Saturday, April 23, 2011

Iain M. Banks - Feersum Endjinn

Iain M. Banks, Feersum Endjinn, Orbit, 1995.

When I first heard about this book, a certain aspect of it put me off reading it (as I explain below), but I bought it a while ago along with some of the author's other novels, and gave it a chance. It is one of his non-Culture books.

The story is set in a far-future earth, long after a large part of the human population has departed. Humans live eight lives in physical form, after which they have eight incarnations in the Crypt, where human consciousness is stored in a virtual reality. As the story starts, the earth is threatened by a cloud of interstellar dust that is covering the sun, and we follow a few characters in their attempts to prevent the end of life of earth by activating a solution to this problem left behind by the advanced humans who had moved into space.

The aspect of the novel that bothered me when I first read a review of it was that one of the viewpoint characters' stories is written in a sort of phonetic form (hence the title, which is his way of spelling "fearsome engine"). I have always found phonetic writing irritating. Some writers try to portray the regional accents of characters by writing phonetically, and in this case this form of writing is supposed to reflect the character's dyslexia (though I'm not convinced any dyslexic would write like this, and it is not clear why this character would have written down his story, considering how difficult it was for him to write). It just makes the reading experience difficult. I had to adjust to reading these sections, sometimes having to decipher what the words meant. Perhaps this is an attempt to reflect what reading is like for people with dyslexia, but I don't think this experience will increase readers' understanding of dyslexia, or make them more sympathetic.

The story gradually brings together various pieces of evidence explaining what is happening, and follows the characters as they try to make sense of their roles. It seemed to me that the people who prepared for the Encroachment years before and left the mysterious solution could have planned better how it would be activated, preventing the chaos that happened in this story. But perhaps that is actually more realistic, and it creates the threat that drives the plot.

My impression of this book is that even without the annoyance of the phonetic sections, it is far from Banks's best work (which I really enjoy). There are big themes to be considered, the characters develop and change, and the conclusion is reasonably satisfying, if you don't mind a sort of deus ex machina, but for readers unfamiliar with this author, I would recommend starting with some of his other novels.

Friday, April 8, 2011

China Mieville - The City and The City

China Mieville, The City and The City, Pan Books, 2010.

Imagine living in a European city that is physically intertwined with another city. Some streets, buildings, and people you pass are in another city. You are taught from an early age to identify the small differences between your city and the other one, so you can recognize and ignore people and places that are "foreign". Citizens of each city have to "unsee" and "unsense" all aspects of the other one. This means you sometimes walk down a street shared by both cities and have to see only people and places in your own city, while avoiding showing any perception of the foreign people and places you pass. This behaviour becomes second nature, and anyone breaching the conventions is liable to be taken away by the shadowy enforcers known as The Breach, and never seen again.

This is the setting for a noir detective story. Inspector Tyador Borlu lives in Beszel, and is investigating the murder of a young woman. As the plot thickens, it becomes more political, and Borlu realizes that solving the murder will require him to consider the unique nature of his intertwined city. His journey of discovery changes his life forever.

I have enjoyed Mieville's previous work, and this novel even exceeded my expectations. The subtle mystery of the cities pervades every aspect of the characters' lives. They grow up taking their circumstances for granted, accepting the restrictions and adapting to them. But as an outsider, I couldn't silence the voice in my head that kept asking "Why?". The book never answers the question of why and how the distinct but intertwined cities arose, and why the Breach keeps people living this way, observing the distinctions between them. Clearly, nobody in the world knows, and the frustration of not knowing something fundamental about the nature of reality felt authentic. I'm sure there are many things in our reality that an outside observer might find equally mystifying.

The idea of unseeing and unsensing the other is thought-provoking. I found myself wondering if we all do this, to some extent, in our reality. I think residents of many cities learn to unsee the homeless on their streets. In mixed cities, people may unsee members of different ethnic, religious, or social groups. In some cases, people may also unsee people with disabilities. So the concept is not so difficult to imagine, if we are honest with ourselves. In a wider, more explicitly political, sense, we also unsee aspects of the world that we consider irrelevant to our daily lives or our identity. Given the overload of information we can access about the world, we have to choose our areas of focus. Not everyone can expend equal attention and empathy on the plight of the third world, the suffering of victims of abuse, and the dangers of climate change, for example. We have to choose what to know about and what to care about. I suppose this is a natural filter, or one that gives individuals and groups some evolutionary survival advantage.

I don't consider myself an expert in the detective genre, but this aspect of the novel seemed to me to make sense and develop logically. While we follow the story from the main character's point of view, often sharing his thoughts and perceptions, he does not reveal his thought processes in full, so that sometimes we only find out what he had been thinking and how he had been connecting the clues when he talks to someone or takes action. The solution of the mystery and the ending of the story seemed fitting and relevant, both in terms of the characters and in terms of our growing understanding of the setting.

I greatly enjoyed reading this book. The experience of the world it presented will remain with me always. I highly recommend this novel to readers of all types of fiction, even those who would have avoided Mieville's previous novels, which were perceived as SF or Fantasy or "New Weird".