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One thing I forgot to mention in my write-up of Long Way to a Small Angry Planet yesterday was how much the book is about violence and the ways in which cultures and individuals deal with it. I mentioned Dr Chef’s species the Grum who had destroyed themselves in a war and the survivors had decided it was not worth rebuilding their society, they had ruined their right to exist in the galaxy and so the species is going extinct.

I also mentioned the captain of the ship, Ashby. As an Exodan human he is a pacifist. When humans were still on Earth and doing their best to destroy it and each other, the wealthy picked up stakes and moved to Mars, creating a colony there but only for the people who could afford it. Those left behind on a planet that was no longer hospitable to human life, made a last ditch effort to survive by building ships and launching out into the unknowns of space with no real destination. Some of them survived because they were found by one of the species of the Galactic Commons. As a result of their experiences, the Exodan humans developed a culture of pacifism that is often so extreme they refuse to even defend themselves when attacked.
All of the various species in the book have stories of violence and war in their collective histories. The Galactic Commons itself is a kind of galactic UN. How each culture came to terms with their violent past makes for an interesting examination of responses to violence. One culture goes in for communal orgies while another becomes so rule-bound that spontaneity is not heard of and would probably get you thrown into prison anyway.
Then there are the Toremi, a species whose whole existence is shaped by the continuous wars between the clans. They all believe the wars are sanctioned by the Pattern, the belief system by which they live. The violence doesn’t just exist between clans but within one’s own clan as well. It is a kind of dog-eat-dog existence and the more you kill the more respect you garner. Any offence no matter how slight, might get you killed or prompt you to kill someone else.
One of the great things about the book is that while all of this is there, it is never posted with flashing neon signs nor does the author make any intrusions and tell us what to think. We are being offered options, different ways of being and the reader gets to choose and decide for herself.
And this is why blogs are so great for talking about books – we aren’t bound to one review and done, we get extra innings.
While perusing the Baileys Prize longlist I spied The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. This is the book that has the tête-à-tête with the charismatic squirrel in it that I am waiting my turn for it at the library. I have moved up to 27th place. Alas I was hoping I would have that book and the next Squirrel Girl comic about the same time but it is not looking likely. I am already up to number 8 for Squirrel Girl.
Since I am on the topic of books on prize lists, The Vegetarian is on the longlist for the Man Booker International. I’m sure all the books on the list are good but I can’t imagine that any of them could be as good as Kang’s. I hope she wins!
Another unsolicited distraction arrived in my mailbox yesterday. This one is by Janet Todd. That would be the same Janet Todd who has written biographies of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Aphra Behn, and many others. Except this book is a novel, A Man of Genius. Because of the cover (a Venice canal) and the cover blurb rapturing on about love, obsession and “decadent glory,” I was in the process of moving it to the pile of books to get rid of when Bookman stopped me. You know who Janet Todd is don’t you? The name was familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. Then Bookman connected the dots for me and suggested I might want to not be so hasty in getting rid of it. He was right. So now it is on my poor reading table.

The book is historical fiction featuring a woman who makes a living writing cheap gothic novels. She meets and becomes the lover of Robert James, supposed poetic genius. They go to Venice. Spies, intrigue, madness, revelations ensue. Sounds like a potboiler and not my typical choice of reading but I will give it try. Just don’t know when yet. But that probably surprises no one.