Archives for posts with tag: fiction

I’ve always been torn on China Miéville. He writes beautiful prose about strange otherworlds, and that is totally my kind of thing. I love books about weird places and the unfamiliar people living there, and I love the kind of writer who shows you around their setting in carefully chosen phrases, who can happily spent a page describing the view from a character’s window. Miévilleis definitely that kind of writer.

But I have to put him in a certain box in my mind. This box is labelled ‘DOES NOT WANT TO GIVE US NICE THINGS’, and sitting there waiting for him is one Mr. Iain M. Banks. They’re there to give me advance warning: these are otherwise appealing writers who I need to remind myself just can’t manage to get through a whole story before their inner eight-year-old takes over and sends them on a rampage to smash up the whole intricate world they’ve been building up for a whole book.

I mean, I guess they’re not just having a senseless tantrum: they’re both authors with things to say about nihilism and destructive social and political structures and the dark side of human nature and the like. Still, Embassytown and Perdido Street Station and The Player of Games and a bunch of others were all novels whose premises gripped me and whose writing style I admired a lot, and in all of them a shift took place towards the end that just left me fed up. Rocks fell; everyone died or lost the will to fight. I’d invested hours of attention in these places and characters, and it turned out their stories were going to end in misery and mindless destruction. I couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed; I’d wanted to like these characters, and I got frustrated having the story set them off to make a difference to their worlds only to trip up in the final act and spend the rest of the story flat on their faces learning a hard-earned lesson about futility. It just didn’t seem in keeping with the thoughtful storytelling theirs novel start with any more than it would have if the power of friendship saved the day in the nick of time. Sorry, guys; I’ve wandered off from the same page as you.

So that’s my background, and I’ll come out and say that normally, futility isn’t something I’m interested in reading about in sci-fi and fantasy and genre fiction. It works in The Scar, though: it really works.

At the story’s start, the central character gets lost: one Bellis Coldwine loses her home and her social position and her support network, and the novel dances around her current situation as she considers substitutes for them. An elaborate, evocative society moves around her; other characters negotiate their own lives and relationships. Not all that much happens, for a 700+ page novel in a fantastical world with a lot of volatile and dangerous people in it. Whenever something does happen, Miéville assesses its impact; he writes his way towards the big destructive climax of the novel gradually, taking the temperature of the town as he goes and showing us all the stages that lead towards civil unrest.

Miéville earns all the mess and explosions and the big dramatic break-down in this novel in a way I haven’t seen him do elsewhere. I was interested. As always, the setting was beautifully original and detailed, and Miéville’s enjoyment of making up monsters fits in well here. His antagonists were sympathetic and his protagonist flawed and engaging; the ending was well-pitched, and he left some pleasing ambiguities open without it feeling like a lazy writing decision. It wasn’t a book I felt utterly amazed by in any one moment of creative genius, but it feels like a coherent and satisfying story in a way none of his others have to me. Bellis changes very slowly over the course of the book, so subtly that I didn’t notice him write any one key moment for her until I looked back on the finished whole. That’s one of the reasons everything falling to pieces works for me in this Miéville plot more than any others: these huge events that are shaking up whole civilisations are linked close to our main character’s narrative arc, but the way they affect her isn’t at all straightforward. That’s a pretty subtle piece of writing, and it’s more than earned a place as my favourite one of his books.

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I don’t think I’ve ever made a serious point of noticing Valentine’s Day before. A couple of times people have expected me to notice it with them, and that’s made me feel touched but also slightly awkward, because I don’t like that it’s a consumerist celebration. The ideal that the media’s going for is: buy your partner one of these Officially Designated Romantic Gifts, regardless of what their actual interests and likes and perspective on capitalism are.  Buy them a card saying ‘be mine’ or ‘yours forever’ or something else cliched and monogamous without real feeling behind it.

But anyway, I’m at home today, and have been browsing the interwebs and been introduced to some of the deliberately cheesy fannish Valentine’s cards meandering past on Tumblr, and, too my surprise, they made me feel like reading the kind of sappy romantic crap I actually like. So, here, WordPress: in honour of the longest love affair of my life, here’s a testament of exactly how fond I am of words. Kwerey’s tribute to Sappy Idealised Lurrrve Day, go. One close reading from John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets.

‘Love’s Growth’

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if Spring make it more. Read the rest of this entry »

…Aeschylus, Ovid, Cicero, the Pearl-Poet, Dante, Thomas More, Shakespeare, John Donne.

There, the reference points that I’ve got a good two thousand years of European literature and rhetori: Aeschylus died in 456 BC, John Donne in 1631 AD. They and the big names that crop up between them are the groundrock of the degree I did, a degree just called ‘English’ but about a very specific definition of that term.

Each wrote things that I find beautiful and valuable. All these reference points on that mental timeline I have are dudes, though, and that’s not something I can take lightly. I’m a feminist and I’ve spent years and committed to reading and writing; I can’t ignore the massive sex inequality in this tradition I care deeply for.

I’m aware of Sappho, but I haven’t been taught her works and I haven’t yet fancied hunting down a good translation on my own to read them myself. I can’t think of many other women I seen as literary landmarks in those time periods. What I know of women across those years makes them objects, not subjects. Female characters are shown to us as anything from deeply subtle to utterly idealised to misogynistic stereotypes, but they’re all characters: the writing I know from those times was something men did that was sometimes about women.

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Feminists and anti-racists and trans activists say thousands of perceptive and articulate things about the representation of their own in media. Even more thousands of people tell them ask what the point is. It’s just an advert, just a film, just a book, just a story. It has hurt anyone, has it? It’s not like this or that atrocity in real life. It’s taken me years to figure out exactly what to say back, but here’s my first attempt at a rebuttal to that.

Sure, those are stories. And what about the news. We talk about it coming in stories for a reason. Reports on the TV put together video reconstructions of dramatic events because they’re exactly that, dramatic, because news does exactly that, tells a story. Narratives are a much easier way to hold an audience’s attention than putting facts and figures across with nothing to link them together. There’s a reason school taught me about the English Reformation through the tale of Henry VIII’s woes in marriage, about the Cuban Missile Crisis as a dramatic showdown between Kruschev and Kennedy, and that I remember those events in terms of the people involved and what their reasons were, not from the dates of events or the terms of the Acts of Parliament or SALT treaties.

That’s how history works in my head: there are facts and fixed points there, sure, but I learnt it in stories – narratives, dramatisations, filtered versions of reality. And as long as the culture I live in is one that teaches us like that, stories never just stories, whether they’re calling themselves fact or fiction. Those are different kinds of story, certainly, but the way stories work full stop matters. They gives us frames of reference, sets of rules, they come bundled with all kinds of assumptions, and to some extent or other almost all of us use them to decode the world we live in. I want to understand anything that shapes me as much as stories have.

I want to break their rules. As long as the world stays in the habit of telling me about how the world I live in is shaped by a male protagonist, I’m going to keep asking for all the stuff that’s missing. I’m going to say say no, that’s a fraction of the whole picture, tinted and distorted; this isn’t a true reflection of our society.

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