Friday, June 10, 2016

Currently Reading (10)

Riffing off Ekow Eshun's memoir, Black Gold of the Sun, Ellah Wakatama Allrey notes that 'African children of the diaspora have a unique affinity with superheroes. It is a sense of belonging elsewhere, a longing for a special power that will both set them apart from the society that they live in and ensure them admiration and acceptance.' Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix is a fierce inversion of that observation, the story of the birth and radicalisation of a self-styled supervillain framed by the story of the discovery of her autobiographical memoir in a distant post-apocalyptic future.

Although it acts as a prequel to Okorafor's award-winning novel Who Fears Death, The Book of Phoenix works as a standalone novel: the confession of Phoenix Akore, a speciMen genetically engineered by the shadowy organisation Big Eye and caged with other experimental speciMen in a tower in partially-flooded near-future Manhattan. A prodigy aged just three whose accelerated growth gives her the appearance of a forty-year-old woman, Phoenix has educated herself by absorbing knowledge in thousands of books, has a titanium-alloy skeleton, can stimulate the growth of plants, raise her body temperature to searing heat, and regenerate after self-immolation. After the apparent suicide of her boyfriend, Phoenix destroys the tower by encouraging the tree at its heart to grow to enormous size, regenerates from ashes and develops wings, and heads for Africa with a seed discovered amongst the roots of the giant tree. But the Africans she meets are as exploited as the speciMen, Big Eye operatives track her down, and she returns to America under her own terms, where she reunites with her boyfriend and a third survivor of the fall of her tower, and embarks on a campaign to destroy Big Eye.

There's an immense amount of collateral damage, as in all proper superhero stories, but there's no real opposition. Although another speciMen is a black version of Superman, he's Phoenix's mentor rather than her opponent, teaching her how to slip through space and time, and Big Eye proves to be a mostly impotent enemy. But the core of the novel is not the usual conflict between superheroes and shadowy organisations; it's Phoenix's education, and her anger at colonial exploitation of Africa and her peoples. There are explicit references to slave ships, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and the immortal cell line of Henrietta Lacks, kleptocratic governments in former African colonies, and much more, and parts of the narrative can be, rightly, uncomfortable reading for those of us who've benefited, however tangentially, from various forms of exploitation.

The fast-moving narrative is crammed with ideas which aren't always given as much depth as they deserve, but as with Okorafor's equally crammed Lagoon, it gives off a glow of vital exuberance, Phoenix's Biblical wrath is tempered by passages both tender and reflective, and the story of its discovery in a desert cave which bookends it reframes it with profoundly dark irony. Despite the fierce, violent velocity of its narrative, this short novel lingers and continues to grow in the mind long after its telling.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

From Austral

We were ragged and sunburnt and lean. We lived on what we could forage and catch. We avoided other people, made long detours around villages and settlements. I swam several times in the sea, once in churning surf, once amongst greasy slicks of bull kelp, once among penguins that shot past me like torpedoes, trailing long wakes of silvery bubbles. Mama swam too, but never for very long – the water was too cold for her. We saw fish eagles play fighting above a fjord, locking claws and plunging towards the water and breaking apart at the last minute, over and again, and on our traverse of the Forbidden Plateau we descended into a crevasse and clambered over blocks fallen from the ice bridges that curved overhead and found at its far end a solemn cathedral vault and a tumble of ice descending into depths we did not dare to investigate, everything lit by a glow as holy and blue as radioactivity.

The days and days of walking blur together and it’s hard, now, to tell dreams from actual memories. I remember climbing to Mapple Valley’s high southern crest and seeing a panorama of parallel razorback ridges of black rock bare as the moon stretching away under the sky’s cloudless blue. I remember a circle of upright stones in a mossy chapel in the forest below the Forbidden Plateau, lit by a beam of sunlight slanting between the trees. The glass and concrete slab of some plutocrat’s back-country house cantilevered out from cliffs overlooking Wilhelminia Bay. The broken castle of an orphaned iceberg grounded on a rocky shore, with freshets of sparkling meltwater cascading down its fluted sides and a thick band of green algae tinting its wave-washed base. But did we really see, in the pass between Starbuck and Stubb Fjords, an albino reindeer poised near the thin spire of an elfstone named The Endless Song of the Air? Did we glimpse a pyramid set on a remote bastion of bare rock in the ice and snow of the Bruce Plateau? I’ve looked long and hard, but I’ve never been able to find it on maps or in satellite images. And did we really see people dancing naked in a circle around a huge bonfire in a forest glade near Tashtego Point? I can’t be certain that it wasn’t one of my dreams, but whether it was real or imaginary the memory of it still wakes the pulse of their drums in my blood.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Currently Reading (9)

Best known for his ten-volume Shadow of the Apt fantasy series, Adrian Tchaikovsky deploys old-school tropes -- terraforming, uplifting intelligence, a decaying starship -- to good effect in his first science-fiction novel. Its narrative, spanning some seventy centuries, is split between a rising civilisation of a species of spider accidentally gifted with intelligence during a terraforming experiment botched by sabotage, and a deterioriating human society aboard a starship, Gilgamesh, that centuries after the terraforming experiment has fled a dying Earth in search of a new home.

Continuity in the human strand of the narrative is given by the viewpoints of the formidable architect of the terraforming project, whose consciousness has been uploaded into an AI orbiting the planet, and Gilgamesh's chief engineer and a historian with special knowledge of Earth's collapsed civilisation. The lives of the latter are lengthened by long episodes of hibernation when Gilgamesh embarks on a futile round trip to another star after a near-fatal encounter with the formidable AI and an expedition to the planet's surface and first contact with the spiders go horribly wrong.

As for the spiders, the story of the rise of their civilisation and their struggle to understand their relationship with their AI guardian is told through a series of vignettes, an episodic history whose backbone is provided by lineages which perpetuate the names, characters and skills of their founders. Three are female, led by Portia, who is determined to save her species by any means necessary; one is male, striving to assert the value of his sex in a matriarchal society.

Tchaikovsky skilfully orchestrates the evolution of his complicated history, but doesn't quite overcome the obvious problem of splitting the narrative between one civilisation that's dynamic and rising, and another that's failing and splintering. While the spiders' half of the story is packed with ingenious ideas and unexpected twists, the fate of the humans aboard the starship follows a more familiar path, and the final resolution is likewise a little cliched. But the whole, with its nice inversion of the usual narrative of exploration and conquest and its thoughtful, strongly wrought depictions of two civilisations alien to each other yet linked by a common history, and of their attempts to understand each other, is an exemplar of classic widescreen science fiction, and the kind of stories that the genre has made its own.
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