Schismatrix Plus

Before I start this review, I need to take a moment to explain the concept of RedditGifts. RedditGifts is like a Secret Santa/Kris Kringle where gift exchanges are run year-round. You sign up for an exchange with a particular theme and get matched with a random person either in your own country or overseas. Every year there is a book exchange, and I received this book for the second of the three exchanges I’ve signed up to so far. If you follow this blog at all, you probably know that I like to read lots of different kinds of books. However there are some genres that I really enjoy in particular and one of them is biopunk, a subgenre of science fiction. I’ve reviewed a few other biopunk books on this blog, and my Santa picked up on that and sent me one I had never heard of. I decided to include this on on my five weeks of American literature, and I read this book in Mexico where I was staying near a cenote amongst the mangroves. At night time the whole area was lit up with green light and it had a very strong sci-fi vibe.

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“Schismatrix Plus” by Bruce Sterling is a collection of everything he has ever written about his Shaper/Mechanist universe: a future where humans who now inhabit asteriods in the asteroid belt are divided into warring factions. The Shapers advocate improving the human body through genetic engineering and mental control while the Mechanists seek to augment human bodies and prolong life with cyborg technology and medical advancements. The collection begins with his novel “Schismatrix” which follows Shaper turned sundog (space nomad) Abelard Lindsay as he travels from colony to colony evolving from exile to revolutionary. After that are five short stories that Sterling actually wrote prior to publishing his novel.

I think, first and foremost, this book was not structured correctly. I think that the entire thing would have been a far better experience if the order of the stories was the same as the order of publication rather than the novel followed by the short stories. Sterling kind of launches the reader into his universe, and as it is such a complex concept with lots of factions and outposts and politics and colonies, I felt like the book really took a long time to feel cohesive. The short stories were much easier to follow and each introduced different specific aspects of the Schismatrix, and I think by having them up front, the rest of the book would have made a lot more sense.

I did actually quite enjoy the short stories. “Spider Rose” and “Swarm” in particular both had that snappy unique premise and twisty plot that makes a great short story. I thought given a shorter format, Sterling was really able to succinctly explain the key elements of the Schismatrix universe and develop quick character-driven narratives.

The novel itself I think I enjoyed far less. I wasn’t really sold on Abelard as a character, which was a shame because he is the central character throughout the entire book. Despite originally starting out as a Shaper, he increasingly embraces (sometimes willingly, sometimes not) Mechanist technology and achieves incredible longevity. He is the eyes through which the reader witnesses the several evolutions of Schismatrix society and because he lives for hundreds of years, his character is quite static. The plot device of ‘where we went and what we did there’ is one I’ve criticised other books about before, and the novel felt like a series of vignettes loosely stitched together with the same point of view character. Nevertheless, I did really enjoy the many female characters in the story, especially Kitsune whose lust for power far surpassed any lust for men. I also really enjoyed the ending which had a bit of a “Watership Down” vibe about it.

A creative book, especially the short stories, but the novel itself fell a bit flat. I think he might have done better breaking up the novel into smaller pieces and just having the whole thing as a collection of short stories, each a spotlight on a different aspect of his universe.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I have had a copy sitting on my shelf for goodness knows how long, but I’ve always been a bit reluctant to tackle it. After finishing my previous book during my five weeks of American literature that tackled race issues from a modern perspective, I felt like now was the time to balance it out with this classic. This book, for better or worse, has definitely become a fixture in American racial discourse. This review feels even more timely since seeing the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” last night and seeing key players in the civil rights movement criticise one another through the lens of archetypes created by this book. Coincidentally, I ended up reading this book while staying in a tent cabin on the Idaho/Wyoming border.

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“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a novel set in Kentucky, USA in the mid-1800s – a time when slavery was still legal. Arthur and Emily Shelby are slaveholders who, due to Mr Shelby’s financial mismanagement, are forced to sell two of their slaves. Arthur chooses faithful and responsible slave Tom and Harry, the five year old son of beautiful biracial Eliza, to the horror of his wife and son George. The story follows Tom down the Mississippi River to his new homes and explores the attitudes of the various white people who own him. Risking everything, Eliza runs away with her son Harry, hoping to meet his father (her husband) free in Canada.

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There’s no other way about it. This book was an absolute slog. Beecher Stowe has this maddening, self-righteous tone that is exacerbated by the most omniscient of narrators. For some reason, she felt the need to announce at the end of each chapter that we were leaving particular characters to go see how the others were getting along as though she had made all these little dioramas and is taking us on a tour of them. Thematically, this book hasn’t aged well at all. Beecher Stowe interjects her correct interpretation that slavery is wrong with commentary on “the negro” and the kinds of emotional and intellectual characteristics to be expected from that ethnic group.

There is a lot of apologism for a number of the “kind” slaveholders, despite the fact that it was their own ineptitude, thoughtlessness and indifference that led to many of the predicaments in this book. Young George Shelby is touted as a hero, despite the fact that his family were slaveholders and the many benefits he received as a result. This book was surprisingly religious, and I found it interesting that Beecher Stowe relied heavily on Christianity as an argument in favour of abolition. A lot of her conclusions were ultimately pretty suspect, including the conclusion that the best solution for everyone would be if African Americans simply went back to Africa and be done with it.

This book can also claim responsibility for a lot of stereotypes that emerged after its publication for African American characters. There is the Uncle Tom: naive, loyal, virtuous and forgiving – never lifting a hand to defend himself. The Mammy:  overweight, nurturing, defers to white people but sassy to her underlings. The Tragic Mulatto. The list goes on and on.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was so controversial at its time of publication that it has been credited with starting the American Civil War. How unpalatable it is now to the modern reader is a real testimony to just how horrific things were during slavery. I don’t think anyone could criticise this book for being inaccurate either with respect to details or attitudes of the time. I think that this book, while not excellently written or by any means socially flawless, is today a keen reminder of how far American has come and how far it has to go.

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The Sellout

This book was just what the doctor ordered. I started reading it while I was stuck in a car line to get into a festival in Oregon for 12 hours (no, I am not exaggerating) to help keep myself from losing my mind. I had heard about it after the author was last year named the first American ever to win the Man Booker prize. I was blown away by the novel’s beginning and I have a keen memory of sitting in that car seat shrieking every few pages. Then, after we finally made it into the festival and wasted a day moving campsites, the following night I became very ill and was tent-bound for two days. This book was my absolute solace. I needed an excellent book to get me through and when my eReader froze just as started getting better, I almost lost it.

The Sellout

“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty is a satirical novel about race relations in the USA. The narrator, who is never given a first name, is a quiet young African American man who lives in a fictional Los Angeles town called Dickens. Despite wanting to live an understated life as a farmer, after he loses his father, an experimental sociologist who used his son own as a test subject, the narrator finally finds himself faced with the racial discrimination his father always lectured him about. However it is the final straw of Dickens’ erasure from the map that sets off a chain of events resulting in the narrator appearing before the USA Supreme Court accused of crimes against humanity.

This book, without a doubt, is the best book I have read this year so far. Beatty is an absolute master of the craft and every sentence in this book is full of double entendres, socio-political references and neologisms. I think my eyes were almost falling out of my head the entire time I was reading this, and it is definitely not a book that you can skim through. This book demands your full attention and the rewards are instantaneous. I don’t really want to say too much more about the plot because I really think it’s best to go cold, but it is really is exquisite in its audacity. However as outrageous as the premise is, as a modern social commentary it is bang on the mark and blistering in its honesty.

Although it has been some weeks since I finished it, I am still thinking about this book. It’s hard work, and I think that you have to be pretty up to date to get all the references (there were a couple that went over my head as a non-American), but it is a brilliant read. I truly think this is going to become a modern classic and I can’t wait until I can read it again for a second time.

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Homegoing

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog bookshop, and I was very keen to read it. This is the third book I read on my five weeks of American literature, and I read it while I was travelling through California and managed to finish it just on my last day in San Francisco – a city that features in one of the chapters. I took this photo while I was staying in a friend’s apartment in one of the beautiful old San Francisco buildings.

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“Homegoing” is the debut novel of Yaa Gyasi. The story is a two-pronged family saga on either side of the ugly history of slavery in what now is Ghana. Each chapter is dedicated to a member of the respective families of Effia, a Fante woman who is married to an English governor and whose descendants remain in Ghana, and Esi, an Asante teenager who is captured and sold as a slave to the Americas. Joined both by their past and their future, Effia and Esi’s story unfolds over successive generations.

This novel is a really interesting exploration of the role of African nations and state warfare in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in particular during the 1700s, a role that I really did not know about at all. Gyasi uses her novel to contrast the lasting impacts of slavery against the lasting impacts of European colonisation in Ghana: two very different sides of the same coin. While Effia’s descendants grapple with their role in perpetuating slavery and later in overcoming British rule, Esi’s descendants must survive slavery and later segregation and institutionalised racism.

Gyasi is a very tactile writer and this book has a strong focus on the senses and the body. The African chapters in particular give a very keen sense of place, time and people. This is part of the reason why I felt that the African chapters are much stronger than the American chapters. I also felt that despite some of them living in extreme poverty, Effia’s descendants seem to have rather more self-determination than their American counterparts and I felt like their personalities were far more nuanced and individualised. In contrast, Esi’s family line seem a little more like caricatures and, although character development within a single chapter is understandably a difficult feat, they seem much more rigid. I think if you were after a more engrossing family saga just about race in America and moving through slavery to segregation to today, I would probably recommend “Cane River” over this one.

However, the historical importance of the story as a whole and the contrast between the two family lines does work quite well. Although the changing chapters can be a bit jarring at times, it is nevertheless a fascinating story and Gyasi is a strong enough writer to link all the complex threads together by the end.

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13 Reasons Why

Content warning: suicide, bullying, sexual violence.

Unusually, I watched the TV adaptation of this book before I read it. It had caused quite a stir for Netflix, who was criticised quite soundly both for the portrayal of suicide and the failure to provide adequate warnings or support information. This in itself has raised a lot of questions about the responsibility streaming services have to their viewers, and more broadly about the regulation of streaming services as a whole. However, I digress. This is a blog about books, and it actually wasn’t until I had started watching the TV series that I realised that it was based on a book. I managed to wangle a copy, and it was the second book I read on my five weeks of American literature. I cracked it out and finished it before I even landed in California. Considering yesterday was R U OK Day, I think this is a really good book to review. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photograph of it before I eventually gave it away to the San Clemente Friends of the Library bookstore. You’ll just have to make do with the photo I did take instead.

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“13 Reasons Why”, or “Thirteen Reasons Why” as it was originally published, by Jay Asher is a young adult novel about a girl called Hannah who has committed suicide. Shortly afterwards, Clay, who was one of her classmates finds a parcel addressed to him containing 13 cassette tapes. As soon as he begins to listen to them, he realises that the tapes were made by Hannah shortly before she died and that each tape represents a ‘reason’ why she decided to commit suicide. As the book progresses, more is revealed about Hannah, her relationships and the way she was treated by her classmates in school.

Reading this book after watching the TV series was like looking at a sketch after seeing the finished artwork. Asher has the bones of this story down and it has a lot of important messages about mental health, bullying, consent and the responsibility teens have to one another. I think he captured the nuance, fragility and complexity of teenage relationships well and really contrasted the power teens already have to deeply impact each other’s lives against their inability yet to fully deal with the consequences. It’s a sparsely but powerfully written book, with a lot of focus on Hannah’s narration through her tapes and conversations that had happened in the past.

Without wanting to compare it too much to the TV adaptation, I do think all the layers added to the story by the Netflix series really gave it a lot of extra depth. Things that weren’t connected became connected. Clay’s own mental state got much more of a spotlight. The impact of Hannah’s suicide on her classmates became more pronounced. However, not all of the changes were necessarily positive ones. The Netflix series is very flashy, and a lot of the choices felt like they added to the drama or the cinematography rather than the underlying messasge. This includes the method by which Hannah commits suicide. Where in the book it’s mentioned offhand that she used pills, in the TV series the audience is confronted with a far more graphic (and, some argue, harmful) depiction of her cutting her wrists.

I think the strength of the book is that the focus in not on the suicide itself, but on the bullying, sexual harassment and ineptitude around Hannah that led to her deteriorating mental state and the inability of those around her to recognise the signs and offer meaningful help. While it may not be the most lyrical book you’ll read, if you want to read the simpler story that led to acclaimed TV series, it is nevertheless an important book that helped to kickstart a growing awareness of suicide.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call or chat online to someone at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at www.lifeline.org.au.

If you want to learn what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health, how to pick up the signs and where to refer them, I highly, highly recommend ASIST suicide intervention training and mental health first aid training.

 

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Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

Content warning: sexual assault. 

If you follow this blog with any kind of regularity, you may have noticed that it’s been a little quiet on here lately. The reason for that is because I have been in America for five weeks! For that five weeks I set myself a challenge: to spend five weeks reading only American literature. I asked around for recommendations, but I had a clear idea of some books that I was going to read and this one was on top of the list. This wasn’t the first Roxane Gay book I had planned to read, but after the controversy earlier this year, I knew that it had to be. I cracked it out on my eReader as soon as the plane took off.

Hunger

“Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” by Roxane Gay is a memoir of her life primarily about her experiences being a woman of size. After being gang raped as a teenager, Gay turned to food not only as a comfort but as a means to make herself bigger and therefore more invulnerable. However, the more weight she gained, the more her body was scrutinised, criticised, dehumanised and even ridiculed by those around her; including those who loved her the most.

This book starts off very strong. Gay has a clear, unequivocal tone in her writing that demands to be listened to. The book oscillates between her experiences of sexual assault and being subject to her parents’ efforts to control her weight gain as a child, and her experiences moving through the world as an adult black woman of size. Gay’s book is divided into 6 parts. The first 3 parts chronicle her life from child to adult with a focus on the lack of autonomy she had over her own body. I think these are the strongest because they have such a clear narrative structure and move chronologically through Gay’s trauma, her difficult years as a young adult and eventually finding her voice through writing. The remaining chapters are more general commentary on broader social issues, such as the depiction of size in media, and Gay’s own experiences with doctors, sexuality and race. I think however the second half of the book might have benefited from a more rigorous structure. It does get a little meandering and I think the later chapters, while powerful individually, could have been linked more strongly thematically.

Nevertheless, Gay’s observations are ones that would resonate with most readers. In a time when our media is saturated with phrases such as “obesity epidemic”, fatphobia is a real thing and I think it’s critically important to remember that regardless of size or shape, people are still people and still deserve respect and compassion.

 

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The Heart to Kill

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

The Heart to Kill

“The Heart to Kill” by Dorothy M. Place is a crime novel about young law student Sarah. After receiving phone messages on the same day that she has not been successful in her application for a coveted law internship, and that her childhood friend has been jailed for the murder of her two children, she returns to her South Carolina hometown. When she arrives, she finds her father as overbearing as ever and quickly gets a job with the firm representing JoBeth in her murder trial. However, the more research she does on the matter, the more Sarah uncovers a darker side to the town she grew up in.

Parts of this book really resonated with me, especially Sarah’s disappointment and anxiety around her legal career when she didn’t get the internship she applied for. Other parts I thought were done well like Sarah’s relationship with her parents and the banter between her and the partners at the law firm representing JoBeth. I think there were parts (which might have been the point) about JoBeth’s story and defense lawyer Al that I found a bit abrasive. I think this story is more about Sarah’s journey as an adult rather than about the development of secondary characters though, and for that purpose it is a strong narrative.

A deeply personal novel about a young woman letting go of her past to forge her own future.

 

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