Saturday, April 11, 2009

A find

I'd not heard of Maria Quinn before her first novel The Gene Thieves turned up chez moi for review, but I spent the first hour of this morning reading the first 50 pages of it while my coffee went cold and I've sure as hell heard of her now. Go check out that link, if you haven't already.

I usually read a little faster than that, but it's small print (= more words per page. You'd be amazed, if you ever get down to actually counting them, which most people have no reason to do, at the variation in number of words per page from book to book), and I needed to read some passages twice in order to make sure I fully understood what was going on.

In this job I read a lot of genre fiction and the awful truth is that I prefer some genres to others, with crime of the variety that Val McDermid's Tony Hill calls 'messy heads' a long way up the top of the list. If spec fic and fantasy come lower down, it's partly because you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. The facts that (a) with these genres the central idea is often valued way above fiction-writing skills, and (b) both genres have a large and hungry readership (read: 'market') means that a lot of what gets published in these genres is virtually unreadable to someone outside the fan base. And many novels in both these genres are reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's (now that's what I call a novelist) Frederica Potter and her reader's reports for the publisher in Babel Tower: 'It is a curiously vacant work, whose driving force appears paradoxically to be the desire to create and people an imaginary world.'

Many fans of fantasy and spec fic are understandably defensive about these tastes so I hope they are still with me thus far, because the corollary is that when novels in these genres are good, they're very very good and some of them are mind-bogglingly fabulous, in both senses of that word. (Please note that by 'good' in this instance I mean 'couldn't put it down and neither could most other people', so let's not get into dreary backlash quibbles about Harry Potter and so on.)

This particular futuristic novel rises above the pack partly because of the many long, fat, juicy, healthy roots it has in the fertile soil of the present. Much, indeed most, of the science and technology is already with us, as are many of the ethical concerns and the directions in which they seem to be going. There's a magnificent imagining of a not-too-distantly-future Sydney featuring among other things a 'vertical sky garden' that produces fruit and veg for self-sustainability, a taken-for-granted reliance on geothermal energy among other kinds, and this particularly fabulous idea:
Years before, over a million ceramic tiles were overlaid with transparent photovoltaic cells, painstakingly matched to the profile of the unique originals on the amazing pre-cast concrete 'sails' of the roof. Jørn Utzon's masterpiece now powered much of the city that worshipped it.

Memo to HarperCollinsPublishers: Maria Quinn has an excellent website (see above). Why is it not mentioned in the media release?


Deborah said...

This makes me want to rush out and get this book. I enjoy sci-fi, but so much of it is formulaic and dull and simply not worth the effort.

Fine said...

I'm not a sci-fi fan. I can never suspend the disbelief long enough, especially the one's with all the weird names. But a friend recently told me a bout a novel which sounds amazing and which I'd never heard of, although I'm sure you have. It's called 'Drowning Towers' by George Turner. It was published in 1987 and it's set in Melbourne in a future which has been radically altered by global warming. Sounds like it's due for a reprint, I think.

librarygirl said...

I've just read a stunning futuristic novel set not far into the future - oil has run out, piracy has overun the seas, government has failed, fundamentalist religion has risen to replace politics, half the world's population has been wiped out by disease.... it terrified and enthralled me and I'm not mad for futuristic things (except Bladerunner). Called The World made by Hand by James Kunstler. Un-put-able-downable.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Fine, I think George Turner is a much-underrated Australian writer. Lucy Sussex, who comments here sometimes and who has written some really good spec fic herself, knows a lot about him, much more than I do. Librarygirl, that sounds frighteningly non-futuristic to me!

TimT said...

From that quote and the brief summary of the novel it sounds like sf may be reengaging with the themes of utopia/techno-love that you got in much 'golden age' SF, with a slight difference - the technology being idolised now is a variation on the 'environmentally sustainable' technologies/industries that are being popularised now by governments and environmental movements.

It'll be interesting to see how this develops. Certainly the techno-love in 1950s sf is seen as naive now, and out-of-date, but this I thought was partly due to the rise in prominence of the environmental movement. What exactly does it mean if environmentalists are co-opting the techno-love narrative for themselves?

I'll look out for Maria Quinn - thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is a belated Fantasy not sci-fi comment for you Pavlov to convey to the blogger at the wedding-of-the-year whose blog name I can't remember but who was collecting reading matter for 6 year old boys. It has been bugging me all week that the 13 yo and I didn't immediately say Anna Fienberg Tashi stories, so could you please pass those on to her, in the unlikely event that she hasn't already found them. My then 7 year old finished teaching herself to read on the plane to the US because she couldn't wait for me to wake up to keep reading Tashi (on the topic of compelling reading). And librarygirl I hope you've read the fantastically titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as well as watched the wonderful Bladerunner?

Feral Sparrowhawk said...

I loved science fiction until I wrote my research essay on it, after which it rather lost its appeal - perhaps it was the mediocre mark your then colleague gave me.

One of the things I really like is when the authors really get the science (rather than it being engineering fiction, which is much more common). Not surprisingly I hate the reverse. I'd be pleased to be corrected, but I think solar panels on the Opera House are a non-starter. By definition solars need to absorb sunlight, which means they must either be dark (reflecting no light at all) or coloured (reflecting certain wavelenghts but not others, such as the quite common blue ones).

People are working on electricity generating paints, which can be reasonably light in colour, but these are highly inefficient (the theoretical benefit is they might one day be cheap) so a building painted with them would at best power itself, not a lot of the city.

Sorry to ruin the mood, and note that I don't do this for fantasy - happy to accept magic the authors invoke as long as it is consistent.

librarygirl said...

Yes indeed Tyaakian - Philip K Dick, my dad was such a huge fan of his work.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Tim and FS, I have given a bit of a misleading impression, I think -- I really only included the environmental details to give the general flavour (and I'd only read 50 or so pages when I wrote the post) but in fact this is very much a book about the future of reproductive technologies and the dilemmas to which they can give rise.

FS, also, if it were feasible in the present then it wouldn't be futuristic or speculative, now would it. (NB I think 'science fiction' is frowned upon these days, as terms go; 'speculative fiction' was the term in use last time I looked, perhaps for precisely the sorts of reasons that arise when someone turns up and says 'Oh but that wouldn't work', as here. Usually with spec fic the main point is not the science but the speculation, and the driving force is ideas rather than facts.)

The other important futuristic science in the book, the development/discovery that drives the plot, is an absolute standard in fable and myth, and that isn't environmental either.

Feral Sparrowhawk said...

PC, there's a difference between something being unfeasible with modern technology, and unfeasible full stop. There are engineering limits (as the speed of sound once was) and there are fundamental scientific laws (such as the speed of light).

My point is that any solar cells will cannot be brilliantly white without breaching a fundamental scientific principle. So either we accept a dull grey, black or blue Opera House, or we put our solar cells somewhere else (it's not as though Sydney's short of roofspace).

Now I'm not meaning to imply that a single slip like this discredits the whole book. I took my nom de net from Ursula Le Guin who I adore beyond measure, and quite a few of her books break basic laws of physics. But the thing is that she does it only when absolutely necessary. She tries, as much as possible within the constraints of the plot and her ideas, to respect science. Or she tosses the science out entirely and writes Fantasy, but even there does her best to make the magic consistent.

It's understandable in a book about genetic technology that the author would pay more attention to getting the biology right than the physics, so I'm hardly appalled. But I do think trying to get the science right in speculative fiction is the equivalent of being historically accurate in historical fiction - eg not using a technology invented 20 years after the book is set.

dogpossum said...

I've just discovered Temple's Jack Irish novels (last to the bar, I know), and came across your (very positive) comments in the front page. I'm so hot for Temple atm, I think I'll rush out and buy this new find, just on your say-so. You were right about Temple.

I'm a nut for SF, but a lot of it sucks arse.
I prefer the ones which present you with an interesting universe, but spend most of their time on interesting characters, politics and societies.

Anonymous said...

Like you I think the Gene Theives is "A find". I am not a big Sci-fi fan but I read a great review of the book in the 'Law Review Weekly" of all places and decided to give it a try. I really believe we should support new Australian authors where possible... I could not put it down and finished it in 4 days. "The Gene Theives" may be listed as Sci-fi but it is a griping crime/thriller with twists and turns throughout provoking a continueous need to know what comes next.

Suddenly dissapointed that I could no longer look forward to curling up with a hot coffee and ongoing mystery and intrigue of this near future world and its totally engaging charaters. This book is so well writen I new I could only fill the gap with a writer whose words raise your endorphin levels like rich dark chocolate. I turned to Tim Winton for comfort.

Anonymous said...

Ha, I was part of an effort to get 'Drowning Towers' aka 'The Sea and Summer' reprinted several years ago. The publisher complained of no mobile phones in this future. Duh, it was written before they hit the market. I know this because the reader's report was leaked to me. I reprinted chunks of it recently in 'Arena', without naming the culprit. I merely say that they are not the publishers of 'The Gene Thieves'.
Yrs, currently writing about glaciation & global warming. How apt! Out in the garden the daffodills are adopting the habits of the autumn crocus, and we are still trying to work out how a migratory seabird took a wrong turn into the backyard. It is now at the Melbourne Zoo, probably kicking the vet. Lucy Sussex

TimT said...

Then I may have spoken too soon, PC.

Lucy, I hope you pointed out to the publishers that one of the most charming aspects of classic science fiction is the way it frequently sets present-day technological fads in the far-distant future. (I've just been reading a 1930s space opera with nary a computer in sight, and people firing nuclear-powered lasers at one another).

No one but a pedant (the wrong sort of pedant, I mean) would see this as a flaw, just as a point of interest. It either illustrates Moorcock's point that science-fiction is really about the present, or perhaps indicates that science fiction is really a phantasamagoria, a jumble of different fantastic ideas with a thin scientific veneer to give it narrative coherence.

Either way, I'll keep reading it.

TimT said...

Other examples come to mind, too - a story, by Phil K Dick, I think, in which a person in the 25th century listens to music... on what is essentially a 1950s LP player.

And then there are the wilfully obtuse writers who just have fun with this convention - Harry Harrison's steam-powered robots, or Mike Moorcock's penny-farthing bicycle time machine.