Published January, 2014
“The last time we tried to have sex, Mandy wore her hands.”
I am late to the party: “Wolves” was published more than a year ago. I very much enjoy books on a personal level: when I set out to write a positive review like the one you’re about to read, what I’m really doing is trying to express that feeling in objective terms using my own Close Reading lens. In other words, I try to translate fruition into appreciation, not always successful, I know.
What have we got here? Despite all the literary trappings, SF no doubt about it. No cultural and geographical references on the horizon. I’ve seen this attempted and it’s no mean feat. When successful what do we get? SF of a superior kind, and that so elusive and difficult magical atmosphere.
“Her face, glassed and reconfigured, trembles over a forked mouthful of celeriac salad, and for a second the illusion – that her face might simply slide off the bone – acquires a ghastly realism. It is all I can do not to reach out to hold it in place.”
What makes a text SF? I’ve been writing about this in a lot of my essays. Looking at the quote above taken from Ing’s novel, what can I say about it? Are we reading something from a SFional context, or is the author trying just to use a metaphor for something still absent and elusive? I'll dare state here my own definition of SF: "SF is everything meaning the weird shit, weird in the sense of the world depicted in the text: imparting a feeling of dissociation, oddness, otherworldliness, fatedness, feyness. Any character, object or place that behaves with a sense of Otherness and Estrangement and somewhat inexplicably has the element of SF". Coming back to the abovementioned quoted example, can we identify the element that imparts a SF sense? What happens in our brains when a phrase like “her face might simply slide off the bone” turns up? A woman’s slides off her bone, and the SF reader reads it and goes “OMG! A woman’s turning into a cyborg!” whereas the mainstream reader may happily read such a story but will be upset if the ending is not something on the order of “and her husband woke up and it was all a dream” or “and then the husband put down his joint and everything came into focus and her face was nothing of the sort”. Something along those lines.
Everything in Ing’s narratives is riddled with meta-text. It’s up to us, the reader, to retrieve/construct the semiotic. Most of it will escape the definitions of the words in his fiction, but what remains is a kind of superior SF. The one we should all be thinking about when talking about it. This is SF. The rest is only Incidental SF:
“We shall have folk-singers, and we shall kill them with rocks and cook thin strips of their flesh over fires conjured from their smashed guitars.”
“I lived among tongues. Among women’s unfettered tongues, singing, crying, tasting, and supping. Tongues loosed in the mouth, free to probe and explore the soft mouthy interiors of the self, to sense and express.”
“You sink and you sink and you sink and one day you look in the mirror and there are creases around your eyes that weren’t there last year and you’ve done nothing, absolutely fuck-all that adds up to anything.”
“Stupidity isn’t a lack of knowledge, or a lack of intelligence. Stupidity isn’t a lack at all. Stupidity is a force. It’s an energy. It has hold of her now and it is not going to let her go.”
“The thing is, falling in love is about falling in love with a [SFional] world.”
“Technology is, in the end, just another species of pornography.”
This is a very fine (not perfect) example of SF. Don’t go into it expecting just Otherness. Go into it expecting to be doubtful of what happens at the end. Expect nothing whatsoever and you’ll be rewarded. This novel is the kind of SF that I would recommend to someone who likes to state that SF cannot be “literary”. As I’ve stated in several of my late reviews concerning the state of present-day SF, to find a novel that blends my childhood fervour of SF with my adult yearnings (the juxtaposition of SF with “Literary” Fiction) it’s very rewarding. It shows there’s still hope for SF…
NB: As the readers of my reviews have probably noticed I don’t do synopsis. I review to share a purely visceral reaction to stuff I’ve read (and sometimes seen – theatre plays, etc) and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask myself after applying Close Reading techniques to something I’ve just experienced. For book synopses look elsewhere.
NB2: This novel has just been shortlisted for the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award, along with “The Race” by Nina Allan, “Echopraxia” by Peter Watts, and “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North (aka Catherine Webb). The winner will be announced in May. They won’t have a hope in hell of getting anywhere near the Hugos, but wishful thinking never harmed anyone…
SF = Speculative Fiction