Books Read in 2014 – 11. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

Genre: Literary criticism, Science, Science Fiction
narrative style: first person, academic
Rating: 5/5
Format: Paperback
Published: 2011

Synopsis: A series of essays from varying points in Atwood’s career covering her views on science fiction and dystopia, the origins of her own ideas, reviews of science fiction that has influenced her and finally some short stories.

This was an excellent read. Atwood is an intelligent commentator on fiction and on culture. She traces the impulse towards utopia and dystopia, in both her own writing and within our culture.
The descriptions of her early reading and the differences between then and now are interestingly examined. It is fascinating to me, a person who has always known a certain level of technology, to imagine what it must have been like pre-television when people listened to the radio so much more. No doubt when space travel first began, it must have seemed so exciting and so beyond what anyone else had done. These days, it seems almost old hat. Atwood shows the same unfailing intelligence when examining her own fictional impulses as others which offers the reader a new insight.
Her reviews of classics such as The Island or Doctor Moreau, Women on the edge of time, 1984 and such like are equally intelligent. In fact, I was made to rethink my position on these books a couple of times because her views were so well thought out. I now have a long list of books that I need to read based on all the books that were mentioned that I hadn’t read.
Finally, tucked away at the end of this book are five short science fiction stories, all of which are filled with Atwood’s trademark sly humour and love of langauage. My favourite of these takes the form of a dinner party conversation about the perils of having your head cryogenically frozen. Atwood really picks the issue apart.
All in all a great read for anyone with an interest in science fiction.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Worlds We’d Never Want to Live In

Top ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we are talking about fictional worlds we would not want to live in.

In no particular order:

1. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. This is one of the first dystopia that I read and still ranks as one of the scariest. The humiliations that the handmaid’s go through are almost beyond imagining. Atwood’s nightmare world is frighteningly convincing.

2. 1984 – George Orwell. I read this at school. I am sure that it is at least partly responsible for my own political convictions. It is a shame that things like room 101 and big brother have been stripped of most of their meaning by imbecilic television programmes.

3. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. I often feel like the savage in this book when I look at modern culture. I feel a little lost and confused when I see the things that people do, watch, listen to, post on social media.

4. Mad Addam series – Margaret Atwood. I haven’t read the third book of this series yet but the first two were really disturbing. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, you could really see the roots of reality in this book. Take it as a warning, folks. This is where we could be headed.

5.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick / Bladerunner. It is particularly unsettling not to be able to tell if someone is human or not. Even more frightening is the idea that you might not even know yourself. This one eats at the very heart of the reader.

6. War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells. Oh, I know, the Martians get it in the end but up until that point, there really is no stopping them. I can’t help feeling this is what  it would be like if any aliens found us. Why travel across space and time, if you’ve not already conquered everything nearer at hand?

7. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins. I’ve not read the rest of this series either. I liked the idea of the games and the different sectors more than I liked the way the story played out. You know everyone would watch it, that’s what makes it seem real.

8. Animal Farm – George Orwell. Another early influence on me politically. I imagine I’d be like poor old Boxer. Well-meaning but ultimately useless. I’d soon be carted off to the equivalent of the glue factory.

9. The Road – Cormac McCarthy. This is probably the bleakest book I have ever read. Some unnamed catastrophe has caused society to break down. McCarthy really captures the way that it would go once those rules were gone.

10. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro. This is another book where I liked the idea better than the execution. Children being bred purely for their organs is a chilling – and not unlikely – idea that gets to the heart of the issues surrounding cloning.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Dystopian – The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Dystopian fiction is always interesting to read so I was pleased that it was one of the categories for the Eclectic Reader Challenge. A vision of the future, based on the problems in ours, maybe offering solutions, maybe only disasters. I am always curious to see what it is that makes other people angry and worried. So the premise of this novel interested me straightaway. The idea of women dying in their millions as soon as they become pregnant and the response of the scientists and governments to this problem was certainly intriguing (although you might say it is not a completely new idea) and I was expecting to enjoy it a lot.

In fact, I did enjoy it. Particularly the ideas about protest and what the proper response should be to the state that our world is in. There are groups that protest violently, some peacefully, some who turn to religion, some who are willing to sacrifice themselves and the novel turns on the relative success of the different types of protest. Unfortunately, the heroine Jessie turns to noble self-sacrifice as her chosen method and I found it quite hard to get behind her after that. In fact, her actions seemed typical of a teenager, assuming that she was right, that she alone could change the world. I couldn’t be sure whether this was the point- that such self sacrifice was an immature response – or whether this form of protest was privileged because the author believed in this method.photo

The symbolism in this novel is not very subtle. Jessie’s surname is Lamb and apart from the connotations with innocence and sacrifice, I think this represents the Lamb of God – i.e. Jesus Christ, further linking her to the idea of noble sacrifice. There were suggestions that the future was with the youth, rather than the older generation who clearly ruined everything. Which is fine expect then we are returned to the idea of youth sacrificing itself for the future of the world and that does not seem like a valid solution.

This book made me think about protest, about feminism and about science and religion so it was enjoyable in that sense. But in the end, I felt that the way the story unfolded was not what I would have expected and did not really sit well with me.

Keeping it small

I’ve never been very good at writing short stories. The smallness of the idea never seems to last. Choose your future started life as a fairly simple idea about a woman having a melt down in a supermarket because she couldn’t cope with the perfection of the genetically modified tomatoes. Once I started to write it though, it very quickly grew to the current 60000 words of a novel. The universe very quickly expanded outwards – like universes tend to do, I suppose. Because it is set in the future, I suppose there are details and ideas that I wouldn’t have to deal with if this was set in the normal reality of everyday life and this is pushing up the word count.

Now I am concerned that I have too many ideas. I’m already thinking that my first edit will be a drastic one, hacking away all the ideas and characters that do not work or are unnecessary. At the minute though, I am willing to let it expand. It might sound ridiculous  that I would let it grow to untold size in order to crop it at some point in the future. All I can say is I cannot tell at the minute which branches it will be that are culled and which will be allowed to stay. I have to let it sprout with absolute freedom. Only when I have seen the whole will I know about the various parts.

 

 

Choose Your Future – New Project Excitement

Blimey, it has been busy these last few days. What with exam papers to mark and supply work going haywire, I seem to have been nowhere near my computer lately. At the same time, I am enthusiastically scribbling chapters of a new novel at any spare moment – on the tram or train, before I go to sleep and over breakfast. No moment can go to waste.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, this will be a different genre and style from Shattered Reflections although some of the concerns are the same – sexuality, gender, power and violence – but also adding in other of my pet concerns such as the nanny state, reality TV and the class system. It will be set about 150 years in the future which is fun as it allows me to create a whole new world. In fact, as I am grumpy and given to moaning about everything, it is definitely not an issue finding things to write about. In fact, it is more difficult trying to rein myself and keep to the subjects that I have so far planned for.

I am toying with the name Choose Your Future but this has already changed a couple of times and will probably again. (I didn’t settle on Shattered Reflections until quite near the end of the writing process.) Certainly, it will be a title about choice as that is a major theme. I have written about 40000 words so far (more, actually, as that is the total from what I have had time to type up. There are notebooks waiting for that privilege).  At the current rate, it shouldn’t be too long before I have a first draft although that is just the first step in a long process of editing and reading, it is still quite exciting.

Eclectic Reading Challenge – New Adult – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’d not heard of the New Adult genre before I signed up to do the Eclectic Reader Challenge – although I suspect that it means books for teenagers that adults would like to read – but I looked it up on Goodreads and The Hunger Games was one of the first books I noticed and I’d been meaning to read it for a while.

I really enjoyed this book. It had everything really – action, strong characters, a serious point to make and it was exciting enough to keep you turning the pages. In fact, I could not put it down. IMG_0030

The character of Katniss and her relationship with fellow tribute, Peeta was compelling and I think teenagers particularly would be drawn into their potential romance. I do think this is clearly aimed at a teenage audience but that didn’t stop it from being an excellent read.

The idea of the hunger games is completely apt and believable. I could imagine Channel Four commissioning it. And people would watch it and vote for different ways for the contestants to die without a seconds thought. Well, hopefully not but it certainly wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility. And to me, that is the definition of what good science fiction should do – take some aspect of the current reality and magnify it, show what would happen if we took it to its logical extreme.

If I had to make a complaint about this book, I would say that I thought some of the plotting was a little heavy handed – for example the changes to the games rules annoyed me a little. But this in no way spoiled my enjoyment of this book. And while I haven’t rushed to the shop to buy the next one, I know I will read it. Perhaps when I’ve got through a few more of my to read list.

The Eureka Moment

Is it possible to say exactly where your ideas come from and what inspires you to put pen to paper. It is a question that people seem compelled to put now that they know that I have written a novel. I find it hard to answer, to even know exactly what they want me to say.

It may be that it is a long time since I first started to write Shattered Reflections. It was on the back of finishing my MPhil which was on masculinity and violence in Contemporary Fiction and I have no doubt that my reading for that – American Psycho, Frisk, Resentment, Exquisite Corpse, Maribou Stork Nightmares, for example – inspired the themes. But I am not sure that this is what they mean when they ask the question. They seem to want an eureka moment. An incident maybe, a person or a story on the news that sent me running to my laptop. But I am so far removed from the origins of that book now that any such moment is lost in the mists of time.

I am mostly inspired by what annoys me. Which to be honest is quite a lot. This is why I am toying with the idea of Science fiction for my next work. Although I feel more comfortable with the term speculative fiction. Mostly because what I write is unlikely to be very sciency but also because I like what is suggested by the word specualtive – speculate, if you will, on what would happen if… For this I do have an Eureka moment although I am not sure yet where it is going to take me.

I was in the supermarket. (And it goes without saying that this is a task that I hate.) When I got home, I wrote a paragraph about the horror of it, the lighting, the expressions of desperation on the faces of my fellow shoppers. I was a little hungover which made everything seem to be going slower than it actually was. It was a depressing Sunday morning moment.

I’m not sure where this will go yet. I have to think of the characters, the story, really before I can go any further. A lot of planning and reading will need to be done. Still it is the first step on the road to something new. It is exciting, the new ideas flying around like startled butterflies. A new reading list is needed and I’m looking forward to re-visiting old favourites such as Brave New World, as well as discovering a whole new world of science fiction.