Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Carey Rockwell, Stand By For Mars! (1952)

Well Clute and Nicholls have no entry on 'Carey Rockwell' (the copyright page credits 'Rockhill Radio, All Rights Reserved'; so I daresay it's a firm pseudonym) -- although of course Willy Ley, listed there as 'Technical Adviser', gets an entry. Nor is there an entry for the 'TOM CORBETT Space Cadet Adventure' series. The title verso lists "No 2 Danger in Deep Space (A Tom Corbett Space Cadet Story)", although I've no idea if the series stretched any further than that. So in sum, it looks like this little hardback might be a juvenile space adventure minnow that has slipped the mighty Clute/Nicholls net; although whether it slips through the tighter mesh of the Clute/Langford/Nicholls third edition remains to be seen.*
[* Update. David Langford puts me right -- no entry for ROCKWELL, but the SFE does indeed have an entry, under T for TOM CORBETT (rather than C for CORBETT, TOM), where I learn that the books were spun-off from a US TV serial: 'the concept was on a grand scale but the visual effects were severely limited by budget and by the necessity to broadcast live: much had to be described in dialogue or merely suggested. Nevertheless, the show was hugely successful -- it introduced the phrase "Blast off!" into popular speech'. Dave also provides me with all eight titles in the series: Danger in Deep Space (1953) #2; On the Trail of the Space Pirates (1953) #3; The Space Pioneers (1953) #4; The Revolt on Venus (1954) #5; Treachery in Outer Space (1954) #6; Sabotage in Space (1955) #7; The Robot Rocket (1956) #8. I'll be keeping an eye out for those ...]

It's a simple tale, so hearty it almost busts its space-britches with Martian derring-do. Tom, and his two best pals Roger and Astro, are licked into shape as Space Cadets on the Solar Guard's Martian camp. Various training exercises, rocket flying, lots of 'Tom Brown in Space' style bonding, one bout of fisticuffs and a lengthily described game of Martian football fill most of the book, over the course of which Tom, Roger and Astro prove themselves the very best cadets the Solar Guard has ever seen. The adventure ante is upped near the end, when our three pals find themselves marooned in the midst of the scorching Martian desert; but with pluck, resourcefulness and endurance, they manage the trek back to base.

"And you mean to tell me you walked across that desert?" asked Captain Strong.
Tom glanced over at Astro and Roger. "We sure did, sir."
"With Astro doing the last stretch to the canal carrying me and dragging Tom," said Roger.
... Enlisted Solar Guardsmen and officers of the Solar Guard stood around staring in disbelief at the three dishevelled cadets. "But how did you ever survive?" asked Strong. "By the craters of Luna, that blasted desert was hotter this past month than it has ever been since Mars was first colonised by Earthmen!" [182]
Much of the pleasure of reading this, to be honest, is in the oaths. I don't think I could ever grow tired of 'By the craters of Luna!' and 'Well, blast my jets!', of 'Space gas!' and 'Put me down, you big Venusian ape!' Other than that it's pretty much a by the numbers, Boys Own yarn. On the plus side, though, there are pictures; and they're splendid. Here's the frontispiece:
The Solar Guardsman directed the stream of urine high in the air, vaulting not only the Monorail Car but also the stack of old magazines balanced on its canopy, and hitting the enormous metal "1" right on the nose.

Actually, the images pretty much all cry out for Caption Competition-ing (you can click on these for larger versions):


In many ways Roger preferred traditional, pre-Robot-Domination Christmas trees.

If the sphincter closed completely the Bowel bots might be trapped inside for hours.

Tom gestured delightedly at the mess: his massive bionic testicles had not let him down.


The illustration on the inside front and back covers, though, is rather lovely:

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Emile Zola, La Curée (1872)


On, nonsequentially, through the Rougon-Macquarts: La Curée is second in the sequence. A thoroughly good read it is too: dripping with decadance, financial corruption and incest. The novel is broadly about the Haussmann redevelopment of Paris, or more particularly about the enormous financial bubble, greed and dishonesty this redevelopment entailed. Saccard is the property developer, wheeler-deelering in the multimillions; Renée is his bored, rather neurotic and oversexed young wife; Maxime is his grown-up son from his first marriage. Maxime and Renée have an affair; Saccard finds out about it and isn't too bothered because all he cares about is money-money-money. It is, in other words, a rather obviously inverted retelling of Euripides Hippolytus (or Racine's Phèdre); in the original myth, and despite Phaedra's claims otherwise, mother and stepson don't have an affair, and the (misinformed) father Theseus does care. But rather than go into a detailed critical reading, I'll note three things that, in particular, struck me.

1. Though his translation throughout is excellent, I don't see why Brian Nelson has rendered the title as The Kill. 'La Curée' means (I open my Collins-Robert) 'the scramble for the spoils', which is what the developers are doing with Paris in the book, and how Renée feels she is being treated. What's wrong with The Scramble for the Spoils as a title? Or if Nelson doesn't like translating a two word title with five, why not The Spoils?

2. More interestingly, I love that the novel contains two splendidly early mentions (possibly first ever mentions) of things. Here's Saccard drooling over the money to be made redeveloping Paris: 'His brain teemed with extravagant ideas. He would have proposed in all seriousness to put Paris under an immense bell-glass, so as to transform it into a hothouse for forcing pineapples and sugar-cane.' [98] The idea of a city underneath an enormous dome is, of course, a standard trope for twentieth-century science fiction. Zola's novel appeared in 1872. Is this the earliest mention of this notion? Can anybody think of an earlier one?

3. Probably not the earliest mention for this, but again a little startling in a novel published in 1872. Our three main characters are at a society ball: 'under the electric light ... the guaze, the lace, all those light, diaphanous materials mingled so well with the shoulders and tights that the soft pinks seemed alive.' [213]

Friday, 17 April 2009

Lee Konstantinou, Pop Apocalypse (2009)


I’ve read a couple of fizzy, near-future extrapolative satires recently—must be something in the air; or the ether—and I reckon my sensation on finishing Lee Konstantinou’s first novel (‘that’s more like it…’) says as much about the Underwhelm of the sub-genre as a whole as it does about the successes of Pop Apocalypse. It’s hard to get this sort of book right, for many reasons; not least (a) uncanny valley, (b) balancing the mix of didacticism, polemic and actual narrative (I call this The Little Brother Problematic), (c) hitting Funny on the bone, rather than the soft flesh. Pop-A manages to avoid (a), which is no mean feat, and scores unusually highly on the (c). And (b) is pretty much there, too; although from time to time Konstantinou gets a little distracted, as it were, by the nuts-and-bolts of his satiric extrapolation.

Pop Apocalypse is set in a 2029 in which celebrity has achieved a kind of total socio-economic penetration (slebs’ reputations are traded on a virtual stock market, their antics followed around the globe), rich and poor have properly parted company, violence, terrorism and systemic-collapse is endemic. Wars are brewing. Godbotherers are anticipating the End Times. The ubiquitous surveillance technologies are frighteningly efficient. Our protagonist, billionaire’s son Eliot R Vanderthorpe, by turns international playboy, whiney brat and moral core of the whole, is trying to stay true to his girlfriend, Sarah, after his fashion, whilst chasing down a doppelganger—an Eliot jr. lookalike wandering about the dangerous San Francisco Bay Area. Since Eliot has just floated his celebrity reputation on the stock market there’s a question of copyright protection as well as one of existential dread associated with this double.

There’s a good deal of rattle and a certain amount of hum in this novel; rattle in the hailstorm of cool ideas, plot twists and one liners, and also (after a slightly sticky first hundred pages) in the rattly rattling-good-read trajectory through Eliot’s various adventures to a properly will-he-won't-he Save The World denouement. The hum is partly thoughtful, because this is a clever novel and cleverness is thought-provoking. Partly, though, the hum is more hmm: not everything here works, and too much has been crammed in—I’d call that ‘Classic First Novel Syndrome’, if that didn’t sound so condescending. The writing is often very well done. By the same token, it is also often a bit too steroidal, or bloated, although to be fair that doesn't undermine the larger effectiveness.

Best of all the novel is frequently hilarious. Eliot fights off would-be abductors in a comic shop, his belligerence enabled by an inadvertently large dose of pharmaceutical stimulants he happens to have ingested.
Eliot kneels, grabs the base of the freestanding cylindrical comic book, stands back up, and swings the rack in a half circle, hoping its radius clears the walls. It does. Peter ducks. The rack hits Aliot [the doppleganger] hard in the chest and knocks him down. The tip of the rack nicks Jack on the nose. Blood violently arcs out of the nick. … The rack strikes a glass display case, knocking it backward …. “Not the toys!” Jack wails, his face covered with blood, his large hideous mouth open in something like a parody of an Edvard Munch scream. “They’re vintage! They’re vintage!”’ [136]
This is excellent; and if personally I’d tone the writing down a little (take out exactly half the adjectives and adverbs, and cut ‘something like a parody of’) I’d also concede that too much polish would degrade Konstantinou’s surprise-by-a-gnarly-excess mode, and that this latter is a large part of the book's charm.

Now, Lee Of-Konstantin, clearly knows from Greek, so I don't know if he had any say in the title page rendering of his text as ‘PΩP APΩCALYPSE’. I didnae like it, I must say. (Pope Apoecalypse. Urgh. And actually, despite the long Protestant Millenarian traditions identifying the Pope with St John’s Beast, the throne of St Peter gets hardly a mention here). Clearly Kωn-, sorry Kοnstantinου knows that Ἀποκάλυψις means ‘unveiling…’ He has fun with this fact, actually. There's plenty of unveiling in this novel, from uncovering the mega end-of-the-world conspiracy at the heart of the narrative, and painting a world in which nothing is secret anymore, right down to the various moments of erotic undressing. The ‘Pop’ (as in ‘-Music’) half of the title is a little less convincing (‘Elijah Apocalypse and his band Eye For An Eye’ who play ‘some heaven-forged fusion of punk, heavy metal, and hip-hop’. I can’t picture this; and the lyrics Konstantinou gives us are as bad as Pynchon’s). But the spill of neat-o ideas is a blast: my favourites, that Terror Forecast (predicting the level of Rioting) will become as important as Weather Forecasts; and that the Telethon might become the ultimate actual political arbiter (‘If you would like the Dome of the Rock to be fully bulldozed and the Third Temple built in its place, please phone +234343343209232. If you would like your civilization (and our civilization to be frank) destroyed, please phone …’ 267). In all, a mighty impressive debut: I'm envious. In a good way.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

2009 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

This year all six shortlisted titles have been pre-reviewed, the opinions pasturised and vacuumpacked for your convenience. Below are links, and my opinions on six novels in six nutshells. First, a paragraph of general chatter.

What sort of a list is it, overall? Solid is one word for it, which is another way of saying safe. Which is another way of saying, not especially thrilling. Quiet War is probably the best novel here; The Margarets and Martin Martin’s On The Other Side are probably the worst, but none of the books are especially bad or unworthy nominees (Anathem, I take it as axiomatic, is sui generis). By the same token this list has the Cameline look of an Equine Assemblage Committee report: a couple of ‘literary’ titles, a couple unmistakeable this-is-what-fans-love SF titles, a little pinch of longservice medal (as it might be; ‘what do you mean Tepper’s never won a Clarke award? She’s a giant of the field!’) a little touch of ‘it is a good thing to shine the light on up-and-coming talent, so the fact that this is a first novel outweighs the fact that it’s rather flawed’). The danger in such a strategy—and actually it’s a perfectly honourable strategy—is that in attempting to cover all the bases the shortlist covers none; and Steve Baxter, Nick Harkaway and Patrick Ness would all be within their rights to be properly disappointed not to have made the cut: they all wrote books better than (at a conservative estimate) half the titles shortlisted here. But as is always the case (or as always should be the case) with awards shortlists, it’s not about any individual author; it is about the state of genre today. It is for instance about giving fans and interested parties a These Are Worth Your Time reading list; and such parties, and such fans, could do a lot worse than reading these six titles. If they add Baxter, Harkaway and Ness to their pile as well, they’ll do even better.

Ian MacLeod’s Song of Time is an honourable Literary SF failure; commendably ambitious, occasionally effective, but more often not—vague where it needed precision, pretentious (I appreciate the irony in me levelling that particular accusation) where it needed solidity, overplaying where it needed to underplay its affect. Narrator Roushana Maitland is an old woman recalling her eventful life at the heart of the musical avant garde in future-France(a notional 21st-century but actually 1920s Paris with a few hightech props). A beautiful young man, his memory a blank, is washed up naked on the shoreline near her Cornish house, and the narration of the past and the mystery of the present converge. I reviewed the book for Strange Horizons, and whilst I praised a number of impressive touches, more of my account was given over to what I saw as problems: ‘one problem is that much of the autobiographical stuff is what Salinger called "all that David Copperfield crap … Another problem is that this is a novel centrally about music, which necessitates a great deal of dancing about the architecture. There's something tiresome in being repeatedly told about "Karl Nordinger, and his magnificent Fourth Symphony" when the prose gives us no sense of how this alleged masterpiece is or sounds ...'
"There are broader pleasures to be had here, and some of them derive from MacLeod's often-praised prose itself—although I have to say that stylistically this is an only intermittently impressive book. There are many sentences that are simply beautiful, and MacLeod clearly has a good ear for a striking image or comparison: "Car and house alarms were squalling, buses lay overturned, and the pavements were already glittery from looting" (p. 92). "The vast mote of some leviathan is floating across the sky as it mouths and digests whatever poisons have been cast here from other, less fortunate lands" (p. 102). I loved the description of the steps up to Morryn blurring "in Escher angles of light and shadow" (p. 211). He's very good at the Sturm-und-Drang stuff:
Then they are down beside the raging waves and the boathouse, part hewn-stone, part cliff, part cavern, Morryn's last outreach, at which the sea tongues and mauls, lies ahead. Blinding white froth rolls out of the blackness, draws back, rolls in again. Shingle slides. (p. 288)
The style, though, is terribly uneven. For every well-turned sentence there's a sentence that is just horrible: "I noticed again the view through the window when Blythe and I returned to the charming virtual room she had first greeted me in" (p. 159); "Comets can approach enough to give us the apocalyptic willies" (p. 241). MacLeod has a fatal affection for "resolutely," a word he uses indiscriminately as adverb and adjective: "resolutely Anglo-Saxon enclaves," "resolutely fully dressed," "resolutely asleep," "my resolutely English ears," "resolutely male," "resolutely granite-grey" (Bodmin, this), "I stroked his resolutely flaccid penis," "a resolutely self-contained package," "resolutely doing the American thing" (p. 19, 30, 46, 80, 101, 151, 196, 197, 218). We can appreciate that certain words tend to stick in a writer's ear; that's one reason why revising one's first drafts is a needful activity. The problem here is not just the repetition but the sense that MacLeod evidently thinks "resolutely" a nonspecific intensifier rather than an inflection of the word "resolve" (does he really mean to say that Claude's penis was flaccid because Claude had resolved to keep it so? I have to say that's not my experience of how the organ works)."
My final judgment is that the Madeleine is baked with as much that is good as bad:
"That said, as the novel draws to its conclusion it accumulates a genuine, and affecting, emotional heft. Perhaps it is in part a consequence of the momentum of a fairly long novel (which in turn perhaps justifies the sometimes stodgy build-up): certainly as it closes the fate of Roushana, the identity of "Adam" and the sheer pressure of memory acting upon the present become properly involving and even a little moving. On this emotional level, then—which I take to be the level for which the novel aims—the novel works, at least in the final stretches. This is not to say that it achieves its implicit Proustian ambition of articulating the strangeness and depth of memory's action on the present. It does manage some striking effects, but it also reads as often mis- as well-judged."

Paul McAuley’s The Quiet Wartells a simple tale, parsing four main characters and half a dozen minor ones, through the run-up, outbreak, prosecution and into the immediate aftermath of 23rd-century solar-systemic war. In the green corner we have Earth, dragged back from the brink of environmental collapse by radical measures, governed by essentially feudal power blocs, most of the population penned in the cities and the countryside given over to reclamation projects aimed at undoing centuries of environmental damage. In the purple corner are those humans who have colonised myriad sites and arcologies in the Jovian and Saturnian moons, not to mention Uranus and various other places. Unlike the radical ‘nature’ conservatives of Earth these colonist revel in genetic modification, of plants and animals and of humans too, the better to adapt them to the extremes of their worldlets.’ I thought it—and still think it—one of McAuley’s best novels: ‘quietly brilliant’, a masterpiece of the understated accumulation of detail, the beauties both of inflection and innuendo (the blackbird whistling, and just after).

I do not consider it flawness. There are two problems in particular. One is the infodumping, of which there is a lot. But I didn’t mind this as much as I might, because when not infodumping McAuley is writing like a space angel.
"It is superbly, and often exquisitely written; for despite (or who knows, because of) his academic background in the hard sciences McAuley is simply one of the best prose stylists working in the genre today. To an extent his writing shows the balance of clarity and considered poeticism also found in William Golding—both McAuley’s blog, and the epigraph to this novel (it quotes the last line of Free Fall) suggest that Golding is one of his influences. It is also, as it says in the blurb, a ‘scrupulously realised’ novel: every aspect of the worldbuilding, from science and technology to sociology and psychology, has been carefully worked through, and the result is a fictional environment that has the absolute smack of verisimilitude."
The other problem I had was with the denouement, which flirts with anticlimax; but on reflection I suspect, given the text’s aesthetic focus on quietude, that a bigger splash, at the end, would have been a misstep:
"What’s going on here is not that the book lets the reader down, but rather that it fulfils it promise of relating a futuristic interplanetary war—something other SF novels style crassly as a! FUT-ur-ISTIC! IN-TER PLLLLANETARY WARRR!!—precisely quietly. It is, for all the sense of wonder the book cultivates, an example of literary understatement. There have been other novels published recently on the subject of a war between a powerful, dominating neo-imperialist earth and a scattered group of ideologically-rhizomatic spacers in the near future; but such novels have been more (if you like them) operatic, or Jacobean, and (if you don’t) melodramatic. McAuley’s treatment is very far from that; and to the extent that less is more (which is a large extent) it succeeds much more completely than any earlier novel on a similar theme. It’s not that the book lacks excitement, for there’s lots of that: hairs-breadth escapes, spectacular scenery, massive SFX explosions … it’s that McAuley mutes his representation of these, like a virtuoso jazz trumpeter holding his bowler over the mouth of his horn."
Having read the whole shortlist I would say that The Quiet War is, despite its sunspots, the best novel on offer here. Were the Clarke in my gift it would go to McAuley, for the second time. (It’s not in my gift though, and will probably go to Stephenson.)

Alistair Reynolds’ House of Suns is a good old fashioned galactic (by the end intergalactic) space opera; not the best book Reynolds has written, but not a bad book by any means. I thought it ‘a confection’:
"... a dash of Doc Smith’s enormous spaceships, a slug of Asimov’s Second Foundation (in the titular organisation—and in the whitebread pangalactic civilisation of the worldbuilding) a flavour of Iain M Banks, a splash of Egan’s syncromesh stasis devices (to facilitate Newtonian sublight interstellar travel) that slow people down to glacial speeds; and an inadvertent whiff of Un chien andalu (‘The wind hardened, cutting into my eyes as if with a razor’ 236) … there's a neat series of narrative bait-and-switches, and it all culminates in a roaring starship chase, although I wasn’t quite sold on the final ending, in which the two main characters literally fly out the window (the galactic window, I mean), leaving one of them in a position such that I wasn’t sure how she’d narrated her half of the book. But if it is your contention that the face of SF 2009 is Asimov’s mutton-chops and meaty NHS-style-but-presumably-not-actually-NHS-what-with-him-being-American glasses, and if you're not bothered by bourgeois heteronormativity, then this is most definitely the book for you."

Stephenson's Anathem is the shortlisted title with the highest profile; it has been widely reviewed, sold lots and lots of copies and—in some quarters—been very highly praised. I can sort-of see why, although I didn’t especially enjoy the book, and since finishing my reading it has diminished, rather than grown, in my imagination. But I’m reconciled to the fact that I’m in the minority on this.

It tells (as if you didn’t know already) the story of Erasmus, a sort-of monk (a sort of science-and-philosophy rather than a religious monk, although it’s complicated) on a sort-of Earth, who spends a great deal of time kicking Big Ideas around his convent (concent, it’s called in this novel). Then he spends a great deal of time trekking across his world, and then another great deal of time tangled up in the arrival of a UFO—a UFO that’s at the other end of the scale, both in terms of complexity and enjoyability, from the one piloted by Kang and Kodos. This is a very long novel indeed. Not much happens in the first half, quite a lot happens in the second, but the whole has that aura of geologic time to it: it all sort-of evens out. Anathem also deploys a great number of squint-and-you’ll-recognise-me neologisms, part of its larger project, which some readers loved, and which I found irksome.

"Considerably better formed and more enjoyable than Stephenson’s prodigiously clotted Baroque books, Anathem is a pudding baked of equal parts Harry Potter, A Canticle of Leibowitz, Tolkien, Heinlein’s juveniles (or some of them) and Bertrand Russell’s History of Philosophy. A thousand pages of Fatasy, give or take … The main point of Stephenson’s tekst is the worldbling, which is very expensive and showy. For people who like worldbling this is presumably almost a perfect book; but those who prefer something a little less flashy, a little more substantial in aesthetic and novelistic terms, may find it tiresome. But it is surely beside the point to object to the tell-don't-show styless, or to the myriad annoylogisms, which are amongst the showiest elements in S.’s worldbling. My problem with the tekst can be boiled down to one focus: its monstrous and inflated infodumping. Of course I appreciate that for some ridders, and perhaps for many ridders, this 'problem' will be the whole point of the book. My own progress through this treaclestorm of a narrative was slow, and my main emotion upon completion was relief. But for all that I had some faint inkling of why some readers have fallen wholly in love with this book."

With Sheri Tepper’s The Margarets I found myself really quite conflicted. Tepper is an important writer for me; I loved, and have been shaped and moved by, some of her earlier books more than almost anybody in the field. Nevertheless my heart battled my head over this poorly organised tale of Margaret (born into a solar system in which humanity has been overruled by aliens outraged at our environmental destruction) who splits into seven separate versions of herself, lives seven lives—happy and sad, SF and Fantasy—before coming together to save the universe via a little selective ethnic cleansing. Bits of the book embodied some of the Tepper magic; most of it didn’t, and despite its ingenuousness—or maybe even because of it—it is ethically one of the dodgiest books I’ve read in a long time.
"The Margarets is a broken book, much more a failure than a success. It is too long, and it lacks the structural or stylistic deftness to orchestrate its crowded, friable plot across its length. The different Margarets are insufficiently differentiated for the architectonic needs of the book: which is to say they're presented at different ages, and in one case as of a different gender, but stylistically and formally they are all the same thing. The writing and plotting is diffuse; I found it a sticky, onerous process making my way through. Tonally the sections are too much of a muchness; there’s not enough local variety to tell them apart, so the reader is forced back upon the elaborate lists of characters and planets at the beginning. There’s a distinct lack of overall tension, for I never doubted for a minute that the novel would follow its own Fairy Tale logic to a happy ending. Well, I say happy … There’s a level—and I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s precisely the level of the fairy tale—where Otherness is demonised in so complete and so unironic a manner that it crosses over from fable into ideological repulsiveness. The enemies in this novel are called The Vile Races. Of the K’Famir and the Quataar we are told that they are literally nothing but cruelty: the hold other ‘races’ in utter contempt. ‘They don’t care about their own families. Their women are for amusement or breeding; their daughters are for sale or disposal; their sons are turned into copies of their fathers’ [463] … The villains have exchanges as absolutely wooden as these (one K’Famir has just tortured his daughter to death): ‘“She did not live long. Her pain was amusing.” “I too find females’ pain most amusing,” they other answered.’ [177]. That’s just plain clumsy. (Imagine a historical novel in which two agents of the Inquisition were conversing: ‘I spent all day torturing Jews and heretics; it was fun.’ ‘I too enjoy torturing Jews and causing them pain.’)

The Vile Races are plotting to destroy humanity. The Seven Margarets, with divine help, light upon a Solution to their wickedness; but it is tantamount to a Final Solution. So, the entire combined aristocracy of the K’Famir, the Frossians and the Quaatar (many millions of beings) get into some space ships—Humans then destroy the ships, and this holocaust puts an end to the Vile Races’ evil scheming. Do you see what I mean when I say the happiness of this ending left me itchy?"


I also didn’t think very much of Mark Wernham’s Braying New World dystopia, Martin Martin’s On the Other Side. Jensen Interceptor is a dumb, sweary public official in a dumbed-down future world who gets tangled up, for reasons not properly explained, with Martin Martin, a dead TV-psychic could-be Christ from our present. Almost all of the novel is written in Jensen’s argot (‘Oi oi! Heads up! Jensen Interceptor here. And here is what I have to tell you; my fucking story … Let’s get right to it, then, yeah? Fucking great.’ 9). I thought the heart of the novel was
"... straight from the ideological arsenal of the Daily Mail. The pastimes favoured by the working classes, particularly by working class males (larking about with mates, getting drunk, snorting coke, having sex) are Literally! Hell! On! Earth! On the other hand, the pastimes favoured by the middle classes (going to nice Italian restaurants, drinking glasses of red wine, not swearing, gathering in one another’s flats to talk about how the world is not as nice as it used to be) are Mankind’s Only Hope In These Desperate Times! The word for this is Snobbery. We might call it Reactionary Snobbery, except that that's two words. The novel continually risks collapsing back into the Harry Enfield one-note gag (the boneheaded South African gym trainer who glosses his account of last night’s horrible, violent pub-binge with ‘you would have loved it, man’) from which, I'm prepared to believe, it originated."
On the other hand, and despite its various flaws and problems, there’s evidence of some considerable writerly talent in this novel.
"Now, if we take the book to be an exercise in dystopian fiction, it seems to me it fails quite badly, for it is incoherent and excessively derivative. But actually I don’t think the book is an exercise in dystopia, or not primarily so. I think it’s an exercise in tone—the inadvertent eloquence of Jensen’s ‘fucking fucker’ laddishly limited register, the creation of a world less through description of concrete paraphernalia and more through monotony of narratorial voice. In that respect the book is rather better that it might at first appear."
The Clarke has a tradition of nominating otherwise little-regarded first novels, something for which I have personal reason to be grateful; so whilst I couldn’t say that this novel deserves its place on the list as far as intrinsic merit is concerned (when set against Knife of Never Letting Go or Gone-Away World), I can understand why it might have been selected for shortlisting. Wait, here come some hot-footing second thoughts: actually Knife of Never Letting Go and The Gone-Away World are first novels too, and either of them is streets better than this one. So scrub that last thought.

Who will win? Anathem, probably. Who should win? Quiet War, probably. See me pick them wrong! Roll up! [Update 30th April: ... and I was wrong on both counts, as it turned out: MacLeod’s Song of Time wins the prize ... congratulations to him! For a more positive account of the novel than mine, check out Niall's wise words.]

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Mark Wernham, Martin Martin’s On the Other Side (2008)


Nine points:

[1] This book’s title really is extremely, almost heroically unmemorable. You see it on the cover, look away and it just slips out of the mind. I’m not entirely sure why: Martin’s a straightforward enough name. It might have to do with the fact that the author’s first name sets up an interference pattern with the ‘Martin’; or maybe the reduplication of Martin wrongfoots us; or maybe ‘s On The Other Side is too unidiomatic or clunking phrase. I don’t know.

[2] The novel, like a dodgy second hand motor, is two elements welded together without due attention to the requirements of road safety. Down the left side it’s a near-future dystopia in which Loaded or Nuts! magazine provides the social and cultural template. On the right it’s an odder, and better, sub Phil-Dick ‘Mercerism’ rerun, in which a TV-psychic from nowadays turns out actually to be able to channel spirits, including a murdered WWII soldier and the narrator of (most of) the novel, foulmouthed and shallow ‘Jensen Interceptor’ from the Nuts! future.

[3] It’s a jumble. About a quarter is good jumble; the rest … not so much.

[4] At first blush Martin Martin’s On the Other Side looks like a self-consciously intertextual intervention into the genre of postwar dystopian fiction: slangy first person narration by an unlikeable young droog, complete with random Russianisms, like a paler Clockwork Orange (an if-you-will Clockwork Yellow); a police state keeping the proles in misery and ignorance and subjecting its core members to intrusive surveillance, like a tuned-down Nineteen Eighty-four (reduced, since it’s you, and I like you, to 7:99); society kept docile with copious drugs and sex, like a considerably feebler Brave New World (a sort of Bert Lahr New Worldactually, I’m going to stop doing these parenthetical add-ons now); grim extrapolation parleyed into black humour and oddness like a unGilliam'd, de-deNiroed Brazil.

[5] Now, if we take the book to be an exercise in dystopian fiction, it seems to me it fails quite badly, for it is incoherent and excessively derivative. But actually I don’t think the book is an exercise in dystopia, or not primarily so. I think it’s an exercise in tone—the inadvertent eloquence of Jensen’s ‘fucking fucker’ laddishly limited register, the creation of a world less through description of concrete paraphernalia and more through monotony of narratorial voice. In that respect the book is rather better that it might at first appear, although ...

[6] … it's still not very good. One reason for its not very goodness is that, for all its vim, its spurts of energy and humour, it is very small-c conservative work. The Guardian blurb, quoted on the back, calls the novel ‘satire from a maverick new talent who clearly has a lot to say about these interesting times we live in.’ A couple of things here. First, and aiming my point at Cathi Unsworth rather than Wernham: '... interesting times in which we live'. Please! Second I must assume maverick is used, there, in the sense that John McCain and Sarah Palin applied the word to themselves last year. But most of all, whilst Wernham does indeed 'have a lot to say' almost all of it is straight from the ideological arsenal of the Daily Mail. The pastimes favoured by the working classes, particularly by working class males (larking about with mates, getting drunk, snorting coke, having sex) are Literally! Hell! On! Earth! On the other hand, the pastimes favoured by the middle classes (going to nice Italian restaurants, drinking glasses of red wine, not swearing, gathering in one another’s flats to talk about how the world is not as nice as it used to be) are Mankind’s Only Hope In These Desperate Times! The word for this is Snobbery. We might call it Reactionary Snobbery, except that that's two words.

The novel continually risks collapsing back into the Harry Enfield one-note gag (the boneheaded South African gym trainer who glosses his account of last night’s horrible, violent pub-binge with ‘you would have loved it, man’) from which, I'm prepared to believe, it originated. There's also a too-pat analysis offered, viz. that Jensen's problem is he didn't have a mummy to love him, that he's really just a big kid (in Starfucks: 'I sort of passed out with my head on the belly of one of the girls with her big boobies resting on my face. Very comforting. I could hear her blood running around her belly in pumps, rhythmical and soft. Everything at the right temperature. It made me feel safe and happy', 71) This seemed to me shallow qua analysis of youth discontent.

[7] Here’s a shorthand for what I’m saying: Wernham’s satirical commentary on contemporary Britain is too Yellow Dog and not enough The Information. Its Phildickishness, on the other hand, suffers by too shallow an understand of PKD specifically, and SF more generally.

[8] There’s a deal of creak in the construction. Wernham’s PKDocity excuses a certain amount of harebrainedness in the plotting and overall construction, but it's awkward nevertheless. The ending isn't strong. A couple of key transitions are lumpishly done. The novel is also not nearly as funny as it wants to be. There are some laughs, but not many laughs, and often phrases have the form of jokes without containing any actual humour (‘It’s The Barbara James Show … it’s “live”, which, I suppose, means it’s not dead’, 225).

[9] And yet ... there are a number of sustained stretches of very good writing in Martin Martin’s On the Other Side, evidence of a hugely promising, if not yet quite hitting-the-button, stylist at work. There’s an expressive vigour and an impressive forward momentum to Wernham’s writing, and when it steps outside its too obvious barrelfish-shoot it manages some remarkable effects. Jensen fleeing across the rooftops, getting his face changed by a bizarre Govt team, eating eels with a tramp, leaping out of his 29th floor window (plus the opening teaser trailor, not narrated by Jensen, describing a burning truck in WW2 France)—these, often brief scenes are very well nicely handled. Wernham is working his way up to something. Not leader articles in the Telegraph, I hope ('a stinky reek coming off old Blighty ... people running in and out ... like rats in and out of their burrows', 254). A better second novel, I hope.

A postscript. Jonathan M. notes the ‘idiocracy’ angle (personally I prefer the term stultocracy, although I wouldn't go to war over it). I was going to include my own opinion of this topic, but J. has already done the job better than I would:

Martin Martin's on the Other Side is not what you could call a serious work of dystopian fiction; its political analyses rarely rise higher than that of comedic works such as Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit? (2005) and Idiocracy (2006), which also features a restaurant-based gag in which the burger chain Fuddruckers sees its name changed to "Buttfuckers." Martin Martin's... also treads very similar ground to Nathan Barley (2005) whose first episode featured a writer being lionised for heralding the rise of the idiots—a subculture entirely composed of terrible fashion victims who speak a blend of Jamie Oliver mockney and gibberish, much like Jensen Interceptor. However, the book also bears certain similarities to traditional dystopian works of SF such as C. M. Kornbluth's The Syndic (1953) and his collaboration with Frederik Pohl, The Space Merchants (1952). Kornbluth, much like Wernham, did not base his dystopias upon plausible political or economic analyses but rather upon selecting an unsympathetic group and then speculating as to what society might be like if it came to be dominated by said group. In The Syndic this group is criminals, in The Space Merchants it is advertising executives, and in Martin Martin's... it is idiots. Indeed, Kornbluth even produced a famous short story, "The Marching Morons" (1951), based on the very similar idea that society comes to be dominated by idiots, an idea which has recently been reprised by the excellent "Pump Six," the titular story of Paolo Bacigalupi's debut collection(2008).
That’s right, I’d say. Stultocratic.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Alastair Reynolds, House of Suns (2008)


‘Old fashioned future-fiction’ only looks like an oxymoron. It turns out you can’t say, when it comes to 1950s grand scale galactic space opera, ‘they just don’t write em like that any more.’ Some of they do indeed write em, and pretty much exactly like that. Imagine a painter who’s mastered the style of Ingres in order to paint contemporary pictures in exactly that style. Only instead of Ingres imagine 'Golden Age Space Opera'. And instead of paint imagine 'write'. And instead—look, I think you take my point.

House of Suns is pretty-much impossible to dislike, but not a novel easy to love with true passion. It’s completely in control of its idiom; it's just that its idiom can’t do very much beyond animating a series of Ed Emshwiller and Chris Foss canvases. Narrative, tick. Widescreen visuals, tick. Other stuff, hmm.

But it's certainly a read; and you won't grudge (or, indeed, especially notice the passing of) the time you commit to it. The book opens very well indeed, sketching its huge vistas of space and time expressively and convincingly, and dropping the key foundations of the plot into place in the reader’s mind: the galactic scale, non-FTL interstellar travel, the mysterious disappearance of the Andromeda Galaxy (‘the Absence’), and our two likeable heroes (heroes must be likeable, after all), two of 880 clones of Abigail Gentian sent to do more boldly-going than one single individual could, and gathering at a regular shindig to pool their thoughts. There’s The Vigilance, a several-million-year-old database that takes the form of a dyson swarm around a star, monitoring everything, and that is tended by several-million-year-old curators who achieve immortality by never stopping growing, and who are therefore giants—beings who know everything in the cosmos except the proper use of the subjunctive (‘There could be no point in the Vigilance if it was ephemeral’, 49). There are Machine Intelligences, robots who may or may not be on our side. There are many planets and spaceships.

All deeply readable stuff. Reynolds is rather disgustingly skilled, actually, when it comes to plotting—not only structuring his story so that its build-ups and pay-offs are all in the right places, but pacing the whole, drawing the reader along, with only the occasional longeur. The first 200 pages hurtle by; the next hundred tread narrative water a little, but things pick up again around 300 and the reader is propelled nicely down the flume to the end-pool.

On the downside, the writing is almost universally bland and flavourless, and (setting aside a few deliberately cranky walk-on alien parts) all the characters are pretty much the same character. Of course most of the characters in this novel are the same character, or clones thereof, but I don’t think this excuses it; they’re supposed to have been living separate lives, and developing separate personalities, for millions of years after all. They haven’t done so, though, on the evidence of this text. I was perhaps a quarter of the way into the book before I twigged that the narrative p.o.v. was alternating between the two twin-like deuteragonists (Purslane and Campion), and that’s not a good thing.

The millions of years thing is problematic, actually, because those huge timescales are mediated for us via the characters from the Gentian line—ordinary humans who happened to have lived insanely lengthy lives. Some of that time they’ve been in stasis, it’s true, but nevertheless I could not swallow the idea that an existence so prolonged would leave the individuals and the collective both radically unchanged. Galactic empires rise and fall like lily leaves in a pond, we are repeatedly told; but the Gentian line has somehow managed not only to preserve its own integrity throughout all this time (which I could just about believe) but to preserve its own bourgeois heteronormative do-good-y values as well. The effect, I fear, is to shrink the declared millions of years down to ordinary human life-cycle proportions, which is corrosive of the sort of sense-of-wonder Reynolds usually provides. Baxter's better at billennia.

Too much niceness, too much whiteness (one of the line has dark skin, but in a Lieutenant Uhura sort of way), middle-classness, straightness and un-weirdness in the Gentian line; they’re positioned too closely to a 2009 and too far from a 6,000,209 point of view. Would it really be possible to live for millions (that’s millions) of years, travel literally around the entire galaxy countless times, encounter all manner of bizarre alien life, then come across an elephant-cognate creature with a trunk that seems to you (again, not once but several times) ‘repulsive’? How repulsively unusual can a trunk be, amongst 400 million mostly inhabited stars?

So this is by no means the best book Reynolds has written, although it is by no means a bad or inconsiderable book for all that. It is, fundamentally, a confection: a dash of Doc Smith’s enormous spaceships, a slug of Asimov’s Second Foundation (in the titular organisation—and in the whitebread pangalactic civilisation of the worldbuilding) a flavour of Iain M Banks, a splash of Egan’s syncromesh stasis devices (to facilitate Newtonian sublight interstellar travel) that slow people down to glacial speeds; and an inadvertent whiff of Un chien andalu (‘The wind hardened, cutting into my eyes as if with a razor’ 236). Familiar figures have walk on parts. Here’s Jane(fon)daBar(barella):

She wore a tight-fitting one-piece garment of quilted black plates with something of the texture of leather, cross-webbed across the chest with jointed metal. [163]
(Misheard that—Jindabyne, sorry, not JaneDaBar). And here’s a character whose voice breaks into chunks and can provoke obesity:

‘But we do know their intentions,’ Cyphel says. She had a voice like dark chocolate. [178]
There’s a torture scene in which a villainous somebody is sliced into numerous thin slices and displayed à la Damien Hurst between glass, without killing or especially paining them, which left me a tad confused. But there's also a neat series of narrative bait-and-switches, and it all culminates in a roaring starship chase. I wasn’t quite sold on the final ending, in which the two main characters literally fly out the window (the galactic window, I mean), leaving one of them in a position such that I wasn’t sure how she’d narrated her half of the book. But if it is your contention that the face of SF 2009 is Asimov’s mutton-chops and meaty NHS-style-but-presumably-not-actually-NHS-what-with-him-being-American glasses, and if you're not bothered by bourgeois heteronormativity, then this is most definitely the book for you.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

G K Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)


Chesterton's slice of spiced mundanity, a book dedicated to elaborating the peculiar thesis that God is—what we would nowadays call—a Bond villain. Of course, Bond's villains are always more interesting than Bond himself, not least because they work on a bigger scale than the individual. And perhaps people don't pay enough attention to the theological aspect of these films: JB falling just-ever-so-little short of JC.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Sheri S. Tepper, The Margarets (2008)


Heart: Tepper’s strength as a writer is her charm. I don’t mean that she is delightful or superficially appealing (although she is, often, delightful); I mean charming in a more profound sense. There is magic in her best books; each a grimoire. The Marjorie Westriding trilogy is a crucial column in my personal SF temple. Something Westriding herself says is one of the three wisest things I know (‘no matter how well intentioned they may be, don't let anybody mess with your head’ … a forceful principle, that, that takes much of its force precisely from the canny, witty way Tepper parses it through the deadening religious literalism of the High Baidee who are the first to hear it). Tepper’s charm is woven of wisdom, and clarity, and it takes its power, like an atom being split, from a potent aesthetic bifurcation: most of her best work takes place in the space she opens up between science fiction and fantasy. She is better than any writer I can think of at superposing the sense of sf wonder with the transforming enchantment of fairy tale and fantasy. If she is sometimes pegged as an ‘ecological’ or ‘environmental’ writer that’s only, actually, because she is always articulating the intimacy that exists between magic and the land. Her writing is warm and fluent, and most of her characters, usually even the flawed characters, are sympathetic; and this is because there is really only one sin (using the word loosely) that Tepper sees as deadly: Pride. From Pride grow obstinacy, selfishness, the inability to empathise or learn, the blinkers of much modern life.

The Margarets is something of a culmination of Tepper’s larger project as a writer: in both content and form it recapitulates this fertile pulse of bifurcation and reunion, this teasing out and weaving together of SF and Fantasy, The novel is simultaneously a SF interplanetary romance and a Fantasy about wise women (and one man), about the rule of seven (and of three), talking (and dancing) cats, cursed necklaces and the spell that will save the world. What is really notable here is the way Tepper embodies her many-layered narrative formally as a series of bifurcations—young Margaret, growing up on Phobos alone in a post-environmental-meltdown future, invents alternate versions of herself: a healer, a warrior, a spy and so on. The premise of the novel is that these alternate versions branch off from her life as actual entities, and that the narrative follows them.

Humanity is under the thumb of an alien federation (the Interstellar Trade Organisation) who are very cross with us for mucking up our environment. Since the cause of this disaster is overpopulation, depopulation is the answer: breeding protocols to limit birth, or more drastically the shipping away of millions of surplus humans to work on other planets, often as slaves of very unpleasant alien species. The ITO closes down the scientific base that is Margaret’s family’s home, and ships them back to Earth; and the narrative spreads itself into a fan of threads, because Margaret’s imaginary versions of herself become, somehow, separate and autonomous (though unaware, each, of the others), making plain the different consequences of key choices in Margaret's life. Some of these Margarets becomes queens, some slaves; some have pleasant lives, some very unpleasant. That they are all part of a larger weave is intimated early, but only becomes fully plain towards the end of this rich, lengthy tale.

Head: I can understand you saying all of this, but none of it stops The Margarets from being a broken book, much more a failure than a success. It is too long, and it lacks the structural or stylistic deftness to orchestrate its crowded, friable plot across its length. The different Margarets are insufficiently differentiated for the architectonic needs of the book: which is to say they're presented at different ages, and in one case as of a different gender, but stylistically and formally they are all the same thing. The writing and plotting is diffuse; I found it a sticky, onerous process making my way through. Tonally the sections are too much of a muchness; there’s not enough local variety to tell them apart, so the reader is forced back upon the elaborate lists of characters and planets at the beginning. There’s a distinct lack of overall tension, for I never doubted for a minute that the novel would follow its own Fairy Tale logic to a happy ending. Well, I say happy …

Heart: You didn’t find the ending happy? I did. It gladdened me.

Head: It left me feeling metaphorically itchy. This goes to the root of The Margarets' problem for me: essentialism. There are many different sorts of alien, but every ‘race’ (Tepper insists on calling species ‘races’) is ‘either ethical or vile’ with the sole exception of humanity which is mostly vile but which has the capacity to be ethical.

Heart: But Good versus Evil is part of the architecture of fairy tales. You don’t think it works? You didn’t root for Ongamar, enslaved by the cruel K’Famir on Cantardene? You didn’t feel the rightness and magic of the Gardener on Chottem?

Head: There are moments of authentic magic—even I, in my heady way, accept that. But by and large the book is ethically clumsy; and since it's basically an ethical fable that’s debilitating. The environmental message (environmentalism is taken, here, as an ethical rather than a practical matter) is delivered in too sledgehammer a way. In this novel environmental disaster is not a bad thing because it will degrade the quality of life of the earth’s inhabitants; it is a bad thing in its own terms, without respect to humanity. Indeed, it is not only needful but creditable to sacrifice the earth’s inhabitants to the environment’s needs. The book proposes a sort of unreconstructed vulgar Malthusianism—the problem is over-population, the only solution is cutting back population—selling people en masse into slavery, neutering 90% of the population, even culling people: all these are unfortunate but acceptable strategies to allow the forests to regrow. But forests can’t think, feel, love and create as human beings can. It’s morally obtuse to prioritise forests over human beings.

Heart: ‘Vulgar Malthusianism’ is a cheap shot, surely.

Head: I think the novel is wrong on quite a basic level; and because this is core to what the book is doing (and because environmental degradation is a real and pressing problem) I think it a fatal sort of wrongness. Malthus noted that population increase outstripped increases in food production, and foresaw catastrophe in his own lifetime. It didn’t happen, because Malthus didn't see that a larger population also provides a larger number of people to invent solutions to the problems posed by a larger population. Tepper also doesn’t see things this way. For her, people are a brute problem, to be solved by the intervention of gods and superpeople. A certain sort of person is presented in the book as attractive and honourable; other sorts are presented as agents of a kind of caricature decadence that approaches Puritanism:
“What was Benny Paul up to?” Glory asked him when she gave him a thank you hug.
“Him and Trish,” he said, making a face. “They were going to put on a sex show for us, and Til said we’d get to … take part.”
“Jeff, you’ve got to stay away from him.” [287]
Her disapproval is palpable (‘Benny Paul … his nastiness’) and, really, pretty prudish. Nasty people and their nasty habits of having sex and filling the world up with people. You know what is better than people, in this book? Cats. The cats. My God the cats.

Heart: Are you really saying you dislike cats so much that their mere presence can ruin a book for you?

Head: Don’t tell me you like cats. I won’t believe it.

Heart: But that’s because I’m your heart. Everybody else’s heart loves kitty-cats to pieces.

Head: Fair enough. But love them or not, please at least accept that cats aren’t actually little tiny furry sort-of human beings. Their owners play that game as an indulgence. But key agents in this novel really are diminutive furry aliens called Gentherans/Gibbekot. They have a long association with humanity:
In time long past an armada of Gentheran ships was travelling near a variable star, and the radiation caused a mutation in all the unborn babies. They were born physically deformed and mentally limited. Their fingers never developed, they couldn’t stand erect or learn to speak … Our people called them “the afflicted” … When the Gentherans found your race, oh, many thousands of years ago, they had some of the afflicted ones with them. Your people were … silly about them. They just loved them. [298; that last one is Tepper’s ellipsis]
Margaret spells it out: ‘she’s talking about cats, Gloriana.’ This struck so daft a note with me that I wondered, briefly, if it was Tepper deliberately channelling Douglas Adams (cats instead of mice; and ‘K’Famir’ and ‘Frossians’ instead of Vogans; and with seven-headed Margaret instead of two-headed Zaphod). But I really don’t think so. I think Tepper just really loves cats. What does the novel present a thinking, speaking, high-IQ species of cat as being like?
The Gentehrans and the Gibbekot have an ethical system, along with rules of morality. They try to be fair to all thinking beings as well as some or all living things that don’t think. [299]
What do I imagine a thinking, speaking, high-IQ species of cat would be like? I just read a book about such beings, actually. It’s called The Kindly Ones and it’s by Jonathan Littell.

Heart: Now you’re just being cranky.

Head: I don’t think so. The novel left, the more I think about it, an unpleasant taste in my mouth. It codes its own ending ‘happy’, but the route to happiness is mass murder.

Heart: Those ‘murdered’, as you put it, were in the process of trying to slaughter humanity!

Head: That’s exactly what I mean. There’s a level—and I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s precisely the level of the fairy tale—where Otherness is demonised in so complete and so unironic a manner that it crosses over from fable into ideological repulsiveness. The enemies in this novel are called The Vile Races. Of the K’Famir and the Quataar we are told that they are literally nothing but cruelty: the hold other ‘races’ in utter contempt. ‘They don’t care about their own families. Their women are for amusement or breeding; their daughters are for sale or disposal; their sons are turned into copies of their fathers’ [463]. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t, for instance, believe that a species wholly without empathy, or social fellow-feeling, could develop a functioning society in the first place, let alone a political, interstellar, trading society, with a complex religion and culture. I’m not sure Tepper believes it either; in the novel beings who act with violence and cruelty—as the K’Famir and the Quataar certainly do—are absolute blanks when it comes to interpretation. (‘When one considers violence and cruelty,’ one character says, ‘the whys seem to get lost.’). Margaret says:
When I studied the Quataar language I learned that they consider avoidance and regret are signs of weakness. You can’t convince them they’re wrong because right and wrong aren’t part of their vocabulary. [463-4]
But of course this can’t be correct: presumably at the very least ‘wrong’ to a Quataar must mean something like ‘weak and avoiding’, just as ‘right’ must mean something like ‘strong and proud.’ Margaret ventriloquises the book’s broader perspective: not, actually, that right and wrong are alien to these peoples (although that is what’s explicitly said), but that they don’t share our human concepts of right and wrong—they are not like us, and therefore they are the vile races. This is fairy tale in the sense that it doesn’t do to try and plumb the motivations of the Big Bad Wolf. Or, to be more precise: that morality itself is predicated upon the objectification of the Big Bad Wolf: he hurts us, bad; we hurt him, good.

Heart: Most people prefer The Wizard of Oz to Wicked, after all. Most people’s hearts do.

Head: But Wicked is at least a novel. In a novel that aims for complexity, as this one does, it’s fatal to blur the actual complexity of the moral universe. The novel’s complexity is all on the surface, an elaborate embroidery of actors and settings, whilst underneath all that there’s a fearsome simplicity at work. It means, for instance, that the villains have exchanges as absolutely wooden as these (one K’Famir has just tortured his daughter to death): ‘“She did not live long. Her pain was amusing.” “I too find females’ pain most amusing,” the other answered.’ [177]. That’s just plain clumsy. (Imagine a historical novel in which two agents of the Inquisition were conversing: ‘I spent all day torturing Jews and heretics; it was fun.’ ‘I too enjoy torturing Jews and causing them pain.’)

The Vile Races are plotting to destroy humanity. The Seven Margarets, with divine help, light upon a solution to their wickedness; but it is tantamount to a Final Solution. So, the entire combined aristocracy of the K’Famir, the Frossians and the Quaatar get into some space ships—in order, you understand, to prosecute their Evil (‘you remember the size of those ships?’ notes a human. ‘Designed to carry huge cargoes’):
They were full to bursting with, Frossians, K’Famir, and Quaatar who wanted to see us die. There might have been a million of them on those ships, the entire ruling class of three starfaring races. [502]
Obliging of them to concentrate themselves like that. Humans then destroy the ships, and this holocaust puts an end to the Vile Races’ evil scheming. Do you see what I mean when I say the happiness of this ending left me itchy?

Heart: I cheered the bravery and perseverance of the Margarets and was glad to see the Wolf boiled in that pot.

Head: A novel needs more than this; more self-awareness, more ironic understanding of ethical complexities. The Margarets is too rusted for its novelistic mechanism to work.