Asymmetry: a review
I totally intended to read this slowly. Honestly I did. I meant to savour it, and contemplate each story.
Is it my fault that I ripped through each story, eager to know where it was going? It is my fault that each story is short enough that before I knew it I had finished one, turned the page, and started another?
I think not.
In the interests of, etc, I should point that I do know both Thoraiya Dyer, the author, and Alisa Krasnostein, the publisher. If I didn’t like what I had read, I just wouldn’t write anything… 😉
So. Asymmetry. In each story, a lack of balance, especially in power; sometimes, also, a lack of balance in an individual’s life, making them particularly vulnerable to direct manipulation or simply life’s vicissitudes.
The first story is “After Hours,” and I’m so pleased to finally read something of Dyer’s that makes use of her veterinary skills! I’ve been wondering when they would find an outlet in her fiction. Didn’t necessarily expect to find it in a story about werewolves, but that’s fine. I do wonder whether there’s a little hint of Dyer’s own experiences here, or those of friends, with how one of the senior, rather unpleasant, men treats one of the women – commenting that women aren’t worth training because they just up and leave to have babies. Anyway, Jess is a new vet in a rural town, where the clinic’s biggest client is the local RAAF base with its patrol dogs. Werewolves are involved, but I won’t spoil how. The asymmetric power dynamic comes in its experience/newbie aspect, as well as in its gender aspect. Dyer hints at the difficulties of being new to a job as well as being new to a small town – actually I’m just presuming it’s a small town, but that’s definitely the vibe I got – very effectively. You probably don’t want to read this if you’re going to be squeamish about matter-of-fact descriptions of veterinary procedures.
In “Zadie, Scythe of the West,” Dyer wrenches us out of a relatively familiar world into one where only women are soldiers, and they’re only allowed to kill as many enemies as children they have borne. The tiny detail in this story that delighted me was the rather obvious point that, as a consequence of this prohibition, the women have developed great skills at harming rather than killing. The asymmetric power here is once again a gendered one, as women have power because of their martial position, and presumably also because of the worship of a goddess who orders society and doles out punishment as necessary. The focus is on someone with a skerrick of power – an artist – whose expertise gets abused by someone with more power, for her own ends. The world of this story totally fascinated me, because there is so little back story: why the fighting? is this a fantasy or a SF world? And the story, in skipping to vignettes within the artist’s and Zadie’s life, suggest interesting ways for men and women, state and individual, to relate.
Having interviewed Dyer before I read this, I already know that she’s working on a longer treatment of the world she depicts in “Wish me Luck,” which is intriguing all by itself. Here, somehow, luck is a form of currency: it can be transferred between individuals, and used to purchase goods. As with the previous story, it’s unclear whether this is more of a fantasy or SF conceptualisation, although the ending suggests SF – as does, now I think about it, the fact that Kvivik is expressly discussed as another planet, and our narrator has come from Earth. Still, the luck aspect suggests a blurring of genres. Anyway! Our narrator begins sympathetically enough, but it must be said that much of my sympathy had transmuted to distaste by the end of the story. He’s one of those unpleasant people who keeps making promises… for tomorrow. But the world – oh, the world. Kvivik is a water world, with a human colony that appears to exist solely to supply water to its waterless sister-planet. Why these planets are worth the effort is unclear, and will perhaps be revealed by Dyer in her longer work. The story is mostly set amongst the dregs of society on Kvivik, which of course is where most of the best stories are found, and there are some distinctly unpleasant people there – and robots, and possibly half-humans, and a thoroughly mysterious Lady Adelaide. The asymmetry is found in the haves vs the have-nots, and in intention vs action. I think this is probably my favourite story of the quartet.
Finally, “Seven Days in Paris” gives the cover its Eiffel Tower. We’re back on Earth, some time – but not too far? – into the future. The story comes from the perspective of Marwa B, who first appears to the reader while looking at someone identified as Marwa. Marwa B is taken out into Paris, to have experiences which her captors/handlers/users hope will stimulate dreams that in turn will help them to understand the original Marwa. Exactly who or what Marwa B is, or how her operators use her, is left opaque – what matters is that they do, and they believe it’s necessary to do so. The asymmetry is a riff, I think, on that philosophic conundrum of whether it is permissible to torture one to save many. There’s also a huge knowledge imbalance, with Marwa B having no real understanding of what she is being used for until right at the end; and of course it’s a state vs individual thing, too. I enjoyed the development of Marwa B over her seven days – she’s not an entirely clean slate, but she still gets to experience things relatively innocently – and Paris is a sensation-filled place to do that. I also really appreciated the point at which Dyer left this story.
This is an entirely worthy eighth volume in the Twelve Planets series. It’s different from the others (that I have read… still haven’t brought myself to read the Warren or the Lanagan…), as it should be, but fits in with the overall scope of the project – quality writing from Australian women. You can buy it from Twelfth Planet Press.
This review brought to you as part of the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge 2013.
I went to see it, and you know what? I really, really enjoyed it.
Firstly: I know people have said they found the narrative structure difficult to follow. Perhaps if you’re only used to a completely linear narrative, with no interweaving, then this would indeed be somewhat difficult to follow, because there are lots of cuts back and forth. But each timeline is designed very differently – you can tell just from looking at the scenery what time you are in – so I didn’t find that aspect disturbing or confusing in the slightest.
Something that was a little disturbing, and intriguing, and uncomfortable-making, was the cross-race acting. Now, I am as anglo as it gets, so my take on this is to be read from that perspective. But anyway: I found most of the Anglos-as-Koreans to be cringeworthy; James D’Arcy was the only one that seemed passable, ish, while Hugo Weaving was verging on grotesque. But what I really liked was the fact that some of the non-white also crossed race. Halle Berry as Jocasta really worked, for me, although Doona Bae as Tilda was somewhat less convincing. I think the fact that the actors all played multiple parts made this race-crossing more acceptable – it made sense, in this weird cinematic world, that a version of Berry would exist in the rarified whites-only world of 1930s English snobbery. If it had just been ‘let’s put Weaving into Neo Seoul!’ there would have been a serious problem. I haven’t read any reviews of the film yet, because I wanted to go in totally unspoiled, but I’d like to read reviews by people of colour to gain an understanding of how it looks from a non-privileged perspective.
The multiple-character thing was immensely amusing, as I eagerly tried to figure out who each actor was in each time – and nothing will ever compare with Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes. Some of the cosmetics and prosthetics were genuinely very clever; there was some excellent use of fake teeth, especially for Tom Hanks, and some very good use of hair, too. Hugh Grant as an incredibly painted and very nasty warrior-savage-type was a magnificent casting-against-type instance, Hanks did well in all of his varying roles, and I really, really liked Berry, too.
This film was not, in the end, actually what I thought it would be. I expected that, because of the multi-time and multi-character acting, I was going to get something a little like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt, where people keep getting reincarnated and being with the same souls generation after generation. And while some of the same actors found themselves together in some form or another in multiple settings, it’s not like Berry and Hanks were always lovers or whatever. In fact, there is little similarity between any of the epochs, with the exception of what I see as the main theme playing out: fate vs freedom. And, yes, there’s love as a real and binding force, but I don’t really see that as a theme, more as a Human Condition kinda thing.
So, fate vs freedom is really what it comes down to. How do you act within your fate, how can you fight against your fate, what are the limits of freedom… and tied up in this is the notion of an ‘established order’ within society, the existence of which a number of characters insist on – and when that’s contrasted between the ‘order’ of whites over blacks, and the ‘order’ of pureblood over fabricant – it could have got preachy, but actually I think it skated the line well enough.
There are big moments, of trying to change the world, and small moments, of trying to change one single person. There are intensely sad moments, and some brutal ones (I see why it’s MA, but it wasn’t nearly so bad as I had expected); some poignant, and occasionally funny ones as well.
I saw this with my friend Mel. Last movie we saw together at the cinema was Inception. We’ll have to be very careful in picking the next film we see together… it will either have to be the filmic equivalent of War and Peace, or maybe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.