Category Archives: Science Fiction

A recent reading miscellany (mostly SF)

A recent reading miscellany      

I’ve read several books recently during a period where I was busy at work, then ill, and then on holiday. For a mix of reasons I don’t plan to fully review them. Some were very good, some not so much. I thought I’d write a brief paragraph or two on each.

Most of these are SF. I’ve omitted Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd as I hope to do full reviews of each of those.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

This is a slight cheat as I read it back in June and didn’t review it then, but it’s better than most of the books that follow so it seemed a bit unfair not to mention it when I’m making time to talk about books I thought less of.

Ancillary is a classic space opera set in a distant future among a vast interstellar empire. The empire is controlled through use of artificially intelligent spaceships crewed in part by ancillaries – prisoners of war who’ve had their minds wiped and replaced by a small element of the ship’s AI. The ancillaries aren’t meant to operate independently but an act of treachery leaves one isolated after the troop carrier it formed part of is destroyed.

Ancillary is best known for its treatment of gender. The protagonist being a fragment of an AI personality is weak on gender recognition to begin with and the language of the empire’s rulers doesn’t include gender pronouns. The result is a book in which unless the protagonist has specific knowledge that a character is male literally every character is referred to as she or her.

Use of male pronouns as a default is commonplace. Use of female isn’t and many SF fans balked at reading a book where they couldn’t be sure which gender most of the characters were. I found it worked very well and the slight loss in terms of physical description was more than made up for in the increased focus it required in terms of actual personality rather than gender assumptions.

All that and a cracking plot across multiple planets with wars, conspiracies and strange technologies and overall I absolutely loved this. It’s solid SF and fairly long too (with two sequels, neither apparently quite as good as the first) and the only reason I didn’t give it a proper review was limited time. It’s still a candidate for my end of year list.

Nick’s Trip, by George Pelecanos

I started this back in June, having enjoyed the previous book in the series A Firing Offense. I abandoned this part-way through, finding it a bit dated and to be honest a bit sexist. It’s not stuck in memory so there’s not much more to say than that. Pelecanos has legions of fans and can definitely write so it may be that this just wasn’t one of his best or possibly he’s just not my writer.

Mystery of the Three Orchids, by Augusto de Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

I’ve read two previous de Angelis and sort of enjoyed them. This time I found the tales of his Inspector de Vincenzo to provide diminishing returns. Guy liked this best of the three de Angelis published by Pushkin Press so far but I just found that I no longer cared whodunit. Being honest, cosy crime has never been my genre and I only read these from interest at the unusual early 20th Century Milan setting. Solid books, but not for me.

Books two ((The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself) and three (Then will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above) of Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet.

Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet is a series of four thematically linked novellas each exploring an alternate history of the Apollo space programme. I enjoyed the first a while back so tried a couple more.

AQ2 is the more out-there piece and posits the discovery of alien ruins on Mars which has led to the discovery of faster-than light travel. Now Earth’s first extra-solar colony has vanished and so the first man on Mars is brought out from retirement to investigate. It’s an audacious story split between that first Mars mission and the journey to the missing colony, and daringly the answer to what happened is only really made clear(ish) through technical appendices. For all that I found it a little dry and it’s probably my least favourite Sales’ so far.

AQ3 is much more interesting (to me anyway). It posits an extended Korean war tying up US pilots much longer than was true in our own history. When the space race starts up the US therefore has no choice but to make use of female pilots. The story then is about the first women in space and, once the war ends, their inevitable sidelining to make room for the returning men.

Sales includes a chapter outlining the real female pilots whom he based his story on – women who really did train to go into space but who were blocked by NASA and an unsympathetic political establishment in a truly shocking fashion. Sales uses his alternate history to bring an ignored and shameful passage of real history to light and the result is one of those rare piece of SF I’d potentially recommend to the non-SF fan.

Light and Shadow, by Linda Nagata

This is a short story collection. Linda Nagata mostly writes near-future military SF these days and this collection contains a fair bit of that, plus some more speculative and fantasy material. It’s a solid collection that worked well when I was ill and to Nagata’s credit I read the whole lot quickly and without getting bored along the way.

Nagata clearly has talent, but military fiction rarely speaks to me and military SF less so which means that while I wouldn’t rule it out I’m unlikely to read a lot more by her.

Something Coming Through, by Paul McAuley

More SF. McAuley wrote a novella a while back about a future where a battered near-future Earth is contacted by enigmatic aliens and given access to fifteen worlds free to colonise. The trouble is, the aliens have been doing this for various species for millions of years and the colonies are dotted with the ancient technologies of the races who were given tenancy before us.

In Something Coming Through McAuley returns to the setting and tells a novel length story, though for me with slightly diminishing returns. I actually like McAuley’s setting, but to turn it into a novel he has to include conspiracy and thriller elements which I cared about less. Another example of a talented author working in an area which isn’t of much personal appeal.

Bethany, by Adam Roberts

This is much stranger. A sociopath inspired by Michael Moorcock’s famous novel Behold the Man travels back in time with the goal of killing Christ during the three days after his resurrection but before his bodily ascension into heaven. This is well written, well researched and laudably short (90 pages). Roberts is a very highly regarded writer and from this it’s easy to see why. I’ve read one of his short stories before but after this I’ll definitely be moving on to his full-length fiction.

A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by  Becky Chambers

This was rapturously received by oceans of critics and fans. It’s a novel about a small spaceship that makes its living by punching wormholes through space to create travel links across the galaxy (basically interstellar roadbuilders). It’s widely (and to be fair rightly) seen as a light and upbeat read and was particularly praised for its treatment of diversity with a crew formed of different species and genders all working together in a cramped ship.

Unfortunately, the diversity is literally skin deep. Every character, even the aliens, felt to me like a middle-class 20-something American. One felt like she’d been borrowed wholesale from the Jewel Staite character in the TV show Firefly but made wackier. I got to page 50 and couldn’t take any more. That means I read less than a tenth of this (and there’s two sequels!) but I’m fine with that.

So, that’s my quick(ish) roundup. If any stand out to you please let me know in the comments and I can say a bit more about them.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Novellas, Pelecanos, George, Science Fiction

The thing came to me as a stark inhumanity.

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells

I last read The Island of Doctor Moreau as a teenager. It didn’t do much for me then, dwarfed by the more obvious charms of The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds. The only reason I returned to it all these years later was because I was planning to read Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel and had heard that Moreau partly inspired Morel.

Reading Moreau as preparation for Morel wasn’t particularly necessary as I’ve now read Morel and other than the title and island setting there’s not much commonality. Fortunately, it turns out that adult me likes The Island of Doctor Moreau a lot more than teenage me did.

Island opens with a framing device. The manuscript the reader is about to encounter was left behind by an Edward Prendick, now deceased. Prendick was lost at sea and on recovery a year or so later initially told a fantastical tale before claiming he had lost all memory of what had happened during his absence. His health never truly recovered.

From there we’re into the book proper – Prendick’s posthumous account of what really happened to him which can be published now he’s safe from being locked up as a lunatic. It’s an ugly tale of science without morality (a common Wellsian theme) and of how little separates the human from the animal.

After an offscreen shipwreck Prendick is left adrift at sea. He’s finally picked up by a strange ramshackle trading ship with a drunken captain and a cargo of exotic animals. He’s not the only passenger – there’s a dissolute and rather weak young Englishman named Montgomery and Montgomery’s half-witted servant M’ling who both the crew and animals fear and loathe.

The black face thus flashed upon me startled me profoundly. The facial part projected, forming something dimly suggestive of a muzzle, and the huge half-open mouth showed as big white teeth as I had ever seen in a human mouth. His eyes were bloodshot at the edges, with scarcely a rim of white round the hazel pupils. There was a curious glow of excitement in his face.

Although M’ling does nothing wrong, Prendick can’t help but feel a shock of revulsion at him. The abhorrence is somehow intrinsic; a sense of wrongness. Soon Prendick realises that M’ling is even stranger than he at first imagined:

It may seem a little thing to you, perhaps, but it came like a sudden blow to me. The only light near us was a lantern at the wheel. The creature’s face was turned for one brief instant out of the dimness of the stern towards this illumination, and I saw that the eyes that glanced at me shone with a pale-green light.

These early parts of the book (in fact the whole first half really) are wonderfully creepy. Wells is very, very good on the unnaturalness of all this and on the horror that comes not from something terrible happening or being threatened but just by virtue of things not being as they should be.

Montgomery and M’ling are taking the animal cargo to a supposedly uninhabited island and against Prendick’s protests the ship’s captain and crew take the opportunity to dump him there too. It’s there he meets Doctor Moreau, a vivisectionist exiled years past from London society for his unusual cruelty and arrogance. Nobody knew what had happened to him, but here he is surrounded by servants of peculiar appearance and strangely garbled speech.

The island is a miserable place: the climate too hot; the food poor; Montgomery often drunk; the servants oddly repellent; but worst of all is Moreau who Prendick soon realises never ceased his experiments in vivisection but instead has taken them to new and undreamed of extremes. Moreau is swift to take his knife to the new animal captives:

Suddenly the puma howled again, this time more painfully. Montgomery swore under his breath. Then the poor brute within gave vent to a series of short, sharp screams.

As Moreau chillingly reminds Prendick, “‘You forget all that a skilled vivisector can do with living things’”.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Moreau has been using his extraordinary skills and lack of conscience as a vivisector to transform animals into men. Scientifically of course it’s nonsense but that doesn’t matter because it allows Wells to explore some very fruitful themes.

What is it that makes a person human? Moreau takes his poor beasts and tortures them into upright forms that look mostly like us. Their hands are often misshapen and their speech can be difficult to follow but for all that they do have hands and speech. Moreau gives them law and a form of religion which leads to a fantastic scene where Prendick finds himself in the home of the beast-men as they recite the litany given them by Moreau.

To a late 19th Century reader some scenes here must have been fairly shocking. The beast-men see Moreau as their creator; they recite a creed to honour him and see him as an Englishman would see his Christian God. They believe that even when absent Moreau knows if they break his laws – run on all fours, hunt game, drink water by lapping it direct from pool or stream.

Nature, however, will out. The beast-men no longer have the innocence of animals but nor have their instincts entirely abandoned them. Without the repetition of the law they quickly fall back into savagery. But then, the ship’s captain and crew at the beginning abandoned Prendick to Moreau’s island out of caprice and cruelty. Are the beast-men so different? Are the humans here better? Nobody comes out of this well.

We know from the start that it won’t last. The opening chapter mentions that the only island that fits Prendick’s description is uninhabited without sign of Moreau or Montgomery or beast-men or any of them. We know Prendick leaves and is eventually found and brought home.

Once back he finds that Moreau’s island changed him just as it changed the unfortunate animals Moreau took under his knife. Prendick reflects:

I am told that even now my eyes have a strange brightness, a swift alertness of movement.

Much worse is his internal change. He has seen the thin line separating animals from men and now returned he can see it still:

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. … prowling women would mew after me, furtive craving men glance jealously at me, weary pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces like wounded deer dripping blood, old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves and all unheeding a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel, and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered Big Thinks even as the Ape Man had done;

This was a deeply topical book. The morality of vivisection was hotly debated in Wells’ time and the implications of evolution and the idea that humanity was not some form of separate creation to animals remained controversial to many. Now those are both largely (though not entirely) settled topics and yet the book retains its power.

As I write this my mind keeps turning to the various forms of savages Prendick encounters: the ship’s captain and crew; Moreau and Montgomery; the beast-men. The beast-men elicit instinctive disgust and pity but for all their barely repressed savagery it’s no accident on Wells’ part that the true cruelties of this book are performed by people.

Wells’ science fiction is the science fiction of big ideas. For some reason his stories seem often to be taken very literally. People seem to miss that The War of the Worlds is about the experience of colonialism for those colonised; or that The First Men in the Moon addresses the need for morality in business and science. It seems more common to pick up that The Time Machine is in large part about class inequality but even that is often taken at a purely surface level. Perhaps it’s because he writes such good adventure stories that people often miss his underlying sharp criticisms most of which sadly remain all too relevant.

On a last note, I read the rather good Pocket Penguin edition of this which comes with sparse but well-judged notes. At one point for example Prendick refers to a “comus rout” among the beast-men which meant nothing to me but which a footnote then helpfully explains both in terms of the direct reference and in terms of a potential source of inspiration for Wells. It’s a really good edition and if you decide to give this a go I entirely recommend it.

Other reviews

Tons I’m sure, but none I know of on any of the blogs I typically follow. If I’m wrong on that I’d be delighted to be corrected in the comments.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Science Fiction, Wells, H.G.

“No one has real names anymore,”

Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson

I read Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn back in the summer of 2016 and was distinctly impressed by it. First of a trilogy, but standing perfectly well on its own, Autumn was original and intelligent science fiction with strong contemporary resonances.

Midnight is more obviously part of a series and is inevitably a bit weaker for that. However, it’s still an extremely enjoyable piece of SF/spy cross-genre fiction and still has plenty to say about current UK obsessions.

Midnight opens on the Campus – a strange society consisting of nothing except a vast university. It’s recently had a successful revolution deposing the old regime who had efficiently but brutally run the place for as long as anyone remembers. It’s quite clearly not our world but its inhabitants are unaware of any other.

The Campus is a sort of 1950s-ish Tweedy England shorn of any context. Everyone bicycles (they have no knowledge of cars); social status is hereditary; technology is comfortable and unintrusive. It’s a sort of dream of Englishness but not a sustainable one. The food’s running out. There’s no trade as there’s nobody to trade with. Anyone who tries to leave is killed by seemingly ubiquitous surrounding booby-traps. The place makes no sense.

The main protagonist of Midnight is the new head of intelligence at the Campus, previously a lecturer in the English department. His main goal is to find some way of escaping the place to the wider world he believes must exist. Beyond that he’s trying to understand the realities underpinning the old guard he’s replaced. What he finds is a horrific underbelly of secret police and unregulated human experimentation. Those responsible for the horror were of course all thoroughly good sorts. Here’s the Dean of the Science Faculty, a rare survivor of the old regime:

He was about five years older than me, and he had the clean, well-exercised look of a man who plays a lot of team sports and is rarely on the losing side. His hair was thick and brown and curly and touched a little with grey at the temples, his clothes discreetly expensive-looking. He radiated masculine bonhomie like a nicely bedded-in coal fire.

The intelligence head’s name isn’t given but he’s known to a friend by a literary nickname – Rupert of Hentzau – which he reuses after he finally escapes. That’s as close to a real name as we ever learn. He finds his way out and emerges in real-world London where he promptly gets stabbed on a bus. He survives but comes to the attention of our own intelligence services and from there it’s a classic spy novel of scheme and counter-scheme.

Rupert is that classic spy novel character – the man who knows too much. He is living proof of the existence of nested parallel Europes which can be reached from our one if one knows the route. The Campus was a pocket reality, embedded in another pocket reality known as the Community which in turn is embedded in the “real” Europe. The Community is the only one here with all the facts – both the Campus and our Europe are ignorant of it – and it’s willing to kill to preserve its power and anonymity.

The Community originated in England as part of real history before splitting off to become its own reality. Now it maps across most of Europe but with no neighbours or indigenous peoples to get in its way. It is the colonial dream of a certain kind of English xenophobe made (alternate) reality.

Everyone in the Community was English. From one end of the Continent to the other. There were only English things here. There were no other languages, only regional dialects. No other cuisines but English. No other clothing styles but English. No other architectural styles but English. It was awful.

Much of Midnight takes place in the Community with Rupert infiltrating it on behalf of real-world British intelligence. It’s an interesting setting but creates an issue for Hutchinson since one of the Community’s most telling features is that conformity carries a price:

In two hundred years, the Community had not provided a single playwright of any great note or a film which would have troubled an Oscar voter for more than a minute.

This means that a large part of the novel is set in a place that intrinsically is a bit dull. The Campus was based on the Community and while the Community is more technologically sophisticated it too is a highly conformist 1950s-ish Sunday-night-TV-drama sort of England. It’s a sharp contrast to the complex fractured Europe of Autumn.

The Community does allow Hutchinson to explore certain ideas of Englishness and their underlying historical reality. In the real world 1950s Britain was still a colonial power, even if a quickly fading one. Behind the cosy imagery of cricket matches in country villages and social deference was a system maintained overseas through violence and political oppression.

I read Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden recently and very much enjoyed it. I’ve also read some of his Far Eastern Tales short stories. Maugham makes no bones about the bloody underpinnings to Colonialism and British power (nor does he see it as anything to apologise for). Maugham, like many of his contemporaries, accepted that British dominance carried a price for those dominated.

With the Empire now gone there are those who like to pretend that it was all an act of altruism; that we went out into the world to give people efficient civil services and well-run trains rather than to get rich. Maugham and his peers would have seen that for the self-serving fantasy that it is.

The Community is another exploration of that myth. They are the England some want the real England today to become. An imaginary place where everyone knows their place and foreign influences are neatly swept away. It’s no accident that this dreary status quo is preserved with unhesitating ruthlessness.

All that works pretty well. Less successful are some elements of the contemporary (i.e. future) real London in the novel which feels pretty much precisely like London today. Autumn is set in a future Europe devastated by plague and war but Hutchinson’s future London isn’t remotely changed. The buses still have operator-drivers as they do now, people still get take-aways in Burger King, flatshare and go to work in the usual fashion.

It’s possible of course that Hutchinson felt that a strange future London would make the whole novel too distant when coupled with the Community and the Campus. It’s also fair to say that the contrast of the Community works much better when put against a London which remains recognisable. Still, it’s odd in an SF novel to have a future that’s quite so much of the present.

Another slight oddity is that Hutchinson’s characters aren’t as diverse as his setting which here is an issue as the book is in part a critique of conformity. Female characters tend to be secondary (Hutchinson has in fact recognised he needs to write better female characters who exist as more than plot supports for the male so this should improve). Future London is largely a place run for and by straight white men. Admittedly, depressingly, that may be realistic.

The result is a novel that isn’t quite so dazzling as was Autumn. The future London is a bit too much present-day London and some improved female characters wouldn’t hurt. For all that I still really enjoyed Midnight and I’m definitely planning to read the third of the trilogy before too long.

Other reviews

This review from the rather wonderfully named Battered, Tattered, Yellowed and Creased blog is a bit more positive than mine and I think largely fair. I was very impressed by this review from Strange Horizons which explores issues of diversity in the novel much more than I did (I don’t necessarily agree that the novel would have been better for a wider range of diverse figures such as, say, gay characters but I think the point and argument are both well made). It’s a very good critical piece.

Lastly, not a blog but Paul McAuley reviews it here at the New Scientist interestingly comparing the novel to Eric Ambler which I didn’t think of but wish I had. No idea why they describe McAuley as an SF blogger given he’s actually a pretty highly regarded SF author in his own right.

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Filed under Hutchinson, Dave, Science Fiction

In Britain, it was a time of whispers, for re-examining one’s friends and neighbours.

The Summer Isles, by Ian R. MacLeod

There’s a long tradition of alternate history novels, sometimes marketed as science fiction and sometimes not. Many are pure what-ifs having a bit of fun exploring what might have been. Some, however, explore the world we have through the funhouse mirror of the world we could have had.

The Summer Isles is a novel of a fascist Britain. I read it in the run up to the present US elections, shortly after our own Brexit vote. It’s a timely moment for this sort of book, but perhaps too timely to make it entirely enjoyable.

summer-isles

Brooke is a sixty-something Oxford history don in 1940s Modernist England. He’s a mediocre talent brought to prominence by his once having taught John Arthur, Britain’s prime minister and beloved leader, the architect of Britain’s Modernist renaissance and recovery from post-Great War ruin. John Arthur praised Brooke, or Brook as he accidentally called him, in his memoirs and that was enough for just a little of Arthur’s glamour to rub off on him.

John Arthur’s Britain is a gleaming and successful place. Portraits of John Arthur are everywhere, gazing down from offices and public lavatory walls alike. The trains are clean and they run on time. The country’s become something of an international pariah, but who cares when it’s recovered its prosperity and pride?

Brooke has found his own cosy Oxford nook and learned to forget inconvenient facts and to ignore inconvenient questions. He mostly doesn’t even correct the frequent misspelling of his name, accepting Arthur’s version as somehow supplanting the original. He reflects that “As easily as some faintly flavoured and not entirely disagreeable medicine, my whole life was already slipping by.”

Then come two crises. The first isn’t wholly unexpected. Brooke is gay and that is of course quite illegal, and in John Arthur’s Britain punished by mandatory cures and possible disappearance. He meets his lover, a married man, via a public toilet where each of them marks the wall to signal their availability and chosen meeting spot. One day his lover has left his mark on the wall, but doesn’t turn up to their rendezvous. Something has clearly happened to him.

The second crisis is less predictable. Brooke’s been unwell for a while now, but a trip to the doctor leads to visits to consultants and in less time than he’d have dreamt possible a terrible diagnosis:

“As I was saying, Brooke, I’ve been following your case, and giving it quite a lot of thought. Outwardly, you’re still in good enough health. I can see that. But as I think I explained, this tumour in your right lung has been growing for some time. With the problem of metastasis—I mean, of course, lymphatic spread—I really don’t think that there’s any need to operate.”

Not even any need for an operation! A stupid bubble of joy rises up from my stomach, then dissolves.

I’m very annoyed with myself by the time I finally step back out into the sunlight. I’m even annoyed with myself about feeling annoyed. So stupid, stupid. The idea that you might eventually die is something that you get used to as you grow older, but actual death is quite different. Death that could stop you seeing this year’s Wimbledon. Death that makes it pointless to buy a decent pair of shoes that’ll last you through next winter.

Somehow, I hadn’t realised that having lung cancer meant not just being ill, not just having my life shortened, but really dying.

I feel so angry.

The Summer Isles is shot through with melancholy and regret. Brooke has bargained away his life as has his Britain, both in thrall to a man who redefined them to his own design. Brooke decides to find out what happened to his lover, and so accidentally sets himself on a path to the heart of Modernist Britain.

Here he has found his lover’s house and asks a neighbour what happened to the family. The neighbour explains that the wife was Polish, then continues:

“Yes. And a few of them over here—it’s understandable that they want to come, isn’t it—just as long as they don’t make themselves a burden, earn a decent living, talk like we do and don’t bother our children and keep themselves to themselves and make a proper effort to fit in.”

“So what was the problem?”

“She was a Jew, wasn’t she. All these years they’ve been living next door and acting all normal and hiding it from us. I mean, it’s the deceit I really can’t stand. And he must have known. Must have been in it with that job of his, and helped her fake the papers when they married. Her with coming round through that door in a sunhat sometimes to give me a few extra cuttings for the rockery Les was working on.” Mrs. Stevens raises her shoulders and shudders theatrically. “To think of it. It’s the dishonesty. And her nothing but a dirty little Jew.”

Modernism needed someone to blame for the country’s disappointments. Immigrants, Jews, they made good culprits. The Jews were relocated to the far north, to Scotland’s Summer Isles where they were reportedly given pretty whitewashed houses and where nobody ever heard from them again. They were tempted there by:

Government leaflets with titles like What To Do If You’re A Jew (report straightaway to the Duty Sergeant at your local Police Station—“don’t worry, he’ll have dealt with your problem many times before”)

But if the leaflets didn’t tempt enough they were moved there all the same.

Brooke’s lover and his family have now been sent to the same location, and Brooke decides to take some long-overdue leave and follow the footsteps of an old holiday he took thirty years past with the great love of his life: a trip around Scotland in which they’d meant to visit the Summer Isles but had never quite made it as the war intervened and Brooke’s lover returned home to sign up. This time Brooke plans to complete the journey.

Brooke has no idea what may have happened in the Summer Isles and is mystified when he reaches Scotland and finds that nobody admits any memory of the Jews passing through and that the islands themselves are no longer even shown on local maps. Of course, as readers we have a pretty good idea what’s happened because we know our own real history. Brooke becomes more interested in his own past and his memory of his lost love than the absent islands and forgotten Jews, and frankly I thought this a better book for not showing what the reader can imagine all too well.

On his return Brooke finds the past returned in more immediate form: the tenth anniversary of John Arthur’s rule is fast approaching as is John Arthur’s fiftieth Birthday and John Arthur has personally asked that Brooke be invited to the celebrations at Number 10. It occurs to Brooke that after all these squandered years this could be an opportunity to finally make a difference. If one man had killed Napoleon early on what harm would Europe have been spared? If one man kills John Arthur, what harm might Europe yet be spared?

I won’t go into what happens, not least as the solidly executed plot is the least interesting part of the book. I loved MacLeod’s characterisation of Brooke himself, not so much a has-been as a never-really-was but who retains a quiet humanity regardless. Now he’s John Arthur’s personal guest he finds himself sought after by Oxford’s ambitious dean and invited to exclusive parties. Sadly for Brooke, while he was never quite brilliant enough to have won his way to his Oxford position on his own he’s more than clever enough to see the truth of his shabby world and the compromise he’s made of his life.

MacLeod’s vision of a fascist Britain also persuades. It’s a passive-aggressive sort of place, quickly turning when fuelled with drink to just plain aggressive. Ugliness is kept behind the scenes. Torture is carried out in ordinary looking office buildings. John Arthur promised certainty to people who felt left behind by history, and for that his followers were prepared to believe anything:

After the confusions and disappointments of their lives, these poor and jobless men were desperate to be told that, yes, it was all quite simple.

Besides, what he tells them is what they secretly wanted to believe anyway:

… all Modernism did was take what people said to each other over the garden fence and turn it into Government policy.

There’s even at times a rather British sense of humour to it all. It’s a quiet novel which fits because it’s an exploration of how fascism may manifest differently in different countries but of how the same underlying ugliness remains. We look at the trappings of other countries’ insanities – of 1930s Germany or McCarthyite America – and we say to ourselves “that couldn’t happen here, that’s a product of their history, their culture” but all we’re doing is confusing the cosmetic for the actual. If it happens to us it won’t wear the same clothes or shout the same slogans, but that doesn’t make us immune.

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Filed under MacLeod, Ian R., Science Fiction

Thus did I betray my Earthborn heritage and perform a service for our conquerors, out of loyalty to a blinded wife-stealing Prince.

Nightwings, by Robert Silverberg

Nightwings was always my favourite of Silverberg novels, which given how much I loved his work as a teenager is no small thing. It’s always dangerous returning to books one enjoyed years past, but in this case at least it was worth it.

Nightwings

That isn’t actually the cover I have, but I think it’s pretty good which isn’t true of most covers this book got. It actually captures most of the themes of the novel while at the same time being intriguing and rather lovely.

Nightwings opens with three travellers making their way to the city of Roum. It’s the far future, millennia after our own age. Humanity has long since been divided into rigidly stratified guilds, some of which show signs of past genetic engineering. The narrator is a Watcher, forbidden by the tenets of his guild from letting outsiders know his name. He’s old now, but has spent his life wandering with his watching equipment which allows him to project his mind into space in search of the invaders who long ago promised to conquer Earth.

What there is of Earth doesn’t seem much worth the conquering, and through his whole life and the lives of generations before him there’s been no sign of these invaders. Earth is a place of ruins littered with fragments of the civilisations that once flourished there, but who overreached themselves and left the world impoverished and vastly reduced.

We saw the line of fusion-pylons built early in the Third Cycle to draw energy from the world’s core; they were still functioning, although stained and corroded. We saw the shattered stump of a Second Cycle weather machine, still a mighty column at least twenty men high. We saw a hill on which white marble relics of First Cycle Roum sprouted like pale clumps of winter deathflowers. Penetrating toward the inner part of the city, we came upon the embankment of defensive amplifiers waiting in readiness to hurl the full impact of the Will against invaders. We viewed a market where visitors from the stars haggled with peasants for excavated fragments of antiquity. Gormon strode into the crowd and made several purchases. We came to a flesh-house for travelers from afar, where one could buy anything from quasi-life to mounds of passion-ice. We ate at a small restaurant by the edge of the River Tver, where guildless ones were served without ceremony, and at Gormon’s insistence we dined on mounds of a soft doughy substance and drank a tart yellow wine, local specialties.

With the Watcher are Avluela of the Fliers Guild and Gormon the Changeling. Avluela has butterfly like wings which shouldn’t be able to lift her aloft, but which do so all the same. She lacks the strength to fly by day, but at night sheds all needless weight (including clothes, hence all the terrible covers) and takes to the skies. Changelings are those exceptions who have no guild, genetic refuse, diverse in their abnormalities and living in poverty and squalor. Gormon though is unusual for a Changeling, intelligent, strangely educated and fiercely proud.

The first section of the book follows the Watcher, Avluela and Gormon as they enter the ancient city of Roum:

Roum is a city built on seven hills. They say it was a capital of man in one of the earlier cycles. I did not know of that, for my guild was Watching, not Remembering; but yet as I had my first glimpse of Roum, coming upon it from the south at twilight, I could see that in former days it must have been of great significance. Even now it was a mighty city of many thousands of souls.

They do not receive the welcome they hope for. The Watcher discovers to his dismay that his Guild is no longer respected as it once was. Avluela captures the attention of the Prince of Roum (“…a hard and cold and cruel man”) who sees her as an exotic plaything to while away his duller hours. Gormon mocks the Watcher for his loss of faith in his own profession. All this comes to a head in a marvellous scene where they visit the famous Bocca della Verità, a rare survivor from 1st Century Rome (and which I thought Silverberg made up when I first read this, amazed therefore on my first visit to Rome to learn it truly exists).

Each of the three places their hand in the mouth of truth. Gormon, who has become Avluela’s lover, asks her of her preferences between him, the Prince of Roum and her first love who died years past. An unwise question with an answer he dislikes. Then he asks the Watcher if he considers his life to have been lived in vain. The Watcher, fearful that the legend is true and that the mouth will cut off his hand if he lies, replies:

“… to devote onself to vigilance when the enemy is an imaginary one is idle, and to congratuate oneself for looking long and well for a foe that is not coming is foolish and sinful. My life has been a waste.”

Then Gormon is asked a question. Earlier he had avoided answering where he came from, now he answers revealing that he is no Changeling but one of the long-awaited invaders, a forward scout. The Watcher has despaired of his life’s calling on the eve of its vindication. We’re less than a quarter of the way through the book.

Chapters follow after the fall of Roum (it’s no spoiler to reveal that this faded Earth can’t sensibly resist an actual invasion force) as the Watcher finds himself without guild since with the invasion arrived there’s no need to keep looking for it. He travels to Perris in the company of the now cast down Prince of Roum and becomes a Rememberer. He seeks comfort exploring Earth’s golden past, but discovers in the archives something of the reason for the long-promised and now fulfilled invasion. Perris itself yet retains its charm:

I walked through the glow of the Perris night, seeking fresh air. I strolled along the Senn and was accosted by an agent for a Somnambulist, who offered to sell me insight into the world of dreams. I came upon a lone Pilgrim at his devotions before a temple of flesh. I watched a pair of young Fliers in passage overhead, and shed a self-pitying tear or two. I was halted by a starborn tourist in breathing mask and jeweled tunic; he put his cratered red face close to mine and vented hallucinations in my nostrils. At length I returned to the Hall of Rememberers and went to the suite of my sponsors to pay my respects before retiring.

The tone is elegiac. We are not what we were, and with the invasion have become even less than that. The invaders are kind but omnipresent and are confident in their ownership. They reminded me of World War II Germans, which I suspect was intentional:

They were everywhere, prowling into the houses of Earth’s old religions, buying shining models of the Tower of Perris from Vendors at street corners, clambering precariously into the upper levels of the walkways, peering into occupied dwellings, snapping images, exchanging currency with furtive hucksters, flirting with Fliers and Somnambulists, risking their lives at our restaurants, moving in shepherded groups from sight to sight.

The third section of the novel sees the former-Watcher leave the Remembrancers to become a Pilgrim, heading to the holy city of Jorslem. He travels with another former Remembrancer, a mocking femme fatale from whose attentions he’s immune by reason of his age. He’s looking for redemption; she’s looking to shave a few years off which is a power they have in Jorslem if you are found worthy.

I won’t reveal what they find. Nightwings ends well, but the heart of the book comes earlier with the scenes of a tired and declining Earth housing a remnant humanity and beggar-aliens washed ashore from better worlds. Silverberg conjures up an image of a future so distant that almost nothing of us remains and that which does has long since lost its context, and yet for all the genetic engineering and guilds and alien conquerors the core experiences of humanity, of love and guilt and hubris and regret, they are still the same.

Other reviews

None on any of the blogs I follow, but I don’t know the SF blog scene well so that just means I’ve not found them. If you do know of any worth noting please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Fantasy Fiction, Science Fiction, Silverberg, Robert

It was how the place made you feel, like it was alive and biding its time before it crushed you.

Death is a Welcome Guest, by Louise Welsh

Death is a Welcome Guest is the second in Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy. It’s not so much a sequel to her first in the sequence, A Lovely Way to Burn, as a companion piece. The apocalypse unfolding from another perspective.

Death_is_a_Welcome_Guest

That perspective belongs to Magnus McFall, a stand-up comedian who as the novel opens is on the way to the gig of his life. He’s the warm-up for a popular tv comedian playing the O2 Arena in South London. Warm-up might not sound like much, but the O2 is a huge venue and any comedian who finds themselves performing there in any capacity is doing ok for themselves.

The problem is that as the first novel established the UK and much of the world is coming down with the Sweats, an influenza-like illness which is spreading rapidly and causing huge disruption. Magnus isn’t feeling too well himself as he heads to the O2, a sensation made worse when he sees someone evidently suffering from the Sweats pass out and fall under a train. Things are coming apart, he just doesn’t know yet quite how bad they’ll get.

On his way home Magnus sees a woman being attacked in an alley and goes to help. He drives off her assailant, but when more help comes they think he’s the attacker and he finds himself arrested for attempted rape. Magnus is in serious trouble. He was drunk, there’s no witnesses as to exactly what happened and the woman he saved was too drunk or sick to know what happened. He’s given a uniform marking him out as a vulnerable prisoner so the guards know not to mix him with the general population and then put in a cell to await trial. You’d think it couldn’t get much worse, but his cellmate falls seriously ill and the guards don’t seem to care. They only move Magnus when his cell mate, who’s received no medical attention, dies. Magnus gets moved, the body doesn’t. Something is very much up.

Magnus’ new cell mate, Jeb, is a quiet but violent looking man who apparently doesn’t normally share his cell with anyone. Jeb’s another vulnerable prisoner, generally a sign of a serious sex offender who other inmates might attack on the (usually correct) assumption that they’re a rapist or child molester. As the guards stop coming round Magnus and Jeb start getting hungry and realise that their cell could soon be their tomb.

The first third or so of Guest takes place in the prison and is incredibly tense (once the stage mechanics necessary to get Magnus in there while being innocent are done). It’s a bit of coincidence that Magnus ends up with another Sweats’ survivor, but not hugely so since presumably they were put together since neither was sick. Once they get out of their cell Magnus has to rely on Jeb’s prison-savvy to get out of a building expressly designed to stop people leaving and now overrun with other escaped prisoners all desperate and many dying. All this while wearing a uniform that marks Magnus out for attack by any prisoner who sees him and accompanied by a man who might well be a killer or worse.

Once they finally emerge the apocalypse is in full swing, indeed it’s mostly over. There are still soldiers trying to keep the peace and prevent looting, but not many and they’re clearly losing interest. Welsh easily evokes a devastated and empty England:

Almost all the shop windows that lined the road had been smashed. New clothes, some still on their hangers, lay scattered in heaps at the edge of the road, piled like storm-blasted seaweed at low tide. Trainers spilled from cardboard boxes inside a ransacked branch of Foot Locker and mobile phones were scattered like hand grenades outside EE Mobile. The bank sandwiched between the two plundered shops stood strangely intact, as if looters had decided they preferred solid merchandise to cash.

A nice touch here is Magnus’s own overheated imagination. He’s seen too many zombie movies and with corpses lying everywhere keeps imagining them getting up and coming after him, as if the reality weren’t bad enough. I found that stupid enough to be credible and it added a nice touch of absurdity which I thought very human.

Magnus is originally from the Orkneys and hopes that somehow his family might still be alive there (a pretty forlorn looking hope as several characters point out). He and Jeb head north, travelling together and slowly learning if not to trust each other at least to co-exist. Jeb’s close-mouthed about his past and doesn’t particularly believe in Magnus’s innocence (every prisoner claims they’re wrongly imprisoned). They’re together by necessity, not choice.

Welsh’s debt to the 1970s tv show Survivors is even more evident in this book than the last. Magnus and Jeb come to a country house where a small group are trying to re-establish a community. Among them is ex-army chaplain Jacob who rescues Magnus and Jacob from an attacker but seems perhaps a bit too ready to shoot to kill when facing challenge. Magnus and Jeb need to rest up so they temporarily join the community. Jacob hopes to persuade them to make their stay permanent.

As anyone familiar with the genre knows, the true threat after the apocalypse is other people. Two of the community have recently died, apparently through suicide. Jacob has his doubts. The first death he found credible, a distressed young woman who hanged herself, though the chair was a long way from the body. The second died from cut wrists but with no signs of hesitation marks and no prior indications suicide was likely. Anyone might do anything with the world ending, but if suicide is possible so too is murder.

Murder in a country house is as traditional as it gets, but when the murderer is one of a handful of survivors of a global apocalypse there’s nowhere to look for help. There’s no police and no backup. Just a random group of strangers every one of whom is going through enough trauma to turn anyone insane.

I did work out who the killer was, but that wasn’t remotely fatal as Welsh has plenty more story yet including rival groups of survivors and deeper questions of trust, morality and justice. What do you do with dangerous people when there are no police or prisons left? What prices are worth paying to reestablish community? Crime fiction is moral fiction, and by putting crime in a post-apocalypse context Welsh is able to strip these questions back and to force her characters to come up with their own answers.

Other reviews

My review of the first in this series, A Lovely Way to Burn, here. Credit for pointing me to this series at all belongs to Grant of 1st reading, and his review of this one is here.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Science Fiction, Welsh, Louise

The big thing in Europe these days was countries, and there were more and more of them every year.

Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson

A while back I read a short story by Dave Hutchinson featuring a knight who falls lasciviously in love with his own castle. It was funny and strange and really rather good.

I read the short story as a taster to Hutchinson’s work, because I’d heard great things of his 2015 novel Europe in Autumn. Great and accurate things.

EiA

(As an aside, the cover is a bit over-dramatic. Images of trains and maps suggest someone has at least read the book which is often not true of cover art, but that rather portentous line about “No border can hold him” completely misses its mood.)

Europe in the 21st Century is a fractured place, riven by deep nationalist fissures and a sense that its day is past. Clearly we’re in the realm of science fiction…

Rudi is an Estonian chef working in a Krakow restaurant. He’s approached by the local crime syndicate to run an errand to a nearby micro-state. The task goes well and before long he’s recruited into a shadowy organisation of underground couriers – the romantically named Coureurs des Bois.

Rudi’s Europe is a mess of borders and new nations, some of them as small as a handful of buildings. Breakway states find themselves choked by the larger nations they’ve seceded from.

He picked up his glass and took a sip of vodka. “I saw on the news last week that so far this year twelve new nations and sovereign states have come into being in Europe alone.” “And most of them won’t be here this time next year,” said Rudi.

Emails and internet access can be blocked; post intercepted; road and rail traffic stopped at crossing points. A good courier though, armed with fake passports and plenty of native cunning, they can still get through and Rudi’s nondescript appearance and easily transferable day-job are distinct assets. All he needs is training in tradecraft, which he receives from the highly experienced Fabio:

EVERY STUDENT NEEDS a teacher, Dariusz had told him, and Fabio was to be his. He was short and chubby and well-dressed enough to be mugged within minutes of setting foot on any street in Western Europe. His suit was from the cutting edge of the Armani Revival and his shoes had been sewn by wizened artisans in Cordova. His luggage cost more than a flat in central Kraków. He was, Rudi thought, one of the least covert people he had ever seen. He thought it was a miracle the English authorities hadn’t arrested Fabio and then just looked for a crime to charge him with, because he was almost a caricature of a Central European biznisman. Fabio had a dim view of Kraków’s hotels. The Cracovia wasn’t good enough for him. He refused to even cross the threshold of the Europa. He claimed the head chef of the Bristol was a convicted poisoner. He wound up staying at Rudi’s flat.

Fabio’s training reminds Rudi all too strongly of Le Carré and Deighton. There’s a sense of amateurism to it all:

IN RUDI’S OPINION, whoever had set up the Coureurs had overdosed on late twentieth century espionage fiction. Coureur operational jargon, as passed on by Fabio, sounded like something from a John le Carré novel. Legends were fictitious identities. Stringers were non-Coureur personnel, or entry-level Coureurs, who did makework like scoping out locations in the field or maintaining legends. Pianists were hackers, tailors provided technical support, cobblers forged documents – Rudi knew that euphemism had been in use in espionage circles as far back as the 1930s. He thought it was ridiculous.

At first I thought that was Hutchinson passing off his own over-obvious literary inspirations as a device within the fiction. As the novel progresses though it becomes clear it’s not that at all and that what I thought was a flaw was both intentional and subtle. Rudi’s right. The coureurs are sometimes effective, but they’re motivated less by money than by an ideological dislike of borders and bureaucracy coupled with a need to inject a little theatre in their lives. They’re living their own little espionage dream and doing some good in the process, but there are people in their world for whom this isn’t a game. Le Carré could have told them that the romance fades when people start firing real bullets.

Much of the novel is a series of Rudi’s missions, mostly the eventful ones which means mostly the unsuccessful ones. Rudi keeps getting promoted even though his hit rate is middling at best, leading him to wonder if he’s one of the better agents what the rest are like. He learns though and through trial and error becomes fairly effective in his role, while still spending his downtime cooking in his Krakow kitchen.

As you’d expect, eventually Rudi finds himself in over his head and having to go on the run. There’s a lovely sequence where he’s taken prisoner and sort-of-imprisoned in a luxurious London flat watched by polite staff who seem there to serve him but somehow prevent him leaving. Much of the charm of this novel is how well Hutchinson brings Central Europe to life. It’s refreshing to have an Estonian chef as a protagonist and to have the action mostly in Poland and former German states. Hutchinson’s central European sections persuaded me, but even more reassuringly his London section takes place about two minutes from where I work and the descriptions were spot on:

AT WEEKENDS, THE area was deserted. You got some tourists wandering up and down Fleet Street, but it didn’t start to get busy until you were past the High Court and heading towards Trafalgar Square. On a Sunday, you could walk up out of the Mitre Court gateway onto Fleet Street, and for minutes on end you wouldn’t see another living soul.

I’ve spent enough weekends on Fleet Street to know how true that is.

By the two thirds or so mark I had Autumn pegged as an enjoyable near-future hybrid SF spy novel. It was fun, I liked the characters and the writing had a nice lightness of touch and sense of humour which worked well for me. Then, as Rudi starts to work out what’s going on, the novel takes a Borgesian swerve. To say too much would be a massive spoiler, but a McGuffin enters stage left in the form of an alternate ordnance survey map of extraordinary inaccuracy showing in minute detail historic English towns that never existed. In an ordinary SF novel that would be the flag for some alternate-history high jinks. Here it’s something stranger and more interesting.

The novel ends abruptly and with much unresolved. Hutchinson has since himself recognised this as something of a flaw, though I was happy with the ending and while I know it’s now part of a trilogy I’d have been perfectly happy with it had it just been a free-standing novel.

Autumn appeared on a great many SF prize lists back in 2015, and rightly so. This is intelligent and well written SF with good ideas which for once are supported by credible characters. I was reminded of George Alec Effinger’s wonderful Budayeen novels with their own fractured future and memorable cast. It’s good company to be in, and it’s a shame Effinger never got to read Hutchinson because I think he’d have liked him.

Other reviews

A great many, but not on the blogs I typically follow most of which don’t cover much (or any) SF. I liked this review from Yellow and Creased and rather wish I’d written this paragraph myself because it’s spot on:

Hutchinson displays quiet but powerful sensibilities in his work: a deep humaneness, a potent but unobtrusive wit, a remarkable grip on his world-building. And it’s also never overwritten, always perfect: the sly, sardonic wit never felt forced or overused; the near-future tech remained on-hand but comfortably in the background.

I also liked this typically excellent review by Maureen Kincaid at her Paper Knife blog. Here’s a paragraph from her review:

Rudi’s wry commentary on the new milieu in which he finds himself is a delight. (Indeed, there is a sly humour at work throughout the novel, manifest in almost sotto voce asides that leave the reader thinking “did he really just says that?” and such miniature absurdities as the village-state run by fans of Gunther Grass – “Rudi was vaguely sorry that Grassheim had been reabsorbed by the Pomeranian Republic […] He really liked The Tin Drum” (27).) However, Rudi’s observations do raise some interesting points about what a reader might expect of a narrative that dresses itself in the costume of a spy novel, or indeed of an organisation that apparently models itself on a fiction. Should we read this as someone somewhere recognising that Le Carré’s fictional model of the Circus is so damn good they might as well put it to actual use, or is Hutchinson ever so gently pointing out that our perception of how the secret service works is shaped more by the fiction we can access than the reality we can never experience, with the underlying possibility that they might just be the same. Or is all of this a distraction from something else, a “legend” that Hutchinson himself is fabricating, to draw our attention away from something else?

The rest is just as insightful, particularly where she analyses the London episode and how it fits with the novel’s pacing as a form of “hinge” in the narrative between the spy capers and the stranger material to follow.

Edit: David Hebblethwaite reviewed this for Strange Horizons. His review is here.

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Filed under Hutchinson, Dave, Science Fiction

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog,

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

 

I grew up in Ballardia, more specifically on the Lancaster West Estate (which looks a hell of a lot nicer now than it did back then). Lancaster West is a large low-rise council estate with a couple of high-rises embedded within it, not far from the Westway which famously inspired Concrete Island. Ballard’s landscape is the landscape of my childhood.

Lancaster West LWE

The odd thing is like many writers whose name became an adjective I’ve actually read far less by Ballard than it feels like I have. His work is familiar to me both from life and from his particular stylistic consistency. Perhaps that’s why it took the release of a movie based on High-Rise by one of my favourite contemporary directors to prompt me to finally actually read it.

High-RiseHigh-Rise original

(That’s the cover I have and the first edition cover.)

High-Rise opens with the wonderfully disquieting words I’ve used as the title for this piece. It moves swiftly into flashback, with the early tenants moving into a new high-rise development. Among them is Laing, a psychiatrist (his name clearly a shout-out to then fashionable psychiatrist R.D. Laing).

The high-rise is the first of five in its development. It’s supremely modern. Its occupants are resolutely middle class or desirably glamorous: doctors; dentists; academics; tv producers; air hostesses; actors. In real life those of us who grew up on the estates were the urban poor, here Ballard inverts that. Here the architect lives in the building he designed.

The first sign that everything is perhaps not as it should be is when a champagne bottle falls from a party on a floor above and shatters on Laing’s balcony while he’s sunbathing. The more disturbing sign is his reaction:

After breakfast, Laing cleared the glass from the balcony. Two of the decorative tiles had been cracked. Mildly irritated, Laing picked up the bottle neck, still with its wired cork and foil in place, and tossed it over the balcony rail. A few seconds later he heard it shatter among the cars parked below.

Laing is annoyed that those above him pay no regard to his safety, but he pays no more regard to those below him. He doesn’t realise the implications yet, but the high-rise has become a microcosm of wider British society. Those on the topmost floors have their own dedicated entrance lobby and high-speed lifts (a common feature today in buildings with shared occupancy between rich and merely affluent). Everyone else rubs along as best they can, eyes rarely meeting.

This central two-thirds of the apartment building formed its middle class, made up of self-centred but basically docile members of the professions – the doctors and lawyers, accountants and tax specialists who worked, not for themselves, but for medical institutes and large corporations. Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second best.

The lower floors house the newer professions and occupations. the ones who work on tv behind the camera; the air hostesses. They tend to be younger than those on the upper floors, many have school age children while those higher up being older now have dogs instead.

Names here are meaningful. A key character from the lower floors is tv documentary maker Richard Wilder. He’s a larger than life hard-drinking womaniser seemingly modelled on Oliver Reed (and played brilliantly in the recent film by Luke Evans who seems to be channeling Oliver Reed’s spirit). Right at the very top is architect Anthony Royal (A Royal…). The two men epitomise the class conflict inherent in the building’s structure, with firmly middle class Laing caught squarely between them cosying up to Royal and slightly fearing Wilder.

It’s a mistake with Ballard to look for psychological depth. His characters are pawns of psycho-social forces quite beyond them, and Ballard doesn’t aim for naturalism. He’s exploring here the psychology of the underlying fascism of the everyday, as he does in so many of his books.

The high-rise becomes a pressure cooker bringing out the already implicit violence of the social order. Those on top resent those down below for their noisy lives and numerous children. Those at the bottom resent those at the top for their condescension and air of entitlement. Those between try to maintain strict proprieties while jealously guarding their own possessions and territory.

Before long a famous actress’s dog is drowned in the tenth floor swimming pool during a power cut. The pool has become a flashpoint of tensions between the classes, the upper floors wanting to bar the children from using it so their pool parties aren’t interrupted. Not long after a jeweller falls from the top floor to his death, or perhaps was pushed. Nobody calls the police.

The building’s structures start to break down. Power cuts become commonplace; the bin chutes become clogged and rubbish starts to pile up around them; the area around the high-rise becomes covered in broken glass and refuse thrown from above. All of that is obviously something of a comment on 1970s’ Britain generally, but it’s also all familiar to me from the estate I actually grew up in (though Ballard takes it all to an illustrative extreme far beyond mere reality).

People band together according to their floors and carry out raids on those above and below them for food or retribution. Increasingly nobody goes outside, and most tellingly nobody calls for help (partly because that would destroy the concept of the novel, and partly because while it may seem that the social compact is breaking down in fact they’re hammering out a new compact forged from “spasms of cold and random aggression.”)

At risk of biographical detail, it’s hard to read all this without remembering Ballard’s own childhood experience of social breakdown in occupied wartime Shanghai. In his own words “I don’t think you can go through the experience of war without one’s perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience.”

High-Rise shows us what sits under the ragged scaffolding. Early on Wilder sees his neighbours emerge from the lifts “aggressively like bad-tempered miners emerging from their pit-cages. They strode past him, briefcases and handbags wielded like the instruments of an over-nervous body armour.” At this point they’ve merely suffered some inconvenience, but the suppressed violence is already starting to show. Later they move “into a realm of no social organization at all”, forming “small groups of killers, solitary hunters who built man-traps in empty apartments or preyed on the unwary in deserted elevator lobbies.”

The inhabitants, free now to enjoy the “perversities created by the limitless possibilities of the high-rise”, are becoming who they always were. Once the new equilibrium forms, with those able to adapt having done so and those not dead, a new civil order begins to emerge. After the initial explosion of violence and monstrosity the new barbarism looks suspiciously like where everybody started, save with tasteful wallpaper replaced with fire pits and spit-roast Alsatians.

In a sense life in the high-rise had begun to resemble the world outside – there were the same ruthlessness and aggression concealed within a set of polite conventions.

There’s a lot more by way of social comment here. Wilder uses the disorder to literally rise in society. His early too rapid ascent is punished by an unequivocal upper-floor beating to show him his place. After that he moves carefully and strategically, a few floors at a time, moving ever upwards and ever closer to Royal who both fears him and is fascinated by him. Tellingly in order to progress Wilder has to leave his family behind; like every aspirational child of working class parents he quickly learns that to get where he’s going he has to lose where he came from.

Laing meanwhile plays squash with Royal so securing himself an occasional place at the top table, but his status is contingent and Royal never truly sees Laing as an equal. Laing’s an intermediary between upper and lower floors, but not accepted by or entirely comfortable with either. As I’m writing this I’m reading the first of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. It’s notable how much the explicit iniquities of High-Rise are implicitly present in the St. Aubyn.

I should caution that High-Rise can be a difficult read. Ballard has a flat affectless style which lends a chilling normality to descriptions of chaos and horror. This book features murder, rape, incest, slaughtered pets (sometimes for food and sometimes for no clear reason at all) and for a slim novel it features an awful lot of all those things. It’s not gratuitous, but particularly if you struggle with scenes of animals being killed this might not be the book for you.

In the end I think this is deservedly a classic. The characters here slip lightly into psychopathy and savagery in a manner which isn’t remotely realistic (and doesn’t aim to be), but it doesn’t matter both because Ballard creates his own reality. While this specific scenario could never happen, Ballard’s point that even choreographers are only a few good meals from barbarism remains true.

Other reviews

The ever-excellent Joachim Boaz reviews this at his blog here. The no-less excellent Sam Jordison actually had a Guardian reading group readalong of this and his final article on it is here. As ever please let me know of other interesting reviews in the comments.

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Filed under Ballard, J.G., Science Fiction

Desolation tries to colonize you.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

I grew up on horror. My early loves were (of course) HP Lovecraft; the now underappreciated James Herbert; Stephen King; Peter Straub; Brian Lumley; William Hope Hodgson; M. R. James; Robert R. McCammon; Guy N. Smith with his series of novels about giant man-eating crabs invading Britain; the magnificent Ramsey Campbell. There were many others, now largely lost to me.

The contemporary horror authors shared some characteristics. Their stories were generally set in locations familiar to their readers. They contained healthy dollops of sex and lovingly detailed acts of appalling violence.

The threats were rarely personal to an individual but more often involved entire towns or countries facing madness or atrocity. Particularly with the British authors body counts tended to be high.

Hodgson and James offered more classically supernatural ghost stories (though Hodgson’s The Night Land was a much more curious beast). Enjoyable, but lacking the visceral thrills offered by the contemporaries. Both had a nice sense of how fear could come from the mere presence of the uncanny.

Lovecraft though, and to an extent Campbell, they were different; their horrors stranger. Instead of conjuring fear with ghosts or hostile creatures or scenes of pain and death they instead went existential. The terror here was that the world no longer made sense; that it never had.

Annihilation

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the first of a trilogy, published in full during 2014. It’s not a long novel, but it is a resonant one. It’s very, very good.

The biologist is part of a team of four sent into Area X, together with the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist. The linguist didn’t make it through processing. They’re all women, the thought being that perhaps that will somehow help in Area X. They’re not the first expedition.

What is Area X? That’s not quite clear. It’s a zone where the world isn’t as it should be. There were previous expeditions, the last one including the biologist’s husband. People who enter either don’t come back at all or come back changed. Whatever is in Area X is alien and dangerous.

Names are left behind. Crossing over to Area X involves passing through some kind of boundary and the effects are psychologically devastating, so the expedition members pass through under hypnosis waking on the other side armed with post-hypnotic commands and considerable uncertainty as to their own mission.

Almost immediately they discover something the biologist names a tower and the others a tunnel. It’s a large disc with steps penetrating deep into the earth. It’s not on their maps. Within they find cryptic and ominous writing growing in fungal form from the walls, written by who knows what. It’s so close to their camp that it must have been known about, so why wasn’t it mentioned?

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

The expedition begins to break down. The biologist finds she’s become immune to the psychologist’s post-hypnotic suggestions after inhaling some spores, but does that mean that her experiences are more real than the others or less? Is she escaping programming or hallucinating?

This is a strange and slippery novel. The reader is rapidly as unmoored as the biologist and the other expedition members. The characters here have lost their names, can no longer be certain of their past, can’t even agree on what they’re seeing and hearing. The psychologist tries to control them with her hypnotic trigger-phrases, but there’s no control to be had either for her or the reader.

As the biologist realises she can’t trust her team-mates or, after inhaling those spores, herself she comes to realise that she also can’t trust the people who sent them in. The expedition’s goals don’t make sense given what must have been known about the tower, and the hypnosis seems to have left none of them with any clear idea of how they’re supposed to leave once they’re done.

The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?

Perhaps the best thing to say about Annihilation is that I genuinely don’t know how to describe it. It’s an insidious and disquieting novel. It evokes a sense of dread, but of what isn’t always entirely clear. As the biologist delves deeper into Area X she encounters signs of what may have happened to those who went before, but the uncertainty is the true horror here.

At times VanderMeer does seem to be making quite deliberate homage to other works. The whole concept is clearly in part at least inspired by Roadside Picnic, though you could easily read this without having read that. Similarly, the following passage where the biologist visits an abandoned village contains imagery strongly (and I suspect intentionally) reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson‘s famous horror short The Voice in the Night:

But in what had been kitchens or living rooms or bedrooms, I also saw a few peculiar eruptions of moss or lichen, rising four, five, feet tall, misshapen, the vegetative matter forming an approximation of limbs and heads and torsos. As if there had been runoff from the material, too heavy for gravity, that had congregated at the foot of these objects. Or perhaps I imagined this effect.

One particular tableau struck me in an almost emotional way. Four such eruptions, one “standing” and three decomposed to the point of “sitting” in what once must have been a living room with a coffee table and a couch—all facing some point at the far end of the room where lay only the crumbling soft brick remains of a fireplace and chimney. The smell of lime and mint unexpectedly arose, cutting through the must, the loam.

If you’ve read the Hodgson it resonates with that, but if you haven’t it still works and in any event it’s certainly not mere pastiche. VanderMeer is master of the disconcerting detail – here that smell of lime and mint which in a way is more horrifying than just the suggestion that something terrible happened here and to the people in these houses.

In the end it becomes evident that horror isn’t intrinsic to Area X and nor is it restricted to it. The world is worse than inimical, it’s unknowable. As the biologist concludes:

Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.

Annihilation is a rare example of genre fiction that I’d potentially recommend to non-genre readers. It’s well written and its effects linger uncomfortably long after you’ve closed the final page. I’m looking forward to reading the second and third in the trilogy.

Other reviews

None in the blogs I normally follow that I’m aware of, but please feel free to alert me to any in the comments.

Edit: Kaggsy alerted me in the comments to a very good review by Annabel Gaskella which is here. Lee also alerted me to this review by Trevor, which I thought I’d read and commented on but looking back I think I may have missed entirely.

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Filed under Horror Fiction, Science Fiction, VanderMeer, Jeff

Sometimes the biggest disasters aren’t noticed at all – no one’s around to write horror stories.

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

Every now and then I like to dip my toe back into the waters of pure science fiction. If you don’t share that interest, and almost nobody who reads this blog does, this review probably isn’t for you.

Vernor Vinge is one of the greats of recent(ish) science fiction, responsible among other things for the real world concept of the singularity (later popularised by futurologist Ray Kurzweil). Vinge’s claim to fame however doesn’t rest on coining a vaguely useful word, but on writing one of the all time classics of the space opera genre.

a-fire-upon-the-deep

This is big-ticket big concept SF. Vinge postulates a dense and complex future in which the galaxy (and beyond) is home to a vast number of intelligences of varying technological development. Unusually for SF, humanity here has no particular importance in galactic affairs – we’re one species among a great many.

Librarian Ravna Bergsndot is the first human ever to get to work at Relay, an immensely wealthy and advanced interstellar communications hub. That makes her suddenly important when back home some other humans accidentally let loose an ancient artificial intelligence which develops so swiftly and with such aggression that it threatens to annihilate entire species and civilisations.

On the wider galactic stage where history is measured in billions of years, that’s not necessarily actually that big a deal. On the other hand, if you live in the vicinity it’s quite important.

The galaxy in Vinge’s novel is separated, possibly artificially, into “zones of thought” – layers of space in which technology and cognition are increasingly limited the closer you get to the galactic core. Earth lies (lay, it doesn’t feature in the novel) in the Slow Zone where faster than light travel is impossible and AI incredibly limited. Civilisation largely exists in the zone above and further out where these things are possible. Beyond that is, well, the Beyond where intelligences we cannot even comprehend do whatever it is they do.

‘The Beyond and below are like a deep of ocean, and we the creatures that swim in the abyss. We’re so far down that the beings on the surface – superior though they are – can’t effectively reach us. Oh, they fish, and they sometimes blight the upper levels with poisons we don’t even understand. But the abyss remains a relatively safe place.’ She paused. There was more to the analogy. ‘And just as with an ocean, there is a constant drift of flotsam from the top.

Go too close to the centre and you hit the Unthinking Depths, where advanced technology simply fails and intelligence becomes impossible.

zones

When the Blight starts to metastasize, any attempt to stop it becomes worth pursuing no matter how desperate. It’s known that a single human ship from the group who initially triggered the Blight’s release escaped and that they possibly have something with them that could damage it. Ravna is given a ship and sent to find and rescue that other human crew. All she has to help her is an ancient resurrected astronaut who carries a fragment of AI superintelligence within his brain and two alien traders each of whom looks “like a small ornamental tree sitting in a six-wheeled cart”.

Meanwhile, the human ship who escaped the Blight have crash landed on a medieval world with no knowledge of the wider galaxy or the attention that’s now being focused on it. That world is occupied by the Tines, pack-sentients where three to six individual members make up a single personality.

The west edge of their landing area was swarming with … things. Like wolves or dogs, but with long necks, they moved quickly forward, darting from hummock to hummock. Their pelts were the same gray green of the hillside, except near their haunches where she saw white and black. No, the green was clothing, jackets. Johanna was in shock, the pressure of the bolt through her chest not yet registering as pain. She had been thrown back against uptilted turf and for the moment had a view of the whole attack. She saw more arrows rise up, dark lines floating in the sky. She could see the archers now. More dogs! They moved in packs. It took two of them to use a bow – one to hold it and one to draw. The third and fourth carried quivers of arrows and just seemed to watch.

It sounds like a confused and unlikely mess, but Vinge absolutely pulls it off. He conjures up a vast, complicated and ancient web of civilisations of which we form just a tiny part and then focuses in on a handful of characters – human and alien – because he never forgets that however large the canvas it’s the small lives upon it which actually matter.

On the Tines’ planet the arrival of the aliens is both opportunity and potential disaster. It turns a cold war between two feudal powers hot, as each tries to capitalise on their access to the crashed aliens and their technology. Much of the pleasure of the book comes from exploring the nature of the Tines, with the peculiarities of their psychology and the advantages and limitations of their pack nature all being convincing and well explored.

The human survivors on the Tines’ world find themselves enmeshed in medieval power-politics of a type utterly unfamiliar to them, struggling both to adapt to a species never before encountered and to the precarious nature of their own position. Their rescuers have their own internal issues, none of them really being suited to a task of the magnitude that’s fallen to them, and come to find themselves the McGuffin in a competition between rival fleets each capable of annihilating planets. It’s the small scale and the large again, the epic giving that sense of wonder but the personal giving it all a point.

Vinge combines all this with a nice (though now a bit dated) satirical edge in that due to bandwidth issues the various aliens of the galaxy communicate via something suspiciously similar to Usenet. Like any social media it’s full of inaccuracies, errors and downright lies. The story is interspersed with posts on the galactic net – some well informed, some malicious, some downright clueless.

In the end though if you read this sort of novel it’s for the sheer imaginative splendour of it all. That feeling of a universe that is deeper and richer and older than we can imagine. A universe where there is wonder. It’s basically escapist, but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional escape.

Our current understanding, which looks extremely unlikely to be overturned, is that faster than light travel is in fact impossible. Coupled with that is the fact that we’ve been staring out into the dark for a while now and the universe is notable primarily for its utter silence. If there’s anybody out there they seem to be very far away and not particularly chatty.

Still, if we can take pleasure from multi-generational Irish family sagas with abusive uncles and judgemental priests; from Brooklyn authors struggling with the meaning of their very comfortable lives; from tales of failing marriages, mid-life crises and murders; why not too from aliens and civilisations as unlikely as they are splendid? If you’ve no love for SF this book won’t change your mind, but if you do it’s a lot of fun.

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Filed under Science Fiction, Vinge, Vernor