In which Galactic Suburbia is 8 years olds. We’re reading independently, making friends in Grade 3, and eating CAKE. You can hear us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.
This episode is best consumed with cake, especially if you tweet, email or message us to say exactly what you’re eating.
Alex: blueberry and orange ricotta cake with French Earl Grey syrup
Tansy: blueberry marscapone cakes
Alisa: super fancy hot chocolate (but also blueberry and ricotta cake the day before)
WHAT’S NEW ON THE INTERNET?
Tansy’s Kickstarter launches on Wednesday March 14 – the Return of the Creature Court.
Who Against Guns legal fundraiser, initiative of the Doctor Who podcasting alliance.
Rachel Talalay’s piece on the epic #metoo women’s panel at Gallifrey 2018.
Whovian Feminism’s breakdown summary of the same panel.
The YA Hugo thing that just happened (breaking news as recording)
Nominate for the Hugos NOOOOW!
Alisa: BLACK PANTHER; Casanegra: A Tennyson Hardwick Story, Blair Underwood, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due; short stories by Rjurik Davidson
Alex: Basically, the Norma. Also Time Was, Ian McDonald; Firefly and Serenity rewatch.
Tansy: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine; Voltron Season 5, Jessica Jones is coming. (first episode reviewed here)
Please send feedback to us at email@example.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon – which now includes access to the ever so exclusive GS Slack – and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
This novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It’s available from April 24.
I generally love Ian McDonald so when I found out Tor.com had bought one of his novellas I was pretty excited… and it is indeed excellent. It’s different from what I expected, although I don’t know what I expected, since Luna: New Moon is very different from The Dervish House, for instance.
The blurb calls it “A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it” and really I think you shouldn’t find out any more than that. The gradual unravelling of the mystery is part of the charm.
The story opens with a book collector and seller finding a letter pressed between the pages of a volume of poetry, and proceeds in fits and starts across time from there. It’s partly his story – of love and obsession and books – and partly that of the letter-writer. It’s about war and loss and love and obsession, and time. You’ll be a bit confused at first as the story skips to different times but it’s worth it.
I enjoyed the story that Emmett uncovered but I also really liked the way McDonald makes Emmett not just the finder of the story but gives him a story of his own – one that’s subservient to the mystery he’s unravelling not just for the sake of McDonald’s story but because he, Emmett, is obsessed. And has to deal with the consequences of that.
Definitely worth picking up when it’s available. A lovely story and beautifully written.
This book was provided by the publisher at no cost.
Over on Goodreads, Jonathan Strahan describes it “basically The Moon is a Very, Very Harsh Mistress” which… yes. (Also makes me curious to back it up with the Heinlein….)
The short version: this is magnificent, occasionally vicious lunar science fiction, with a fascinating society, varied and variable characters, and unexpected plot twists. HIGHLY recommended. I want to read more like this.
One of the central yet peripheral things in many characters’ lives in this remarkable novel is the ‘soapi’ Town and Country. It’s the Indian version of Neighbours, or Eastenders. And in some senses this show – banal and humdrum, focussed on banal and humdrum activities, just like those shows that have enormous and devoted followings today – is emblematic of River of Gods itself. It is neither banal, nor humdrum; but much of it is concerned with surprisingly mundane and domestic issues, which become absorbing and riveting partly because of the skill of the author, partly because of the allure of the exotic: the exotic of the future, and the exotic of a country other than my own.
(Is it wrong to be enchanted by the exotic? And by exotic I simply mean other-than-my-familiar… which is, surely, an inherent part of the appeal of much fantasy and science fiction. Perhaps Other would be a less loaded term than exotic, at that. Hmm.)
River of Gods is set in 2047; the cover proclaims “Happy birthday, India.” Which becomes rather ironic, and somewhat sad, when it turns out that India as it exists in the early 21st century doesn’t exist in McDonald’s vision of its future: it has fractured into several, often rival, states. The political aspect is rarely front and centre in the novel; although it consumes at least one of the characters, McDonald focusses on his larger life, rather than simply making him a political animal.
See how I’m struggling to get on with this review? It’s hard to figure out where to start, what to say. Perhaps I should begin with “I adored this novel,” and attempt to explain why…
I adored this novel. You can stop reading now if you like.
The novel itself is split into five parts, each of them named for some aspect of Hindu mythology. It’s entirely possible that I have missed some deeper meaning here that relates to the novel’s structure, but I didn’t have much access to the internet while I was reading it so I wasn’t able to chase up meanings. The first part sets up the rest of the novel, introducing all but one of the main characters. Each of them gets their own chapter (in the third person), and the issues set up here continue across the novel with occasional intersections with other characters or their issues. Shiv is a crook, involved in various nefarious deals; Mr Nandha is a Krishna Cop, concerned with the regulation of aeais (AIs). Shaheen Badoor Khan is deep in the political regime of Bharat, Najia an ambitious journalist, and Lisa is a polymath scientist concerned with alternate versions of Earth’s development. Add to that a dropout scientist, a set designer for Town and Country, and a wannabe stand-up comic forced to go home to the family business. Parvati, married to Mr Nandha, is introduced later. Through their individual experiences, the novel tells the story of the world over a couple of weeks in 2047, with India as the focus.
Family trouble, political intrigue, criminals to chase, and AIs to try and understand. Also an alien artefact.
Each of the characters has a story. For some of them, the novel encompasses crisis and resolution. For others, we’re brought in halfway through, while for yet others we’re made to leave before the resolution. Some of these stories are exactly the sorts of domestic stories that are the fundamentals of soapies today: love and family and betrayal. (Please note I am in no way using ‘domestic’ in a derogatory sense here. Domestic stories are different from, for example, politically-focussed stories: Much Ado about Nothing is domestic, Macbeth – despite some domestic scenes – is not.) Other aspects are more detective story or political thriller. It does need a bit of adjustment to jump between them, but each chapter heading clearly tells you who the focus is, so it’s not that hard.
McDonald uses Indian slang and terms throughout the novel. I didn’t realise until I was a third or so in that there’s a Glossary at the back (it is mentioned in the contents pages, but who reads the contents pages of a novel?), but even then not all of the words are explained. Most of the time the words – especially the slang – are understandable within context; I don’t need the exact translation to understand when someone is using profanity. Now, I have absolutely no idea whether McDonald is using the slang and other terms in appropriate ways. I’m willing to assume that he hasn’t made too many stupid and insensitive mistakes because he’s seemed to do well in the other, non-Western, novels of his that I’ve read – but if I’m completely wrong here I would like to know, so drop me a line if I need to be put right.
I loved the language. It was a little bit like reading a Greg Egan novel; if you’re put off by not being able to understand absolutely everything, this is not the novel for you (and I’m sad for you). And McDonald writes in an utterly captivating manner that meant putting this novel down was occasionally painful.
Characters As mentioned above, the novel focusses on a great range of people (and it passes the Bechdel test, if not spectacularly), which is a fine way to demonstrate the depth of the world-building. I’m not in love with how some of the female characters were portrayed (and some of the sex scenes seemed out of character with the rest of the novel), but other women were presented realistically. The men and women were just as likely to be competent or not, ruthless or not, etc. There’s only one main character who stays at home, with no job, and she’s female – but this makes sense in the context of 2047 India: there’s more men than women (one to five), so those women who want to work have trouble doing so because the men are favoured.
One of the most intriguing characters, both for who yt is and for yts storyline, is Tal. See that “yt”? Tal is a nute, surgically altered to have no genitals and psychologically/mentally altered to change the neurological aspects of yts previous gender. How Tal comes to physically be thus is briefly discussed, but why is not – so private a decision that the reader isn’t invited in. I have no idea how a reader who identifies non-cis would read Tal and those like yt. As an outsider looking in, I thought yt was treated like every other character and while yts nature was absolutely necessary for elements of the plot, it didn’t feel like a MacGuffin. While yt is treated as a freak by some, this is never (I think) portrayed as an acceptable attitude; and yt’s treated as an ordinary co-worker or neighbour by others. Yts other-ness isn’t treated as something added in just to add spice to the narrative, but as a genuine choice that ought to be available to people who so choose to change their own bodies. A minority, and one occasionally feared and derided, but legitimate.
Issues and themes
There are many. The place of women, as mentioned briefly above. The place of AIs – how do you legislate against them, how do you police that, and what are likely to be the ramifications? Climate change is a major factor, looming large in the background, because the monsoon hasn’t come to India in quite a while and this is, of course, disastrous. The development of new technology features. How to exist as a minority, and how to live as a fish out of water.
Overall, this is another great novel by Ian McDonald and I’m looking forward to reading Cyberabad, his set of short stories set in the same universe. You can buy it from Fishpond.
I fell madly in love with Ian McDonald with Dervish House, so I pounced when I found Brasyl at the bookshop the other day. Given his other novel is Cyberabad Days, he’s an author who is clearly very keen to explore non-traditional settings for SF written in English – in a way that, as far as I can tell, is as true to those non-Anglo locales as he can be.
(NB: isn’t the cover a riot? There’s a mask, and a lizard, and tail feathers, and stars, and circuitry, and a butterfly…)
As with Dervish House, I am uncomfortable with making sweeping assertions that this book does not take an inherently white/colonial perspective, because I just don’t know – I’m a naive Anglo and I’ve never been anywhere near South America. However, as with the other book, I can confidently say that it feels sympathetic: it’s not simply showing good bits or bad bits or exotic bits, but gives the flavour of a genuine society; and it’s not simply set in Brazil because that’s a good selling point (I don’t even know if it would be). Brazil is absolutely integral to the story, and set anywhere else this would be a very different book. The ethnic mix of the population, the cultural results of that mix – especially the language – the history of colonisation and, in one narrative stream especially, the fact of the Amazon itself are all entirely necessary. And the result is that, perhaps especially to a foreigner like myself, an enchanting and sometimes repellant society with intriguing familiarities and disturbing incongruities.
On the topic of location, one of the marvellous things McDonald does in his worlds is make them contained – they are all that is required. The Rio of 2006 and the Sao Paulo of 2032 are all that is necessary for the stories to proceed. No foreigners, no other locales, are required for an elaborate and intricate story. The only other time other countries are mentioned, basically, is in talking of the soccer teams who have beaten or been beaten by Brazil. (The section set earlier in time does have some foreigners, but we only know them once they get to Brazil.) That I noticed this insularity is perhaps indicative of my earlier reading, in particular, often having involved characters who go to exotic locations to have their adventures, but rarely interact with the locals (except perhaps to sleep with; Clive Cussler, I am looking particularly at you).
Brasyl has eight sections and three separate storylines following through them. In each section, the contemporary story – set in 2006 – comes first. Next the reader is taken to 2033, and then finally to the 1730s. Each storyline is, on the surface, quite different, although there are similar themes bubbling along under the surface, and there are occasional, intriguing, cross-over references. In 2006, we follow Marcelina, a hard-living and hard-nosed TV producer for a TV channel known for making outrageous programmes. Her life isn’t an easy one; fads and trends rule, careers are made or broken on the whim of the ratings, and the effort to keep up with Society requires enormous energy and grit. And the occasional back-stab. Existence goes on as normal, until suddenly it doesn’t, and Marcelina discovers someone is messing with her life. And things do indeed get messy. Marcelina is a fascinating character. She’s good at her job, which makes her quite unpleasant much of the time. The reader is allowed occasional insights into her mind: her love of capoeira, the martial arts/dance; the way she interacts with her real and her “alt dot” families; the way she views everything as potential TV. However, we are never allowed very close to her; she remains essentially unknowable – as she is to most of those around her. I loved reading her story, but I didn’t feel as… empathic as I might have. Interestingly, for all that it’s set in 2006, I have no idea how true to the Rio of today this story is; the city, the TV, the telenovelas, the obsession with fashion all sound entirely plausible, but could as easily be that slightly exaggerated ‘tomorrow’ that McDonald does so nicely in Dervish House and the 2030s part here.
The 2030s narrative follows Edson, budding entrepreneur, who accidentally gets involved with some rogue quantum-computer scientists. In many ways, this story helps to explain some of what is going on in the other two, and why these seemingly disparate stories appear here together, because quantum mechanics and quantum entanglement are at its heart. Edson’s interactions with quantum theorists allow McDonals to posit multiverse theories and explore the repercussions of the idea that the multiverse might in fact be a quantum computer. The info-dumps are skilfully places, always in an appropriate context, an ever so heavy that they detract from the narrative itself. Edson is a more approachable and likeable character than Marcelina; he’s more innocent, despite his background, and more open, despite the difficulties of his life. While he shares a “seize any chance that comes along” attitude with Marcelina, he seems to do so with more… joy, really, and less malice. We also see Edson fall in love, and I think that has a humanising impact. Edson’s story revolved around the trouble he gets into thanks to quantum computation, but really it’s all about relationships: with his family, his neighbourhood as a whole, the bewitching female scientist and the his long-time male lover. The futuristic elements of this section are subtle and believable, epitomised by the Angels of Perpetual Surveillance keeping track of everything and everyone via RFIDs, which I can well imagine some politicians leaping at; and I-shades, which are exactly what they sound like. I think Edson may have been my favourite character.
In many ways I found the eighteenth-century plot the most confronting of all. Still set in Brazil, this is a time of European conquest – military and cultural. It follows Luis Quinn, a Jesuit sent on a quest straight from the pages of Heart of Darkness, and Robert Falcon, a French scientist. There are crazed Europeans and slave raids, dreams of building in the jungle and mysterious tribes, and over it all the immense, imponderable bulk of the Amazon rainforest that, by the 21st century, barely plays a part. I really enjoyed this section, despite its unrelenting acknowledgement of the horrible actions undertaken by Europeans, and it did require some faith that McDonald would actually connect it to the other two narratives. Quinn, on a most difficult task, is the sort of man the Jesuits wanted: deeply committed to his God and to the task at hand. Falcon is the classic 18th century opponent: Christian, but foremost a scientist, obsessed with calculations and the natural world. Together they discover some brutal truths both about the jungle and the actions of the other Europeans in the area.
All three narratives do indeed have links, although they really only become obvious towards the end. There are some similarities in theme that tie them together – trust, friendship, quest, and Brazil, most obviously. I would recommend each story on its own merits even if they didn’t coincide, to be honest. It’s a wonderfully written book, with intriguing characters and a really marvellous sense of place.
I have long been enamoured of Turkey. Actually, strictly speaking I have long been enamoured of the idea of Turkey: the decadence, the luxury, the it’s very different there. Over the last number of years I have come to the realisation that this idea, or dream, of the country is a very European one, and a very colonial one in many regards – it’s a view of “the East” that has existed in “the West” at least since the Romans had their snooty ideas about Egypt and Persia. Despite being well aware of its source, and feeling uncomfortable about that, there is still an allure in those incredibly not-politically-correct views. And that’s the point, of course: the allure comes from the (alleged) exotic nature of somewhere very ‘different’ (from Western Europe), and difference is always attractive. (The point, too, was that by identifying certain things like decadence as traits from over there, the viewer could take the prim moral stance and still enjoy it. But I digress….)
I got to thinking about these sorts of things in reading The Dervish House because it is set in near-future Istanbul: a city in many ways very similar to those of Western Europe, America, and Australia that I am familiar with, but with enough differences – real differences – that it retains an aura of the exotic. The story could, with some changes of course, be set in any city really. But setting it in Istanbul allows McDonald to do many things, not least of which is imbuing his setting with a deep sense of history that the relatively new cities of America and Australia just don’t have. Istanbul is very much a character in this novel; the complexity of the city itself – geographically, historically – is deeply important to the plot and the characters. There is even a character whose main interest in life is mapping the social history of the city, an idea I find very attractive.
The Dervish House is a simultaneously dense and frantic novel. In 472 pages McDonald covers five days in the life of the city, from the point of view of six main characters. An old Greek man, a young Turkish invalid, a successful businesswoman, an ambitious businesswoman, a no-hoper and a stockmarket player: with this cast, McDonald creates a vibrant city. Some of their stories interweave with one another, at one point or another, while others appear tangential; all combine to give a rich, rich view of the near future. Their plots are wonderfully varied: there’s romance, there’s adventure, there’s corporate espionage and shady deals and antiquarian detective work; religious fanaticism, world-weariness, wild success and disappointments. At times the writing is so dense that I had a little trouble following it, but the sheer beauty of it – along with the compelling sense that I needed to know what was going to happen – meant that wasn’t too much of a hassle.
One of the things that fascinated me about this book is that reading it as an SF reader, it’s clearly SF; there are enough references to nanotechnology and other futuristic things to ensure that. However, the date isn’t made clear until about two-thirds of the way through the book, and the technology isn’t really central, so it ought to have broader mainstream appeal, too.
This is my 1000th post! And it’s a Galactic Suburbia one!
In which we greet a brand new year with discussion about digital media, awards, books, feminism, feedback, more books, anti-heroes, gender roles and take a look at what to look forward to in 2011. We can be downloaded or streamed from Galactic Suburbia, or from iTunes.
Follow up on the Jewish fantasy discussion by Rachel Swirsky.
Locus to go digital with issue #600.
Launch of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, new critical zine with focus on women’s work.
The i09 Power List: 20 people who rocked SF & Fantasy in 2010.
Carl Brandon Awards: Hiromi Goto and Justine Larbalestier.
Hugo nominations open – last year’s members of Aussiecon 4, don’t forget you’re eligible to nominate!
Feedback: Kaia, Kathryn & Thoraiya
What Culture Have we Consumed? [AND what culture are you most looking forward to consuming in 2011?]
Alisa: Fringe Season 3, Dexter Season 4, Being Erica (ep 1), Nurse Jackie, How I Met Your Mother, reading Managing Death (Trent Jamieson)
Looking forward to: LSS 2011
Alex: Zombies vs Unicorns, ed. Larbalestier and Black; Factotum, book 3 of Monster Blood Tattoo, by DM Cornish; Dervish House, by Ian McDonald; The Killing Thing, by Kate Wilhelm; Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks.
Looking forward to: Blue Remembered Earth (probably), by Alastair Reynolds; books 2&3 of The Creature Court, Tansy Rayner Roberts; the 2011 Women in SF Book Club; Bold as Love sequence (Gwyneth Jones); Twelve Planets (from Twelfth Planet Press).
Tansy: Wiped, Richard Molesworth; The Doctor Who Christmas Special! The Gene Thieves & the Norma; Ascendant, Diana Peterfreund; Big Finish Podcast
Looking forward to: Doctor Who and Fringe (SHOCK, I know), Sherlock, Torchwood, The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan, Burn Bright by M. de Pierres.
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!