Author: Madeline Ashby
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Publication date: 2nd August 2012
What if we could build humanoid companions? Would we vanquish loneliness? Or would people treat human-humanoid relationships the way mixed race and same sex relationships have been and are viewed?
What if superintelligence turned on us?
For someone who is not especially clued up on sci-fi past the odd Doctor Who episode, I never thought I’d end up being engrossed by a novel that asks these questions. Yet Madeline Ashby has created a debut novel that deals wisely and warmly with our fears of a technological future.
Amy and her mother Charlotte are von Neumann humanoids; they can multiply (known as “iterating”) and heal themselves. Each set or “clade” of vNs has certain abilities (such as photosynthesis, or climbing). Amy and Charlotte live with Amy’s human father in an uneasy futuristic America. Charlotte’s malfunctioning vN mother, Portia, breaks into Amy’s school and attacks Charlotte, killing a small boy in the process. Amy devours Portia in order to stop her doing more harm – in doing this, she stores Portia’s data on her own memory drive.
However, Portia’s error is that her “failsafe” has broken – and that means the command not to harm humans is not a part of her make-up any longer. Amy goes on the run and finds that different organisations want to use her as a weapon, want her unique flaw, or simply want her dead.
This is a brave book that does an admirable job of filling in the possible “What ifs” of a future where technology is built into everything. Madeline Ashby tackles issues such as family ties, the nature/nurture debate and the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence with enthusiasm. Her creative imagery fabricates a world that is very much her own: when reading, you believe the prejudice and the terror that some of the humans are feeling.
This notion of a time when robots can be either cherished or easily discarded is gripping. Amy’s stunted growth means that she sees things differently to other vNs – her naivety is tragic but winnng. Watching her forge relationships by herself is, at times, very tense. She is a protagonist readers can really root for.
Sometimes the technical jargon gets in the way, particularly at the beginning of the book. You do get past this, however, and the language soon becomes familiar. My main issue with the book is a section that deals with a flashback of Portia’s: this seemed disjointed and jars the flow of the book. It perhaps would have been better to form a separate novel out of that (I actually hope there will be – Portia’s a terrific character with a surprisingly complex background).
By the end, vN has worked a satisfying tale from an imaginative premise. Ashby does a good job of immersing the reader in her vision of the future, through strong images and well-written prose. Overall, it’s a gripping read – check it out, even if (and maybe especially) if you’re not a sci-fi reader.
Dedicated to erotica-enthusiast Lana Harper, with many a filthy but loving thought.
It was Valentine’s Day this week!
It seemed apt at this time of year, when everyone’s thinking about chocolates and roses and the continued success of the commercial erotica genre (it’s not like a wasp! It won’t go away even if you ignore it!), to give you my view on properly good erotic books.
(Except, because I am lazy, I got some help from a couple of my friends.)
Here we go.
FANNY HILL, John Cleland (1748)
What it’s about:
Young Fanny (teehee) writes letters to a lady friend, and deigns to fill these letters with total filth. As a prostitute Fanny sees many a sexy adventure, which feature orgies, pretty men and massive penises. There is a lot of sex.
Why you should read it:
Well, for a start, it’s free, available online. It was the first English-language porn novel, too! Also, it’s way sexier than most of the crap on the mass-erotica market because it’s written in a very teasing way, with real loving detail lavished on the description of genitalia and sexual encounters.
“Curious then, and eager to unfold so alarming a mystery, playing, as it were, with his buttons, which were bursting ripe from the active force within, those of his waistband and fore-flap flew open at a touch, when out IT started; and now, dis-engag’d from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant.”
HAND-REARED BOY, Brian Aldiss (1970)
What it’s about:
Aldiss describes it best: “Young Horatio Stubbs suffers the pangs of adolescence, but is weaned from the pleasures of masturbation by the delights offered by his school’s nursing sister, who is not all she seems. The novel became a great scandal in England, where it was rejected by thirteen publishers, and caused a lawsuit – as a result of which it became a bestseller.”
Why you should read it:
I’m going to go right ahead and say I really disliked the book the first time I read it. There’s young sibling mutual masturbation to get past before the school part, and it’s pretty odd to read about, to say the least. But the charming tone and constant exclamations of delight are actually very entertaining. It’s twee, it’s rude, and it’s caused a scandal, like all books worth their salt do.
“Kneeling beside me, she stroked my prick as though it was one of her guinea pigs.”
Lana recommended VENUS IN FURS, Leopold Sacher-Masoch, 1870
What it’s about:
Sexual slavery! (But not the shitty E L James type. It’s a story with a moral, donchaknow.)
Why you should read it:
It’s another free one! It’s lusciously, crisply written; the whole thing reads like a joyful celebration of eating with the eyes, sexual possession and obsession.
Check out the spectacular pubic hair metaphor: “Watch out, I have a large, very large fur, with which I could cover you up entirely, and I have a mind to catch you in it as in a net.”
THE STORY OF O, Pauline Reage, 1973
What’s it’s about:
Another sexual slavery novel, but this time more hardcore. Genital piercing, being whipped and servicing many men at once are all part of O’s role as a sexual captive.
Why you should read it:
It’s a staple of the erotica genre; it’s very hot (in my opinion… and the opinions of loads of other people, I presume); it glorifies female body hair (fuck yeah).
“Jacqueline had gone upstairs and joined O in her alcove. The sea and sun had already made her more golden than before: her hair, her eyebrows, her eyelashes, her nether fleece, her armpits, all seemed to be powdered with silver, and since she was not wearing any make-up, her mouth was the same color pink as the pink flesh between her thighs.”
Kim recommended THE EDUCATION OF VICTORIA, Angela Meadows, 2009.
I haven’t actually read this one yet, but the Amazon page for it promises great things, like: finishing school! Art of sexual pleasure! The sharing of carnal knowledge! Going to get on this one ASAP.
Title: Midnight Pirates
Author: Ally Kennen
Publisher: Scholastic Children’s Books: Marion Lloyd Books
Miranda’s mother, Pinkie-Sue, and her father, Cormac, own The Dodo hotel in St. Austell’s, Cornwall. The family have good friends and family connections in the area, including a relation known as Aunty Mad (which, really, could be short for something or could just as easily be an epithet) and eccentric Kernow native Mrs. Garroway. Miranda’s has just been fired from her part-time job, and things get worse: her parents announce her father’s book publication will take them to America and that they are selling The Dodo. Miranda, her older surfer brother Cal and her precocious younger brother Jackie are put on a bus towards St Anne’s boarding school but Jackie doubles back and goes back to The Dodo. What follows is an adventure book that adheres to a great formula: including all the best elements of children’s stories in one book.
Kennen goes from talking about mermaids to discussing pirates with ease, and includes exciting elements of double agents and hiding out. Classic twists (like benign characters turning out to be anything but) are well-worn in this genre, but are still treated with skill. Kennen is also adept at sketching out the background for her story. The Cornish landscape and wildlife is skilfully and sensitively evoked; Miranda’s caring attitude towards “her” seals is wonderful to read.
But topping the bill is Kennen’s portrayal of unusual concepts. This really comes through when writing about things such as teenage girls playing mermaids, and Miranda pondering the existence of the ghost of the man who built one of the hotel’s towers. The microcosm within The Dodo is rich, yet at the same time, the book maintains the illusion of a madcap, uncertain, semi-wild place where literally anything could happen. If it did, the three children would certainly be smart enough to handle it.
There are two relatively small reasons Midnight Pirates doesn’t get the full five stars. One is that, with much of the action bundled in towards the end of the book, the last quarter feels suddenly very cramped. Had Kennen spread the events over a few extra pages, the pacing would be more balanced. The other is a tiny niggle that I suspect most readers won’t pick up on – but it’s something that makes me grind my teeth again and again whenever I see it. Miranda’s rival, “chief mermaid” Morag, is described as being rather sizeable and having “chocolate-covered canines”: the fat/bad message is so present in many children’s books, and I think it’s something to watch out for.
My concerns aside, however, this book is largely a winner . This would be an ideal book for children to enjoy on their own, as there is a glossary of the more difficult phrases (particularly those in Cornish – I can ask for ‘some more bread please’ now!) at the end of the book.
Kennen is no stranger to writing great fiction. Her debut, Beast was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2006 and won the 2007 Manchester Book Award. Her second book Beserk won 2008 North East Teenage Book Award and was again nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Just before Midnight Pirates came 2012’s Bullet Boys, which made the 2012 Guardian Prize longlist. And that’s only a handful of her accolades.
I get the feeling that with Midnight Pirates, Kennen has hit upon a solid formula that will grab the attention of readers aged nine and over – and, let’s face it, their parents too.
After all, when could you ever resist something with pirates, mermaids and kids in charge?
Title: Girl Meets Underworld
Author: Jess Watkins
Publisher: Opis Publishing
Published: 12th February 2013
It’s starting to get increasingly hard to find a YA story that doesn’t include vampires and love rivalry. Girl Meets Underworld dutifully meets these conditions whilst doing very little to add anything to one of the most popular genres around.
Central character Stella is stopped before a suicide attempt by Conner, who turns out to be a vampire. The familiar premise walks even more familiar territory before the story is finished, including vampires who find self-control difficult around human delicacies and a rival love interest who happens to be a werewolf.
Jess Watkins is the latest in a series of young writers creating fiction in Twilight’s shadow. She is not an entirely bad writer – with more practice she could become a competent short story writer. Unfortunately, Watkins is poor at structuring and pacing the events. The central romantic pair fall in love at turbo speed, forgoing any romantic tension and credibility. Stella is made to forget a crucial part of her own story through the manipulations of a certain older vampire (I won’t spoil the revelation for would-be readers) – and then, miraculously, remembers everything and realises what has happened only a few pages later.
The plot continues hopping across lilypads in the same way for the rest of the book. Potentially interesting elements of the world, like vampire haven ‘The Blood Palace’, never get the expansion they deserve. Due to this, any uniqueness of storytelling is washed away whilst the love-trianglees fritter back and forth, desiring, attacking and saving each other over and over.
Overall the read is largely unexciting. It is a shame, because though young writers should be encouraged, it is tricky to want them to continue writing like this. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the duty of editors and publishers now is to resist accepting pale bestseller imitations in favour of honing talent.
Girl Meets Underworld will provide undemanding readers with a quick fix of supernatural romance. For those who are more discerning, however, it’s a patchy read that never fleshes out the interesting parts of its own world. Instead, it opts firmly into staying in the safe vampire fiction ballcourt.
Yes, it’s one of those posts where I feel I should say something but I haven’t quite finished the books I’m reviewing and my hands are sticky with the thrilling exploits of apple-eating, and I don’t want to clog up the keyboard.
I also like doing lists.
“Graduates: you’re doing it wrong.” – Stef Hall has written a fantastic post over at Atwood Tate; An Open Letter to Graduates is essential reading for anyone who feels like they’re butting their head against the publishing door.
Ellen at witnesstoexperience made me laugh and think with her post London centricity – especially with the line “I found my passion for theatre in Birmingham (I think that’s actually the only thing I’ve ever found in Birmingham).” Ellen is also blogging every day for a year, so she’s braver than I am.
And awesome news from Myriad Editions! Their Quick Fictions app (which I reviewed last year!) has been ranked in the Top 5 Apps by the Sunday Times. Read more of their exciting developments at Myriad’s homepage.
Look what they’ve gone and done to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
Going straight to the heart of the matter: women are angry because make-up has been used as a tool of oppression. You are not good enough – buy this eyeliner. You are looking sexually non-viable – purchase this cream. Your age is showing – use this gel or you will never find love again.
And yet here we are, with Plath’s beautiful, angry piece about adulthood, confusion and being fucked up and not able to help it – with this cover.
Am I angry?
I’m sort of glad.
Glad because, by marrying Plath’s message with an image people associate with airy vanity, we can highlight this struggle. Plath’s novel is heavily infused with a bewilderment about how young women are meant to behave. A girl’s own worst enemy – because society is telling her she must look a certain way, and her bone structure and complexion was never designed that way in the first place – is her own reflection.
To me, that cover embodies so much of The Bell Jar’s sadness and rage. If anyone’s going to reduce it to “silly woman applying make up”, they’re backing out of the fight, and refusing to engage with Plath’s concerns. And if someone picks it up accidentally whilst seeking out lighter literature – well, they couldn’t read a better accident.
ETA: Simon Usborne’s article in The Independent includes a small round-up of quotes – this one in particular makes me furious:
Jack Noel, a designer at Walker Books, said the cover “looks like it belongs in the chick-lit section at an airport WH Smith,” adding: “They may as well have called it Bell de Jar,” a reference to Belle de Jour, author of the Diary of a Call Girl books.
Noel manages to reinforce the notion that “chick-lit” is an actual thing (as opposed to being made up of light reading, romances, family tragedies etcetera etcetera) AND slut-shames at the same time by implying that pornographic literature is automatically lower than ‘real’ books. Splendid. Only, not.
ETA 2: Faber respond on 7/2/13:
The image on the cover picks up on the beginning of the story, where the narrator is an intern at a women’s magazine in New York in the fifties and is encountering the conflict between new freedom and old assumptions about women’s aspirations.
Our intention for this cover was that the image of the expressionless woman ‘putting on her mask’ and the discordant colour palette would suggest ambivalence and unease. The copy on the back of this edition makes reference to the narrator’s depression and suicide attempt.
Read the full response: The Bell Jar 50th Anniversary Edition