Friday, March 07, 2008

February Reading: Ballard, Le Guin, Swanwick, McDevitt 

The high point of the month was the J.G. Ballard autobiography, Miracles of Life (published in the UK by Fourth Estate), a fascinating account of the life of one of the most distinctive and controversial SF writers of the 20th century, about which I can complain only of its brevity. Compared to many autobiographies -- the other extreme would be Asimov's -- Ballard's is brief, almost minimalistic. The first half of the book covers his childhood, already familiar to readers of his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, or viewers of the Steven Spielberg film adaptation -- he was a child of British parents living in Shanghai (his father worked for a British cotton firm that bowed to Chinese competition in the 1920s), in an isolated, privileged compound existence, until the Japanese invaded in 1937, resulting in their eventual relocation to an internment camp from 1943 until the war's end in 1945. The difference between real life and film is that the boy Jim was not, in fact, separated from his parents, though in ways JGB explains in the book, it seemed like it. The virtues of the book are the ways Ballard reveals the mindsets of life as he was growing up -- the way the British presumed their incarceration was no big deal, not taking the Japanese threat seriously; the way parents of the era, when so many children died of diseases, treated their own children as gambles, not the centers or meanings of their lives.

The second half of the book is a bit scattershot; it does describe events that led to a couple of Ballard's seminal works, The Atrocity Exhibition (inspired by a certain Whitechapel Gallery art exhibition, the avante garde literary scene of the time, and the premature death of his wife Mary) and Crash (and the response to the David Cronenberg film thereof). More central to this section are his children, which are the titular "miracles of life", and his second partner Claire Walsh. He spends rather too much space talking about impressive people he's known -- Christopher Evans, Eduardo Paolozzi -- though there are interesting anecdotes about serving on a film jury, and finally, his return to Shanghai, in conjunction with a BBC profile about him and The Kindness of Women, in 1991. It was the publication of Miracles of Life that caused Ballard to reveal his diagnosis of prostate cancer, with its terminal implication; but with no worse news thus far, we can only hope there might be some further output from Ballard in the months since he finished this book.

I also read.... the second and third of Ursula K. Le Guin's young adult novels in her "Western Shore" trilogy, which began with Gifts (2004), and was followed by Voices in 2006 and Powers in 2007. All are beautifully written and inspiring books, and the good news is, if you're not inclined to commit yourself to reading all three, the books are semi-independent -- set in the same world, but concerning different protagonists in different cities. There is a lovely scene at the end of Powers when the three come together in the same place, but it's a bonus, not a necessary culmination. The virtues of these books are the anthropological imagination Le Guin invests in depicting various cultures, and the way she portrays her characters as presuming the rightness of their own cultures -- whether it involves class systems, slavery, or the repression of books -- before learning to see the possibilities of other ways of life. Each book portrays, in its fashion, a cultural conceptual breakthrough, the very essence of what, I would say, is the purpose of speculative fiction.

Also: Michael Swanwick's The Dragons of Babel is a delicious, colorful undermining of the usual tropes of fantasy, while serving as a sly commentary on current politics and war-mongering. Portions of the book were earlier published as separate stories, not all of which I'd previously read, and it's a tribute to the book that it does not read like a usual fix-up -- I couldn't tell which unread portions I hadn't read until I researched it.

And on a completely different note, I caught up with Jack McDevitt's Odyssey, now that it's on the final Nebula ballot. McDevitt is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me; he's not especially literary, or cutting-edge in any sense, but he is hard-core science fiction in a way not a lot of good books are these days. McDevitt's virtue is that he writes what I would call Hard SF Space Opera -- he deals with casual FTL space flight and various aliens races out there in the galactic arm -- and though his political and social interactions are identical with 20th century life, his SFnal content is knowledgeable in the sense that he understands the distances involved and the astrophysical characteristics of real stars and planets. (If only *any* Hollywood film were so well informed.) Odyssey keys off the idea of UFOs and analogous observations throughout human history, here called "moonriders", but ultimately it deals more with human politics and gullibility than it does with the questionable existence of actual alien beings. McDevitt's tolerance for unresolved endings (which McDevitt Locus reviewer Russell Letson has noted) makes his novels rather like episodes in an ongoing, open-ended series, not unlike, say, Lost, or thinking back, certain plot threads of Star Trek: the Next Generation. The book reaches a resolution, but there are mysteries yet to discover.
I just --- finally --- got around to reading "Empire of the Sun"...I enjoy Ballard's fiction (especially his early stuff) and wasn't sure what to expect, but I was really taken in by the book...one of the best I read this winter. I also finally read "Titus Groan" and will happily be working my eay through the rest of the trilogy. Anyway, I look forward to the new Ballard bio. Thanks for the positive comments. JPB
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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