Saturday, 25 June 2011

Ian Watson, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor (1990)

The Warhammer phenomena (both original flavour and 40,000 flavour) passed me by as a teenager. I certainly knew people who were into it: the gaming, collecting the figurines and painting them by hand, poring over White Dwarf, loitering in Games Workshops shops with other teenage boys. Looking back, I'm not sure why it passed me by; I ought, perhaps, to have been prime Warhammer material. As an undergraduate I shared a flat with three guys, one of whom was a heavy-duty Star Fleet Battles player, and another of whom had a large collection of hand-painted Warhammer miniatures. This latter gentlemen, towards the end of his third year, took his figurines to job interviews. 'You should see their faces,' he told us, delightedly, 'when I whip them out and put them on the table, halfway through the interview!' As I tried to picture their expressions, he went on, in a more solemn voice, that the figures demonstrated such exemplary indices of employability as 'dedication' and 'excellent hand-eye coordination' ('painting the details is quite a challenge,' he pointed out), which I suppose, in a sense, they did. I don't recall him actually getting any jobs, mind you. Although having said that, the individual in question was a medical student, and is now (I believe) a GP, so this strategy must have worked out for him at some point.

Why wasn't I like him? I don't think it was because I wasn't as geeky as he. Indeed, I'd say something the reverse was true: it was that I was too geeky. Whatever else you may say about wargaming, hanging out in Games Workshop shops and the like, it is at least a social activity. If I'm honest I was happier without that awkward 'interacting with other human beings' component to my SF nerdery; more comfortable solus in my bedroom reading a book. But the appeal of miniatures is surely core to the appeal of SF more broadly. There's a rather fine Hilaire Belloc passage at the start 'The Inn of the Margeride' (from The Hills and the Sea, 1906) that gets to the heart of this, I think:
Whatever, keeping its proportion and form, is designed upon a scale much greater or much less than that of our general experience, produces upon the mind an effect of phantasy.

A little perfect model of an engine or a ship does not only amuse or surprise; it rather casts over the imagination something of that veil through which the world is transfigured, and which I have called "the wing of Dalua"; the medium of appreciations beyond experience; the medium of vision, of original passion and of dreams. The principal spell of childhood returns as we bend over the astonishing details. We are giants--or there is no secure standard left in our intelligence.

So it is with the common thing built much larger than the million examples upon which we had based our petty security. It has been always in the nature of worship that heroes, or the gods made manifest, should be men, but larger than men. Not tall men or men grander, but men transcendent: men only in their form; in their dimension so much superior as to be lifted out of our world. An arch as old as Rome but not yet ruined, found on the sands of Africa, arrests the traveller in this fashion. In his modern cities he has seen greater things; but here in Africa, where men build so squat and punily, cowering under the heat upon the parched ground, so noble and so considerable a span, carved as men can carve under sober and temperate skies, catches the mind and clothes it with a sense of the strange. And of these emotions the strongest, perhaps, is that which most of those who travel to-day go seeking; the enchantment of mountains; the air by which we know them for something utterly different from high hills. Accustomed to the contour of downs and tors, or to the valleys and long slopes that introduce a range, we come to some wider horizon and see, far off, a further line of hills. To hills all the mind is attuned: a moderate ecstasy. The clouds are above the hills, lying level in the empty sky; men and their ploughs have visited, it seems, all the land about us; till, suddenly, faint but hard, a cloud less varied, a greyer portion of the infinite sky itself, is seen to be permanent above the world. Then all our grasp of the wide view breaks down. We change. The valleys and the tiny towns, the unseen mites of men, the gleams or thread of roads, are prostrate, covering a little watching space before the shrine of this dominant and towering presence.

It is as though humanity were permitted to break through the vulgar illusion of daily sense, and to learn in a physical experience how unreal are all the absolute standards by which we build. It is as though the vast and the unexpected had a purpose, and that purpose were the showing to mankind in rare glimpses what places are designed for the soul--those ultimate places where things common become shadows and fail, and the divine part in us, which adores and desires, breathes its own air, and is at last alive.
I quoted this recently in another place, and added: 'I suppose this appeals to me because my own fiction is, or seems to be (since, believe me, I'm as surprised about this as you are), so obsessed with shifts in scale of precisely this sort: from human beings to giants; from giant to microbe-sized beings; models, Big Dumb Objects, detailed sketches and plans of other SF fiction, and the like.' But it might be more apropos to relate the passage to the passion some SFF fans feel for miniatures. Perhaps the ground of this love is, precisely, a Bellocish sense of breaking through the vulgar illusion of daily sense (the combination, which wargaming figurines enable, of simultaneous minute attention to details and large scale imaginative transcendence -- 'showing to mankind in rare glimpses what places are designed for the soul--those ultimate places where things common become shadows and fail, and the divine part in us, which adores and desires, breathes its own air, and is at last alive'. Or perhaps that's merely pseudish.

Anyhow, I came to this novel because I've been following up on my 'reading Ian Watson' plan, not because I'd developed any sudden middle-aged interest in Warhammer 40,000. But I must say: I was very pleasantly surprised. The story concerns the titular Inquisitor, one Jac Draco, a sort of futuristic Witchfinder General in a human-lead Galactic Empire, and his search to seek out and destroy 'heretics, mutants, aliens and demons'. These latter are manifestations of the forces of Chaos. They live in the 'warp dimension' through which spacecraft must travel, but are constantly breaking out into normal space to monstrous and destructive effect. The Galactic God-Emperor, in a centuries long coma and only kept alive by machine, in fact uses his prodigious willpower to sort-of-magically hold these forces at bay; but 'he is failing -- just as the Imperium is failing, slowly and haphazardly but failing nonetheless.' The novel starts with an assault on a pernicious mutant presence infecting the weapon-factory world of 'Stalinvast.' We then follow Jac and his three companions (the beautiful female assassin Meh'Lindi, the warp navigator and pilot Vitali Googol, and the Gimli-esque sidekick dwarf Grimm) as they scoot around the cosmos trying to get to the bottom of a conspiracy within a conspiracy, fighting all sorts of nasties, and generally having a great deal of monstrous fun. It's tosh, of course; but tosh of a exceptionally high calibre, and Watson gets the tone exactly right. In its own way, melodrama is very hard to write well, and the slightly fruity ponderousness of Watson's prose here (liberally sprinkled with exorcist's Latin) is just right.
Jac arose at last, staggering slightly. Crossing to her, he extended a palm against her brow. She flinched momentarily. Extending his psychic sense, he spoke words of power in the hieratic ritual language. In nomine imperatoris hominorum magistris ego te purgo et exorcizo. Apage, Chaos, apage! [93-4]
Hmm; I wonder if the vocative of 'Chaos' is 'Chaos'? Shouldn't that be Apage, Chao, apage? No matter.
The warlock was a bloated, horned hermaphrodite draped in bilious green skin. Oozing sexual orifices puckered his/her sleeping belly. His/her long muscular tongue lashed and probed the air like a sense organ ... Acrid musk saturated the air. Jewel tipped stalactites hung from the cavern roof, aglow like many little lamps. [125]
So, yes, Watson takes his job here seriously; and the result is wholehearted and often genuinely effective intergalactic Gothic. The grand guignol is evocatively written, the story is engaging, the moral dilemma of the central character -- a man who does terrible things, including ordering the destruction of an entire planet, genuinely in the service of what he believes to be the greater good -- effective, if one-note. Not least, Watson grapples heroically with the task of suggesting the improbable scales of his preset cosmos within the confines of an 80,000-word tie-in novel. Especially early on, the prose is full of rather artful Battleship Potemkin-y touches that sketch-in the populousness and enormousness of everything. As space marines battle through the vast hive-like cities of Stalinvast millions are killed, and millions more flee, 'a river of humanity':
Below, the surge was growing ever denser as if that river had met a dam ahead. Moving walkways must have failed under the weight they bore. Bodies were conglomerating together, asphyxiating. Corpses were carried along, standing upright. The nimblest escapees hopped across the heads of the living and the dead, till a twisted ankle or a grasping angry hand brought them down ... the very walls of the avenue seemed likely to burst. Upthrusts of men and women forced cones of tangled crushed bodies higher than the rest of the mass. The flood of tormented flesh appeared to be one single myriad-headed entity, which was now compressing itself insanely til eyes started, skin split, til blood vessels sprayed. [35]
There's an E-E-Doc-Smithworthy profusion of modifiers such as 'vast', 'colossal', 'enormous'. Characters bicker over whose provenance is the largest ('"You're the hereditary lord of a whole world," Jaq found himself saying presently; "whereas I'm the emissary from the lord of the entire galaxy!"). In all this the aesthetic is that of the model miniature: things which are notionally huge described from the point of view of something even huger, such that the detail acquires the feel of intricate, miniature detail:
The Governor's sanctum was a leviathan suffused with the same dreary red light. Censers burned, further hazing the air. Goggled officials hunched over consoles around tiers of cantilevered wrought-iron galleries. Caged mutants with abnormally large eyes played complicated games on three dimensional boards.
Of course they did.
At the heart of the enormous room an ornate marble building shaped like a pineapple squatted on a disc of steel. That disc must be a lifting platform which could raise and lower the Governor's sanctum sanctorum.
This sort of stuff replicates precisely the gamer's buzz; the Bellocish sense of occupying the minute and the gigantic simultaneously.

My ignorance of the larger Warhammer 40,000 universe means that I can't be sure which of the many very cool details here are Watson's inventions and which are common currency. But, as befits a novel spun-off from a product as much about intricate detail as cool design, this novel is both full of wonderful details, and also a very efficient, well-designed piece of narrative space-hokey.
Veils of sickly pigment draped the void in all directions, lurid, gangrenous, and mesmerizing, as if an insane artist had been set loose to paint, on a canvas, the kaleidoscope of his mad, shapeless nightmare. [165]
This supplants my previous front-runner (the Lawrentian 'Suave Loins of Darkness') as 'Phrase I'd Most Like To Use As A Band-Name Should I Ever Get Round To Forming A Band': Veils of Sickly Pigment goes straight to the top of that list.
Lightning forked across a jaundiced sky as if discharging the tensions between reality and irreality. Some clouds suppurated, dripping sticky ichor rather than rain. [171]
It has been a disappointing summer so far, hasn't it.
Other great buildings were giant mutated solo genitalia. Horned phallic towers arose, wrinkled ribbed, blistered with window pustules. Cancerous breast domes swelled, fondled by scaly finger-buttresses. Tongue bridges linked these buildings. Scrotum pods swayed. [183]
We recently moved house, and estate agents showed us several Scrotum Pod properties. Prince Charles has spoken out against them, I know, but I personally found them compact and affordable. Then there's the clothes! Splendid clothes!
Weapons and other devices hung within Obsipal's blood-red high-collared cloak; and his belted black robe was appliquéd with glaring white death's heads. [19]
I honestly can't think of another Space Opera in which the main villain wears appliqué. Or later on:
"Wise Adeptus," interrupted a beige-clad novice. [226]
This isn't just beige, of course. It's ironic beige. Rarely has a novel been as luridly coloured as this one. Decadent excess oozes from every sentence. Our heroes fight bird-footed women: 'her body, clad in a chain-mail leotard trimmed with rosettes and puffs of gauze, was blanched and petite; hair hair blonde and bounteous. Yet her feet were ostrich-claws, ornamented with topaz rings, her hands were chitinous, painted pincers' -- and Watson knows perfectly well that the most startling thing about her is the chain-mail leotard. Evil takes the shape of a vast tentacular hyrda composed partly of material ooze and partly of spirit energy from the warp (in a moment of icky quasi-hentai nastiness, Meh-Lindi is mind-raped by one of these tentacles). Beige? Hardly.

At any rate, I rattled through this and thoroughly enjoyed it. By the time Jaq Draco confronts the God Emperor, in a vast cavern hollowed out beneath the Himalayas, I was practically cheering. The Emperor speaks IN LONG STRETCHES OF BLOCK CAPITALS, and we're none the wiser. ('HEAR THIS DRACO! ONLY TINY PORTIONS OF US CAN HEED YOU, OTHERWISE WE NEGLECT OUR IMPERIUM, OF WHICH OUR SCRUTINY MUST NOT FALTER FOR AN INSTANT. FOR TIME DOES NOT HALT EVERYWHERE WITHIN THE REALM OF MAN. INDEED TIME ONLY HALTS FOR YOU. WE ARE AGONIZINGLY ALONE!') "How can a minnow understand a whale?" Jaq cried.' Wise words.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Jean-Christophe Valtat, Aurorama (2010)

My review of this title is now live at Strange Horizons. Treat it with caution though; as you'll see, I haven't actually read any Steampunk of any description, this novel least of all.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Lavie Tidhar, Osama (2011)

Since I’m going to praise this novel I’d better start off with a full disclosure: Tidhar is a friend of mine. So, I’m going to go ahead now and assume you’ve pinched your salt, and are keeping it handy as you read.

Osama is a bold, gripping, atmospheric and thoughtful novel; easily the best thing of Tidhar’s I’ve yet read. The protagonist is a Chandleresque private eye, called (of course) Joe, living in a Greene-ily rendered Vientiane, in Laos. He is hired by the requisite bombshell mystery woman to locate a writer of pulp fiction, one ‘Mike Longshott’, author of a variety of lowrent adventure or porn-y novels, not least a series of novels about “Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante”. So, yes, in this alt-Earth Bin Laden is a fictional character. Interspersed between the chapters of Joe's varied, kinetic adventures are excerpts from Longshott’s novels detailing the terrorist attacks in ‘our’ world (Dar Es Salaam, the shoe bomber, London’s 7/7 and so on) with which we are familiar. In other words, Tidhar does that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy thing of giving us a perspective on our actual world from the point of view of an alt-historical location (that’s not quite right, though; because, although the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is closer to ‘our’ world than the world of The Man in The High Castle there are nonetheless key differences between reality and Dick’s novel-within-the-novel. But the analogy is close enough for government work. And there is a Dick-ish flavour to Tidhar's work here -- in a good way. OK; this parenthesis has gone on long enough now.)

Tidhar’s novel generates an impressive degree of emotional traction by setting his deftly replicated pulp noir ’tec idiom (the frame novel) against a carefully rendered neutral, reportage rendering of terrorist atrocity in the interleaved sections. The violence of the main novel figures after the manner of pulp adventure violence -- dramatic, but more-or-less consequence-free -- but the violence described in the embedded section genuinely shocks. And although I’d have said I know Tidhar pretty well, I didn’t know this about him (from The Arty Semite blog):
Because I couldn’t not write “Osama.” As it happens, I have a very personal history with that loose, and little understood, network of operatives that uses the collective name Al-Qaeda. I was in Dar-es-Salaam, in Tanzania, recovering from malaria in a small hotel room in 1998, when the American embassy was attacked. I was in Nairobi a week later, watching the remains of the embassy there, surrounded by soldiers after the fact. And my wife, who was with me there, was in the Sinai in 2004 when a set of bomb attacks rocked the tourist coast of the Red Sea. A car bomb exploded less than a kilometre away from where she was, and I remember that night vividly, trying to establish contact, find out that she was alive, with the phone lines jammed and people passing on messages to each other, reassurances that such-and-such is fine, that they’re alive. Just as I remember being in London in 2005 when four suicide bombers blew themselves up, spreading out of King’s Cross Station, where my wife travelled every day on her way to work (she was out of London that day, and had to travel back through the scene of chaos) … Most recently, a colleague of my wife’s, an aid worker like herself, was kidnapped in Afghanistan and later killed by a U.S. soldier’s grenade in a failed rescue attempt.
So, Joe goes first to Paris, then via London and New York to Afghanistan tracking down the elusive Longshott, and has the sorts of adventures a private detective has in private detective novels—drinks with hookers in bars, meetings with sinister fat men, getting roughed up by mysterious thugs trying to warn him off. Along the way, as perhaps we might expect, the black-and-white distinction between the reality where Osama is only a character in a novel and the reality where he is (was) an actual agent in the world becomes blurred.

Tidhar's assured handling of this two-tone form enables him to do something conceptually clever, I think. Where Spinrad’s Iron Dream (a novel I thought of several times, reading this) is only able, really, to elaborate one satiric point—the quasi-fascistic nature of a lot of SF, the uneasy proximity of the more grandiose SFnal dreaming and Hitlerian fantasy—Osama doubles up, with consequent increase in the richness of effect. In terms of its form, the novel prioritises a sort-of American world in which things like 9/11, though nightmarish, don’t feel quite real, aren’t really comprehensible, feel like intrusions into reality from a trashy, violent novel. But in terms of tone, and (of course) in the book’s relation to real life, not to mention the nicely judged final sections, Osama is saying: something the reverse is true; the grievances and motivations of terrorists are the stuff of news reportage; the realm that denies them is a kind of exotic fantasy. And, more generally, this is a novel that interrogates the extent to which ‘fantasy’ governs our political as well as our personal lives. The members of Al Quaeda who thought that knocking down the Twin Towers would cause the US to pull out of the Middle East, or indeed do anything other than bring prolonged misery down on many many Arab heads, were indulging a fantasy just as acutely, and direly, as those US policymakers who fondly pictured American troops entering Saddam’s Bagdhad and being acclaimed as liberators, like 1944 Paris.

There are other ways in which this book represents a step forward in Tidhar’s career. He is, if I may, pot-like, address him as kettle for a moment, a very prolific writer, somebody who generates ideas in impressive profusion. With some of his earlier work, there has occasionally been a kind of impatience or even slapdashness in the execution of these many cool ideas. But Osama is a much more assured, carefully worked piece of writing; and some of the descriptions of place and mood are superbly rendered: atmospheric and vivid. Here’s Joe in Paris:
The sunlight hurt his eyes. In the square the pigeons seemed suspended in mid-flight. Above the fountain the saint was frozen in the act of slaying a dragon. The water seemed to hover like mist. [80-1]
Nice. The passage goes on:
A girl was painting the Notre Dame cathedral in the distance.
Wait: is the girl or the cathedral in the distance? (And that first ‘the’ is superfluous).
The wind picked up out of nowhere, snatched a hat from a man passing by and threw it in the air. Joe followed the girl, who made for the narrow, twisting alleyways of the Quartier Latin. He lit a cigarette and blue smoke followed him as he passed, like the steam being snatched from a moving locomotive.
Good, although a more pernickerty writer might have balked at the close proximity of two uses of ‘snatched’, and of ‘followed’, here. But Pulp Noir perhaps ought not be written like Nabokov, so I’ll stop nitty-picking.

Despite the exceptionally cool cover image (up top, there) Osama Bin Laden is not actually a character in this novel. But that’s as it should be; Osama the novel is in the largest sense about the way ‘terrorism’ is actually a mode of making war upon our imaginations, and not, however it might appear, upon our bodies and our infrastructure. Accordingly this is a novel about the power of fantasy, about the proximity of dreams and reality, about ghost people and ghost realities. Lavie Tidhar has written a fine, striking, memorable piece of fiction here, one that deserves to be widely read. Kudos to PS for picking it up.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Ian Watson, Slow Birds (1987)

Apologies for haitus. On, with a touch more Watsoniana. Slow Birds is Watson’s third collection of short fiction: bruited as ‘his best yet’ on the back cover. So, in the voice of Al Pacino, and with appropriate handgestures and eye-rolling: whaddaya got?

Well, we have the title story, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1983. Jason Babbidge lives in a pre-Industrial alt-England, a rural Shire-like existence except for the existence of wide lakes of glass, upon which annual ‘skate-sailing’ contests are held. At unpredictable moments ‘slow birds’ appear in the sky, staying there for hours, or days, and then abruptly disappearing:
They were called slow birds because they flew through the air—at the stately pace of three feet per minute. They looked like birds too, though only a little. Their tubular metal bodies were rounded at the head and tapering to a finned point at the tail, with two stubby wings midway. Yet these wings could hardly have anything to do with suspending their bulk in the air; the girth of a bird was that of a horse, and its length twice that of a man lying full length. ... The noses of the birds were all black and stiff as steel. The noses of the birds were all scored with at least a few scrape marks due to encounters with obstacles down the years; slow birds always kept the same height above ground—underbelly level with a man’s shoulders—and they would bank to avoid substantial buildings or mature trees, but any frailer obstruction they would push on through. Hence the individual patterns of scratches. However, a far easier way of telling them apart was by graffiti carved on so many of their flanks.
From time to time these ‘slow birds’ explode, creating the lakes of fused glass. But it’s an unusual-enough occurrence for the population to more-or-less ignore the appearance of any particular slow bird on any given day. So: the narrative of the story concerns Jason’s larky younger brother Dan (helped by the rivalrous Max Tarnover) clambers up onto the back of a slow bird which abruptly disappears, taking Dan with it. Jason fumes at Tarnover, and with the help of a friend later ambushes him and ties him to a slow bird by way of revenge. Tarnover’s relatives rescue him, but after the logic of intertribal feuds they get their own back—Jason is strapped to a slow bird overnight and left to his fate.

This is where it gets interesting. We, the readers, are (of course) curious as to whence the slow birds come and wither they go. More, the logic of this sort of tale leads us to expect that the mystery will be revealed. Clearly the birds are some manner of cruise missile, and equally clearly we assume their improbable slow ballistic flight suggests that they obey a different speed of time in their reality. Nonetheless, we expect the ‘solution’ to the slow birds mystery to be revealed to us. It is, we might consider, our right. So, cleverly, Watson denies us: the slow bird to which Jason is strapped happens to be one that stays in the air days rather than hours, and he is eventually rescued, although not before he has a sort of mystic-spiritual revelation. He becomes a preacher, and accrues a large following, with his gospel of complete passivity before the inevitable fact that, given enough time, the slow birds would cover the whole Earth with lakes of glass. And then ... as if Watson can’t resist it, he turns the narrative back in the direction of facile explanation. Jason grows old, a revered prophet, until one day his brother Dan, hardly aged, returns, and fills him (and us) in on the actual nature of the slow birds. This feels like a misstep. I wonder if the story wouldn't have been more powerful without the explanation.

More worryingly, this is not an isolated problem as far as this collection is concerned. In ‘The Width of the World’ Alan Roxbury works for GeoGraphics, producing ‘Mappamundi’, a sort of proto-Google-Earth zoomable map of the world. That’s interestingly prescient for 1983; but then, and despite there being no apparent difference to the world’s topography, a mysterious ‘distance effect’ occurs; Alan’s 20-minute commute takes him twice as long as usual, and then longer still. Transatlantic flights almost run out of fuel reaching London, and then have to ditch in the ocean. As the effect finalises itself ‘distances of fifty miles were now doubled; a journey of a hundred miles was in the region of five hundred. And the distance between London and New York, say—as measured by radio-wave delays—was something of the order of a hundred thousand miles. It might be as far as a million miles from England to Australia’ [49]. This is very cool, and some good work is done with the enforced localism of this, the difficulties of supplying a country like the UK with food and so on. But the explanation—which, again, Watson rather dutifully supplies—defuses some of the arbitrary yet symbolically potent force of the conceit.

‘White Socks’ starts in mimetic mode, the story of Harry and Helen Sharp, expat Brits in an unnamed African nation (Zimbabwe, Kenya, somewhere like that). Returning from a wedding they spend the night in a campsite where they meet a foully racist man called Desai. Drunk and a little stoned, Harry does nothing when Desai drives off with Helen into the night. He forces her to strip so he can take some lewd photographs, and then the story takes a slightly lurching diversion into magical realism. A kind of leopard-werewolf called Chui savagely kills Desai, delivers a brief lecture on the evils of do-gooding postcolonial liberal whites, and promises that in her next life Helen herself will be reborn as a zebra and he, Chui, will hunt her. Watson then barrels the story through to precisely this magically determined conclusion, and the result is a story whose symbolic satisfactions are vitiated by a sense of authorial preachiness and a queasy inability to distance the text from the racist essentialism and violent, sexualised, pseudo-African primitivism it, perhaps, seeks to critique. Although that said, there is a kind of ancient-mariner neatness about the fundamentally arbitrary nature of the curse that settles on the Sharps; and this is one of the collection's better pieces.

But the remainder of the collection wobbles alarmingly. ‘Ghost Lecturer’ is a five-finger-exercise: a TV network uses time-travel technology to snatch famous historical figures from their deathbeds (Watson waves his hand and, behold, the ‘Roseberry field’ generated by the time machine temporarily restores them to health) so they can be interviewed, and then returned at the moment of their deaths and history is none the wiser. The latest is Lucretius, but summoning him alters the whole of our physical universe to one consonant with that described in the De Rerum Natura. Not a wholly charmless idea, but one with a high meh-quotient, and told at too great a length. ‘Mistress Marguerite’ is a fatally dated squib, in which Margaret Thatcher (remember her?) rules as absolute dictator over the bunker in which the remnants of humanity survive after a war that has reduced the entire planet to a few degrees above absolute zero. I share Watson’s animus against Thatcher, but that doesn’t mean this particularly creaky old satire works as a story. ‘Cruising’ is similarly dated, and, unusually for Watson, sophomoric to boot: narrated by a cruise missile that has been fired at Soviet Russia that regretfully ponders the birds in the autumn sky setting off on their annual migration. ‘Universe on the Turn’ is a little better, a bracingly strange cocktail-shaker-vibration of a tale in which the vermouth of erotico-bizarreness (women have evolved into whale-sized creatures, and the regular-sized men have sex with them by inserting not their penises but their entire bodies) is mixed with the crushed ice of an unexpectedly accelerated end-of-the-universe physics: a star burns for millions of years but collapses into a black hole in ‘approximately one-thousandth of a second ... if the collapse of the universe commences everywhere at once, the half-time of universal collapse must be proportional on a logarithmic scale.’ The tale doesn’t really go anywhere, although perhaps that matters less than it might. ‘The Flesh of her Hair’ is the volume’s only full-bore misfire, a grating, clumsy ship-of-fools fable that indulges some not-nice Germanophobia and ends with a wig made from a murdered woman’s scalp and hair coming magically alive and taking possession of its new wearer. Bah. The best of the later stories is ‘In the Mirror of the Earth’, set in a strange landscape where what are oceans to us are continents, and where our continents are oceans. In this alt-Earth people don’t have our sleep patterns; they stay away for a fortnight, and then discharge all their dreams in one intense, short sleep, these dreams taking concrete form in the world. It’s nicely done, and would make a brilliant first chapter of a very good novel, but that’s not what it is here, and it dissipates its strangeness accordingly. And the volume’s very last tale, ‘The Bloomsday Revolution’ is almost bathetically anticlimactic. It starts with the notion that after we die we live out a single perfect day, over and over, with key friends and lovers—June 16th 1904, as you might have guessed from the title. Watson’s characters decide to break out of this groundhog day heaven, and visit James Joyce himself, in the Martello tower, to do so. But the story doesn’t follow through, and as they all go off together to find a pub that’ll serve them a nice pint the collection as a whole ends bangles and rather whimpering.

Some of the ways in which these stories are dated (one character speculates that God ‘records everything you are and stories it in Himself, on lots of floppy discs in His mind’; 212) are charming. Others are limiting. But the broader problem, I think, is one common to ‘the science fiction short story’ as a form: the phylogeny of these texts records a particular SF-writerly ontology: the neat-o idea or premise, something that pops into a writerly head and makes him/her go ‘hey! cool!’, and around which characters, narrative and prose are hastily draped in order to place the cool notion before readers. In Watson’s earlier fiction the diremption of these elements is not so pronounced, or—in his very best stories—is not there at all. But in this, his third collection of short fiction I over and again got the sense of a writer subordinating his aesthetic strangeness and charm to the elaboration of kernels that are either ideological simple (however commendable), or ideas that feel, by themselves, insufficient. Still: lots of us do it.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Katie Ward, Girl Reading (2011)

I have two broader points to make about this excellent novel; one having to do with Ward's writing, and one that has nothing to do with Ward-as-author at all, but which does have a bearing on the question of 21st-century books. Only a small bearing. But a bearing. I'll keep that to the end. The post can exit pursued by a bearing.

First things first: this is a very good novel indeed, a debut of rare promise. Seven sections that seem at first to be seven separate short-stories (though at the end the whole is tied-together fairly neatly). Each of these is a two-inches-wide piece of ivory on which Ward has worked with an admirably fine brush; and each focusses on a woman who is the subject of a painting or photograph, portrayed in the act of reading a book. The first is a fourteenth-century Italian convent girl, the second a seventeenth-century Dutch servant, the third an eighteenth-century lady and so on up to the final scene set in a near-future sort-of sfnal 21st-century. The writing is coolly, beautifully controlled: unflashy but lucid and modulated with genuinely impressive technical deftness, always expressive and lovely to read. The characterisation is a little more variably achieved, I thought; sometimes expertly and efficiently realised, sometimes less so. The idea of putting ekphrasis centre-stage, and using it as a lense to refract some of the varieties of female lived experience, is clever and effective. All in all: very classy.

Anyway, here's the second thing. This is a novel, not a collection of thematically-linked short stories, howevermuch it initially appears to be so. And the quality of the individual section, though inevitably a little variable, is high; I enjoyed reading them all very much. Nevertheless it took me a long time to finish reading this book, and that was for the following reason. I bought it as an e-book, for the Kindle app in my iPhone. I have seen it suggested that since e-books don't actually lie accusingly un- or half-read on our bedside tables, they fall into an out-of-sight-and-mind hole that actual books avoid. (Have a look at this intriguing John C Abell piece in Wired, 'Five Reasons Why E-Books Aren’t There Yet', paying particular attention to reason 1). I must say, I haven't found so: I seem to have no problem keeping going right through, even with quite lengthy books (I read Tim Powers' brand-new-in-2010-honestly Declare on the same app, for instance, and it's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages long). But for some reason I kept not going back to Ward's novel. This is not because I wasn't enjoying reading it, because I was. But I think it had to do with the fact that as I reached the end of each of the seven sections, some box in my sub-brain got ticked, I subconsciously thought 'done and done!' -- and at next reading opportunity I'd pick up something else. Which is a roundabout way of saying: it may be that reading whole short-story collections, or novels (like this one) that play formal games on the linked-short-story format, may be harder to do in e-book format than in the codex. Not Ward's fault, of course; but an interesting wrinkle in a mode of buying and reading books for which I have hitherto had only praise.

Not to lose my bearings: talking of buying and reading books -- do both.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Daniel H. Wilson, Robopocalypse (2011)

A very efficiently put-together future thriller, this, that rolls along the ringing grooves scored by a thousand SF prior texts: our machines become suddenly not only sentient but hostile and try to wipe us out. It is, indeed, hard to think of a more thoroughly-worked SFnal trope: Bender's 'Kill All Humans', minus the laughs. Still, as forty thousand glittering-vampire, or teenage-wizard retellings attest, you don't often go wrong as a writer ploughing the pre-ploughed furrow; and I can't argue with the readability of Wilson's treatment.

We start after the robot uprising has been smashed; one of the key figures in the human resistance, Cormac "Bright Boy" Johnconnor 'Neo' Wallace discovers what amounts to the black box of the machine command-and-control. Handily, it contains the whole backstory of the uprising: how a scientist called Nicholas Frankenstein Wasserman, blinded by his own hubris created a monster called Skynet Archos, who achieved consciousness and used the interconnectivity of the many near-future machines of the novel's world to wage war on humanity. The novel as a whole is disposed into five parts: we get 'Isolated Incidents', in which various previously reliable machines turn on people: cars, sex-dolls, kid's toys, anything with a chip. Then 'Zero Hour', when the robots kill billions; Part 3 'Survival' when humanity struggles to avoid the wickedness of machines and other wicked people; then, via various happenstances including a child who can telepathically (well: science-handwavily) talk to the machines, the creation of a unified 'North American Army' to fight the robots, which in turn leads, inevitably, to 'Part 5: Retaliation.' Individual character stories have some tension; the overall storyarc has none at all. And although there are some bad people, the emphasis in this novel--from the human narrators but also, oddly, from their machine antagonists--is thumpingly on the heroism of human beings.

It's entertaining, undemanding stuff, lubricated so as to avoid the friction of actual thought, or difficulty, or more lasting aesthetic effect. If I had a complaint, apart from the obviously and deeply derivative nature of the whole project, it's that Wilson's robots uprising isn't rhizomatically decentred enough: there has to be a Boss robot, existing in one physical place (in this case, inside a radioactive chamber underground in Alaska) that can be targeted and taken out -- despite the fact that the internet as we know and love it has nothing so easily identifiable or take-outable. Oh, and as a side-note, his British characters talk like no British people I've ever met -- and I've met, well, several ('just the three of us, duchess. A right happy family. Me and my cheating wife and her fucking hemorrhaging ex-boyfriend', 70). This is a very minor part of the whole, and loomed perhaps disproportionately large for me: for 'what are you sodding off about?' is not idiomatic Londonspeak for 'what do you mean?', and I don't know anybody who addresses women as 'duchess', except, perhaps, when speaking to an actual duchess. Still: who breaks a robutterfly upon a wheel, and all that.

So, Doubleday are promoting this title very hard (doublehard, you might say); they clearly think it's going to be huge, and they're probably right. Apparently Steven Spielberg has signed up to direct the film of the book (the fillum even has its own imdb page). There are many distinctively Señor Spielbergo moments in the book, too; so I can see why: kids in peril; kids being brave and smart to overcome peril; the uncanny-domestic; the family as the locus for heroism.

What else? Well, two things. The strongest sections of this novel, by a long way, are the first two parts, and several of the chapters in Part 1 achieve genuinely eerie effectiveness. I liked the low-key, sinister vibe of the Frankenstein 'it's alive' chapter; there's a good set-piece about a humanoid robot on duty in Afghanistan that goes on a killing spree, and chapter 5, with the Aldissean/Spielbergian title 'Super-Toys' is exceptionally good: Congresswoman Laura Perez is trying to pass anti-robot legislation. Her 10-year-daughter Mathilda has a spooky encounter with her toy chest ('peeking out from my covers I see there's a rainbow of flashing lights coming from our wooden toy box'). Her 'Baby-Comes-Alive' doll has literally come alive; it urges her to call her mommy home, threatens to hurt her kid brother if she doesn't, and shows malicious willing ('the doll scissors its arms down. The web of my thumbs are caught in the doll's soft armpits and the hard metal underneath') somewhat after the manner of a child abuser: 'Just before I slam shut the lid,' says the first-person narrator, 'I hear the cold little baby doll voice speak to me from the blackness. "Nobody will believe you, Mathilda," it says. "Nobody will believe you."' That said, when the robot rebellion gathers pace, the novel loses much of its eeriness and becomes more run-o-the-mill.

The other thing, I suppose, is: what will future culture-historians makes of the saturation of this particular anxiety -- that our machines hate us, and are out to get us? The semiotic of this trope is an interesting thing. Take three key recent iterations of it: the Terminator franchise; the Matrix franchise; BSG. What are they saying? More specifically , what does their huge success say about us? A while ago, I pondered on the representational logic of the first of these:
What is the Terminator? The Terminator is Death; his grinning titanium skull the latest incarnation of an ancient western tradition of iconic momento mori. The first film dramatised, straightforwardly and therefore effectively, life's struggles and attempted flight from death's implacable pursuit. The simplicity of the narrative served the story perfectly, because our own mortality is, on one level, wholly linear and perfectly simple: it will come; it will come straight, it will come straight for you; it will not stop. Without exception, that's the fate of everybody in the world. This unsettling existential truth is at the heart of the original movie's enduring resonance. In a nutshell, the first Terminator movie said: death is singular, implacable and after you. That's true. (What I mean when I say this is that although we know, intellectually, that death is general, not singular--that although we die individually others live on--nevertheless that's not how it feels. Our impending deaths, as the end of our world, feel like the end of the world)
But although both Matrix and BSG are also, obviously, in some symbolic sense 'about' extinction, they're also, oddly, about sex, and physical hyperperformance. This somatic quality of machines is key, I think: those senses in which the superior strength, endurance and regularity of machines generates a corresponding somatic angst in us. What machines lack, I suppose, is 'soul'; which Wilson here tropes as 'heroism'. So in that sense, the obsession with machines is 'about' an anxiety not to do with death so much, as with the creeping materialisation of the world, the disappearance of God. The dawning realisation that we are machines too.

One final thing: I was sent an unsolicited advance copy of this novel (not that I'm complaining, mind you) together with the usual PR fliers, posters and gubbins. Why me? I pored over the accompanying stuff. Here:
Click to embiggen, if you must. Aside from the strange phrasing at the top (not 'will be released' but the passive-voice-phobic 'The major motion picture will release in 2013'), the thing that snagged by eye was the reason why I'd gotten a copy at all: 'Major ARC distribution to stores, librarians, big mouths and movie influencers.' Since I'm assuredly not the first, second or fourth of these things, I guess I'm on a list somewhere as a Big Mouth. My bouche, it gapes. When did this happen?