Tag Archives: naomi foyle

Reading Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Memory of waterMemory of Water by Emmi Itäranta
(HarperVoyager, 2014)

Most dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels are very focused on how it happened or on how we are going to change things for the better, and ideally, both. While I can understand why an author would do that – placing protagonists at the centre of the action so that the reader can learn about the situation and how it came into being, and then provide some restorative closure – it always feels rather false to me, not least because this is not how the world works, at least, not on such a grand scale. Maybe I’m just growing old but I am becoming more and more resistant to that ‘man the barricades and we can fix this’ style of fiction, when it is at such variance to what I see in the world around me. Which is not to say that  the concept is bad per se, but it is remarkably easy to do badly, and therein lies the offence. If you are going to build a world you need to do it so well it either fades into the background while you get on with the real story, or else if you make it the focus of the story, you make it sufficiently convincing I don’t feel obliged to make lists of why things can’t possibly work. I can think of too many novels I’ve read lately (Edan Lepucki’s California and Naomi Foyle’s Astra being but two) where this does not happen. However, it turns out that there is at least one more way to handle this, and this is the route that Emmi Itäranta has chosen with Memory of Water.

Noria Kaitio lives in what she calls the ‘present-world’, somewhere in Scandinavia. Climate change has led, as anticipated, to rising sea levels and the inundation of coastal areas. In the wake of this came ‘water wars’, during which sources of fresh water were placed under the control of the military, where they have remained since. Water is rationed, but for some there is never quite enough and some have resorted to constructing illegal pipelines to siphon off water from the controlled sources. ‘Water crime’, with its obviously Orwellian overtones, is punishable by execution, after a period of dehydration and starvation.

And something else has happened along the way – some technical knowledge has been lost, and although they still exist, the electronic goods we take for granted are few, and difficult to get hold of. As indeed is everything else. There is a sense that the military pretty much run everything but it’s not really clear what is going on. Why is it not clear? Because this story is being told from the periphery rather than from the centre; and this is one of the things that makes it so successful. We never see the world as a whole. We see it through Noria’s eyes. She’s seventeen, it’s all she’s ever known, and even though her parents are educated people, who own many books, she takes most things at face value, as do most people. Her life is in the ‘present-world’ and her only real engagement with the ‘past-world’ comes through her friend Sanja’s hobby of combing the rubbish dumps for bits of old technology, which she tries to bring back to life. And indeed, the dumps provide a useful metaphor for the lives the two girls live, a mess of bits and pieces that don’t quite belong together and don’t quite make sense, but it’s all they’ve got.

One of the strongest parts of the novel is the portrayal of the friendship between the two girls, very different in character and circumstances, but tied closely to one another in a myriad ways. Itäranta hints delicately that Noria is in love with Sanja, but we have no clue as to the nature of Sanja’s love for Noria, and that feels right. We might wonder what the future holds for them in a world that seems to be deeply conservative but, within the frame of the novel itself, that is a question that cannot be answered, and indeed almost needs not to be answered. It is just part of who and what they are.

Noria’s detachment from the outside world is emphasised by her father’s craft: he is a tea master, and she is in turn apprenticed to him. This is further evidence, though unremarked on, of past upheavals. It’s clear from background references that China has been, may still be, in the ascendant, and the ceremonies of tea drinking have spread across what was once Europe. One might reasonably wonder how it is that a ritual that depends so much on water persists at a time when water is a precious commodity – and the answer is precisely that, because it is a precious commodity. Wealth and privilege permit one to use water in ways that poor people can’t. The only real surprise is that Noria’s father hasn’t moved to the city, where he might expect to make a less precarious living.

Or perhaps not, given that Noria’s father will not compromise where his craft is concerned. It is this refusal, this exercise of another kind of privilege, that will eventually lead Noria into trouble, once her father shows her the spring hidden deep in the fells, the water from which he uses for his tea ceremonies, a secret handed from master to master. It’s only much later, after her father’s death, once water has been rationed further, and when she sees the villagers suffering, that Noria finally begins to question the actions of her father and his predecessors, that the enormity of her promise to her father, to keep the spring a secret, comes home to her.  Not least because it’s clear too that the water police realise that they are hiding a water source, even if they can’t yet find it.

While Noria struggles with the moral implications of this concealment, she and Sanja have also stumbled on a mystery, contained on a series of old tapes they found in the dump, and which they’ve managed to listen to. These suggest that a scientific expedition of some sort went into the Lost Lands illegally and made an important discovery. Later, finding more evidence of the expedition’s presence at the hidden spring, Noria realises that they had contact with the tea master of the time. She finally discovers the truth in one of her predecessor’s journals, which draws the reader into a whole new consideration of the business of making records. Her father’s journals had been confiscated when the tea house was searched, but were returned, obviously unread. The threat to knowledge is, if you like, more powerful than actually doing anything with that knowledge.

This tension between knowing and not knowing permeates the entire novel. Is it better to know, or not to? And if you do, what should you do with that knowledge? How do you make the right choices when you have no one to guide you? Or worse, when your guide is himself compromised? And the question that is never quite articulated is, just how much has Noria’s father compromised himself in order to preserve his art? And is his art, as a result, itself now compromised. When Noria completes her apprenticeship and is tested by another master, he reluctantly accepts her as such, criticising her for changing certain elements of the ritual as she goes, for not making the choices he thinks are appropriate. Noria defends her choices as sensible accommodations of the situation in which she finds herself but there is an underlying implication that the ritual is in danger of becoming atrophied because its practitioners in the city are seduced by money. And yet, is Noria’s father any better for remaining in the country, seduced by the existence of that hidden spring, whose water will make his tea better?

In the end, Noria makes the choice which must inevitably lead to her death – shut away in her house with little food and water, and that supplied by the water police, who offer her dried food, food that needs soaking, and so on. It is at this point that Noria records everything she knows about the lost expedition and its discovery that fresh potable water is available in the Lost Lands, a thing the military knows and seeks to suppress, and something that Noria had hoped to reveal

And even here, the story does not falter or collapse, because while Noria is dying, Sanja was able to escape before the military arrived; later she will find her way to Noria’s mother, Lian, who moved to the city once she realised what was likely to happen. Sanja will bring their discovery to Lian, but of course we don’t know what she will do. And I really hope we don’t find out. Because this book is so wonderfully self-contained it would be a pity to break the spell that Itäranta has created and extend the story into an actual concrete sequel. Instead, it stays tantalisingly in the mind as we consider the possibilities.

So, instead, let me recommend Memory of Water to you as a necessary corrective to all those dystopian novels with their restorative endings. Exquisitely written, exquisitely observed, it lingers in my memory long after the others have all blurred into one.

Reading Astra by Naomi Foyle

A review from Interzone last year.

Astra: Book One of The Gaia Chronicles

Naomi Foyle, Jo Fletcher Books, 379pp

We tell one another stories to amuse and entertain ourselves, but we tell them also to commemorate, to educate, and, in the most extreme cases, to support an ideology. Astra, the novel’s eponymous protagonist, lives in a community that lays great emphasis on storytelling. The founding myths of Is-land are told over and over in elaborate community ceremonies by people who are only one or two generations removed from those pioneers. It reinforces their sense of who they are and where they’ve come from, but the stories also seem to act as blinkers.

Is-land itself is a small state located somewhere east of present-day Europe, which was created in the wake of a global economic and environmental collapse by refugees from ecological and neo-pagan communities in what was once the UK. While the details of this collapse are necessarily sketchy – when the novel opens Astra is a child, and as the story is told entirely from her point of view, the reader is entirely reliant on her childish apprehension of these stories – it is clear that the community has worked hard to protect its existence and maintain its philosophy. The communities of Is-land see themselves as working to heal the earth, in Is-land at least; their borders are sealed, to keep out those who would abuse the earth, and they refer to those beyond the Boundary as Non-landers. Is-landers live communally, grow their own food, make their own textiles, build low-impact houses, compost, recycle. Some communities have a relaxed attitude to the human body, eschew clothes and go ‘skyclad’. Yet even through Astra’s unquestioning gaze the reader already notes oddities. Where do the raw materials come from for the Tablettes which are such a feature of every child’s life? Why must the children serve a mandatory term with IMBOD, policing Is-land’s boundaries? Why is so great an emphasis laid on research involving genetic manipulation? For that matter, why does IMBOD seem to take such an interest in every aspect of the children’s lives?

The novel’s crisis is precipitated by two events, the first of which is Astra’s Shelter-mother, Hokma, persuading her to evade the Security shot, the preliminary to beginning training with IMBOD. Hokma’s concern is that this ‘shot’ suppresses children’s creativity and imagination, making them more open to IMBOD training and easier to manage. The other event is the arrival of Lil, who has grown up without the benefit of community education, raised by a Non-lander father who has taught her a very different version of history. Lil, unlike Astra, does not see Is-land as a paradise and constantly challenges Astra’s vision of the place.

For the outsider it is quite clear where this story is going, but the narrative is taken at Astra’s pace which means that we follow her rather too slowly through adolescence, preoccupied with such events as the Blood and Seed Ceremony, sporadically wondering why what she is told doesn’t match Lil’s stories, gradually realising that she has not been told the whole truth. Always, there is the background concern as to when, not whether, she will be discovered. This is fine so long as we are interested in Astra herself but despite her secret Astra is mostly an ordinary child, who takes everything pretty much at face value, and that is what the reader is given. Added to that, her world is not only familiar to her but is familiar to anyone who has read a lot of utopian or dystopian fiction. Much of what is actually going must go unremarked on by Astra because she simply doesn’t have access to it. As adult readers we might note that the general community seems either to be kept in ignorance or to deliberately maintain such a stance but without an adult viewpoint we cannot know, not until the end of the novel, and even then there are only hints. Too often it seems that Astra is a vehicle for Foyle to show us round the world she has created, and the action will only properly start in the second volume of the series.

Foyle has commented in articles that she is especially interested in the domestic in sf but while I’m sympathetic to the notion, domestic is not the same as ordinary. An author has to work very hard to make the ordinary seem compelling and I do not think that Foyle fully achieves this. Is-land’s stories about itself succeed so well that its inhabitants cannot see past them; for the reader, heavily reliant on one of those characters for information, the story behind the story remains mostly inaccessible, as a result of which the novel itself can never fully come to life.

Seoul Survivors – Naomi Foyle

Seoul Survivors – Naomi Foyle
(London: Jo Fletcher Books, 2013)

I said online recently, while I was reading Seoul Survivors, that I was dissatisfied with it, but that I wasn’t sure what it was precisely that I was dissatisfied with. Having now finished the novel, I realise that my dissatisfaction is not based on one particular thing but an accumulation of irritations, so let me see if I can separate them from one another.

If I were cruel, I might say that Seoul Survivors aspires to have something for everyone while failing to satisfy anyone. Seoul survivors

I am cruel.

What struck me almost immediately about this novel was how it seemed to be utilising very familiar character types. We have the ingenue: Sydney, Canadian, as blonde as blonde can be, an aspiring model, who has been persuaded to travel to South Korea by her lover, Johnny Sandman, to further her career. Because Sydney is ever so slightly naïve, she hasn’t stopped to consider that Johnny Sandman might have an ulterior motive. Instead, with commendable enthusiasm, she throws herself into her modelling work, dreaming of success. The reader sits in on a photo session as the novel opens: it’s pretty clichéd, full of pouting and jutting and pumping bodies. One wonders, and not for the last time, whether this is serious or intended to be some kind of sub-sub-cyberpunk parody. Sydney, though, exists to see the surfaces of everything. She’s got away from her small-town world and she is determined to experience life to the full.

Johnny Sandman? Not one person comments on the absurdity of his name, so either this is perfectly acceptable in this ever-so-slightly futuristic world, or everyone is far too terrified of Sandman’s anger management issues to even mention it. And Johnny Sandman’s anger issues are so bad his employers have sent him on courses to deal with them. Oh, how amusing. Sandman, as his name might suggest, does indeed bring the sleep of forgetfulness, a permanent sleep: he is as much hired killer as he is fixer for a large American company, and a violent one at that. It is difficult though to imagine him as the smoother of ways, the peruser of spreadsheets, and so forth. He talks about the work but we never see him do it. It doesn’t seem to be a fantasy, but for the purposes of the novel, we need the brutal side of Johnny Sandman.

The romantic male lead is Damien, a young wanderer who has fled the UK to get away from pretty much everything, including the death of his sister, Jessica. He travelled to South Korea as a drug mule for a friend, and having transacted business, he has stayed on, teaching English for a living, working hard and saving in order to go to Canada. Damien has an ill-defined but very urgent concern about the future of the world, particularly whether Earth will actually be hit by an asteroid, known as Lucifer’s Hammer (and it is clear that Niven and Porurnelle’s novel of the same name in part provides inspiration for Seoul Survivors). If it happens, he wants to be on high ground, as far from the oceans as possible, and Canada is his destination of choice. There is a kind of clueless earnestness about Damien; throughout the novel he is either mistaken for or else standing in for Hugh Grant, which tells you everything you need to know, as well as giving a neat example of the laziness that seems to underpin so much of this novel.

And to complete the quartet, there is Dr Kim Da Mi, a mysterious Korean woman, working with the same company that Johnny Sandman works for. Dr Kim, one is not surprised to learn, has a plan. It is a plan that might bring about world peace but it is of course highly illegal. In fact, she has two plans, one of which will fund the other. It does not take a genius to realise that if she is gathering together a group of North Korean women who have been smuggled to South Korea via China, she is almost certainly intending to use them as surrogate mothers, and it doesn’t take much more effort to realise that her mysterious scientific endeavours almost certainly involve cloning, as proves to be the case. Thus, it’s also fairly obvious what parts Sydney and Damien will be contributing to this enterprise, not to mention the North Korean women themselves. These latter, with one exception, appear either to be blissfully unaware of what is to happen to them, or else they know, and are willing to accept the situation, given that it is an improvement on what they have left behind.

The two-dimensionality of the characters is baffling. I did wonder whether Foyle was trying to make some frightfully elegant point about genre fiction’s reliance on stock characters, but if so, I couldn’t quite see what it was. Possibly, she was trying to suggest that most people are driven by very banal impulses, and if that is the case, she certainly succeeded, as I found myself unable to take an interest in any of them beyond accepting that someone needed at any given point to be taking the plot forward.

And yet, Foyle still hints that all of them are driven characters even as she fails utterly to convince the reader of the fact. Fragments of back story rise like scum on a pot of stock, ready for the reader to assemble the narrative for herself if need be, and yet, in the end, there is still nothing there. Just like real life, you might say, but there is at least one reason why fiction is not that much like real life; it is so very, very tedious. Done slightly differently, Sydney’s naivety would be charming rather than annoying, and one might be more impressed with her efforts to make something of her life. Likewise, Damien’s poorly-articulated anxiety about impending apocalypse would perhaps draw a more sympathetic response from the reader. Given what he’s been through over the years, it’s no wonder he feels as he does, and who can blame him for wanting to get away? He is the slightly better developed character of the two, which is frankly not saying that much.

And I really do want to believe this is a specific creative choice, the reasons for which elude me, but in the end, they still just feel like poorly realised characters.

My second major complaint about Seoul Survivors concerns the story itself. There is almost never a moment when it is not entirely obvious what is going on, and what the outcome of the story is going to be. Occasionally, the narrative might seem as though it is about to head off in an unexpected direction, but just as the reader gets excited at the prospect of something different, the plot train switches back to the mainline, and we’re back where we were always going. Indeed, I could rewrite my complaints about the characters, inserting plot instead of character. Again, because it is so pervasive, I want to believe this is an authorial decision rather than the product of poor writing, but again, I cannot see what the point is. The actual story is remarkably conventional; it’s the stuff round the edges that is really interesting but round the edges is precisely where it stays. There is an argument for saying that it is as though Foyle has twisted a story inside out, and deliberately brought the banality of everyday life to the fore, leaving the interesting bits to glitter and catch the sidelong eye from time to time, but if that is the case, it was an ill-made choice.

I was interested, for example, in why Damien, after all those years, is still obsessed with his sister’s death. Instead, I get long descriptions of Damien’s one journey as a drug mule, including half a chapter on how he retrieves the drugs. It’s detailed, I’ll give it that much. There is much devoted to how Damien eschews sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, working hard if illegally to raise money to buy a forged passport.

I was interested too in why Sydney is so driven to make something of herself, establishing a modelling career in South Korea without quite understanding that it is the novelty of her whiteness that makes her so attractive, not any intrinsic talent she might possess. Sydney alas has all the depth of a bidet so instead there are long, almost stream-of-consciousness episodes in which Sydney debates dumping Johnny because the sex is getting too rough and he doesn’t treat her right, not like the Korean artists she’s meeting, who apparently value her for herself.

Johnny Sandman is clearly a psychopath and we might assume he is in South Korea because it’s safer than his being in Los Angeles but while we understand he has a hair trigger temper, an insatiable desire for sex and/or violence, and appears to live in a permanent state of arousal, I would like to have known more, if only to reassure myself that he wasn’t the cartoon character he appeared to be. Dr Kim, being an educated Asian woman, is inevitably unknowable, and thus she remains.

I am deeply uneasy too about the North Korean women, Mee hee and her friends, smuggled into South Korea, to become surrogate mothers for Dr Kim’s cloning scheme. They are represented as having been cast aside by their own society – widows, women who have lost children and so on – which might appear to justify their accepting a set-up where they can have the children they crave, even though they are, as only one girl perceptively realises, prisoners. She, of course, will come to a nasty end, thanks to Johnny Sandman, while the others, seemingly unaware, make merchandise for the gift shop for the virtual experience they are about produce children for. Yes, their collective lot might be better in that no one misses them at home, they are well-fed, well cared-for and happy, but they are also being exploited, unpaid, and nowhere in the novel is this addressed. In this novel the majority of the women, other than Dr Kim (who is so tough she appears to count as an honorary male for the duration), are very poorly treated. Sydney has agency of a sort, it is true, but it is very limited and relies on her using her body.

Seoul Survivors is marketed as a science-fiction novel but the science-fictionality of it seems to be rather thin. I note, though, that in various interviews and blog posts, Foyle has talked about a fascination with the domestic in science fiction, and I wonder if the banality, the allusiveness and unspoken assumptions is intended to suggest the ordinariness of the science-fictional world. The idea, I like, but if this is true, its execution leaves something to be desired, not least because we are not yet ready to accept wholesale cloning coupled with surrogacy as an ordinary thing, and the novel is set insufficiently far into the future for the local society to accept it as such. Dr Kim is working in South Korea because the local climate is amenable to this kind of thing, suggesting that elsewhere it is not.

Yet we already live in a world where the discovery of new exoplanets is no longer considered particularly newsworthy, though discoveries about the beginnings of the universe currently are (likewise the confirmation of the probable existence of the Higgs boson), and in a world where we suspect changes in the weather may be caused by global warming, all of which suggesting that the science-fictional can have the capacity to be very quickly absorbed into daily life. Similarly, most people didn’t pay that much attention to the alleged Mayan prophecy that the world would end on 21st December, 2012, trusting instead that the world’s astronomers would inform them if the Earth were about to be hit by an asteroid. I think, in Seoul Survivors, Foyle is trying to mimic some of that apparent insouciance, making the remarkable seem unremarkable, by using rather ignorant and incurious characters. However, her questioning characters, so far as they go, are also ignorant, so there is no sense of an informed critique being offered. Indeed, it turns out, while the surrogate mothers were being inseminated, the rest of the world was indeed being hit by a meteorite but luckily, tucked away in their valley fastness, they are safe from everything, including tsunamis, nuclear strikes, you name it, and all of this is tidied away in less than half a page.

I could go on but having beaten it flat already, it is perhaps time to look for the positive. The one thing that could be said for the novel is that Foyle writes very fluently. The story, however ludicrous its premise, mostly all slides together, at least until the end, when it does fall over quite spectacularly. Foyle is not very inventive in her prose style, but it has to be said that the graphic sex (and there’s a lot of it) is splendidly clichéd. (In between the orgasms, the seemingly endless orgasms, how a man can end up with ‘the tip of his cock sharp as a star inside her’ I do not know; and given Sydney’s enthusiasm for using condoms, one can only speculate as to the problems this might cause.) There is a curious simplicity and artlessness to most of the characters, the portrayal of Sydney in particular, that made me wonder if this wasn’t intended to be a young adult novel, at least until I got to the penises, which are invariably rock hard, or pausing only briefly in their flaccidity before becoming rock hard again. I can’t think how any of the men in this novel do any work; they must be in agony most of the time.

Whatever Foyle’s intentions for it, and from reading her interviews, I think she is quite sincere in her desire to write science fiction, and to be innovative in doing so, but this is nonetheless a disappointing novel.