Nuns In Novel(la)s

This year, despite not being religious myself, I’ve become slightly obsessed with fictional nuns. I thought I’d think a little about why nuns offer such interesting possibilities for novelists, in anticipation of Lauren Groff’s forthcoming MatrixHere, I’ll be discussing three very different books about three very different kinds of nuns: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2008), which depicts a convent in sixteenth-century Italy; Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black (2019), which follows an unspecified order of nuns on board a living spaceship; and Rumer Godden’s In This House Of Brede (1969), which is set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s. However, although these nuns are far apart in space and time, they all sit within the Catholic tradition; this post will therefore focus on Catholic nuns, while recognising that these aren’t the only nuns that exist, even in the Christian faith – and recommendations for books that deal with non-Christian nuns would be very welcome!

Catholic nuns tend to be the butt of jokes, either portrayed as incredibly prudish or sex-obsessed; because nuns are supposed to be angelic, any hint of misbehaviour from a nun is somehow funnier than if it came from a ‘normal’ person. (One of my favourite jokes as a child – no idea why – was ‘What goes black white black white?’/’A nun rolling down a hill.’/’What’s black and white and goes ha ha?’/’The nun who pushed her!’) The radical potential in stories about Catholic nuns, therefore, lies in asking what it’s really like to be a nun and whether this popular stereotype of repressed, unhappy, usually elderly women holds true. If you take out references to nuns or convents from the blurbs of Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede, they suddenly sound a lot more subversive: 

Sixteen-year-old Serafina is ripped by her family from an illicit love affair and forced into the women’s community of Santa Caterina, renowned for its superb music. 

Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her life among the London elite to join a women’s community.

This is not to say that you can simply ‘take out’ the religion from these kinds of communities and reimagine them as proto-feminist communes, but that there’s obvious potential in telling stories about groups of women who live together and rely on each other, and are often able to do things they could not do in the outside world, while recognising that this kind of life comes with its own set of restrictions. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Matrix sparks a new trend for this kind of novel, as it speaks to a lot of twenty-first century concerns: women who are not defined as wives or mothers; female separatism; loneliness vs chosen solitude; the un/importance of sex.

However, if nun novels were just about women both embracing and escaping the confines of their times, Sisters of the Vast Black would be pointless. Why write about nuns in space when you can invent a future where women can do anything they want? Here, I think we see the appeal of writing about a community of people who are simply trying to do the right thing, aside from feminist concerns. The first two-thirds of Sisters of the Vast Black have a moral seriousness that isn’t preachy or theoretical but very much connected to the world the sisters are dealing with. Even more interestingly, both Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede depict closed orders, where the nuns’ job is not to do ‘good works’ but to create a community of prayer, cut off from most contact with the world around them. The purpose of this can be hard to understand; what good are the nuns doing by removing themselves from the world? However, in both novels, the power of the convent, of this way of living, is evident, although both Godden and Dunant recognise that this life is right for some women and hellish for others.

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Diana Rigg starred in a film adaptation of In This House Of Brede (1975)

Why read about Catholic nuns if you are not yourself Catholic or Christian? One great thing that these novels open up is the opportunity to write about women who are not primarily driven by one emotional tie, whether that’s to a man, a child or another family member. As I wrote in my review of Lissa Evans’s Old Baggagethese kind of novels are very rare. And while I wouldn’t want to read a nun novel that was simplistic or dogmatic about religion, none of these books are like that. Dunant vividly conveys the importance of faith to some women in her sixteenth-century convent while others suffer under its strictures. Godden has a harder task, convincing us that a twentieth-century character like Philippa would enter a convent in the first place, or thrive there as she does. But while few of us have a vocation to be a nun, I could identify with how Philippa struggles with herself, the fight to be the best version of herself she can be – I don’t need to share her beliefs to understand that.

Finally, there’s a thoughtfulness about these kind of novels, a deliberately reflective pace that I find hugely refreshing in fiction. Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede tell a big story about lots of women and the lives they lead, and they aren’t tempted to hurry us along to hit the dramatic highpoints. Sisters of the Vast Black, in my opinion, suffers in its final third because it suddenly speeds up, losing much of what made it special earlier on. These books eschew standard plots with a single, ‘active’ protagonist to think about how even the most self-reliant of nuns are part of something bigger. Along the way, they break many ‘rules’ of fiction, and they’re all the better for it.

Have you read any of these novels, or any other novels about nuns? Do you have any recommendations? (I’ve already spotted that Rumer Godden wrote two other novels about nuns, and am eagerly seeking them out!)

Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap

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Lucy Delap’s accessible and compelling Feminisms: A Global History does not attempt the impossible task of writing a complete global history of feminism, but instead, picks up on a series of themes in feminist history, ranging from ‘dreams’ to ‘dress’ to ‘actions’, and draws from modern feminist activists and movements to explore how feminist thought and action was shaped internationally. Delap deliberately uses the term ‘feminisms’ rather than feminism to emphasise the multiplicity of women’s movements across the globe, and also frames this as ‘mosaic feminism’ – women may have been using some of the same inherited pieces, but they formed different patterns. And indeed, the very first chapter emphasises that one big problem for contemporary feminism might be the inability to accommodate disagreement, citing feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young: ‘we need to wake up to the challenge of understanding across difference rather than keep on dreaming about common dreams’. Not all the activists Delap writes about would even have called themselves feminists, but they still contributed to a wider history of political action that centred women’s needs.

What I found so valuable about Delap’s approach to writing about global feminisms was that non-Western feminisms are not treated simply as an ‘add-on’ to more familiar Western histories – we aren’t simply told that there were also feminist activists and organisations elsewhere. Instead, Delap illuminates how African, Latin American and Asian feminists transformed feminist thought and challenged Western priorities. The Bengali writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain published her utopian text Sultana’s Dream in 1905, which depicted ‘Ladyland’, a world where women and men could interact as equals through ‘sacred’ relations that had no sexual connotations; this envisaged women’s liberation through ‘the abandonment of sexual links to men’, a vision that we might more commonly associate with ‘political lesbianism’ in Britain and the USA in the 1970s. In the early twentieth century, there was also an active Chinese feminist movement, with women in some Chinese provinces gaining the vote by 1912, well ahead of many Western counterparts, and the word nannü starting to be used to indicate a ‘sexed system of social organisation’, or something like what we might call patriarchy. Meanwhile, the Egyptian activist Huda Sha’arawi organised women in the 1919 protests against British rule; her decision to unveil in public in 1923 was celebrated by Europeans, but Sha’arawi herself did not see this as particularly important, and, in fact, mocked ‘the veil of ignorance’ that Western women wore, unable to see Egyptian women clearly because of orientalist stereotypes.

Delap also shows how ideas were exchanged, translated and repurposed in global contexts. The famous US second-wave feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (1970), which encouraged women to look after their health and celebrate their sexuality, was reproduced and reworked in different settings. In Bulgaria, it was retitled Our Body, Ourselves, to emphasise individualism after the fall of the communist state, whereas in Latin America the text was framed with more of a focus on traditional community settings. The phrase ‘the personal is political’, coined by US feminist Carol Hanisch, was influenced both by the Black Power practice of ‘telling it like it is’ and Hanisch’s reading of French feminist Claudie Broyelle’s Half the Sky (1973), which stressed the autonomy of women in Communist China to voice and act on their emotions through the Maoist idea of ‘speaking bitterness’. (Broyelle wrote a follow-up to this work in 1980, admitting it had been a ‘day-dream’ as reports of the violent oppression of women in China continued to emerge.) However, Feminisms does not just trace the histories of familiar Western touchstones but introduces new ones, such as the memorable phrase used by Japanese activist Kishida Toshiko in 1883, who publicly spoke of her anger at how women had to live their lives in close confinement, saying that raising daughters in such an environment was like ‘trying to grow flowers in salt’.

Feminisms is primarily concerned with the intersections of gender, race and class rather than sexuality or gender identity, although it does touch on the issues faced by lesbians and trans women who tried to engage with second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Delap writes briefly about how sex and gender might have been understood more fluidly in certain African countries before colonialist binaries were imposed, citing the work of Ifi Amadiume and Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí. Amadiume has argued that age hierarchies were more important than gender hierarchies in the organisation of some African societies, allowing women to adopt more powerful roles such as ‘female husband’. However, it is obviously impossible to cover everything in a single book, and I had the sense that Delap had been led by the priorities of many of the activists she considers, who, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were often focused on colonial or class oppression. In 1975, Bolivian tin miner’s wife Domitila Barrios de Chúngara confronted the US feminist Betty Friedan at a meeting in Mexico City, which revealed the perceived gulf between their ideas of feminism: Barrios de Chúngara was an experienced union activist who worked alongside men, and thought gringa feminism was ‘a lesbian-dominated war against men’. (Friedan had actually been instrumental in banning lesbians from the US National Organisation for Women’s New York chapter in 1970, so likely shared this hostility).

Obviously, a book like this can never be more than a starting-point for the huge histories it touches upon, but this is an incredibly thought-provoking take on some of the questions we should be asking when we think about global histories of feminism.

I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 1st February.

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

Reviewing Amazon Original Short Stories

I accidentally signed up for (and immediately cancelled) Amazon Prime for the dozenth time recently, but still have a free trial lasting a month. As part of this, I realised, I can borrow Amazon Original e-book only short stories from Prime for free, many of which are by authors I really rate. It turns out, this is quite addictive, and I’ve recently read two short story collections. Here’s what I thought:

The Forward collection, edited by Blake Crouch, is a selection of six SF short stories about the future of our world. Overall, I found this collection disappointing: the stories tended to be cliched, and were often more engaged with spelling out their moral message than in creating compelling fiction. This was especially true for ‘Ark’ by Veronica Roth and ‘Emergency Skin’ by NK Jemisin (a huge disappointment from Jemisin, who’s usually a much more subtle writer). I’m honestly getting a bit concerned about this trend in a lot of the recent short SF I’ve read, because while I love stories that tackle the real-life inequalities in our world, and totally agree with the messages these writers are trying to put across, I find these kind of stories so alienating. I just don’t think fiction is the right medium to choose if all you want to do is present your own points, however morally important those points might be. In contrast, ‘Randomise’ by Andy Weir was fun but forgettable, and Paul Tremblay’s ‘The Last Conversation’ sub-Black Mirror and predictable.

The two stand-outs for me were the two longer stories: Blake Crouch’s ‘Summer Frost’ and Amor Towles’s ‘You Have Arrived At Your Destination’. Like the two Crouch novels I’ve read, Dark Matter and Recursion, ‘Summer Frost’ suffers a bit from trying to chuck too many ideas into one story, but it makes you think and keeps you guessing, and that’s always a good thing. It tackles the familiar trope of a video game designer who creates an AI that is gradually increasing in intelligence, but adds in creepy stuff like Roko’s Basilisk, which I loved. My major criticism would be that the narrator is a queer woman, but her voice feels odd to me, and I kept on forgetting that she wasn’t a straight man, although I can’t put my finger on why – possibly something about the particular quality of the sexually possessive way she interacts with her creation? ‘You Have Arrived At Your Destination’, meanwhile, is probably the most well-crafted of the stories in this collection, which makes sense given that Towles made his name in literary fiction. It cleverly starts with another hackneyed premise – a man is invited to choose the genetic characteristics of his future child – but then shoots off in a different direction, exploring the ways in which we already try to control our children’s lives, and how frequently we fail. Towles is willing to let his story finish ambiguously, which gives it much more resonance than the neat endings of most of the stories in this collection. 

The Out of Line collection features seven stories by female writers that explore ‘what happens when women step out of line and take control of their own stories’. This was a much stronger collection than Forward, and I wasn’t surprised, because I know how good most of these writers are. I loved Lisa Ko’s ‘The Contractors’, about  two women working for the same company, one in the Philippines and one in the US, who gradually wake up to their exploitation but also how it differs, and Mary Gaitskill’s ‘Bear Witness’, a dark multi-perspective story that focuses on a rape trial. Surprisingly, however, the real standout was Caroline Kepnes’s ‘Sweet Virginia’, a brilliantly satirical story that takes a young mother dreaming of Hallmark movies into her own version of a wintry escape. This has made me believe that there’s more to Kepnes than just one hit (I very much enjoyed You but couldn’t get through its sequel, Hidden Bodies, which I felt was re-running the same story again).

Two of the stories use a similar premise to Sophie Mackintosh’s novel Blue Ticketimagining worlds where only certain women are allowed or encouraged to have children. Roxane Gay’s ‘Graceful Burdens’ started with an arresting scene at a ‘baby library’, where women are encouraged to check out babies for a short time to ease their maternal urges, but didn’t do anything very interesting with the idea after that. Meantime, Emma Donoghue’s ‘Halfway To Free’ really worried me; I love Donoghue, but this story was so problematic. By imagining a dystopian world where childlessness is celebrated as a means of population control and environmentalism, I felt that Donoghue played strongly into anti-feminist tropes, and also weirdly scapegoated millennials and Generation Z who are (rightly, in my opinion) thinking hard about whether or not to have children due to the climate crisis. I have to believe that this was a writing misstep rather than a reflection of what Donoghue really thinks; there are suggestions in the story that this world is not meant to be entirely bad (older people are respected and valued much more, and a dementia vaccine shows how healthcare has been refocused on their needs) but it very much comes across as a warning rather than a nuanced look at what would happen if we elevated childlessness rather than motherhood.

A final note on this collection: all the protagonists in these stories are mothers, and all but two of them are overtly about motherhood. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the collection wasn’t framed as an examination of motherhood – and certainly I know some of us are weary of this theme after a glut of novels in 2019 and 2020. I personally found Kepnes’s take on this, in particular, very refreshing, but it feels like this focus should have been advertised upfront. 

I’ll now be taking a break from this blog until I post my Commendations and Disappointments, Top Ten Books of the Year, and 2021 Reading Plans on December 30th, December 31st and January 1st respectively! I hope you are all able to have a relaxing holiday season, however you celebrate.

The Translated Literature Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel at pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. A translated novel you would recommend to everyone.

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Having just had a lively book group discussion about Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, it has to be this one. Not everyone loved this story of Keiko, a thirty-six-year-old woman who is totally devoted to a convenience store, but it made us ask really interesting questions about what is ‘normal’ and who gets to judge. Personally, this is one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year, particularly good on capitalism and its myths of individual fulfilment. I enjoyed this interview with the translator.

2. A recently read ‘old’ translated novel you enjoyed.

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I didn’t read this recently AT ALL, but I did enjoy Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, translated from the Italian by William Weaver. This unashamedly slow medieval mystery set in a Benedictine monastery culminates in the horrific murder of a lost manuscript (following the murders of some actual monks).

3. A translated novel you could not get into.

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This has happened to me with a disproportionate number of translated novels and is one of the reasons I tend to avoid fiction in translation unless it’s specifically recommended to me. The first example that comes to mind is Michel Deon’s The Foundling Boy, which I found dully written and derivative; it was first published in France in 1975 but translated into English by Julian Evans in 2013, so it unfortunately combined my aversion to novels published between c.1918 to c.1980 with my aversion to a number of novels translated from French around that time (Suite Francaise etc.)

4. Your most anticipated translated novel release.

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Not a novel as such, but I’m looking forward to Humiliation by Paulina Flores, a collection of short stories set in Chile and translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. As part of the research for my new novel, I’m specifically seeking out recent fiction by Chilean writers, and I liked the sound of these stories. Humiliation is out in the UK on November 7th.

5. A ‘foreign-language’ author you would love to read more of.

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I was fascinated by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and The White Book, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, so I’d now like to read Human Actswhich focuses on a violent student uprising in South Korea.

6. A translated novel which you consider to be better than the film.

I’ve tried very hard to find something for this category, but I can’t find any films based on a translated novel where I’ve both read the book and seen the film…

7. A translated ‘philosophical’ fiction book you recommend.

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Jostein Gaarder is best known for his novel Sophie’s World, a whistle-stop tour through the history of Western philosophy, but my favourite of his books is The Ringmaster’s Daughterwhich centres on an unnaturally brilliant man and his facility for making up stories, which leads to him selling plots to authors. It’s not as overtly ‘about’ philosophy as Sophie’s World, but the narrator’s musings on fiction are fascinating. It was translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson.

8. A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long.

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The book in translation that’s been on my Goodreads TBR the longest is Carole Maurel’s Luisa: Now and Then, a graphic novel translated from the French by Nanette McGuinness and adapted by Mariko Tamaki. Luisa, thirty-two, meets her fifteen-year-old self and confronts questions about her sexuality. I really ought to read this while I’m still thirty-two!

9. A popular translated fiction book you have not yet read.

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Using the list ‘Popular Translated Fiction Books‘ on Goodreads, there are a LOT, but I’ll pick Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. Unfortunately I am unlikely to read this as I didn’t enjoy either Norwegian Wood or Kafka on the Shore.

10. A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read.

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Returning to my Goodreads TBR, I’d like to read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; I’ve been hearing about this everywhere, and it has a great title. It’s set in a remote Polish village where people start turning up dead in strange circumstances.

If anyone else wants to have a go at this tag, please do – I’d love to see your answers.

20 Books of Summer, #17: Exhalation

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Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, is even better than his exhilarating Stories of Your Life and Others (although I’m sad about the UK cover; why can’t we have this beautiful US one, as well as a decently produced hardback?) For me, more of the stories in Exhalation than in Stories of Your Life managed to blend Chiang’s incredible intelligence with a solid emotional core, and when Chiang does this, he’s unbeatable. The opening story, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ was, for me, the most satisfying: Chiang effortlessly handles complicated single-timeline time travel and its emotional consequences, while packaging it in a literary form – the nested stories of The Arabian Nights – to which it is absolutely suited. Although, [spoiler] I couldn’t help speculating that the narrator, by travelling back to intercept the comforting news being brought to his former self, had inadvertently condemned his former self to a lifetime of guilt, motivating him to travel back in the first place, which he doesn’t seem to register! [spoilers end]. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to write time travel this elegantly, and I can only applaud (and envy) Chiang.

The two novellas included in the collection are also both fantastic, although for me, not quite as perfect as ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and the ethical issues that this throws up. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. As ever, Chiang thinks about the details: one obstacle the owners face is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. However, this story is particularly notable for the potential parallels it draws. The analogy with human children is somewhat imperfect (digients seem much less capable than children, even when the number of years they’ve been alive is factored in) but works when we start thinking about why we have children: can it ever be right to create something just so we can love it?

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (the title is taken from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety) also dissects a familiar time-travel trope, although it’s not a time travel story: in this novella, humans are able to converse with their ‘paraselves’ who are living in alternative timelines that have split off from the timeline they are living in following quantum events. A lot of time travel novels (including mine…) use this trope, drawn from  Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, to allow time travel between parallel timelines rather than within a single timeline. Chiang stresses that new timelines, in this story, don’t break off whenever anyone makes a decision but only in certain circumstances; however, it is often possible to converse with a paraself in a timeline where a significant decision has turned out differently, whether that’s leaving a marriage, taking a new job, or admitting to a crime. Chiang glosses this story most succinctly in his own ‘Story Notes’ (I could happily read a volume of Chiang’s ‘Story Notes’): ‘Some have pointed out that when Martin Luther defended his actions to the church in 1521, he reportedly said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” i.e. he couldn’t have done anything else. But does that mean we shouldn’t give Luther credit for his actions? Surely we don’t think he would be worthier of praise if he had said, “I could have gone either way.”… If you could somehow examine a multitude of Martin Luthers across many worlds, I think you’d have to go far afield to find one that didn’t defy the church, and that would say something about the kind of person he was.’

These kinds of themes – our relationship with our former or alternative selves, our moral responsibility for the choices we make that could have ‘gone either way’, and whether we are the sum of our choices or our circumstances – are prominent in all of my own fiction, so unsurprisingly, I found the story fascinating, although the ending was a little unsatisfying. Chiang is rightly concerned to demonstrate that the many-worlds interpretation does not mean our choices are meaningless (because there is an alternative universe where we made the opposite choice) and I agree with his take on it; parallel timelines can surely be separated from our own world by various degrees of difference, and some situations are not so neatly reducible to a single individual’s choice.  However, in a particular incident that dogs one character, it seems to be suggested that a choice she regrets made no difference because the friend she betrayed would have taken the same path in life anyway. I would like Chiang to have delved a little deeper into this theme (which he does address in a parallel plotline): how does making selfish choices hurt us and our future selves, even if they have no actual impact? (Coincidentally, while reading background material on Samantha Harvey’s All Is Song, another of my 20 Books of Summer, I came across this interview where she discusses exactly that.)

There are other excellent stories in this collection, such as ‘Omphalos’, which considers what would have happened if God had created the world, and humanity realised we were not at the centre of his universe – but a few of the others fell into the trap I wrote about in my review of Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, lacking emotional commitment and taking place in a blank void: ‘Exhalation’, ‘What’s Expected Of Us’, ‘The Great Silence’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’. Chiang always gives you lots to think about, but he doesn’t always make you feel. Meanwhile, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’, which postulates that interwar American behaviourist child psychologists such as John F. Watson and B.F. Skinner went a step further by designing a mechanical automaton to see to a child’s needs, made me smile, but didn’t feel terribly fresh to me (probably because I’ve written on behaviourism in my historical research, and thought this was a bit of a simplistic take on how childrearing advice developed in the first half of the twentieth century). Nevertheless, this collection is stunning, the percentage of hits is higher than in Stories of Your Life, and it’s got to be one of my favourite books of the year so far.

Wellcome Book Prize 2019: Shortlist Events and Award Ceremony

I’m off to the Wellcome Book Prize award ceremony tonight to find out which of these books has won the prize!

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I went to the Wellcome 5×15 event with a friend yesterday evening at Wilton’s Music Hall, where five of the six shortlisted authors had fifteen minutes each to discuss their work. This was great, as always – if I lived in London, I’d try to go to some non-Wellcome-related 5×15 events, as the format really works for me. Here are some brief thoughts.

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Sarah Krasnostein: ‘Trauma cleaning for Sandra’

Krasnostein gave a very emotive talk on The Trauma Cleanerher biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who has suffered her own personal horrors and now cleans the houses of hoarders, agoraphobics and those who have died and been left undiscovered. It’s clear how much this matters to her. She described how, when she first began the research for this book, her doctor asked her ‘Who would ever want to read that?’ and how this made her more determined to show how we are all connected despite our outward differences. To emphasise this, she used the metaphor of a forest of 40,000 quaking aspens in Utah, which are all linked by the same root system even though they look like individual trunks above the surface (this really is fashionable at the moment!) Krasnostein sees her book as a kind of trauma cleaning for Sandra, doing for her subject what she has done for others. The Trauma Cleaner was our shadow panel winner, and I think it has a good chance of taking the actual prize.

Sandeep Jauhar: ‘Taking away the sudden death option’

In my favourite talk of the evening, Jauhar, a cardiologist, spoke about how his family history of malignant heart disease led him to write his popular medical book, Heart: A History. Like Krasnostein, he encountered some initial resistance to his topic: his eleven-year-old son told him ‘Don’t write a book about the heart. No-one will buy it, because the heart is boring.’ Jauhar told us how the sudden deaths of both of his grandfathers gave him a ‘fear of the heart’, which he saw as both powerful and vulnerable, and how he became obsessed with the organ as a child, adjusting the speed of the ceiling fan so it synchronised with his heartbeat. (He also discovered that if you hooked up an average adult human heart to a swimming pool, it would empty it in a week.) Overall, though, he has come to the conclusion that a swift death from heart disease can be merciful, leaving him with difficult decisions to make about whether to suggest that his patients are fitted with internal defibrillators, which ‘take away the sudden death option’.

Arnold Thomas Fanning: ‘Walking down corridors endlessly’

For those of us who have read Mind on FireFanning’s account of living with bipolar disorder, this talk perhaps had less to offer, as Fanning essentially recounted what he tells us in his memoir. However, he illustrated the talk with a series of pictures of himself from childhood to the present day, which were really interesting to see, and vividly recounted his time in a mental hospital, where he ‘walked down corridors endlessly’ because of his restless energy, and at one point was prescribed sixty different medications over a six-month period. Fanning’s emotional honesty is admirable, and it was lovely to see the delighted reaction from the audience when he announced at the end of the talk that he’s getting married the month after next.

Will Eaves: ‘Understanding the gap between your experiences and someone else’s’

I’m afraid I had many of the same problems with Eaves’s talk as I did with his novel, Murmurwhich chronicles the inner life of a fictional Alan Turing undergoing forced chemical castration after being convicted of gross indecency for having sex with another man. It swung between being profound and pretentious as he meditated on the idea that we can never really understand somebody else’s internal state, and that’s what true sympathy is, offering an interesting counterpart to Krasnostein’s tree metaphor. I was particularly frustrated by the section on time, where Eaves claimed that there is no scientific reason why an equation can’t go backwards rather than forwards;  I wrote ‘ENTROPY’ on my programme and my friend added ‘TWADDLE’. However, Eaves did give us a great potted history of Turing’s life, which will help those approaching Murmur with little knowledge of the subject.

Ottessa Moshfegh: ‘People are vulnerable in having feelings’

Moshfegh spent quite a lot of time talking about what her novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxationis (in her words) not about: namely, how easy it is to get psychiatric drugs in the US, and why that’s a problem. Psychiatrists play on this to get customers, she argued, because ‘people are vulnerable in having feelings.’ Underlining this point, she read the section from the novel where our protagonist first meets Dr Tuttle. However, she stated that, for her, My Year is actually about a woman who ‘does not want to live in this plane of consciousness’ and believes that if she sleeps long enough, all her cells will have forgotten their cellular trauma. Moshfegh presents her protagonist more sympathetically than I had expected from the way she writes about her in the novel, and the talk really made me think again about how to interpret My Year.

Updated 1/5/19: The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize is…

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I’m not surprised by this result, but I am disappointed. Murmur was my least favourite book on the shortlist and on the longlist. I found it pretentious and unreadable, and Eaves’s discussion of the book has only cemented my opinions. More broadly speaking, I felt it would have been the right moment for a book on trans issues to have taken the prize, which would have pointed to a win for either Amateur or The Trauma Cleaner. Winning this prize will probably garner Eaves a wider readership, but it seems unlikely that many readers will be engaged by Murmur.

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2019: Murmur & Mind on Fire

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Will Eaves’s short novel, Murmur, is loosely linked to the life of the mathematician Alan Turing, best-known for inventing the machine that cracked German codes during the Second World War, and for undergoing forced chemical castration after one of his homosexual encounters was discovered, and thereafter, committing suicide. (Turing is fictionalised here as ‘Alec Pryor’, but the link is obvious.) The novel is bookended by two short sections very distinct in style from its much longer middle. The first, originally a short story shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017, describes, in a journal entry, the liaison with working-class Cyril that led to Pryor’s punishment. The second, even shorter, depicts Pryor conversing with ‘the council of machines’, who tell him that he is losing his mind. Playing with ideas about AI, the council of machines claim that they have been fully aware from the start, through all the suffering of the Industrial Revolution, and so Pryor need not think that the painful consciousness of humans is a unique burden. Both of these sections are breathtakingly good; Eaves’s prose is beautifully direct, and the odd links Pryor makes in the second section are not necessarily logical, but still connect up perfectly well.

Unfortunately, I found the bulk of Murmur, which sits between these two bits, virtually unreadable. Eaves tries to convey what the inner workings of Turing’s mind might actually have been like while he was undergoing hormone treatment and descending into an altered state, and the results are highly irritating. Most of the novel consists of either dream sequences or letters that are ostensibly addressed to a person but are really letters to the self – two of the devices I most hate in fiction. As I also struggle with novels that are completely detached from reality, it’s no surprise that I didn’t get on with this. Even in this section, there are some beautiful passages, such as when Pryor recalls swimming in a lake with schoolfriend Christopher – but these are swiftly interrupted by another cluster of references, doublings, and psycho-analytical allusions.

I’ve been trying to work out why I find this kind of experimental literary fiction so offputting, as I’m certainly not averse to experimental literary fiction in general. There are a number of possible reasons. First, it strikes me, like a lot of postmodern literary criticism, as being more clever than wise; rather than striving to say things in the simplest way possible, it seems to delight in obtuseness. Unlike, for example, Anna Burns’s Milkman, the style isn’t working hard in service of what the writer wants to say but is getting in the way. Secondly, I think what really interests me in fiction is how humans respond to external and internal conflict, particularly if ethical, their complex relationships with other human beings, and how they think these through; when a narrator’s mind is this distanced from itself, there’s no such rational conflict, even if you could argue that conflict is still happening. Thirdly, I guess I’m unconvinced that this is the only way novels can push boundaries; it seems to me that within a more realist mode there are still hugely interesting things to be done, and I’d rather read books that are working in that direction.

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In contrast, I found Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire, a memoir of living with bipolar disorder, much more engaging than I’d expected, although his writing is more humdrum than Eaves’s. Fanning suffered severely from mania and depression for ten years, wrestling with his own delusions, and at his lowest point, spending a winter homeless on the streets of London. I think what worked for me about Mind on Fire is that Fanning is recounting it from a position of stability – apart from a brief, necessary section at the beginning, there’s no attempt to actually try and capture his state of mind on the page. This memoir gives the reader important insights into the experience of living with serious mental illness, and I also liked the way Fanning handled his account of his own childhood and adolescence in Ireland. While there are a number of factors that may have contributed to his poor mental health – the early death of his mother, a difficult and distant father – he doesn’t attempt to draw neat causal lines between the two, but simply presents what he remembers. Fanning’s honesty throughout the entirety of this memoir is courageous and creditable.

However, I still felt that this memoir could have had a greater impact if it had been structured differently. Like many memoirs of physical illness – Porochista Khakpour’s Sick comes to mind – Mind on Fire becomes inevitably repetitive, as Fanning continually presents himself to hospitals and becomes a psychiatric in-patient, is discharged, has a period of good health, and then starts to spiral into manic depression again. Moreover, the memoir ends rather abruptly, with only a few pages given over to Fanning’s recovery, and how he’s dealt with bipolar disorder long-term. It seemed to me that both these problems could have been solved if Fanning had compressed the period of his illness somewhat, and spent more time on the period after he ‘turned the corner’. Records of emails and letters, in particular, felt to me like Fanning was doing the very necessary work of piecing together this period in his life for himself, but I wasn’t sure that all this detail needed to be in his published narrative. A great resource for those who want to learn more about bipolar disorder, or perhaps for those living with it themselves, but not an outstanding memoir.

Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her copy of this book.

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: To Be A Machine & James Smythe: I Still Dream

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The eighth-century English monk Bede described human life on earth as like a sparrow who flies into a banqueting hall from a storm, swoops through the warmth and comfort of the hall, and then flies out again into the wind.* To Be A Machine, Mark O’Connell’s exploration of the twenty-first century movement known as transhumanism, is basically about why we can’t stay in the banqueting hall. Why is the human mind confined to bodies that so quickly age, break down and finally cease to function? Should we accept death, or fight it? Is there a way to ‘liberate’ the mind from the body, or are the two inseparable? And how will artificial intelligence change our relationship with the world? O’Connell highlights how this postmodern set of beliefs often bears a close similarity to the thought of early Christians such as Bede and St Augustine. Transhumanism, like early Christianity, can seem both hopelessly optimistic and grimly deterministic. As Augustine wrote in City of God: ‘As far as this mortal life is concerned, which is spent and finished in a few days, what difference does it make under what rule a man lives who is soon to die?’

The idea of being ‘uploaded into the Cloud’, or attaining digital immortality, is perhaps familiar to us from sci-fi treatments of the idea: for example, Black Mirror’s San Junipero’. But O’Connell digs deeper, not only asking whether or not this will ever be possible, but what else it might be used for. To Be A Machine spends a lot of time with people on the edge of scientific respectability, although it’s often unclear how far they’ve travelled. (While reading the book, I kept thinking about how absurd modern medical innovations such as heart transplants must have seemed even shortly before they became possible.) O’Connell talks to Dutch neuroscientist Randal Koene, who’s working on what he calls ‘whole brain emulation’, or the uploading of minds. However, immortality ‘wasn’t something that especially exercised Koane as an end in itself.‘ Instead, O’Connell finds, he’s more concerned with ‘the limitations of creativity… how many things he wanted to do and experience, and how little time was allowed for the pursuit of those projects.’ (Back to the bird in the banqueting hall.) In Koane’s words, ‘I couldn’t work on some problem for a thousand years, or even travel to the next solar system, because I’d be dead by then.’ Other technological advances are also inadvertently feeding into whole brain emulation. Todd Huffman, a US technology entrepreneur, is working on technology to scan brains, which is currently ‘useful for more immediate projects like analysing pathologies for cancer research’ but could eventually be useful for emulation.

O’Connell covers so much in To Be A Machine that it’s impossible to do it all justice in a single review: other topics include AI and the technological singularity, robots, ‘cyborgs’ who are integrating technology into their own bodies, cryonic suspension and radical life extension. The book made me think so many things that I’m still sorting through them all now, weeks after finishing it. And yet one of its most attractive qualities is O’Connell’s honesty about his own reactions to the various technologies he encounters: he is fascinated, appalled, won over and turned off all at the same time. Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.

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Yes, I do find that tagline a little creepy.

James Smythe’s sixth novel for adults, I Still Dream, takes lots of the technology that’s explored in To Be A Machine and runs with it. The novel kicks off in 1997, when seventeen-year-old Laura Bow is designing an artificial intelligence, Organon, while constantly arguing with her mother about the amount she spends on dial-up internet and how she’s tying up the phone line (“from now on you’re allowed to use it at weekends only, when it’s cheap, and even then, only for an hour.”) This first section is an incredible set-piece in its own right, tying up with a neat twist ending where Laura realises she may have got more than she bargained for with Organon. I Still Dream then jumps forward in ten-year chunks, as big companies get in on the development of AI, and Laura and Organon are first sidelined, then shafted. However, will she and Organon be needed again when everything goes wrong?

It was pretty clear to me from the start – but again, perhaps only because I read To Be A Machine first – that this novel was going to deal with the technological singularity, the idea that artificial intelligence will suddenly accelerate beyond our capacity to control it. However, it touches on other transhumanist themes that I wasn’t expecting, including the prospect of being uploaded into the cloud (the novel takes its title, very satisfyingly, from Kate Bush’s 1985 hit ‘Cloudbusting‘). It also considers the fragility of the human body through a range of individual stories, from Laura’s father, who suffered from a brain tumour, to her father-in-law, who develops dementia, to Laura herself as she ages and dies. I Still Dream hence brings the questions posed by To Be A Machine vividly alive: how can we stay so attached to our physical bodies and brains as they start to glitch, and what we think of as our most essential self muddles and fades in the face of disease?

Structurally, I Still Dream didn’t quite work for me: its time jumps coupled with switching narrators kept jolting me out of the story, and some of the segments were inevitably more engaging than others. However, it’s an incredibly thought-provoking novel (having read and loved Smythe’s The Explorer and The EchoI’d expect no less from him) that never simply presents technology as bad or good but instead asks questions about how we use it. As Laura says when she warns the world about the dangers of a rival AI, SCION: ‘SCION’s like a toddler. And like any toddler, you teach it well, teach it morality and concepts of good and bad, and maybe it’ll grow up to not be a complete shit. But if you do nothing but sit it down in front of games… tell it that if something’s a danger to it it should fight back first? Where does that end?’ And Smythe always keeps the humanity of his story in sight. I found the final section of I Still Dream desperately sad, not because of any apocalypse caused by artificial superintelligence, but because of the familiar process of losing what we love as we age away from it.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. 

*This parable is mentioned in Bernard MacLaverty’s Wellcome-longlisted Midwinter Break.

The Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2018

The shortlist for the Wellcome Book Prize is out! The winner will be announced on the 30th April, and here are the six shortlisted titles:

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shortlist

I’ve read two of the six shortlisted titles, Stay With Me and With the End In Mindand am currently reading To Be A MachineAs part of the shadow panel for the Wellcome Book Prize this year, I’ll be aiming to read the whole shortlist.

My predictions were surprisingly accurate (given my dismal record) – I guessed three out of six of the longlisted titles, Fitzharris, Wadman and O’Connell. The balance between novels, history, memoir, ‘proper science’ and ‘what it is to be human’ is much as I thought it would be.

I’m surprised to see Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me on the shortlist – I thought it was tremendously moving, but the medical theme is barely there. Similarly, I didn’t expect Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem to make it to the shortlist, having heard very little about it, but I’m keen to find out more.

I’m very disappointed not to see Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am on the shortlist, and equally disappointed to see Kathryn Mannix’s With the End In Mind, which made me very uncomfortable. But I’m thrilled to see that the two books that I was most interested in reading next have made it to the shortlist – Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine and Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race. And, even though I try to keep work separate from this blog, I’m grudgingly getting used to the idea of reading Lindsay Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art,which I suspect will teach me a lot about popular history and storytelling.

A final thought: this isn’t a criticism of this year’s longlist or shortlist, but I wonder why the prize seems to highlight so little speculative fiction or science fiction? It’s just occurred to me that this might be another interesting angle with which to consider ‘our relationship with health, medicine and illness’.

What are your thoughts on the Wellcome Prize shortlist?