Book review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's WifeThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you have a lot of naked adventures, wouldn’t you move to a more agreeable climate?

Henry “library boy” DeTamble is unstuck in time. He visits moments from the past and future unbidden and with a lack of clothes. Claire is his wife. She has loved him since she met Henry as a little six-year-old girl and he was thirty-six. This is the story of their complicated life together.

I’ve been meaning to read The Time Traveler’s Wife since I saw the movie on our honeymoon. Achievement unlocked before the tenth anniversary! This isn’t the sort of book I’d normally read as it is a relationship focussed story with a heart-rendingly sad conclusion. Yet I really enjoyed it.

There were two things that let the novel down for me. The first is that this book runs long. There isn’t any needless rambling or overuse of exposition, but it felt like the story had a lot of filler. None of that filler was bad, per se, but I couldn’t help but feel this novel was about a third longer than it needed to be.

The second thing was the slightly uncomfortable relationship between Henry and Claire. While I was reading there were only a few moments that felt “wrong” and that those moments were handwaved a bit too much (e.g. teen Claire and adult Henry having the hots for one another). But those moments tie to the larger issues with the relationship being fated to mess with Claire’s whole life, and to a lesser extent Henry’s. If this had been discussed more directly and given more weight I’d have been happier.

Overall, I enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife and would recommend it.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

How speculative fiction gained literary respectability

File 20181101 78447 11kbg3c.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Biologists are gathering evidence of green algae (pictured here in Kuwait) becoming carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious, due to increased carbon dioxide levels. As science fiction becomes science fact, new forms of storytelling are emerging.
Raed Qutena

Rose Michael, RMIT University

I count myself lucky. Weird, I know, in this day and age when all around us the natural and political world is going to hell in a handbasket. But that, in fact, may be part of it.

Back when I started writing, realism had such a stranglehold on publishing that there was little room for speculative writers and readers. (I didn’t know that’s what I was until I read it in a reader’s report for my first novel. And even then I didn’t know what it was, until I realised that it was what I read, and had always been reading; what I wrote, and wanted to write.) Outside of the convention rooms, that is, which were packed with less-literary-leaning science-fiction and fantasy producers and consumers.

Realism was the rule, even for those writing non-realist stories, such as popular crime and commercial romance. Perhaps this dominance was because of a culture heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Richard Lea has written in The Guardian of “non-fiction” as a construct of English literature, arguing other cultures do not distinguish so obsessively between stories on the basis of whether or not they are “real”.

China Miéville in 2010.
Pan MacMillan Australia/AAP

Regardless of the reason, this conception of literary fiction has been widely accepted – leading self-described “weird fiction” novelist China Miéville to identify the Booker as a genre prize for specifically realist literary fiction; a category he calls “litfic”. The best writers Australia is famous for producing aren’t only a product of this environment, but also role models who perpetuate it: Tim Winton and Helen Garner write similarly realistically, albeit generally fiction for one and non-fiction for the other.

Today, realism remains the most popular literary mode. Our education system trains us to appreciate literatures of verisimilitude; or, rather, literature we identify as “real”, charting interior landscapes and emotional journeys that generally represent a quite particular version of middle-class life. It’s one that may not have much in common these days with many people’s experiences – middle-class, Anglo or otherwise – or even our exterior world(s).

Like other kinds of biases, realism has been normalised, but there is now a growing recognition – a re-evaluation – of different kinds of “un-real” storytelling: “speculative” fiction, so-called for its obviously invented and inventive aspects.

Feminist science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has described this diversification as:

a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously … not only in terms of race and gender, but in terms of what has long been labelled “genre” fiction.

Closer to home, author Jane Rawson – who has written short stories and novels and co-authored a non-fiction handbook on “surviving” climate change – has described the stranglehold realistic writing has on Australian stories in an article for Overland, yet her own work evidences a new appreciation for alternative, novel modes.

Rawson’s latest book, From the Wreck, intertwines the story of her ancestor George Hills, who was shipwrecked off the coast of South Australia and survived eight days at sea, with the tale of a shape-shifting alien seeking refuge on Earth. In an Australian first, it was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, our most prestigious literary award, after having won the niche Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction.

The Aurealis awards were established in 1995 by the publishers of Australia’s longest-running, small-press science-fiction and fantasy magazine of the same name. As well as recognising the achievements of Australian science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers, they were designed to distinguish between those speculative subgenres.

Last year, five of the six finalists for the Aurealis awards were published, promoted and shelved as literary fiction.

A broad church

Perhaps what counts as speculative fiction is also changing. The term is certainly not new; it was first used in an 1889 review, but came into more common usage after genre author Robert Heinlein’s 1947 essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.

Whereas science fiction generally engages with technological developments and their potential consequences, speculative fiction is a far broader, vaguer term. It can be seen as an offshoot of the popular science-fiction genre, or a more neutral umbrella category that simply describes all non-realist forms, including fantasy and fairytales – from the epic of Gilgamesh through to The Handmaid’s Tale.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh


While critic James Wood argues that “everything flows from the real … it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, dream and so on”, others, such as author Doris Lessing, believe that everything flows from the fantastic; that all fiction has always been speculative. I am not as interested in which came first (or which has more cultural, or commercial, value) as I am in the fact that speculative fiction – “spec-fic” – seems to be gaining literary respectability.
(Next step, surely, mainstream popularity! After all, millions of moviegoers and television viewers have binge-watched the rise of fantastic forms, and audiences are well versed in unreal onscreen worlds.)

One reason for this new interest in an old but evolving form has been well articulated by author and critic James Bradley: climate change. Writers, and publishers, are embracing speculative fiction as an apt form to interrogate what it means to be human, to be humane, in the current climate – and to engage with ideas of posthumanism too.

These are the sorts of existential questions that have historically driven realist literature.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report, 60% of the world’s wildlife disappeared between 1970 and 2012. The year 2016 was declared the hottest on record, echoing the previous year and the one before that. People under 30 have never experienced a month in which average temperatures are below the long-term mean. Hurricanes register on the Richter scale and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has added a colour to temperature maps as the heat keeps on climbing.

Science fiction? Science fact.

A baby Francois Langur at Taronga Zoo in June. François Langurs are a critically endangered species found in China and Vietnam.
AAP Image/Supplied by Taronga Zoo

What are we to do about this? Well, according to writer and geographer Samuel Miller-McDonald, “If you’re a writer, then you have to write about this.”

There is an infographic doing the rounds on Facebook that shows sister countries with comparable climates to (warming) regions of Australia. But it doesn’t reflect the real issue. Associate Professor Michael Kearney, Research Fellow in Biosciences at the University of Melbourne, points out that no-one anywhere in the world has any experience of our current CO2 levels. The changed environment is, he says – using a word that is particularly appropriate for my argument – a “novel” situation.

Elsewhere, biologists are gathering evidence of algae that carbon dioxide has made carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious. So the plankton that rely on them to survive might eat more and more and yet still starve.

Fiction focused on the inner lives of a limited cross-section of people no longer seems the best literary form to reflect, or reflect on, our brave new outer world – if, indeed, it ever was.

Whether it’s a creative response to catastrophic climate change, or an empathic, philosophical attempt to express cultural, economic, neurological – or even species – diversification, the recognition works such as Rawson’s are receiving surely shows we have left Modernism behind and entered the era of Anthropocene literature.

And her book is not alone. Other wild titles achieving similar success include Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, shortlisted for the Aurealis, the Stella prize and the Norma K. Hemming award – given to mark excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class or disability in a speculative fiction work.

Kneen’s book connects five stories spanning a century, navigating themes of sexuality – including erotic explorations of transgression and transmutation – against the backdrop of a changing ocean.

Earlier, more realist but still speculative titles (from 2015) include Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us and Bradley’s Clade. These novels fit better with Miéville’s description of “litfic”, employing realistic literary techniques that would not be out of place in Winton’s books, but they have been called “cli-fi” for the way they put climate change squarely at the forefront of their stories (though their authors tend to resist such generic categorisation).

Both novels, told across time and from multiple points of view, are concerned with radically changed and catastrophically changing environments, and how the negative consequences of our one-world experiment might well – or, rather, ill – play out.

Catherine McKinnnon’s Storyland is a more recent example that similarly has a fantastic aspect. The author describes her different chapters set in different times, culminating – Cloud Atlas–like, in one futuristic episode – as “timeslips” or “time shifts” rather than time travel. Yet it has been received as speculative – and not in a pejorative way, despite how some “high-art” literary authors may feel about “low-brow” genre associations.

Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017.
Neil Hall/AAP

Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, told The New York Times when The Buried Giant was released in 2015 that he was fearful readers would not “follow him” into Arthurian Britain. Le Guin was quick to call him out on his obvious attempt to distance himself from the fantasy category. Michel Faber, around the same time, told a Wheeler Centre audience that his Book of Strange New Things, where a missionary is sent to convert an alien race, was “not about aliens” but alienation. Of course it is the latter, but it is also about the other.

All these more-and-less-speculative fictions – these not-traditionally-realist literatures – analyse the world in a way that it is not usually analysed, to echo Tim Parks’s criterion for the best novels. Interestingly, this sounds suspiciously like science-fiction critic Darko Suvin’s famous conception of the genre as a literature of “cognitive estrangement”, which inspires readers to re-view their own world, think in new ways, and – most importantly – take appropriate action.

A new party

Perhaps better case studies of what local spec-fic is or does – when considering questions of diversity – are Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius.

The first is a distinctly Aussie Handmaid’s Tale for our times, where “girls” guilty by association with some unspecified sexual scenario are drugged, abducted and held captive in a remote outback location.

The latter is another idea whose time has come: an apocalyptic act of colonisation. Not such an imagined scenario for Noongar woman Coleman. It’s a tricky plot to tell without giving away spoilers – the book opens on an alternative history, or is it a futuristic Australia? Again, the story is told through different points of view, which prioritises collective storytelling over the authority of a single voice.




Read more:
Friday essay: science fiction’s women problem


“The entire purpose of writing Terra Nullius,” Coleman has said, “was to provoke empathy in people who had none.”

This connection of reading with empathy is a case Neil Gaiman made in a 2013 lecture when he told of how China’s first party-approved science-fiction and fantasy convention had come about five years earlier.

Neil Gaiman.
Julien Warnand/EPA

The Chinese had sent delegates to Apple and Google etc to try to work out why America was inventing the future, he said. And they had discovered that all the programmers, all the entrepreneurs, had read science fiction when they were children.

“Fiction can show you a different world,” said Gaiman. “It can take you somewhere you’ve never been.”

And when you come back, you see things differently. And you might decide to do something about that: you might change the future.

Perhaps the key to why speculative fiction is on the rise is the ways in which it is not “hard” science fiction. Rather than focusing on technology and world-building to the point of potential fetishism, as our “real” world seems to be doing, what we are reading today is a sophisticated literature engaging with contemporary cultural, social and political matters – through the lens of an “un-real” idea, which may be little more than a metaphor or errant speculation.

The Conversation

Rose Michael, Lecturer, Writing & Publishing, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

Dark Intelligence (Transformation, #1)Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If AI essentially become gods does that make humans the prime mover?

Thorvald Spear died 100 years ago in the war with the Prador. Fortunately, this is the future, so death is less final than it used to be. But Spear is less than happy with how he died at the hands of the black AI, Penny Royal, and decides to destroy it. Along the way he manages to piss off Isobel Satomi, who has also got a carapace to pick with Penny Royal. So she adds Spear to her list of things to destroy. Meanwhile, Penny Royal is up to something, and everyone wants to know what.

This was my first outing with Neal Asher and his Polity universe. Asher was recommended to me by a fellow blogger – Bookstooge – so I found this recent series in the library. There is much I enjoyed about this book, and by extension the universe Asher has created. The details that give this universe a lived in feel, the cyberpunk sensibilities, the interesting sci-fi technology, are all fantastic. The story and characters are also interesting. So why only 3 stars?

There were two things that really stopped me enjoying this novel more: the length; and the anachronisms.

Sci-fi has a habit of being long because someone decided that that was okay for spec-fic genres. Dark Intelligence made me notice that this was a long book. Usually if you are really enjoying a book, the length goes unnoticed. So I had the sense that there was too much padding, unnecessary exposition, and side plots. It all fits together nicely, but I’m sure that this could come in much shorter without losing anything.

The second problem I had was with the constant anachronisms. Sounds being described as like a domino being slapped on the board… because dominoes is so popular right now, let alone a few centuries into the future. The Polity universe is filled with hyper-intelligent AIs that can do just about anything… but apparently cars still need a human to drive them. Tesla had that covered two years ago. After noticing one anachronism the floodgates opened, to the point where I started to question if this was Asher having a joke. But I doubt this is the case, since he criticised Greg Bear for doing the same thing in a book review.

Perhaps I’ll enjoy The Skinner more, which Bookstooge originally recommended.

View all my reviews

Book review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)Neuromancer by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you directly influence the creation of cyberpunk, The Matrix, the term cyberspace, and popularising the term ICE, does that mean you get a pass on influencing dubstep?

Case is your average run-of-the-mill washed-up loser. On his way to drug addled death after his hacking career is cut short, he is recruited to perform the ultimate hack. Patched back together with new organs, he joins a team recruited to help an AI.

I feel like I’m being unfair in my rating for Neuromancer. This is one of those classic novels that deserves the praise it receives. The influence this novel has had on science fiction, particularly upon film, is hard to overstate. It is also easy to underestimate the skill of Gibson’s writing. For example, just before starting Neuromancer I tried (and failed) to read a sci-fi novel with a similar level of world building and interesting ideas. Where that novel failed in being able to make the jargon feel natural, and the explanations flow, Gibson succeeds. His narrative isn’t bogged down by the world building the way many others can be.

Having said that, Neuromancer didn’t grab me. It was entertaining enough to keep me reading, but not enough to have me rating it higher. I’d imagine that had I read this novel 20-30 years earlier my opinion would be different. It is the curse of being the original that everyone copies. At some point people like myself won’t be wowed because they’ve seen it all before by the time they read the progenitor.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Call of Cthulhu by HP Lovecraft

The Call of CthulhuThe Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why choose the lesser evil? Vote Cthulhu.

Francis Thurston starts fossicking through his uncle’s things and discovers some notes and a carving. Fascinated, he searches high and low to uncover the origins of the carving. Soon he is traversing the world to uncover a cult and the being they worship. Things only get better from there on in.

It is hard to review a classic work of fiction. Usually, there are only a few paths open to you:
1) Fawning sycophancy;
2) A belligerent dismissal of the work as rubbish which avoids engaging in anything other than superficial comment;
3) Overly detailed comment and critique that ends up being worthy of a Masters dissertation that no-one will bother reading and just assume you did #2 (i.e. a complete waste of time);
4) A review that is clearly based on having watched the movie adaptation.

The reasons that this is a hugely influential work are clear. The mystery being uncovered with a slow reveal. The dense and subtle narrative. The gradual rise in tension as we come to the realisation. It is also a bleak comment on human existence and our insignificance. But there is also the use of the memoir narrative that appears to have been very popular in speculative fiction in the past. For me, this style removes both the narrator and the reader from the events of the story, which removes much of the tension and emotion.

I feel comfortable saying my rating is “good but not great” because Lovecraft himself described this as a middling effort.

giphy

View all my reviews

Book review: Afterlife by Marcus Sakey

AfterlifeAfterlife by Marcus Sakey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you kill enough people you become a god. Still makes you a jerk though.

Agents Will Brody and Claire McCoy are hunting a serial killer. But he is unlike any serial killer who has ever come before. He is always a step ahead. He has power. And he has help. I could give more away, but the title gives you the idea.

Afterlife is an intriguing book. The ideas underpinning this supernatural speculative fiction story are as original as you will see. And mixed with this are two interesting characters and their relationship. It hangs together nicely whilst not becoming bogged down with the sort of world-building that spec-fic can bore readers with.

That said, I almost gave up on this book. The first chapter didn’t grab me at all. It isn’t until later in the novel that you understand why that chapter is there at all. Similarly the semi-ambiguous ending may also throw some people given the setup prior to the penultimate chapter. These points, particularly the first one, could discourage people. Normally I don’t say this – since I’m big on giving up on books ASAP to make room for good books – but stick with this for a few chapters. Don’t be put off by the opener, it will make sense soon.

NB: I was provided a review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

View all my reviews

Book Review: No Time Left by David Baldacci

No Time LeftNo Time Left by David Baldacci

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If you time travel how can you have no time left?

It is pretty hard to review this book without spoilers, and quite honestly you’ll want to read the spoilers so you won’t waste your time. This short story is about an assassin who is hired to kill his own mother in the past. He does so, he ceases to exist. End of story.

Don’t worry, I didn’t ruin anything for you.

This was so predictable as to be confusing. How could such a popular author churn out such a generic waste of space as this story? Baldacci offers no unique take on this well worn trope, he doesn’t give us an interesting character to follow, his story has massive plot holes, and he doesn’t even offer money back…. Okay, I did get this from the library, but I still feel he owes me money.

The positive reviews I have read for this story appear to be from long time fans. This is my third underwhelming outing with Baldacci. There won’t be a fourth outing.

NB: I do apologise for posting a negative review. Normally I avoid mentioning the books I haven’t enjoyed. I’m making an exception with this review because this story reeks of a big name author and their publisher putting out any old dross they feel like.

View all my reviews