Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review: Sheri Tepper, The Waters Rising

Talking horse. Talking horse. Talking freaking horse. TALKING FREAKING IN A YOGHURT POT TALKING HORSE! In serious science fiction? NO! NO! NO!

I paraphrase. Maybe even exaggerate slightly. But this is more or less how Grand Old Man of British SF Christopher Priest reacted to the inclusion of The Waters Rising on the shortlist for this year's Arthur C Clarke award.

And he's right. It does have a talking horse. And I'd like a whole menagerie of speechifying chipmunks, otters, octopi, dogs and dolphins to be taken into consideration as well.

Yet this shouldn't make Sheri Tepper shortlista non grata. The Waters Rising is SF with a heavy twist of magic realism, which is a looooong way from the disciplined, almost self-parodically English approach of Priest and probably goes some way to explaining his dismissal of it. 

Now, I love The Prestige, but I carry a major literary torch for Sheri Tepper. I confess, this is partly due to fond memories of The True Game and a D&D adventure a friend ran in our teenage years based on the setting. Mainly, though, it's that extraordinary run of form she hit around the turn of the nineties turning out beautiful far future fables like Grass, A Plague of Angels and Raising The Stones. Not just great books in their own right, they didn't shy away from addressing issues like animal rights, ecology, patriarchal religion and - above all - gender roles and sexual equality. 

Tepper is - or at least should be - a major touchstone for progressive writers in SF.

Nothing she's written since then has quite hit the same heights for me, but The Waters Rising - a sequel of sorts to the post-apocalyptic fairy tale A Plague of Angels - comes closer than a lot of her work since then. Despite its title, it's not a novel about climate change, the rising sea levels being caused by another McGuffin. It is however most emphatically a story about man's relationship with technology and the natural world.

There are a lot of convenient coincidences, sudden developments of psychic powers and hand-waving techno-fixes in The Waters Rising which make sense only if the book is regarded as a fable. Or if Tepper has decided that she's reached a stage in her career where she can do what she likes and the editor can go hang. Neither possibility is of course mutually exclusive... and the occasional detours into soapbox-ing (not so much author tracts as author parables) suggest that the latter is true at least some of the time.

Tepper also indulges her fondness for the twee, there is limited (but bad) poetry, and there are characters called The Great Bear of Zol. This is the author unrestrained. But the fantasy elements of the book are not just window-dressing - they allow her to present the moral conflict  of the book (to master the world or to change with it) in a suitably epic way. This is also the author knowing exactly what she's doing.

This is a genuinely odd, frequently unique and occasionally very good book. I defy anyone to find another book as engaging as this in which humans metamorphose into squid.

Yep, I said it. Squid.

I also can't think of another SF work which has made me think so profoundly about ecological debt. The idea that our actions as a species are accumulating such a moral debt that it would take a radical act of forgiveness to erase it has stuck with me. The Waters Rising being as much a myth as a work of SF, its resolution allows this debt to be both met and erased in an unexpected way.

Fairy tale logic, people!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dark Shadows mini-review

If anyone's earned the right to pastiche Tim Burton, it's probably Tim Burton. And Dark Shadows is good fun - playful, sparky dialogue, atmospherically shot and with a good-if-not-great cast.

But it does feel a bit like Burton doing 'one for the studio'. What you'd expect from one of his films - Depp, Bonham Carter, families, monsters, families of monsters, Gothic camp - are all there in a slightly too predictable fashion. And the film has an episodic structure - a legacy of its TV show origins? - which moves the film on too quickly from one plot point to the next to give it intelligence or emotional heft. 

As my companion remarked, it would have worked much better as a mini-series, giving it room to breathe.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cream tea, Nick Berry and anomie on the Yorkshire Moors

It was as if I'd stepped into a pageant of the rural past when we left the car park at Goathland. There were Morris dancers on the village green and a Ford Anglia parked outside the souvenir shop. The tea-room played second-string sixties hits. Steam trains ran on the railway line thronged by spotters and snappers.

History was repeating itself as the worst possible kind of kitsch.

Goathland is also well on its way to becoming Aidenfield, home of TV retro-fest Heartbeat, which is mainly filmed there. Every shop is full of souvenirs and the pub proclaims its dual identity as the Aidenfield Arms. Nick Berry's face stares out of tea-towels in windows like a benign Big Brother. 

Why does a village deny its own identity to become a living fiction? The obvious answer here is money. There are plenty of pretty (if austere) villages in the moors like Goathland, but Aidenfield is its unique selling point. And the absence of any actual services and shops for the residents underlines the point that this is less a functioning community, more a rural tourism retail centre.

It suits Goathland to sink beneath its fictional alter ego.

So what? What does it matter if indulging ourselves in an imaginary Sixties provides a momentary distraction for middle-class tourists and a living in a hard-pressed Moors village?

Channeling my outer hard-headed economist (I've not managed to locate an inner economist, but count several among my good friends), I'd suggest the Aidenfielding of the countryside is a false solution to a viable rural society. If we're serious about jobs, about food security, about villages that work as places of local commerce and community, then we have to offer more than cream teas and Heartbeat paraphenalia, even if there's no dishonour in the tourist trade.

On a more personal note, I also find something distubing about the senility of cultural memory on display in Goathland/Aidenfield, itself a debased version of the slick sixties nostalgia peddled by Heartbeat. In Heartbeatland, we can gloss over the social conflict and politics of the period, never mind the present, and return to an imagined era when everyone knew their place. When threat, change or conflict is resolved or reconciled with the whole by the end of each episode. Where everyone is white – I saw not a single exception in my visit, and the souvenir shop sold gollywogs. 

Yep. Gollywogs. There are no words...

And what does it say about us that we're seduced by this imagined village? Nostalgia has always been with us, but it needs to be offset by a vision of the future, a prospect of hope, in order for us be psycho-culturally viable and equal to the challenges of the present. I bear Goathland no ill will, but as a microcosm of the way we live now, it feels like part of the problem rather than part of the solution.