South Park Self

into the heart of darkest narrative with tooth, claw and cellphone

Reading! I can do it, who knew? As promised, two books which I've read in the last week, and which have struck me somewhat forcefully.

I acquired Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw because I was so impressed with Among Others. Tooth and Claw has also knocked my socks off, although it sounds gimmicky when you summarise it: it's a Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope social study whose protagonists, instead of being humans, are dragons. Where it's not in any way gimmicky is in its execution, which is pitch-perfect. The voice is superbly sustained, with that beautifully-controlled social perceptiveness masked by understatement, irony and a focus on manners which I so love about Austen. The incongruity of giant, highly carnivorous flying reptiles involving themselves in plots about marriage, inheritance and navigating social and religious strata wears off in about a page and a half, and the world becomes simply compelling and immersive.

I loved this book unreservedly, not just because it's so nicely constructed and narratively self-aware, but because it's so clever. It can never be simply a facile gimmick when the intersection of Polite Manners with Giant Savage Dragons is used for frankly political ends, to expose nineteenth-century social niceties as exactly what they are, the veneer over savage and primitive impulses. Marriage plots and concerns about the purity of young maidens are suddenly horrifying when male dragons can induce sexual response and irreversible scale colour change in young females by simply going too close. Inheritance issues become obviously bloody when you're not just worrying about who inherits the land, you're also worrying about who gets to consume the parent's growth-inducing corpse. And don't let's get into social class and governance when a landlord's right is to eat the smaller, weaker offspring of his vassals, to keep the species strong and incidentally increase his own size. It has an amazing, inescapable, perfectly consistent and entirely shudder-making logic. Ms. Walton is a clever lady, oh yes she is. Read this book.

The other book I read, by way of a somewhat profound leap of tone and theme, was Lauren Beukes's Moxyland, which has been sitting in my shelves intimidating me for about six months. The novel has been making waves as a fast-rising example of South African science fiction; it's set in near-future Cape Town, and threads together a sort of cyperpunky corporate power/arty resistance movement/hacker/nanotech/terrorism/marketing/internet culture tapestry which, though fairly incisive social awareness and a fast-paced multiple-viewpoint narrative, manages to be both challenging and gripping. The South African flavour is powerful and interesting, and she takes surprisingly few logical steps on from current cellphoneophilia to make it into an alarming emblem of social and corporate control. The bleakness and betrayal and double-crossing are profoundly satisfying because they're so likely. I also enjoyed the dogs.

But. I can't really give this the same wholehearted endorsement I did to Tooth and Claw. On the one hand this is exactly the kind of novel that the insular and up-its-own-arsepipe South African literary scene badly needs to drag it kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat; I applaud Ms. Beukes both for her project and her achievement, and cordially wish more power to her elbow. On the other hand, reading Moxyland left me with a slightly vague sense of, "hang on, did we really need another William Gibson? wasn't he a bit... 80s?" The innovation in this book is in applying the familiar South African setting to the classic cyberpunk narrative; it makes full and intelligent use of SA's social inequalities as well as its cultural tropes, but it doesn't otherwise critique or reinvent the genre. While I can see echoes of Doctorow and other more recent writers, it feels as though she's rehearsing the familiar motions of South Africa discovering and appropriating a cultural expression about twenty years after the rest of the world has exhausted it and moved on. Moxyland is an intelligent and pertinent infusion of South Africa into an existing tradition; it's not a new South African novel form. I enjoyed it, but I feel a bit cheated. It is, however, her first sf novel, and her second one, Zoo City, seems to be generating even more buzz, so I look forward to seeing where she takes things. It strikes me that she's made an excellent start.

While on subjects literary, I also can haz a new MicroFiction entry. This time I seem to have inadvertently written Lovecraftian fanfic. (OK, I lie, it was completely advertent). To my horror, none of my fellow MicFiccers are obsessive enough about Lovecraft to spot the reference, so I hope it means something to one of you lot.
  • Current Mood: contemplative randomly analytic
  • Current Music: Nouvelle Vague
Good grief, no. Why be all elaborate when you can just use Colours out of Space for the fabric? And why the hell Hounds of Tindalos? No mention of corners anywhere, although I admit you can certainly describe models as "lean and athirst"...
I saw "out of the box", which is kind of cornery ... Ok, it doesn't make sense. I'm sleep deprived and abusing morphine, apparently.
Actually, that makes perfect sense, I'd forgotten I used that phrase. I hope you are safely returned to the bosom of the Old Country, and have recovered from what seems to have been an epic trip back.