Thursday, July 03, 2014

Träumen Roman

It was a fat Gollancz hardback with a yellow cover, so I must have written it in the late 1980s, presumably between Four Hundred Billion Stars and Secret Harmonies. Or perhaps, in the dream, it was my first novel. I was pleased to find it in the secondhand bookshop, so I must have lost or given away all my copies. A one-word title I can't remember, now, on waking. Did it begin with an 'R'? A 'P'? Somehow I knew, in the dream, that it was set in one of those cities on the edge of time, or a city in a virtual reality realer than what we like to call reality. A kind of dream within a dream. And I also knew that the narrative was shared by three protagonists, each speaking in the first person. Something about visions or abilities they were trying to make sense of, and something about finding a secret location in the city that would explain everything, once they all realised they contained or represented different parts of the key. There was a long quote in the acknowledgments about the blues singer John Lee Hooker. From Charles Shaar Murray's biography, perhaps, although that was published after Gollancz discontinued their signature yellow jackets. Still, dreams have their own logic and chronology. I remember thinking, as I thumbed through that unborn dream book, that it wasn't especially well-written - that it was just as well that the only copy could be found in the bookshop which dissolved when I woke up.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Not Your Usual Ultraviolence

I'm quite often late to the party these days, but usually not quite this late.  First published in the US in 2011, Kameron Hurley's God's War won a British Fantasy Society award and the 2011 Kitschies Award for Best Debut Novel, and after it was published in the UK in 2013 was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. I was at the ceremony, where extracts from the contenders were read out (an idea that was much, much better than it first sounded), was taken by the novel's strong voice, and bought it a couple of days later. Not my usual route to a book, but hey, as long as it works.

It's set in an indeterminate future on a colony world where a religious war has been raging for centuries, kind of like a blend of First World War trench warfare and last century's conflict between Iran and Iraq. Nyx, a dogged, damaged bounty hunter, so broke she sells her womb, is tossed into prison by her enemies, raises a crew when she's released, and takes on a commission to find an off-worlder on the wrong side of the interminable war, racing against those same enemies, who this time want her dead. Its pulpish narrative is more than a little uneven (although I quite like the way Hurley takes to extremes Elmore Leonard's rule to miss out the parts readers skip over), but Hurley is very good at showing, not telling, the details of Nyx's world, where a kind of Islam contests with a kind of Christianity, men are sent to war by a tough unflinching matriarchy, magicians manipulate insect-based biotech, and shape-changers attract the attention of those off-worlders. And like Joanna Russ's Alyx, Nyx isn't simply a woman who beats men at their own game, and God's War is rather more than a simple inversion of cliched sci-fi and fantasy hack-'em-ups.

For a start, there are clear consequences and costs to the outbursts of violence that punctuate its story: Hurley's anti-hero is damaged and brutalised by her chosen life. We see her most clearly through the eyes of one of her crew, Rhys, a second-rate magician from who dislikes what she does yet still loves her, although it's more complicated than the kind of hero-worship by the female love-interest in a more conventional novel, because Rhys is an avowed pacifist. He's also a refugee from the enemy country, and in his adopted home encounters prejudices against both his sex and nationality. He's beaten up by a gang of women, dons a burqa to escape the disapproving female gaze, and in short must deal with the kind of problems that women in our world must deal with.

It's not only a great example of how science fiction and fantasy can point up the faultlines of our own society; it's also an exemplar of the way that writers should always challenge preconceptions. There are far too many SF and fantasy novels which don't colour outside the genre lines. Far too many that reuse tropes without examining them, or transpose received notions from the author's culture directly into the future. And far too many in which women are the victims, or the prize or reward for the hero, or little more than the object of the male gaze - the author's as well as the characters. (It's not a problem peculiar to science fiction - how many crime novels start with a murdered woman?) God's War challenges that kind of default assumption on every page, and the result is hugely refreshing and thought-provoking.
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