Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Science Fiction (page 1 of 3)

Under The Skin – Michel Faber

It feels strange that Under The Skin was published more than two decades ago (original pub. date: 2000), perhaps because the premise is so futuristic. It was Michel Faber’s debut novel, and while I don’t remember it making a huge splash at the time, it seems to be having a bit of a resurgence of late. If you’re looking for a sci-fi(ish) read for spooky season, this one’s the money!

Under The Skin - Michel Faber - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Under The Skin here.
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My edition of Under The Skin includes an introduction by David Mitchell. He hints at, but doesn’t outright spoil, the big twists of the plot. That’s a great kindness to the reader who reads the introduction first (that’s me!), but unfortunately it means he can’t say much other than “this book is really good, read it to find out why”. I can’t promise the same kindness in this review, so consider yourself warned: Under The Skin spoilers abound…

The story is set on the east coast of northern Scotland. I mention it first, because even though it’s not the focus of the novel, the setting is really beautifully written. Faber manages to bring the cold coast of Scotland to life on the page.

He feeds you the facts of the story gradually. At first, the protagonist – Isserley – seems like a regular woman… albeit, one who gets her kicks having sex with male hitchhikers.

Then, she starts to seem like she might enjoy it a bit too much. Is she a sex addict?

Or maybe she’s murdering them.

Or maybe she’s luring them to a farm so that someone else can murder them.

Wait, what the hell is going on here? (You get the idea.)

Slowly – oh, so slowly – Isserley is revealed to be an extraterrestrial, driving up and down the A9 and picking up lonely himbo hitchhikers for her interplanetary bosses. The “farm” on which she lives is a processing facility. Yes, Under The Skin takes a dramatic Tender Is The Flesh turn, just past half-way through. The aliens are hungry, and Earth is their farm. Gah!

Isserley has been surgically ‘mutilated’, as she puts it, to lure these men to their deaths. She’s been given a magnificent set of breasts (of course), and her spine altered so that she can walk on two legs. In their natural form, she and her comrades are more canine in nature, walking on all fours with a tail for balance, and covered in fur. They consider themselves to be the ‘human beings’, and the people of Earth (which they call vodsels) mere animals.

If you speak passable Dutch, the use of the name vodsel is a spoiler in and of itself, actually – it means “food”. The steaks from the fattened and mutilated vodsels are called voddissin, an expensive delicacy on Isserley’s home planet.

Isserley’s rigorous professionalism and conscientiousness take a hit when she is sexually assaulted by one of the hitchhikers she picks up. And so begins Under The Skin‘s denouement. She becomes disillusioned with her job, especially once she demands to see the processing of the vodsel she captures, and meets a rich boy from her home planet who advocates vehemently for ‘vegetarianism’ (or the alien equivalent, anyhow).

She decides to quit her job, but avoid returning to her home planet (where she faces a life of wretched poverty and deprivation). She wants to stay on Earth, a comparatively bountiful planet with beauty and water and food and all the other things that make life worth living. Faber has one last surprise in store for Under The Skin readers: Isserley’s escape is short-lived. She gets into a car accident with one last hitchhiker, and is forced to self-destruct her vehicle (which will surely kill her in the process) in order to escape detection by the Earth authorities. It sounds gruesome and sad, but it’s actually a surprisingly beautiful ending to a strange and eerie book.

So, as you can see, Faber touches on a lot in Under The Skin. Sexism, factory farming, animal rights, classism, sexual violence, sexual identity, humanity, empathy… It’s bound to make you desperately uncomfortable at times, and maybe second-guess your choice of steak for dinner.

I’ll leave it to the more committed genre readers to comment on its chops as a sci-fi story, but I certainly found myself transported by it. Faber used a lot of the stock-standard sci-fi tropes to make an interesting – if obvious – philosophical point. The first half is creepy as all heck, the second half is like opening a front-facing camera on humanity. I’d say, all told, Under The Skin‘s resurgence is well deserved and well-timed.

P.S. If you’re wondering how it compares to the 2013 movie of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson, apparently it doesn’t. I haven’t seen it, but the reviews would suggest that the director played fast and loose with the idea of ‘adaptation’.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Skin:

  • “It could have had a really decent sci fi ending with warships off the coast, jets flying over, the SAS breaking in, but no. None of that. Just wound up in two pages, and The End.” – Elwood
  • “Just seems like a big chunk was missing from this story. I thought that maybe there was a big message behind the story like a vegan wrote it lol. I dunno it just didn’t appeal to me if thats what Faber was trying to do or even if he wasn’t.” – Erica Paulk
  • “The story unfolds with all the subtlety of a Mike Tyson innuendo and left me laughing out loud at the author’s fustian vegan agenda. It is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling embarrassed for its writer. Enjoy.” – Mark Tristan
  • “Gross and disgusting are really the 2 adjectives that come first to mind. Are we supposed to become vegetarian after reading this? Or is the author suggesting a way to deal with the unemployed?” – Pam Well

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

According to her author bio, Yoko Ogawa has won “every major Japanese literary award”, and yet I (along with a lot of other monolingual English readers) hadn’t heard of her until The Memory Police exploded on #Bookstagram. This 1994 science fiction novel (called 密やかな結晶 in the original Japanese) quietly trundled along until, in 2019, it was translated into English by Stephen Snyder. Soon, it seemed like EVERYONE was reading it – because they were.

The Memory Police - Yoko Ogawa - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Memory Police here.
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The Memory Police is a melancholy Kafka-esque novel, one that clearly owes a huge debt to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The story is narrated by a novelist who lives on an island under the control of the titular authoritarian force. Through an unexplained and seemingly random mechanism, everyone who lives on the island is forced to “forget” objects or concepts. Uniformed enforcement officers patrol the island, making sure the “forgotten” items are truly gone and anyone who gives the appearance of remembering them is disappeared.

All kinds of things are “forgotten” in The Memory Police, and it’s difficult to discern a pattern. Perfume, stamps, birds, emeralds, ribbon – unusually for a dystopia, nothing “forgotten” seems inherently dangerous. Props to Ogawa for foregoing the heavy-handed metaphor of “forgetting” journalism or books, but the seemingly random array of everyday objects targeted is a bit of a head-scratcher.

What’s more, the narrator of The Memory Police isn’t one of the Special People who – again, for reasons unexplained, other than a couple of lines of dialogue about how it “might be genetic” – can remember things after they’ve been “forgotten”. Her mother was one, and kept a stash of “forgotten” objects in her artist studio, before she was disappeared.

R, the narrator’s editor, also reveals himself to be one of these Special Rememberers, about a third of the way into the story. The narrator, fearing that he might meet the same fate as her mother, takes him into hiding in a fitted-for-purpose hidden room of her house.

With all these factors combined, The Memory Police is basically a dystopia told from the perspective of the Chosen One’s side-kick.

I really wanted to enjoy The Memory Police, and find the wonder and meaning in it that others seem to, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was missing something the whole way through. There’s no explicit reason given in the story for the existence of the Memory Police, or why they make the whole population forget these apparently random objects. Without a narrative justification, it was hard to get invested.

Don’t get me wrong: the writing is great, the translation is well done, the characters and the setting are believable and well-crafted… it’s just missing something. I wish Ogawa had used something more than bog-standard suspense (about whether R would be discovered in hiding) to draw us in.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for people who haven’t read The Memory Police as yet, so I’ll say this on an IYKYK basis: I feel like the dramatic conclusion was meant to be shocking or significant or moving… but I couldn’t drum up anything more than mild interest. I suppose it felt a bit “too little, too late”, given how little I’d felt engaged by the story up to that point.

But, maybe it’s just me. The Memory Police was named a finalist in the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature, as well as making the shortlist for the 2020 International Booker Prize. It was also a finalist in the World Fantasy Award that same year. So, don’t let my underwhelmed response persuade you. Give it a go, and hopefully you’ll be able to tell me what I’ve missed!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Memory Police:

  • “Depressing. R’s disregard for his wife and child was appalling.
    Book summary: Crazy lady who writes about crazy lady who writes about crazy lady, all fixated on hands” – Roger N Gallion
  • “This book was weird and never felt like it had a point. Ok if you like really strange stories.” – M in Marble
  • “So I read this book as a suggestion from Kindle. It said that it was a science fiction book, and gave the premise. This is not a science fiction novel. I am not even sure it’s a fiction novel per se. It’s a poem.” – Rob McNeil

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s some kind of miracle that Never Let Me Go wasn’t spoiled for me before I finally got around to reading it. Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian alternative reality novel was published nearly 20 years ago, and I’d heard some vague hints giving rise to suspicions about the Big Twist, but I still went in with no firm idea as to what was about to happen. That’s important, because you’re not supposed to know Never Let Me Go is dystopian science fiction until Ishiguro wants you to.

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Ishiguro drip feeds the story to the reader, mentioning something offhand and then paying it off satisfyingly quickly (usually in the next chapter). It makes Never Let Me Go very just-one-more-chapter-y, which is a good thing if you’re looking to be sucked into a book, but not so good if you’ve got an early morning and it’s past your bedtime. If you want to go in unspoiled and enjoy that experience for yourself, exit this window now.

It all begins with Kathy H, who describes herself as a “carer”, talking about looking after organ donors. As she describes her twelve years in the role, she starts reminiscing about her days at Hailsham, a boarding school where the teachers were called “guardians” and the children’s art was selected for display in a gallery owned by a mysterious woman known only as “Madame”.

In her time at Hailsham, Kathy became particularly close to two other students, Tommy and Ruth. Kathy was Tommy’s confidant, supporting him through periods of bullying and depression, but through the usual social politics of adolescent, he ends up being Ruth’s boyfriend instead.

The first clang! reveal comes around 80 pages in, where it’s revealed that the children of Hailsham are effectively being farmed for their vital organs. That’s why the teachers- excuse me, guardians – have been so intense about not smoking and taking care of their bodies.

All the children know about their futures – and all we, the readers of Never Let Me Go, know – is gleaned through rumour and supposition, and the occasional slip-up where one of the adults in charge reveals something they “shouldn’t”. One of the guardians, Miss Lucy, is fired and removed from the school for telling the students too much.

That’s why horror author Ramsey Campbell called Never Let Me Go one of the “best horror novels since 2000”, a “classic instance of a story that’s horrifying, precisely because the narrator doesn’t think it is”. In large part, Never Let Me Go is a boarding school novel, a dark academia story about cliques and gossip and young romance, but the world that it’s taking place in is completely bonkers.

The next clang! comes at 140-ish pages, where Ishiguro reveals that all the children at Hailsham (and other similar schools around England) are cloned. So, this is kind of like the real-life situations where parents genetically engineer new babies to act as organ donors for their existing children who are crook. It’s dicey territory, ethically – to say the least.

As Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy age in Kathy’s recollections, they move out to a kind of halfway house and they start venturing out into the real world. This leads to some pretty harsh realisations: that they’re not going to have the kinds of lives or careers they see people leading in magazines or on television, that they’re going to have to undergo surgery after surgery only to die (or “complete”, as they euphemistically call it) very young, that they likely weren’t cloned from the creme de la creme of society (i.e., that underprivileged people – “human trash”, Ruth calls them – were exploited for their DNA).

Never Let Me Go comes to a head when Ruth “completes”, and Kathy and Tommy believe they finally have a shot at being together. They seek out the mysterious “Madame” from their school days, to see if maybe she can give them a stay to delay their donations so that they might spend more time together. Now, this is where Never Let Me Go first really disappointed me. I didn’t like the big clump of exposition that came around page 240. It’s a huge info dump where Madame and Miss Emily (the former Hailsham principal) explain to Kathy and Tommy why the school existed, and how society views them. It’s straight out of a B-movie playbook, akin to a hacky villain monologue in the penultimate scene.

Still, there’s a lot of very clever stuff in here – it’s easy to see why Never Let Me Go is favoured by Book Clubs For Smart People, you could talk it over for hours. Look at the role of “carers” like Kathy, for instance, in the reality Ishiguro has created. For the clones, being a “carer” is the only alternative to becoming a donor oneself, the only version of agency they have in their lives. The whole system is engineered to prevent them from thinking too much about what is happening to them and rebelling in any way (not to mention that it keeps a safe, convenient distance between the people who donate and the people who benefit from the donation). You don’t have to look too hard to find the parallels in our actual reality.

For some reason, even though they’re very different, Never Let Me Go made me think about Tender Is The Flesh. I think it might’ve been the contrast between the reader’s experience of the clones as human (having one narrate the story was clever!) and the apparent view of the world they inhabit that they aren’t (or, even if they are, that they aren’t afforded the same rights and privileges) that brought it to mind.

It’s easy to see, in terms of tone and style, that this is the same author who wrote Klara And The Sun. They’re like two halves of the same whole. I can basically guarantee that if you liked one, you’ll enjoy the other. I can’t speak to the 2010 film adaptation – I haven’t seen it yet, but of course now I want to – but this is an intense, smart, compelling read with a lot to say about the reality we live in.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Never Let Me Go:

  • “It’s a real downer book about sex, clones and dying. I do not recommend it.” – Louise P
  • “i let go of this book after chapter 1, it sukcs” – Gage Miller
  • “It was neither entertaining nor thought provoking. Run from it. If you’ve give this book as a gift to someone, shame on you. This book is the Emperor’s New Clothes.” – Steve Miller
  • “This author must hate humankind. This book is a grim slog through the trivial lives of doomed, boring characters who repeatedly fail to rise above their own pettiness. Ugh. Recommend it to someone you don’t like.” – Ron Daily

Terra Nullius – Claire G Coleman

“Terra nullius” is an old, old legal concept, stretching back to the beginning of Western democracy. In its most generous interpretation, it means “no man’s land”, that ownership by seizure of something nobody owns is legal, legitimate under the law. You can’t “steal” something that doesn’t belong to anybody. The term has special significance in Australia (not the good kind), as this continent was declared “terra nullius” when the British invaded, in effect erasing the sovereignty of the people who had lived and worked on this land for some 50,000 years. Claire G Coleman is a writer and activist of Noongar heritage, and she turns this legal concept on its head in her allegorical novel of the same name, Terra Nullius.

Terra Nullius - Claire G Coleman - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Terra Nullius here.
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Each chapter of Terra Nullius opens with a fictional extraction from an imagined archive – though, at first, they are so believable that you’ll take them as fact. Letters home from “settlers”, government memos, all informing the position that the “settlers” are having trouble “saving” the “natives”. It would seem that they don’t want to be saved.

The early chapters are immediately – shamefully – familiar to any Australian, but I’m sure they’d read like a horrifying dystopia to anyone not acquainted with this country’s true history. The “natives” are forced into civilising missions, tortured and enslaved, separated from their families and forced into servitude.

One character emerges, Jacky, as a Native slave on the run. He was taken from his family at such a young age, he doesn’t remember where his “home” is – he just knows it can’t be with the callous and cruel Settlers. His journey, on foot, across the country and his attempts to find his true home link all of the other characters across Terra Nullius together. They include a woman who knows no life other than that of the refugee camp in which she has grown up, the cruel Settler nun who resents and tortures the child Natives in her care, a colonial administrator known as the Devil, and a Settler who recognises the humanity of the Natives he massacres and abandons his people to join his supposed foes.

The big shift comes in Chapter 10. It’s simultaneously obvious (anyone who’s heard about Terra Nullius from a review like this one, or even simply read the blurb, knows it’s coming), and not well foreshadowed in the text. I would’ve liked Coleman to sow a few more seeds before reaping.

In essence, what Coleman has thus far let the reader believe is a historical novel – depicting the genocide of the First Nations people of Australia after the colonisers invaded – is actually set towards the end of the 21st century. The “Natives” are human beings, of all colours and creeds, while the “Settlers” are an alien species that have invaded our home planet. For me, it evokes The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – a post-apocalyptic world that is jarringly familiar.

An under-realised haunting aspect of Terra Nullius is the fact that no one is coming to save us. There is no salvation for the Natives. The few that survive the invasion aren’t home free; they’re scavenging, scrabbling to survive in a world completely and irrevocably changed. In that respect, it’s not only a metaphor for invasion – it’s climate change, it’s capitalism, it’s even a global pandemic.

As critical history, Terra Nullius works, but as literature it feels a little shallow. Even with the exceptions-to-the-rule, the handful of Settlers who are horrified by what their people inflict upon the Natives, the story still leans heavily on a Bad Settlers v. Good Natives binary. That may be all too true, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good fiction on its own. The familiar colonial atrocities are enough to shock and horrify, but I struggled to see a narrative drive beyond “look how terrible this is”.

I think Terra Nullius might have worked better if the metaphor had been explicit from the start. Instead of the Chapter 10 “gotchya” moment, Coleman could have placed us in her “dystopia” from the beginning and let the title make the parallels. Of course, this might not have worked for an international market (who presumably weren’t taught the abuses of terra nullius in high school or university), but for me it would’ve made for a better reading experience. As it stands, Terra Nullius seems to me a great premise that isn’t fully realised, an interesting idea forced to compensate for the absence of story.

If you’d like to read a First Nations perspective on Terra Nullius – and I highly recommend that you do – you should definitely start with Alison Whittaker’s review for Sydney Review of Books.

Under The Dome – Stephen King

Here’s another book review that’s been in the works for far too long. Back in the days when Keeping Up With The Penguins was still a seed of an idea, I was talking over my to-read list with a friend at a bar. As the night wore on, and the drinks went down, I pulled out my phone and created a new list – the next to-read list – and promised my friend that Under The Dome would be the first book on it. It was her personal favourite, and I swore to her that I’d review it just as soon as I was done with the original 109 books on my list. Well, I’m a couple months late and a dollar short, but I’m finally making good on that promise!

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Under The Dome here.
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Really, the only reason that I put off reading Under The Dome is that I’m a big chicken. All I knew about Stephen King books is that they’re scary. Also, they’re (usually) huge – this one comes in at a whopping 880 pages. But, as with all fears, it turned out mine were (mostly) unfounded. Sure, it took a little longer to read than your standard 250-page novel, and there were a few spooky elements, but nothing that kept me up at night. So, that’s my first hot tip about Under The Dome: don’t be chicken!

The story starts on 21 October, when a small (fictional) town in Maine is completely cut off from the rest of the world by a large invisible dome that appears, seemingly out of nowhere. A plane crashes right into it, killing two pilots (and one unfortunate woodchuck). The dome is unyielding, and pretty much impenetrable; some sound, light, and radio waves can travel through, but nothing with corporeal form (so no one in, no one out). So, as you can imagine, it throws everyone – under the dome, and outside of it – into a bit of a tizz.

As with any crisis situation, there are some who stand to benefit from (among other things) the panic that ensues, and an unlikely hero is called up to save the day. “Captain Barbie”, an ex-military man who was attempting to hitchhike his way out of the town on Dome Day, is charged with figuring out what the fuck is going on (the military is called in straight away, naturally, because America). Luckily, he’s got the keen-eyed flinty-cored local newspaper reporter, Julia Shumway, on his side.





Under The Dome is big in scope. I’m talking huge. I’m talking epic. At first, I couldn’t really see what the big deal was going to be; the map of the town in the front of the book included a book store, and the character list included “Dogs of Note”, so I figured I’d get by just fine in that situation… but then I was introduced to the town councilman, James “Big Jim” Rennie, who sees the dome as one big opportunity to make a power play that will allow him to take over the whole town. He carefully orchestrates and encourages unease among the townsfolk, using that as a springboard to expand the powers of the police force and silence any troublemakers. The dome basically throws small-town politics into a pot of water, and sets it to boil.

Now, your standard good-guy-Barbie-versus-bad-guy-Jim story would wear out real quick over the course of a book this size; they’re the main contenders in the conflict, sure, but there’s all kinds of other battles and romances and whatnot going on all around them, and King gives each their due. Under The Dome has a huge cast, and pretty much everyone’s point-of-view gets a look in at least once or twice.

The story isn’t exactly a laugh riot (in case you couldn’t tell), but some of the small-town slang and dark humour throughout made me literally laugh out loud. It was good of King to occasionally break the tension for us – believe me, there’s plenty of it. Oppressive religious mores, corrupt town council, dwindling supplies, toxic masculinity run rampant, widespread substance abuse problems, a kid with migraines and a penchant for killing women who annoy him… By putting a small town under a dome, sticking all the residents in a Lord Of The Flies-type scenario, King really lets us zoom in on the fallacy of the American Dream. In fact, King is quoted as saying that he took a lot of the same issues that he addressed in another of his books, The Stand, and used them in Under The Dome but dealt with them in a more allegorical way, taking big-world problems and putting them on a much smaller scale so we could look at them differently. After all, Anywhere, USA has a lot of dirty secrets.





As for the scary bits: well, Under The Dome isn’t horror, but holy heck, some parts are horrifying. Not just psychologically, either – I’m talking visceral, physical violence. It’s not quite supernatural or science-fictional, either. There are some spooky/other-worldly elements, but they’re not the focus or the key driver of the book. I’d shelve this one as more of a suspense thriller, a cautionary tale, with some genre-bending towards the end.

I can see why they made Under The Dome into a TV series (2013-2015); it’s got that strong small-town big-cast vibe that would be perfect for fans of Lost, or any other broad-woven light-sci-fi stories. The characters were quite well fleshed-out, which was surprising given how many of them there are (and how many die). The sheer number of them, in the book version at least, allows King to tantalise the reader and reveal information really slowly, BUT the constant changes in perspective make the story FEEL pacy and compelling regardless.

It was actually really refreshing to read a contemporary epic – not a multi-generational saga set across a century, but an event playing out over just days (a fortnight, tops) with close and intimate attention paid to every detail. Yes, it makes for a hella-long book, but it’s probably as short as King could have possibly made it without sacrificing the multiplicity of perspectives, and without those, the story would have needed a lot of long, boring monologue-y exposition from one or two key characters. No, thank you, please! Not for a story as complex as this one! I’d be happy to call Under The Dome a long book worth your time, and I must concede my friend was right in drunkenly insisting I read it (apologies, again, for taking so long to finally make good on my word – I’ll do better next time, I swear!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Dome:

  • “Never finished, conned a friend into taking it off my hands.” – Michael A. Swaney
  • “The story is entertaining though much of this book and the voice performance is really great (baaaarbie), but Stephen Kings loony left bias just pops it’s ugly head up way too often. It’s distracting and takes a lot away from the story. Really. Every white male christian is an evil crack addicted psychopath Nazi rapist and every journalist is like a cherub from heaven? Come on dude. I know this is fiction, but these old cliches are not only unbelievable they are boooooooring. If I knew it would have been like this I would not have purchased this audio book.” – Dorian
  • “I know this is blasphemy but I was disappointed with this effort of Stephen King. The baddies are bad. The goodies are good. Smut and flying body parts couldn’t hid a boring read. Sorry, there it is.” – Bod Parr
  • “Good until the ending as usual. 2 1/2 stars.” – L. M.

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