Frankly Ridiculous, Increasingly Nonsensical Gender Exploits

Issue 7 - July 2001

Job Hunting

What an eye-opener the employment market is. From trying to convince people that my name is "Fionna" rather than "Fionnán", to being asked whether I would mind relocating to Dublin (from Ringsend? Huh?), I have been reminded endlessly not only about the large number of adults in our society who cannot read, but also about those who just don't bother to. I could get scared about this if I let myself, but I try to remember that throughout I have been dealing mainly with those a friend of mine once called "pancake-made-up, bleached-blonde, HR bitches". Of course, I would never call the truly charming people who work in Human Resources anything like that. At least not until they give me a job.

To keep me going every day is the true, deep, utter joy that I feel about not working in my old job. Really, in an unusually sincere moment, this is the best thing that ever happened to me.

We're All Gonna Die

... earlier than perhaps we expected. With summer as here as it ever gets, with George Dubya tramping around Europe pretending he cares about the planet and people and stuff, and just because I'm such a great person, I have been worrying more than usual about global warming, the harm being done due to short-sighted concerns about commercial viability and convenience, the rate at which resources are being used up, and the way that the human race has spread across the planet. It is a challenge even in Ireland, which is relatively lightly populated, to find somewhere which doesn't show the stamp of our species, where you can pretend to be the only person on Earth. Even in the Rockies I found this to be true. My friends in Calgary told me that even in the twenty years they had been living there they had noticed a change in the climate.

Anyway, as I was buying a new bottle of sun block the other day, I began to think about all of the SF books which portrayed a future where the Earth's atmosphere had degraded to the extent that nobody could risk going out in daylight at all, and how despite the fact that this is coming closer and closer to reality, very few people seem to take it seriously, especially in Ireland. And then I wondered whether SF fans, due to their longer immersion in these scenarios, were any better. Any survey would probably be skewed due to the preponderance of pale-skinned nervous types who are in Fandom, never mind the fringe elements of goths and so on. Certainly, my own inability to tolerate the smallest amount of sunshine was a factor in me reading anything I could get my hands on when I was growing up, and hence getting a liking for science fiction - my darker skinned brother rushed about in the sunlight with everybody else our age, playing soccer and learning social skills.

Equinox on Channel 4 had an episode three weeks ago called The Day The Seas Boiled, and outlined an eerie end of world scenario, eerie because these were scientists talking probablies rather than SF writers talking maybes. Apparently the so-called carbon sink (where about 50% of carbon dioxide let into the atmosphere vanishes to) is likely to be the Amazon rain forest (an essential part of every environmental discussion), and it is reaching saturation point as far as the amount of carbon it can trap. What this means is that soon, all of the CO2 that is released into the atmosphere will stay in the atmosphere - the atmosphere gets hotter faster than it is doing so at the moment. Fine so far, this we can handle. However, what seems to be due to happen after that is that as the temperature of the seas rise, the stuff (a technical term) that is keeping carbon in large quantities at the bottom of the ocean will dissolve, releasing carbon again, but this time in amounts that would raise the temperature so high that the much-mythologised melting of the polar ice caps would occur, and from there I think we all know the scenario. Again, what is scary is that this is likely to occur, within the next twenty of thirty years. Perhaps this is a good thing, that it is brought closer, so that maybe this falls within the planning stages of some corporations, although I'd sooner bet on investing in life rafts and rice that grows at high temperatures. My overall confidence in the future has dropped even further.

Mississippi Blues

Kathleen Ann Goonan launched herself on to the SF scene with her first novel, Queen City Jazz, in 1994, to almost the same kind of ecstatic reviews I got when I launched FRINGE with a review of her fourth novel, Crescent City Rhapsody. Mississippi Blues is the sequel to Queen City Jazz, and perhaps I should have read it before I read Crescent, the third book in the series. Some things make more sense now. Although I think that some of my pleasure in Crescent.. would have been spoilt - what you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts, as the saying goes.

Anyway, Mississippi Blues is Goonan's third novel, but throughout I felt it was more like a second novel, falling into the mistakes that can categorise the second novel when the first is so good. Verity has freed the people of Cincinnati from decades of re-enacting American cultural works of art, just in time for them to escape the city before the nanotechnology within it completely redesigns the entire city. To encourage the populace to leave, she has also infected them with the Norleans plague, an overwhelming desire to hop on a raft and navigate the Mississippi River down as far as New Orleans and the river's delta with the Mexican Gulf. Yes, the fact that Cincinnati isn't actually on the Mississippi is accounted for, and it isn't a clumsy plot move, and yes, the similarity with Huckleberry Finn is deliberate irony. Verity puts herself in charge of a replica paddle boat and herds the thousands of rafters towards their goal, collecting strange characters en route, including two versions of Mark Twain. I think my problem with the book is that it seems too much of a showcase for the nanotech world, and for Goonan's undisputed talents as an author. One character takes a train journey to Los Angeles, takes one look, and immediately comes back to the Mississippi - like a fantasy author with a map to explore, and a wild idea of cool nanotech things that could only happen in California. A similar thing happens with the collection of characters who end up on the river boat - the reasons for some of them being there are very thin, the plot machinations to get them on board the boat too obvious, all so that there is an excuse for these very vivid character portraits. And finally, until the end there seemed to be very little actual point to the whole story. Okay, so there is a great journey going on, and adventures happening along the way, but I have to say that I never really felt that I cared that much. At the end of Queen City Jazz I was fairly confident that everything would work out for Verity, and I felt that Mississippi Blues seemed unnecessary - Verity had some more adventures before everything worked out for her, so what.

To make things clear, I did actually like this book, and enjoy it. The language used is good, the characters are interesting, bearing in mind the caveats above, and in the end there is a point to it, it does add to the nanotechnology trilogy. However, it is a flawed book, and I can imagine that it would be one that Goonan is, or will be, a little ashamed about, not up to her usual high standards.

Holy Fire!

Surprisingly, I didn't spend all of the time reading Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling tempted to add "Batman!" to the end of the title, which is the reason it took me so long to get around to reading it in the first place. In fact, from only a few pages in until I finished the book I didn't even think about Batman, which given my highly inappropriate sense of humour (if you can call it that) is perhaps a testimony to the book itself. The Holy Fire of the title, far from comic, is variously youth, vitality, artistic fervour, and joy of life, and in some way a fusion of all of those. Mia Zimmerman is in her nineties, and can expect to live for many more years if she is careful, invests in the right anti-aging process, and doesn't anger the authorities. It is 2096, and the world is recovering from a series of devastating plagues in a predictable way, by huge investment in medicine and health, social stability. The cost is for the young people of the day, who have no influence on society, whose views are increasingly marginalised as a gerontocratic world remembers what happened when such things were widespread. Mia undergoes what is the most revolutionary anti-aging treatment, and wakes up as Maya, a just-born persona in the revitalised body of an ancient, and sets out for Europe to discover whether she can be truly vivid, or whether she is just an old woman pretending to be young. Like Mississippi Blues, Holy Fire is an examination of a future world, but in Sterling's hands the plot is itself essential, the characters, especially that of Maya, are people that the reader cares for, and the world is one that I can see forming part of my own mental vision of what the future will be. I'm not the same person I was when I started the book, and there can't really be any greater praise than that for a book. Having said that, I am a much more discontented person than I was, being aware that I don't have the Holy Fire, and approaching thirty as I am, I will never have it. The world will spin on, though.

What else?

This month has been strange in that I haven't read a book I found so bad that I must make it my mission to warn the world away from it. Let's not assume it is because there are no longer any bad books out there - I have been quite picky about what I will read is all, and have started and abandoned numerous volumes that no doubt will reappear in these pages at some stage as "Dire Novel of the Month". Perhaps we can look on this month as the Fanzine equivalent of the Summer TV schedule, regular service resuming in the autumn.

Anyway, a couple of highlights from what has been read. I have munched my way through several Barbara Vine novels, usually staying up well past dawn to finish at last, red-eyed and shocked at the conclusion. If you haven't read any, and venture in anyway out of the SF genre, you should immediately head for your nearest book shop and buy their selection. These are, quite simply, the best psychological suspense novels that I have ever read. To use a well-worn cliche that actually applies for once, they will not let you go. It always upsets me somehow when a book or a writer lives up to the blurb on the cover, but Vine's novels do. The alter-ego of Ruth Rendell, but don't expect any cozy village detective scenes or comfortable stock characters - these books have so many sharp edges they can make you cry.

Lost Girls by Andrew Pyper, on the other hand, most definitely doesn't live up to its blurb. Purportedly a ghost story that is truly scary, I found it anything but scary, and hardly a ghost story either. The "supernatural" parts of it are more likely manifestations of the mental breakdown of the protagonist, and are described in a kind of lackadaisical way that is a million miles from frightening. The book on a whole is pretty well-written for what it is, but nothing special beyond that. After finishing it, I'm now looking for a book to scare me - that rare creature, a truly scary book. The last time I was scared by a book was when I bought The Blair Witch Project as the only person who hadn't heard the hype about it, and with no idea what to expect. Before that, a couple of bits in Stephen King's Bag of Bones made me shiver, although as a whole it did nothing special, and I have to go as far back as 1992 and Voice of Our Shadow by Jonathan Carroll to find the previous book I had found scary. Does anybody have any ideas? To put it simply, good ghost stories scare me silly, but good ghost stories seem so few and far between.

Robert Silverberg, it goes without saying, has written many, many great novels over the course of his long and illustrious career. The Time Hoppers is one of the novels that is not so great. An early-ish offering from him, first published in 1967, it has dated quite badly, although in places this ends up being charming. The world of 2490 is a dystopian future with a centralised world government, an enormous city, Appalachia, stretching along the entire North American sea-board, a regimented social system, and limited living room and oxygen usage for all except those in the very highest Classes. Much is run by a large computer, an Orwellian creation with vacuum tubes, taped input, and paper-printed output, plus some limitations that really made me smile. However. Past records show that a large number of people from the present of 2490 made use of a time machine to escape back in time, and the essential point is that this time machine is not controlled by the government. Quellen is investigating how to get hold of this machine for the government, so that the population problem can be solved by sending a huge amount of Low Class people to the past. The plot is a bit laboured, and soon Quellen hits on the idea that has occurred ages ago to the reader - with past records, find someone who is due to jump, and arrest them. The possibility of paradoxes is examined at length, and its here that I had this sudden intuition of where the book could go - since Quellen is dissatisfied with the present, maybe he would deliberately create these paradoxes until he hits on a present world that is more to his and everybody else's liking! That would be an interesting angle, but unfortunately it wasn't taken with this book, which suddenly changed tack and seemed to become a political thriller of sorts, albeit one that wasn't very political, nor very thrilling. My disappointment was all the greater because I had had the view of what it could have become. Not one for the rereads.

The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin is difficult to talk about without giving away the plot. It is science fiction, almost of the purest sort, and deals with a what-if situation involving exiled Nazis in South America in the early seventies, and an experiment to reinstate the Third Reich. Levin is an interesting author in the range of books he has written, horror in Rosemary's Baby, thriller in Sliver, dystopian science fiction in The Stepford Wives and This Perfect Day. The Boys From Brazil isn't his best by any stretch of the imagination, but it is worth reading, raises some interesting moral questions, and I like the ending. Enough said.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson is the first of a projected ten book series called The Malazan Book of the Fallen - an intimidating length for any fantasy series to stay original, and bringing to mind the terrible publishing phenomenon that was David Eddings' The Belgariad and The Mallorean. With laudable courage and dedication to my readers (who?), I made the plunge regardless. In the Malazan Empire, Erikson has created a society with the complexity and scope of ancient Rome, and the comparisons between the fictional and the real empires. This isn't a snide dig, by the way, a Roman parallel is so much more original than the mediaeval one that is usually used in epic fantasy. My ancient history isn't up to judging whether there are any parallels to draw between specific events in the book and real events, but this world has a huge back history worked out, and the intrigues of the Imperial Court, the armies loyal and not so loyal, the long-range plans and plots to conquer a continent, this is all so juicy and painstakingly worked out that it is hard to believe that this is a first novel. There is easily enough material here to cover ten mostly unconnected novels without covering old ground. The next point to make is this is fantasy of the dark variety. George RR Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire started with an eight year old boy being thrown out of a window - The Malazan Book of the Fallen starts with almost two hundred soldiers and their horses being torn apart in a particularly gruesome manner by Shadow Hounds. It sets the scene. This is a book about a war campaign, and the carnage isn't stinted. The supernatural elements of the world are based loosely on a Tarot deck, here called the Deck of Dragons. There are four houses, or Warrens, coinciding with the Warrens that are used by sorcerers and magicians to carry out their art. There are also Ascendants, or unaligned creatures, such as Oponn, the twin gods of chance and luck. Like the gods of Roman mythology, these gods take a hand in mortal affairs, and catching their attention is not always a wise thing to do. Towards the end of the book, the strain of keeping such a complex plot in hand are beginning to show with some silly mistakes, and some characters acting in ways that are outright stupid. For instance, during a fight between dragons, one of the dragons doesn't look up to see where its opponent could have got to - if this had been at the beginning of the book it would never have got read at all. Another example - one character is called Sorry, and is Malazan. However, when a character who speaks a different language apologises for something, she hears her own name - like someone called Pierre answering to the name Stone. It annoys me, something that simple getting past a copy editor. But putting those gripes aside, this is a pretty good book, and the end nicely sets up the next in the series, Deadhouse Gates without the story in Gardens of the Moon being in any way incomplete. I'll be following these for a while.

What the Future Holds

A melodramatic paragraph title for news of upcoming events. The Sci-Fi Club in Dublin is going from strength to strength. Meeting themes have been mapped out until January of next year, with August being Dune night (at last, something I know something about), September has the Table Quiz (I will be heading up the Losers team, as usual), October as pre-Octocon meeting has Con organisers talking about the pain and the pleasure. Octocon is looking good too, with a Battling Robots event that is already attracting notice from various quarters. Personally, I'll be ignoring the brief, and building my own robot which mounts and attempts to hump everything in sight, especially judges, but this is an area where my skill as an engineer runs up against my total lack of skill as a crafts person - I expect my 'bot to be welded to my own head in an Adrian Mole type accident involving superglue and a remote control gone horribly wrong. As long as I win a prize...

In terms of FRINGE, my to-read pile has A Case of Conscience by James Blish, Bios by Robert Charles Wilson, and Alternate Realities by C. J. Cherryh. I hope to get a job and start at it before the next edition of FRINGE, and depending on my duties there, I might not have as much time to read as I did this month. What am I saying? I think that never in my entire life will I again have as much time to read as I did this month, it has been truly glorious, and these pages reflect only a slim proportion of the books that I have consumed.

Copyright Fionna O'Sullivan, 2001.
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