The Drowned World by JG Ballard – Review

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Robert Kerans lives in a haze. Heat and self-imposed isolation have his brain turning on itself, twisting into patterns foreign to modern civilisation. London seems to be going backwards in time, becoming engulfed by lizards and enormous plant-life. A world which he is too young to remember is being eaten by a world he is eons too late for.

And then there’s that drumming in his ears, calling him South…

One of the things that  intrigued me about The Drowned World was that if it came out now, its basic premise could cause it to be dismissed by as an on-the-nose and melodramatic eco-parable. Yet here it is, a climate change novel from more than fifty years ago. He had the freedom to go full-throttle about a topic many modern fiction writers would never touch with this sense of inventiveness for fear of seeming insensitive.

Ballard’s prose is evocative of eras long past, lagoons and heat and reptiles, and the post-apocalypse he’s created is an intriguing one. It’s more of a world long forgotten than one created by, say, nuclear war. This novel is, however, a product of its time, for both good and bad. There’s an interesting way in which the fading world acts as a stand in for the British empire: good. The only female character is paper-thin: bad. There’s fascinating conjecture on evolution and the primal nature of humanity: very good! It’s at times painfully colonial, bordering on racist: very, very bad.

It’s also painfully uneven. The first half dry, uneventful but occasionally fascinating hard sci-fi. The second half is some sort of absurd and pre-Lynchian fever dream, which an incredibly powerful ending that has some of the best imagery I’ve read this year. If you can grit your teeth and make it through the bumps in the road, the final pages will justify the time you spent with Ballard here.

The next time you’re cold, pick up The Drowned World. It’s an intense experience which will evoke both heat and an age best buried and leave you glad when there’s snow still falling.

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe – Review

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“I felt that pressure of time that is perhaps the surest indication we have left childhood behind.”

The Shadow of the Torturer is an interesting but frustratingly inconsistent book. After a morbid tone for over one-hundred and fifty pages, with musings on the universe and the indifference to horrors such as torture which can be habituated during childhood, the narrator suddenly has a ridiculous monster-cart race through the centre of the city with a horny peasant girl. This was not a smooth or enjoyable tone shift.

Every time something in the novel impressed me it was followed by something objectionable: the world is imaginative while the characters feel stale; the setting is fascinating, but the plotting is tedious; the writing is carefully crafted and a joy to read, while the characters are anything but.

Men and women come across as fundamentally disconnected from events that are unfolding around them, and I don’t think this was a narrative trick to make a point. They react with mute fascination and then swiftly move on from whatever trauma has been inflicted on them just to keep the plot rolling; they become horny instantly because Wolfe would like a sex scene, not because it might be an appropriate human reaction.

The universe of The Shadow of the Torturer is fascinating, and the society we’re introduced to really feels like it could have been around for millennia. It ends up seeming like a hollow ruin instead of a city, however, because it’s inhabited by broad caricatures instead of believable people.

 

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

  
“The world changes too fast. You take your eyes off something that’s always been there, and the next minute it’s just a memory.”

The Book of Strange New Things is a melancholy novel about love and devastation. That might sound like a contradiction in terms, but Faber approaches the well-worn territory of inter-species colonialism with a gentle, sad touch that makes some very old tropes feel new again. This was written as Faber’s wife was dying, and a desperate longing for the restoration of someone in your life you can feel slipping away from you makes the Book of Strange New Things a sad but memorable read.

It might be a sign of the times that a novel exploring religion and aliens has received rave reviews — would it have twenty years ago, when the lines between “literature” and genre-novels were more obvious? Probably not. This change is for the better:Peter, the protagonist, is a Christian missionary sent to outer space. Letters to and from his wife punctuate the narrative; back on Earth things are falling apart. Meanwhile, we watch as the inhabitants of this new planet adopt a religion they might not understand and the strange world begins to shake Peter’s faith.

When talking about all of this, genre definitions are stretched in usefulness. It’s sci-fi, true; but there are many who might hear that and therefore dismiss this book, putting it in a box where they perceive human emotions as being secondary in importance. There’s a literary resonance here reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin, and a nuanced approach to religion that should intrigue fans of sci-fi, literary fiction readers, believers and (thankfully for me) non-believers alike.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin


“A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.”

This was recommended to me due to how much I like Margaret Atwood, which meant I went in with high expectations. Unfortunately, it just felt too dry to be to my taste in science fiction. I don’t think it’s a bad book, and I’m glad I read it as I can’t remember anything else quite like it. I just never became truly invested in what was happening.On a frozen planet of sexless androgynists, an envoy from another world arrives offering them membership in an interstellar partnership. In the wrong hands a premise like this could come across as a wacky “Planet of Hats” (re:TvTrope) attempt at hamfisted political exploration, but Le Guin has an impressive take on the actual ramifications of a society like this.

While The Left Hand of Darkness raises a number of interesting issues, I never grew all that invested in the story. The only part which I don’t think will meld together in my mind into a long description of dry conversations in cold rooms is an exciting expedition over a country-long stretch of ice.

The prose was at times thoughtful and measured, but everything moves along at a weird pace. The diary format results in the description of events like an attack on a farm lacking tension, which works in some moments as there is a lot of stuff to take in, and this allows for enormous exposition dumps without feeling too forced. But I only ever grew attached to one character, Estraven, and during the rest of the novel I felt like I was watching a slow-paced documentary. The subjects were interesting, and there were some intelligent observations made, but everything felt detached. I’d recommend it to people who are more interested in world-building than I am, though.

Annihilaton by Jeff VanderMeer

“That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”

Annihilation is a horror/sci-fi which takes place in “Area X”, a strange ecosystem that’s been cut off from the rest of the world by a border which stretches the minds of those who try to cross it.

Tension is the emotion at the heart of this story. How far can you be pushed and changed before your own self crumbles? There was a lot going on under the surface of this novel, and a Lovecraft-esque atmosphere helps push the question as to what humans can and cannot understand.

The prose is strong (for the most part) and I got through it quickly because of the excellent pacing, so I’m looking forward to the sequels. I’ll be hoping for more actual horror and less inner dialogue about how terrifying everything is.