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Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison (1967) 598 p.

I would estimate that maybe 40-60% of this renowned and admired anthology of science fiction stories consists of introductions, forewords, afterwords. Every story has an introduction by Ellison, and I started skipping these after the first one, because they are – bar none – interminable chummy ramblings that reminded me of nothing so much as Grampa Simpson talking about tying an onion to his belt. In more than once case, the introduction is actually longer than the story. Not since Michael Moorcock have I encountered a writer so obsessed with the collective memoirs of his own clique. Why do SFF writers end up like this? The conventions – it must be all those goddamn conventions.

The stories aren’t much better. They almost all have that stain of early/mid-century Old White Man scifi writer on them: lecturing, condescending, sexist, not nearly as groundbreaking as they think they are, and something else I can’t put my finger on. A lack of finesse; a boyish immaturity. Nowadays the best science fiction is written by people like Kim Stanley Robinson and Margaret Atwood and Chris Beckett, people who cut their teeth in the literary world, but this is a collection of writers who learned the craft by writing for magazines with rocket ships on the cover. Some of them (Niven and Sturgeon in particular) verge into being laughable, even as they clearly think they’re writing serious Big Idea fiction.

The only story in here which I thought was worth reading was Philip K. Dick’s extremely disturbing “Faith of Our Fathers” – which is saying something, since I’m not normally a fan of Dick’s. Most of the rest of it is dated and puerile rubbish which I had to force myself through. The only story in it which I skipped entirely was Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage,” because I’ve already wasted too much of my reading life on that talentless hack.

Ground-breaking in its time, maybe, but the world of science fiction has long since moved on to brighter and better days. Dangerous Visions can be safely consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) 324 p.

When I was a younger writer I had a habit of treating forced captivity – that is to say, imprisonment, restraint, incarceration – as a mere event in a grander story. That stemmed from boy’s adventure stuff; Tintin working free of his ropes, Solid Snake at his leisure to utilise countless ways to escape a jail cell, etc. Obviously this was childish but it’s interesting to note why I saw it that way: imprisonment was a challenge, a puzzle, and above all a temporary setback – the idea that the protagonist would escape was never remotely in question.

Viewed from a more mature age, captivity is one of the most horrific things that can happen to a human being. To be completely at somebody else’s mercy, somebody who could hurt or kill or rape you, to be robbed of your freedom, and to know that there’s really no light at the end of the tunnel – that they have complete control over you and you are never going to escape.

I mention this because while I’ve long since grown out of the notion of treating captivity in fiction as a sort of MacGuyver-esque puzzle to be solved, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best examples I’ve read of the the hollow, gut-wrenching feeling of being trapped in unjust confinement. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since I read Oryx & Crake back in university – it’s Atwood’s most famous novel, after all, even more so than her Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin. Narrated by the titular handmaid who goes only by the name of “Offred,” it posits a future dystopia in which the US government has been overthrown and the nation renamed Gilead, ruled by a patriarchal theocracy in which women are subservient to men in all things. Offred, once a successful university student, a partner, a mother, a feminist, has now been reduced by society to a “womb with legs.” She has been assigned as a “handmaid” to a high-ranking Commander, as families attempt to overcome mass infertility by using younger, healthier women as breeding stock. Offred is prohibited from reading or writing, and the tale is narrated to us inside her own head, teasing out elements of her past while she introduces us to this terrible new world.

Part (but not all) of what you get out of this book will depend on how plausible you find Gilead to be. I have to say that Atwood, in my opinion, made the mistake of digging a little too deep beneath the surface of her fictional world. Offred is only in her early thirties and it apparently hasn’t been more than a few years since “Congress was machine-gunned” and women’s financial assets were reassigned to their partners. Canada, England and Japan (at the very least) are explicitly shown to remain free and functioning democracies, with a secret “Underground Femaleroad” smuggling fleeing women across the northern border to safety – so we know this revolution was limited to the US rather than part of a general global slouch towards limiting freedoms that we might see in, oh, say, most of the modern Western world today. (Indeed, it’s hard not to read a little Canadian smugness in Atwood’s voice, particularly in the metafictional epilogue.) To be fair, part of the point of the novel is how quickly things can change; Offred makes repeated reference to the new normal, to the point where she sometimes feels strange when noticing mundane objects that are still the same as they always were. But I would have preferred the origins and the back story of Gilead to have remained shrouded in a little more secrecy. The Handmaid’s Tale feels far more like an extremist example of extrapolated trends than an actual, realised vision of a dystopian future. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I’m pretty sure Oryx & Crake is the more believable (and better) novel.

Atwood has an interesting article in the Guardian in which she lays out the thinking behind the genesis of this dystopian future:

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. Thus China replaced a state bureaucracy with a similar state bureaucracy under a different name, the USSR replaced the dreaded imperial secret police with an even more dreaded secret police, and so forth.

This overlooks the fact that late 20th century America was not a remotely similar society to early 20th century Russia or mid-20th century China. Yeah, yeah, I know, Orwell set 1984 in England to prove that dictatorships can happen anywhere and to any society, etc. But America going from a free and liberal society with a puritanical streak to a North Korean-style totalitarian state in, apparently, the space of less than five or ten years? Not buying it. Maybe there’s a book that can convince me all human societies are a whisper away from organised barbarism, but The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t it.

Which is not to say that it’s not a good novel. It is. I’ve spent most of this review banging on about the plausibility of its world, but it’s meant to be taken in equal measure as a metaphor or a parable as much as a cautionary tale. Atwood is a deeply personal writer, and The Handmaid’s Tale is concerned less with Gilead as a place and more with Gilead as a concept, and the brutal effect it has on Offred’s internal thoughts, feelings and desires. It’s the small things that make the novel so affecting: Offred’s frustration with the day-to-day tedium of her slavery, since she has nothing to read, nothing to occupy her time – an aspect of captivity that had, surprisingly, never occurred to me. Or her anguished imagination of the three possible fates of her partner Luke, from whom she was separated during their long-ago escape attempt: successfully over the border, dead, or in captivity. Offred draws these scenes out in painful detail, imagining Luke as a mouldering skeleton in a forest with bullet holes through his skull, or shaved and shackled in a cell somewhere, or living free in Canada without her. “One of these must be true,” she says, but it’s the ignorance of his fate that’s so heartbreaking. Schroedinger’s loved one.

Novels which set out an elaborate imagined world, especially dystopian novels, often fall back on simply presenting the world as it is, with an absence of any driving plot or developing story. The Handmaid’s Tale actually does the latter, but it wouldn’t have needed to – Atwood’s skill as a writer is in the smaller moments, the slices of life, and the ways we perceive the world. It’s not her best book, but I can understand why it’s her most famous; I can see why it struck a chord with so many readers.

the wayfarer

What with the Christmas period and my recent ticking-clock househunt that saw my sanity reduced to a whimpering dormouse, I haven’t been paying much attention to my writing. But here we go, two new stories published to kick off the new year!

At Kasma SF I have The Survivors of the Wayfarer, set on a desolate in a far future Earth, and illustrated very beautifully by Jose Baetas. (It’s legitimately weird and humbling to see somebody draw or paint a scene that I only brought into being from my imagination.)

And over at old stalwart Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, edition 53 has the seventh instalment of my Black Swan serial, Restitution – in which the consequences of the sixth story spill over. Enjoy!

Truth by Peter Temple (2009) 361 p.

truth

Somewhere along the way I picked up the notion that it’s okay for your personal life to be hopelessly, irredeemably fucked – divorced, alcoholic, sleeping in a flophouse – as long as you’re also a homicide detective. This is a theme that runs through so much great detective fiction, from The Wire to The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, stretching all the way back to the great cop shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s – shows I couldn’t actually name but which have been satirised and parodied ever since. Sure, it’s a cliche, and I’m sure most homicide detectives probably actually have happy family lives – but it’s a cliche that I like. Maybe we’d all feel a bit better about our own shitty lives if instead of slogging off to our boring admin jobs we actually had something hugely important to devote our office hours to. A homicide detective is one of the noblest lines of work there is.

Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Villani is the head of homicide for Victoria Police. His life, in accordance with the aforementioned narrative tradition, is fucked. His wife has left him, his teenage daughter is running wild with drug addicts and street thugs, his career is on thin ice because of a botched police operation in Temple’s earlier novel The Broken Shore (in which he was a minor character) and his father, who lives on a farm on Melbourne’s outskirts, is stubbornly refusing to leave in the face of an advancing bushfire. Over the course of a few days in a sweltering Australian summer, Villani’s personal life collides with two high profile murders: a prostitute in a penthouse apartment and a grisly, torturous revenge killing of a trio of infamous gang members.

As in The Broken Shore, the first thing you notice is how unique Temple’s writing style is. It’s either punchy short sentences or long flow-on sentences with commas. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, Temple perfectly captures Australian dialogue, particularly amongst Australian men – truncated, laconic, nobody ever expending more words than they need to. It takes a while to get into it, but it’s also beautifully poetic at times:

The truck stop on the Hume. Swooshing highway, a hot night, airless. As you opened the car door, it would hit you: petrol, diesel, heated rubber, exhaust gases, chip-fryer oil, the smell of burnt meat.

He stood in the scorching day, the trucks howling by, buffeted by their winds, they flew his tie like a narrow battle standard.

The cold day was drawing to its end. They walked into the wind, the leaves flowing at them like broken water, yellow and brown and blood, parting at their ankles.

Temple was writing Truth during the devastating Black Saturday bushfires which killed 163 people, and this is mirrored in the book, as Melbourne is covered in a pall of smoke from bushfires advancing on the city’s outskirts. It has an excellent sense of place to begin with, but this gives it a sense of time as well, of being squarely placed in an event; the city-dwellers constantly reminded of the fierce danger of the rural world beyond their ken.

The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with the terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a twenty-storey building, throwing red-hot spears and fireballs hundreds of metres ahead, sucking air from trees, houses, people, animals, sucking air out of everything in the landscape, creating its own howling wind, getting hotter and hotter, a huge blacksmith’s reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to silver flowing liquids and buckled steel.

This is the crime novel that won the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, and rightly so. Not just for Temple’s rich language and sense of place, but for the subtle ways he examines Australian masculinity. In the office, in the boxing ring, in family life, on the streets: everything in Villani’s world comes down to men, and how they express their domination over others, both women and men. Broken, brooding men who hide their emotional core may be a tired old theme, especially in Australian fiction, but I nonetheless found it deeply engaging – especially at the novel’s climax, when Villani returns to his father’s farm during the raging height of the bushfire.

Truth still has its flaws. There are far too many peripheral characters who are referred to by surname only, which became pretty bad, for me, when Villani solved one of the murders and went to confront the killer. The killer’s identity is kept hidden from the reader even as Villani begins speaking to him, but when the big reveal came… I only vaguely recognised the name and couldn’t remember who he was supposed to be, which robbed the moment of its gravity just a tad. And I have to repeat my complaint from The Broken Shore: Temple is a hugely skilled writer who doesn’t seem to realise that his novels do not need to feature larger-than-life villains or culminate in gunfights. Yes, police are often involved in life or death situations, and yes, one of these moments midway through Truth was masterfully done and one of the most tense and unputdownable set-pieces I’ve read in a while. But they stack up as the book goes on, and it stands out as unrealistic, especially when Temple had managed to make everything else in his fictional Melbourne – the people, the places, the dialogue – so pitch perfect.

Although I do have to disagree with one element. Temple portrays Melbourne as a hard and violent city full of junkies, muggers, rapists and killers; Villani remembers a time “when the CBD was still safe enough to walk across at night.” It’s hard to say whether this is:

a) A police officer’s view – a jaded man who’s only ever seen the worst of the world
b) An old man’s view – Temple is in his sixties, and there’s a touch of “back in my day” about it
c) A sort of alternate universe or grim future in which Melbourne has denigrated to a city on par with Detroit or Johannesburg
d) All three

Rest assured, foreign readers, that Melbourne really is a city of bearded baristas, overpriced laneway bars and quirky hipster nonsense markets, which regularly tops various charts as the world’s most liveable city. I feel safer here walking the streets at night than I have in any city outside Korea or Japan, including other cities in Australia. This all ties in with my continual bemusement that, despite being a sunny and happy country with one of the best economies and highest standards of living in the world, Australian fiction is almost uniformly bleak and miserable.

Anyway – those are small flaws, on the whole. I liked Truth a lot. I liked Temple’s writing style, I liked his sense of time and place, and the climax was one of the most affecting things I’ve read in a long time. The Miles Franklin was richly deserved.

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