Sunday, 10 January 2010

John Meaney, Absorption (2010)


It’s a scattershot, farflung nest of adventures, some set 1200 years in the past; some 600 years hence (or more), some a few decades ago. Meaney chucks a great deal of stuff at his fictive wall, and a fair proportion sticks. There are many ingenious and cool ideas, some intriguing paraphernalia of his future worlds, and the novel gathers enough narrative curiosity as to how it’s going to gather all the pleats of his wide-flapping curtain and fit them onto one rail to keep you going. That said, it’s a choppy and only intermittently satisfying reading experience. Some of it is written like this:
Sunadomari, in his flyer with two of Helen Eisberg’s tac troopers, could not wait to reach the Via Lucis Institute in reality. There were things he did not want to say, even in Skein, not until he was deep inside the physical as well as the Skeinware barriers available to LuxPrime’s senior people. But he needed to talk with someone now. A Luculentis with golden headgear smiled at him.

‘Keinosuke Sunadomari, you’re on your way here in person.’

‘Hsiu Li-Cheng, I certainly am.’

They used in-Skein audio, zipblips of sound, compressing sentences to millisecond duration
.
And some like this:
‘Hail,’ he called out. ‘I am Gulbrandr, chieftain of these good folk.’

‘And I am Folkvarm likewise chieftain.’

‘Fellow travelers for the gathering?’

‘That we are.’

Men in both parties relaxed a little as they leaned on their spears.

‘Then if we are peacefully bound for the same destination, good Folkvar, perhaps we should—’

‘Look out!’ yelled someone.

‘Troll!’

‘It’s attacking—’

With a grinding screech, the thing cam running from beneath the bridge …
By the Gods, it’s real. Then it was on the other party, crushing two men. Blood spurted.
Rather less of it is like this than the ‘New Space Opera Superstar’ marketing tag had led me to expect:
[Spoiler redacted] detonated inbuilt plasma bombs, and disappeared into blazing vapour, shining nova-bright, a sphere of burning energy. From orbit, Carl Blackstone saw the explosion as a small white dot.
But that's OK. Maybe the next two books in the trilogy will have more Doc Smith-y spacewar bang-bang.

I have a problem, though, and I'd say it's not a trivial problem. Absorption seemed to me morally null. If it were simply an updated tri-planetary space opera/Viking hack-and-slay mashup, that would be alright, and arguably better than alright. But Meaney also spends a deal of time on a mid-20th century Nazi narrative thread that can hardly help but clang discordantly with the rest of the book, and, worse, to dabble offensively in the matter of the Shoah, to boot.

So, postmodernism. Here's a thumbnail definition, in case you're interested: you know that musical flourish, duh-duh-durr!, those three doom-y crashing chords? Once upon a time they worked in context to send genuine tingles of dread through a cinema audience. Now to hear them is to think inevitably of the Dramatic Chipmunk half-turning to look at the camera over his chipmunky shoulder, eyes wild. Which is to say, that musical flourish has lost its original affect; it has become a depthless quotation in a shifting network of signification. It is now comic-bathetic instead of actually thrilling. That, to deploy the technical term, is what we call ‘postmodernism’, and one little-remarked-upon consequence of this state of affairs is the elevation of Godwin’s Law to an aesthetic benchmark. Now, Meaney's fourth Chapter (‘Earth 1926 AD’) ends thuswise:
Not so far away, where the small town of Berchtesgaden crouched amid Bavarian forest, a small feverish man was alone in his room, surrounded by dark insanely energetic paintings, the product of his own hand and strange imaginings.
As Rolf Harris might say: can you tell what it is yet? There are a dozen paragraphs of build-up (‘sweat poured from his skin as he gesticulated, imagining the visions that floated above the multitude’), and then the final lines of the chapter:
Someone tapped at the door. ‘Supper is ready, Herr Hitler.’

He expelled a breath.

‘You may come in.’
Duh-duh-durr!

2 comments:

Jonathan M said...

Also Hitler's paintings were not in any way dark, insane or energetic. They were chocolate box jobs with no character or vision. Technically competent but entirely uninspired. That's kind of why they're interesting.

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