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[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katherine North

May 24, 2017

Oops… I’ve been neglecting this blog recently as I’ve been tending to write stuff for other venues and it is always a bit of a chore to write a blog post about something that I’ve already mentally filed under ‘done’.

The problem may have been emphasised in the case of this particular piece as it’s the second essay I’ve written about the book. The book in question is Emma Geen’s debut novel The Many Selves of Katherine North and I wrote about it last year for my Interzone column. As I say in the new piece, I have considerable affection for Many Selves not least because I decided to write about it at a time when I had started to question my ability to metabolise science fiction. My second look at the book is somewhat more critical than the first but while I regret the way the novel seems to flinch from the crux of the psychological problem is present, I think it remains a really great example of the type of science fiction that I want to read:

 

Like many of the better books to emerge last year, The Many Selves of Katherine North is a novel made up of a series of discrete parts that require both a squint and a leap of the imagination before they fall into conventional narrative order. The spine of the book is provided by a series of set-pieces in which the book’s protagonist is projected into the mind of different animals and forced to contend not only with their alien cognitive processes but also with their (occasionally overwhelming) instincts to run, jump, fly, hunt, eat, and even fuck. Extensively researched and beautifully rendered, all of these set-pieces are powerfully imagined and beautifully written almost to the point where they overwhelm the novel. And therein lays the point…

 

I’m currently working on my next Sharke post and I have literally just accused an entirely different novel of flinching from the psychological unpleasantness that had sustained its primary narrative.

I am entirely sympathetic to authors who mine their personal lives for ‘real life details’ only to wind up stopping well short of bearing their souls. That kind of forced introspection is never pleasant and when you’re writing about something that was personally traumatic, the urge is always going to be to flinch before you hit the water.

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories are particularly prone to this kind of flinching as genre writing is always partially metaphorical and writing about abstract metaphors is always going to be a lot easier than writing about the truth. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that genre literature’s levels of abstraction may well be one of the primary appeals for its readers.

For example, not everyone can sit through a brutal piece of social realism about how patriarchal attitudes foster abusive relationships but pretty much anyone can sit through Mad Max: Fury Road, which deals with those issues in an abstracted manner that makes them more palatable and therefore more accessible.

This piece may even be somewhat unfair to Geen in that she did not choose to write about someone who got lost in escapist media in order to cope with the trauma of parental death… she chose to write about a young woman who uses VR technologies to inhabit the bodies of endangered animals.

When we talk about genre novels having themes, we are talking about ways in which novels can be ‘about’ one thing whilst also being ‘about’ another and it is worth remembering that there was a conscious decision to write with a certain level of abstraction. Criticise a genre novel for too much abstraction and there’s a risk that you fall into the trap of criticising it for failing to be the more realistic novel that you actually wanted to read instead.

In truth… I’m not sure that this is a binary question. I don’t think that novels are either realistic or abstract, I think that realism is a slider that can be set at a variety of levels for a variety of different effects. As time has passed and my tastes have shifted, I expect more and more realism and depth from the culture I consume and I think this may well go some way towards explaining my growing alienation from what remains of genre culture.

 

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