Thursday, February 25, 2010

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber
Nalo Hopkinson
ISBN: 978-0446675604
Published: 2000

I found Nalo Hopkinson several years ago through nothing more sophisticated than browsing the shelves. I had just read a science fiction novel by another Caribbean-born writer and really enjoyed the cadence of the dialog. So I was thrilled when I stumbled across Midnight Robber; Nalo Hopkinson’s second novel, a New York Times Notable book of 2000 and a finalist for several different science fiction awards.

Nalo Hopkinson was born in the Caribbean but has spent most of her adult life in Canada. If you spend time following science fiction awards, scholarship, panels at conventions and anthologies than you may have heard of her, if not – good luck. Her fiction is infused with the language, culture and style of her hybrid island culture, and one of her goals in Midnight Robber was to imagine what if technology had developed without so much western culture and influence behind it? What would language be like on a planet that had been colonized by the people of the Caribbean 500 years ago? What, in fact, would people who had been colonized themselves and came from a post-colonial time period do when they were put on a planet with other sentient life? But all of those are just background questions to the main story, which is based on a girl and a legend. The girl is Tan-Tan, and the legend is of the Midnight Robber.

Tan-Tan was born a privileged and wealthy girl on a privileged and wealthy world, one of the many Nation Worlds prepared and maintained with nanomites, massive amounts of tiny particles that built everything there was, analyzed everything everyone did, and kept everyone safe and protected. Granny Nanny, or the Grande Nanotech Sentient Interface, knows what goes on in the houses, minds and bodies of nearly everyone on the planet, except for a few religious nuts who run a pedicab company. It’s time for Carnival, and that means sightings of Tan-Tan’s favorite Carnival character, the Midnight Robber. Brandishing weapons, a cape, and an elaborate sombrero, the Midnight Robber stops people in the streets to tell them in a lyrical symphony his tale of woe, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and exile from his land that led to him having no choice but to become a bandit. If passersby enjoy his tale, they give him coins or small gifts. Tan-Tan has made up her own Robber Queen to play by herself or with her house’s eshu (computer) and her nurse.

When Tan-Tan’s selfish and power-hungry father, Antonio, commits a crime of passion, the only options the town has to choose from are life imprisonment or exile. Using a bit of hacked nanny-song (Granny Nanny’s version of programming), Antonio manages to take Tan-Tan with him in his exile to New Half-Way Tree, the prison planet. Lush and ripe, the planet is full of strange and dangerous plants, bugs, people, and species. Learning how to live on a planet full of hard labor and criminals without connection to her eshu ends up being the least of the hardships Tan-Tan has to face on her way to becoming living legend.

At the beginning and woven throughout the novel there is a narrator, telling Tan-Tans’ story to what seems like a single person. Spread throughout the story the narrator tells folk-tales about Tan-Tan the Robber Queen in the sensual, lyrical speech Hopkinson created for this novel. She has an essay about the process on her website, where she says linguists call what she has done “code-sliding,” kind of like hacking languages:

I realized after a while that I was using a Trinidadian mode of address for emphasis/irony and a Jamaican one to signal opposition; the latter coming at least in part out of my recognition of the ways that Rastafari has created "dread talk" as a language of resistance. I'm fascinated with the notion of breaking an imposed language apart and remixing it. To speak in the hacked language is not just to speak in an accent or a creole; to say the words aloud is an act of referencing history and claiming space. The people of the Nation Worlds in my novel have done that, have left Earth to a place where they can make their own society. Their speech, written and spoken, reflects the reasons they've made that journey.

I don’t want to give too much away about the rest of the story because it is such a wonderful book, I want everyone to read it and fall in love with Nalo Hopkinson and buy all of her stuff and make her rich. The appeals are easy to name, but they might not work for all readers. One of the things I love the most about it is obviously the language, but some readers I know find it distracting and hard to comprehend. Here’s a sample from the beginning:

It had a woman, you see, a strong, hard-back woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two foot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush, the devil bush on the prison planet of New Half-Way Tree. When she walk, she foot strike the hard earth bup! like breadfruit dropping to the ground. She two arms hard with muscle from all the years of hacking paths through the diable bush on New Half-Way Tree. Even she hair itself rough and wiry; long black knotty locks springing from she scalp and corkscrewing all the way down she back. She name Tan-Tan, and New Half-Way Tree was she planet.

This dialect is only used during speech and the first-person narration, but still some readers may find it too difficult. Another appeal is plot. The plot is so strong, heart-wrenching, and so beautifully told that I don’t really want to tell you most of it on this blog. I just want to talk about how pretty the words are and convince you to discover the plot for yourself.

Lastly, science fiction is a genre that while it has a lot of characters of color, most of them, as Hopkinson puts it, have been “white-washed.” There may be lots of diversity in science fiction in terms of color, but not as much in terms of culture. My favorite example is from the best science fiction show EVER Babylon 5. In the pilot episode the head doctor on the space station was strongly African, and the second in command Asian. In the first regular episode, after the network had made their changes, the head doctor was African-American but light-skinned with a more European profile and the second in command was changed to someone who said she was Russian but had no accent. Trying to be representative of different cultures apparently just bores a mass audience to tears – so they give the form without the substance. This book does not do that. It is heavily steeped in Caribbean culture. Some people like that and some people don’t, and it is not always the most comfortable question to ask. So…I think it is an appeal, because I find it fun.

Sorry this was so long, but I keep thinking about more things to say. There are definitely some things in this novel that might steer readers away from it – bad language and some violent (ie not romantic) sex scenes. But it is a brilliant novel by a fascinating and talented woman and it deserves a lot more recognition. So, buy it for your libraries!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Your Scandalous Ways

Your Scandalous Ways
Loretta Chase
Published 2008

So, I have to admit. I haven’t really read many romance novels. I mean, I’m not exactly like ewww…sex or yuck, stupid girl emotions– it’s just my escapism has always focused more on a galactic scale than a personal one. You know, I usually like my life just fine; I worry more about the planet, or the state of education, or how the gov’ment is corrupt. That’s why I like science fiction and fantasy- that brand of escapism allows me to live my own life, which I love, but in a different universe – cause I never felt like this one was that hot. It doesn’t have dragons.

Regardless of my reasons, my romance reading has been limited. When I would run out of suggestions for romance readers at my bookstore, there was one website I knew I could count on, easily my favorite out of the many, many romance readers’ websites: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. The reviews are witty and interesting, and I had faith that I would be able to find something tolerable if I followed their advice. And I was right. They love Loretta Chase and now I do too.

The book I read was called Your Scandalous Ways, and it features the requisite romantic scene with flowy locks and tangled sheets and deep looks into each others’ eyes on the inside of the cover. The main characters’ name is Francesca Bonnard and she is a courtesan and is not ashamed of it. She was cheated on by her British, noble, fancy-pants husband who divorced and humiliated her when she retaliated in kind. Shamed and friendless, she stole incriminating letters from her husband and fled to Venice and decided love was for suckers. From then on, she was a courtesan to the rich and famous, living a glamorous life and eagerly writing letters to her husband each time she gained a new, higher-class lover.

Enter James. James is a world-weary agent for the British government, and wants nothing more than to return to England and marry a sweet, innocent young maiden. You know, the kind of girl romance novels are usually about. Before he can do that though, he has one more mission: get the letters proving Francesca’s husband was a spy for the French from Francesca. James is the only pro who can do this because the tool he employs the most is not a set of lock picks or a sword. If you know what I mean. He seduces the ladies. The tool is his…penis.

So he is looking for the letters, the husband sends a madwoman to look for the letters as he is thinking of trying to worm his way into being prime minister, and Francesca really doesn’t care about the letters – she just keeps them to flaunt them in her ex-husband’s face. She and James battle wits and wills, as – of course – neither is used to dealing with someone who is as seductive as they. It makes for an amusing read.

I liked Francesca more than I would have liked a traditional romantic heroine. An odd thing though – a lot of people were offended by the idea of her being a prostitute, even people who don’t mind steamy sex in their novels. One Amazon reviewer even said that she likes her heroines innocent and wide-eyed before they meet the hero because that way they feel they can identify with them more. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I like to see that a lady knows what she likes. But, it is something to think about when recommending this book.

I think that my favorite thing about it was the dialog. Chase just knows how to make things laugh-out-loud funny–not what I expected from a historical romance. For example, when Francesca jumps into a canal to distract a villain and climbs out with all of her clothes clinging to her:

“You’re creating a diversion all right,” he said, “You’re wearing a shift that’s soaked through. You might as well be wearing nothing. And everybody’s looking.”
“That will never do,” she said, “I’m a harlot. They must pay to look.” (252)

There are many other instances, but this is the one that woke up Mark when I busted out laughing in the middle of the night. The great thing is, a lot of fans say that they don’t see as much of Chase’s “zing” in this book as in others. So I have some zingier titles to look forward to.

Though I did like the book a lot more than I expected, it wasn’t perfect. The villains were cartoonish, with absolutely no depth and no illustration of their motivations. They never really make clear why Francesca stole those letters or how she knew about their existence. Also, the ending is sappy. But I still think this book would be a great recommendation for any historical romance reader, or even as a cross-over for a historical fiction reader looking for a beach read.

Appeals are easy to name – characters are a big plus because women will like this heroine, though a smart librarian will ask a patron if they mind the heroine being a courtesan before recommending it. Setting is another appeal. The story takes place in Venice in 1820, and the canals and salons of the romantic city are well-realized and idealized. Can sex be an appeal when it’s a romance novel? There is a lot of sex in this book. It is not for someone who likes “sweet” romances. Though it has its flaws, I think the best recommendation I can make about this book is it made me, a non-romance reader actively expecting to dislike it, like it, and want to read more.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker
Published 1897

I decided to read Dracula as my horror classic for three reasons – first, a friend had loaned me The Book of Renfield: A Gospel of Dracula by Tim Lucas and I had really enjoyed it. Second, vampires are extremely popular in fiction today, and being better informed of the source material is always a good idea. Third, I like the vampire myth. I find it interesting how Dracula and other vampires used to be the ultimate predator of virtuous young women, and now they are the prey of young women, be they virtuous or not. It’s intriguing how our culture turned that myth on its head so abruptly and completely.

In Dracula by Bram Stoker, Jonathon Harkins leaves on a business trip, his first as a solicitor, and is gone far longer than he should be, while in Whitby his fiancĂ©e Mina battles her friend Lucy’s strange sleepwalking and weariness. When Jonathon returns from Transylvania he is a shattered man, full of self-doubt and fears of madness. Meanwhile, one of Dr. John Seward’s patients is decidedly odd for a madman, and keeps going on about serving his master. When Dr. Seward finally summons his old friend and teacher Dr. Van Helsing to try and determine the cause of Lucy’s strange illness the meat of the novel begins, as the characters realize that they have to struggle not just for their lives, but for their souls.

Dracula was for me, everything I could want in a horror novel. It was scary without being gruesome, it was full of tension for the safety and well-being of the protagonists, all of whom were extraordinary and likeable. It was fast-paced while maintaining that broody, descriptive atmosphere that typifies the horror genre. The epistolary form, which often gets on my nerves, was perfectly utilized in this case as the characters use their letters and journal entries to form a cohesive picture of their enemy. It added to the tension prevalent throughout the novel as it gave it an immediacy not always present in third-person narration.

Although the “fighting for their souls” bit seems almost cheesy now, I don’t think it was when this was first written. It had a fresh feeling to it, and was scary. The idea of no matter how virtuous you were, another creature having the ability to take control of you and make you do unspeakable things, without even the release of death to look forward to, was communicated in a more horrifying way by Stoker than I can.

When reading about Dracula we can’t forget that this is the novel that redefined the vampire. Before Stoker they had been considered barely above zombies – shambling and grotesque creatures who feasted on blood rather than brains. This novel was brilliant enough to change the entire world’s concept of what something was. That’s no easy feat. Dracula also provided the inspiration for the more likable vampires of Anne Rice and Chelsea Quinn Yarbo’s novels – slowly giving rise to the hordes of pretty vampire novels that sparkle and shine at us today.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic

Raise the Titanic
Clive Cussler
ISBN: 9780425194522
Published: 1976

***Disclaimer: This annotation contains spoilers.

When I chose the genres I wanted to read for this class, I decided to choose mostly genres I very rarely or never read and then a couple that I loved. The adventure genre falls firmly into the first category. Though I have read a few, like apparently The Da Vinci Code, it is definitely one of the ones I am least familiar with. Since I have a limited knowledge of the genre I decided to go with one the authors Saricks saw as a cornerstone of adventure, Clive Cussler. I picked Raise the Titanic because she said it was his first book; I have since found out that she was incorrect. That's not terribly important, but I will be more careful to verify her information in the future. Keep in mind that the book was published in 1976, before the Titanic was found in 1985.

Raise the Titanic starts with the US government’s search for the elusive, ultra-rare element byzanium. The government needs this for its super-secret think-tank’s super-secret missile defense system. This is not a real element, before you go to look. Completely made-up. Apparently, there used to be a lot of this made-up byzanium in Russia, but it was all mined by an American working for a French company in the early part of the 20th century and then vanished.

It is eventually discovered that this byzanium made its way into the cargo holds of the Titanic, and thus begins the meat of the story. At this point we have already met the main character – Dirk Pitt – but this is where he begins to take on a more active role, in salvaging the Titanic. We also get a closer look at some of the characters involved in the sub-plot, Gene and Dana Seagram. Gene is involved in the super-secret Meta Section think tank, and Dana works as a marine archaeologist. They are having marriage problems because Dana likes her career and is a “liberated woman,” and Gene thinks that she should have his babies. That is the sub-plot. Again, this is written in 1976.

They eventually find the Titanic and are able to begin the process of raising her to the surface, but then there is a murder on one of the submarines involved in the salvage. Who could be responsible for this? In 1976? Why the Russians of course! They have two spies involved in the mission, and Dirk decides to take on the job of smoking them out discreetly. While raising the Titanic in the middle of the ocean. Oh, and a hurricane is coming.

Drama ensues, they raise the Titanic, try to tow her to New York and the tow line is cut right when the hurricane hits. Russians board during the eye of the storm and it looks like Dirk is lost at sea, oh no! The Russians, of course, make Dana get naked to try to shame the American men into doing what they want, but luckily Dirk shows up to save the day before they have to look at her too long, even though she enjoys the attention, being a liberated woman. He managed to sneak a bunch of Marines aboard, and the day is won! They weather the hurricane, one of the worst on record, in a ship with holes in it that has already sank once, make it back to New York, and oops! When they cut open the cargo hold there is no byzanium there, just gravel. But don’t worry! Dirk finds it in a grave site instead after a few pages. The end. Oh, subplot – Gene Seagram goes literally insane and Dana sleeps with Dirk.

The conventions of this book are very much in line with the characteristics of adventure; there is one dangerous situation after another, there is a happy ending (except for Gene losing his mind, but he didn’t like Dirk Pitt so what good is he?). Dirk Pitt is very much a central hero what with being able to do everything perfectly, all the women wanting him, and all the men wanting to be him. The setting is incredibly important to the story, as it should be with adventure novels. The mood was hard for me to pin down, as I was so irritated for the majority of my reading time, but I honestly didn’t find it terribly dark or menacing except in the prologue, so it may have a lighter tone than a lot of adventure novels.

I think what I enjoyed most about the storyline was the blatant misogyny. Thinking about all of the precise reasons it irritated me kept my interest up, and it gave me a starting point for conversation when asking friends and family if they enjoy Cussler. I am not being sarcastic here; thinking about the role of women in adventure novels and my apparently limited knowledge of the women’s movement in the 70’s was a lot more interesting than watching Dirk Pitt go around being perfect. I didn’t even know what we were up against, and I want to reiterate my support for the awesome feminists who made novels like this a faux pas today.

In spite of my distaste, I think I can name some appeals. First of all, it is very light reading – easy to read. This is not a book heavy on specific technical jargon. While it does have some, it is very easy to understand and explained comprehensively and concisely. Also it has a very masculine appeal. This is a book in which men are very good at things and it features a community of men who are very good at things. Dana Seagram is picked to do one thing, talk to the press, not because she is good at it but because they are less likely to yell at her. Because she is a woman. Another appeal is the setting. The Titanic is interesting – it was supposed to be the toughest ship ever built and it was beautifully appointed and filled with wealthy important people, yet it sank anyway.

I can only hope that Cussler gets better. This is one of his early novels and it is entirely possible that he improves. A lot of people seem to like him, but like my husband said, this novel seemed more like the caricature of an adventure than an actual adventure. But then, maybe that’s what people like. Reading this novel has actually opened my eyes quite a bit, as I know how popular the man is, yet I cannot wrap my head around the idea of this book being enjoyable. Has anyone else read and enjoyed it?