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Chasing the Stars

September 5, 2016

I was promised “gender-swapped Othello in space!” when I picked up Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars, and while I don’t exactly feel cheated, I somehow did not expect to get a version of the story that, like the movie O, gives the Iago figure a motive. And then…

Oh, Malorie Blackman, “thou hast not half that power to do me harm/
As I have to be hurt.”

… this version of the story shows Desdemona getting the chance to explain how the handkerchief (in this version, the necklace) was lost. This version also completely exposes the Iago figure’s villainy, in addition to his motive.

Chasing the Stars ends with the most inane dialogue imaginable, the Othello figure saying
“You promised to love me for ever and it was implied, though never stated, that I wouldn’t try to kill you”
and the Desdemona figure still unable to forgive, speaking his parting words
“you take care of yourself, OK?”
The beautiful, haunting words of one of the most passionate plays in the history of the English language reduced all the way down to these. Really?

And it started so well! I liked the science fiction handling of the racial aspect of the play when the Desdemona figure, Nathan, reveals that he is a “drone” and the Othello figure, Vee, (gender-swapped but not race-swapped, evidently) responds “Like you could be a drone! They’re just sub-intellect labourers doing all the menial, manual work that’s too filthy or hazardous for normal people to do” because she’s never been a slave, never seen “The Anthropophagi and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

The relationship between Nathan (Desdemona) and Anjuli (Cassio) is very nicely set up—on the prison planet where they were both drones, Nathan says,
“Anjuli had befriended me, shown me the ropes and taught me which guards and supervisors to avoid like primate flu and which ones were still relatively human. And she’d actually saved my life once. I would’ve sunk without trace if it hadn’t been for her and we both knew it.”
Similarly, the relationship between Vee and her Iago is very well set up and fits the science fiction theme interestingly, although aspects of it are a surprise that it would entirely spoil the book to reveal.

Let’s talk about the writing, though. I was bothered by the occasional needless use of words like “amongst” in sentences like this one: “The only thing I hadn’t shared with any of the others was the executive command code which allowed me amongst other things to lock out or lock down any computer function at a moment’s notice.” Then it accelerated. I started seeing “whilst” in sentences like “Nathan, you’d better make the most of her whilst you’ve got her” and “He was locked out whilst there were people inside the conduits.”

So I was less inclined to give this author a pass for quoting bits of Othello like “Beware the green-eyed monster which mocks the meat it feeds on” without any reference to what the second part means in this space-age context. I was also complely unprepared to forgive the author of a 2016 novel for using Wash’s famous phrase from the 2005 movie Serenity, about being “a leaf on the wind” in this clunky sentence:
“Aidan made that craft dance like a leaf on the wind.”

It’s not that bad an updating but boy, did it make me angry. Desdemona would never leave Othello. Othello would never leave her. The ending of this particular story is always that when Othello no longer loves Desdemona, then “Chaos is come again.” It’s not just another day in the universe, you know?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2016 5:32 am

    Sounds almost worth reading just for a perverse enjoyment of such bad writing!

    • September 6, 2016 9:57 am

      Really, I didn’t get angry with it until the end. It’s just so untrue to the “real” story of Othello and Desdemona, that one could leave the other, or the other one could let go.
      But yeah, you detect the perverse enjoyment I got writing about it.

  2. September 5, 2016 9:12 pm

    Oh bother. I feel terribly responsible for selling it so hard but in my defense, gender-swapped Othello in space is a hell of an elevator pitch. I couldn’t NOT say it! :p

    Is it possible British people say “amongst” and “whilst” oftener than us Yanks? I feel like I have memories in my head of British people using both of those words in casual conversation, but I may just be trying to compensate for giving you a bum steer on this one.

    • September 6, 2016 10:00 am

      It is a great elevator pitch–notice I couldn’t resist putting it in, myself!
      This wasn’t really a bum steer–as I said in the comment above, I didn’t get angry until the end, and then I got the enjoyment a blogger sometimes gets from venting exactly what is wrong with this book.
      Fun was had.
      But I’m not thinking I should pick up the sequel.
      The best alternative Othello story is still I, Iago.

  3. September 6, 2016 4:40 am

    I’m a fan of ‘amongst’ and ‘whilst’ but you’ve got to watch how often you use them. Perhaps here it’s the Shakespearian aspect, as in not that those words are historical per se but that they’d bring more… formality to it all? (In regards to what Jenny’s said, I’d say it’s possible, though likely not so much now than in years gone by.)

    I’m still holding out on Serenity as I’m not ready for it all to be over. Seems if I’m to read this book, and I plan to, I’ll have to just get on with it.

    • September 6, 2016 10:04 am

      I think Blackman was trying to make the slightly archaic feel of those words (amongst and whilst) work to remind us of her Shakespearean background, but I would say it’s not the way to do it. Her archaisms come off as trying too hard, because they’re only on the surface. Like that she doesn’t explain “the meat it feeds on.”
      There is one scene in the novel when Nathan’s peers are teasing him about sleeping with Vee that captures some of Shakespeare’s bawdy humor, and that shows a lot of talent on Blackman’s part.
      Perhaps my biggest criticism is that her ambition exceeds her grasp. At least so far in her career.

  4. September 9, 2016 8:56 am

    Science fiction with inane dialogue sounds like a miss to me.

    • September 9, 2016 9:02 am

      I do think that at least part of the reason the dialogue sounds inane is that she’s trying to incorporate Shakespearean themes, and that is an immensely difficult task.
      I’ve tried it myself, in a limited way–my family grew up seeing Shakespeare plays, and yet we usually throw the card out when we’re playing Lie-brary and we get a Shakespeare play. We know none of us can imitate the language well enough to fool the others.

  5. September 16, 2016 1:01 pm

    What a shame this one didn’t meet expectations. All the potential was there too it seems.

    • September 16, 2016 2:27 pm

      Can’t fault her for taking Norman Vincent Peale so literally, though (“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”)

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