Thursday, 12 January 2017

Imaginary Worlds ~ suggested reading batch 4 of 4

The reading list for the Imaginary Worlds course is a fantastic cross-section of the imaginary genres, from classic epic fantasy to literary fiction to dystopias to steampunk. Each week on the Facebook page I'm introducing one of the 16 books in more detail, and each month I'm gathering up a cross-section of four of the books here. (By the way, if you think you don't like reading fantasy or sci-fi, you should read this article first: Why you like reading fantasy and science fiction even though you think you don't.) This month, we haveThe Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, Everfair by Nisi Shawl, and Jingo by Terry Pratchett.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This is the extraordinary love story of Clare and Henry who met when Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-two and Henry thirty. Impossible but true, because Henry suffers from a rare condition where his genetic clock periodically resets and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future. In the face of this force they can neither prevent nor control, Henry and Clare's struggle to lead normal lives is both intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

Like The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, this novel is marketed and presented as mainstream or literary fiction, rather than sci-fi / fantasy, though Henry's time-travelling condition is definitely the stuff of sci-fi in its widest sense. How a book is defined is often more to do with a marketing decision or an author's wider identity than the book itself. For instance, some of Octavia E Butler's work has fewer features of sci-fi/fantasy than this book, but is generally grouped with SFF because of her other work.

As with urban paranormal or a near-future sci-fi, The Time Traveler's Wife is set in our world, but with this additional thing: Henry's "Chrono-Displacement Disorder". Niffenegger could have treated that in fantasy style (just as a magic) or as magical realism (without explanation), but instead goes for a medical, chromosonal explanation, which is what nudges it towards the sci-fi side of the spectrum. Actually, the medical explanation is the least convincing part of the novel; it feels like an awkward stretch, and the fancy name "Chrono-Displacement Disorder" isn't enough to make it believable. What does make it believable, though, or at least make the reader willing to suspend any disbelief, is her detailed exploration of how this plays out in their lives.

What this book does especially well: This is a brilliant example of how to make an unlikely / impossible thing believable by exploring how it plays out in real life. Seeing is believing, feeling is believing, and throughout the story we see and feel what both characters experience, to the point where we don't even care about any lingering scepticism.

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

They call her many things - a research project, a test-subject, a speciMen. An abomination. But she calls herself Phoenix, an 'accelerated woman' - a genetic experiment grown and raised in Manhattan's famous Tower 7, the only home she has ever known. Although she's only two years old, Phoenix has the body and mind of an adult - and powers beyond imagining. Phoenix is an innocent, happy to live quietly in Tower 7, reading voraciously and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human. Until the night that Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated, Phoenix begins to search for answers - only to discover that everything that she has ever known is a lie. Tower 7 isn't a haven. It's a prison. And it's time for Phoenix to spread her wings and rise.
The Book of Phoenix
is the prequel to Okorafor's multi-award-winning Who Fears Death, as the truth behind the mythologised prehistory of *Who Fears Death*. Every book site and reviewer has a stab at naming its genre - sci-fi, magical realism, magical futurisim, dystopia, etc - but The Book of Phoenix definitely has more of a sci-feel to it than Who Fears Death, and while it draws on magic, that's given more of a scientific underpinning.

Wrangling about genre aside, this is a brilliant and extraordinary book, fast-paced, dramatic, wholly convincing, and with those epic goosebump moments that make your skin prickle and which live in your mind's eye long after.

What this book does especially well: convincing scientific underpinnings for otherwise unlikely stuff, strikingly powerful theme, and drawing on a different cultural palette to the overly familiar white-western-sci-fi fare, even down to the literal fare, the characters' food. You don't realise how tediously ubiquitous the usual spaceburger is until someone's eating injera, instead.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium's disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo's "owner," King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.
Steampunk is one of the most delightful aesthetics there is - all cogs, steam machines, brass rivets, wood, goggles, cogs, leather, etc, and a generous helping of Victoriana - but that can at times mean a story can get caught up in only the aesthetic and not go any deeper. Plus all the Victoriana can end up an uncritical celebration of Victorian customs and norms, glossing over or even celebrating the nastier side of the era. Everfair takes the machinery of steampunk (quite literally), roots it firmly in the dark side of the times, and uses it to create an incredibly striking alternative history of the Congo. The fanciful automata of other steampunk novels here become equally ingenious but much more necessary prosthetics to replace the hands of those who had them chopped off in slavery - and replace them with better, more skilled, and more dangerous hands that can also be weapons.

What this book does especially well: The perfect marriage of genre and theme, steampunk and colonialism, as if this is exactly what steampunk was supposed to do all the time, we just hadn't learnt how to use it yet.

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

'Neighbours...hah. People'd live for ages side by side, nodding at one another amicably on their way to work, and then some trivial thing would happen and someone would be having a garden fork removed from their ear.' And when the neighbours in question are the proud empires of Klatch and Ankh-Morpork, those are going to be some pretty large garden tools indeed. Of course, no-one would dream of starting a war without a perfectly good reason.such as a 'strategic' piece of old rock in the middle of nowhere. It is after all every citizen's right to bear arms to defend what they consider to be their own. Even if it isn't. And even if they don't have much in the way of actual weaponry. As two armies march, Commander Vimes of Ankh-Morpork City Watch faces unpleasant foes who are out to get him...and that's just the people on his side. The enemy might be even worse. Discworld goes to war, with armies of sardines, warriors, fishermen, squid and at least one very camp follower.
Anyone who's read Terry Pratchett won't need any intro, so this is for the people who're newcomers to his work. He's often seen as "fantasy comedy" - and yes, this is a fantasy world, and he's extremely funny, but that description belies the depth of his satire and his extraordinarily nuanced and compassionate worldview. I usually advise newcomers to start with one of his later books - "Jingo", "Monstrous Regiment", "Making Money", "Going Postal", or "The Truth", where his social satire is at its peak. The very early books tended to satirise 80s fantasy, which is hilarious if you were reading 80s fantasy, but if you don't know the target, the satire can fall a bit flat. (Most of the Rincewind novels fall into that category, to my mind.) As the books progress, the target of his satire shifts - first a few other fantasy genres (fairytales, The Phantom of the Opera) and then into wider social satire. His warm, wise, and very sharp worldview runs through all the books, but find more expression in the storylines of the later books.

You don't need to read the books in the order they were written, but some do form "runs" that follow the same character. This is one of my favourite infographics of which books go together.

What this book does especially well: It's Pratchett, at the peak of his power, so there's far too much to choose from, but the thing we'll be particularly looking at on the course is how he uses his fantasy world to make broader social statements, and how he plays with narrative expectation to create an ending with real-world complexity.

The Imaginary Worlds course starts in Feburary 2017 - email me to book or read more about it below.

Develop your world-building to improve or invent your own imaginary worlds: the Imaginary Worlds course is an eight-week evening course on writing the genres of imaginary worlds, starting February 2017, and covering... • the many genres • how to constrain magic • making unlikely stuff convincing • your world's physical detail • why your world matters • ripple-through effects • names and language • your characters' political and economic realities • techniques for exposition. Read more about it and book here.

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