he is haunted by guilt and his dead brethren. He is not trusted even by his own party, Shea does not believe his tales until he and his brother are driven from their home by a dark creature bearing the icon of the Skull. Twist and turn, Allanon escapes apprehension by characters and readers alike, he is a figure covered by an impenetrable black cloak who holds knowledge that doomed an entire civilisation inside his head.

Unlike Tolkien, Brook’s classic novel portrays a theme as thick and important as a taproot: both the mistakes and the successes of this world are of human making, and only through our acceptance of these failings can we fight to improve ourselves. 

Other recommended books by this author: The Elfstones of Shannara, Magic Kingdom for Sale [Sold]

Orson Scott Card - Ender's Game (1985)

There’s nothing worse than discovering one of your heroes isn't what he seemed to be and, not only that, he doesn't even hold up to what your standards of a ‘human being’ should be.

As a science fiction author, a genre that investigates societal issues in alternate realities in order to explode our understanding of what we always deemed to be 'the norm', I always assumed that Card was of the pro-scientific and anti-conservative community. I was wrong and maybe I shouldn't even be reviewing this book. But there are many artists, amongst others, that I admire aesthetically without agreeing with their moral compass or even liking them on any other level.

Here is where the Death of the Author enters my realm of criticism and review: the author is irrelevant to me as the reader. While I may feel for the characters within Card’s novels, this does not mean that I will ever agree with his oppressive religious mumbo-jumbo.

This is all by-the-by, because it’s obvious that I’m going to review the book. It's brilliant and it’s a classic of the 80s sci-fi concern with the Cold War.

The book provides an interesting look into the idea of the ‘child soldier’ and the alien amorality that we find explored in books like Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies.

For Ender, as he calls himself, his life has been one of isolation. A 'third' child in a society that forbids more than two children per family, Ender is reviled by his schoolmates as well as his older brother, Peter. Ender, his brother Peter and his sister Valentine are child geniuses destined to rise to the very top of Earth's communistic society. 

The children were all commissioned by Earth's dept. of defense. Peter was the first child commissioned, but when the army realised that he had psychopathic tendencies his status as an army investment was terminated. Valentine, the next child, was loving, caring and as unlike Peter as anyone could be—her status as a possible soldier was terminated even earlier. Ender was the third child commissioned by the army. At the age of 6, Ender is recruited into Earth's top military school. His purpose in this school? To pre-empt an attack by a race of aliens who had almost managed to destroy Earth’s civilisation, twice.

The novel follows two parallel story lines: Ender’s development as a child soldier, and Peter and Valentine's evolving relationship and entrance, as hyper-intelligent children, onto the international political stage.

Throughout the novel, Ender is placed in a series of regiments made up of child soldiers and set up to fight against his bunk mates. Each bunk mate is destined to be a military commander of some kind. They are smart, fit and wholly trained to be leaders, and killers, of humankind. In each regiment, Ender is forced to fight for his right to survive among his fellow soldiers (both boys and girls), and eventually, through sheer force of charisma, intelligence, imagination and gut instinct, become the supreme soldier and leader.

As Ender becomes a killer, a child-man capable of atrocities in the name of survival, his brother and sister form themselves into the political leaders of Earth's online communities. They parallel Ender’s compassion and understanding as well as his expedience and viciousness through rhetorical strategies that dominate both the ‘right’ and ‘left’ wing political communities.

In many ways, Valentine and Peter mirror the two mindsets that the reader can see in Ender’s thoughts. Ender’s compassionate side is what allows him to capture the hearts and minds of his fellow soldiers, but it is his ruthless nature that provokes their fear of him and their inability to ever become his friends.  

Both story lines attempt to discuss the barbarism of children and adults, and the influence that true compassion has in a world of hard lines, blacks and whites, and “us” versus “them” mentalities. In this world of forbidden religions and child soldiers there are still whispers of “salaam” and blessings in the night, there are peaceful Valentines to balance and humanise the wilful aggression of the Peters. It is this philosophical underpinning that made me so horrified to know that Card is himself a man who believes in ‘blacks versus whites’ and ‘us versus them’. If there is a book that advocates tolerance, peace, equality and understanding—it is this book.

Other recommended books by this author: Speaker for the Dead, Seventh Son, Wyrms, Songbird

20th Century Tales: A Beginning

Old Books!

That's what this blog is about. Sci-fi, fantasy and magic realism from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. 

Books with amazing illustrations that didn't just limp weakly off the LOTR movies, work by artists like Jeff Easley, Rodney Matthews, Josh Kirby...

This blog isn't about the classics of literature, contemporary fiction or politics, ideologies or the computer games that I've played. This blog is an attempt to review and renew interest in those 20th century tales (i.e. fantasy, science fiction, magic realism, horror) that may be doomed to be forgotten in this period of digital transition.

I read an article once about the books that might not ever be considered 'classic' or 'literary', but which have managed to survive through a pure belovedness amongst their readers (The Lord of the Rings is a perfect example). In this age of near universal electronic media, a number of beloved but less famous books may disappear into the olde world of print. 

These kinds of books are likely to be swamped by what has come to be called the Age of Distraction, where there is just too much digital media trying to catch our attention.
While a lot of great old books are still in print, there are hundreds of lesser known but no less talented, original and innovative authors who are at risk of falling to the wayside. The SF and Fantasy Masterworks series published by Millennium (Orion Group) is a great place to start. Another company dedicated to the preservation of books that might be lost in the transfer of information to digital storage is Dodo Press, one of the publishing arms of The Book Depository (Amazon owned).

A lot of older books however are unknown by the casual sci-fi or fantasy reader and if you don't know what you are looking for, it becomes nearly impossible to find a lesser known book
especially in today's huge online databases.

I come from a bookish background: my parents encouraged me to read books as a child, I was good at English in primary school and truly appalling in high school. After that, I studied English, Literature and Creative Writing at university. During all this, I learned that there are a lot of ways for us to remember the 'classics' of literature. We will never ever ever ever forget Shakespeare or Proust or Orwell, they are absolutely safe. But my favourite sci-fi books from the 80s? Pffft. Good luck.

The focus of this blog then, is to review the classics of science fiction, magic realism and fantasy of the 20th century
books that were very much beloved at the time. Some reviews will be of books that are very much still in print, but which I feel could be granted a new perspective by my review. Others may be so forgotten that they will only be available at your local second-hand store or interweb site. I will attempt to shy away from immensely popular 20th century books that will obviously be kept alive e.g. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, but it's not a hard-and-fast rule. 

I am also only working off what I know, so feel free to email me with recommendations or requests that I haven't covered! I’ll do my best to track them down and give a response.