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Black Sheep Review

Black Sheep has been reviewed by Martin Lewis (ninebelow) on Strange Horizons:

Through an accident of history two sub-genres of science fiction have achieved unquestioned literary respectability: post-apocalypse novels and dystopias. They are both forms that are essentially about the struggle for survival; in post-apocalypse works the struggle is primarily physical and in dystopias it is primarily mental. Isao Dazai, the narrator of Ben Peek's Black Sheep, is in a dystopia [1]. He has food, water and shelter but—to use Marx's appropriately science fictional turn of phrase—he is alienated from his species being. He is utterly alone in the world.


Just as most post-apocalypse novels boil down to someone wandering around looking for tinned provisions and dodging cannibals so dystopias often follow a basic pattern: a growing awareness of the protagonist's status as a square peg in a round hole, the inevitable confrontation with authority, a desire to escape from the cloying embrace of the state, contact with the rebel underground, a final taste of freedom cruelly withdrawn. (Like post-apocalpyse novels it is inevitable that a dystopia can have only the most tentative "happy ending.") This is the path Black Sheep takes but, rather interestingly, Peek short circuits it in the middle. Dazai's crime is the same as always—dissent—but his punishment is cruel and unusual in the extreme. Subjugated by the state within a hundred pages of the novel, Assimilation strips him of his skin, his face and his personality. Time passes. Fifteen years disappear before Dazai's awareness return. It is a brave move for a writer to skip forward so far in just a handful of pages and one that is successful here. Unfortunately it only throws into stark relief that this boldness is not present elsewhere.

This steers us nicely towards a topic I haven't mentioned so far: race. If you've seen a copy of the book you might be surprised it's taken me so long to get around to this topic, because one of the first things you are likely to think when you read the back cover is that this is a book inextricably linked to the subject. Actually though, it turns out to be little more than window dressing.


Black Sheep is told in the first person and the fact that both the quotes above reference Kumiko is not coincidental. She is the only thing that sustains him but, is barely enough to sustain the narrative. Obviously, protagonists need not be sympathetic and it is only the tyranny of the reading group that suggest characters need to be people we can relate to. However, Dazai is very unappealing and he is unappealing in a specific way: he is pathetic. Reading the novel I was put in mind of the bears at London Zoo. Fed and cared for they have nonetheless degenerated once estranged from their natural environment. Like these animals Dazai is listless, apathetic, and fatalistic. There is a thin line between pity and contempt and, like the materially destitute, Dazai initially engenders the former but, through familiarity, it gives way to the latter. Black Sheep offers a portrait that is by turns fascinating and frustrating; for all Peek's skill in delineating Dazai's character there is a weakness to him that makes him and his story unappetising.

Early on in the process of collecting my thoughts for this review one of the words I kept coming back to was "thoughtful." The more I examined it, though, the more I realised it wasn't quite the right word. It captures the tone of the novel but suggests a more active, probing intelligence than that which is apparent here. No, meditative is the right word. In its studied ambiguity Black Sheep shades from subtlety into blandness. In principle you could applaud Peek for drawing no moral and seeking no conclusions but in practice it means that, like his protagonist's skin, his words have been bleached of all colour.

It's an interesting review, I think, and one that's engaging in the content of the book, which I like. In fact, I don't ask for much more in a review.

Lewis' comment where he notes that the three 'pure race' cities is problematic is right, of course. The flaw is what he points out: "What does it mean, for example, to be Asian? Asian here seems to mean broadly South East Asian rather than Subcontinental Asian so someone from Japan is Asian but someone from Pakistan is not. Have over a billion people been simply wiped off the map? What about the Middle East? How does Peek's many-years-hence Race War relate to the current putative Religious War?" It was one of those things that I had problem with while writing, and eventually decided that, if you got caught up on that--in trying to see how it would really work in real life--then the book was never going to function, because it's impossible. Likewise, having any kind of racial purity is ridiculous, too, but that was always kind of the point. The way I dealt with that was to simply tell myself that it was either going to work for you, or it wouldn't, and maybe eight years after having written it, I'd maybe find a different way of that now, but I still think it's the best to just let it go and wait for the reaction.

Other than that, the bit I found most interesting was his comment that race was window dressing, and not terribly important to the book. I've seen the comment before, so obviously it's one that people are getting, and it's been strange to see. I suppose I just never thought people would say it--as an author you sit round and map what you think are the weak points of your work, and you wait for reviewers to identify it, or at least, that's what I do. But that wasn't one I thought of, and maybe it's a cultural thing--the Australian responses to it seem to have gelled with the racial content a lot easier, but maybe it's something else entirely. Either way, it has made for something to enjoy while reading the responses to the work, and what else can you say, huh?

Buy one, I suppose.



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Mar. 24th, 2008 02:13 am (UTC)
That's actually a pretty interesting review for me, as someone who's still collecting thoughts on the book. His comments on Dazai's unappealing nature, and how that makes the novel hard to be passionate about, are similar to my own thoughts, although I'm more positive about the book as a whole. I really, really didn't care for him, which is one of the reasons I read the book very slowly. However, it sort of became a different type of novel because of that... one I dip into when I am in the mood, taking it a chapter or two at a time, as and when. At no point did I think "I'm reading bad fiction" and was, in fact, quite taken with the prose (although I did think it lacked a copy edit - is that a small press thing?).

Sorry, this is a very late at night chucking together of thoughts that I would have normally put into my own review, or emailed even, but I know you're not precious about this sort of thing and hopefully will get where I'm coming from. I like the book a lot, but the flaw in particular with Dazai's character was one that stopped the book being unputdownable (God, I promised myself I'd never use that 'word') for me, so I'm curious that it's come up in another review.

Anyhow, I hope that comes across as the constructive criticism that it's supposed to be. The race thing... meh, I didn't think that was an issue. It is a wild and scary caricature of a route we could go down, as are most dystopia. You got that part spot on!
Mar. 24th, 2008 02:25 am (UTC)
yeah, i'm finding the response to isao to be kind've interesting to watch, since i never set out to make him unappealing. i always viewed him as just being a victim, but a kind of fucked up victim, if that makes sense. in many ways the way people have reacted to him is how i reacted to winston in 1984, the first time i read that--so i'm not really bothered by it.

but yeah, i'm not fussed. better for people to like it than to not, but so long as their response is interesting, i'm all good.

(and yeah, the race thing either works like that, or it doesn't.)
Mar. 24th, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)
Just thinking about that, and trying to figure out why I feel like my comments are overly negative... I think I hit on something. It's the expectations built up at the beginning that make me feel ultimately disappointed in him, maybe. Not to give away too much, I hope, but when you're with Isao and he's in the toilet peering out at that event, you kind of expect him to go all Christian Bale (of Equilibrium) at some point, or at the very least get stirred into action in the way that Montag does in Fahrenheit 451. Because that doesn't happen quite so much, or at least in quite such a spectacular way, those expectations go unfulfilled.

Now, whether this is a flaw in the character or a flaw in audience expectations due to the last century of cultural material is a pretty interesting question, I think...

Black Sheep is entirely not the sort of book that a gun wielding kung-fu kicking protagonist would add to, and yet on some level this is what I'm expecting... but if something like this were to happen to people I know in the real world, y'know what? Isao is exact representation of how I would expect them to react.

Now you're onto another question of craft, such as are realistic characters often or ever valid, or would they just be dull/irrational/illogical or all of the above? Lots to think about for me, for sure.
Mar. 24th, 2008 02:44 am (UTC)
in the original version of the book, the rebels are somewhat more militant, and it goes that way. the problem, of course, was that tonally, it didn't fit the book--so i decided instead to make his actions against the man to be a bit more low key. actually, real low key, and of course, he's obsessed with his wife, so the two tie in.

realistic characters are more interesting to write, or some kinda shit like that. well, not realistic, i guess, but just making them realistic, that's more fun. you want people to feel something about them, you know, so you want them to be something.
Mar. 24th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)
Coincidentally, I read - started and finished - Black Sheep just yesterday. I also found Isao somewhat (a)pathetic and not incredibly sympathetic, but that's never stopped me from enjoying a larger narrative. I saw his personality as a product of the state in which he lives and was extremely glad that he didn't turn into some Matrix-esque action hero. Because he wasn't. Because most people would act and react the way he does - look at what the world's become in Black Sheep. Hell, I thought it was pretty brave of him to venture into the other parts of Sydney. Some of the criticism about Isao's character is a little sinister in itself. There's a certain Blame The Victim mentality about complaints like, "Why didn't he do more?", "Why wasn't his rebellion more militant?", "Why did he just allow this to happen to him?"

Very bloody sinister, actually.

I also reacted differently to Lewis in regards to the problematic race issue (what is "Asian"? what about the Middle East, Polynesian and other non-Caucasian/African/Asian "races"?). I didn't for one second believe that the UN had the entire world under its control. That ever single city in every single country was segregated. They control information/news/history after all, so we can't believe anything that Isao knows or thinks he knows. To me, the fact that there were only three racial cultures present in the cities (and that these seem to be broadly homogeneous within themselves), just upped the sinister quotient. What about those people who didn't "belong" or "fit" to one of the three dominant races? Had there been mass exterminations? Where they locked out of the city systems on a worldwide basis, ostracised perhaps to unwanted archipelagos or even artificially created land-masses? Or were there whole countries/regions (the Middle East, for instance) that had opted out of the UN system, and managed their own affairs ... an extra level of segregation, or a world at (undeclared/unacknowledged) war?

As a general rule, when I read books or watch movies, I tend to accept things at face value, providing they maintain an internal consistency. Instead of thinking, "well, that wouldn't work, because the world isn't like that", I tend to think, "well, that is how it works, so that world must be like this". If that makes sense. Of course, when what the world "must" be like simply falls apart, so does the narrative, taking with it many a crap book or movie! And I'm extremely intolerant of crap.

Black Sheep does have its flaws and weaknesses - I'm not entirely satisfied with the Kumiko political sub-plot, or at least the way it's presented, and the ending itself felt somewhat flat - but overall it's a rewarding read and, as you can see, does allow a lot of room for thoughtful reflection and discussion. Which is always a good thing.

Looking forward to the next book!
Mar. 24th, 2008 11:37 pm (UTC)
you're the first person to tell me you didn't dig the end. from what i understand, most people reckon it makes the book. kinda nice to see someone on the other side of it.

the racial city thing is, as you say, completely unbelievable, both within and without the book (the final parts of it are really about how such a image of the world is impossible, anyway) but yeah, for it to work, you've just got to accept it and roll with it. if not... well, it's a bit uphill.

anyhow, i'm glad you got a bunch of stuff out of the book. that's total coolness.

and yes, the next book--i look forward to seeing that sold, myself :)
Mar. 25th, 2008 12:22 am (UTC)
Man, don't get me wrong: that was the right way to end the book, the only honest way. It was just that the conversation with Kumiko seemed a little off. It was one of the few times I became really, truly aware that I was reading text on a page that had been typed by someone on a laptop (or typewriter, or stick in the dirt) who was deliberately plotting out a narrative. Your dialogue is usually so lush, which made this last chapter come across as "author needs to wrap things up now". But hey, maybe that's all a consequence of the reading the damn thing pretty much in one sitting (and there's not many books I can do that with these days, so mucho kudos to you).
Mar. 25th, 2008 01:40 am (UTC)
heh. it's probably fair enough to say that is the chapter where the author needs to wrap things up. after all, it's what i'm doing :)

it is cool that you read it one sitting though. that's heaps cool.
Mar. 24th, 2008 10:21 am (UTC)
Just a heads up that the Guardian's G2 section today carries a page of editorial about 'fake memoirs'. It's presumably available on their website and I thought it might be of interest.
Mar. 24th, 2008 11:32 pm (UTC)
Mar. 24th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
that 1 guy: April 25, 2008 - Metro Theatre W/ KARNIVOOL - Sydney, NSW, Australia
Mar. 24th, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC)
Re: off-topic
that's a month away. you know i'm going to forget :)
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