Monday, 27 July 2009

Deathray #20: Brown, Reynolds


So, Guy Haley, Deathray-humble-editor-in-chief. What’s he like? Well, he’s like the editor of a top-drawer SF mag who is keen to spread the word. He wonders if SF-blogs might like to mention the latest issue of his mag. Gladly. I’ve said before that the ’Thray (as I like to call it) is my favourite SF mag: wittier and wider-ranging than Interzone (the ’Rzone, as I don’t tend to call it), better on literary SF, my main drug, than SFX (the ’Fecks, as nobody in their right mind would call it), and more readily available in the Staines High Street W H Smith than Locus which I won’t disrespect by abbreviating.

Actually, the principle of absolute honesty and full disclosure compels me to confess an untruthfulness. I don’t, actually, like to refer to this magazine as ‘The Thray’. It’s actually quite hard to get your tongue around that. Like a vocal equivalent of Spock’s hand gesture. And talking of Spock’s hand gesture: has it occurred to nobody else, on the kimosabe-actually-means-horse’s-arse principle, that Spock might have been giving the world a Vulcan swivel-finger? What I mean is: it’s occurred to me. Am I alone?

I digress.

So what do we have? There are the Potteroids, up there, on the front cover; Harry smouldering, and Dumbledore (by accident or 'Thray-ish design) reaching with a wizardly right hand for Hermione’s left boobie.
I wouldn’t have thought that was his thing at all. Inside there’s another smouldering pose, with Torchwood-Gwen looking poutingly at the camera, and Editor Haley standing directly below imitating both pose and expression as if eager to ape the Welsh beauty. Does Guy’s pout have the same effect as Gwen’s? See for yourself:

The ‘Children of Earth’ Torchwood is one of the ‘Deathray 5’: ‘the month’s most intriguing and/or important stuff.’ Also ‘5’d’ this month is The Half-Blood Prince, Duncan Jones’s above-average Moon movie, Dynamite Entertainment’s new ‘Buck Rogers’ comic and the so-so vampire novel The Strain by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro.

What else? There’s the required spread of news and views; articles on up-and-coming stars of stage and screen called ‘The New Gods’: Anton Yelchin, Rachel Luttrell, Justin Long and, er, Dan Ackroyd and Andy Serkis, both of whom have surely upped and come long ago. If that image isn’t too disgusting. There’s an excellent article on French artist Moebius, my single favourite SF imagist—lots of splendid reproductions, including the black and white image that immediately precedes the image at the top of this page. There’s a 1984 retrospective; a piece on how professionals apply zombie and devil make-up for the big screen; a 10-page Pottersplurge, 9 pages on Moon’s special effects; lots on DC comics and the Art of Mike Perkins; and a great number of images of zombies amongst which is one, though I’m not sure which one, of an unmadeup Danny Dyer. All good.

But it’s the book-stuff I’m most interested in, and that happens to be doubleplus good. Partly this is because the book reviews are of a uniformly high standard (though their 2/5 judgment on The Forest of Hands and Teeth is wrongheaded, getting all picky over worldbuilding snags and scythe-pedantry whilst missing the emotional heft: Carrie Ryan’s novel is a character and mood piece, not a fitting-all-the-meccano-pieces-together construction exercise). And partly it’s because of a handy in-depth interview with Stephen Baxter—very good this, although the interviewer (Haley again) gets a little under-collar-heated at Steve's voice: 'his accent is soft Liverpool, quiet and clever in that John Lennon mould ... the most relaxing Sf author to listen to ... voice like a bath of sexy honey ...' Well, maybe not that last one.

The pièce de résistance, though, is the inclusion of two superior pieces of original fiction—something SFX (for instance) doesn’t give its readers. There’s ‘Bengal Blues’ by the criminally good and criminally underrated Eric Brown; a neat little space-age murder mystery; telepathic noir. But good though Brown’s story is, the real standout is Al Reynold’s ‘Monkey Suit’. This Revelation-Space-universe story is almost worth the price of admission by itself.

Reynolds made his reputation as a short-story writer, of course, and although he’s all about the Big Novels now ‘Monkey Suit’ reminds us what made him so notable a Space Operator in the first place. This is how it starts.
A lighthugger is a four-kilometre spike of armour and ablative ice. That’s a lot of surface area to search for a lost crewman. Especially when the hull is a craggy, knotted labyrinth of jagged ornamentation and half-abandoned machinery, a place you could lose an army in, let alone a single hull-monkey.
The story is a simple but effortlessly paced and readable thing: the narrator takes on a dead man’s spacesuit and goes out onto the hull of the 1g accelerating, near-c hurtling lighthugger to undertake repairs, where strange things happen.

The thing that struck me reading this is that, in reviewing Reynolds' work previously, and concentrating my praise on his considerable talents as an entertainer and ideas-merchant, I’ve rather underplayed how cleverly allusive a writer he is. There are two things about this story that lift it above the ordinary. One is the way the spaceship is troped as a Gothic cathedral—though in a way wholly consonant with physics and engineering: a vast, crenulated, vertical spire upon which the narrator scrambles and clambers. The gargoyle-like captain (an Ultra), death-by-impaling, plague (silver, rather than red, death) and the toying with the notion that Raoul’s suit is haunted by its dead former owner: these deliberately Gothic touches neatly primp the creepiness of tone and atmosphere of the whole. Reynolds knows what he is doing. But an even nicer touch, I thought, was the way the suit itself is styled after the Shield of Achilles:
Every significant incident had been recorded in a tiny cameo, painted onto the metal carapace in laborious, loving detail … here a battle scene, bulbous-suited figures on the surface of an asteroid fighting other bulbous-suited figures against a sky of bright vermillion. Here was a ship burning from the inside, against a star-wisped clutch of blue supergiants. Here was a picture of two fearsome cyborgs …
Superb. The technical term for this is ekphrasis, and when done well (like the glimpses of deep past underlying The Lord of the Rings, or the attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion that exist in the two hour film only for the three seconds it takes Hauer to speak this line and yet which stick more potently in the mind than any of it) it generates enormous vividness and affect.

On the other hand, I don’t know from where ‘HE TOLD ME TO DO IT’ is quoted. So, alas, my review ends in fail.

9 comments:

Peter Hollo said...

Oh I'm so there. I wonder where I can get it in Sydney, Australia? May have to mail order :/

Martin said...

Is this intended as a corrective to the perception voiced by several people recently that Adam Roberts is an elitest academic who lives in an ivory tower and is a big meanie to boot?

I ask because as entertaining as the review is, I am brought up short by the passage about Brown and, in particular, the suggestion that he is "criminally good" Sure, his work isn't terrible but it isn't exceptionally good either. It's in the middle. There’s a word for that. The word is mediocre.

Peter Hollo said...

I must admit that, with Martin, I feel that Brown is, if anything, criminally mediocre.

I'm firmly of the theory that the people Martin is referring to are suffering from being American, or at least not English. Their loss. (Not that I'm English except by an accident of birth. Aussies don't have the same affliction I'm referring to, though.)

Adam Roberts said...

Martin: well, obviously, when Eric gets his first Hugo nomination I shall take violently against him.

Guy said...

Thanks for the break down, you scampish prof. I stand by my review of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, though. In praising 'Monkey Suit' you are praising a fine example of fiction where heart and Meccano pieces are all correctly assembled together into a pleasing cybernetic whole (I'm sorry, that analogy got away from me). I didn't get that at all from Forest, I'm afraid to say. Poor world building is VERY BAD, especially when it can be easily avoided, my main beef with this particular book. And I did not find it so emotionally affecting as you obviously did. But you can't love 'em all.

Um, you're going to say you wrote it under a pseudonym now, aren't you? Part of your over-arching plot to improve the Hugo Awards' seed stock?

Oh, and Matt Bielby is the Editor-in-Chief, I am simply a humble editor. That is why I pout so...

Finally, the cover quote is from Harry Potter!

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