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Review: Sulphuric Acid & Changing Planes

January 24, 2010

I’m writing these reviews very quickly so you’ll have to forgive me if it all seems rushed.

Publisher: Faber and Faber/2007

(originally published as Acide Sulfurique: Editions Albin Michel/2005)

Hardcover: 127 pages


In Sulphuric Acid, Amelie Nothomb writes a thought-provoking tale of what could happen if suddenly people were rounded up, sent to a camp, forced to work until they couldn’t and then were sent to be executed and all the while it was the most popular television show.

The blurb on the front-flap wrote that the novel is about celebrity and peoples’ attraction to it. I don’t agree with that, of course, naturally, the idea of “celebrity” will come into it. The aspect of “15-minutes of fame” and the rise of the “reality star” but, I think, Nothomb writes more on the subject of responsibility, the degrees of involvement, the passivity of the audience and the television and idea of what is “freedom”?

Nothomb questions the validity of the argument of “we weren’t directly involved so we can’t be blamed”, the audience watches the show and Pannonique  (the main character) argues that they are the true criminals. So, we have to question whether we can hide behind our “passive involvement”, and whether we create these shows ourselves. If a show like this were to exist would we watch it and justify it by saying, it’s there and we might as well. You could easily say “I wouldn’t watch it” but many would. We watch horror because we can say to ourselves that we are watching a fiction, we aren’t “bad” people. The television works in the same way, there is an element of fiction to it. We are always somewhat removed from the reality in that we are viewing something through another gaze and that, for some people, would make watching a reality-death-show plausible. It’s not real it’s on TV mentality.

There is also the question of even if you are “free”, in that you have no restraints: physical or otherwise, are you still “free”. Pannonique is locked-up but she is held in high-regard and her morals are, for her, so irrefutable she would rather let people die than give in. Then, on the other hand, we have her main tormentor, Zdena (one of the guards) who appears to be free but is plagued by self-doubt and is treated by employee, workers, the media and even the prisoners as someone to be looked down upon. Is she more “free” than Pannonique because there is an illusion of her life having no visible boundaries?

Publisher: Gollancz/2004

(originally published by Harcourt Inc./2003

Hardcover: 224 pages


Changing Planes is a collection of stories about being able to travel to different “planes” as in different dimensional planes.

I think if you come to this book wanting a unique example of world building you will be disappointed. The worlds and its inhabitants that Le Guin creates are far too much like ours but I don’t think Le Guin was trying to make unique worlds, they are allegories and satirical takes on societies.

There were some stories that are worth mentioning like the tale of the plane where everyone had communal dreams, a great passage at the end is “for them to fall asleep is to abandon the self utterly, to enter or reenter the limitless community of being, almost as death is for us.” Or the story about people who don’t need to sleep but exist in an almost dream-like state where they cannot fully function. Le Guin writes:

To be a self, one must also be nothing. To know oneself, one must be able to know nothing. The asomnics know the world continuously and immediately, with no empty time, no room for selfhood. Having no dreams, they tell no stories and so have no use for language. Without language, they have no lies. Thus they have no future. They live here, now, perfectly in touch. They live in pure fact. But they can’t live in truth, because the way to truth, says the philosopher, is through lies and dreams.

Yet, apart from some decent tales, for most of the time I kept flicking back-and-forth to see how long I had left to read. Not a very good sign. It isn’t a great book but I wouldn’t discourage people not to read it.


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