Thursday, 16 April 2015

Kameron Hurley; The Bel Dame Apocrypha

Things which happen in writing SF; you cook up a great idea for a world, but you can’t figure out what’s happening in it. Or you come up with a cool invention which would change the world and you can’t think of a way of showing us the changes. In the so-called Golden Age of SF, writers would plonk the toy in the middle of the page and describe just how it worked by having their characters operate every control by hand. Because we lived in caves in those days and didn’t even know how to cook our own food, we all just went wow and wished we could have one of them in every house. We had to wait for Bill Gibson to kick over the tables and point out that when characters in ordinary books got on a bus, they just got on a bus and went places; we did’t get a blow by blow of how buses worked and what was involved in paying the bus driver. Neither did anyone make a phone call by picking up the handset and working the dial one number at a time like some kind of autistic savant. Good points, Bill. Why they weren’t blindingly obvious to everyone up to then is something for the next generation to ponder.

Kameron Hurley got the Gibson memo; everything on Imayma works on back of mutated insects, and at no point does anyone bother to explain how the hell that’s possible, let alone the detail of how it works. There’s bugs, and they make stuff happen. Don’t dwell on it. And she’s cooked up a great world - I’m not sure I buy the notion of a Caliphate run by women, but Hurley knows that once you’re on any road out of the ordinary, the correct position for the gas pedal is all the way through the floor. Imayma’s a world with genuinely jumbled up gender roles, and once Hurley has her lines drawn, she stays inside them. The problem in making a world run by women is what to do with the men; Hurley’s great idea for that problem is to grind them all up in a war, and keep the war going so long that women drift from picking up the slack on the home front to just plain running everything. Not that any of this is explained; these characters live in the world they’ve got, and they don’t need to explain it to themselves or anyone else. And the logic of women running things and men all being crammed into the front is carried through properly; gender politics and roles are broken in a way which feels just like any society coping with change. Contrast that with something like Robin Hobbs, who writes about a fantasy world in which women can join the army or run countries, but everyone has a conniption fit at the idea of a fallen woman. Nah. If women can fight, society’s not going to be able to keep them stuck in the kitchen.

So, nicely bonkers tech and a genuinely weird society which makes internal sense. And Hurley writes well. Them’s the positives. Not quite so good; the stories. The characters are strong, but hard to root for, particularly the protagonist, Nyx, who is way off on the anti end of the anti-hero scale. And the plots - most of the time it feels less like plotting and more like stuff happening to people until nearly everyone’s dead and someone wanders in to explain that this was all just a small part of a much larger scheme that the characters will never understand. I was reminded, somewhat, of the chaotic nihilism in Richard Morgan’s fantasy work, though I think Hurley is doing something very different and very much more principled and right in her assault on the conventions of genre writing. Morgan seems to be saying “Look at this and how bold I can be.” where Hurley is saying “Look at this, and think about the world you’re in.” 

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