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Reading Wither by Lauren DeSteffano

Reviewed for Foundation in 2011.

Wither – Lauren DeSteffano
(Harper Voyager, 2011)

One might construct a genealogy for Wither that combines Logan’s Run with The Handmaid’s Tale and then pours it into the template that produces the kind of young adult dystopian novel so much in vogue at present, Suzanne Collins’s much-praised The Hunger Games being an obvious example. However, to do so would be to grossly over-read Wither and assign to it a pedigree it in no way deserves. Indeed, if one believes that a major prerequisite of science fiction is scientifically verifiable world building, Wither has already failed at the first hurdle. The world it offers the reader is so fragile, to query it even slightly is to cause the edifice to immediately topple.

Wither is ostensibly set in America, sufficiently far in the future for a world war to have completely obliterated all landmasses except America (by ‘America’, I suspect the author means the USA, rather than North America). Despite this catastrophe, America has become entirely self-sufficient as a manufacturing nation, and one is left with the inescapable impression that the war affected America only insofar as it destroyed the import business. This might in itself be enough to raise an eyebrow but America has also, thanks to startling advances in genetic engineering, eliminated disease and created a generation of perfectly healthy human beings. Unfortunately, although the first generation of ‘perfect’ humans are leading long and healthy lives, in subsequent generations females die at twenty, males at twenty-five, with a promptness that is as surprising as it is nonsensical. So far, researchers have failed to discover an explanation for this occurrence.

The corollaries of this situation are that, on the one hand, there are vast numbers of parentless children barely subsisting in government-run orphanages, and on the other, a flourishing trade in kidnapping young adolescent girls, to be sold into sexual slavery as breeding stock for (and it requires a certain amount of reading between the lines to grasp this) wealthy families desperate to continue their blood lines. Given the ready availability of young girls – who already prostitute themselves to make money – it is not obvious why such subterfuges are necessary, except to deny the girls any negotiating capability in the marketplace, that and the fact that kidnapping, coerced marriage and the prospect of forced sex might be more thrilling for an impressionable reader than a simple financial transaction.

The author has clearly not given much thought to the economic or political structure of this future America. It doesn’t so much exist as only come into view when the author needs to underline yet again the difference between the wretched world outside, where orphans starve and freeze to death, and the almost unbelievable opulence of the big house in which three kidnapped girls, Rhine, Jenna and Cecily, are imprisoned. Mostly, we learn about the world outside from Rhine, the first-person narrator. Unfortunately, Rhine is maddeningly vague about her life before she arrived at the house. She offers the reader scraps of memory and fragments of history, but is unable to provide a fully coherent account of what has happened. If one didn’t already suspect that Wither was never intended to be a science fiction novel, this would surely confirm it. No one is engaged with the world outside.

Instead, DeSteffano’s characters exist in a setting which refuses any pretence of reality, surrounded by the trappings of immense wealth, indicative of the fact that the science fictional references are purely hand-waving, the ill-chosen background for a romance novel which owes far more to the gothic creations of the late Victoria Holt. The remote manor house, the exquisite couture, the elegant social functions, the husband who is practically a stranger, the difficulty in putting an actual date to the novel’s setting, are all hallmarks of that style. Admittedly, the future setting grants DeSteffano the licence to be a little more daring in her portrayal of sexual mores, including polygamy. The wife who was a prostitute is Linden Ashby’s regular bed companion while the wife who craves a baby is carrying his child, leaving the virginal Rhine to exchange thrilling but chaste kisses with the handsome servant, Gabriel, while keeping Linden at arm’s length. At no point does anyone actively query this or ask if it is truly acceptable.

Rhine is, or so she says, desperate to escape in order to find her twin brother, Rowan, but her desperation manifests itself in a curious inertia, coupled with a vague air of anxiety about the behaviour of Linden’s father, Housemaster Vaughn. Part Victor Frankenstein, part Duke Bluebeard, Vaughn spirits away Linden’s dead wives and babies and conducts experiments on their bodies in his basement laboratory, having presented Linden with fake ashes. He is apparently seeking a solution to the premature deaths, but Rhine is suspicious of his activities. That Linden reads Frankenstein aloud to Rhine might be interpreted as some sort of clue to what’s going on but if it is, Rhine misses the hint, and it is the only indication that Linden himself may suspect that something is wrong. In fact, whatever it is that Vaughn is doing is, like everything else of interest, kept firmly off the page; with Rhine mostly imprisoned on an upper floor of the house, there is little opportunity for the plot to go beyond yet another bath or dress-fitting. Indeed, one half-wonders if, in a nod to Northanger Abbey, Rhine hasn’t entirely misunderstood what’s happening, but there is no chance to find out.

Wither expects very little from its readers. Indeed, too close a scrutiny reveals just how flimsy its premise really is. The frankly disturbing subtext, that forced sex is not necessarily a bad thing so long as it is not happening to you, lies unquestioned. The science-fictional elements of the novel are poorly conceived and poorly applied. One can only hope that the teenage girls who are its intended audience recognise Wither’s many shortcomings and turn to something more challenging.

Reading Poison by Chris Wooding

And again, a brief shift to Foundation, for a review from 2008

Poison – Chris Wooding
(Scholastic Press, 2003)

‘Imagination is as close as we will ever be to godhead,’ observes a character towards the end of Poison. ‘[f]or in imagination we can create wonders.’ But if imagination is the driving force of fiction, why then does one always feel slightly uneasy when an author talks about the process of creating fiction even while creating it. Was that a knowing wink to the audience or did one just catch the author’s eye at an inopportune moment? Did the façade of fiction fall over intentionally, or was it caught a glancing blow by a clumsy protagonist? In flaying the carcass of the work as it progresses, does not the author also risk laying bare its flaws and inadequacies? In the case of Poison, it’s not always easy to tell what Chris Wooding’s intention is, and neither is it easy to tell whether or not that is Chris Wooding’s intention.

Wooding’s most recent novel, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, a young-adult fantasy, was set in an alternative quasi-Dickensian London threatened by wyches, supernatural beings that Thaniel Fox hunted down and killed in order to make his living. The novel was striking for its distinctive, atmospheric settings, its attractive if not always likeable characters, and Wooding’s ability to fuse magic and technology in a manner that felt plausible. Admittedly, the plot was conventionally framed as a race against time to save the world from evil forces, but the story was told with verve, and it rightly garnered critical acclaim.

In Poison, Wooding has set his sights on something rather more ambitious. His approach is best summed up by an incident part way through the novel, when the four main characters make their way secretly through an enemy’s castle, moving along a narrow passageway between the inner and outer skins of the building, peering into rooms as they go. Much of the second part of the novel hinges on a series of observations which they make during this clandestine progress, and their subsequent ability to understand the significance of what they have seen. Even as he tells his story, Wooding invites the reader to slip through the interstices of plot and narration in order to admire the manner of their construction. The question is, can Poison stand up to such intense scrutiny?

There is never any doubt that we are in a novel where storytelling will be to the fore. Poison begins with the traditional invocation, once upon a time, even while it subverts expectations by giving us a self-christened heroine called Poison. Her situation is familiar in its unremitting grimness: she is an outsider in her community, and at odds with her stepmother. Her father is decent but careworn, and she relies on her mysterious friend, Fleet, also an outsider, for support. He tells her stories and gives her advice, not least telling her that: ‘[r]eal life is a story too, only much more complicated. It’s still got a beginning, a middle and an end. Everyone follows the same rules, you know … it’s just that there are more of them.’

An experienced reader will already be struck by the patness of the story, even down to Poison’s possessing violet eyes, a sure sign of literary destiny. There are hints of a deeper, wider-ranging story – Wooding institutes some playing with names (Poison’s original name is Foxglove, her birth mother was Faraway, her stepmother is Snapdragon) and offers a tantalising analysis of the female characters’ various discontents – but this is finally sacrificed to Poison’s story. Swiftly and inevitably, Poison shows herself to be a competent heroine when her sister is snatched by the Scarecrow, a sandman-like figure, and a changeling left in her place. Almost before one can blink, she is standing by the side of the road, waiting to hitch a lift with a wraith-catcher who had fortuitously been staying in the village the night before, and who will take her to the city to begin her quest to recover her sister. Yet this is not formulaic fantasy. Wooding has already expended too much energy on neat touches and on small details which, alas, he will not follow up on later. Clearly something else is happening; the question is, what is it?

‘It was just like the stories,’ begins one chapter, the chapter in which the three companions: competent girl, brainless but beautiful girl; older, reliable male, and their supernaturally bright cat, head into a glaringly perfect fantastic landscape. Indeed it was, and this is what we are supposed to notice, even without Wooding flagging up the fact quite as vigorously as he does. And were we to be left in any doubt, the group quickly encounters a figure familiar to readers of C.S. Lewis. He may be called Myrrk, but it’s very clear that his ancestry includes a large quantity of marsh-wiggle. His entire raison d’etre within the text appears to be to provide a commentary on what is and isn’t customary in a work of genre fantasy, and, more significantly, on authors who do not fully sketch out their characters. His is an unexpectedly large and unsubtle textual intrusion, compared to others in the book, but there are many. Here be not so much dragons as unadorned hints about the artificiality of text.

There is a point to this, it turns out. Poison’s world is one of many that jostle alongside one another, all of them presided over by the Hierophant., whose castle is notable for having a library which is somehow present in all those different worlds. The Hierophant – a person, especially a priest, who interprets sacred or esoteric mysteries – is the creator, the author even, of these worlds, even though his job nowadays is more to give them a nudge, here and there, as they find their own ways, than to actively create new worlds. But when the Hierophant writes, his words literally are law, which means that he is still a force to be reckoned with, even if his creations, or those of his predecessors, appear to exert free will. Which is particularly problematic for Poison, once she realises what the reader must already have guessed, that the Hierophant has written her journey for her, guiding her to his castle to become his apprentice. Given that her entire life has, she believes, been driven by her own free will, how can she deal with this outbreak of determinacy? By exerting her own will, of course, by deciding to die and thus thwart the Hierophant’s plans. And yet, as Poison wills herself to death, everything around her fades, because it’s her own story she’s in control of. The moral is irritatingly clear and of course Poison lives on.

The very neatness of this revelation marks what has become so evident in the story as it progresses. It’s become too tidy, anodyne even. In walking Poison through the conventions of genre, the Hierophant, preoccupied with his sacred responsibility to the text, seems to have eliminated any chance for her imagination to flourish, and the same extends to Wooding in his hierophantic relationship with the text. Plot, as I’ve previously observed, is not his forte, although he is capable of turning out some frankly barnstorming set-pieces. His evocation of Poison’s marshland home fairly reeks of the swamp, and his descriptions of Poison’s encounters with Lamprey, victim of a kelpie, and Asinatra, Lady of the Spiders are terrifying in a way that owes a good deal to M.R. James. He also has the ability to find the telling phrase. The court of Aelthar, Lord of Phaerie, is described as being ‘glutted with perfection and beauty’, a succinct and effective description, simultaneously evoking wonder and disgust.

However, the novel as a whole is undoubtedly less than the sum of its parts. Humans may have the one thing the inhabitants of other worlds lack, but possessing imagination is not the same as using it. We can explain away the artificiality of the plot as an expression of the Hierophant’s need to train Poison. Indeed, at one point, another character comments on how the stories Fleet told her seem to have been ‘more like a survival manual than a story.’ That is the nub of the problem. While Wooding is, I’m sure, trying to convey to his adolescent readers the power of story, how it can bring colour to an impoverished existence and offer hope for the future, he, like his own creations, has told more than he has shown. Inspiration has been replaced by worthiness. Wooding’s aspirations for his novel have, on this occasion, stretched further than his talent to convey them. Had he been a little less ambitious, he might have been more successful in telling a story. Godhead will have to wait for a little longer.

Reading Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination

A change of venue, as I reprint a more recent review from Foundation,  originally published last year.

In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination – Margaret Atwood
(Virago, 2011)

It is almost impossible to write about Margaret Atwood in relation to the science fiction and fantasy genres without reference to her now notorious ‘squids in space’ comment. What seems to have been originally an off-the-cuff remark on a tv morning chat show has been taken up by genre fans and commentators as the prime example of Atwood’s ignorance of and lack of sympathy for the contemporary genre. On the other hand writers who want to use genre topoi while rejecting that problematic genre label now brandish the phrase as a shield against what they regard as the wrong sort of critical attention. In subsequent interviews Atwood herself has come back to versions of the phrase, though whether because she sincerely believes what she said, because it has become part of her ‘brand’, or because, as I have come to suspect, she simply likes winding up critics of genre is not clear.

Given there is no ignoring the presence of the cephalopod in the Atwood sitting room, how then does one address In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, which one might take as Atwood’s definitive statement on the subject. The collection is comprised of three parts. First, we have the three Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature given by Atwood at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, in 2010. Secondly, there is a selection of reviews of and introductions to science fiction novels, written by Atwood during the 2000s, with an outlier from 1976. Lastly, there is a selection of short fictions by Atwood which she has designated (confusingly, for reasons that will become clear later) ‘science fiction’.

To begin with, we should be clear that Atwood knows what science fiction is, or rather, she knows what it is she points to and calls ‘science fiction’, in much the same way that most of us have a personal working definition of sf. Atwood’s definition is distinguished by two things: its unusual rigidity and the fact that Atwood, as a public figure, is better placed than most to promulgate that definition. John Clute noted in his review of this book in the Los Angeles Review of Books that during the ‘squids in space’ controversy he had argued ‘that a person who had attained a public voice had a public responsibility […] not to allow offhand comments to be understood as discourse’. Similarly, he reminded us that Ursula K Le Guin ‘made it clear that the squids-in-space bon mot was genuinely discourteous’. I see no reason to disagree with either statement. It may be that Atwood’s comment was simply careless but it is a terrible reminder to us of the power of words, and of the care that needs to be exercised in using them, not least that ten years later we cannot escape their effect.

Nor do I seek to frame this discussion in terms of an ongoing disagreement between Atwood and Le Guin about the nature of science fiction (though if I were to do such a thing, I would say here and now that my sympathy lies mainly with Le Guin, whose perception of genre is both more capacious and yet more nuanced than Atwood’s [or at any rate, it did when I wrote this review. I’m still reading through the material pertaining to the Ishiguro incident, and have only just read the novel, but my views have undoubtedly shifted somewhat.]) yet Le Guin’s presence looms over every page of this collection, from the dedication to her, through Atwood’s discussion of Le Guin’s review of The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake, which initiated another round of discussion as to what Atwood means by ‘science fiction’, to Atwood’s inclusion of her puzzled review of Le Guin’s The Birthday of the World and Other Stories.

In fact, let’s start with that review, which very clearly articulates Atwood’s lack of ease with the term ‘science fiction’. ‘[I]t’s an awkward box: it bulges with discards from elsewhere. Into it have been crammed all those stories that don’t fit comfortably into the family room of the socially realistic novel or the more formal parlour of historical fiction, or other compartmentalized genres: westerns, gothics, horrors, gothic romances, and the novels of war, crime, and spies’ (115). And that’s before Atwood goes on to list the many subdivisions of sf and fantasy in tones of fascinated horror. Her choice of words is interesting, too – ‘discards’ carries with it a certain flavour of the orphan child, or the unacceptable by-blow, while ‘awkward’ and ‘bulges’ suggest a lack of neatness. All of these are clearly antithetical to the ‘comfortably’ that is associated with the ‘family room’ of the ‘socially realistic novel’.

It is this last category that we should necessarily take note of. For Atwood’s perception of science fiction is founded in part on her fierce need to distinguish between the social realist and the fantastical, and to make an equally fierce distinction between the novel and the romance. The novel belongs to social realism while the romance is the form associated with the fantastic. And for Atwood ne’er the twain shall meet. In theory at least, though in practice this becomes rather more difficult, for what then is one to make of The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that most regard as science fiction, yet which is clothed in the trappings of the social realist novel, as defined by Atwood – texture, detail, character.

And this is where Atwood performs her great feat of legerdemain. First, she proclaims her own ‘lifelong relationship’ with science fiction, which she defines, from the outset, as ‘not of this here-and-now Earth’ (1). Yet, on the following page, Atwood admits that, as of 2008, she ‘didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction meant any more’ (2). Four pages later, Atwood redefines science fiction again: ‘What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds […] whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” [Atwood’s preferred term for her sf at this point] means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books’ (6). Neither definition of sf is objectionable in and of itself; most critics and academics are able to hold both in their heads simultaneously. Atwood, however, seems to prefer, indeed to insist on dichotomy and thus one must have one or the other but no kind of synthesis.

Yet Atwood, and despite her own protestations to the contrary, also seems to be driven by a need to keep making definitive statements about meaning, and this brings us back to Le Guin. In 2010, the two writers took part in a public discussion, during which Atwood, by her own account, found that what ‘Le Guin means by “science fiction is what I mean by “speculative fiction” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.” […] When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance.’ (7) Again, these conclusions might seem unsurprising to scholars of genre, but with Atwood having apparently found her way to a broader understanding of the terminology, one might suppose that the matter would be finally closed.

Except that the Ellmann Lectures suggest that the situation is otherwise. Indeed, in ‘Dire Cartographies’, the third in the series, Atwood offers us yet another new perception of her ‘science-fictional’ works. They should now be read as ‘ustopias’, a word Atwood claims to have coined by joining utopia and dystopia, on the basis that in each utopia is a latent dystopia, and vice versa. Her tone does smack rather of the clever if poorly read undergraduate coming up with a brilliant new idea, without taking due regard of the considerable body of criticism and analysis of utopian literature, yet it is clear from Atwood’s account of her postgraduate studies that at some point at least she was more than passingly familiar with the state of utopian studies, even if she did not keep up with her critical reading.

Indeed, it is this facet of Atwood’s account of her relationship with sf, or at any rate with utopian literature, that is to me the most interesting and revealing part of the lectures, in that we see a young and thoughtful Atwood putting together ideas that, while they may seem old hat now, were most likely fairly cutting-edge at that point, and one can’t help wondering how her storytelling might have turned out had she maintained a closer relationship with academe.

Similarly, the glimpses of the child Margaret are illuminating. We see two children (Atwood and her brother), with limited access to forms of culture we take for granted, pouring their imaginative energies into creating a race of rabbit superheroes. It is clear from Atwood’s account that her early apprehension of science fiction is intensely visual, influenced as much by comic strips and the occasional film as by the drawing of the rabbits’ adventures, and this is reflected in her later concern with the defining of science fiction (‘if you put skin-tight black or silver clothing on a book cover along with some jetlike flames and/or colourful planets, does that make the work “science fiction”?’ (2)) but also in her fascination with utopian literature, which she identifies as in part being about making lists and describing things. Indeed, it would seem that Atwood’s understanding of sf is literally superficial, in that to her it is all about surface and appearance, whereas utopian or ustopian literature, despite its similar preoccupation with things, or perhaps because of its avowed interest in paraphernalia, has been transmogrified into a form of social realism after all.

Anyone who comes to this collection of writings in search of a definitive answer as to what it means when Atwood uses the words ‘science fiction’ is probably going to be disappointed. However, the Ellmann Lectures do provide a valuable glimpse into the foundations of Atwood’s thinking on the issue. Having said that, it does seem to me that Atwood is using the quasi-academic context of the Ellmann Lectures (addressed, so far as I can see, to a general rather than scholarly audience) as a means to establish a discourse in which her unusually narrow definition of science fiction is given a greater validity than I ultimately think it deserves.

The alert reader almost immediately notices that Atwood returns to the same few exemplary texts over and over again, texts which are now extremely old. This is true of the lectures and of Atwood’s reviews. Sterling and Gibson get a mention apiece, as does Silverberg, but it’s clear too that for Atwood, sf or utopian literature stopped dead in the 1950s, at the point when she abandoned her PhD. Similarly, looking at the selection of reviews offered here, one has the sense of Atwood constantly reploughing the same single furrow. Perhaps the most revealing moment comes from seeing how little her view has shifted between her 1976 review of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, which Atwood insists is a utopia, to her most recent reviews. Certainly, in her most recent reviews, there is a sense of weary familiarity, as Atwood once again reaches for the set responses.

Scholars will also note the lack of a useful critical apparatus; footnotes are minimal and those that exist are often risible, as though their compiler had no sense of the audience for whom this book is intended, and there is no accompanying bibliography for those who want to read further. Indeed, the collection as a whole is not indexed so it is difficult to track repeated mentions of particular texts unless one takes notes.

If as I suspect, the Lectures were supposed to state Atwood’s position once and for all, then they have failed in their intent. Or rather, the Lectures present a coherent argument in and of themselves, though one that it is easy to take issue with. It is when they are considered in relation to Atwood’s reviews in this collection alongside the five stories, which she does actually describe as ‘science fiction’, though all of them are clearly ‘utopian’ in nature, that Atwood’s argument collapses yet again. (The inclusion of these reviews and stories or extracts is something of a mystery. Clearly the three Lectures were considered too insubstantial to form a book by themselves but one is left with the impression that Atwood literally went through her files, looking for anything mentioning utopian or science fiction, and included them to bulk things out.)

Presumably, Margaret Atwood will continue to formulate explanations of her work that insist that certain aspects of it are not, contrary to appearance, science fiction, and elements of the sf community will continue to express anger and frustration at her apparent wilfulness. The point is that try as she will, Atwood cannot control the reader’s response to her writing, and for many commentators The Handmaid’s Tale, The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake and Maddaddam are as much science fiction as they are utopian, ustopian, or speculative fiction, or whatever else Atwood chooses to call them. In the end, what they actually are has become almost less interesting than Atwood’s attempts to tell us what they are not.