Friday, 25 April 2008

Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verses, by John Harrington (1591)

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[Frontispiece to Canto 41: 'the Tempest'. Click thumbail for bigger image.]
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I read Robert NcNulty's edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Translated by Sir John Harrington (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1972), and found myself particularly struck by the illustrations: each canto is faced by a splendid frontispiece. Now, what I’m interested in here is the possibility that this text, and specifically its pictures, was one of the inspirations for The Tempest. The proposal is that Shakespeare saw these images, and that they, rather than (or in addition, but prior, to) verbal sources, lie behind his ideas for the play.

This is an unconventional way of considering the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s play. Frank Kermode runs through various proposed sources for the Tempest by way of arguing that none of them seem very likely: a German play called Die Schöne Sidea by a fellow called Jakob Ayrer who died in 1605, in which the beautiful Sidea (a sort of Miranda-figure, daughter of a displaced mage) puts a young prince through various tasks such as log carrying to prove his worth in marrying her. But Kermode rather severely says: ‘the similarities between the two plays are not as striking as their advocates have suggested … there is no Caliban in the German play; no shipwreck; no significant system of magic … and the whole play is so naïf and buffoonish as to be beyond the possibility of serious consideration as the reflection of an important source.’
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He goes on: ‘Since Ayrer failed to give complete satisfaction, rival sources were bound to be proposed.’ He notes two Spanish works: Antionio de Eslava’s Noches de Invierno (1609) and Diego Ortunez de Calahorra’s Espejo de Principes y Caballeros (1562). ‘For a while there was keen interest’ in these, Kermode says, but he is unimpressed. Of the second he says ‘there is not a single feature of the Spanish story that has a unique similarity to The Tempest’; and of the former he is even more dismissive: ‘this tale has not even an island to recommend it’ (the magician in it builds a palace underneath the sea).
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Kermode’s overall point seems straightforward: The Tempest ‘draws its stories from a vast reservoir of primitive fiction’ [lxiii]; and whilst ‘analogues of the Tempest fable are, inevitably, quite plentiful’ [lxx] that’s not the same thing as saying that there is one source text which Shakespeare read and then adapted for his own play. Specifically, although Kermode can find various source stories containing some elements of the Tempest, he can find none that contains them all: the opening tempest; the ship containing ordinary seaman and various noble passengers, the nobleman who swims alone from the ship, thinking the others drowned, the ship that continues on its way; the island; the deposed magician-king and his daughter; Caliban; Ariel; the entire kit and caboodle.
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So, here’s a story; see what you think of it: a ship containing noblemen and kings, and a valiant young Prince called Rogero, sets sail upon the Mediterranean. It encounters a fearful tempest, described in vivid terms that contain a good deal of specific nautical language and terminology. The crew struggle to keep the ship afloat, the passengers fear for their lives; Rogero, thrown overboard, swims heroically through the raging seas and makes landfall on a desert island. Against the expectations of the passengers the ship survives the storm, and sails on. On the island Rogero meets an old man who possesses supernatural wisdom, and who lives in a cell or cave. The old man’s business is to work Rogero round to a condition in which he is worthy of marrying the beautiful Bradamant—which he (the old man does) does. The story ends happily when Rogero is reunited, on the island, with various noblemen from whom he had previously been separated.

[Differences: the noblemen with whom Rogero is reunited are not the same ones he travelled with on the ship--they all drown (despite the fact that the ship is ultimately unharmed by the storm; they panicked and got into a longboat which was overturned by the sea). Bradamant is not the magician's daughter; she is unrelated. The magician's task is to convert Rogero to Christianity, not have him carry some logs about. But these strike me as small differences when stacked up against the major similarities listed above.]
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This is Orlando Furioso cantos 41-43. —‘Rogero’ is Harrington’s version of the more usual Ruggiero. Now although I haven't been able to find scholars who have explored the possibility, I'm assuming it's taken for granted in Shakespeariean scholarship that Shax. at least may have had a read Harrington's Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verses, published as it was in 1591. More specifically what I'm imagining is that he saw the illustration of the tempest and was struck by the imaginative possibilities it opened in his mind.
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Other names from Harrington’s Ariosto sounds familiar too: there’s an Alfonso King of Sicily (Shakespeare’s Alonso, we recall, is King of Naples) whose son is called Ferdinand—and, moreover, Ferdinand becoming afterwards King of Naples [Ariosto: 33:23] Ariosto includes no Gonzalo (‘an honest old Councellor’, says the Folio), but he has no fewer than ten Gonzagos, amongst them Cardinals and counselors. There’s also Miranda-esque ‘Mirra’ (‘Mirra, in love with her father’ 25:36)
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And Caliban? The plate of the tempest (the frontispiece to the 41st book, reprinted at the top of this post), is one of the more striking ones in the volume; but the plate to the 42nd book is even more interesting.
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I'm particularly interested in this detail:

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The name there is 'Malagigi', in case you can't read it. Picture Shakespeare looking at that: a nobleman (see how he is dressed) on an island, standing before the mouth of his cell, conversing with a beast-man, or devil. Let's say this image sticks in Shakespeare’s mind. He starts to imagine a story. Perhaps he leafs through the canto itself, looking for the text that underpins this image. Actually the story, in Ariosto's poem, concerns the mage 'Malagige' (as Harrington calls him) who inter alia summons a devil to find out what one of the protagonists, distant from him, is doing; but Harrington's translation is less than clear on this. Indeed, the 34th stanza sounds rather more like Prospero conjuring Ariel:
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And straight from thence he go'th unto the place
Where he was wont the spirits to conjure,
A strong vast cave in which there was great space
The precepts of his Art he put in ure.
One spright he calls that of each doubtfull case
Of Cupids court could give him notice sure;
Of him he askt what bred Renaldos change;
By him he heard of those two fountains strange.

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Spright, no less. Doesn't that sound to you like a scene from The Tempest, save only for the name of Renaldo and the fountain? The image from Canto 42 (nobleman conversing with beast-man/sprite before an island cell) and Canto 41 (violent tempest at sea) are clearly connected; so Shakespeare thinks. He begins to piece together the sort of narrative that this might be. Look again at the individual swimming away from the wreck in the frontispiece to 41, reproduced at the top of this post. This is how Harrington describes him:
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21
...
Rogero for the matter never shranke
But still above the water keeps his hed,
And from farre off he sees that rockie banke
From which in vaine he and his fellowes fled.
He thither laboureth to get with swimming
In hope to get upon the same by climing.

22
With legges and armes he doth him so behave
That still he kept uppon the floods aloft.
He blowes out from his face the boistrous wave
That readie was to overwhelme him oft.
This while the wind aloofe the vessell drave
Which huld away with pase but slow and soft
From those that while they thought their death to shun
Now dide perhaps before the glasse was run.
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And here’s Francisco’s account [II:i] of Ferdinand’s swim:
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Fran. Sir he may liue,
I saw him beate the surges vnder him,
And ride vpon their backes; he trod the water
Whose enmity he flung aside: and brested
The surge most swolne that met him: his bold head
'Boue the contentious waues he kept, and oared
Himselfe with his good armes in lusty stroke
To th' shore; that ore his waue-worne basis bowed
As stooping to releeue him: I not doubt
He came aliue to Land

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And here, finally and at greater length, is Ariosto/Harrington’s description of the tempest itself, signaled in the text by a marginal gloss: ‘A description of a tempest’
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9
From the poop it changed to the side,
Then to the prore; at last it wherled round
In one place long it never would abide
Which doth the Pilots wit and skill confound
The surging waves swell still in higher pride,
While Proteus flocke did more and more abound
And seem to them as many deaths to threaten
As the ships sides with divers waves are beaten.
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10
Now in their face the wind, straight in their backe,
And forward this and backward that it blowes
Then on the side it makes the ship to cracke.
Among the Mariners confusion growes,
The Master ruine doubts and present wrack,
For none his will nor none his meaning knows.
To whistle, becken, crie, it nought availes,
Somtime to strike, somtime to turne their sailes,
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11
But there was none could heare nor see nor marke,
Their ears so stopt, so dazzled weree their eys
With weather so tempestuous and so darke,
And black thicke clouds that with the storm did rise
From whence somtime great ghastly flames did spark
And thunder claps that seemd to rend the skies,
Which made them in a manner deaffe and blind
That no man understood the Masters mind;
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12
Nor lesse nor much lesse fearfull is the sound
The curell tempest in the tackle makes,
Yet each one for him selfe some business found
And to some speciall office him betakes:
One this untied, another that hath boynd,
He the Main bowling now restraines, now slakes
Some take oare, some at pumpe take paine
And power` the sea into the sea againe.
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13
Behold a horrible and hideous blast
That Boreas from his frozen lips doth send
Doth backward force the saile against the mast
And makes the waves unto the skies ascend;
Then brake their oares and rudder eke at last.
Now nothing left from tempest to defend
So that the ship was swayd now quite aside
And to the waves layd ope her naked side.
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14
Then all aside the staggring ship did reele,
For one side quite beneath the water lay
And on the tother side the verie keele
Above the water plaine discerne you may.
They thought they all hope past, and down they kneel
And unto God to take their soules they pray.
Worse danger grew then after this when this was past
By meanes the ship gan after leake so fast.
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15
The wind, the waves to them no respite gave
But readie ev’rie houre to overthrow them.
Oft they were hoist so high upon the wave
They thought the middle region was below them.
Oft times so low the same their vessell drave
As though that Caron there his boat would show them.
Scant had they time and powre to fetch their breth,
All things did threaten them so present death.
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16
Thus all that night they could have no release,
But when the morning somewhat nearer drew
And that by course the furious wind should cease,
(A strange mishap) the wind then fiercer grew,
And while their troubles more and more increase,
Behold a rocke stood plainly in their view,
And right upon the same the spitefull blast
Bare them perforce, which made them all agast.
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17.
Yet did the master by all meanes assay
To steare out roomer or to keepe aloofe
Or at the least to strike sailes if they may
As in such daunger was for their behoofe,
But now the wind did beare so great a sway
His enterprises had but little proofe.
At last with striving, yard and all was torne,
And part thereof into the sea was borne.
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[Marginal gloss: They that have beene at the sea do understand these phrases]
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18.
Then each man saw all hope of saftie past.
No meanes there was the vessell to direct.
No helpe there was, but all away are cast
Wherefore their common saftie they neglect,
But out they get the ship-boat, and in hast
Each man therein his life strives to protect.
Of King nor Prince no man takes heed or note,
But well was he could get him in the bote.
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Here’s the famous opening scene of Shakespeare’s play:
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A tempestuous noise of Thunder and Lightning heard: Enter a Ship-master, and a Boteswaine.
Master. Bote-swaine.
Botes. Heere Master: What cheere?
Mast. Good: Speake to th' Mariners: fall too't, yarely, or we run our selues a ground, bestirre, bestirre.
Enter Mariners.
Botes. Heigh my hearts, cheerely, cheerely my harts: yare, yare: Take in the toppe-sale: Tend to th' Masters whistle: Blow till thou burst thy winde, if roome enough.
Enter Alonso, Sebastian, Anthonio, Ferdinando, Gonzalo, and others.
Alon. Good Boteswaine haue care: where's the Master? Play the men.
Botes. I pray now keepe below.
Anth. Where is the Master, Boson?
Botes. Do you not heare him? you marre our labour, Keepe your Cabines: you do assist the storme.
Gonz. Nay, good be patient.
Botes. When the Sea is: hence, what cares these roarers for the name of King? to Cabine; silence: trouble vs not.
Gon. Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboord.
Botes. None that I more loue then my selfe. You are a Counsellor, if you can command these Elements to silence, and worke the peace of the present, wee will not hand a rope more, vse your authoritie: If you cannot, giue thankes you haue liu'd so long, and make your selfe readie in your Cabine for the mischance of the houre, if it so hap. Cheerely good hearts: out of our way I say.
Enter.
Gon. I haue great comfort from this fellow: methinks he hath no drowning marke vpon him, his complexion is perfect Gallowes: stand fast good Fate to his hanging, make the rope of his destiny our cable, for our owne doth little aduantage: If he be not borne to bee hang'd, our case is miserable.
Enter Boteswaine
Botes. Downe with the top-Mast: yare, lower, lower, bring her to Try with Maine-course. A plague --
A cry within. Enter Sebastian, Anthonio &.
Gonzalo. vpon this howling: they are lowder then the weather, or our office: yet againe? What do you heere? Shal we giue ore and drowne, haue you a minde to sinke?
Sebas. A poxe o'your throat, you bawling, blasphemous incharitable Dog.
Botes. Worke you then. Anth. Hang cur, hang, you whoreson insolent Noyse-maker, we are lesse afraid to be drownde, then thou art.
Gonz. I'le warrant him for drowning, though the Ship were no stronger then a Nutt-shell, and as leaky as an vnstanched wench.
Botes. Lay her a hold, a hold, set her two courses off to Sea againe, lay her off.
Enter Mariners wet.
Mari. All lost, to prayers, to prayers, all lost.
Botes. What must our mouths be cold?
Gonz. The King, and Prince, at prayers, let's assist them, for our case is as theirs
Sebas. I'am out of patience
An. We are meerly cheated of our liues by drunkards, This wide-chopt-rascall, would thou mightst lye drowning the washing of ten Tides
Gonz. Hee'l be hang'd yet, Though euery drop of water sweare against it, And gape at widst to glut him.
A confused noyse within.
Mercy on vs. We split, we split, Farewell my wife, and children, Farewell brother: we split, we split, we split
Anth. Let's all sinke with' King
Seb. Let's take leaue of him.
Enter.
Gonz. Now would I giue a thousand furlongs of Sea, for an Acre of barren ground: Long heath, Browne firrs, any thing; the wills aboue be done, but I would faine dye a dry death.

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And from a little later in the play, Ariel’s account of the same scene:
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Pro. Hast thou, Spirit,
Performd to point, the Tempest that I bad thee
Ar. To euery Article.
I boorded the Kings ship: now on the Beake,
Now in the Waste, the Decke, in euery Cabyn,
I flam'd amazement, sometime I'ld diuide
And burne in many places; on the Top-mast,
The Yards and Bore-spritt, would I flame distinctly,
Then meete, and ioyne. Ioues Lightning, the precursors
O'th dreadfull Thunder-claps more momentary
And sight out-running were not; the fire, and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring, the most mighty Neptune
Seeme to besiege, and make his bold waues tremble,
Yea, his dread Trident shake
Pro. My braue Spirit,
Who was so firme, so constant, that this coyle
Would not infect his reason?
Ar. Not a soule
But felt a Feauer of the madde, and plaid
Some tricks of desperation; all but Mariners
Plung'd in the foaming bryne, and quit the vessell;
Then all a fire with me the Kings sonne Ferdinand
With haire vp-staring (then like reeds, not haire)
Was the first man that leapt; cride hell is empty,
And all the Diuels are heere
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There’s a good deal of similarity of mood and tone: that a tempest is described, that a lot of nautical jargon is used ('They that have beene at the sea do understand these phrases'), that the prince escapes, that the boat which seemed sinking is spared. But there are relatively few specifically linguistic parallels. But that, I’d argue, is because it was Shakespeare’s visual imagination that was engaged by the book under his hand, rather than his verbal one; he was struck by the image—Prosperous nobleman, beastial caliban.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Richard Morgan, Black Man (2007)


Here's what I think: there’s a reason why a certain breed of hard-boiled thriller is called noir.

Morgan’s Black Man is a near-future tech thriller/adventure yarn, like all the other titles on the Clarke 08 list. It's the most thrillery of these thrillers, though, and earns its thrillerishness (its, dare-I-say, thrillerocity) not just by providing actual readerly thrills but by making a formal and aesthetic virtue out of its generic necessities. This is a book that works as thriller and simultaneously as a deconstruction of the logic of the thriller. It provides excitement, and levers open the disconcerting space between our enjoyment of that excitement and our unease at the being-in-the-world that generates it. Clever, that.

Morgan’s titular protagonist, Carl Marsalis, is a former genetic infantryman (known in Morgan’s universe as a ‘thirtreen’, or more derogatively as a ‘twist’) now working as a deromanticised James Bond. To be more precise he's a James Bladerunner, for his job is hunting down other rogue thirteens. Supercompetent, intelligent and good at his violent job, Marsalis is sometimes physically shaken but never emotionally stirred--until, that is, he teams up with sexy hardboiled Turkish-American cop Sevgi Ertekin. Together they cross continents to track down a rogue thirteen serial killer. They chase clues, gets into fights and have a quantity of squelchily described sexual intercourse, until she suffers the generic fate of the love-interest in this sort of story, and Marsalis is given sufficient if not necessary cause for his big finale. This perhaps makes the books sound formulaic; but at every point in this familiar narrative trajectory the writing is canny enough to excavate what lies beneath his popular narrative conventions, and to consider what made it popular in the first place.

The deal with Marsalis, and with his kind, is that they are genengineered throwbacks to an earlier, tougher, less sociable model of homo sapiens: an individualistic human type effectively bred out of the gene pool twenty-thousand years ago because they didn’t fit the new logic of social civilization. ‘It’s only once humans settle down in agricultural communities that these guys start to be a problem,’ one character notes. ‘Why? Because they won’t fucking do as they’re told. They won’t work in the fields and bring in the harvest for some kleptocratic old bastard with a beard. That’s when they start to get bred out, because the rest of us, the wimps and the conformists, band together under that selfsame kleptocratic bastard’s paternal holy authority, and we go out with our torches and our farming implements and exterminate those poor fuckers’ [279].

Most hard-man thrillers and adventures simply take their premise—the valorization of the self-sufficient individual male hero—for granted. Morgan doesn’t. The point of his novel is to unpack what being that sort of person actually entails: Natty Bumppo, John Carter, James Bond, the Man with No Name, Jason Bourne. This goes beyond making plain that violence does damage to the perpetrator as well as victim. It becomes a critique of masculinity itself, a dramatization of the notion that contemporary society has committed ‘virilicide’ by purging itself of the hypertrophic vir in favour of more socially skilled individuals. Our's, as one of the novel’s character notes, is ‘a world in which manhood’s going out of style. Advancing wave of the feminised society, the alpha males culling themselves through suicide and … drugs’ [113]. These ideas aren’t original to Morgan—he cites Richard Wrangham and Matt Ridley in his acknowledgements—and Black Man isn’t the first novel to dramatise them: it was also the theme of, for example, Pahunik’s Fight Club. Indeed, in a broader sense, this conflict between these two modes of life, solitary man or social animal, is behind Scott’s Waverly novels, and goes back at least to Homer—whose Achilles is one prototype for Morgan’s Marsalis.

Morgan does a thoroughgoing and rather brilliant job on this idea. Testosterone, he tells us, is a dangerous and even malicious chemical. Undeniably it provides us with thrills and a vicarious sense of kicking against the pricks, but this book never lets us forget the malice. Pride, sex, patriotism (one memorable aperçu: ‘anyone who’s proud of their country is either a thug or just hasn’t read enough history yet’ 299), alpha-male social rituals. Pff. I tell you what: I’m an adult male, six-foot-two in my socks. I work out: free weights mostly. I can handle myself. I could totally make my way in this alpha-male world, man. You know? Well ... I would, except only that my wife won’t let me. Apparently I’ve got to finish the ironing first. But the principle is the same, yeah?

In the more race-sensitive US Black Man has been retitled Thirteen. Some critics have derided this, but in some ways I prefer the American title. It is more evasive than the UK title, and in that sense it doesn’t fit a book that is one of the least evasive, one of the most fist-in-the-reader’s-face, I have ever read. (It's one of the joys of Morgan’s writing that he always turns it up to eleven all the time. In the hands of a less skilful writer that would lead to gush, sprawl or pseudo-Tarantino excess; but Morgan’s broader theme is precisely excess, and he knows how to operate the heavy machinery of his own fiction). But one thing the US title does is highlight just how North American a book this is. Marsalis himself is British, and the novel flaps its wings from Turkey to Latin America via Mars, but its soul is America: a future Disunited States that has broken into two chunks: the Rim States on the western coast and the northeast and the unpleasant, fundamentalist Red-State Jesusland in the middle. Thirteen is an unlucky number (another slang term for the likes of Marsalis is ‘unluck’); but thirteen is also the number of orginal American colonies, and one of the more subtly woven threads running through the book is the notion of the Thirteens as a new human endeavour, a sort of genetic new found land. The old world views them with hostility, yet women (it seems) find them irresistible; and to a certain extent the book itself, and many of its readers, follow the women in this--a minor flaw in the overall pattern of the book is the way almost all the characters are revealed to be genetic variations on the baseline human model by the end. But otherwise, as with Dick's original androids, it's hard to shake a sense that violence notwithstanding these people are better than old humans.

Yes? Maybe not. Thirteens tend toward the sociopathic, it is true, and leave a trail of injury and death in their wakes; but then again in Morgan’s universe pretty much everybody is like that. As a South American gangster points out to Marsalis, when the Conquistadors swarmed over the Aztec empire they slaughtered so many ‘the ground was carpeted with corpses and the condors fed for weeks on the remains … soldiers tore nursing infants from the breast and tossed them still living to their attack dogs, or swung them by the heels against rocks to smash their skulls… These were not demons, and they were not genetically engineered abominations like you. These were men.’ [333]. Well, quite. And the 23rd century seems no better: crammed with the criminal, the violent, the exploitative, the religiously-bonkers, the psychotically unhinged. In such a world, Marsalis (as the conventions of this mode of writing require) is more likeable and less violent than the various horrid people up against which he comes.

There are some problems with Black Man/Thirteen as a novel. For one thing it is too long: 647 pages in the bound proof I read (546 pages in final mmp form). It starts with a 'before the Bond film credits sequence', in which Marsalis assassinates a rogue thirteen and ends up in a Jesusland jail, that, whilst perfectly efficiently done, doesn’t really grip. Only when its Roy-Batty-a-like villain hijacks a Mars-Earth spaceship (eating the passengers en route) and begins a north-American killing spree, and Marsalis is recruited by the authorities to track him down, does the book really get a grip on a the reader’s throat. Even then, the denouement is dragged out a little two long, through nearly two hundred pages of twist, counter-twist and final wham-bang. The relentlessly technicolor kiss-kiss bang-bang sometimes loses, or perhaps overloads, our attention. That said, the writing is of a very high calibre. Morgan is as good a stylist as anybody on the Clarke 08 list (Sarah Hall perhaps excepted; although's he's more consistent than her, and knows better how to subordinate style to overall project): the action is efficiently and viscerally described; description is evocative; explication is always to the point and never infodumpy; the dialogue is good (people don't actually talk that way in, like, real-life; but then again people don't actually talk that way in Dickens, Proust or Beckett: what I mean is that Morgan's dialogue is perfectly fitted to its various roles: plot motion, character, flavour and atmosphere).

On the other hand the fact that Morgan writes as well as he does perhaps disguises how thoroughly cinematic an author he is. He structures his books like a film: a sequence of visual-setups and visual payoffs, paragraph breaks used to punctuate the narrative in a way suggestive of panning and cutting, dialogue written to be spoken: it’s all rapidly kinetic, picturing motion. But this is a mixed blessing: the overall trajectory of the book would work more effectively as a hundred minutes of cinema than it does as several days of reading, something that has to do with the beat and pace of its story. Of course, the danger then is that the story becomes Transporter II instead of the punchily intelligent ideas-driven novel that Morgan has written. Ideas don’t usually play well on the big screen.

It is probably true to say that Morgan’s ideas occupy a different strata of the novel than his action-adventure spectacles. Emotionally, from its Blade Runner opening to its Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ending, the book marks out one path; intellectually it is pulling, creatively but slightly awkwardly, in another. Many of the action-sequences are extremely and viscerally effective (one in particular, where Marsalis is ambushed at night in the middle of South American nowhere by dozens of armed men, and disposes of them all with a shovel is especially well done). But the novel is what we have; and what's most interesting about the novel is its ideas. These are wrapped in a tooled and polished thriller shell, but live with you after the temporary excitements of that sort of things has faded. Black Man is black gold.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel (2007)


The Execution Channel starts with what appears to be a rogue atomic explosion in a Scottish airbase, and then rifles efficiently through the silverware in the Thriller drawer: threats, paranoia, running-about, chases, guns, spies, secrets, the whole kit and kaboodle. It is well handled, very readable and the raisins in its pudding batter are various canny and thought-provoking political observations about the grim state of the world today generally and the War on Terror in particular. ‘In the long run,’ we’re told, ‘it is impossible to live in peace on the same planet as a rogue superpower.’ [150] I’m prepared to believe it. But then at the last minutes the novel goes all Tales of the Unexpected on our asses, and the reader puts the book down with an ‘er…?’ Or else, judging by some bloggerly and reviewerish reactions, with a whoop of joy. Personally I was on the ‘er’ side, but I can understand why others delighted in it. Graham Sleight has called it the marmite ending. That’s about right. Indeed, it's rather difficult to discuss the novel without discussing the ending, so beware: spoilers below.

Roisin Travis, protesting outside a USAF base in Scotland, sees a strange object (bomb, she thinks) being loaded onto a plane. She gets away before it explodes, or is exploded, although she has to go on the run from the British and American secret services. Her Dad, James Travis, is a computer bod and French double-agent, and circumstances also force him out on the run. Through the windows of this narrative car-in-motion Macleod shows us blipping camoes of a society straining under the burden of hate, religion, economic strain and imperialism. The plot shifts along at a fair old lick.

Well-handled though the novel is many ways, though, I think there are problems with it. In the main body of the work the outrage (justifiable of course) at the human abuses of the present Western hegemony rather distorts, or nullifies, some of the novel’s occasional lighter moments,a and the humour can seem forced. So, Alexander MacIntyre’s code name is SCRAP, and we are told: ‘Scotland had long since run out of dignified cryptonyms like SCEPTRE and SCIENCE for its agents. It was an exhausted running joke that they would soon have to draw the line at SCUM’ [180]. But exhausted is about right for the humour here (other agents have the code names SCRUB and SCROTE). The book is much better when MacLeod plays it straight, as in the chillily understated account of an interrogation midway through the novel:
Paulson asked the questions. Walker indicated the stress methods. The soldiers applied them. Afterwards they stripped the prisoner naked. One of the soldiers washed him down, and bathed his cuts and bruises, with a high-pressure hose. They placed him in one of the two unoccupied cells and left him there. [190]
Also good is Macleod's pinpoint take on his information propagandists: runners of faux-blogs, feeders of half-truth to the press and the like. That the novel is set in an alternate timeline in which Gore won the US Presidential election is revealed a little way in, and makes the point that it is not an individual (George W.) or a party (the Republicans) who are responsible for the War on Terror, but rather a system; and that it is the system that needs to be reformed. But it has the unintended consequence of diluting the force of the political polemic—since, after all, the political scene being attacked here belongs to a different timeline than the one in which we presently live. This would matter less if the novel’s ending didn’t force the narrative through a knight’s-move out of thriller-territory and into space opera. The novel we have been reading, under the impression it was John Le Cliché, turns out instead to be Blish-ish: Euro-Syriana bursts its chrysalis and flies away as a butterfly crying We Shall Have Stars. This twist-in-the-tail ending is certainly prepared-for in the novel—perhaps, indeed it is overprepared. Not only are Heim Theory Ships discussed, and James Blish specifically referenced (‘“Seulement les étoiles, yes,” she sighed. “It is science fiction, but I wish …”’ [133]); but the whole book ties together a bundle of sf in-jokes: ‘Matrix’-style agents called Smith; characters declaring ‘We are now Battlestar America. Watch the skies’ [349] and so on. But the combination of its twist-ending and gratuitous alt-historical contextualising robs the novel of élan vital.

The thing about twist-endings, I’d say, is that howsoever well-handled they are they inevitably say something about the work they bookend. They say, in effect: see? you couldn’t trust what I was saying! They may even say don't you feel foolish now for believing what I told you earlier? By extension they say: you shouldn’t trust to first impressions in any situation. That ought to be a good moral for a novel about the current New World Order, except that MacLeod’s novel does not present the propagandized surface of the current global situation (or more precisely, it presents it only to highlight how risible it is). The bulk of the novel is a polemic about the way the world actually is, not an ironic entry into the world of ideological simulacra. To cap this representation with a twist-ending is in effect to say: you thought the world was a bad place? Well, voilà! it’s not so bad as you thought! This tugs awkwardly against the grain of the novel as a whole. So for me not a marmite ending (since I like marmite): rather a cat ending, a feline, slinky, self-involved, furball of an ending. Others disagree, of course, and perhaps they’re right. De gustibus.

I have another issue with the ending, although this one is more tangential and harder to sustain argumentatively. But, having finished the novel, I find that the ending lives disproportionately in my mind as I look back over what I have read. It's loud, as it were, and drowns out the bulk of the narrative. Endings shouldn’t do that. And there’s a particular mismatch where the subject of this novel is concerned. Endings get too much weight in contemporary practical-political discourse. One of the ideological underpinnings of, for instance, is that the end (let’s say, a western-style bourgeois democracy in Iraq) justify the means (let’s say, the death of up to a million Iraqis and many years of human misery). I don’t mean this to be a cheap shot, and I appreciate it is not a criticism that many would share; but the ending of The Execution Channel is a little too Mission Accomplished for my tastes.