Monday, 30 August 2010

Brian Aldiss, The Eighty-Minute Hour (1974)

I've been re-reading Aldiss's extraordinary Greybeard (1964) so as to write an intro for the forthcoming 2011 Gollancz Masterworks reprint. But I'm not going to give you the benefit of my lucubrations on that title here, for free (if you're interested, you can buy a copy when it comes out). So instead, here's a lesser, though still good, Aldiss title: 1974's inventive, neatly ironic space opera, The Eighty-Minute Hour. I found this particular edition in a charity shop. Now, the cover, up there, is nothing to write home about, but take a look at the back cover [click on the image to enlarge]:

They don't do backcover blurbs like this any more. 'WHEN MAN BITES DOG IT'S NEWS. WHEN THE GREATEST WRITER OF THE NEW SCIENCE FICTION BRINGS OUT A NEW BOOK, IT'S HISTORY.' What? By which I mean: what? Man bites dog what? How many 'new's, there? What-what? 'Aldiss IS BACK WITH THE BIGGEST S-F BOOK OF 1975. YOU MAY HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL 2001 TO READ A BETTER ALDISS. BUT DON'T COUNT ON IT.'

What? Why are you shouting?

Conceivably, and with remarkable prescience, the 1970s blurb-writer saw that the only Aldiss title published in 2001 would be Orbit's reprint collection of old stories, Supertoys Last All Summer Long; and Other Stories of Future Time. Even if we expand the prophecy-zone to include Super-State: A Novel of a Future Europe (2000) and The Cretan Teat (2002), we'd have to concede that they're not better novels than this one. Nevertheless ... what? I'm not even going to try to transcribe Edward L. Harris's superbizzare endorsement.

Inside the book, the publisher ('Leisure Books, New York City') include full-colour ads. Here's one [again, click image to enlarge]:

Alive with pleasure! She's about to set fire to Jackson's sweater, there, as you can see. That's because she'd rather be with the Brian Aldiss fan with whom she's making eye contact. At the back of the book 'Leisure Books' has some suggestions by way of further reading for the dedicated literary New Wave SF fan:

If there's one title here that stands out it must be: The Sexecutioner/Tong in Cheek ('Where the Mafia goes the world's sexiest crime fighter is sure to follow -- even in Red China'). Tong? What?

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief (2010)

There's a lot of buzz surrounding this title, and rightly so: it is very good indeed. It's set in a far-future, post-disaster, high-tech, suavely elegant solar system -- more specifically, most of the novel takes place in 'the oubliette' a sort of Howl's-Moving-Castle city on Mars. The mix is something like 40% Dancers at the End of Time and 60% Charlie Stross -- though judging by his author photo, Rajaniemi would look a smidgeon less incongruous in an Ah-Ha tribute act than would Stross. But the book has Stross's inventiveness, and deep intelligence, and farseeing imagination, alongside Moorcock's stylish feel and flow.

At the heart it's a heist story: Jean le Flambeur, sprung from a deep space prison by the enigmatic warrior Mieli and her Banksish sentient spaceship Perhonen, in order to pull-off a complicated crime upon Mars. Meili is in the service of a mysterious, capricious goddess-like being, and the plot unwraps its several mysteries in a very satisfying manner. The Oubliette in particular is a splendid creation; not so much in terms of its far-future hardware as its social codes of privacy, guarded by information-exchange veils called 'guevelots', policed by 'tzaddicks' -- and its currency, time, to be lavishly spent or carefully hoarded as citizens count-down towards a 'death' that reprocesses their consciousnesses into 'Quiet' machines that do all the hard areoforming and city maintenance work. There's also a quick-witted Holmes-like youth, with a genius for solving crimes. I didn't entirely see what, in a world of unimaginable, quantum computational power, he had that made his data analysis so special or so superior to machinic AI deductive powers; but perhaps it makes more sense to see him more as a function of the genre (crime and detection) than the worldbuilding.

If the first quarter is an occasionally thorny read, it's because Rajaniemi launches straight in with a commendable density of unexplained description and without the condescension of infodumping. But every detail has its place in the larger whole; everything hangs together by the lights of not only scientific but social plausibility, and a critical mass of readerly understanding is reached by about page 100 when everything clicks into place. There is a lot of drinking ... almost a Finnish quantity of drinking in fact. There's a bit of sex. There's chocolate. The ending is very solid, too: although, since I'm contractually obliged to niggle, I was a touch underwhelmed by the swarming monsters who attack at the showdown, the 'phoboi'. They are (this is a mild spoiler, I suppose) the reason why the moving city has to move, but they struck me as under-realised. Plus: they were called 'phoboi' because that the Greek for 'fears', but the naming clashes a little with the fact that Phobos is, of course, a Martian moon. But the whole novel is enormously impressive.

This is one of the SF novels of 2010 that everybody is talking about; if you have any interest at all in contemporary hard sf you will read it. There will be awards.

One thing I particularly liked about it was how nicely it was written. I need to qualify that statement, mind you. The prose is as littered with neologisms as a chocolate chip cookie is with chocolate chips; and I suppose some readers will simply butt their heads against prose of this sort:
The spinescape view is seething with detail, a newtork of q-dots under the skin, proteomic computers in every cell, dense computronium in the bones. Something like that could only be made in the guberniya worlds close to the Sun. It seems my rescuers are working for the Sobornost.
If that sort of thing is wholly unpalatable to you, then you will struggle, I suppose. But for all its vocabulary clottedness, the rhythms of Rajaniemi are just lovely; he has a real feel for language, remarkable for a non-native speaker. Paragraphs are threaded along a pulse of iambic or anapestic pacing, tweaked and garnished with a enough metrical variety to stop it becoming monotonous. This sort of thing:
I roll the thought around my head. It seems too simple, somehow, too inelegant, too fragile. Would the old me have done that? Stored secrets in the exomemory of an Oubliette identity? It chills me to realise that I have no idea.
Which is to say:
I roll the thought around my head. It seems
Too simple, somehow, too inelegant,
Too fragile. Would the old me have done that?
Stored secrets in the exomemory of
An Oubliette identity? It chills me
To realise that I have no idea.
It's not Shakespeare; but it's certainly a cut above the run-of-the-mill tech-saturated prose of this sort of tale. Recommended.

On the other hand, I don't believe 'Rajaniemi' is actually a Raja. He's not even from India. (He's Finnish, I believe). I assume this is a courtesy title, like 'Duke' Ellington, 'Sir Mixalot' or 'Shahkira'.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (2010)

Finishing McDonald's new novel was a mixed experience for me. On the one hand I read it with a bicameral delight (it's not a spoiler to say that, at the heart of this dense, rich, honeyed wonder of a novel is a sfnal thesis about the altered-consciousness and religious potential of a nano-technological reversal of the evolutionary breakdown of human bicameralism)* ... the delight of a reader, immersed in a beautifully handled piece of storytelling, solid, believable, engaging character-delineation and a stunning evocation of a near-future Istanbul; and at the same time, the delight of a writer, repeatedly astonished and amazed at myriad turns of technical brilliance by McDonald. There's a particular sort of pleasure to be derived, as a writer, from reading another writer who's just really really good at what he does: a 'oh that's good, how has he done that?' sort of pleasure.

But there's the other hand. The other hand was less than delighted. I'll be candid about this: for this was the part of me that went 'well, what chance do any of us have of winning the Clarke next year if we have to go up against a book of this calibre?' Ach well: I'll be content with another year of Clarkey always-the-bridesmaidishness if The Dervish House wins, as surely it will. I can quell my inner Salieri in the face of this Mozartian performance. And you? Well you must buy a copy and read it. Really you must. This is a major novel by a major contemporary novelist who is, as the reviewish cliche has it, at the height of his powers.**

* It's not a spoiler in part because I'll be surprised if anybody who hasn't read the novel has a clue what that sentence even means.

** Those of you who think that a review ought to contain a precis of the premise and story, thumbnail sketches of the main characters, analysis of strengths and weaknesses of the style and so on will doubtless find this review jejune. I wouldn't argue. But, you know: just read this one.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty (2010)

I'm perfectly well aware that Punkadiddle has latterly been host to a surprisingly lengthy run of positive reviews. If I'm not careful, this blog will lose its carefully won reputation for bile, cynicism, sour-grapeage and vitriol. Still; not much I can do when a book is as good as this one. My review of Francis Spufford's Red Plenty is over on Strange Horizon now.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Dan Abnett, Triumff (2010)

We've all thought it. Well, I know I have: 'what Keith Roberts (no relation)'s classic alt-historical novel Pavanne needs is twofold: a, more swashbuckling action; and b, more puns.' What sciencefictional conceit is not improved by a tonnage of punnage? Luckily for us, we have Abnett. He is the Man From Puncle.

Here's the back-cover blurb of his latest novel:
It is the year 2010. Her Divine Majesty Queen Elizabeth XXX sits upon the throne. Great Britain's vast empire is run by ALCHEMY and SUPERSTITION. Now, Sir Rueprt Triumff, dashing swordsman, has uncovered a vile plot to dethrone her glorious majesty. For the honour of the nation: to arms!
It's rollicking, fast-paced stuff this; splendidly inventive and spleen-hurtingly funny. Witty, slapsticky, Blackadderesque and garnished with the choicest puns.
'How are we going to combat within the church?' he asked.
'We could try a guided missal,' suggested the Bishop of Reading.
A pantechnichnon of puns. An, if you will, puntechnicon. Richly enjoyable stuff. Deserves to sell more copies than the Vulgate Prose Lancelot.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Men at Work: Business As Usual (1982); Men at Work: Cargo (1983)

I bought these two albums when they were first released, and I was callow and had no taste whatsoever. Men at Work were, momentarily, huge, you know. In fact I seem to remember I bought both of them on one cassette, the 1982 debut title on side A, the 1983 follow-up on side B. But then the early 80s passed away, and I became slightly less callow, and developed the impeccable taste for which I am so well known today. I chucked this band, together with a huge quantity of the stuff of my life, into the backward abysm of time, where they were not missed. I hadn't listened to them, or so much as thought about them, in nearly three decades.

Then, on a whim, I downloaded them both recently. Listening to them again, I was surprised by how good they sounded ... very of their time, of course; very much an Australian poppy-newwavey Police-alike. But strong, memorable, hooky pop songs. I don't so much mean the group's big hit, 'Down Under', which jars unpleasantly in my ears after all this time, but tracks like 'Who Could It Be Now?', 'I Can See It In Your Eyes', 'It's a Mistake', 'Dr Heckyll and Mr Jive'. Pleasant, in damn-with-faint-praise fashion. Except, except, I had forgotten 'Overkill'.

How could I have done this? What an extraordinary song. Surely one of the genuinely great pop singles of its decade: melodically inventive, expressive and earwormy counterpointing a frankly amazing lyric about the day-to-day irrational anxieties that plague most of us. Civilisation and its Discontents with a drum machine. Brilliant.

On the other hand ... the cover art to those two albums makes manifest a special category of Suck. What were they thinking?

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Jeff Vandermeer, The Third Bear (2010)

Vandermeer is a very good writer of novels, but he is a great writer of shorter pieces. I'm a little in awe, actually, of how good the stories in this collection are.

Why should he be better at shorter fiction than at longer length work? It may be because his greatest strengths as a writer are not so much on the side of plotting (though there's nothing wrong with his plotting) and more on the side of mood, tone, and flavour. It may not be coincidental that the weakest story in this collection is also the longest: the novella-length Frankenstein-retread 'The Surgeon's Tale' (this was co-written with Cat Rambo, so its hard to say whether Vandermeer or Rambo is responsible for individual examples of thesaurometastasised writing, as when a 'gangly old man' is described as 'as though his limbs were made of sticks of chalk, wired together with ulnar ligaments of seaweed, pilllowing bursae formed from the sacs of decaying anemones', 211). Conversely, one of the collection’s best pieces, ‘Shark God Versus Octopus God' isn't about the story as such; which is to say, the story pans out exactly as you expect it to. But the story is witty, memorable and wise; beautifully judged, tonally and in terms of mood. And the title story, perhaps the best of all, is as much about refused conventional narrative expectations as anything else: a muscular, expert fable of the incomprehensibility of violence.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Lee Unkrich (dir), Toy Story 3 (2010)

This film was, as I had been led to believe, simply superb. Also it was, as the critics said, only trivially about kids playing with toys. It's about the fleeting blisses and inevitable grand loss of parenthood:
This is the time to return to the endlessly fascinating subject of crying in cinemas, because TS2 contains what for me is the most lethally tear-jerking moment in any film: it is Randy Newman's song 'When She Loved Me', performed by the cowgirl toy Jessie, remembering how her owner forgot about her as she grew into her girly-teenage years.

Watching 'When She Loved Me' from Toy Story 2 again now, as a father of a young child, was even more devastating. It gave me what I can only describe as an intense personal epiphany, a sense that I was understanding the terrible truth about that song for the first time. When I first saw it in 2000, I had no children. Re-reading that review I see that I thought that "Toy Story 2 conjures a brilliant dilemma out of nowhere, making the toys' dependent relationship with children a disturbing analogy to children's fearful relationship with adults. It enacts the child's deepest fear of abandonment, weakness and vulnerability". Well, that's what I thought at the time: that Jessie's song was about the child afraid of being abandoned by the adult.

Now, as a parent, the truth has hit me full in the face. I got it the wrong way around. Jessie's song is about the adult's fear of being abandoned by the child. Your kids will play happily with you while they are babies and toddlers, but they grow up. They don't want to play and be cuddled. They will change and outgrow you. Of course, your relationship with your children has to change; as they become adults it becomes more rewarding. But never again will it have that complete innocent playfulness, and a part of you will wind up, like cowgirl Jessie, left under the child's bed, forgotten.
Peter Bradshaw there, whose review of Toy Story 3 praises it as in effect a film-length elaboration of Jessie's song.

True, that. But something else struck me, and it began with a question: at the end of TS3 the toys are all gifted to a sweet little girl, who will actually play with them. What race is that girl? Bonnie is her name, and of course her race doesn't matter -- except that the Toy Story franchise as a whole is all about the ownership of sentient, intelligent, feeling creatures, and the way the owners, advertently or inadvertently, hurt them. It is, in a word, about slavery. Woodie, with his owner's name indelibly marked upon his foot, like a brand, loves his condition as a slave: freed he strives to return to it. But it is still slavery, and much of the emotional punch of the three films derives from the horrible passivity of the slave's lot. So, this exaggeratedly white-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed Andy, all grown up, passes his slaves over to ... what? A Mexican child? A light-skinned Black girl? The toys, it is clear, will be very happy; much happier than in any of the other three options the film presents us with: stored away for posterity in 'the attic', incinerated at 'the dump', or mauled over thoughtlessly at the 'daycare centre.' All of this, it seems to me, is in some sense 'about' the elephant-in-the-room of American cultural history, the slavery 'issue'. What to do about it? Embalm it in 'attic' museums? Attempt to eradicate all knowledge of it at the incinerator? Bash it about, distort it and damage it at the hands of a younger generation that is blithely unaware of its profound emotional importance? Or -- and this is where the film seems to be going -- reverentially hand it over to a person of colour. Say to them: you have ownership of this, now.

Bradshaw is right, I think. And one of the interesting implications of that way of reading it is to understand that we parents are, in many ways, precisely the slaves of our blithely unwitting children; in more than a manner-of-speech sense.

This is a great film. You must see it.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Mark Charan Newton, City of Ruin (2010)

Here’s the amazon 'product description':
:Villiren: a city of sin that is being torn apart from the inside. Hybrid creatures shamble through shadows and barely human gangs fight turf wars for control of the streets.

Amidst this chaos, Commander Brynd Lathraea, commander of the Night Guard, must plan the defence of Viliren against a race that has broken through from some other realm and already slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the Empire’s people.

When a Night Guard soldier goes missing, Brynd requests help from the recently arrived Inqusitor Jeryd. He discovers this is not the only disappearance the streets of Villiren. It seems that a serial killer of the most horrific kind is on the loose, taking hundreds of people from their own homes. A killer that cannot possibly be human.

The entire population of Villiren must unite to face an impossible surge of violent and unnatural enemies or the city will fall. But how can anyone save a city that is already a ruin?
So we’re on the fringes of Newton’s imaginary world: not in the big city that took centre stage in the first book in his Red Sun sequence, Nights in VilljSatin, but the titular ruinous city, a gang-troubled frontier town called Viliren, a place whose football team is almost certainly not called ‘Aston Viliren’.

Now, this novel is better in many ways than the enjoyable though ragbaggy Nights: Newton is more in control of his voice here, more confident in what he’s doing. There’s some efficiently structured storytelling (maybe it takes a little too long getting-going; but once the main plots are in place it moves nicely along), with lots of gnarly, peculiar lifeforms and environments and some thumping set-pieces. I liked the Swiftian floating island especially. Still, the text is not wholly free of Teh Slapdash. I’d still describe Newton as a writer on his way somewhere interesting rather than someone who’s got there yet. Although, by the same token, he has a raw youthful energy that many more mature writers just can’t achieve, and he mixes his soursweet recipe of Fantasy, horror and noir nicely -- uniquely, indeed. If you’re enjoying a bit of oral sex, the last thing you want is a vast, malign spider-creature crashing through your window and pouncing upon you. City of Ruin is that last thing you want.

It’s a balancing act, of course: giving the Fantasy Fan the fighting and questing and magic she wants, without simply extruding indistinguishable Fantasy Plastic. So, Newton goes to some length to address the inherent racism and heteronormativity of his chosen mode—the main character, Night Guard Commander Brynd, has to closet his homosexuality, for instance; and the various ‘races’ and species of the city don’t just rub along in a bland manner (a graffito: 'Rumel Fuck Off – Human’s Only'). That’s a welcome thing in Fantasy, of course, although part of me might wish the engagement with these issues were slightly less clunking than, for instance, this conversation between characters from different species discussing a new threat:
they’re supposedly like crustaceans, and stand taller than any normal man. From what we’ve witnessed, they’re vicious fighters, totally ruthless, and they’re massing on the southern shores of the gulf waiting to launch a raid over here. Although I hesitate to ever label an entire race as evil—I mean, we’re just judging them from one perspective ... They ought not to be defined simply by their appearance – although there are many in our world who would.’

‘Talk to me about racism,’ muttered Jeryd, contemplating this inherent understanding between an albino and a rumel.
Not very nuanced, this; or—indeed—entirely believable, on the level of the built world (I don’t mean that a human and a rumel would get on; but that they would talk about it in these terms). Newton is better on the sex, I’d say; and his gay protagonist is handled with more sophistication, although here also there are moments of over-obviousness in the way the prejudice is demonstrated (‘I’m a real man,’ Malum grunted finally, ‘someone the likes of you just wouldn’t understand.’). But the book's heart is certainly in the right place, and it feels mean spirited of me to criticise this aspect of it. I do so because I have a mean spirit.

The prose is better controlled than the first novel, although the little Pedant who lives inside my head pulling the levers occasionally screeched with mild pain:
At some point near the Althing district Jeryd realized that he was caught up with the flotsam of new recruits for the citizen militia, men and women and children, with heads lowered against the driving snow, some with expressions of determination, others with a sad disconnection. The flow was moving towards the older buildings surrounding the Citadel, gaining in numbers and intensity. The streets lost consistency here, curving and twisting, a few blocked by the rubble, which was being carted off by soldiers to form defensive barriers. Row upon row of mounted Dragoons waited for engagement, shifting in their saddles, totally emotionless, consummate professionals.
But ‘flotsam’ means ‘floating matter’ ('flot', you see), and these soldiers are clearly not floating, not even in a metaphorical sense; ‘intensity’ isn’t right (does Newton mean ‘density’?); ‘the streets lost consistency’ doesn’t parse properly, and ‘consummate professional’ is a cliché. Or, from near the beginning of the novel:
Accumulating force between the cliffs bordering the harbour, icy winds assaulted the citadel violently. Jeryd had to continuously keep a tight grip on his new hat. Nanzi led him up the final stairway to the vast citadel directly at the front of the city, a decrepit and fortress-residence facing the sea. He couldn’t believe how massive it was, getting on for twenty storeys high. Many different shades of rock had been used in its construction – from the speckled texture of granite, the smoothness of sandstone. Despite its vast, towering façades, crowded with spiked crenulations, the light mist of drizzle and gentle fog seemed to lend it an ethereal, almost otherworldly quality. Access was gained by several wide, shallow-stepped staircases, and the thin rectangles of lantern-illuminated windows were ranged regularly along each side.
This is getting there: its evocative enough, but it’s not quite hitting the sweet spot. Some of this has to do with trimming redundant words (‘violently’ is already implicit in ‘assaulted’; ‘continuously’ is not needed and splits the infinitive awkwardly; ‘getting on for’ is needlessly vague—Newton has made this building up; if he doesn’t know how tall his building is, who does? And ‘from’ in the fifth sentence needs to be cut). Some of it, though, is the arrangement of elements as they’re described. The citadel is introduced in the first sentence, so that introducing it again in the third (‘the vast citadel directly at the front of the city, a decrepit and fortress-residence facing the sea’) is backslippy and wrongfooting. The penultimate sentence there acts as a small, but effective climax to description. To go from that to a mundane account of stairwells and windows is awkward—that final sentence needs to go earlier in the passage, or (do the stairwells and windows really matter?) to be cut altogether.

I don't know though. The temptation, as a writer, may be to say to oneself: ‘hey I write a fluid, streamy-consciousnessy prose; I don’t need to bother with crossing all the ts & dotting all the lower-case js!’ This temptation must be resisted. Sloppy writing is never good, in whatever context. Precision is not fussy or tight-arsed; it is what we do. And it is more needful in Fantasy than in other modes of writing, because a fantasy writer cannot rely on her readers simply supplying the necessary specifics from the actual world. On his blog, I seem to recall, Newton has talked about being influenced by Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet;—a dangerous influence on a developing writer, though intoxicating enough—but even at its most baroque and outré Durrell’s impressionistic prose is never sloppy or imprecise. There are writers who would say ‘dude, I don’t need to get it all exactly right; ballpark is fine, my readers don’t really care.’ I don’t think Newton is one of those writers.