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Stepping into the same river twice June 16, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, films, memories, meta, television.
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I am 28 years old. I have spent most of my adult life as a student. I only moved out of home five years ago, and I only moved out of sharehouses and student accommodation nine months ago. I have a long-term partner, but no children. All this is relevant.

I was thinking about stories, and how important age and circumstances are in determining meaning and how you react to them. There are some stories I can come back to time and time again, and get different things out of them every time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like that for me. I’ve been watching and rewatching it since I was twelve years old, and it means something different every single time. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is another story like that for me. Each time I rewatch it, I feel I’ve barely scratched its surface. It reveals its secrets so slowly. I’m somewhat afraid to reread His Dark Materials in case it stops being this kind of story to me. It meant so much to me, it gave so much to me that for it to stop meaning and giving would be unbearable.

There are other stories which I think gain something from being reread with adult eyes. The young-adult literature of Victor Kelleher falls into this category. I first read his work as an eleven-year-old, and continued revisiting it throughout my teenage years, but the true horror and weight of what he was saying doesn’t really hit home until you’ve reached adulthood and had some of your illusions shattered. There are other stories which mattered as much to me as Kelleher’s when I was a child and a teenager – the works of Gillian Rubinstein, Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series – but for which rereading provokes only nostalgia and the restored memory of what it felt like to be fifteen, and burning with outrage, passionately emoting and dreaming fervently. The stories remain wonderful, but they offer me no new truths in adulthood, only a window into the child I used to be. This is of value, of course, but it’s not the same thing. The vast majority of works aimed at children and teenagers that I’ve enjoyed and read or watched in adulthood evoke much the same feelings.

I grew up watching the films of the Marx Brothers (I first watched Duck Soup in a cinema when I was three years old), and I always found them hilarious. What I didn’t notice until I was well into adulthood was the deep undercurrent of sadness and alienation running through them, and the tendency for Groucho, Chico and Harpo to make self-deprecating jokes, to make themselves figures of fun, to paint themselves as mercenary, petty criminals in order to get in first before someone else said the same things. There’s a defensiveness to all their quips, a brittle, knowing edge to all their humour that you only see when you’re older, and when you know more about the history of immigration to the US.

And then there are the texts for which meaning and enjoyment is, I think, contextual. I read Wuthering Heights as a fourteen-year-old and thought it was a tragic love story. I read it again at twenty-two, and thought it was a horror story, a Greek myth about gods and mortals. At eighteen, when I went through a phase of reading Russian literature in translation, Tolstoy moved me to rapturous tears, while Dostoevsky appalled and repelled me. Isobelle Carmody’s works can only truly be appreciated by teenagers. To an adult, they are dangerously naïve and lack any kind of nuance. At 28, my favourite book of Jane Austen’s is Persuasion, while at sixteen I would have said Pride and Prejudice. When I was fourteen, people told me I would cry my eyes out over the ending of Casablanca, but I was unmoved. My reaction? I hated Rick, swooned over Victor Laszlo (I was going through a bit of a thing for revolutionaries and resistance fighters) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. If I am earnest now, I was a million times worse then. But I suspect, were I to watch the film again, my reaction might be very different. At fourteen, I read The Mill on the Floss and felt nothing. At twenty, I read Daniel Deronda and felt profoundly moved.

I remember my mother telling me, when I was a passionate armchair revolutionary in high school, that as an adult I would find repellent the Holocaust stories, tales about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict that I pored over as a teenager. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I don’t want to look any more. I used to love uncompromising rebels, and now I prefer diplomats and passive resistance.

I don’t think all of this is down to age, in and of itself. Taste plays a role, as does environment, and the ethos of the age in which you grew up and which informed your tastes. My mother, for example, loves Charles Dickens and finds Zadie Smith contrived and emotionless. I find Dickens cloyingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative and hypocritical, while Zadie Smith evokes feelings of awe and floods of tears in me. I don’t think baby boomers will uniformly share her views, no more than I think Gen Y people will uniformly share mine, but I suspect our respective generations may have affected our tastes to some extent. (That said, my father loves Zadie Smith and was, indeed, the one to introduce me to her work.)

For as long as I can remember, my favourite Shakespeare play has been The Tempest. I suspect I see it with different eyes than the first time I encountered it as a twelve-year-old watching the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production. And I suspect it will mean something very different when I am an old woman. My point in all of this is that although it is possible to step in the same river twice, it is not possible to do so for every river. Some stories are static, and can mean only one thing at one particular age in one particular place. And some others are always changing, and go on and on forever.

Liebster Award November 26, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, life, memories.
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I was nominated for a Liebster Award. Says Catie, who nominated me, the Liebster Award is a meme for small blogs (with under 200 followers) where you answer 7 questions and then ask a new set of 7 questions to 7 people. I’m not going to tag other people, but I will answer the questions provided by Catie. And they are:

1. Have you ever read a book that changed your life, or your reading habits?
A book, or rather series of books, did both of those things – at the same time. Most of you probably know that I’m going to say the His Dark Materials trilogy, and you’ll probably know why. But to recap:

When I first read HDM, it pushed my reading habits in a much more fantasy-oriented direction than previously. This led, firstly, towards me developing an interest in medieval literature, which ultimately led to me becoming a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, meeting an amazing group of friends, and my current boyfriend, and deciding to, if at all possible, live in Europe for the remainder of my life.

Secondly, HDM got me a career as a newspaper book-reviewer! When I was 16, I read what I considered to be a very poor review of the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass. I wrote the reviewer – the children’s books editor at The Sydney Morning Herald – a very snotty letter accusing her of not reading the book before she reviewed it. Rather than throwing my letter in the bin, she offerred me the opportunity to write my own review. This led to a ten-year career writing reviews and interviewing authors for various Australian newspapers.

Finally, HDM saved me, because it introduced me to the people at bridgetothestars.net at a very low point in my life. Those people were there for me when no one else was, and I’ve met so many people I love through that site. btts introduced me to the best friend I will ever have, a woman I consider to be my fourth sister. More broadly, btts was my introduction to online fandom and online friendships and community more broadly, and it remains my gold standard in all such matters, a model of how to do fandom and do friendship right.

I will never stop being thankful to His Dark Materials. It changed my life in such profound ways.

2. If you could recommend one book to the world, what would it be?
To be honest, I’d like to recommend the entire corpus of Victor Kelleher novels, but if I had to select just one, I’d say The Beast of Heaven, which is a deeply unsettling, remorseless and transcendentally beautiful exploration of what it means to be conscious and human. I doubt I will ever read another book more perfect than that. It encapsulates my views on human nature, morality, history and the future completely.

3. Do you read when you’re out and about or just at home?
Obviously I read a lot for my PhD, so by definition I read while I’m out and about – in libraries. I also read for pleasure when I’m out and about. I tend to carry novels with me everywhere, and my favourite thing to do is sit alone in cafes and read.

4. Is there any genre that you don’t read, and why? Or do you only read one particular type of book?
I pretty much read everything, although I tend to steer clear of epic or heroic fantasy written by men. Modernist literature isn’t my cup of tea either, although I’ve enjoyed books by Faulkner and some poetry written during this time period.

5. What is the first book that you remember reading?
The first novel I remember reading was Rainstones by Jackie French. It’s not actually a novel, but rather a book of short stories, but I was immensely proud of myself at the time for being able to read a ‘chapter book’. I’d obviously read picture books before then, and had lots of books read to me by my mother, but I don’t remember the first.

6. What is the last book that you read that was outside your comfort zone?
I read a book of crime stories in German over the (northern) summer, and that was out of my comfort zone because I’m still not completely fluent at reading in German. But it was good to push myself.

7. If you had to memorise a novel or book of poetry to preserve it à la Fahrenheit 451, which would it be and why?
This question makes me so uncomfortable and upset! It reminds me of this neo-Victorian novel I read a few years ago, which has a scene where one character asks the (bookish) protagonist to imagine a scenario where every copy of the great works of the literary canon are being drawn along a conveyor belt into a furnace. The protagonist has a gun. If she shoots and kills a human being, the conveyor belt stops. Reading it, I started to hyperventilate. Is one human life worth more than the Western literary canon? It is unbearable to be forced to confront that question.

In light of that anecdote, I think I’d have to say the complete works of William Shakespeare should be saved. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of canon – any canon besides a personal canon, that is – and yet I love the plays of Shakespeare and can see how they have influenced so much writing in English and say such interesting things about humanity. And on a more political level, I love how the foundation of the English literary canon is a collaborative effort of people who stood somewhat outside the boundaries of ordinary society, and its prime mover was an aspirational, lower middle-class man who somehow managed to educate himself and say such clever things. It appeals to my socialism and belief in the power of education.

I’m not going to tag anyone, but if you’d like to join in, consider yourselves tagged. These are my seven questions:

1. How have your reading tastes changed in the past ten years? In the past five?
2. Do you read book reviews? Do you think they influence your reading habits?
3. What is your opinion of sites such as Goodreads and reviews on Amazon?
4. Do you note down quotes from books or poetry? What is a quote that means a lot to you?
5. Which fictional character did you identify with as a child or teenager? Looking back, do you think that identification was accurate?
6. What is the most important thing you learnt from a work of fiction?
7. And I’d also like an answer to the same question I was asked: in a Fahrenheit 451 scenario, which book would you save?

Dystopiana*, Australiana** January 25, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, life, memories, reviews.
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I’ve always found it a combination of surprising and amusing when people talk about the recent dystopian YA boom as if it’s a new thing, as if Suzanne Collins plucked The Hunger Games out of the (dystopia-free) ether and opened the floodgates to a host of imitators. (Well, that’s sort of what happened, but that’s beside the point.) Growing up in Australia in the 90s, basically everything I read was dystopian, before I even knew what the word ‘dystopian’ meant.

The first author I got into in a major way (and who, indeed, has the dubious honour of writing the first novel-length book I ever read) was Jackie French, whose hippie-like existence in a small town near Braidwood informed her futuristic science-fiction novels for children. While she’s better known for other works, at age seven, my favourite books of hers were a five-part series, beginning with Music From the Sea, set in an Australia so parched by the sun that humans have become nocturnal and are living a lifestyle reminiscent of early farming/gathering societies. That somewhat gentle introduction to the ‘harsh Australian weather’ subgenre of dystopian literature led me to darker fare that mixed its narratives of personal and communal heroism with pointedly political calls to arms.

John Marsden’s Tomorrow series is the environmental-political Australian dystopian series par excellence. Beginning with a bang with Tomorrow, When the War Began (a title which implies that its story could happen on any particular tomorrow), this seven-book series follows the adventures of a group of rural Australian teenagers who return from a camping holiday in the bush to find that the country has been invaded, their hometown was the focal point of the invasion, and everyone they love has been rounded up and imprisoned in the local showground. The teenagers retreat to the bush and become a guerrilla resistance force, all the while agonising over whether their actions are just. Written against the backdrop of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, this series brought home the realities of war to an entire generation of Australian teenagers more used to thinking of conflict as something that happened ‘over there’.

I actually don’t think that the Tomorrow series is the best of 90s Australian dystopian YA fiction, although it has great emotional resonance and Marsden’s evocation of the Australian landscape, and the unease most Australians feel within it, is spot on. But the later novels lack the believability that made the first few so powerful, and an ill-advised spin-off trilogy means the series ends, if not with a whimper, not really with a bang either.

No, in my opinion, there is a three-way tie for the best stories of this genre between the works of Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubinstein and one particular novel of Ruth Park’s.

Most Australians of my generation will be familiar with at least one book by Kelleher, Taronga, as it was widely studied in high school during our teenage years, but I’ve always felt Kelleher was tragically unrecognised. His trilogy beginning with Parkland, which I reviewed here a while back, is both a Cassandra-like warning and a hopeful shout of encouragement. In each book, in different ways, he wipes the slate clean, so to speak, recreating subtly different Gardens of Eden to see if, once tempted with consciousness, human nature could ever lead us anywhere other than destruction.

Gillian Rubinstein is also concerned with human nature in two very good series of hers, the Galax-Arena series and the Space Demons trilogy. I have blogged about Galax-Arena in relation to The Hunger Games already, so suffice it to say that the series is, at its heart, about the exploitation of (often poor, always defenseless) children at the hands of (often wealthy, always privileged) adults, and can be read as a metaphor for the way First World countries can only ‘live’ as well as they do by (figuratively) killing the Third World.

The Space Demons trilogy is a little different, because it uses its broader dystopian concerns as a backdrop on which to set four or five parallel coming-of-age narratives. Four (and later more) young people find themselves sucked into the virtual world of their computer games (and, in Shinkei, the third book, of cyberspace), within which they must resolve their numerous personal issues, and, as becomes increasingly apparent, the problems that beset the world. The final book reads like an idealistic call to arms, a plea to remember dreams in the face of privilege, cynicism, exploitation and fanaticism, and is one of the best intertwinings of the personal with the political that I have ever encountered.

Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif makes it onto this list simply because its dystopian nature isn’t immediately apparent, and the way it sneaks up on you is absolutely terrifying. You think you’re reading a fantasy book about family tensions, parental expectation and an island paradise populated by real-life mermaids, and then Park will give a throwaway reference to the characters having never seen a butterfly or a certain breed of animal because they’re extinct. It’s chilling.

Why, then, were Australian YA authors rushing down the dystopian road a good two decades before their (mainly American) counterparts? I have several theories, but what I’ve always felt was the mostly likely cause is the intersection of Australia’s bizarre geography and bizarre history and social mythology (mythology in the sense of stories people tell about themselves).

Australians cannot quite make up their minds about these things. On the one hand, there’s this weird sort of pride in the harshness of our landscape, and on the other, there’s the fact that very few Australians actually live in it. Australians, for the most part, cling desperately to the coastal cities, and yet there’s this constant awareness that just around the corner, there’s this vast, parched desert or dry bushland just waiting to be set on fire and burn your house to the ground. As an Australian, the recent climate change debate has always struck me as very odd because, well, if we were talking about global warming in my first grade class in 1991 and the salinity problems of the Murray-Darling basin in my fifth grade class in 1995, and the hole in the ozone layer since forever, it’s not as if suddenly clued-in politicians have only just become aware of it.

Couple this anxiety about the physical features of the land with a general sense of anxiety about the location of the land itself and about one’s place in it (and by this I mean that a dominant strand of the Australian mythos has always been an uncertainty about where and what Australia actually is***) and you get this narrative of discomfort and unease. Australian literature, by and large, does not feature people ‘lighting out for the territories’ in search of freedom and prosperity. Instead, one heads off into a hostile wilderness where general weirdness goes on.****

All this combined to make Australia a fruitful breeding ground for dystopian literature. When these novelists wanted to play around with their fears for the future, their belief in multiculturalism or political anxieties, the Australian experience provided a physical and mythological backdrop for the stories that arose. It would be wonderful if the new dystopian craze introduced these wonderful works to a wider audience.

__________________
* I know that’s not how you decline Greek.
** Also, this is not about Mad Max.
*** As demonstrated by the common use of ‘the West’ to describe a group of nations of which (usually Anglo, almost always white) Australians see themselves as part, despite the fact that the only place to which Australia is west is New Zealand.
**** Think Picnic At Hanging Rock. Think Walkabout.***** This is why the Tomorrow series is so powerful, because the civilised space of hearth and home has been rendered dangerous, and the story’s heroes find the normally hostile wilderness a welcoming haven.
***** This is, obviously, a literary trope mainly employed by white (usually Anglo) Australians, and I think stems from a sense of guilt at what was done to the indigenous inhabitants of the land which Australian culture (until very recently) felt profoundly uneasy examining in an open way. And so it was explored in this slantwise manner.

One time January 10, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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Well, Victor Kelleher Week turned into something more like Victor Kelleher Fortnight, unfortunately. I spent all of last week suffering the double effects of rather horrendous jet-lag and a dreadful cold, and I felt too weak to be able to blog adequately, so I apologise for stretching this on longer than I should have. I turn now to my final review of Victor Kelleher’s work (for now), of <em>Fire Dancer</em>. Spoilers follow.

<em>Fire Dancer</em> was my favourite book in this trilogy, and is the one that I reread the most as a teenager. I’m not entirely sure what appealed to me about it, and, after this most recent reread, I’m not convinced that it is the strongest in the trilogy (that honour goes to <em>Parkland</em>, in my opinion), but it’s certainly got its fair share of interesting themes and philosophical quandaries.

In the not-too-distant future, time travel moves from being a theoretical possibility to a reality.  Inevitably, time-travel tourism springs up as an industry, with wealthy people paying large sums of money for the privilege of journeying to the darker corners of prehistory and observing man’s distant ancestors. It is on one such trip that bored rich kid Josie and shy outsider Ivan (who is not rich, but won a free trip to the past after writing an essay on the Neanderthals for a competition) find themselves stranded in the past with only a clan of Neanderthals for company.

The pair are quickly discovered and adopted by the Neanderthals, and they slowly adapt to the harsher environment and lifestyle of these mysterious cousins of our own ancestors, finding companionship and kindred spirits among the clan.

That’s not to say that their journey is an easy one.  Josie, a 21st-century, strong-willed young woman, chafes at the restrictions placed on women in the clan. She wants to hunt, but only men are permitted to hunt, and has a combative relationship with Lheppo, an aggressive young warrior of the clan.  Eventually she manages to get her own way, and becomes an acclaimed hunter, saving Lheppo’s life and gaining the name Utha (‘Leopard Slayer’) in the process.  For Ivan, the adaptation is even more difficult. A gentle, studious outsider in the 21st century, the violence of hunting is utterly abhorrent to him. This makes him a non-person in the eyes of the Neanderthal clan.  But, like Josie, he slowly finds a place for himself in the Stone Age world, breaking the rules of the clan by becoming accepted as its first male shaman.

Josie and Ivan both felt somewhat out of place in the 21st century, and, once they give up on ever being rescued, they both realise that they have more purpose and fulfillment in their Stone Age lives.  And they both make stronger connections than just friendship, Josie and Lheppo becoming what is surely the earliest ever quarreling couple and Ivan finding love with Aghri, the daughter of the clan’s leader Kharno and its shaman Lhien.  This being the Stone Age, there is no contraception, and both Aghri and Josie fall pregnant.  In this way, Ivan and Josie realise with horror, they have contributed to the end of the Neanderthals as a species and the eventual dominance of Homo sapiens.  They are, in fact, creating their own ancestors.  Time, they realise, is not a continuous stream moving inexorably forwards, but rather exists in loops, where past and future affect one another in incredibly complex ways.  They have mixed feelings about this, but ultimately accept their roles as seed-carriers of the future with stoicism.

Just when both have become completely resigned to life among the Neanderthals, however, the future intrudes again: the time-travel ship arrives, a year after Josie and Ivan were abandoned, to bring them back to the future. After much soul-searching, Josie chooses to go back, but Ivan elects to stay, explaining that he feels much more alive – indeed, much more human – in the past.

Humanity Kelleher is obviously playing around here with notions of true humanity. We’ve seen already that he views humanity as something akin to conscious thought, but I would argue that in Fire Dancer, he’s got other things on his mind. Humanity, for him, is equated with humaneness, with living lightly on the earth, living with purpose, as if your whole existence depends on it.

‘You’re a hunter now,’ he [Ivan] explained, ‘and if you’re right, I’m on my way to becoming a shaman. Well, those aren’t just jobs or professions, like they would be in the future. Here a hunter or shaman is what we are, and once we accept those identities, we’re as bound by the rules as everyone else. […] We’ve become Neanderthals. There’s no going back.’

Victor Kelleher, Fire Dancer, p. 249.

The Neanderthals obviously offer Kelleher a wonderful mechanism to explore these ideas, as they are so full of potential for a writer – so familiar, and yet so distant, elusive and mysterious (how closely related were they to our own Homo sapiens ancestors? why did they suddenly die out?).  Of course, such themes run the risk of venturing into noble savage territory, but Kelleher is careful not to romanticise the Neanderthals or their lifestyle.  He does this mostly through Ivan, whose struggle to accept the brutality of life among the clan shows this life for the harsh, bloody existence that it is.

This was not the world he had visualised, aeons ago now, when in his other life he had written about Neanderthal people. Not this world of conflict and gore. He had had in mind a less testing place. Of wildness and adventure, yes, but nothing as basic and barbarous as this. Where life was to death as the hand is to the glove, the two fitting together intimately. Where endless and bloody conflict – or so he mistakenly believed at that instant – defined the whole of existence.

Victor Kelleher, Fire Dancer, p. 211.

That being said, Kelleher is clearly using the Neanderthals – and Josie and Ivan’s experience with them – to make some pertinent comments about the twentieth century (the time in which he was writing). There is much to be learned, he argues, from a people who live with thrift, whose existence is little different from that of the animals upon which they prey, where the idea of owning more than the essentials necessary to sustain life is ridiculous.  Humanity is not about things, it is a state of mind.

Responsibility Once Josie and Ivan accept the role that their accidental abandonment on the shores of the past has given them, they do not shrink from it. By their very presence, they are proof of the existence of time-loops, and, rather than cursing the cruel position in which fate has placed them – carriers of the seeds which will destroy the people among whom they feel most welcome and usher in the ancestors of the people with whom they feel no kinship – they embrace it stoically.  This also allows Kelleher to get in a few remarks about the lucky, bizarre and complicated accidents responsible for the entire sweep of human history.  As Josie notes:

‘We didn’t choose for an animal to crash into the ship; or for the ship to take off before we could scramble back on board. It all just happened.’

‘Okay, so it was an accident. That’s still a hello of a lot different from saying it was meant to be. Listening to you, anyone would think there’s a purpose in our being here.’

[…] ‘Maybe there’s a purpose behind it all,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘Who knows? Maybe we’re … the seeds of the future.’

Victor Kelleher, Parkland, pp. 250-1.

Freedom This is probably where Kelleher gets most into the whole noble savage thing.  In Fire Dancer, he argues that true freedom exists when people embrace a lifestyle free of choices, free of security, where life is harsh, possessions are few and where most energy is focused on the struggle to stay alive.  Ivan and Josie find purpose and kinship among the Neanderthals, and acceptance which they never possessed in the 21st century.  And if the past and the future are one codependent loop, we are lost in the stream of time, always at the mercy of where it takes us.  We might as well sit back and revel in the freedom this gives us.

This is the final review of the trilogy. I will probably follow it up with a post about the most significant themes and concepts explored by Kelleher in this series of books.

One voice January 2, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl.
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[Spoilers for Earthsong by Victor Kelleher.]

Kelleher’s second book in the Parkland trilogy is more ambitious than its predecessor, and, perhaps because of this, is somewhat less successful. As a child, I reread Earthsong less than the other two books in the trilogy, although I cannot remember exactly what it was that failed to appeal to me.

As with Parkland, Earthsong is set in a dystopian future. In this book, global warming made Earth uninhabitable for human beings, who, after trying various ways to remain (including building colonies under the sea) despite the dangerous atmospheric conditions, migrated to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, which is supposed to have conditions similar to early Earth and which in the book was terraformed to make it inhabitable for human beings. After several centuries, the off-worlders decide to send human beings back to Earth in the form of frozen embryos, in order to repopulate it. Travelling with these embryos are teenagers Anna and Joe, who are given the grandiose title ‘the First Parents’.

Straight away, things go wrong. The heat shields on Anna and Joe’s ship (a sentient being named Walter) are damaged, causing them to crash-land thousands of kilometres away from where the transport ships (carrying the embryos) have landed. Worse, Walter himself is damaged by the landing and undergoes a personality change of sorts, transforming from an impersonal, intelligent machine into a crazed, spiritual being who seems overwhelmed by life on Earth. He becomes, in fact, a shamanic figure. Accompanying Anna and Joe are two other robots, Trog (whose name evokes troglodytes, of course), who is no-nonsense and practical, and Og, who speaks in parables, quotes and sayings.

While Anna and Joe at first think they have a straightforward journey to retrieve the transport ships and begin the project of repopulating Earth, it quickly becomes apparent that Earth has changed in the absence of humans. All its animal life, from rats and cats to snakes and sharks, seems to possess sentience and consciousness. Animals that previously lived solitary lives seem to have developed the ability to live commnunally and organise themselves like humans. Anna and Joe find themselves in constant conflict with the fauna. Fearful and harried on all sides by vicious attacks by animals such as rats, eagles and lizards, they proceed slowly. All the while, Walter seems away with the fairies, speaking of the voices he can hear and spouting mystical insights into the nature of the universe and humanity. He claims that he hears the whole earth speaking with one voice, which he calls the voice of God or good (it’s not clear, as his own ability to speak is compromised by this point and he constantly jumbles his words. The confusion between God and good is, of course, deliberate on Kelleher’s part, as Kelleher cannot resist a bit of theological confusion).

After an encounter with some whales that have developed the ability to talk in Morse code, Anna and Joe discover the truth of this brave new Earth: the sea colonies, knowing that they were going to die, made a fateful decision to splice human genes into those of all living beings on Earth. This meant that all creatures – and even some large trees – eventually developed human characteristics: the ability to reason, to live in groups and work for the common good, to defer gratification, in short to be conscious. Unfortunately, these characteristics seem to only manifest themselves as the worst, most destructive human qualities: brutality, dog-eat-dog competition, cruelty.  The whales speak with horror of ‘the swarms’, which, it is soon revealed, are insects – with human intelligence – that, by virtue of superior numbers, presumably – hold the rest of creation in their sway.

[H]uman guile and cunning had taken on monstrous shape. Yes, human guile and cunning, that was what they were up against. And human kindness? Human compassion? What had happened to those qualities? Had they somehow fled the world? Had they been lost – left out perhaps – when the human genes governing intelligence were spliced into the rest of creation? Had the last colonies passed on only their aggression and their drive for dominance? Was this the truth behind the one mind, the one voice, Walter had referred to? It was a horrible thought which she flinched away from. A world without love! Without gentleness or care or fellow feeling! She could not bring herself to face such a prospect.

Victor Kelleher, Earthsong, pp. 219-220.

Leaving the science aside, it’s worth stopping and considering this concept for a moment. Can you even begin to imagine what it would be like to live in a planet where every living being possessed the worst characteristics of humanity, and human intelligence? In Kelleher’s imagination, it would be horrific – a dangerous and threatening place of constant war. It is so bad that Anna and Joe are uncertain as to whether they ought to animate the embryos, horrified at the thought of bringing up children in a world of conflict and danger.

Meanwhile, Walter embarks on a mission to communicate with the swarms, hoping to convince them – and, by extension, the other inhabitants of Earth – of the value of peaceful coexistence.  He is adamant that if people – by which he means all living and sentient beings – could just communicate better, the world would be a harmonious place for all.  Anna and Joe, besieged by the swarms, have almost given up hope, but Walter is ultimately successful, and the book ends with Earth poised on the brink of a newer, gentler future.  On the surface, Earthsong is thus a much gentler and more hopeful book than Parkland, but as is usual with Kelleher, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Humanity Because Kelleher defines humanity as consciousness, his definition of humanity in Earthsong is much broader than in Parkland, encompassing all creation.  While indulging in many descriptive pages of the horrors of an Earth populated in this manner – the scenes where Anna and Joe are besieged by lizards, rats, snakes, bats and insects are like something out of a horror movie – he ultimately arrives at a rather cheerful, hippy-like understanding of how this might work.  If we are all human, we all speak with one voice, and if we could only listen to this voice and speak to one another, we would live in peace, tranquility and harmony.

This is obviously meant to be a metaphor for the present state of affairs on Earth – that we, as people, must turn away from the violence and greed in our natures and recognise our common humanity if we are to escape destruction.  This is all very well and good, but it strikes me, as it struck me when I first read Earthsong, as overly optimistic.  And if ‘humanity’ means all beings on Earth, this only complicates matters. How are we to recognise our common ‘humanity’ if we’re all eating one another, for example?

Responsibility If Kelleher falls somewhat short in his exploration of the theme of humanity in Earthsong, he truly succeeds in the theme of responsibility.  This book is, in a sense, all about responsibility.  In particular, it is about the peculiar nature of human responsibility: the greatest responsibility we have is that towards future generations, and yet this requires us to make decisions for a future of which we are entirely unaware.* And these decisions will, of course, affect and shape that future.

Joe and Anna initially deplore the actions of the sea colonies: knowing that they (the sea colonies) were going to die out, they were freed from the responsibility of behaving responsibly:

The underwater colonies had acted irresponsibly, distributing their genes throughout a planet without the thought for the consequences. […] Despite her disapproval of what the last people had done, she couldn’t bring herself to blame them. In their place, faced with extinction, she might well have done the same.  After all, to live on in other creatures was better than nothing.

Victor Kelleher, Earthsong, p. 168.

Most horrifically, of course, Joe and Anna are forced to suffer the consequences of decisions made by these ancient people, who did not take responsibility for their actions.  The parallels between this book, and our own world, are fairly clear.

Freedom As I began this section, the book The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson popped into my head. That book is all about humanity’s destructive nature, and how we would like to be able to start again, with a blank canvas, a clean slate, a new Eden, and how that probably isn’t possible. Earthsong seems be be set on such a blank canvas, an Earth healed and cleansed of the effects of humanity’s brutal destruction – but of course it isn’t.

I think we all like to imagine that if we had the freedom to begin again, we’d do things differently, we’d be better, gentler, kinder. Kelleher, in his way, is warning us that there are no second chances.  Even an Earth wiped of all human beings is not free from human influence.  We may not have a Titan to retreat to, and we certainly won’t have an Earth to return to, so we need to start thinking about what sort of future our decisions might make.

The final book in this trilogy, Fire Dancer, is in many ways the most intriguing, because it is not set in the future but rather our distant past.  In it, two human beings have the extraordinary and terrible responsibility of having to make decisions knowing full well what effect they will have on the future. I will be reviewing it some time early next week.

_____________________

* Being who I am, this makes my thoughts turn to religion, and in particular the story of the Fall.  The parallels – between the story of Adam and Eve, Anna and Joe and the sea colonies – are apparent to me, although I might be reading too many things into this.  Faced with extinction, the sea colonies had to make a decision about a future in which they had no stake, while Anna and Joe also had to make a decision on behalf of the unborn embryos for which they are responsible.  Being human – like Adam and Eve – they possess free will, but they do not possess the ability to comprehend the outcomes of their actions and decisions.  Anna and Joe, like their Biblical counterparts, are the first parents, while the sea people are the end of their genetic line, of course.  I need to think further about what all these connections mean.

One people December 29, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, meta, reviews.
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[Spoilers for Victor Kelleher’s book Parkland.]

‘We are all one people,’ Cassie tells her friends, Ralph and Boxer, repeatedly throughout Victor Kelleher’s book, Parkland. This would be unremarkable, except that Ralph is a half-human, half-gorilla much more comfortable with the gorilla side of his nature, while Boxer is a human-chimpanzee hybrid who struggles against his society’s dismissal of him as an animal not worthy of the human consciousness he possesses.

All three are inhabitants of Parkland, a future vision of our Earth made more chilling by its very plausibility. Parkland is a zoo whose inmates are all apes: gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons – and humans. The keepers are humanoid but not human, and they keep the zoo’s population in check with the aid of leopogs, vicious dog-leopard hybrids. The visitors to Parkland are all animals – tigers, giraffes and so on – but they have a strangely human consciousness behind their eyes. The human residents of Parkland are, for the most part, content. The walls of Parkland provide them with food, medicine, clothing and every other material comfort. In Parkland, they are safe and civilised, unlike the savage humans of the BC (‘Before Cage’) era.

Cassie and her friends reject Parkland and everything it stands for. When they discover the keepers wrestling an unknown boy into the enclosures, they realise that they’ve been lied to all their lives: there is a world beyond Parkland’s walls, and there are free people living there. They become determined to escape.

But the feral humans are not the answer to their prayers. They are violent, harsh and believe in survival at all costs, a reflection of the savage, hunted lives they must live. The ferals reject Ralph and Boxer as abominations. And Cassie and her friends have other problems: Leon (as the feral boy is called) was implanted with a tracking device by the Parkland keepers as a means to signal the leopogs, which are to cull the feral population. Cassie, accompanied by her friends and Leon, realises that she must return to Parkland and confront its keepers. It is at this confrontation that she realises the true history of Parkland. Its keepers are aliens who view themselves as responsible for maintaining the balance of life on every planet in the universe. They have visited Earth twice: once to annihilate the dinosaur population (‘an evolutionary cul-de-sac’) and once to prevent human beings from destroying all other life on their planet. The result of that second visit was, of course, Parkland. After many tribulations, the worst of the keepers are killed, leaving Edwards, one of their ‘scientist class’, to work with the humans and the other apes to make Parkland a place of harmony, where the old human knowledge is retained but not abused.

Parkland is absolutely ruthless in its exploration of Kelleher’s main concerns: humanity, responsibility and freedom, and it’s worth examining just what conclusions the book reaches in terms of these three main themes.

Humanity. At its heart, Kelleher’s concern here is with what exactly constitutes a human being. Ultimately he leaves us with a definition of humanity that is quite fluid. Cassie, with all the zeal of an activist, passionately believes that all apes are ‘one people’. In her worldview, there are the people – the inhabitants of Parkland – and the others, the keepers who oppress and imprison them. In thinking thus, she is actually strikingly similar to the keepers themselves, who view all the inhabitants of Parkland as ‘the apes’, and think of themselves as elevated beings. (These two viewpoints consciously evoke colonialism to a great extent, of course.) Clarke, one of the keepers, even accuses his fellow-keeper Edwards of ‘going native’.

‘You’ve been in this body too long, d’you know that? It’s getting to you. You’re beginning to think like the apes.’

‘Maybe I am,’ Edwards conceded, ‘but then maybe that’s not the worst thing that can happen to us while we’re here.’

‘Meaning what?’

‘Meaning it’s a pity you haven’t been affected by the body you’re in.’ […]

He [Edwards] was standing at the gallery railing, holding both hands up before him as though studying them. ‘Me?’ she [Cassie] heard him murmur. Next he ran his hands slowly down his face, like a blind man examining his own features. ‘Me?’ he murmured again. ‘Me?’

– Victor Kelleher, Parkland, pp. 204 and 206.

 

The ferals, on the other hand, have a harsh, ‘you’re either with us or against us’ view of humanity. Apes are certainly not human beings. And human beings are not compassionate. They are Darwinist, survive-at-all costs, brutal individuals. The humans in Parkland are little better than collaborators in their own oppression.

Responsiblity Ultimately, although the ferals believe the fundamental responsibility of a human being is to survive (they take this to extremes, abandoning the weak members of their society in the face of attacks), Kelleher is arguing here that the fundamental responsibility of a human being is to be humane. Like most dystopian science-fiction, Parkland is written with a very strong warning to contemporary society in mind: maintain a balance, rein in our destructive and consumerist impulses, or suffer the horrific consequences. We can see, with the ferals, how strong the human urge to dominate and destroy can be. Even in the face of obliteration at the hands of the leopogs, Leon is still talking about the BC age as one of achievement and mastery:

‘But there wasn’t any civilisation,’ she [Cassie] objected. ‘Not until we were taken into Parkland.’

‘They probably told you that to keep you quiet,’ he [Leon] sneered. ‘I’d rather trust the stories, about how we could fly and build things, and how we could live in one place and didn’t have to run all the time. That was before the coming of the leopogs.’

– Victor Kelleher, Parkland, p. 127.

 

Freedom In Parkland, as in the other books of this trilogy, Kelleher links the concepts of responsibility and freedom together very tightly. This makes a lot of sense, as these are, of course, the impulses in humanity that constantly war with one another. The ostensible message of the book is that we are not free to do what we want, because the darker aspects of humanity would cause us to destroy ourselves. However – and this is what makes Kelleher truly remarkable as a writer for children, especially in the late ’80s – the book is more ambiguous than that.

It’s about cages – both physical and metaphorical. Who is more free – the Parklanders, who are secure, comfortable and safe, with every physical need taken care of – the ferals, or the apes, who lack a human consciousness and thus bear no responsibility for their actions? The book ends with Cassie and her friends poised on the brink of a new future, with Parkland a haven, rather than a prison, with the knowledge of the old times available to all who seek it, including the chimp-human hybrid Boxer. But Cassie’s qualms about Boxer’s enthusiasm for the old human knowledge (and the rapacious nature that bent it to destructive ends) undermine the book’s hopeful ending. Ultimately, Kelleher seems to be saying that to be truly responsible and free, to be truly human, is to be free to make mistakes.

Kelleher’s concern with maintaining balance and harmony on earth, as well as between the warring human impulses to create and destroy, finds further expression in the next book of the trilogy, Earthsong, which I will be discussing next. I look forward to seeing you all soon for the next installment of Victor Kelleher Week!

Announcement: Victor Kelleher Week December 27, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in announcements, books.
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Hello, dear readers! It’s been a while. I hope you all are enjoying your holidays!

Back at the start of the year, I had grand plans for this blog. They included a semi-regular segment on ‘under-appreciated authors’, where I was planning to plead the case for authors I love that no one else seems to have heard of. This segment never materialised, due to various things (mainly the fact that I was writing a PhD, as well as a bunch of conference papers, and editing an academic journal). However, now that I’ve got a bit of spare time, I’d like to propose something slightly less ambitious: Victor Kelleher Week.

Victor Kelleher is one of my favourite authors, and has been since I was a child. I credit his books with playing a major role in my philosophical, moral and intellectual development. Although his books are often taught in Australian secondary schools, very few people seem to share my high opinion of him, and he is not widely known outside Australia.

At this point, I’m intending to re-read Parkland, Earthsong and Fire Dancer, which form a loosely-linked trilogy (‘about humanity, responsibility and freedom’, their blurbs inform me), and post about each of the three books. Aside from The Beast of Heaven (which is a book for adults), these are my three favourite Kelleher novels, and they are probably most representative of his work. If everything goes smoothly, I might try doing this for other, ‘underappreciated’ authors.

I hope you enjoy Victor Kelleher Week!

When I was a child, the world seemed so wide March 22, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, memories.
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For someone whose favourite series of books is about the absolute necessity of embracing conscious, adult existence, I sure spend a lot of time reminiscing about my childhood. On days when adult life seems to ‘suck beyond the telling of it’ (Gratuitous Buffy Quote #1), childhood experiences seem that much more wonderful, their joys that much fiercer, their emotions that much stronger, the whole 17 (to pluck an arbitrary number out of nowhere) years that much more meaningful than anything the previous seven have had to offer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my attitude to my favourite texts (TV series and movies, but for the most part books) of my younger years.

It became apparent, in a couple of conversations with Sibylle, that I mythologised my personal canon of childhood to an absurd degree. Sibylle has set herself a rather awesome reading challenge this year: to read the best young-adult, science-fiction and fantasy novels out there. Since these are my three main genres, I was happy to oblige with suggestions. What we both noticed was that I was constantly saying things like ‘such and such a book was my favourite book when I was seven’ or, ‘so and so wrote the books that meant the most to me when I was a teenager’. Although I have discovered texts that I adore since hitting the wrong side of 18, they are much rarer. (Hello, current crazy Watchmen obsession! Why don’t you stand up and take a bow, Great, Epic Fangirling of Scott Westerfeld and Cory Doctorow of 2007-8? And let’s not forget the time that American Gods reduced me to a quivering heap of awed silence.)

But a recent post of Sibylle’s forced me to reexamine my rather blinkered, uncritical view of my childhood canon.

I’ve also watched Grease (1978) for the upteenth time. It was my favourite movie when I was 13, which means nothing as to its quality. I’m very suspicious of my teenage and childhood loves as I don’t think half of them were based on merit. You won’t find me writing about how wonderful something is based solely on my childhood memories of it.

Ouch. Even though she assures me this comment wasn’t aimed at me, it did make me think that I needed to assess exactly why I champion my beloved texts of childhood so fiercely.

One of the things I’ve noticed about adulthood is that you have much less time to be a narcissist. (Somewhere, my mother is rolling on the floor laughing at this admission of her most narcissistic of daughters.) I know this sounds odd coming from someone whose idea of a good time is to sit in her room, reviewing books on the internet while talking to people on IRC, but the pull of the ‘real world’ is slightly more insistent once you’re an adult. If nothing else, there’s a need to earn money to support an expensive lifestyle of Buffy boxed sets, fantasy novels and, once in a while, food. Childhood and adolescence, in contrast, offer many opportunities for sitting in one’s room, thinking about how such and such a novel (or film, or song) PERFECTLY ENCAPSULATES ONE’S LIFE. (That is, if one’s childhood is as wonderfully middle-class Canberran as mine was.) But it is not merely opportunity that causes this vastly expanded childhood canon.

I’ve realised that I like texts in three different ways. These can be roughly summarised thus:

  • Head: These texts appeal to me solely on an aesthetic level.  I appreciate the technical proficiency of their creators, and in some cases, their complex themes, but I feel no desire to reread or rewatch them.  I can’t list any examples because, once I’ve read or watched such texts, they exert no further pull on my imagination.
  • Head and Heart: These texts are aesthetically pleasing and speak to me on some personal level.  They have some kind of meaning that either fits in with my worldview or has some relevance to my life, and tend to encourage me to want to write about them and discuss them with others.  The majority of the books of my childhood would fall under this category, as would most of my current personal canon (Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series, China Miéville’s books, Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, Dollhouse, most of the immrama that I’m writing about for my dissertation).
  • Head, Heart and Soul: These texts are technically proficient.  They possess themes which speak to me on a personal level and make me want to write about them and discuss them with other fans.  But, most importantly, they make me reexamine who I am, make me want to change, to become better, to think more.  These are the texts that I would quite possibly die to save.  Thinking about these texts makes my life worth living.

This last category contains such things as His Dark Materials, Buffy, Firefly, Sara Douglass’s Troy Game series, Parkland, Earthsong, Firedancer, The Beast of Heaven and Taronga by Victor Kelleher, The Tiger In The Well by Philip Pullman, The Vampire Chronicles, Catherine Jinks’s Pagan series, Adele Geras’s Tower Room series and book The Girls in the Velvet Frame, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, the films Amelie and Waltz With Bashir, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga, Cirque du Soleil’s show Quidam, Buile Shuibne, and the graphic novel Watchmen.

Of that list, only American Gods, Small Gods, The Vampire Chronicles, Buile Shuibne, The Troy Game, The Tir Tanagiri Saga, Waltz With Bashir, Firefly and Watchmen were read/watched by me when I was an adult. And of that small list, the only ones read/watched by me after I finished my undergrad degree were Waltz With Bashir, Watchmen, American Gods and Small Gods. That’s a very small proportion of a rather large personal canon.

I do read slightly less than I did as a child (when I would routinely read three books a day), but that can’t be the only reason. Of the three books a day I read as a child, after all, not all became Head, Heart and Soul books. Why, then, are so few of the texts that have meaning for me texts I’ve discovered as an adult?

It’s not a reflection of quality. Objectively, I know, for example, that the Pagan series is of a much higher quality than the Vampire Chronicles, and that Victor Kelleher is a much better writer than Sara Douglass. I might (after doing Honours in English literature, working for five years as a book reviewer and two years as a feature sub-editor) know a bit more about what makes for bad writing than I did as a child, but none of the ‘childhood canon’ books on my list are badly written. I’ve read them all many times as an adult, and they remain as wonderful now as they seemed to me as a child.

Perhaps it has something to do with the relative complexity (and stability) of one’s adult identity in comparison to the fluidity of the identity of a child. A child is, to a certain extent, unformed, and capable of possessing many facets, not all of which must be satisfied in a work of fiction. Thus, the part of my child-self that consoled itself through ‘supposing’ was satisfied with A Little Princess, while the part of it that thought all humans were beasts found expression in the works of Victor Kelleher. I did not require a text to be all things to all parts of my personality, and so was satisfied with texts that embodied just some parts of that personality. As an adult, I require more of my texts, and so, for the most part, am disappointed in this regard. A text must, as I wrote elsewhere in this blog, speak to me and for me and and about me, but it must do so to and for and about all parts of my identity.

That is asking a lot of a text. In fact, in the face of my high-maintenance requirements of texts, it’s a wonder any have managed to find their way into my personal canon at all since I turned 18. So thank you, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Ari Folman, Alan Moore, Sara Douglass, Jo Walton, Anne Rice, crazed anonymous medieval author of Buile Shuibne, and Joss Whedon for somehow finding a way into the seething mass of contradictions which make up my mind, heart and soul. Sometimes, your writings are the only things that make me feel anything for this confusing, terrifying, beautiful and heartbreaking thing called adulthood. For this, I am eternally grateful.