Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq

I can’t really enlarge upon our life in the forest. It’s a matter of security. 

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Edition: Text Publishing, 2018, 192 pages.

Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq, translated from the French by Penny Hueston, is a science fiction novel that’s been compared to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Set in a near future surveillance state with advanced robot technology and human clones (called “halves”) that are kept in a comatose state in specialized medical centres and harvested for organs, Our life in the Forest follows a woman, who is living with a group of people in a forest as a form of protest against the unethical practices of this future society. Over the course of the book, we learn what were the circumstances that motivated her to abandon her city life and settle in the forest. The book is written in the form of an intimate confession by the protagonist as a way for her to explain her decisions and keep her story alive for future generations.

Before her life in the forest, she was working as a psychologist and treating patients who had experienced some kind of trauma. One of her regulars was patient zero, the so-called clicker, who visits her to complain about the constant tedium of his dead-end job, which is to teach robots mental associations in order to make them appear more human, so that they could eventually replace humans in the jobs that require empathy.

You’re endlessly performing a task the mind can do but which discombobulates a robot. And which is nevertheless difficult to conceptualise. The only solution is to multiply the links, click, click, click, until the robot has been supplied with everything we could possibly have thought up until now, everything we could have felt, everything humanity could have experienced. 

Blue = sky = melancholy = music = bruising = blue blood = nobility = beheading.

We soon learn that, outside of her job, the narrator spends most of her free time visiting her clone, named Marie, who is kept in one of the vast medical centres. Despite the fact that the narrator has already received several transplants and is in need of more due to her declining health, she begins to feel repelled by the idea of harvesting Marie’s organs.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving too much away since the themes of the novel are closely linked to some of the major plot points. All I will say is that the book explores identity and the ethical questions concerning organ-harvesting. In this near-future scenario, the wealthiest people are able to significantly prolong their lives and their youth by replacing any of their organs with those of their “halves”, while the less rich only have jars with the most vital organs, and those, who can’t afford even the jars, receive no help at all, so one of the major topics of this book is how this kind of medical advancement might affect people from different socio-economic positions in society.

While the science fiction concept itself might not be that new, Out Life in the Forest felt like a well-crafted story with a clear message that challenges us to think about how such potential technological and medical advancements might affect the future.

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Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Darkness. “In the beginning was the Word.”

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Edition: HarperCollins, 2018, 416 pages.

One of the most engrossing reading experiences of the year, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey, is a dark and philosophical fantasy novel that examines the fundamentals of existence and will most likely appeal to fans of X-Men comics, Lexicon by Max Barry, and The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.

“I want to give you a task to perform. It’s not hard. I never ask for the impossible.”

The story follows Alexandra “Sasha” Samokhina, who, while vacationing at the beach with her mother, encounters a mysterious stranger, Farit Kozhennikov, who manipulates her into performing strange tasks with an even more peculiar reward. As Sasha soon finds out, the price for disobeying is terrible, so she agrees to comply with the stranger’s bizarre requests. This all takes her on an increasingly strange path that leads to a mysterious Institute of Special Technologies, located in a small town in rural Russia, with weird teachers and students. Sasha and her classmates are forced to attend very unconventional courses and the study schedule is gruelling. Moreover, every failure or misstep results in a terrible punishment, but, instead of the students, it’s their loved ones who have to pay the price. Ironically, the demanding and exhausting study process at this strange institute, where they spend long nights cramming for exams with no concrete aim in sight, felt like a pretty accurate depiction of academic life (except for the incredibly cruel punishments, of course).

This is a very difficult book to summarize without revealing too much, so I’ll just say that, as the story develops, it gets progressively weirder, darker and more philosophical. In a good way. Even though I’m still not entirely sure that I understood all the underlying philosophical concepts.

There are concepts that cannot be imagined but can be named. Having received a name, they change, flow into a different entity, and cease to correspond to the name, and then they can be given another, different name, and this process—the spellbinding process of creation—is infinite: this is the word that names it, and this is the word that signifies. A concept as an organism, and text as the universe.

Readers and reviewers often describe a book as engrossing or that they couldn’t put it down, but, in my experience, these kinds of reading experiences are actually very rare. I’m an avid reader but I can recall only a small number of books that really provided me with the experience of being completely transported into another world and not wanting the book to end. I’m happy to report that Vita Nostra was one of those experiences. There’s been an interesting trend in fantasy fiction in recent years, where authors try to incorporate elements from Russian culture and mythology into their worldbuilding, however, unfortunately, the end results are often full of obvious errors that immediately pull me out of the story, so it was very refreshing to read a fantasy novel where the Russian setting actually feels authentic.

Overall, this was a suspenseful, imaginative, and smart fantasy novel with a strong,  clever, and assertive main character that explores the mysteries of the universe and transformative nature of deep intellectual studies. The story also serves as a great allegory for the transformation, both physical and psychological, that young adults go through as they grow up and mature. Highly recommended!

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We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

A girl with a guitar never has to apologize for anything.

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Edition: Quirk Books, 2018, 336 pages.

In the 1990s, Kris Pulaski was the guitarist of a heavy metal band called Dürt Würk, and even though the band gave their best to succeed, Dürt Würk didn’t get their big break, so, twenty years later, we see Kris, who is now in her forties and broke, working as a hotel receptionist at a Best Western, where she has to deal with annoying, drunk guests.

The premise of We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix immediately appealed to me because of the heavy metal aspect and, in essence, the novel is a fast-paced, supernatural story that reflects on modern-day consumerism and looks at how far some people would be willing to go in the name of fame and success?

“Now, people sell their souls for nothing. They do it for a new iPhone or to have one night with their hot next-door neighbor. There is no fanfare, no parchment signed at midnight. Sometimes it’s just the language you click in an end-user license agreement. Most people don’t even notice, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. They only want things. So they sell their souls, and they go to sleep, and the Special Ones crawl out of the dirty corners and lap them up. They control everything, they keep us hungry, they keep us in pain, they keep us distracted. Have you noticed how soulless this world has become? How empty and prefabricated? Soulless lives are hollow. We fill the earth with soulless cities, pollute ourselves with soulless albums. When the soul is removed it leaves a hole, and we try to fill that hole with so many things—the internet, and conspiracy theories, and CNN, and drugs, and food, but there is only one thing inside that hole, Kris, and that is Black Iron Mountain. It is our jailer, and this is our jail: an eternal, insane hunger that can never be satisfied, a wound that can never be healed, an unnatural desire to consume. Our hunger traps us inside a prison as big as the world.”

As the story develops, we find out just how close Dürt Würk was to making it big, and how it all came crashing down when their lead singer, Terry Hunt, decided to betray his bandmates and go solo, while continuing to use the band’s old material. Terry goes on to achieve phenomenal fame with his metal band Koffin, and the announcement of Koffin’s epic farewell tour sparks Kris’s determination to reconnect with her old bandmates and confront Terry about the events that lead to the dissolution of Dürt Würk. Along the way, she gets involved in a conspiracy, which suggests that Terry’s stardom might have come from some kind of Faustian deal, as suggested by the title of the book. Kris sets out to uncover the truth and races against time to stop an evil force from taking over the world.

The story takes some time to gain momentum and the horror elements really start to appear only around the midpoint of the book, but, overall, We Sold Our Souls is an engrossing and spooky love letter to heavy metal music, and Kris’s passion for the genre made me quite nostalgic to revisit some of the bands that are mentioned in the book. As expected, metal music plays a significant part in the narrative and each chapter heading is a fun reference to a song title. The book also makes some strong statements about the meaning and appeal of heavy metal music, and it obviously comes from a place of love for the genre. If you’re looking for a fun, spooky Halloween read with a strong female lead, I suggest giving this book a try.

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The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada

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Edition: Portobello Books, 2018, 144 pages.

Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada (published in the US as The Emissary), translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is a dystopian novel set in a near-future Japan that has isolated itself from the rest of the world, and gone even further by deliberately erasing foreign-origin, particularly English, words from the Japanese language and replacing them with alternatives. The ability to understand English is actually considered as evidence of old age.

Long ago, this sort of purposeless running had been referred to as jogging, but with foreign words falling out of use, it was now called loping down, an expression that had started out as a joke meaning “if you lope your blood pressure goes down,” but everybody called it that these days.

Moreover, for a reader who is passionate about translated fiction, the most terrifying thing about this near-future world is the fact that books, even picture books, are no longer being translated…

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As a result of an unexplained disaster, the elderly in this futuristic Japan seem to be immortal, while the younger generations are weak and disabled, and have very short lifespans which basically means that the aged have to do most of the physical labour and are forced to watch their grandchildren and great-grandchildren die. The first part of the novel mostly focuses on Yoshiro, a centenarian who is taking care of his very fragile great-grandson Mumei. For Mumei, performing even the smallest day-to-day tasks, such as putting on clothes and chewing his food, is very tiring for his weak body, so he heavily relies on his great-grandfather’s help. In the second half of the novel, the author introduces more characters, but their individual storylines were fairly underdeveloped. Also, very late in the novel, the author introduces a potentially interesting plot point, which kind of explains why the US title of this book is The Emissary, however, soon afterwards, the story just ended…

As you can probably tell by now, unfortunately, this book didn’t really work for me. The narrative felt disjointed at times but, more importantly, I thought that this book fell into the same trap that many speculative literary novels have fallen into before, whereby the various science fiction elements are used only as metaphors to make some kind of point and make little sense otherwise. I didn’t expect this to be hard science fiction, but I think that these types of speculative novels, as opposed to those that are labelled as genre fiction, are lacking in coherent world-building. I have a similar problem with the majority of literary fairytale retellings that have come out in recent years, in which the authors can often get away with lazy world-building by relying on the justification that the book is meant to be read from a literary standpoint, even though it includes science fiction or fantasy elements. I won’t really go into that here because that might be an interesting topic for a whole separate post.

Despite my issues with the book, Tawada is a skilful writer, and it’s a beautifully written novel that had a lot of potential. I’m willing to accept that I didn’t really get it, but it seems to me that the interesting futuristic setting only served the purpose of conveying, in a rather blunt manner, a message about the dangers of isolationism, environmental pollution, and exaggerated attempts to please everyone by, for example, renaming public holidays.

‘Labour Day’ became ‘Being Alive is Enough Day’

Clearly, the judging panel of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature saw something more in this novel so you may want to give this one a try for yourself.

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I Still Dream by James Smythe

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Edition: The Borough Press, 2018, 400 pages.

I Still Dream by James Smythe is an engaging and intellectually stimulating science fiction novel exploring the impact of Artificial Intelligence and the border between human and machine, reminiscent of some of the great science fiction classics.

I was gripped from the very first pages of the novel that opens in 1997 when we meet Laura Bow, a very intelligent and tech-savvy 17-year old teenager with a passion for computers and coding. We learn that she has created a primitive AI system that she has named Organon, after the song Cloudbusting by Kate Bush from her album The Hounds of Love (1985). Laura’s nerdy enthusiasm for music and making mix tapes made me immediately connect with Laura and love the book even more. Organon serves as Laura’s confidant and a sort of therapist to help her deal with the mysterious disappearance of her father, a pioneering computer programmer. I thought the author did a great job at capturing the voice of a teenage girl and evoking the atmosphere of the 1990’s.

Her AI system soon gets into the hands of people who see the potential of it, and, as a result, Laura is suddenly propelled into the world of Silicon Valley. From there, the novel is divided into chapters, each of them jumping a decade into the future – 2007, 2017, 2027, 2037, 2047 – and following Laura’s life journey from her own or someone else’s perspective. The sudden jumps in time sometimes felt a bit jarring, mostly because I was left wanting more from some of the sections. I particularly enjoyed the author’s exploration of the culture of Silicon Valley – the personalities of the people, who work in the tech industry, the long working hours, and constant rivalry.

On a more personal level, some sections of the novel give us a glimpse into Laura’s personal life, her marriage, and the difficult life decisions that she needs to make. We also see the development of Organon that remains a constant companion to Laura throughout her life.

The novel also deals with some big questions concerning the development and future use of AI, our increasing reliance on technology, and the very topical subject of the collection and use of our personal data, and our right to privacy. I thought the author succeeded in creating a very vivid and believable scenario of our potential future. This was my introduction to James Smythe’s writing, and I will definitely be reading more of this work.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

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Edition: Oneworld Publications, 2017, 272 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Set in 2005, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, is a fascinating and cleverly constructed portrait of war-torn Baghdad in the wake of the American invasion that includes subtle allusions to Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.

Featuring a vast cast of characters from diverse backgrounds (the character list at the beginning of the book was much appreciated), the novel provides a glimpse into the lives of people, who try to lead normal lives amidst the violence and suicide bombings that have become an everyday background noise in Baghdad.

In this chaos, we meet Hadi, a junk dealer, who picks up stray body parts that are left on the streets of Baghdad in the wake of car bombings and stitches them together to create a human being in the hope that the complete corpse would be treated as a person and given a proper burial. However, through a series of coincidences, the corpse is reanimated from the soul of Hasib, a security guard who lost his life during another car bombing and, unable to locate his body, lodged inside Hadi’s creation, the so-called Whatsitsname. The creature then roams the streets of Baghdad at night, seeking to avenge the deaths of the victims whose body parts make up his body, so that they could rest in peace.

“With the help of God and of heaven, I will take revenge on all the criminals. I will finally bring about justice on earth, and there will no longer be a need to wait in agony for justice to come, in heaven or after death. ‘Will I fulfil my mission? I don’t know, but I will at least try to set an example of vengeance – the vengeance of the innocent who have no protection other than the tremors of their souls as they pray to ward off death.”

Similarly to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Whatsitsname feels misunderstood when people equate him to a criminal because he sees himself as a kind of harbinger of justice. At the same time, the elderly Christian woman Elishva views Whatsitsname as an answer to her prayers, since she believes that the creature has the soul of her missing son.

What stood out to me in this novel was how the author not only managed to write a complex and effective allegory for the never-ending cycle of violence in Iraq, but also created characters that aren’t just chess pieces that make the plot work, but have distinct personalities, goals, dreams, and inner demons. The novel never tries to manipulate with the reader’s feelings but instead casts a satirical lens on the horrors faced by the inhabitants of the city.

Whatsitsname soon becomes a media sensation, and a local journalist, Mahmoud al-Sawadi, is given the task to investigate and write a magazine article about the mysterious creature that is stalking the streets of Baghdad and terrifying its inhabitants. Through the connections of Ali Baher al-Saidi, the prominent owner and editor of the magazine,  Mahmoud also comes into contact with the Tracking and Pursuit Department, a strange special information unit, supposedly set up by the Americans, that employs astrologers, mediums, and soothsayers to investigate unusual crimes and make predictions about future crimes.

Eventually, Whatsitsname discovers that he needs to kill more people to replace his old body parts, and what initially started as a revenge mission against criminals to bring justice, soon turns into a seemingly never-ending killing spree where the lines between criminals and innocents become very blurred. Violence leads to even more violence and Whatitsname becomes a clever symbol of the vicious cycle of violence that plagues Iraq.

‘There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.’ This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue. He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components. This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim.

He also attracts a group of assistants and followers, who help him carry out his mission. However, they soon get involved in their own inner conflicts and begin to splinter into factions in a way that brought to mind the brilliant sequence from the 1979 Monty Python film Life of Brian in which a group of followers are squabbling over how to interpret a “message” from their Messiah.

I often see this novel marketed as a horror story, but I think this label is doing it a disservice, because people that will go into this expecting a scary story about a zombie who kills people on the streets of Baghdad, will most likely be disappointed. This is a literary novel about the effects of war that borrows elements from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and gives them a modern spin. One of my favourites of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a novel that I definitely want to revisit sometime in the future.

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Auditions Of History: Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

History always auditioning for one last performance that’s never delivered because it’s always rewritten. To, uh, talk of the “lessons” of history suggests…models that can be applied to other instances, when no moment really is enough like another that any model applies, without turning the model into something that’s so much something else as to make it, well, not obsolete, but not all that relevant either.

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Edition: Blue Rider Press, 2017, 300 pages.

Steve Erickson’s latest novel Shadowbahn is set in a fascinating alternate version of America in the near future. It’s a parallel America that could have been and is revealed by taking a road trip on a “shadow highway” that connects both costs of America and is described in the novel as:

[…] a rumored thoroughfare unmarked on any map, a secret highway called the “shadowbahn” that cuts through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity.

Twenty years after they fell, the Twin Towers mysteriously reappear in the Badlands of South Dakota. Moreover, the towers seem to transmit music, however, every one of the thousands of people who flock to see this miracle hears a different song. The towers are completely empty of people, except for one resident: a full-grown version of Jessie Presley, the stillborn twin brother of Elvis Presley, who suddenly awakens on the ninety-third floor of one of the towers and is going mad from memories of events that never happened and of a life where he survived in his brother’s place. Meanwhile, siblings Parker and Zema are on a road trip from L.A. to see their mother in Michigan, when they hear about the strange reappearance of the Twin Towers and decide to take a detour to see this apparition. Oh, and Zema’s body seems to transmit music, too, in a version of America were all music seems to be disappearing.

I know the premise of this novel sounds completely crazy, but since I’ve previously read Zeroville, I had faith in the author’s ability to weave a strange yet thought-provoking story. And he didn’t disappoint. Erickson has created a dreamscape, where he plays with the idea of actual and thematic twins and alternative versions, shadow versions and surrogates. The central theme of the novel is identity: both individual and cultural. Jessie Presley is haunted by a voice in his head that he knows isn’t his, by the spectre of what his brother would have become. He feels that he is the inferior version of his brother, a feeling that is intensified when he meets people that somehow also know that he is the “wrong” twin, and he vents out his frustrations by writing scathing articles in a music magazine and hanging around the artists and outcasts at, what seems to be, Andy Warhol’s Factory.

A significant part of the book is devoted to discussions on the history of American popular music. Parker and Zema’s father is a radio DJ and a very opinionated music snob, who spends a lot of time compiling elaborate playlists, placing songs in a specific, and, what he deems to be, the “right” order. The novel includes separate chapters, which are interspersed throughout the book, that put songs into pairings (in a kind of face-off) and look into the history of these songs and, on a larger scale, the evolution of American music, and how it has shaped and influenced American culture. It also reminds us that rock ‘n’ roll (what we associate with popular 20th-century Western music) evolved from blues music and was essentially invented by African Americans. Elvis was the bridge that brought it into mainstream culture and his absence in this version of America has profound cultural implications on the world. The novel suggests that music is the heartbeat of the country and one of the fundamental elements of its cultural identity that expresses the collective dreams and hopes of its people.

The novel tries to reconstruct the image of America by piecing it together from all these alternative parts. This shadow America is populated by alternative versions of historical figures and the novel seems to be asking, what would be the fates of these famous people in this phantom America, where the political and cultural landscape is different?

I really liked the relationship between Parker and his sister Zema, who was adopted from Ethiopia and struggles with her national identity. They go on a road trip across this alternative version of America that seems to be in a state of disunion. Through their story, the author explores the theme of family legacy, and seems to ask, what is the inheritance that parents leave to their children? In case of these siblings, it is represented by a playlist that was compiled by their father, as well as a notebook with comments about the songs. As they go across this shadow America, they listen to the playlist and are exposed to a wide variety of music that seems to represent the essence of America.

Shadowbahn is an engaging, remarkable piece of writing that keeps you guessing, what will happen next, until the very end. The narrative constantly shifts, weaving several story threads, and it almost feels like the book consists of several novels. I can understand how this disjointed structure and an impressive amount of musical references might seem frustrating for a lot of readers, but I find that the unconventional way he tells the story and the themes that are discussed in this book make this a fascinating and worthwhile read. In this book, as in Zeroville, Erickson demonstrates how to use pop culture references in a meaningful way, instead of just trying to profit off of the latest nostalgia trend. This is only my second book by Erickson, but I already feel that I’ve found a new favourite author.

The human heart commits its greatest treachery by healing. It commits its greatest treachery by surviving the love that was supposed to last forever, that was supposed to be the heart’s burden into eternity, only for that burden to be laid down by too much time and, worse, too much banality, too much of everything that’s beneath love, not good enough for love.

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P.S. Here is a playlist of the songs referenced in Shadowbahn: