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Life, by Gwyneth Jones, Aqueduct Press, 2004, $19.
Troll: A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo, translated from the Finnish by Herbert Lomas, Grove Press, 2004, $12.
Camouflage, by Joe Haldeman, Ace Books, 2004, $23.95.
IN PAST months I've been thinking a lot about the science fiction I read as I was growing up in the fifties, all those stories and novels about repressive governments, theocracies, and religious hegemonies, things like The Long Tomorrow, Wasp, The Falling Torch, and Sixth Column. Having always believed science fiction to be at its heart a subversive literature, I've been considering again what those stories say about the time in which they were written. I sit here looking on as, increasingly, public money and government policy flow toward the religious right, as hard-won civil rights become not so much eroded as swept away in the flood of nationalism or swept beneath the magic carpet of this new cold war on terrorism, and I wonder what the science fiction being written now may have to say about the times in which we live.
Paranoia and conspiracies, anyone? A retreat into fantasy, heroic or otherwise? And what of this renascence of far-future space opera? Or the focus on biological issues?
Just random thoughts, mind you: We won't be able to see until the clouds pull back a bit. Meanwhile, we have on hand three recent prizewinners with which to take a momentary sounding.
Science fiction at its best has always worn belt and suspenders. It tells a ripping yarn while also asking serious questions about mankind, about mankind's place in the universe, about the universe itself. And one of the questions it asks over and again, from Frankenstein to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to The Man Who Fell to Earth and Damon Knight's "Masks," is this: What does it mean to be human?
For the moment, though, a not-so-serious question, a riddle: It's what happens while you're hanging around waiting for something else. The answer, of course, is Life, which is also the title of the novel that brought Gwyneth Jones the Philip K. Dick award. It's a complex book, the sort that a decade or so ago might well have been criticized as not being science fiction at all but a mainstream novel traveling incognito. A sheep in wolf's clothing, so to speak.
The novel centers around scientist Anna Senoz and her discovery of chromosomal material that has started jumping ship from Y to X. Beginning with an inversion of "ordinary" marriage patterns (driven wife, stay-at-home adoring husband), the narrative goes on to reverse or call into question virtually every genre model and role expectation we have. Jones' s genius here, however, is in the many layers and textures of experience she gives us, her recognition that great discoveries, great science, great art—like great sorrow and tragedy—take place against the minutiae of our days: bills that must be paid, petty arguments, ingrown toenails, dyspepsia, dentists.
Charting the early and middle life of a number of characters, Jones exhibits a passion to include it all: every clash and crisis and crawlspace of contemporary life, every combination, to wring from her text the very last dollop of significance. Because of this dense packing, Life can seem at times programmatic, though at others it seems merely leisurely and loose-jointed, a great ragtag floor-sweeping of a novel. And while believable, her characters, from this same zeal to embrace all experience, are sometimes pushed to the borders of caricature, as with feminist spokeswoman Ramone's many transformations, or Anna's own edginess, self-absorption, and over-thinking. There is humor in this book, but one might have wished for more.
Imagined or not, coming to the party in wolf's clothing or sheep's, this is a novel that strives fully to limn contemporary life, where we began and what we have become. And if finally it may attempt too much and groans a bit beneath the weight…well, great ambition is a fine, wondrously rare thing.
Cautioning in a brief afterword against any strict autobiographical reading of her novel, Gwyneth Jones remarks that nonetheless "in many ways it's the story of my life as a writer: the experiences that shaped me, the changes that swept over my world, the ideas that made me write the novels I've written, the people who have inspired me; the future I imagine."
And quite a lot about what it is to be human in the first years of this new millennium.
It is small, bird-boned, with paws like a rat's, bright orange eyes, and a pitch-black mane. Angel has rescued it from the alley and brought it to his flat, where he comes upon it the next morning drinking lustily from the toilet. It walks on two legs with a supple lope, bent forward slightly, on tiptoes. Oh—and it secretes pheromones that smell like Calvin Klein cologne and have a profound aphrodisiac effect.
Troll, co-winner of the Tiptree Award, also won the Finlandia Award, Finland's equivalent of the Booker Prize, and has become something of an international rave. This translation, first published in the UK by Peter Owen as Not Before Sundown, is by Herbert Lomas.
The narrative is told in first-person from several viewpoints, with the name of the point-of-view character as heading, in brief sections. None of these sections runs over five pages; many are less than a page. Aside from Angel (and of course the troll, named Pessi after the character in a children's book), there are Martes, the co-worker for whom Angel has serious hots; veterinarian and ex-lover Dr. Spiderman; nerdy bookstore owner Ecke, who after a tryst steals Angel's keys and pays dearly for it; and Palomita, the Filipino mail-order bride kept in captivity in the apartment across the hall.
Interspersed with the first-person accounts are excerpts from documents and the media—TV shows, newspaper and scholarly articles, poems, journal entries, snippets from encyclopedias and websites—that serve to fill in the history and mythology of trolls, which have been officially classified (in 1907, in the Finland of this novel) as Felipithicus trollius, an endangered species.
The troll's appearance, the effects of the pheromones upon every male around Angel, and Angel's "subterranean" life as a gay man all underscore the theme of demimondes, of worlds that exist side by side, unacknowledged and often unsuspected, with the manifest world. Author Sinisalo is wildly at play with notions of inversion: human and animal, hunter and hunted, civilization and wilderness. Palomita is kept as a "pet" in her apartment just as Pessi is kept in Angel's. (Angel and she meet when he goes to cadge cat food for Pessi.) Angel, ever the heartbroken, becomes the heartbreaker. Pessi, symbol of everything wild within us and without, is photographed by Angel for use in an advertisement for upscale, hipper-than-thou "Stalker" jeans.
All in all, Sinisalo gives us an excellent read and a fine fable here, one to me reminiscent of an all-time favorite, John Collier's His Monkey Wife. There's considerable humor, too, both of a broad and more subtle strain. And while, for this reader at least, the format with its constant shifts is finally unsatisfying, allowing little by way of sustained development, it might also be argued that the form underscores the fragmentary, patchwork nature of contemporary life.
Whereas Life is a thoroughly modern novel and Troll a kind of fab fable for our time, Camouflage, which shared the Tiptree award with Troll, is a throwback of sorts, reminding me of what drew me to science fiction initially: the wonder of the story being told, a story in which there are no limits, in which anything can happen; the sense of otherness working its way through the story into my own life, infusing it with wonder. TV sets, trashcans, linoleum, all the appurtenances of daily life: I'd put down my book to find they had all taken on a dull glow.
There's little doubt that science fiction shares a launchpad with epic and myth, pinging away at something deep within us, with those archetypes (golems, resurrections, unseen worlds) that keep springing up like weeds and mushrooms in the kempt grass of our thought.
The changeling came to Earth millions of years ago from the globular cluster Messier 22, from a mephitic environment requiring ultimate adaptability for survival. Here it puts in millennia as a Great White, killer whale, dolphin, or school of fish before, in 1931, crawling from the sea. Killing and taking the form of the first human it meets, it remembers nothing of its origin or distant past, knows nothing of humankind.
By 2019, when the novel's foreground events take place, the changeling has learned a great deal. It has passed those years incarnate as prostitute, vagabond, oceanographer, motel television set ("That was educational"), Japanese soldier and American prisoner on the Bataan march, even once a roll of linoleum with legs. And finally as the woman Rae Archer, hired on to help investigate the impossibly dense, impenetrably mysterious artifact discovered deep in a trench in the Pacific—its own starship.
The changeling is looking for the secrets of its past. What it finds (aside from an admiration for humankind and, briefly, the love of one human) is that it is not alone. There is another alien shape-shifter abroad, an instinctive killer, "the chameleon."
Camouflage is a fun read, and Haldeman obviously had a great time writing it. The dialogue crackles with wit, and many scenes are brilliantly comic, as are a multitude of one-liners and asides. During one of the changeling's incarnations: "A shark bit it in two, which was annoying." Of its first kiss: "She inserted her tongue, which was probably not an offering of food." But beneath all this—the comedy, the sprawl of backstories, the serpentine narrative—serious questions are broached. The problem of evil. How we learn. The foundations of ethics.
And what it means to be human.
Never cavalier toward science, even in so freewheeling a narrative, Haldeman addresses many of the things that drive us crazy in movies and bad novels. Where do the clothes come from? The changeling manufactures them as well, just like growing skin. And what about mass? It quite freely removes an arm or leg or two to transform to a smaller entity, or, to become larger, can absorb the family dog or graze the sea bottom taking on crabs and small fish.
Through no fault of his own, however, Haldeman stumbles into science fiction's La Brea tar pit. Once having disrupted things-as-they-are with the introduction of the truly marvelous, the science fiction story typically has two options: return the world to what it was, or (literally or figuratively) blow it up. He chooses the first, which, while unsatisfactory, and bland as it seems to us after all the prior marvels, does little harm, so invested has the reader become in his characters.
And that is of course what makes Joe Haldeman a first-rate novelist. Whether writing (as he does so brilliantly) about war, about intrigue or the intricacies of communication science, or just about people trying to get through the drudge, dust, and detritus of their lives, his characters are forever real to us, forever authentic. They choke up, and we find ourselves clearing our throats.
The most alluring parts of the novel, and the finest writing, deal with the changeling's transformation into a facsimile human, in clear recognition that we all begin as aliens and only slowly, by observation and imitation, inching ever closer in our approximations, do we learn to pass.
I've been doing so for years now.
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