Dreams of an Unseen Planet by Teresa Plowright

Dreams of an Unseen Planet Teresa Plowright

Dreams of an Unseen Planet by Teresa Plowright was a random thrift store pick. With a cover like that I wasn’t going to pass it up, and I was delighted to find a female author sandwiched between the usual Asimov and Heinlein novels that populate my local Value Village. I had high hopes for this one from the start, and in the end I’m not disappointed! Though I have to say I think, as a novel, it takes a little bit of time to pick up steam. If you’re reading it, I’d encourage you to stick it out until you’re at least a third of the way through.

Aside from the obvious selling feature of a female sci-fi author, this book features a female protagonist and what I would call a majority of female characters. The circumstance isn’t contrived, either. When your setting is a space colony specifically designed for the propagation of the human species, you can’t really get away with focusing entirely on men. Maybe the scenario is rife with opportunity for females to be given the static “birther” role, but I might have thrown the book out the window if that had been the case. As in David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, I really get the sense that women exist as actual people in this world. There isn’t a palpable distinction in capability between men and women. They hold the same jobs, seem to have the same weird social tendencies, and are equally as worried and emotional. Fertility issues as they pertain to women are discussed as just part of a working whole, not some mysterious, foreign enchantment.

A word on what I just said about fertility – with a tagline like “When sex is not the answer…” I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a novel that toed the line and tripped into straight-up erotica or if I’d get the Stephanie Meyer asterisks-mean-sex cop-out. Surprise! The answer is neither. Sex is a central theme, because of course it is when your setting is a domed base on a distant planet populated by 2,000 colonists whose main purpose for being there is to procreate and continue the human race. Earth has gone to hell and so, on the verge of nuclear war, the Americas, China and Russia each send a bunch of colonists to a far off-planet called Gaea to preserve and rebuild the human race. From the point of view of Miera Tull, a woman living in the English-speaking colony, we learn that all efforts at procreation have been unsuccessful – no one can get pregnant, and those that do eventually miscarry or die.

Naturally, as the sex-drenched but childless years wear on, female fertility takes on something of a talismanic, mystical identity. Everyone lives for it but no one knows how to obtain it.  Eventually, the colony takes to putting on a multiple-day orgiastic festival of procreation called Estros. Which harkens to the importance of female sex hormones and is in its way reminiscent of fertility festivals associated with some pagan religions. But I never felt like the book was earnestly presenting this view as its own. The view of fertility as an evasive deity belongs to the characters, and the novel takes a documentary backseat.

It would be difficult and unnecessarily timid to take a setting where sex holds such omnipresence and remove the basic act. So Plowright doesn’t. But she also rarely veers into outright titillation. There’s not a sex scene that takes place outside of the plot or character arcs. The novel stays improbably classy for taking utter, desperate fucking as its subject matter.

So why did I take so long to come around to it? My theory is that Plowright introduces the characters so brilliantly that it’s a little too real.  As I started the novel I found Miera petty, dramatic, and largely overly concerned with her own personal issues, considering the general direness of the situation on the colony. Despite being hand-picked for the project for her looks, personality and scientific education, she doesn’t fit in, she’s jealous that her ex-lover has found a new girl, she has insecurities about her job, suffers from insomnia and nightmares, et cetera. In retrospect, of course everyone on the colony would degrade into focusing on personal anxieties, and after a while it’s clear that this is all part of the psychological set-up of the novel.

The range of characters is diverse enough that some are swallowed up in a wave of anxiety, never to return, while others, including our hero, rise above it and become stronger, more developed than I even thought possible at the outset.

Language-wise, you might find the novel a bit flowery. I definitely did. When Plowright hits her stride she does so without sacrificing her language, though these very pretty, dreamlike descriptions seem to have more utility as events progress. The descriptions of sex are at times almost too vague, with so much metaphor that you’re not sure what you’re actually reading. There were a couple passages that I ended up reading twice just to clarify what was actually going on. But it’s worth it for that occasional passage that sparkles with beauty even while it’s describing a hallway or an office.

The sense of scope expands as the story goes on, giving the reader time to get acquainted with each character individually, instead of having to meet several of them at once. Only after a few distinct personalities have been developed do we start learning about the history and inner workings of the colony itself. By the end of the novel we know more about the people in the book that we do about their world, though in a character-focused story, this is an acceptable balance.

In final summation, this book is way more than the fluffy, softcore romp that the cover and synopsis would suggest. It’s definitely a treat for those of you who are sick of reading female sci-fi characters as damsels or oversexed femme-fatales.

Buy Dreams of an Unseen Planet on Amazon.ca!

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite authors, though Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of The World is the perhaps the most sci-fi-like of his novels that I’ve yet encountered. 1Q84 could be a contender, but I never found it so overt.  Perhaps that’s why Hard Boiled Wonderland seemed slow to start – because at first it was jarringly un-Murakami. It took me a while to get into this book, is what I’m saying.

So I was delightfully surprised when it did start to grab me, even more so when it really started being hard to put down toward the end. The last few chapters felt as though they dragged slightly, again, moving toward and ending that was wholly unsatisfactory, though I believe intentionally so.

At times this seems like a classic Murakami story with some sort of bizarre fantasy novel wedged in between chapters. The chapters alternate, one then the other, between tales set in the “real” world – Murakami’s recognizable if slightly skewed depiction of early 1990’s Japan – and in an isolated village with no modern technology at all, where unicorns roam, people’s shadows are sentient beings and dream-reading is an occupation. Yet they are two halves of the same coin, as is slowly revealed when the stories begin to converge. This is one of the best justifications I’ve seen for chapters that flip perspective, and the way the separate viewpoints slowly reveal themselves to be the same is subtle and brilliant, with enough clues in each version for the reader to draw mounting parallels.

Murakami, as usual, tends to fixate in an oddly clinical fashion on sex and other bodily functions. His descriptions of food and alcohol are sumptuous, and a moment where the main character’s collection of whiskey is destroyed was one of the most heartrending things I’ve read in some time.

Women in this universe unfortunately tend to be objects of desire for the main protagonist. We never meet one without getting a detailed description of an imagined sexual encounter, and those that are more than momentary passersby never quite seem to escape the protagonist’s vague fascination. The “main” female character, who we know only as the chubby girl, falls dangerously close to manic-pixie territory, though she seems to be saved by her unaided toughness in the face of adversity where our hero balks and cowers.

What at first seems to be the central storyline, the protagonist’s mysterious, government-operative occupation, is never really explored in more detail than that. He performs a job which involves complex encryptions and decryptions carried out by a part of his subconscious while his waking mind disassociates. The revelation that his abilities are the result of modifications made to his brain, and that he is the only survivor in a series of human experiments, should smack of campy 80’s action movie science, though when it is revealed it seems almost mystical. It’s very much a psychological thriller, though the divide between reality and the imagined world is clearly delineated and unambiguous.

For all his faults, we care about the main character, if only because he tends toward being a blank slate onto whom we project our social insecurity. In line with a large percentage of Murakami’s male characters, he’s in his mid-thirties, apathetic and minimally employed, though somehow with a fair chunk of disposable income. He’s divorced and this fact is treated as more an inevitability of life than a personal tragedy. As far as I know Murakami himself has been married for the duration of his writing career so I sometimes wonder about his fascination with divorced men – though perhaps it is his way of confronting the possibility of failure, creating numerous alter-egos to assess different possible reactions and outcomes.

At any rate, Murakami’s male characters always seem to have an autobiographical possession, whereas his women are more distinct. Despite what I said earlier about the female characters in this book, I do believe that this author is more than capable of writing interesting and realistic women. I’ve seen it in later works – Sputnik Sweetheart, 1Q84 and After Dark all feature women in main roles and when Murakami places them in the spotlight it’s real and effortless. Fittingly, when he treats them as afterthoughts and sexual objects it seems a bit contrived. So perhaps the treatment of women in this novel is a necessary aspect of the protagonist’s characterization. That’s an optimistic way of looking at it, anyhow.

For a novel that has the self-awareness to admit, through reference, its reverence of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, it does have its own internal logic that never falters, even when the plot doesn’t seem certain. All in all it was a worthwhile read, even inspiring at points. The ending, while abrupt, is divisive. Some, I’m sure, will see it as the most logical conclusion, while others, like me, will read the final page in slight disbelief, certain that another outcome was within reach.

A percentage of Amazon sales go toward keeping the blog running, so buy the book here: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Plastic Beach: Snarkitechture at the National Building Museum

THE BEACH by Snarkitechture

The National Building Museum in Washington, DC, is hosting THE BEACH, from now until September 7th. A pity I live nowhere near there – but maybe this will inspire other installation artists to explore this kind of extreme interactivity in future works. THE BEACH is oddly commercialized and sleek, sort of an upper-middle-class, art hipster, yuppie paradise.  It’s also vaguely humorous (how can you not be, when you place a giant ball pit in the middle of a museum) and really seems like the sort of thing that you’d find in some sort of future dome-city where the real beaches have all been nuked off the planet and humanity splashes around in oceans of plastic balls. Maybe that’s what Snarkitechture was going for – a fun, lighthearted installation with a little bit of dystopic background static.

So about that ball pit. It IS huge, at 10,000 square feet, composed of almost one million recyclable plastic balls in a uniform translucent white. At the end of this ball “ocean” is a wall of mirrors   that play the role of a distant horizon, providing the illusion that the ocean goes on forever. The foggy, milky color of the ball pit as a whole is dripping with ultra-modern minimalist sensibility but it’s also the colour of so many plastic shopping bags – a fun parallel, considering what those do to the real ocean.

Brooklyn-based creators Daniel Ashram and Alex Mustonen have made THE BEACH in keeping with Snarkitechture’s usual style. They frequently do the stark black and white thing, playing with the aesthetic of a consumerist and design-oriented society. It’s not without humour – in installations like their ultra-sleek marble run for Art Basel at Miami Beach, and The White Room, made for a Chromeo album release and focusing on a series of “all white matte objects,” they really sell the idea that the future won’t be chrome, but stark white. They never lose their sense of humour but there is a palpable “evil megacorporation” undertone in many of their works. I dig it.

THE BEACH top view

It’s not all play – the National Building Museum (which I’ll admit I had never heard of before reading about this artwork) has boasted that its summer admissions sales have nearly tripled since last year with the installation of the work this summer. That’s just savvy business. So what about THE BEACH is attracting so many people? Obviously a ball pit that’s big enough for adults is a draw whether we want to admit it or not. But that’s a gimmick. Behind that, there’s an actual subversion of what people understand the museum space to be. When the general air of the museum is “look, don’t touch” – THE BEACH begs you to get all up in it,  sit on it, swim through it, throw bits of it at your friends.

It encourages guests to sit in chairs and idle on its shores, eat organic, fair-trade snacks from the Union Kitchen snack bar (acting as mock concession stand) – to just treat it like a real beach. All these activities seem to exist in a place of passive opposition to the traditions of a museum, where food is forbidden, guests glance at paintings and sculptures for a few seconds before moving on, and where touching any artwork is, obviously, strictly forbidden.

So you tell me: are Ashram and Mustonen building the synthetic beach in preparation for a future in which we can’t visit the real thing? Are they setting up a novelty in the here-and-now to have us look at it in 200 years and see it as a pale imitation of what once was? Probably not, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t in keeping with the dark, snarky humour that is the firm’s namesake.

An interesting side effect of inviting people into a touchy-feely space like this is that the sanitation issues that you should probably expect have also come into play. It’s minor fear-mongering for the most part. One case of pink eye, one cold, both that are only circumstantially tied to ball-pit exposure. The museum assures visitors that all of the balls in the pit are molded with antimicrobial agents, as well as being sprayed with antimicrobials and cleaned nightly. Now that’s what our beaches are missing – that alcohol smell of hand sanitizer. Imagine yourself safe in each milky white bubble! Each could represent a sealed antibacterial shell for the immune-challenged. Surely a few cases of contagious illness are preferable to shark bites, jellyfish stings, sunburns and sand in the shoes.

People swimming in THE BEACH by Snarkitechture

THE BEACH, the plastic beach, a wonderful, hilarious art piece and a chilling glimpse into one possible future. If you’re lucky enough to see it, enjoy it as a temporary fun afternoon – or go home unable to shake the feeling of slight sadness, like you’ve seen a premonition that you don’t quite understand yet. The determining factor – whether this piece is the future of museums or the future of beaches.

All images from Snarkitechture.com

Read my slightly less rambling coverage of the piece on The Speaker!

Azuma Makoto’s Botanical Aliens

Azuma Makoto Exobotanica

I can’t decide if Japanese artist Azuma Makoto loves flowers or hates them. His is a practice that seems at times bent on putting gorgeous plants through the most hellish of trials and punishments, while at the same time elevating something you can technically find in your backyard to the status of high art sculpture. It’s sort of like Hannibal for florists.

I was first introduced to Makoto’s work when I came across an image of his frozen flowers. In an exhibition held in Japan in the winter of 2014, Makoto froze a number of large, lush flower arrangements in cartoonish crystal-clear blocks of solid ice. Think the block of ice that Steve Rogers gets caught in for 70 years. The sort of thing that would probably never happen by accident in real life. I don’t know how the artist did it, but there must have been some scientific consultation going on for him to get the arrangements to look just so, like they were blowing in an invisible breeze, while suspended in effective cryostasis.

Azuma Makoto Iced Flowers

I think my favourite part of this piece is the backdrop that Makoto chose. A barren warehouse that seems in direct contrast to the liveliness of the flowers. The wet concrete floor, stainless steel apparatus and chains make me think of a slaughterhouse or industrial factory. Not really a place for flowers. That tired old word juxtaposition is almost as alive as the plants seem to be in this piece. I could talk about the slow death that the plants experienced as the ice slowly thawed leaving them wet and wilted on the floor, but there aren’t any photos of the aftermath – not that I can find, anyway. That was behind the scenes, not meant for the viewing public.

Azuma Makoto Iced Flowers Large View

So Makoto used ice one time to suspend his plants but in other cases it’s a recurring cube enclosure that looks like a cross between torture device and display case. A plant, sometimes a Bonsai tree, is held in place by four metal cables, leading to the corners of a small metal box, just a frame, with open sides. It’s an innovative vase, but provides the plant no protection or access to necessary nutrients. The plant becomes a beautiful object for a very limited period of time. Taking this further, Makoto sent flowers into space. Well, not technically into space, but into the upper levels of the earth’s atmosphere, about as close to space as you can get without being in the vacuum.

Azuma Makoto Exobotanica Crew

Why worry about the plants, suspended as they are in their metal cubes, days already numbered? I imagine they looked lovely for a few hours floating peacefully in the stratosphere, until they began to fall and wither. I’m not sure what the air and temperatures up there would do to a plant – I don’t think Azuma Makoto did, either. Launched out of Black Rock, Nevada, earlier this summer, the project isn’t the least Burning-Man-esque artwork I can think of, yet there’s something more focused and serene about it. The plants become Exobotanica, the artist’s website explains, they become extraterrestrial beings, freed from the earth. Perhaps this is a glimpse into Makoto’s true feelings about the plants – perhaps they are more, or can offer more than what we see them as. I wrote about Makoto’s studio in an upcoming post on Artist Run Website – his atelier, as many websites call it, because “studio” seems almost crass for the delicacy of the work that is being done here – and it, alone, is a work of performance art. Look at Makoto’s Exobotanica assistants, in uniforms with special patches on them. A team of scientists preparing for the future of art. I want to read that story.

Encyclopedia of Flowers: Flower Works by Makoto Azuma photographed by Shunsuke Shiinoki

All images from azumamakoto.com

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes

August was an interesting time to read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I don’t think I know of any other books that so accurately portray the smell, appearance and general feel of autumn, particularly late October when the season is in full swing and the frost is only beginning to set in in the mornings. I know it’s a particularly North American concept of October, but that being the one that I’ve grown up with, it really made me long for sweater weather.

For a horror story, it’s very much a boy’s coming-of-age tale. Not to say that only boys and men can relate to it, I know I found it totally engaging regardless, but the text is rife with nods to apparent shared experiences by men of a certain age who grew up in a certain era. Released originally in 1962, it doesn’t exactly subvert the sensibilities of that era, but it doesn’t fall victim to them, either.

When I say horror in describing the story I definitely mean classic horror. There’s no gore or teenagers being stalked by serial killers here. A supernaturally evil carnival comes to town. No, there aren’t any murderous clowns, either. The carnival itself is something that would probably be passed off as utter camp if it were written into a horror story today, but Something Wicked’s temporal setting makes it totally believable. This is a time where 13-year-old-boys roam free in the middle of the night, escaping through their bedroom windows and are reprimanded only via brief scolding when and if they are ever discovered. There aren’t any cellphones or computers, and travelling salesmen are still a thing. The town is presented as a relatively idyllic portrait of “all-American” life in the late fifties.

Yet the action never feels dated or dull. There’s suspense, bits that are genuinely scary and as a reader I was still able to form an attachment to the characters to the point where I cared what happened to them. The story is tight throughout and never drags. I think this was at least partially a side-effect of Bradbury’s extremely short chapter structure – sometimes a chapter was only half a page long. I’m a fan of this. It means each chapter is a clean divide, describes only one scene, no matter the length, and it really keeps the pages turning. Not to mention that we’re treated to an ending that’s much more than just “the heros win, and the bad guys are vanquished.” It’s thought-provoking, satisfying and most importantly doesn’t feel like a rip-off the way so many happy endings tacked on to horror stories do.
As for gender roles: Bradbury is no Larry Niven, but again, the women in the story are passive objects. Set dressing and plot devices. Arguably the most prominent female characters are the boys’ mothers, and these two “characters” are completely interchangeable. Will’s mother has a few lines of dialogue in which she consoles her husband and son – Jim’s mother is only described from a distance. Basically, the boy’s mothers are on there to act as foils for the maleness of our three heros. Other than that, they don’t affect the story at all. The boys and Will’s father barely seem worried about getting in trouble with their women after running around through the town all night. Also, when do they sleep? There were points at which I got tired just thinking about this. Maybe I was just never a 13-year-old boy.

Aside from the mothers, women are presented in a weird dichotomy. On the one hand, they’re the gullible fools who get eaten up by the supernatural evil presence while the astute young males see through the clever ruse immediately – and isn’t this sort of intuition often a traditionally feminine thing in literature? Men figure stuff out with science, while women are in tune with nature and “just know”?

If not that, they’re a part of the evil, as in the only female member of the carnival – the blind witch. I guess this is our feminine intuition nod – the woman communes with nature, has a sixth sense and is therefore a practitioner of evil black magic. The witch is portrayed as inherently evil, being a part of the carnival, but really all she ever does in the story is smell and feel things, knowing things in spite of her blindness, which we’re supposed to interpret as really creepy.

My short rant aside, there’s a reason Bradbury has been called the greatest sci-fi writer in history. (Link NSFW) This is an engaging story with solid characterization and plot. And for old, classic horror, I found it genuinely eerie. Read this at Halloween! Read it in front of your gas fireplace or with a lamp on under a blanket. Pretend you’re 13 again.

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld by Larry Niven

I actually read this title a little while ago but I’m refreshing my memory for the blog because I feel it bears being written about. For starters, I really liked the story. The overarching plot is reasonably compelling. Unfortunately it’s marred by Larry Niven’s blistering disregard for women. This was published in 1970, and reading novels from a particular era, I think you have to steel yourself against some degree of oblivious, but belligerent, misogyny. That said, I’ve absolutely read other authors who allow the influence of their own era to exist within the book without it being completely awful for readers, who, 30+ years later are starting to get the  hang of this whole “women are actually people” thing and get queasy thinking about how recent a development that is. As I’m writing this I’m halfway through Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and the female characters in that serve mainly as either set dressing or plot devices, but Bradbury doesn’t seem to have an active hate/fear relationship with his women characters. Niven, on the other hand, sees women as pretty vessels. The female characters in Ringworld (all two of them!) could be convincingly replaced by aesthetically pleasing Tupperware.

It’s a shame because I liked the story so much. I just learned that there’s a colloquial term for this type of story: “Big Dumb Object” or “BDO” for short. In BDO stories the entire premise is based on the existence of this one big object, whether it’s a threat to humanity, a giant physical anomaly that later proves to be the ticket to humanity’s continued existence, or just a weird unexplored chunk of space rock. Gamers, think the Traveler from Destiny. In the case of Ringworld the titular object is all three of these thing, which is why a team of explorers are sent to…well, explore it.

Huge unexplored space objects are my fetish, so I was quite enthralled with Niven’s descriptions of the Ringworld itself. The author’s descriptions of alien worlds and made-up future technology are sometimes a bit hard to follow, but having a picture in your head is more important than whether or not the picture is accurate. The story’s fairly large in scope, with the huge distances taking years and years to travel, even with fantasy advances in propulsion technology.

The main character, Louis Wu, is honestly just some old rich guy who doesn’t seem to have much else going on. Accompanying him on the expedition is Teela, who we first meet when Louis ends up sleeping with her at his birthday party. Despite an age gap of something like 40 years she falls haplessly in love with him because it’s the future and they have anti-aging technology and people live way longer and because Niven is extremely transparent in the way he projects his own fantasies into his writing. And pretty much the only reason Teela joins the expedition is because she can’t bear to leave Louis and also because Louis can’t bear to go on this multiple-year space journey without someone in which to holster his dick. The other two characters are of different alien species – one of which has sentient males and non-sentient females. I don’t think I really need to say anything more.

The one other female appears toward the end of the novel. She’s a crew member from a marooned space ship. Hang on, did I say crew member? I meant ship’s prostitute. Okay. I am totally supportive of sex work as a legitimate way to earn a decent living, and, okay, this alien is portrayed as mind-blowingly good at her job, but it would be so nice to meet a female character who is in the novel for reasons other than “has a vagina.” I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to guess that a progressive portrayal of sex workers was not at the forefront of the author’s mind when he wrote the character.

My verdict? Buy the book. Buy it USED. Read it, enjoy it, throw it against a wall. Pass it along to your friends.

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington #1) by David Weber

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

A few days ago I thought I was going to start this review by saying that David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, the first novel in the Honor Harrington series, attempted to be feminist but almost missed the mark. After having finished it, I can say it really hits its stride in the latter half. Considering that the last few novels I’ve read have been Horus Heresy volumes, it was wonderfully refreshing just to read something that focused on a female lead character. And even more refreshing to note that Honor Harrington is not treated as an anomaly in her universe, but rather that Weber’s Navy seems to have a fairly even distribution of men and women among all ranks and positions. Women in this novel are portrayed as capable, intelligent tacticians, scheming politicians, corrupt billionaires – and each is just as sincerely written and believable as any male character in a similar position.

While the story itself is tight and relatively small in scope – small given that the main conflict involves a space station, wormhole travel and interplanetary espionage – the writing itself drags very occasionally. This is usually when Weber gets caught up in explaining the technological aspects of ships and weapons or the history and process of various political systems. It’s clear that the author genuinely enjoys his world-building, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate this – I can think of a lot more stories where a bit more world-building could have improved things. Weber’s bouts of exposition sometimes go on for four or five pages, eventually reading like someone rambling nervously at a bar, knowing their target is going to walk away as soon as they stop talking.

Those of you expecting a tale of swashbuckling high-space-seas adventure won’t be disappointed – though you should be warned that things take a turn for the #dark towards the end of the novel when the stakes get higher and the body count rises. I’ve never been particularly put off by blood and guts but the way the gore is treated here (serious, with odd dignity given the number of over-the-top violent deaths and their slightly-too-loving descriptions) might be a little incongruous for summer reading. Honestly though, my biggest complaint about this book pertains only to the specific edition that I bought, which features a conventionally beautiful, long-haired Honor Harrington on its cover despite numerous descriptions to the exact contrary within. I digress: the book was engaging almost all the way through, with likable characters and meaningful losses, and I will definitely buy the next installment of the series.