There is a melding of genre categories at the moment in publishing; books with elements of fantasy and science fiction are being acknowledged by the literary establishment—it seems that it has become more respectable to stray from the strictly naturalistic. Perhaps this trend is also reflected in our choice of TV viewing; the biggest show in the western world at the moment is HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s fantasy epic. On our local screens Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, adapted from Susanna Clarke’s novel about the history of magic in England, has been battling it out for Sunday night ratings with Humans, a futuristic series dealing with the human-synth (robot) relations and the potential for the singularity. This month I’ve read three books that would fit into this genre-bending ‘speculative fiction’ category.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Transworld – May 2015)
Kate Atkinson’s latest book, A God in Ruins, is a ‘companion book’ to her last book, Life After Life, rather than a sequel, but you would miss some things if you hadn’t read Life After Life first. In A God in Ruins we meet Ursula Todd again (the reincarnating protagonist of Life After Life) but this book is primarily about Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy. In Life After Life Ursula specifically relives her life for the purpose of saving both Teddy and his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, so to some extent they both owe their continuing existence to Ursula—though they don’t know it.
In Life after Life the concept is revealed upfront in the title, before you even begin reading. In A God in Ruins, the underlying premise is saved for the very end so I can’t talk about it without ruining the reveal. Some might think these narrative devices are cheap tricks, and perhaps they might be in the hands of a lesser author, but in the hands of Kate Atkinson they become more than literary sleight-of-hand—they pose philosophical questions about the nature of fiction and of life itself. This sounds grandiose but it the tone is not lofty and pretentious. The book is comprised of vivid and visceral glimpses of the character’s lives, jumbled up in a kind of flashback montage. The narrative spins out into Teddy’s early married life with Nancy, the life of his daughter Viola, and as far out as the adulthood of his grandchildren Bertie and Sunny in the present day, but is always drawn back with an inexorable gravity to the pivotal period in Teddy’s life—his time as a RAF fighter pilot in World War II, and these scenes are the beating, bleeding heart of this novel. It is a book about war and about death:
Fifty-five thousand, five hundred and seventy-three dead from Bomber Command. Seven million German dead, including the five hundred thousand killed by the Allied bombing campaign. The sixty million dead overall of the Second World War, including eleven million murdered in the Holocaust…
A hundred years after WWII began the aftershocks still reverberate, in life and literature. Kate Atkinson sensitively and skillfully traces the fallout in Teddy’s life and the lives of his descendants to a suitably devastating and haunting conclusion.
The Bees by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate – May 2014)
I have always believed that the talking insect belongs firmly in the realm of animated children’s entertainment, but Laline Paull has changed my mind about this. It is quite an astonishing achievement to write a gripping, emotionally wrenching, page-turner about the life cycle of a bee.
Flora 717 is born a sanitation worker—lowest of the low in the rigid hierarchy of the hive, but she is abnormally large and has capabilities beyond the rest of her kin. Any deviation from the norm is punishable by death so Flora has to use her wits to avoid attracting too much attention as she aspires to rise above the position she was born to.
Of course there is a degree of anthropomorphism, the bees ‘talk’ to each other and have some human characteristics. There is also plenty of scope for metaphorical comparisons to human society—the organisational structure of the hive has military, religious and political undertones. But there are a number of other specific bee characteristics that are so wildly alien to us that they prevent the reader from forgetting they’re not human. Laline Paull wonderfully, imaginatively evokes such intriguing concepts as the hive mind, the bees’ capacity to follow scent trails in the air, their ability to communicate information through dance, and the bees’ relationship to the Queen—she is the sovereign and goddess of their cult.
There is also plenty of intrigue, danger and sex—this book left me weirdly fascinated with the mechanics of bee reproduction. Perhaps a suggestion for EL James’ next novel—bee erotica? A sample: (I couldn’t resist.)
Together they rode the wind until she felt his essence in her body. Keeping his dronewood tight within her, she cried out and released him, and the gallant's body tumbled down towards the earth.
There’s a euphemism I’ll bet you haven’t heard before! Bee sex aside, The Bees reveals that the life of a bee can also be brutal and violent. The survival of the Queen and the hive is of paramount importance and this obligation surpasses the value of the life of any individual bee. This type of thing is obviously what the #Don’tMancriminate crowd are afraid of:
She ripped his abdomen open down to his genitals, then tore out his penis and ate it. Sisters screamed in excitement as his blood splashed on their faces. (…) Drones screamed as they were ripped apart or bitten to death, and sisters' feet slid on the blooded pulsing comb. Filled with consecrated anger at every insult and humiliation, wasted forage and sullied passageway, they avenged themselves on the wastrel favourites, the sacred sons that did nothing for their keep but brag and eat and show their sex to those who must only labour for them, and never be loved.
The Bees is one of those books, like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves that has an important message about the environment and our relationship with the natural world. In this case, specifically, the use of pesticides and the resulting hive collapse that is decimating the honeybee population around the world. But this is not a preachy book; it’s a thrilling, action-packed, coming-of-age saga—that just happens to be about a bee.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber – March 2015)
Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, The Buried Giant, has been lauded by King-of-Fantasy—Neil Gaiman, but I think it is best described as a fable. It is the story of an old couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live in an ancient Britain beset by a strange memory-corrupting mist that leaves the reader as befuddled as the characters.
Axl and Beatrice decide to set off on a journey with the intention of visiting their son, whom they have not seen for many years, but this ultimately becomes a quest to seek the source of the ‘mist’ and recover their lost memories. The ‘mist’ is a not a meteorological but a metaphysical phenomenon that acts also as an effective literary device as it cloaks the narrative in mystery. As the story progresses and the mist clears, broader themes of love, war and loss are revealed and Axl and Beatrice begin to question whether forgetfulness might sometimes be blessing as well as a curse:
Yet who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now? We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest.
The tale is woven together with Ishiguro’s usual artistry as well as his slightly ponderous and pedantic authorial voice. Personally I found the narrative pacing a little tedious but I concede that it contributes to the sense of apathy and listlessness that the characters suffer under the influence of the mist, as well as the allegorical feel. By the end of Axl and Beatrice's journey the mist has cleared to reveal an ending that is intensely moving and has a wonderful metaphorical resonance.