March 2015: My Reading

“Science fiction is a literature that belongs to all humankind.”  Liu Cixin

March has been an exciting month of science fiction reading and some progress has been made finding novelists writing in languages other than English. The trick, of course, is to be lucky enough to find novels superbly rendered by their translators.

A tip from John Birmingham, via Twitter, has resulted in finding the best sci-fi novel, in any language, that I have read for many years. Ken Liu, an award-winning science fiction novelist in his own right, has translated the first part of The Three-Body Problem trilogy, by “the Chinese Arthur C Clarke”, Liu Cixin. I highly recommend that you avoid researching the novel (do not click on my links) if you are intending to read the book. Spoilers abound online that will detract from your enjoyment. 

The novel is hard sci-fi and impressive ideas come thick and fast. I enjoyed the chapters that explored virtual reality and the Cultural Revolution.  The character of Police Captain, Shi Quiang, was amusing and although in some ways quite cliched, he works well, especially in the resolution to the novel.

I will not say much here, as spoilers would really impact on your enjoyment but this is a must read for sci-fi fans.

It is hard to imagine that the second book in the trilogy can sustain such an awesome achievement but I will certainly take the unusual step, for me, of preordering The Dark Forest, which is out in hardback in the middle of the year, in the hope that it does.

chimes

Perhaps music happens elsewhere than in ears.      Anna Smaill

The Chimes is set in a dystopian London. Indeed, what could be more dystopian, in this most literary of cities, than the written word has been eradicated and individual memories erased. The protagonist, Simon, travels to the metropolis seeking knowledge about his parents and as the novel unfolds, music, controlled by a mysterious elite, is central to daily reality.

Smaill’s novel reminded me instantly of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. It was not just that fragments of the past, just out of reach and further disappearing from view are etched by Smaill too but the clever use of language is what makes her novel something a little special.

The author is described as a violinist and poet. it is evident she is both of these by her diction throughout the narrative. Musical metalanguage is cleverly interwoven into the fabric of the language and into Simon’s world.

subito     tacet     sotto voce     threnody     solfege

                  harmony     accord     consonance    

        scale      blasphony    lento     melody      klavier     octave

I stand and stare for a while before my mind finds a way to explain what I’m seeing. Because it’s not often you see music written down, is it? And when you do, it’s on paper or parchment, not a wall. I can’t read the strange up-and-down dance of the notes, or grasp what meaning it is they protect. But even I can see that the stave is scratched in vicious and deep, with the force of anger. The song is a threat.

The glow is still playing piano around me, like something cruel, as I retch and feel my back curl, without my control, inward and prone.

At various stages throughout the novel I thought of A Clockwork Orange, 1984 and even Lord of the Flies. mostly as they are dystopias where the author’s mastery of language makes for richly intellectually rewarding reading experiences. What makes these novels better reads is the strength of the characters and the resolutions. I felt a little disappointed, by the end of the novel, with Smaill’s characters and plot. Her language excites but I did not feel rewarded, as other reviewers have claimed to be, by finishing the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the opening third of the book and was happy to let the fog clear but ultimately did find some of the narrative explanation less than satisfying.

the-divine-comedy

“Only so much time is placed at our disposal; we must use it well.”

                                                                                Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

It is a sublime experience to listen to The Divine Comedy by Dante as translated by Clive JamesI have read most of another translation of Dante, many years ago, finding it tedious. There are moments, many moments, in this version that ushers one into another, quite ethereal realm, as the poet traverses hell, purgatory and heaven. Dante will not be everyone’s cup of tea but I found The Divine Comedy, this time round, nothing like purgatory.

It is interesting to read James’ rationale for spending time making yet another translation of this 14th century Italian verse:

There were hundreds of different translations that transmitted the historical details, but the way the verse danced inexorably forward was, in my view, part of the subject.

but I learned more about James’ motivations by watching his interview with Kerry O’Brien (which I cannot find online but here is the transcript). It was his estranged wife, Prue Shaw, a Dante scholar who introduced a youthful James, in Florence, to this poetry. In the interview he says:

It was in Florence in the early ‘60s, you need some music here! Romantic music, because it’s a very romantic scene. We weren’t married yet. We were a couple of exiles living in sin in Florence, and ah she knew everything about Dante, and I wanted to know how it worked. And she opened up the first book, the Inferno, hell, to canto V, th-the episode of Paulo and Francesca, and she showed me how this worked. And immediately I was enthralled. It was a big thing for me, it was a big thing for me and her. In fact it was, it was a romance that’s still in a way going on 45 years later!

James’ comments about mortality, he is visibly suffering from emphysema and also has leukaemia, add another level of interest to his rationale for completing such a challenging work of translation. You may wish to note that Dante finished his epic poem the year before his death. Read the transcript and if the ABC ever put the interview online at iView, watch what is an important Q&A with one of Australia’s greatest literary types.

Non fiction

The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility* by Gregory Clark is a slog and I skimmed often but it was worth persisting as the book is deeply challenging on many levels and I am not sure where the author is truly coming from. Basically, Clark is saying that social mobility is largely an illusion and our fates are determined by ancestry. His analysis of surnames in places as diverse as Qing China, Sweden, the USA and Britain form the basis for his conclusions.

I imagine that readers will interpret this book in many ways based on their own prejudices and deeply held beliefs about our society. Of course, this is true of all books but this one will challenge some fairly conventional beliefs, like working and studying hard will allow one to rise socially. Indeed, ‘The American Dream’ is built firmly on this bedrock. I did suspect an ideological objective but Clark seems so enamoured with the numbers that perhaps he has less of this kind of predilection than I originally envisaged. Certainly his work will be used by all kinds of ideologues to push their barrows, often somewhere unpleasant. For example, this piece on why ‘meritocracy does not work’.

What I found disturbing was that Clark’s statistical analysis argues that social mobility is limited everywhere and always will be regardless of what society tries to do to fix it. Clark says that ‘genetics plays the overwhelming role’ in our future financial wellbeing. He counsels that we must structure society to assist the least able and avoid creating even more advantage for the gifted and genetically lucky. I would need more time than I have to offer to truly understand the statistics but find it interesting that Clark is the intellectual heir of Francis Galton whose statistical analyses concluded that our abilities are derived by inheritance and that we could produce a highly gifted race by carefully constructed marriages over several generations. This makes one think of the horror that was the 20th century.

k10181

You can listen to Clark talk about his book here.

*I suspect that Clark is a Hemingway fan as one of his other books is titled A Farewell to Alms.

The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures by Christine Kenneally is a very readable book filled with very interesting trivia about genealogy, including very interesting explorations of race and lineage. I read it straight after The Son Also Rises and both books, although vastly different reads, share similar themes that will be interesting to the general reader of history as well as those interested in genealogy.

dna

Karen Hitchcock‘s Quarterly Essay, Dear Life: On caring for the elderly is a deeply affecting piece that Australians, regardless of generation, must read. Her opening pages are particularly skilfully written and anyone browsing, in a bookshop, would feel compelled to finish it then and there if they didn’t have the price of the essay in their pocket. Here’s a brief promotional piece by the author:

 

That’s my reading for the month. What are you reading?

 

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