The New Moon’s Arms – Nalo Hopkinson (2007)

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Having frequently heard of Nalo Hopkinson as a sci fi/speculative fiction author, and since I was in the mood for that sort of read, I checked out this title from the library. (I’d also been looking for a good fiction read by a POC author as well, so this ticked that box very nicely as well.)

So, not quite sure what to expect since Hopkinson was a completely new author to me, the first chapter got off to rather a rough start. OMG. It was so confusing – people change names for no apparent reason, there’s magical realism (which I wasn’t expecting), and there are animals who might (or might not) be mermaids/merpeople in disguise. 

So, taking a deep breath and really liking how Hopkinson writes, I soldiered on and interestingly it all got sorted out by the end of the second chapter. So – heed this warning. That first chapter is worth sticking with as the plot sorts itself out in the end. (And I must admit – the fault may have been mine, but just in case…) 

To the book itself: The narrative arc follows a redemption story, really, with a pretty unlikable and prickly character (she who changes names in the first chapter) and what happens when she takes in a child she finds on the beach of her Caribbean (or similar) island. 

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Nalo Hopkinson. (Picture credit.)

Calamity (also called Chastity at certain parts) is dealing with two big situations at the moment. One is the death of her father (from whom she’s been estranged since her teenaged years) and the other is that whenever she has a hot flash due to menopause, her finger tips tingle and her long-lost childhood ability of finding lost things comes alive. The things found range from a blue and white plate from her childhood to an entire grove of cashew trees that materializes one day outside her house to the mysterious beach child with sea shells in his/her hair… 

At the same time as all this is going on, Chastity/Calamity’s also becoming more involved with the issue of the group of particular rare seals who live on one corner of her island home. She makes friends with a seal researcher and so throughout this narrative, there’s this collision (of sorts) between the roles and importance of science and myth, of magical realism and reality, of things unexplained by rational logic. 

Interestingly, there are collisions of other sorts as well: the protagonist has ongoing tussles with her relatives over various points; the arrival of the beach child causes concern for all when Calamity/Chastity decides to look after him/her; there’s discord between the protagonist and her father; there is the struggle at that point where the sea overlaps with the land, with science and magic… This turned out to be such a thoughtful read for me, so it was much than “just” magical realism/spec fiction. 

I’m not typically that huge a fan of magical realism, but this is mostly a straightforward drama with sprinkles of magic through in along the way, so I found it more palatable than I thought it was going to be. (I had it categorized as a broccoli book, but it was actually much better than that perception.)

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this read and thought that this was really a well-written book. One of the Goodread reviewers described the writing as almost liquid in a way, and that’s exactly how I viewed it. It’s a smooth read, like a stream running through rocks and roots – there are obstacles to face, but how they are handled by the characters runs really fluidly. 

This turned out to be really good read and I ended up completing it in two days (which is fast for me). I’m also convinced enough to look around and see what other library titles by Hopkinson are available. She’s that good. 

If you’re not familiar with Hopkinson, I recommend taking her work for a spin. It’s a deceptively easy read that will leave you with lots to think about. 

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury (1977)

So, I’d been busy with school and life and after looking at my recent book reading, realized that I really wanted to read just a straight-forward non-hard-hitting fiction. Having had pretty good success with Bradbury in the past (Dandelion Wind /(1957), Fahrenheit 451(1953) and Farewell Summer (2009)), I dropped by the library to pick up “The Martian Chronicles”.

Its publishing date is 1977, but as it’s a compilation of short (connected) stories inside, the individual pub dates for each story vary from 1946-1950. I actually had little idea of what this book was about or how it was structured, so went in with a clean plate. Since I wasn’t clear that this was actually a collection of connected short stories (if they can be called that), I was mightily confused with the timeline at first, but once I’d figured out that this is a series of stories that follow on from one another, I got it sorted out. But hell’s bells. I was muddled at first.

In case you’re like I was with no clear idea of this read, the title may clue you in: The Martian Chronicles. “Chronicles” to me suggests something of a newspaper, and once I knew that that was the book’s basic structure, the stories started to make much more sense.

Each chapter/story is set on Mars as it becomes colonized by humans escaping from an Earth which has had a catastrophic event that has made it unlivable for humans.  The stories are in chronological order starting with the date of January 1999 and finishing with the date of October 2026, and since it was written way back in the mid-1940s, it’s fascinating to see what someone back then was forecasting for this possible future – now our immediate past and present. (See? It does get a bit confusing.)

However, by halfway through the read, I’d got the hang of things and I’d recommend that if you choose this title, you read it in one or two long sittings (instead of picking it up and putting it down). I tried that strategy of picking-up-and-putting-down, but once I realized that I was going to be able to follow the book much more easily if I just got reading in big chunks, the whole experience turned around and I really enjoyed the book.

Ray Bradbury with his hands out, circa 1980. (Photo by Tribune/Getty Images)

It’s interesting seeing how someone in the 1940s thought the future of the U.S. would be in 60-80 years’ time (which means that Bradbury’s future is actually now our present).

The book starts with a rocket landing on Mars in 1999, but it’s an early adventure for the space agency on earth, and so it’s more exploratory than anything. As the chronology continues apace, the years that each chapter represents are pretty close together until about the year 2005 when the story then jumps ahead to how Mars is in 2026.

Of course, since it’s written by an American, it’s an American-focused story but doesn’t seem to suffer from that and it’s definitely par for that time in history.

Bradbury tracks how Mars is gradually colonized over the years, and how this new society progresses, along with its troubling interactions with the native Mars people. As background, America in the 1940s was not yet in the big Space Race, there was some excitement and glamor about the whole thing but it was still rather vague. WWII was not that long ago for many people and their families, and so Bradbury’s America is very much a white-people-with-little-white-fences type of society and men are mostly in charge, although kudos to Bradbury for including one or two stories which do deal with race-relations issues.

Also, alongside this historical background, astronomers had been fascinated with Mars since the 19th century, and early space-watchers had reported the red planet had straight lines on it, visible through their early telescopes. This gave rise to the idea that Mars had been colonized already and that the straight lines were actually man-made canals moving water from one area of the planet to another. Thus, it wasn’t such a huge leap to think that perhaps beings were already there.

As an aside, slightly random but interesting all the same: Bradbury has credited this book as being influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919 – yuck) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939 – great read but no link), in terms of how they affected the novel’s actual structure and playing with time. (I can’t see any influence in this read, but perhaps others can. I didn’t get on very well with Anderson when I read him though. Maybe in their episodic structures?) 

Additionally, Bradbury credits Edgar Rice Burrough’s work (especially the Tarzan comic books)… (And as before, I’m having difficulty seeing the connection between this story and the Tarzan ones, but perhaps others may be more erudite than me…)

It’s not a particularly cheerful book, but it ended up being a great read, and I found it so interesting to see the 1940s’ prediction of future life in space, with both its accuracies and inaccuracies. Good one.

Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank (1959)

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I’m not sure where I found this title, but I was just tootling around thinking about how I’d like to some sci-fi, when I saw it on a shelf in a local thrift shop and picked it up. It’s more speculative fiction than hard sci-fi, I would say, but it’s certainly set in a world that is far different from our own. Written in the late 50’s, it’s an apocalyptic novel which is set in the small town of Fort Repose, in central Florida, and follows the town inhabitants as they try to survive after a nuclear war starts and their area is hit. How would people react in this new world? …

Since it was published in 1959, one needs to cast one’s mind back to those times in history, and remember that this was smack in the middle of the Atomic Age and nuclear devastation was a very real concern for the Americans, especially from the threat of Russia. (Those darned Russkies.) School children were being taught safety drills if a nuclear bomb did explode in their neighborhoods, and although there’s a lot of embrace for modern inventions of the time, it was tempered by fear of “what if…?”

The scene is set in a very traditional small-town values community, filled with “typical” Americans working and living side by side, as one does. A few of the townspeople are retired military and a couple have had some military training from the earlier WWII, but overall, the town is very run-of-the-mill in its demographics. Husbands work, wives stay at home, and kids are white and well-behaved. Residents (and the rest of America) are concerned about nuclear bombs, but it’s more of a concern for other cities and states who have more important resources to worry about. Fort Repose wouldn’t get it, would it?

As you can probably surmise, Fort Repose does get impacted by a nearby explosion and a lot of their community dies, either on that day (now called The Day) or from radiation sickness and other ailments linked to the fallout. Just a small handful of people are left alive, and after their initial shock about the bomb, they need to work on getting food, water, power, housing… And health. Who will die from the after-effects? There are so many unknowns for this community, and it’s pretty Lord of the Flies after a few days.

However, as is perfect of a 1950’s story, a manly man perks up to save the day and the womanly women stand around and do as they’re told and cater to the men. (It’s pretty interesting to read this through a feminist twenty-first century lens. Did people really feel this way? …)

This was a pretty interesting read, especially through a lit-crit lens, so I was glad I found it in the thrift shop the other day.

(The title, just so you know (and I didn’t as I’m a heathen…), is based on a saying from the biblical book of Revelations, which is (according to Wiki): “Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that might city! For in one hour is thy judgement to come” (or similar). The phrase “Alas, Babylon” is a code phrase between two now-adult brothers and only used in a big emergency. Obvs, such a day as a nuclear explosion counts…!)

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (1951)

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I’ve been familiar with this title since childhood, but hadn’t actually picked it up and read it. Perusing my Century of Books project, the year of 1951 was open and unfilled, so this was the perfect chance to take this title off the shelf. I think I knew the plot on a vague level – man-eating plants, scary, apocalypse etc. – but I do have to admit that it was a much better read than I had thought I was going to get.

This is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the days following an unexplained meteor shower that hits earth one ordinary night. Anyone who watched the meteor shower went blind, but the hero, Bill Masen, avoids that calamity by having had a previous accident to his eyes and being bandaged up that evening. The morning after the shower, Bill’s bandages are taken off, and he is plunged into a new world of mostly blind people and the triffids – clever man-eating plants who can walk around to trap their prey.

It sounds ridiculous, but it was a really good narrative. How does Bill survive when he is one of the few left who can see? How to live in this new world of shrinking resources and aggressive vegetation? Like any post-apocalyptic story, there are bands of people who battle for food and petrol, for clean water and for power, and although the book covers a short period of time, so much happens so quickly that you as the reader are taken along for the ride.

Written in the 50’s, it’s got the cultural references of the time with regard to gender expectations (men should rescue women, women love nice clothes and cook etc.), and it’s so interesting to watch them wrestle with these issues as their new world develops. Overarching everything are the triffids, the experimental plants that have escaped their enclosed yards and are now inching over the earth. They seem to be learning from experience, gathering together for strategy, and communicating with each other. They also have a ten-foot lash that they whip out unexpectedly to kill people.

I’m not usually a sci fi person, but I do tend to like spec fiction like this, and it was a good read overall. I just found out in Wiki that Brian Aldiss, a sci fi historian, called this “a cosy catastrophe” in that it’s a post-war apocalyptic world in which society is destroyed but for a handful of survivors who go on to enjoy a “fairly comfortable existence”. I wasn’t familiar with the term, but now that I know of it, it’s a perfect fit. This is sort of like gentle horror. It keeps your interest but isn’t too scary overall. I loved the read.

Wyndham based this tale on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) (I haven’t read it yet), and was very open about the influence. This Triffid book itself proved to have a long life with multiple versions of radio, movie and TV adaptations so perhaps we’ll track one of them down to watch (or listen to) this Christmas season.

Anyway, this was a surprisingly good read. I enjoyed it.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion – Janet Reitman (2011)

Scientology - ReitmanA fascinating, well documented and balanced (to me) approach about the puzzling world of Scientology. This is not a damning book (although it seems that there is plenty of fodder for that), but more of a neutral outside journalist peering in, collecting information and knowledge for five years, and then collating it together. From my non-Scientology perspective, it was riveting in so many ways. I have difficulty understanding how smart and otherwise rational people will sign a billion-year contract (to include past, current and future lives)  to “serve” this group (aka “the Cause”) and to hand over thousands and thousands of dollars and incredibly personal information that could be used against them when it looks like a big con job to me.

However, this is just me thinking that. Obviously, lots of other people disagree and if they want to spend thousands of dollars learning how to be “clear” (the highest level of spiritual growth as deemed by this church), then who am I to judge? It just seems to be that once one is in this religious group, it’s very hard to get out, and if you do, there are widespread consequences.

Plus having Tom Cruise as a lead spokesman does not really help with credibility that much.

hubbardOriginated by L. Ron Hubbard, a revisionist historian extraordinaire* and early science fiction writer, the history needs to be read to be believed.  It’s an amazing story. Hubbard has been quoted as saying “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start a new religion…”

Hubbard (or “LRH” as he is commonly referred to by Scientologists) claimed to be many things over the years and all embellished: he claimed that he had been an explorer, a naval hero, awarded himself a Ph.D. from a degree mill, claimed to be a nuclear physicist and modeled the group on military lines (allowing himself, naturellement, to be Commodore of the planet).  It’s very cheeky in some ways and somewhat disrespectful of others:  at one point, Hubbard calls himself Meytta, the “reincarnation of Buddha” (p. 102). His successor was not much of an improvement, if you ask me, although is reported to have more dictatorial tendencies.

Reading this was rather like reading a fiction story (and indeed quite a bit of it was developed out of Hubbard’s imagination) so it’s extremely difficult for me to understand people who would buy into this. (And it ain’t cheap.) But I think if you’re a “lost soul”, or perhaps someone who is looking for “answers” or perhaps a second or third generation Scientologist, then it might be easy to get sucked in to the bubble. It’s a very insular world and to question anything means that you run the risk of being “disconnected” by your church, your friends and your family or facing other disciplinary measures.  However, a lot of people say that Scientology has helped them and if it has, good for them. It’s hard to know what the truth is as there is so much inconsistency.

You know, it reminded me of Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven”,a non-fiction book about a splinter Mormon group. In both cases, there was this one human guy who invented a story which he made into a religion, wrote it down and it happened to star him as the lead role, but this belief system (?) seems way more sinister in a way. (This model also seems to be the model for many other (although more benign) belief systems.)

This was a fascinating read and although I am still puzzled by the whole thing, at least I know a bit more than I did. It did spur me to get a book called “Feet of Clay” by Anthony Storr, which according to the publisher blurb is “an eye-opening investigation of charismatic “gurus” from Jesus to Freud to David Koresh…and uncovers the personality traits that link [them].” I am quite sure that I would not make a good cult leader, but it will be interesting to see what traits they may have.  (And no, I am not getting into a debate about what is and is not a cult.)

And here is a link of a Q&A session with author Janet Reitman from the readers of the Washington Post when the book was released. Very informative!

Anyway, this was a good read – fascinating and strange, but very interesting.

  • Just google Hubbard. His story is bizarre as it’s been rewritten so many times by both himself and others. Reitman writes what she has found out about his life story, but it’s so odd that it’s hard to know what is fact and what is fiction. He definitely had an active imagination.