Help! I’ve been abducted by Atlantic Canadians!

27 06 2010

Salty Ink is an excellent blog on Atlantic Canadian writers and books by Newfoundland author Chad Pelley. He does make the dated and for the most part unnecessary distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction, but his coverage is broad, thoughtful, and really gets into the meat of what’s great about Atlantic Canadian writing.

Right now he’s running Atlantic Canada Reads, in which a panel selected six reader-nominated books for a no-holds-barred fight to the death over which book every Atlantic Canadianone should read this summer.

So I’ve been a little distracted from reading SF!

The nominees are Lisa Moore’s February, a story about a woman whose husband dies in the ocean ranger disaster; Kenneth J. Harvey’s Blackstrap Hawco, a tale of the beauty and the ugliness of Newfoundland; Lesley Choyce’s The Republic of Nothing, in which a small island declares independence and hijinks ensue; George Elliot Clarke’s George and Rue, a stunning prose-poem about the last public execution in New Brunswick, the crime that led up to it, and the way racism perpetuates inequality and crime in a bigger-than-its-britches city; Darryl Whetter’s The Push and the Pull an antidote to the nostalgic pastoralism of too much Atlantic Canadian (or pseudo-Atlantic Canadian *ahem* The Shipping News) writing, about sex death and bicycling; and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, about an intersex child born in Labrador’s ultra-masculine fishing culture.

Blog-readers get two choices. Even then, what a dilemma!

I haven’t read any of the books nominated, but I have read Clarke’s Governor General’s Award-winning Execution Poems, and I’m tempted to vote for George & Rue on that basis alone. When Matt Stranach suggests that Execution Poems may be the best book of poetry ever produced by an Atlantic Canadian author, he is not exaggerating; Clarke’s writing is spectacular and the book is one of the most powerful works of Canadian literature I’ve read.

But the other nominators make strong cases as well. Lesley Choyce is a hugely prolific author who has produced nearly 50 works of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction in the past 30 years. I’ve read about a dozen of them, and I can’t say that I’m a fan of his style, but I’ve always had a soft spot for micronations. The Republic of Nothing is probably a fun, light read.

In a violent storm, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982, killing all 84 men aboard. In his office, my dad has a piece of cream-coloured card, beautifully printed with the words Amateurs built the ark; professionals built the ocean ranger. A quick Google to find the source of the quote tells me that the real expression refers to the Titanic (another Atlantic Canadian shipwreck) and that it’s meant to encourage amateurs to trust themselves, to ignore accepted wisdom, and to take risks.

In an engineer’s office, I always took it as a reminder of the importance of humility, of professional responsibility, of the fact that every project touches lives. It was from that simple, letter-pressed card that I first learned of the Ocean Ranger disaster. February is perhaps particularly relevant in the wake of the more recent oil rig explosion off Louisiana.

The book sounds like everything that’s delectable about so-called literary fiction; vivid descriptions of the every day, events drawn so skillfully it becomes impossible to miss the layers, the resonance, the deep connections that give meaning to human life. It’s passion, tragedy and heartbreak that’s palpable. This story, of families spread apart by the need to find work, broken by disaster at sea (even today), could be representative of life in the region.

I’m curious about Kathleen Winter’s Annabel – dying to read it – but nervous about it as well. I wouldn’t vote this one the book everyone should read without having read it because I’ve read few novels written by cissexual, cisgendered authors dealing explicitly with gender, transgender and intersex, that aren’t sensationalizing and dehumanizing. Trawling reviews, I’ve read that Winter’s story is carried by the characters and avoids being political (hmm…), and that Annabel’s condition is a device to explore “more conventional issues.” It is dehumanizing and exploitative to use the body and experiences of a non-cis person as a device to explore cis understandings of gender and sexuality. The Globe & Mail‘s review of the book gives me hope, but this remains the one book of the six that I’m the most unsure about.

Thanks to Nicole Dixon’s lucid, concrete pitch, Darryl Whetter’sThe Push and the Pull is high on my to-read list. It sounds like Dixon and I are frustrated by much the same trends in Atlantic Canadian literature, and she’s really convinced me to give this one a try. As a cyclist and perpetual pedestrian, I sympathise with Andrew Day, the main character of this Halifax-to-Kingston cycling odyssey as he faces down “the consequences of our car culture.”

I prefer Whetter’s stories of educated women torn between heart, crotch and briefcase to outport Gran’s poultice recipe for the croup. – Nicole Dixon (Yes! – Ed.)

I’m finding Blackstrap Hawko a little difficult to grasp, because Perry Moore’s pitch for Kenneth J. Harvey’s 825 page behemoth talks a lot about Newfoundland, and what Newfoundland isn’t, but not a lot about what Blackstrap Hawko is. I know I want to read it, but I’m not sure why.

So this, Jessica Grant‘s delectable Come, Thou Tortoise, Farah Mendlesohn’s terrific, Hugo-nominated The Inter-galactic Playground, and an abortive attempt at reading Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love (does anyone want to talk to me about Bold as Love? Because it’s really not working for me and I’m feeling painfully un-hip over the whole thing) have kept me from my project. I’ll be back on track before long.


Why is there coffee on your planet?

18 06 2010

Recently I polished off C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen and Regenesis. Cyteen especially is delightful because Ari Emory is so smart and in control, in spite of raging teenage hormones; Ari gets PMS but is absolutely fit to rule. Still, it’s difficult not to find her socio-economic privilege overwhelming.

One of the markers of Ari’s privilege is that she can afford Earth things that are rare and very expensive on Cyteen. Coffee, a luxury good on an isolated space-base, costs 350 credits a kilo, and yet she and her cabal drink as much of it as we do here on Earth. As she moves Justin and Grant closer to her, to keep them safe and under her control, the quality of the coffee available to them in their office only increases. Here, coffee represents Ari’s wealth and power which she can use to get luxury goods from far across the universe.

In Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, the scientists and soldiers at Port Central drink coffee which came along with their supplies from Earth in addition to dap, which is “a local tea, (…) a mild stimulant, weaker than caffeine. It’s a common barter commodity, with (…) a standard value, rather like a currency.” By the end of the book, when the inhabitants of Jeep are finally cut off from Earth for good, they drink dap rather than coffee. Here, coffee represents both power, and attachment to Earth and its culture; no Earth, no coffee.

Coffee in science fiction is a thing; it turns up often. In a well-thought-out SF world, there will probably be an explanation of where that coffee came from. On Earth, a lot of people drink so much coffee that we forget that it’s a luxury good, that all coffee is not fair trade, and that even fair trade is far from adequate. There’s coffee on your planet, but what’s it doing there? How did it get there, and under what conditions?

I’m curious about other examples.

Does my science create or destroy: Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite

18 06 2010

Yesterday, I finished Nicola Griffith‘s Ammonite, which is a wonderful world-without-men story that tackles questions of inter-galactic colonization with greater sophistication than many other tales. This imperial project – to go forth and colonize the worlds, to take their resources for the powerful home planet, or company, or whatever – is a common trope in SF from right at the beginning of the genre and I don’t think I need to tell you how problematic it is.

Authors have tackled the problem over the years, turning to the exploration of culture and acknowledging the dignity of both sentient and non-sentient life on other planets, and using anthropologist characters as passionate cross-cultural interpreters. However, I find anthropologist characters, who treat other cultures as objects of knowledge rather than as equal thinking subjects, inherently suspect. This is why I find Griffith’s take on the subject so refreshing.

The story begins as Marghe, SEC (Settlement and Education Council) representative to the Durallium Company, prepares to descend to Grenchstom’s Planet (Jeep). Not long after Jeep had been rediscovered and the company – finding that this planet had the potential to be profitable – had landed its engineers, security, and SEC representative on the planet, they were infected by a virus that infected everyone on the mission and killed all the men. Marghe is being sent to the planet as a willing guinea pig to test a vaccine that could protect company employees from the virus and re-open Jeep to exploration and exploitation.

The Marghe of the beginning of the book is the typical ambitious, well-meaning, naively exploitative, curious anthropologist: six months on Jeep testing the FN-17 vaccine means “six months on a closed world to research a unique culture.” It’s “the most fabulous opportunity for an anthropologist since … since the nineteenth century.” The people of Jeep are secondary to Marghe’s pursuit of knowledge. From the beginning, wiser figures in her life offer her perspective, but Marghe, passionate scientist, perseveres. The vaccine could mean contact with this world, the opportunity to really share with its cultures, and to learn how they manage to reproduce without men! To give them the advantages of Earth and the opportunity to share what is wonderful about their way of life! Yes!

This won’t last long. Griffith introduces the parallel and the critique early:

Margue was tired. “Well, everything will be all right if the vaccine works.” She wished her head would stop hurting.
“All right for whom?”
“I don’t–”
“A vaccine is a counterweapon. it’s control. Imagine: mass vaccination of the women down there. If they need the virus to reproduce, then they’ll die.”
“You don’t know that they do.” Not even company would deal in genocide, would they? Hiam was paranoid, crazy. “You’re drunk.”
“Yes, I’m drunk. But not stupid. Loom me in the face and tell me SEC would stand up to Company on this.”
Marghe imagined her father, and what his opinion would be. Probably he would say nothing–just get up, search his bookshelves, pull down an old volume on the Trail of Tears and other, more systematic attempts at genocide, and hand it to her without comment.

Marghe did not know what to do with this information. She did not want to think about it. Her head hurt. She felt as though someone had been beating her with a thick stick.

That would be a clue-by-four.

Armed with her FN-17, Marghe descends upon Jeep, ignores the advice and attempts at building connection of pretty much everyone she meets, and marches off to the distant, dangerous Tehuantepec plain, because she is a Scientist, and she is Just That Awesome.

Oh Marghe.

The next several chapters involve some serious perspective-taking on Marghe’s part as the first people she encounters not only refuse to let her keep her artificial “impartial observer” perspective on their culture, but force her, with the threat of violence and death, to adopt their ways. “Change, or die,” as the jacket-blurb tells us. Marghe must abandon her beliefs, her knowledge, her culture, and even her status as a human being, in order to preserve her life. “You’re not mine to give away. You belong to the tribe,” Aoife tells her when Marghe asks for her freedom, reminding her that she is a possession. Marghe chooses death, and with another tribe, a more open tribe, is granted life.

As the story progresses, Marghe does change. She discovers the exigencies of the planet she is living on and eventually abandons the ways of Earth and Company, as Earth and Company abandon both her and the infected, women-only installation at Port Central. The structures of knowledge she brought with her to Jeep crumble and new structures develop as she begins life again, like a child.

In the end, Marghe is herself, human, and entirely different from what she was before – not a scientist, an observer, an Earthling, but a whole woman, a viajera of Jeep who teaches the residents of Port Central, the scientists and the soldiers, how to live without the support of the company. She does this not as a representative of Earth, but with her partner Thenike, as part of humanity on the planet, schooled in its ways and intimately implicated in its culture. She no longer tries to speak to or for Jeep and its residents, but with them.

Throughout her journey, Marghe suffers enormously physically and emotionally and emerges scarred and stronger. Her suffering and learning is the power and the lesson of this book: it is impossible to be an impartial observer of culture. To be a scientist of culture seems to be a noble task, but must be interrogated at its very roots. The scientist should ask, “Why am I here? What do I expect to gain from my encounter with this culture? What am I willing to give up, for this knowledge? What will this culture gain from my presence here? What will it lose? Really, setting aside immediate personal gain, does my science create or destroy?” and meditate long and seriously on his or her answers.

A culture other than your own is not inherently less or more, better or worse, and its people are not all the same. Every cultural encounter changes you, and the people you meet change by meeting you. Change hurts, even if it grants you a broader, fuller perspective. The new culture infects you, and like a virus – whether you wanted it or not – will not leave you. Change, like a virus, takes away even as it offers something in return. Is it worth the risk? And how?

This is the story, the beauty, and the complexity of Ammonite.

Diana Comet Presents… 75 Years of Fabulous Writers

17 06 2010

Diana Comet Presents is a wicked blog by Sandra McDonald, offering short biographies and notes on the great women of science fiction. Eye-opening for a newbie like me.

Best of all, she’s done a periodic table of science fiction writers. I’ve printed it off and am using it as a checklist; I just coloured in Nicola Griffith‘s square this morning, after I finished Ammonite (a wonderful book). Click here for a neat video pointing out different trends in the table, showing book covers, and sharing quirky bits of information about these writers.

I haven’t read Sandra’s new book, Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, but having read her blog, I probably will.