The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0385353499
306 pages, hardcover
Published: 30th September 2014
Source: Edelweiss

Although sharing with his previous novel Time’s Arrow a setting of the Holocaust, Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest takes a distinct path more grounded in realism and history that comes far closer to humanizing the Nazis and collaborators. Such a theme is unsurprisingly controversial with the Nazi machine and atrocities achieving a distinction of being often considered as closest to pure evil and inhuman horror that something non-supernatural could get. Yet, while the scope of the Holocaust presents a type of extreme, the actions underlying it were not unique to its setting, but have recurred in various forms, to various degrees throughout history. It’s important to remember that actions such as these were perpetrated by humans that forever reason consciously chose to go down a path. Typically considered monsters, they nonetheless had (mostly) rationality, emotions, love, humor.
Tackling such dark settings in historical is a tall order. Previously I’ve only read Amis’ London Fields, a superb literary treatment of the apocalyptic genre. Rather than comparing The Zone of Interest to his Time’s Arrow, I rather found myself more frequently recalling Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the Prix Goncourt-winning behemoth by Jonathan Littell. Similarly ensconced in controversy, Littell’s detailed historical novel tried balancing humanization of a Nazi protagonist with characteristics one part of an unreliable narrator and another part of a figure from Classic mythology. The hurdle that both these novels are faced with based on their subjects and points-of-view is conveying literature of meaning, keeping historical details respectful and accurate, honestly portraying ugliness with knowledge that some will be sensitive, and simply telling a good story.
Despite its immense size I felt that Littel’s novel (which I read in the French, so can’t comment on the English reliably) was mostly captivating. With Amis’ The Zone of Interest, I merely found portions here and there to really hold my interest and then mostly because of a profoundly well written sentiment or phrase. The language is great, the setting and desire to portray things from the point of view of Germans at a concentration camp is really interesting, but the plot of the story was hard to engage and even moreso an issue for something ‘literary’, the characters failed to engage.
The Zone of Interest is told from the alternating points of view of three characters. First is Paul Doll, an emotionally unstable Commandant who has little regard for, and no respect from, his wife Hannah. Second is Thomsen, a more sympathetic, but rather unambitious, Nazi who falls into a clandestine relationship with Doll’s wife. Finally the third is Szmul, a Jewish prisoner who is given a role as Nazi collaborator (basically in exchange for the chance to biologically continue existence). Szmul is responsible for implementing the Final Solution by sending his fellow Jews to the gas chambers and dealing with their remains.
This trinity of narrators is perhaps the largest reason why I found The Zone of Interest difficult to fully appreciate. Each narrator is quite distinct in personality and role. But they are also all recognizable in sharing glimpses of bittersweet humanity – even humor – in this darkest of settings, and also all manifest some deplorable moral condition. With three, it is hard to become familiar and drawn strongly to the point of view of any particular one, making the novel more like an interlaced trio of separate novels of a shared theme and loose plot. The love triangle plot line is present more for symbolism and revelation of character rather than entertainment from a story to follow.
Of the three sections I found myself most fascinated by Szmul, because of his unique position as a Jew turned to enacting these horrors upon literally himself. Seeing this and comparing it to the similar or unique decisions made by other Germans or Nazis is enlightening and I do wish the story had been told more uniquely from his point of view, rather than switching.
All of these issues are worth considering for any potential reader of The Zone of Interest, and hopefully if you are reading this it gives you a sense of whether you would give it a try. I do think it is a novel where you could start reading and realize fairly quickly whether it was for you or not. For readers new to Martin Amis I would also recommend that you not judge his work simply by this, he is a complex and gifted author whose works won’t necessarily fit into a ‘love one and love all’ or vice-versa equation.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

Solaris Rising 3, Edited by Ian Whates

Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction,
Edited by Ian Whates
Publisher: Solaris
ISBN: 178108209X
448 pages, paperback
Published 14th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“When We Have Harvested the Nacre Rice”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“The Goblin Hunter”, by Chris Beckett
“Homo Floresiensis”, by Ken Liu
“A Taste for Murder”, by Julia E. Czerneda
“Double Blind”, by Tony Ballantyne
“The Mashup”, by Sean Williams
“The Frost on Jade Buds”, by Aliette de Bodard
“Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus”, by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“Red Lights, and Rain”, by Gareth L. Powell
“They Swim Through Sunset Seas”, by Laura Lam
“Faith Without Teeth”, by Ian Watson
“Thing and Sick”, by Adam Roberts
“The Sullen Engines”, by George Zebrowski
“Dark Harvest”, by Cat Sparks
“Fift and Shira”, by Benjamin Rosenbaum
“The Howl”, by Ian R. MacLeod & Martin Sketchley
“The Science of Chance”, by Nina Allen
“Endless”, by Rachel Swirsky

My thoughts on Solaris Rising 3 have been languishing for awhile now as a co-review was first planned for Skiffy & Fanty and then got delayed and didn’t end up happening. As I look back over the notes I had written and the skeleton of this review in correspondence with my colleague Cecily Kane I realize just how much I want to go back and read this un-themed collection again.

Yet, this is the first of the Solaris Rising series that I’ve had a chance to read, so I should probably go back and read the first two. It’s a testament to how enjoyable the stories are here in what is a stellar lineup of highly-regarded contributors that re-reading this again so soon feels like something warming and relaxing. Though there were a couple stories here that just didn’t work for me, it is probably still the best collection I read in 2014 for its sheer entertainment.

And my favorite stories in here were also quite a surprise to me. In his introduction, editor Whates comments on the opening line(s) of one story and how magnificent it is/they are. Though they are great I have to say that the opening lines of the collection, in Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” are far more stunning in its powerful flow and imagery. This ended up being my favorite story in the collection. I’d read a couple of other stories from the Hegemony universe and while I appreciated the poetic style and alien weirdness, they were a little dense; their vagueness left me feeling unmoored from the plot. With this, Sriduangaew’s writing fully connected with me.

Protagonists Pahayal and Etiesse are both delightfully rendered, complex mixtures of weakness and strength that draw forth reader empathy and disdain; their relationship is an echo of the larger issues of political control at the center of the story’s plot. Sriduangkaew handles the themes of dominance and submission, vulnerability and safety, trust and betrayal, creation and destruction with masterly control in scant pages.

I was likewise surprised to find the story I expected to love most in Solaris Rising 3, “Homo Floresiensis“, by Ken Liu to not resonate as strongly with me. Liu is one of my favorite authors and I would still call this story really good. But what I like about Liu is sort of what I like about a good film director like Kubrick or Hitchcock. He achieves a balance of great story, deeper meaning, and artistry in his creations. Liu’s story here is strong in he meaning department, and raises a big point about scientific advancement that I wish would crop up more often in the field. However, the structure of the story ends up making it feel like two separate entities of scenes that introduce and then scenes at the heart of the matter.

“Double Blind” by Tony Ballantyne, “The Mashup” by Sean Williams, “The Science of Chance” by Nina Allen, and “Thing and Sick” by Adam Roberts were all stories that I greatly enjoyed and each were science fiction mashups of sorts, whether taken literally (Williams’), with horror (Ballantyne’s and Robert’s) or  with mystery (Allen’s). These are all examples of a wide range of fine writing also across the board from light to subtly crafted to all out crazy.

“Thing and Sick” also represents one of a few stories in the collection that I quite liked for their approach to the concept of the alien “other”. A similar theme is taken up, at least in part, in the stories by Beckett, MacFarlane, Lam, Rosenbaum and the aforementioned Liu.

In some this ‘regard’ at the other makes the story a critique of colonial aspects. MacFarlane’s “Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus” delves into such themes through the use of a non-traditional narrative that describes propaganda-esque posters through the eras of expedition to Saturn’s moon. I adored the ideas here, but the reading ended up being a bit on the drier side. Beckett tackles colonial issues head-on with a far more traditional plot. However I also found his story to be one of the most disturbing in the violence of its action and language against the other, in  this case aliens and female. It was sort of hard to figure out whether certain aspects were honest portrayals of very ugly characters and a commentary or something unintentionally offensive. Extremely well written and powerful, I loved it, but feel warning should be made for sensitive readers.

In “Thing and Sick” and in “They Swim Through Sunset Seas” the treatment of the alien ‘other’ was more focused on the psychology or biology of the nonhuman entity. I particularly found Lam’s story to be poignant and a great SF focus on biological science and the basic emotions that intelligent life forms may share for better or for worse. Rosenbaum’s “Fift & Shira” is simply an excellent biological speculation on gender and social structures in a non-human community. The story itself is not as enthralling as the ideas at play, but for me as a biologist I remained captivated nonetheless.

On the other end of the spectrum I personally found nothing to appreciate in  Zebrowski’s “The Sullen Engines” or in Watson’s “Faith without Teeth”. The remaining stories were good, but just haven’t stuck with me as strongly. Fans of the particular authors will surely appreciate the additions here. If you didn’t get a chance to pick this up back when it came out and are a fan of SF, I really recommend checking this out, particularly if you are someone that doesn’t normally read shorter works in the field. You may find your next favorite author.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Note: Thanks to Cecily Kane for some editing of my rambling thoughts on Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” that made it into this final post.

Books of Note: THE SALT ROADS, by Nalo Hopkinson and STEEL VICTORY, by J.l. Gribble

As I now get back into catching up on reviews of things I have read, I wanted to mention two books that I’m excited about, but haven’t gotten to read yet.

The first was first released back in 2004, but just had an e-reader release from Open Road Media at the very end of January: THE SALT ROADS, by Nalo Hopkinson. I’ve heard nothing but utter praise for Hopkinson, including from writer Juno Diaz, so I’ve been looking forward to reading her work and regretted having to turn down the chance to review it. But I still feel comfortable in recommending it as something worth looking into if you missed it.

9781504001168From Open Road Media:

Nalo Hopkinson’s third novel invokes the goddess of love in the name of redemption

Hopkinson’s time-traveling, genre-spanning novel weaves a common thread of spiritualism and hope through three intertwined stories of women possessed by Ezili, the goddess of love, as she inspires, inhabits, and guides them through trying personal and historical moments. Jeanne Duval is a talented entertainer suffering from the ravages of a sexually transmitted disease; Mer is a slave and talented doctor who bears witness as Saint Domingue throws off the yoke of colonial rule in the early nineteenth century; and Meritet is a woman of the night who finds religion her own way. Though the three are separated by many miles and centuries, a powerful bond draws them together.

Epic, wrenching, and passionate, The Salt Roads is laced with graceful, lyrical prose. Hopkinson has crafted a one-of-a-kind novel that spans hundreds of years and multiple countries to tell a mystical, heartrending story of self-worth, respect, and salvation.”


 

The second title I’m really looking forward to is STEEL VICTORY, an upcoming title now available for preorder from Dog Star Books (Raw Dog Screaming Press), written by J.L. Gribble. Out in June, today was the cover reveal and exclusive spotlight on the novel at Dirge Magazine. It looks fantastic with another superb cover for this small press by Brad Sharp. I look forward to getting my paws on a copy.

Steel VictoryFrom Raw Dog Screaming Press:

“One hundred years ago, the vampire Victory retired from a centuries-long mercenary career. She settled in Limani, the independent city-state acting as a neutral zone between the British and Roman colonies on the New Continent.

Twenty years ago, Victory adopted a human baby girl, who soon showed signs of magical ability.

Today, Victory is a city councilwoman, balancing the human and supernatural populations within Limani. Her daughter Toria is a warrior-mage, balancing life as an apprentice mercenary with college chemistry courses.

Tomorrow, the Roman Empire invades.”

The Genome, by Sergei Lukyanenko (Translated by Liv Bliss)

Never got around to posting my last review for Skiffy & Fanty, on Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Genome, as translated by Liv Bliss. Well-known for his series of fantasy/horror novels that start with Night Watch, his entry into science fiction parody is world’s apart.

“…If given a more serious tone, a science fiction set-up like this plot could be used to explore such concepts as individuality, free-will, class relations, racism, and colonialism within the murder mystery context. In its parody (or perhaps pastiche – it is never quite clear if Lukyanenko mocks or celebrates space operas of bygone years), The Genome doesn’t put much energy into these kinds of explorations. Instead, its focus is on making the characters and their behaviors fit into science fiction (or mystery) novel stereotypes, thereby coming off a lot like a space opera mashup in the style of the 1976 film Murder By Death written by Neil Simon that did similar things with the mystery genre and its iconic characters….”

Read my entire review at Skiffy & Fanty!