Proto-Internet Science Fiction: Neuromancer

Neuromancer_(Book)It’s back to science fiction for me, and what a treat William Gibson’s Neuromancer is. Having taken some time away from sci-fi, I suppose I was a little skeptical about coming back to it. However, I devoured Gibson’s novel. Reading it in 2013, it’s easy to overlook just how much Gibson was predicting the coming Internet age. Henry Case, the novel’s protagonist, is a washed-up hacker who is living out what he thinks are the last few days of his life in Chiba City, Japan – a slum and crime haven. He introduces readers to a world where cybernetic implants and prosthetic devices are common-place, where the world is connected across cyberspace (a term that Gibson coined), a world where corporations rule and where the global trade of information exists in a world unto itself. All of this must have seemed way ahead of its time as ARPANET, the Internet’s forerunner, only came into existence in 1969 and in 1983 became a subnet of early forms of the Internet. This was cutting-edge technology and Gibson imagined how it could become a global realm that did not so much offer equality/democracy/information to everyone as to reinforce existing hierarchies. Now that some of the initial triumphalism about the Internet has washed away, it seems increasingly clear that the Internet itself is not a free space, but one that is controlled and contested by many parties. Anyways, I was floored by how much Gibson seems to have gotten Internet culture right. Of course, expecting sci-fi writers to be prophets is unfair as, at heart, I believe most writers are just trying to tell a good story.

And that’s what made Neuromancer work for me: it presents a clever story that traverses nearly the entirety of Gibson’s imagined world. Case is approached by Molly, a hired gun with polarized lens implanted over her eyes, with a hacking job that will pay handsomely (and restore the neural damage done to Case by some pissed-off former employers). From here, Case enters into a world-travelling journey, working with a ROM version of a now-dead hacker, to prepare for a hacking run against one of the largest corporations and its monolithic AI. Oh yeah, Gibson is all over AI in this novel, but it’s not a fear of robo-pocalypse, but something far more interesting.

I think one of the most interesting things about reading this novel was seeing how much it actually resembles Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner (a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). I read on Wikipedia that when Gibson saw the first 20 minutes he was in despair as he felt like every reviewer would see his novel as a rip-off of that film. I don’t think that this happened (Neuromancer pulled a triple crown of awards, winning the Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Hugo Awards), but it is amazing how close these two worlds line up. I’m not sure why this happened, but I am guessing that in the early 1980s, something about Japanese technology, mixed with a good dose of yellow peril (racist fear of an Asian wave) helped to concoct the perfect cultural context for Scott and Gibson to work with. At the same time, Gibson’s novel leaves Japan for Turkey and the United States before ending up in a space station. I feel like someone has probably written a Master’s thesis on the convergence of these two seminal sci-fi works.

Overall, Gibson’s Neuromancer is a great read. It is fast-paced and tosses in a number of twists that keep you guessing while also being intellectually stimulating.

I highly recommend this novel to sci-fi fans. Of course, in saying this I am probably preaching to the choir as this is already a well-loved sci-fi classic.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Science Fiction, 1984. Print.

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A Different Kind of Narrative Voice: Ravensong

ravensong-1It took me a while to get into Lee Maracle’s Ravensong, but once I did I found the novel quite rewarding. Maracle’s 1993 novel centres on an indigenous community in Maillardville, British Columbia during the 1950s as it undergoes a second flu epidemic in a number of years. The novel is narrated, more or less, by Stacey, a seventeen year old who has plans on leaving the community to go to UBC in order to become a teacher. She plans on coming back and opening a native school in the community so that the rest of the children won’t be subjected to the trauma of residential schools. Complicating this are her duties as a daughter during the flu epidemic, a largely uncaring white community across the river that is content to stand by and watch the natives die, and the grief that comes with losing members of one’s family. Maracle is very clearly on the indigenous side and carefully sets about showing how the indigenous community exists on its own terms despite being threatened by the white community. Of course, there is also a sense of shock at just how brutal and uncaring the white community is.

I mentioned in my last post that I struggled to get into this novel, and even finishing proved more difficult. I think this is because Maracle employs a very different narrative voice than I am used to. I would call it a roving third-person omniscient narrator that mostly follows Stacey, but also occasionally drops in on her sister Celia, her mother Momma, a cedar tree, and Raven who  seems to be orchestrating most of the events in the community. But it’s not just the moving point of narration that I had difficulty with: there is a slowness of pace, a thoroughness of reflection, and an round-aboutness that meant Ravensong was not a fast read. I believe that Maracle intends this, and, on reflection, I am glad she did this. What at first might seem to be a sign of shaky or immature writing is actually carefully crafted so that we can enter into the rhythms and movements of Stacey’s community.

One of the other reasons why Ravensong is worth reading is that it makes a compelling case for just how damaging colonialism is even when physical violence is not a part of the mindset. In this case, the ignorance and apathy from “white town” is just as damaging as the violence that came before. There is a devastating moment when Stacey confronts Steve, a bright white high school student who is interested in Stacey, that her father has ignored his Hippocratic oath and stood by while the native community is torn apart by a preventable illness. In a sense, Maracle signals that cross-cultural communication might be possible but that it will involve a huge amount of work from both sides (and it might not be possible until white settler-invaders start to come down from their presumed “superiority”). In all, I think Ravensong is a great example of complex indigenous writing that looks long and hard at the difficult process of decolonization.

I would highly recommend this book to any fans of indigenous writing, or anyone in BC hoping to gain a handle on the often troubled relationships between indigenous peoples and settlers.

Maracle, Lee. Ravensong: A Novel. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers, 1993. Print.

Going Back to a Classic: The Stranger

l_etranger_albert_camusIn the process of struggling to really get into Lee Maracle’s Ravensong (I will talk more about this in the next post), I picked up Albert Camus’ The Stranger to change things up a bit. I had read Camus’ The Fall in a philosophy class a long time ago, so  I kind of knew what to expect. And I wasn’t disappointed either. The Stranger is a deceptively simple narrative about Meursault, an Algerian, who is confronted with the death of his mother and, under bizarre circumstances, decides to shoot an Arab. The first portion of the novel deals with the process of burying his mother while Part Two deals with the fallout from his erratic action. The language is deceptively simple, clean and spare, while the narrative is cut down to the bone. However, this deceives as the content beneath the novella is a deeply thought-out meditation on meaning, existence, and how to live in the world.

What I remember of The Fall is that the protagonist slowly pulls the reader deeper and deeper into his twisted moral world. The Stranger is somewhat different as we are presented with a flat narrator who seems incapable of feeling emotion. When he arrives at his mother`s coffin, he foregoes the opportunity to see her face one last time, much to the dismay of the old age home`s warden. Throughout the novella, you never really get a sense of Meursault because he comes across as a very laid-back person who seems to have reached key decisions about life and the universe. Meursault refuses to be pulled into any shows of sentimentality either by his mother`s death, his trial for murder, or even the abrupt end to his budding love interest with Marie because of his impending execution. Faced with the “benign indifference of the universe,” Meursault has emptied himself of all artifice, all cheap sentiment, and even a sense of morality. Instead, he does as he pleases, without planning and immersed only in the present.

Of course, this model of life is deeply offensive to the other characters in the novella, including the jury who hands him his death sentence and even Marie at a few points. The Stranger has one of the most compelling court-room scenes I have read in a long time, if only for the way that the first-person narration is so disinterested in the events themselves. In the court, the prosecution successfully snares Meursault`s previous actions, which are odd and unemotional at best, and spins them into a picture of Meursault as a great monstrosity that must be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. In doing this, Camus shows his mastery of the plot as he carefully weaves everything that has come before together into the climactic scenes of the novella. It is done masterfully and was a real pleasure to read. Meursault`s final actions, which I won`t give away, are both awe-inspiring and terrifying for the way he has reasoned himself into a position of great absurdity (something Camus himself was big on; he was also a war correspondent, so he saw some pretty terrible things to convince him of the ultimate indifference of the universe).

I am not sure I agree with where Meursault and Camus want to take us, but there is a deep pleasure in reading this masterfully written novella. Do not be fooled by its seemingly shallow surface, but take the time to revel in what Camus brings.

I highly recommend this book to any fans of philosophy and readers who enjoy spare prose (like Cormac McCarthy`s in The Road or any of Raymond Carver`s short stories).

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1946. Trans. by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Print.

* This is not the cover of the version I read, but it looks so good I just had to put it up.

More Great Writing about Trees :The Golden Spruce

goldenspruce2I absolutely loved John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce. I could hardly put it down which is somewhat surprising given that non-fiction is something I struggle to get through. However, Vaillant writes The Golden Spruce like a mystery novel, keeping back key facts and points until he must reveal them, a tactic that I think pays off by the book’s end. The book is about a Golden Spruce tree that lived some 300 years on the Queen Charlotte Islands until it was cut down in a bizarre act of environmental protest by Grant Hadwin in 1997. In the ensuing controversy and leading up to Hadwin’s court date, he disappeared after attempting to solo kayak the Hecate Strait, one of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable bodies of water. Vaillant uses this mystery to not only give a thoroughly detailed history of the Queen Charlotte Islands, logging practices in British Columbia, and the geography of the Pacific Northwest, but he also gives a sizeable dollop of environmental reflection on our paper-hungry society. Near the end of the book, he writes “most people alive today will witness the end of old-growth – big tree – logging, an industry that has been practised continuously and with undiminished zeal in the Northern Hemisphere for at least five thousand years” (212). This fact was enough to stop me in my tracks: our society is facing multiple crises right now, but the situation with trees seems to be particularly acute. We are quickly approaching the point where we will have completely logged out Canada. And this is no mean feat, because when Europeans first stumbled onto the scene, the continent was largely forested with an incomprehensibly vast systems of trees stretching from the Atlantic right to the Pacific. After this is gone, there really is no where else to go for the wood we need for everything from lumber to paper to any kind of paper product you can think of including cellophane. In a way, it’s like the oil crisis, except we haven’t been using oil for five thousand years. Trees literally have been a key component of all human civilization. Scary stuff indeed.

One of the things that I have really enjoyed in the process of doing this reading challenge is noticing the way certain books line up with each other. In this case, The Golden Spruce is a great counter-part to Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt. Both deal with the logging industry and both share the British Columbia geography. They also both end up at the same conclusion: that we are in deep trouble and it’s not clear what kind of solutions will get us out of this fix. It would be easy to let this problem prevent us from doing anything – call it environmental apathy. Yet, I believe that such intractable problems present an opportunity for thinking up innovative solutions to the problem. These may not be new solutions – I have a sense we are going to look more frequently to the past for solutions to technology-created problems – but they will be solutions that take the long-term into account instead of short-term profit. Of course, this could also be wishful thinking. Capitalism is showing no signs of going away any time soon. Vaillant does a good job in his epilogue showing signs of hope in the Queen Charlottes, and I think we need to focus on these stories rather than being paralyzed by a sense that nothing we do matters.

Overall, I loved this book. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in environmental issues, or anyone living in Canada for that matter. It is exceptionally well-written and not at all preachy (even though this review is …).

Vaillant, John. The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2005. Print.

A Satisfying if Short Fable: Tuck Everlasting

9780312369811A friend recommended Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as a good children’s literature choice. Having blazed through it in two days, I can say that it was a satisfying if short read. The basic premise of the novel is this: there is a spring that grants immortality, discovered by the Tuck family and, a short way into the book, by Winnie Foster. Winnie, the novel`s young narrator, is lonely in her “touch-me-not” cottage with its high fence and over-protective parents. The one day she decides to run away, she happens to run into a young Jessie Tuck at the fountain and his parents then kidnap her in order to explain their dilemma. Talking, lots of rich description of a pastoral American landscape, and some nefarious action courtesy of a lean man in a yellow suit ensues.

Tuck Everlasting is a fable in the sense that it meditates on a moral situation: what are the implications of living forever. Of course, Babbitt’s book is too long to be a traditional fable and there are no talking animals here. The moral itself is even more complicated than a simple didactic one-liner like: cheating death is cheating life. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the book lacked something deeper than this interesting philosophical problem: what do you do if you live forever? Jessie, his brother MIles, and their parents all talk to Winnie about their century-long immortality. While Jessie, the youngest brother, clearly enjoys his ability to travel the world and have adventures, the parents provide a much more somber response. At a certain point, Winnie even notices the father looking enviously at a character who is dying. I felt that the complexities of immortality/mortality where well-handled in the book, hence why I call it a satisfying read. Don’t expect a profound meditation on mortality, but there is a strong element of deep thought at work.

I call Tuck Everlasting short because it is quite short (139 small pages). The plot moves quickly and Babbitt makes use of a surprising twist that manages to elevate the narrative out of a fable’s simplicity. However, I did feel like the novel comes close to being bare-bones. The landscape is set in a kind of pastoral America (at least I think it is the States given Babbitt’s own American identity – it could be anywhere I guess), Winnie’s family comes across as stuck-up, over-protective, and yet also naive. The Tucks are the only real characters possessing depth and individuality. I felt like Winnie herself was somewhat unappealing as a narrator. All of this to say that I found the novel only satisfying. Call it damning a book by lukewarm praise. I think this may have been a case of a children’s book being just that: a book for children that will leave more mature readers wanting more.

I recommend this book for young readers.

Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck Everlasting. New York: Square Fish, 1975. Print.

Heavy with History and Violence: Beloved

downloadToni Morrison’s Beloved is a heavy read. It is thick with the history of slavery in the United States and Morrison does not shy away from the physical, emotional, and psychological damage that it wreaks on those caught up in it. I suppose I expected something lighter like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but that’s probably because it’s been a while since I last read Morrison’s The Bluest EyeBeloved does not revel in violence, like McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seems to, but it does not shy away from it either. The novel centres on Sethe, a young slave woman who manages to escape slavery in the south by fleeing to her mother-in-law in Ohio along with her three children all while being nine months pregnant. Although Sethe has escaped slavery, it continues to make her life a living hell in the form of ghosts, her absent husband who may or may not have been hung for trying to escape, and, most of all, in the traumatic consequences of the reappearance of her former owners. When the narrative starts, 18 years on from Sethe’s escape, she lives in 124, her mother-in-law’s house, with her daughter Denver as Baby Suggs, the in-law, has died while her two sons have abandoned her to go fight in the Civil War.

One of the things that I begrudgingly liked about Beloved was how it refused a quick reading. I found it very difficult to plow through the text, not just because of the narrative voice which moves across time and space quite fluidly but more so because of the heaviness of the material. It is one thing to recognize slavery as a bad thing in an abstract sense, but it is quite another to realize the depths of depravity and evil that went along with it. On some level, I think the human brain tends to downplay potential evil even if it is confronted with the realization of that potential quite regularly (think Vietnam, Rwanda, and most recently the shootings in Nigeria). Perhaps we all have some ingrained form of optimism about the human race. What makes Beloved a great novel is that Morrison refuses to let us have this naivete yet she does not leave us here but suggests ways out of this painful knowledge.

I am always hesitant to say that novels capture a zeitgeist or help to explain historical events, partly because that can become an onerous burden on the author but also because it tends to refuse fiction its unique ability as fiction. However, Beloved really does shed light on the fractious and divisive racial politics that animate the US. The widespread celebration of Obama’s presidential election victory is, in some ways, an attempt to get beyond the history that Morrison so eloquently narrates. And yet, it is also impossible to escape this history. The novel’s final chapter repeats a refrain of “It was not a story to pass on,” self-reflexively labeling the whole novel as a kind of forbidden story. And yet, it is a necessary story because it lays out in no uncertain terms how destructive racism and slavery were. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize the year after it was published while Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. These accolades are well-deserved and have helped to reassure me that prizes are not always political, that sometimes merit does win out.

I highly recommend Beloved for anyone who reads. It is difficult, heart-breaking, but it is also powerful and deeply insightful.

Morrison, Toni. BelovedNew York: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.

Mortality Comes Home, and Other Poems: Brilliant Falls

9781554471232_bAnother bit of work slipping into the pleasure reading for the year, but John Terpstra’s Brilliant Falls would have been on this list anyways had I owned it when I made the list. Terpstra is a Hamilton-based poet who has consistently and unfairly flown under the radar of Canadian poetry`s landscape for a long time now. I`m not totally sure why this is, but it might be partly because he has taken a rather unconventional path to poetry. Where many Canadian poets are employed by universities or colleges to pay their bills, Terpstra is a self-employed cabinetmaker. This career is reflected in his poetic output with Naked Trees being a reflection of his own relationship to urban trees while numerous other poems take up trees and wood. The other reason that Terpstra might be passed over is because of his Christian overtones and imagery. His own relationship to the church and faith is explored in Skin Boat: Acts of Faith and Other Navigations, a work of non-fiction published in a beautiful edition by Gaspereau Press. Regardless, Brilliant Falls is a strong collection of poems by a mature poet who knows his voice and craft.

While many poetry collections lack a strong sense of connection across their length, this is not the case with Brilliant Falls. Human mortality is featured in many of the poems with a sequence of six poems, in particular, that reflect on death and its meaning for those who go on living. This is, in no small part, because Terpstra`s own parents have died in the last number of years and poems like “Driving Home Christmas” and “Emptying the House” reflect directly on these experiences. “Driving Home Christmas” is one of the strongest poems in the collection as Terpstra works his way through his father’s death near Christmas Day and the annual depression he undergoes at this time of year now. I particularly like how he skillfully weaves mortality with the Christian meaning of Christmas which celebrates the birth of God. What I think I like most of all is his honesty – it is clear that Terpstra struggled to write through these lines and I appreciate this. Reflecting on the lack of people at his father’s funeral, Terpstra writes

” … The place should have been packed,
but it was Christmas Eve, people were busy or away,
and it’s not as though the place was empty, but that I
expected more, and didn’t know I expected more
until the building didn’t fill to the rafters,
and the sky didn’t open to angels. Singing.”

The lack of crowd contrasts with the speaker’s own sense of death while Terpstra also alludes to the familiar Christmas annunciation story with angels announcing Christ’s birth. My favorite poem in the collection is “Topographies of Easter,” the poem from which the book’s title comes. Terpstra’s Falling into Place, a work of creative non-fiction exploring Hamilton’s geography, is a personal favorite and in “Topographies of Easter” Terpstra looks again at the Hamilton landscape. He describes Hamilton’s landscape as:

” … this body that is broken
by time and season and violence too deep
for us to wonder at the source, broken
into beauty that lures our present rambling
and leads us to the edge of this escarpment”

I love the way Terpstra recognizes the enormity of geological forces; forces which dwarf the human ability to manipulate the world. But I also love the way that Terpstra captures the rugged beauty of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological feature that lures us forward. I’ll admit that I am biased towards Terpstra because of my own religious views and the fact that I live in Hamilton. However, I do think that his poetry is well worth the time.

I highly recommend Brilliant Falls for any fans of Canadian poetry.

Terpstra, John. Brilliant Falls Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2013. Print.