Category Archives: 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.

15 Comments

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

Ansige unreeled the tale of his tribulations, thoroughly ransacking the truth and then dipping into the bag of embellishment and sprinkling with a free hand.

Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord

‘I’m Giana. What’s your name?’

The djombi thought, shrugged and replied, ‘When I am without a shadow, I may be called Constancy-in-Adversity, though others who see me differently have sometimes named me Senseless-Resignation-to-Suffering. I am a small thing, as you can see, but my mother says I am quite powerful in my own way.’

Giana nodded. The names were too large and the concepts too weighty for her to grasp, but the last she could understand. Mothers tended to say things like that, usually just before sending you to the well to fetch water.

RiI

Paama has just left her husband, Ansige, and returned to her home village. She can’t be blamed. Ansige is a foolish glutton. He isn’t a bad man, but he is selfish and silly and his appetite is endless. Paama is a well regarded cook, but Ansige cares more for volume than quality so even that merit of hers is wasted on him.

Ansige and Paama and all humanity’s struggles are watched by the djombi: spirits who are as old as the world itself though not unchanging. Among the djombi is the Indigo Lord, a powerful being that once acted as guide and guardian to mankind but which over the long millennia came to despise us and became our adversary. There are parallels to Lucifer in Western myth.

Now some of the djombi wish to humble the Indigo Lord and to curtail his power, and so they steal from him the Chaos Stick which gives its bearer the ability to control probability itself. They need to find someone who they can trust with such power and who will have the strength of character and the wisdom to wield it safely. They choose Paama.

Ansige is headed to Paama’s village to win her back, accompanied by a caravan full of food and his servants Rahid and Pei. If he gets to Paama too quickly she might not have the space to develop as she needs to for the djombi’s purposes. A trickster spirit in the form of a spider is sent to intervene…

First Rahid bought a drink for them both, and they grew more cheerful. Then Pei bought a drink for them both, and on that they grew indignant, telling tale after tale of the madness that was a man’s life in the service of Ansige. Then a third round arrived, and they did not know who was paying for it but when they looked around, there was a friendly-looking spider of more than average size who raised his glass cheerfully in their direction and indicated with a wave that they should go ahead and drink up on his behalf. Heartened by such a gesture of diplomacy from a representative of the animal kingdom, they toasted him gladly and resumed their tales of woe to each other.

The tale of Ansige the glutton is apparently taken from Senegalese folklore, though it’s only a springboard here for a wider story. The spider-spirit is never named as Anansi, the famous West African character with much in common with Brer Rabbit and Coyote and Bugs Bunny and all those other wonderful mythic tricksters, but it’s clear that’s who he’s based on. Here they mix with a range of other characters mortal and immortal, all of them larger than life and yet all of them still convincingly human (even the ones who aren’t).

What makes it all work is tone. The book is structured like a slightly rambling folk-tale, full of diversions and asides each of which ultimately casts light on the main story. The narrative voice is an opinionated character in its own right and the whole thing is shot through with a warm sense of compassion and humour. At times the narrator addresses the reader (listener?) directly:

I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase ‘I am a pawnbroker’ in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting.

There’s a marvellous mixing here of the ordinary and extraordinary. It’s not quite clear when the novel is set, because it could be set near any-time as befits a semi-fable. There are spirits, but they’re no more fantastic than Ansige and his incredible appetite. The concerns of the villagers are those anyone would have: love; family; what to do with your life.

I grew up to a degree with fantasy and genre fiction, and I’m used to it having a certain sort of protagonist. Young; highly skilled; dangerous to their foes; born to a vital destiny; male. It’s a tedious list. Paama isn’t particularly young, her main skill is her cooking, she has no destiny to speak of and she’s definitely not male. The Indigo Lord threatens her family to convince her to give him back the Chaos Stick and she immediately agrees – why should she endanger her sister’s life for some magical device she never asked for? It’s distinctly unheroic.

The Chaos Lord learns though that there’s a catch. Now Paama has the stick she can only relinquish it to someone she honestly believes deserves it more than she does, and however much she’s threatened she doesn’t believe an ageless demon-lord is a good choice for that kind of power. Reluctantly then he has to take her on a trip showing her why she should give him the stick, and that means for the first time in a very long time he has to get to know a human being. He is pride incarnate, but for once he can’t just demand what he wants and expect to get it.

Here he and Paama find themselves in a cafe, where Paama is surprised to find the Indigo Lord making time for a newspaper and slice of cake by way of a break in their journey.

While she ate, the djombi read from a newspaper and absently snacked on portions of her dessert, ‘just for the taste,’ he said.

‘Why do you read that? I thought that you knew everything,’ she asked.

He gave her one of his unfathomable blank looks. ‘I like to read the paper for the same reason that I like the occasional bit of food – to sample human tastes.’

‘I thought you despised us,’ she said quietly.

His hands squirmed on the folded newspaper. ‘Not despise – not all of human taste is abhorrent. There are bits that are enjoyable.’

‘Like chocolate cake and comic-strip humour?’ she murmured, eyes downcast, with mild sarcasm.

‘Are you eating that last piece of cake?’ he asked, unmoved by her criticism.

There’s no great surprise where the story goes, but there needn’t be as the pleasure here is all in the telling. This is a novel packed with vivid and enjoyable characters: Ansige; Paama; the Indigo Lord; the spider-trickster-spirit; later a hunter who can find any quarry and is hired by a convent of magical nuns to track down what’s happened to Paama. It sounds ludicrous, but then so do most myths and fables where gods wander the Earth disguised as shepherds and foxes on the road disguise themselves as the Buddha. Just because it couldn’t happen doesn’t mean it can’t be true.

Now for two incredibly minor and petty criticisms. Firstly, Karen Lord, cats can’t eat chocolate cake! Chocolate is poisonous to cats. Bad author, bad.

That will make no sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book, but there you go.

The second petty criticism is a formatting issue on the kindle version, which has Karen Lord’s (oddly boastful) bio almost immediately following the end with basically just a paragraph break between the two. That sounds like nothing, but what it meant was that I read straight on from the end and suddenly found myself without any warning in an author bio. The contrast jarred and was surprisingly damaging to the mood Lord had created to that point.

It’s curious how such a minor point of formatting can damage a book, but it did. Not seriously and if I were grading this on Amazon it wouldn’t change the score, but it was irritating and it was avoidable. It was the literary equivalent of going to a classical concert and having some boor shout “Bravo!” the very instant the final notes start fading in the air so that you lose the chance of a moment’s reflection.

As I said though, these are petty points and to end on them alone would be unfair to a charming novel. Redemption in Indigo is a delightful book awash with life and with the chaos of a world that even with undying spirits still looks very much like our own.

Other reviews

David of David’s Book World put me on to this. His characteristically fine review is here. I also found online this rather good review from Culturally Disorientated, a blog previously unknown to me, here.

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Filed under Fantasy Fiction, Lord, Karen, Science Fiction

It was the action of a shit, and Bobby wasn’t that, except that he was and apparently always had been.

9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Bobby Zha is a down-on-his-luck San Francisco cop, unpopular with his colleagues and the top brass but with a knack for the street which makes it just about worth their while keeping him in the job. He’s divorced and his teenage daughter barely talks to him. Doesn’t sound original does it?

Don’t worry though, because within about 30 pages Bobby Zha will be gunned down in a deserted alley with his partner suddenly nowhere to be seen. Bobby’s been set up. As he lies there dying he sees standing over him the Jinwei hu, the celestial fox of Chinese folklore that his grandfather used to tell him about:

The fox was pure white and carried its tale high and curled like flame over its back. Its eyes were red as coals, fierce with anger. White canines showed on either side of its mouth.

Bobby, an atheist who’s long since run out of good reasons for living, finds “the appearance of the celestial fox far more shocking than the thought of his death.” Getting killed in the line of duty is a risk of the job. Seeing a celestial fox though? That’s just plain strange.

9tail-fox_1_med_hr

Bobby wakes up, which he wasn’t expecting. Even more unexpected is that he doesn’t find himself recovering from being shot or in some undreamt of afterlife. Instead, he finds himself in the body of coma victim Robert Vanberg who’s spent the last twenty years a vegetable in a New York private clinic. Fortunately for Bobby, Vanberg has access to a substantial trust fund and before too long he’s on a plane back to San Francisco to investigate his own murder.

Grimwood sets up expectations of a science-fiction explanation early with an intercalary chapter set in 1942 Stalingrad (inserted between the early chapters where Bobby is Bobby and the later ones where Bobby’s come back as Vanberg). In that a boy assists a Russian scientist experimenting with keeping heads alive separate to their bodies, and before his death Bobby was investigating a shooting at the home of an aged Russian scientist. Could the technology have advanced over the intervening decades? Has someone for some reason has transplanted Bobby’s memories and personality from one body to another?

Perhaps, but none of that explains the fox, nor does any of it explain the faint psychic abilities Bobby seems to have picked up since his death. Now, when he touches someone, he gets a sense of their character and even some of their memories. Perhaps it’s just intuition, perhaps it’s something more.

We’re talking genre mashup, or perhaps it would be better to say genre fusion. 9Tail Fox has elements of police procedural and hardboiled detective story combined with science fiction or supernatural thriller (but the reader can’t be sure which). Cleverly, Bobby’s ignorance of how he ended up in Vanberg’s body is matched by the reader’s uncertainty as to whether the explanation will be technology or magic.

This isn’t my first Grimwood, though it is my first since starting this blog. I’m used to him being strong on description, on a very concrete sense of place (even where the place is one he’s made up), and this is no exception:

The building which gave the quay its name had been elegant and even beautiful, in a strict utilitarian sort of way, with half pillars flanking its doorways and art deco plaster work framing each window. But someone had kicked holds in a wall painted to look like stone, leaving a savage wound now colonised by pigeons, who cocked their heads and stared suspiciously at the three men stood in front of them.

More interesting though is the character study. Bobby starts out something of a cliché, but that’s in part because that’s the role he’s cast himself in. Now he’s been recast. Bobby was overweight, something of a slob, ethnically half-Chinese and not particularly attractive. Vanberg by contrast is younger (he went into the coma aged only eight), good-looking, white, and very rich. Bobby’s moved race, class and income bracket, and people treat him very differently as a result.

Not being dead is only Bobby’s first big surprise. His second is learning what people really thought about him.

Bobby put two fingers of whisky in a glass and splashed with water from a carafe. ‘Here.’
‘Pour one for yourself,’ said Bea. ‘While I deal with the curtains …’
She paused. ‘Did you really know Sergeant Zha?’
‘Yeah,’ said Bobby. ‘Pretty well.’
‘What did you think of him?’ Curtains done, Be a flopped into a chair to take off her shoes, flashing stocking as she did so.
‘He was okay,’ said Bobby finally.
Bea tossed her shoes onto a carved table. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Believe me, he was a shit.’ They sat in silence after that, Beatrice slowly sipped her whisky into ice and emptiness, while Bobby thought about what she’d said and the viciousness with which she said it.
‘What kind of shit?’ he asked eventually.

Bobby thought of himself as a man who bent the rules. He learns that others just thought he was corrupt. He thought he had a special knack for dealing with kids and the homeless. That bit’s true, but he didn’t know he was widely considered incompetent at pretty much everything else. He thought he’d caught some bad breaks over the years. He didn’t realise that for everyone around him he was the bad break. He thought his daughter hated him. It turns out she was about the only person who didn’t.

The investigation itself is classic crime novel stuff. Bobby pokes his nose where it’s not invited, asks unwelcome questions and uses his inside knowledge of his own death to suggest he knows more than he does. He knows for example that his partner was there when he died, but nobody else does as his partner’s report said that Bobby had gone out on his own. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

At the same time, Bobby enjoys his new body and sudden wealth. He sleeps with a variety of women who wouldn’t have looked twice at him before, including a policewoman assigned as his liaison officer who he realises (slightly too late to avoid hurting her) wants something more serious than a one-night-stand. Old Bobby, and for a while new Bobby, would have cared more about what he wanted than the consequences his actions have for others. New Bobby has a chance to be a better man and that may be more important than finding his own killer.

9TailFox raises some interesting questions about outsider status and social hierarchies, with people who should know better deferring to Bobby now he’s rich and white in a way they never would have back when he was just himself. Ultimately though, this is not a philosophical novel. It’s a hardboiled body-swapping murder mystery with enough depth to avoid it being disposable but not so much as to make it indigestible. I should probably read one of the five or so novels he’s written after this one…

Missed references

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably mention that not having read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margherita (shameful I know) I completely missed the significance of a character being named Persikov and the inclusion of a black cat named Lucifer. There may well have been other references, but if there were and if they had any deeper significance I have no idea. I only picked up on the connection at all because Grimwood mentions it in the afterword, though possibly the book being dedicated to Bulgakov should have been a clue. So it goes.

Other reviews

None in the usual blogs I frequent, but there’s a good review at the Strange Horizons website here and one by Paul Kincaid here.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Grimwood, Jon Courtenay, Hardboiled, Science Fiction

ancient cans rusted thin as old leaves

Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson

Mona Lisa Overdrive is the third book in Gibson’s famous “Sprawl” trilogy, following up on the extraordinary Neuromancer and his somewhat less successful Count Zero.

The key problem with Count Zero is that it’s very much the middle book of a trilogy. The plot doesn’t stand on its own feet, leaving much of what’s going on to be explained or resolved in the next novel. It’s still a mostly rewarding read, but it’s not a standalone work and on its own doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

Mona Lisa Overdrive provides the resolution that Count Zero lacked, and more than that it makes the whole trilogy greater than any of its individual parts. I still remember being blown away by it when I first read it, and reading it fresh now almost 30 years later I’m still impressed.

mona_lisa_overdrive

The story is set some years since the events of Count Zero, which itself was a few years on from Neuromancer. The book opens with Kumiko, daughter to a Yakuza boss, being sent to London for her own safety. Technology has advanced and she now has an AI in a pocket device, a combination of local guide, adviser and security software. She runs into Sally Shears, who readers recognise as being Molly from Neuromancer now under a new name but just as deadly as ever.

Back in the US a young prostitute named Mona with a marked resemblance to major star Angie Mitchell (from Count Zero) has attracted the attention of some very dangerous and very rich people. Her pimp thinks that this is his shot at making some serious money and plans to trade Mona for a seat at the big table. Mona doesn’t know much, but she knows better than that. When big fish take an interest in little fish, the little fish tend to get eaten.

Angie herself is in rehab. She and Bobby Newmark (Count Zero) are no longer together, and she’s isolated in a world of luxury and people more concerned with her bankability than her welfare. She finds the drug she’s recovering from hidden where she’d be sure to find it, raising a question as to who might want her not to get clean. Angie starts to get concerned that she might be more valuable as a malleable addict than as a free agent with a clear head.

Finally, Slick Henry is a brain-damaged sculptor living in a contemporary wasteland of disused factories and abandoned industrial waste named Dog Solitude. He gets paid by local hood Kid Afrika to look after a seemingly unconscious man on life-support who’s hooked up to some new type of cyberdrive. Slick could use the money and he owes Kid a favour, but nobody would hide in Dog Solitude without some very good reason.

That’s four fairly meaty plot-strands, and every one of them comes with a web of supporting characters, antagonists and chance encounters. It’s a densely packed book. Gibson has to progress every one of those stories, bring them ultimately together and make sense of the previous two books. He pulls it off in just over 300 pages. Neal Stephenson and David Mitchell could take a lesson here.

In Neuromancer and Count Zero Gibson focused largely on characters who were outsiders – professional criminals, small-time chancers and has-beens hoping for a comeback. What they had in common was that whether they knew it or not they were largely caught up in other people’s schemes. They were protagonists, but they weren’t the ones actually driving the story.

He largely continues with that approach here, though with some modifications. Angie is the first viewpoint character who’s already at the top, not trying to reach it (or get back to it). Kumiko is essentially a very rich schoolgirl, albeit one born into an organised crime family. Mona and Slick also depart a little from the Gibson mould to date, with neither of them having any significantly greater ambition than not to be drawn into the book’s plot.

Put simply, over the course of the trilogy you can see Gibson expanding his range. Where in Neuromancer everyone is essentially a player, by Count Zero we have everything from international stars to cheap hookers. It’s a much more varied character palette. I don’t want however to oversell this point. Gibson has a greater range of characters, but none of them are particularly deep or nuanced. There simply isn’t space. Gibson is a writer of impressions, not details.

One problem with writing a review over a month after reading the book is that while it’s easy to remember plot and character it’s much harder to remember subtler elements such as themes. To an extent though that perhaps also reflects the fact that Mona Lisa is less interested in exploring issues of dehumanisation and how the rich and poor may as well be different species than it is in bringing the trilogy to a satisfactory conclusion. Gibson is still writing about the intersection of money and the street, but that’s a continuation of an overarching theme rather than the introduction of anything new (and arguably a strand running through his broader body of work).

Mona Lisa then is a novel for the existing fan. That doesn’t make it bad – I happen to think it’s very good – but it assumes you’ve already bought into Gibson’s world. It’s a wrapping up, not an opening out.

Gibson remains a brilliant conjurer of the detritus of modern industrial society. The title of this piece comes from the middle of a descriptive passage and seemed to me a quintessentially Gibsonian line. Similarly, this quote for me couldn’t come from any other writer:

Slick spent the night on a piece of gnawed gray foam under a workbench on Factory’s ground floor, wrapped in a noisy sheet of bubble-packing that stank of free monomers.

It’s not a Gibson novel if nobody’s sleeping on foam. It’s a sentence however which is classically Gibsonian not just in having a foam bed, but more to the point in its evocation of a whole world from an imagistic handful of details. It’s easy to see what Gibson’s describing, but more than that you can also feel it, hear it and smell it. Gibson is able to pack a tremendous amount of sensory noise into a very small space.

That, perhaps, is why his futures convince even though the details are nonsense. It’s because they feel lived in, and because they feel messy and full of people making do the best they can to get by. Here newspapers are distributed by fax which leads to huge piles of discarded fax paper, which is used by the poor as free insulation or bedding. It’s in one sense an incredibly dated idea. Here in 2015 writing this I can’t recall when I last saw a fax. It feels real though, because it fits with the world we do know. I travel to work on a tube train filled with discarded free newspapers which get collected up by the homeless to line their sleeping bags. The details are different, but the imagined future is still surprisingly prescient because it was really a mirror of the present.

Interestingly, where the book dates most isn’t the bizarre ideas of how computers work or the omnipresent fax paper but the descriptions of London and the Portobello Road. I grew up within a short walk of Portobello, and it’s oddly nostalgic to see Kumiko visiting markets I remember from childhood that have long since been priced out of what is now one of the most expensive parts of London.

Gibson didn’t predict the gentrification of the Ladbroke Grove area, which is fair enough because he’s not in the prediction business. He wouldn’t have been surprised by it though, because if there’s one thing Gibson does understand it’s what it feels like to have your face pressed up against the glass with people who have everything just on the other side and never giving you a single thought.

She remembered Cleveland, ordinary kind of day before it was time to get working, sitting up in Lanette’s, looking at a magazine. Found this picture of Angie laughing in a restaurant with some other people, everybody pretty but beyond that it was like they had this glow, not really in the photograph but it was there anyway, something you could feel. Look, she said to Lanette, showing her the picture, they got this glow.

It’s called money, Lanette said.

The Sprawl trilogy remains one of my favourite trilogies in fiction. As a whole, it’s a landmark piece of SF and it’s no surprise to me at all that it remains readily in print. This was perhaps my third rereading over the years, and I can’t rule out there won’t be more. Gibson’s future remains relevant because we are part of it, because we always were part of it. SF futures are often a refracted present, but rarely so much so as here.

Other reviews

None I’m aware of from any of the blogs I regularly follow, but please feel free to link me to some in the comments if you know of any particularly interesting ones.

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She is so terribly afraid of me.

Margaret and I, by Kate Wilhelm

Joachim Boaz of the rather wonderful retro SF blog (with a strong focus on literary and slipstream SF among other things) Science Fiction and other Suspect Ruminations has been hosting a series of guest reviews of works by feminist SF author Kate Wilhelm. Joachim kindly invited me to take part, and my review of her highly original Margaret and I is here.

MargaretandI

Margaret and I is the story of a woman’s sexual and psychological self-realisation, but told from the perspective of her unconscious mind (the “I” of the title). Here’s a quote, to illustrate what I mean:

Margaret was too tired to think, too tired to care that the house was wrapped in dust covers from end to end. I had her pull the sheets from the furniture and toss them in a corner; if she had no curiosity about the house, I did. I got her started on unpacking the groceries and through her eyes I examined the kitchen; As she put things away I wondered about the house, about Josie, why she had left it like this; I wondered about Bennett, what he was doing, and what Margaret would do next I didn’t care a lot I am interested, but don’t really care, unless she begins to go the route of drugs. I keep her away from them, when I can.

And here’s a quote from Margaret’s husband, which neatly illustrates some of the novel’s other key themes:

My God, you’ve got everything a woman could ask for. Money, position, a faithful husband, security, freedom to come and go as you choose…. What more do you want?”

Thanks to Joachim for pointing me to an interesting book I probably wouldn’t otherwise have even heard about, let alone read. By the way, even if you don’t read SF there’s a lot of good stuff at Joachim’s blog if you have an interest in experimental fiction under his “avant-garde” tag (Anna Kavan’s Ice for example).

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“It is difficult,” the slime mold thought morosely, to no one in particular, “to please Terran girls.”

Clans of the Alphane moon, by Philip K. Dick

Any book that features a telepathic yellow Ganymedean slime mold as a major character can’t be all bad, even if that book does show a frankly creepy interest in its female characters’ breasts.

Clans

Philip K. Dick has won a certain critical acclaim in recent years, with readers who wouldn’t normally look at SF being aware at the very least of his most acclaimed titles. Dick though was prolific. Sure, there was Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (best title ever?) and the other big hitters, but there was also a ton of pulp SF.

Our Friends from Frolix 8 (another great title). The World Jones Made. A Maze of Death. Clans of the Alphane Moon. None of them first rank Dick, certainly none of them literary Dick, but each of them a solid piece of classic SF.

Chuck Rittersdorf is in the process of being divorced by his wife, Mary, a famed marriage counsellor. Mary’s frustration with his lack of ambition has been building for years, and she’s enacting her revenge by taking so much of his money in the settlement that he’ll be forced to go for a higher paid job just so he can pay her alimony.

Gleefully she placed the last sweater in the suitcase, closed it, and with a rapid turn of her fingers, locked it tight. Poor Chuck, she said to herself, you don’t stand a chance, once I get you into court. You’ll never know what hit you; you’ll be paying out for the rest of your life. As long as you live, darling, you’ll never really be free of me; it’ll always cost you something. She began, with care, to fold her many dresses, packing them into the large trunk with the special hangers. It will cost you, she said to herself, more than you can afford to pay.

Mary is, unfortunately, one of the most sexist depictions of a female character I’ve read in years. There’s a lot to like in this book, some great ideas and a lot of nicely done comedy, but its treatment of women is actively unpleasant. Every female character description includes noting what her breasts look like, it’s dressed up in terms of some future fashion involving nipple dilation but it’s blatantly just something Dick is fixated on. The only woman to have any agency as a character is Mary, and she’s a self-deluding shrew. I don’t defend any of this. If you read this book you read it despite its monumental sexism. I don’t think that means it shouldn’t be read, because there are a lot of great ideas here, you just have to wade through some crap to get to them.

Chuck, the hapless husband, writes dialogue for CIA propaganda robots. He’s good at it, with a keen eye for comedy that gets the targets listening. His wife wants him to work as a scriptwriter for famous comedian Bunny Hentman (real name Lionsblood Regal, he had to tone it down, “who goes into show biz calling himself Lionsblood Regal?”). Bunny would pay a lot more than the CIA, but Chuck enjoys his work and likes being a public servant. If he’s going to meet his alimony though he’ll need more than a government paycheck.

Meanwhile, in the Centauri system, a psychiatric colony abandoned 25 years ago after a disastrous war has evolved its own unique culture. Now Mary has been appointed as one of the crew sent to reestablish contact, to provide aid to the profoundly mentally ill colonists, and of course to take it back under Earth control. They claim it’s a mission of mercy, but it’s colonialism plain and simple.

In the colony meanwhile, they’ve adapted and without anyone there to tell them they’re broken they’ve created a functional society.  They’ve built cities, with the population of each sharing a common mental illness.

The Pares live in Adolfville, where they develop new strategies and technologies to protect themselves against their many presumed enemies. The Manses live in Da Vinci Heights, making new breakthroughs in art and science in a frenzy of enthusiasm, each of which they rapidly bore of. The Skitzes have Joan d’Arc, where they have ecstatic visions of a greater reality and act as poets and priests to the others. The Heebs have Ghanditown, a disorganised hovel where they eschew ambition and materiality and slip slowly into catatonia. There’s the Polys, from Hamlet Hamlet, who remain childlike for life, imaginative dreamers but impractical. The Ob-Coms run the administration, making sure everything works. Finally the Deps dwell in “endless dark gloom” in Cotton Mathers Estates.

The colonists have a council with a representative from each city, and the opening scene of the book where Gabriel Baines, the Pare representative, attends the council meeting is brilliantly funny. Gabriel doesn’t just walk in of course, he first sends in a robot double to check for traps. Once inside he changes seat, argues with the Manse representative, is frustrated by the Heeb who spends much of the time sweeping the floor, and waits impatiently for the Skitz who finally shows up floating in through the window.

They’re meeting because Manse telescopes have picked up the ship from Earth, and they’re wondering how to defend themselves. The Earth ship says it’s come to help them, but as one of its crew notes: “Those people in Adolfville may be legally and clinically insane, but they’re not stupid”.

In large part this is a satire on the artificial boundaries between sanity and insanity. The colonists may not have the greatest society in history, but the one back on Earth doesn’t look so hot either. When someone observes “Frankly, we feel there’s nothing more potentially explosive than a society in which psychotics dominate, define the values, control the means of communication.” they’re talking about the colonists, but as reader you can’t help feeling Dick’s talking about his contemporary America.

There’s some lovely irony as the people on the ship, the sane ones, justify to themselves what’s essentially an act of unprovoked aggression on their part. Here Mary briefs the rest of the crew:

Our presence here will accelerate the hallucinating tendency; we have to face that and be prepared. And the hallucination will take the form of seeing us as elements of dire menace; we, our ship, will literally be viewed—I don’t mean interpreted, I mean actually perceived—as threatening. What they undoubtedly will see in us is an invading spearhead that intends to overthrow their society, make it a satellite of our own.”

“But that’s true. We intend to take the leadership out of their hands, place them back where they were twenty-five years ago. Patients in enforced hospitalization circumstances—in other words, captivity.”

It was a good point. But not quite good enough. She said, “There is a distinction you’re not making; it’s a slender one, but vital. We will be attempting therapy of these people, trying to put them actually in the position which, by accident, they now improperly hold. If our program is successful they will govern themselves, as legitimate settlers on this moon, eventually. First a few, then more and more of them. This is not a form of captivity—even if they imagine it is. The moment any person on this moon is free of psychosis, is capable of viewing reality without the distortion of projection—”

“Do you think it’ll be possible to persuade these people voluntarily to resume their hospitalized status?”

“No,” Mary said. “We’ll have to bring force to bear on them; with the possible exception of a few Heebs we’re going to have to take out commitment papers for an entire planet.” She corrected herself, “Or rather moon.”

I’ve barely touched here on the plot. Chuck tries to kill himself, but is interrupted by his next door neighbour, a telepathic slime mold from Ganymede (“I had planned to borrow a cup of yogurt culture from you, but in view of your preoccupation it seems an insulting request.”) With the Ganymedean as unlikely mentor he decides instead to remote control a propaganda robot on Mary’s ship to murder her, figuring he can blame it on the colonists. Can the colonists defeat the Earth ship? Can Chuck and Mary reconcile their differences? Are the CIA right that Bunny Hentman is really a spy for blind alien insects? If you want to know the answers, you’ll have to read it to find out.

I’ll end with one final quote. I’ve chosen this one because it illustrates why despite the appalling sexism I still rather like this book. Here the council is voting on a plan that might just save them all:

When the total vote had been verified everyone but Dino Watters, the miserable Dep, turned out to have declared in the affirmative.

“What was wrong with you?” Gabriel Baines asked the Dep curiously.

In his hollow, despairing voice the Dep answered, “I think it’s hopeless. The Terran warships are too close. The Manses’ shield just can’t last that long. Or else we won’t be able to contact Hentman’s ship. Something will go wrong, and then the Terrans will decimate us.” He added, “And in addition I’ve been having stomach pains ever since we originally convened; I think I’ve got cancer.”

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, though I’m sure there are some. There’s a great piece here in the Guardian though by writer Sandra Newman which uses Clans as an example of how some old-school SF could be at the same time wildly inventive and wildly offensive, and how perhaps both qualities arose out of the genre’s lack of literary credibility and so the lack of any need to pander to any expectations of good taste or convention. It’s a good article, and even if you never read the book I think her argument is still worth considering.

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“The log has gone away.”

The Inheritors, by William Golding

The Inheritors is a hard book to describe, and in particular it’s hard to describe without making it sound forbidding or pointless. It’s the story of a small group of neanderthals facing extinction as they encounter their nemesis, us. That’s potentially interesting, but not so much so that I’d want to read the book for that alone. What’s really interesting here is the use Golding makes here of language to take us into the minds and experiences of creatures almost, but not quite, like us.

golding-inheritors

The people are a small tribe of neanderthals. They believe they are all the people in the world, which of course is itself an indication that they must already be fairly near extinction. There aren’t many of them: Mal the old man who is their leader; Ha who is brave and will be leader when Mal dies; Lok who is the protagonist and is something of a happy-go-lucky idiot, dim even by the undemanding standards of these Neanderthals; Fa who is a fiercely intelligent (for a neanderthal) and independent minded young woman; a young mother and the “young one”, a baby which clings to the fur of her neck as they travel; Liku, a small and inquisitive child; and the “old woman” who keeps the tribe’s fire in a clay container and acts as their priestess.

The reason I just listed out all the characters is very simple. A month after reading this I can still remember each of them by name, with the exception of the young mother. I can bring them instantly to mind as people, as personalities, distinct and alive. It’s a remarkable feat of characterisation. Golding can make a semi-sentient caveman alive in a way most writers struggle to achieve for a contemporary character of a sort I might actually meet.

The people do not experience themselves as separate to the world, they do not see human and animal as fundamentally separate categories. To them the whole world is alive, their perspective essentially animist. When they move to their summer territory and find a rock they had left in a cave there Ha comments that it is a good rock, because it has stayed in place. In Biblical terms they are of the creation, not set above it or apart from it. They are pre-lapsarian.

The people were silent. Life was fulfilled, there was no need to look farther for food, tomorrow was secure and the day after that so remote that no one would bother to think of it. Life was exquisitely allayed hunger.

When the people have a memory they wish to share, or are imagining something not present or in the future, they are incredibly literal about it. “I have a picture” they declare, holding their hands on their heads to indicate where the picture is. Lok only ever has the one picture, of how he found a tree-root that looks a bit like a person and which is now Liku’s favourite (only) toy. As I said he’s not the brightest.

The end of the world, of their world, when it comes arrives suddenly and without explanation. It is literally beyond their understanding. It starts with something small, a log they use each year to cross a deep river is missing, moved, but who could have moved it? There is after all only the people. It’s a foretaste of the damage we will do. Someone, one of us, has passed by and changed the environment without any awareness of the possible harm. Now the people have to cross the freezing cold river without the log, Mal falls in and the chill he receives will be the death of him. Already we’re killing them and we don’t even know they’re there yet.

Soon the people realise that they’re not alone, there are new people, others. The others do not live within the world as the people do. They change it. In a key piece of symbolism (flagged in the excellent foreword, so I can’t claim my own insight here) the others haul their canoes up the waterfall that exists in the summer territory, going literally against the current. They control the world, impose their own rules upon it. Separate to the world as they are though they don’t instinctively understand it as the people do. What they don’t understand they fear, and what they fear they hate. They don’t understand the people.

Although the book has a classic objective narrative voice, much of it is described from the level of the neanderthals’ own understanding and perspective. That makes something of a detective of the reader, partly as sometimes you have to work out aspects of their religious and cultural life which they reference but never examine (they’re not an introspective lot), but also as the book progresses as you have to work out what’s actually happening when they themselves don’t understand it.

Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of the screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again. The dead tree by Lok’s ear acquired a voice. “Clop!” His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other, and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat. This twig had a white bone at the end. There were hooks in the bone and sticky brown stuff hung in the crooks. His nose examined this stuff and did not like it.

It can take a moment to realise that what’s happened is the other has fired an arrow at Lok. It’s incomprehensible on two levels, firstly because Lok can’t imagine a bow and arrow or how they’d work, but secondly and just as importantly because from Lok’s perspective there is absolutely no reason for the other to wish to harm him.

The neanderthals’ world is brilliantly evoked. They live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, largely subsisting on berries and the occasional scavenged meat left after a predator kill (they don’t hunt animals themselves, and appear to have religious objections to killing, the existence of which must mean that the idea of killing is not unfamiliar to them). They rely almost as much on smell as sight, and among the many mysteries the new people present is how they seem blind to the scent-traces they leave behind them. The people fear water because they cannot swim, value fire because while they can tend it they cannot make it. They have religion, burial practices, segregation of roles by gender, a whole world of culture and significance all of which persuades and all of which is utterly doomed.

In a way The Inheritors becomes a parable of the fall of man. The people exist in the garden, in a state of innocence. The others as Lok observes (referring to the waterfall rather than the bible, but I think Golding’s meaning is pretty clear), “are a people of the fall; nothing stands against them.” At one point Lok and Fa spy on the others, see them getting drunk (the people have no concept of brewing); fighting among themselves (the people have no concept of that either); see one man’s mate slip behind a tree to have sex with his rival. They see sin, but being themselves not fallen aren’t tainted by it, not that that will save them.

The Inheritors is an extraordinary and exceptional novel. It presents challenges, particularly as it can take a while to get into the people’s mindset and very different way of seeing the world. Early on there’s a fairly ill-judged episode where Lok falls from a cliff, barely catching on to some roots to save himself, for reasons he doesn’t understand. It’s an utterly confusing passage not just in terms of why it happened but even what exactly happens, the reader sharing Lok’s utter bafflement (I reread it three times then just gave up and moved on). Interestingly, the foreword notes that Golding’s wife advised him to change that section as it would confuse readers. He didn’t, perhaps because he wanted the reader to share Lok’s confusion, but she was right.

Once you get past those initial difficulties though the rest of the book immerses you in a perspective that is alien but always consistent. Golding creates a new world through language. It’s a dazzling example of what literature is capable of, making us see the world through different eyes and in doing so see ourselves anew.

Other reviews

The only one I’m aware of on the blogosphere is the one that first got me interested in the book, and that’s John Self’s review at The Asylum, here. He covers some aspects of the book I didn’t touch on above (there’s a lot in this one and not all the points fitted well with what I wanted most to talk about). I completely recommend and agree with his review.

There’s also a great review here by the marvellous Penelope Lively in the Guardian. The Lively review contains some fairly hefty spoilers, but since the neanderthals aren’t still with us (save perhaps traces of them in our genes) it’s pretty obvious right from the beginning how this one ends so even if you normally avoid them I don’t think spoilers are much of an issue with this book.

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‘I must not say: “Would you like a hand relief?”’

The Holy Machine, by Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett’s latest novel, Dark Eden, won the 2013 Arthur C Clarke award, generally a good guide to what’s interesting in contemporary SF. It’s also attracted a fair bit of attention on the blogosphere, including from reviewers who don’t typically read the genre. Long before that though came Chris Beckett’s interesting 2004 debut novel, The Holy Machine.

Perhaps I should start this story with my escape across the border in the company of a beautiful woman? Or I could begin with the image of myself picking up pieces of human flesh in a small room in a Greek taverna, retching and gagging as I wrapped them in a shirt and stuffed it into my suitcase. (That was a turning point. There’s no doubt about that.) Or, then again, it might be better to begin with something more spectacular, more panoramic: the Machine itself perhaps, the robot Messiah, preaching in Tirana to the faithful, tens of thousands of them clutching at its every word?

HolyMachine

The narrator is George Simling, a 22 year-old translator from a new Balkan state named Illyria. We’re a few decades in the future and the world has fallen into a fractured web of fundamentalist religious states following a sort of anti-enlightenment. Only Illyria still puts science ahead of faith, or ahead of religious faith anyway.

George Simling spends his days assisting trade discussions with Illyria’s fundamentalist neighbours. Every one of those neighbours despises Illyria as a haven for godless idolators bound for hell, but then Illyria despises them in turn for being blinded by dogmatism and superstition. Still, Illyria needs food and immigrant labour, and they need the high technology that only Illyria still produces. When did mutual hate ever stop business?

George’s lives with his mother, but she spends as much time as she can locked into a virtual environment from which she can shut out the frightening real world. His work isn’t interesting and he doesn’t have a girlfriend or much of a social life. He does though have Lucy, one of a new range of robots each of which is designed to look and feel exactly like a human being. Lucy is beautiful and charming and available for hire by the lonely for an affordable hourly price.

Lucy is programmed to learn from experience so that she can better please her customers, but learning is double-edged. Lucy, like others in her range, starts to show signs of developing behaviours that weren’t planned for. The machine starts to develop a ghost:

Swallow. Make random choice from post-oral option sequence OS{O-78}/7: caress.

NB: Attention! Subject pushes hand away. Switch to option sequence OS{A-01}/4.

Remark: ‘Would you like me to get you a drink or something?’

But who is this voice? Who is it that speaks these words?

NB: Attention! Subject getting dressed very quickly. Facial reading: FM-77/09/z5. Agitation.

Interpretation: Do not impede departure! This is situation PV-82! Adopt abbreviated closure option sequence from OS{AC} series…

Smile (type 3 [V73]). Remark (R-8812): Hope that felt good. ‘Hope to see you again soon, dear.’

Illyria passes a law requiring that the new robots’ personalities be wiped every six months to stop them getting too independent. For George this is devastating. He loves Lucy, or in any event loves her body and her flattering responses. He doesn’t want to lose her. Soon the two of them are on the run, and the only place to go is outside Illyria to religious states who if they realise what Lucy is will immediately destroy her as an abomination.

The novel’s setting is, let’s face it, pretty unlikely. It’s hard to imagine everywhere save one country becoming a religious dictatorship. It broadly works though because Beckett uses this world as a vehicle to explore questions of faith, of how we choose to give our lives meaning, and of the dangers of absolutism.

Illyria considers itself to be rational, but is becoming increasingly intolerant and autocratic (it follows a rather aggressive Dawkins-esque approach to atheism). Religious faith is seen as dangerous (which to be fair it is given how the rest of the world has gone) and it’s increasingly important to be unquestioningly loyal and right-thinking.

More than twenty thousand guestworkers had come out onto the streets. They had demanded the usual things: religious freedom and full citizenship of Illyria, where they formed the majority of the population but continued to be treated as foreigners. The police had ordered the demonstration to disperse under the Prevention of Bigotry Act.

Prior to his flight George finds himself involved with a dissident group through a young woman named Marija who seems potentially attracted to him, but a relationship with a robot programmed to please you is easier than one with a woman full of human complexities. It’s one of many ironies in this novel.

George feels out of place in Illyria with its relentless certainty and increasing atomism. He sympathises with those seeking religious freedom, freedom of thought, though that becomes a little trickier once it becomes clearer to him what they actually believe (another irony):

‘Let me get this straight! You’re saying that what happens to me for the rest of eternity all hinges on whether or not I believe that certain specific events took place back in the days of the Roman Empire? That’s – what? – more than twice as long ago as the Norman conquest of England?!’ Janine nodded serenely.

Lucy meanwhile, given room to grow, becomes increasingly what frightened George in Marija – a person existing independently of his needs and desires. This leads to much of the book’s comedy as Lucy tries to understand the world using the skills and conversation given to her, and to question her own nature:

‘I… am… a machine. I know I am a machine,’ she began. And then: ‘Maybe you’d like me to dress up as a treat. What about my red stockings? You know how you like me to…’

George wants to give Lucy the opportunity to truly become herself, because he loves her, but the more Lucy develops the more it’s evident his project is utterly misconceived. What George loves is a physical form and some programming designed to appeal to young men like him. In the novel’s ultimate irony it becomes apparent that what George loves isn’t Lucy at all. Lucy isn’t a woman, Lucy isn’t even human. Lucy is a machine, an it, and it begins to become more interested in questions of existence and meaning than pleasing George. It becomes an ontological, theological, machine. The more George succeeds, the less Lucy is what he wants her to be.

Lucy then is a machine that seems human, but isn’t. George’s mother is a human who wants to leave her flesh behind and to exist within a machine. The faithful believe in souls separate to bodies, and in their own ways both Lucy and George’s mother are trying to transcend the bodies they were given. George wants to save Lucy, or more accurately to save his idea of Lucy. Lucy wants to be itself and to understand why it exists. Everyone is struggling with faith in one form or other, and with the collision of belief and inconvenient fact.

The Holy Machine is very much a novel of ideas, and that’s both its strength and weakness. There’s plenty of adventure here: both before the flight as George gets involved with increasingly extremist groups; and once George is on the run as he tries to present the dangerously innocent (but seductive) Lucy as his wife to those they encounter. That though is the sugar which helps the philosophical medicine go down, and perhaps fittingly the result is a rather cerebral novel where Beckett’s real interest seems less in what happens to his characters as in the arguments and positions they represent.

I’ll end with one final quote, chosen partly because it illustrates the issues the novel explores and partly because it rather resonated with me:

But there is one problem about being religious. You are taught that the supernatural exists – miracles, angels, the resurrection of the dead – but for some reason it always seems to happen off stage, either somewhere else, or somewhen long ago. You actually have to live in exactly the same boringly unsupernatural world as do the unbelievers. It must be hard work believing in things which never actually happen.

So I don’t think it’s surprising that religious folk sometimes erupt in excitement over a statue that appears to weep, or a fish whose lateral markings spell out the Arabic letters for ‘God is great’, or an oil-stain on a garage forecourt that resembles the Virgin Mary…

For another view of The Holy Machine I can’t do better than point to David Hebblethwaite’s review here, which also links to several other fine reviews. If you’ve been tempted by Beckett this isn’t a bad place to start. It’s an interesting and intelligent book even if perhaps sometimes a little too prone to infodumps and a slight obviousness in its themes. It’s easy though to draw analogies on a number of fronts with our own world, not least that what’s best and most challenging in other people is the fact they exist beyond our ideas of them.

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Filed under Beckett, Chris, Science Fiction

The television’s caffeinated universe kept unfolding

Nod, by Adrian Barnes

As I write this I have a fairly grim cold and haven’t slept properly in days. The result is I feel slightly distanced from the world, as if I’m seeing it through thick glass, and generally I feel rather disaffected and unpleasant. Normally I wouldn’t write a review when feeling like that, but in the case of Nod it seems almost fitting because this is after all a novel about an insomniac apocalypse.

Nod

Paul is a middling-successful writer. He specialises in unusual etymology, writing books about archaic or obscure words and their meanings. He lives with his wife Tanya in Vancouver. They have a decent and fairly typical life, not rich but doing ok. Then, one night, Paul goes to sleep and when he wakes up in the morning he finds Tanya irritable because she couldn’t sleep and the world irrevocably changed.

It soon becomes apparent that almost the entire human race had a night without sleep. Experts debate possible causes on rolling 24-hour news channels; people are frightened and cranky. It’s not until the second sleepless night that it starts to become obvious that what’s happening is effectively the end of the world.

A week without sleep and psychosis sets in. A month without sleep and you die. That’s not just in the book by the way; the exact timings may be off but we really do need sleep to maintain sanity and ultimately health. I’ve had a couple of nights with just my sleep being interrupted, and I already feel dreadful (it is just a cold though in case anyone is worried, I’ll be fine in a day or so).

Society starts to fray at the edges. Exhausted and desperate people start to turn on each other as they face a destruction that’s oddly intimate yet near-universal.

All the nicely-printed shelf tags had been pulled off and prices written directly on the goods in red felt pen. They were now roughly triple what they’d been two days ago. At least capitalism was still alive and functioning properly. The thought of that invisible hand still busily bitch-slapping the poor and desperate was almost reassuring. After all, in order to muster up the will to profiteer, one needs to be able to envision a future in which to spend one’s ill-gotten gains.

Coming out of the store I saw that the line had now swelled to a couple of thousand panicky people who were surging forward against the line of soldiers. Something ugly was going to happen soon. An idea had to be growing in that massive line up: why pay when every defenseless person leaving the store with an armful of groceries is a sort of walking Food Bank?

What follows is an increasingly grim tale as everyone around Paul, including Tanya, falls into madness and terror. Those who still sleep get called “Sleepers” by those who can’t. They become the target of strange obsessions, schemes to somehow steal the secret of sleep from them, resentment and violence.

Paul is fixated on by a homeless man named Charles that he used to know. Charles has somehow got hold of Paul’s latest still-unpublished manuscript, titled Nod, and has found in it a meaning for the chaos the world is slipping into. Charles believes that Paul is a prophet, that his “Nod” manuscript is an explanation, and that he Charles is the high priest of the message Paul has brought the world. Soon others gather behind Charles’ message of salvation through lack of sleep. Tanya meanwhile starts to try to prepare for her own decline, while Paul steadfastly ignores the evident horror of their situation.

‘I think it’s time we started planning for what comes next.’ ‘Why don’t we just go to sleep?’ ‘I’m not going to sleep, Paul.’ I heard myself begin to whine. ‘You don’t know that. That’s just something out of a movie. Doomed people in movies always have this sad foreknowledge of what’s coming down the pike. But that’s just Hollywood bullshit melodrama. You don’t know you’re not going to sleep.’

Nod is not a novel to read if you require sympathetic protagonists. Paul is, quite simply, a self-absorbed misanthrope. For him the end of the world is inconvenient and dangerous, but he’s not going to miss humanity much. Even Tanya’s situation he sees more in terms of how it impacts him than what it means for her.

Everybody dies eventually. So if eight billion of us die in the next four weeks is that significant? All this sleeplessness plague could do was align those billions of inevitable deaths into a slightly narrower window of time—a matter of efficiency, not tragedy. If, during any one of a million previous nights, a giant asteroid had smashed the earth into gravel while we all slept, would it have mattered?

All of that makes his in some respects not the best viewpoint to see the end of the world from. Partly because I don’t think many readers will find themselves hoping Paul somehow survives, but much more importantly because his dispassionate attitude makes Nod a slightly bloodless affair at times (metaphorically speaking, literally there’s plenty of blood before the book’s done). If those I loved were facing insanity and death I’d fall apart. Paul adapts, and in doing so some of the trauma of what’s happening is perhaps lost.

Nod was also heavily criticised by some reviewers for its attitude to women. Where you have a single narrative voice it’s of course very difficult to distinguish between the character’s attitudes and the author’s, but it’s fair to say that there are problems here. I thought Tanya an interesting and credible character, but this is a narrative where she suffers sexual humiliation twice, is used by Charles to attack Paul’s self-esteem, and generally where she never seems to do anything but instead merely comments on what others do. She is acted upon, but never seems herself to act, and the same could probably be said for other women in the novel. Anyone who actually does anything, however crazed it might be, is a man.

The cruelty to Tanya may of course just be more evidence of Paul’s general selfishness and his solipsistic attitudes to the people around him. When he and Tanya take in a child who still sleeps so as to protect it from the mob, he comments: “We called her Zoe, Tanya having plucked the name from a mental list of future-children names that women seem to carry around inside themselves like eggs. Women. Eggs in their bodies, babies in their eyes.” It’s a strikingly sexist viewpoint, but whether it’s Paul being Paul or symptomatic of a wider issue in how the novel treats women is to some extent up for argument.

Where Nod works well then is its portrait of a descent into a nightmare-world populaced by crazed people who know in their lucid moments that they’re doomed but who even so act as if there’s some purpose to their frenzy. Where it works less well is Paul’s almost-indifference to the events around him and his objectification of Tanya which because his is the only voice we hear becomes the novel’s objectification of Tanya.

Hints of a wider pattern (and perhaps purpose) do emerge. Paul realises that those who sleep aren’t immune at all to whatever’s happening, but are just responding differently. He and the other adult Sleepers have the same dream of a great golden light, and the urge to sleep grows stronger and the sleeps themselves longer and deeper, raising the possibility that one day they may simply stop waking up. Children who can still sleep are stranger yet, no longer speaking and taking to the nearby woods where they form small silent communities.

Humanity then isn’t so much being ended as being altered, and the suspicion grew in me that the adult Sleepers like Paul only existed so that someone could protect the child Sleepers from the increasingly dangerous sleepless psychotics. I was reminded in fact of Michael Bishop’s The Quickening which touches on similar territory (though I’ve no reason to believe Barnes has read it). That’s of course a reading of the novel as story rather than allegory, and I think it’s fairly clear Barnes intends it to work as both.

Nod is what Margaret Atwood might call speculative fiction. This isn’t a novel about how or why all this is happening – nobody Paul meets has the faintest clue about either. Instead this is a novel about people and ideas. Charles’ creation of a religion around Paul is an attempt to wrest meaning from chaos, with Charles finding himself in the process transformed from an outcast to a leader. Paul finds himself on the receiving end of objectification, his own lack of faith in Charles’ credo an inconvenience. There’s nothing more dangerous to a new faith than an off-message messiah.

Perception and interpretation are key here. As people become increasingly gripped by hallucinations those who offer simple explanations of the world become dangerously attractive. In one scene a group watch the skies where they have collectively persuaded themselves they can see angels flying overhead, then someone suggests that in fact they’re demons and the crowd disintegrates in terror. Anyone who stands up offering certainty can form their own petty empire, granted power by people who’ve outsourced critical thinking. It’s hard not to see all that as a commentary on our own comfortably pre-apocalyptic world.

What underlines the arbitrariness of it all is a realisation Paul has relatively late. For him he’s at the centre of it all, the new faith is formed around his word and everything that happens seems to be focused on him. He would think that though, because for Paul the world was always all about him.

It suddenly struck me that not everyone left alive even knew about Nod. Holy shit, I thought, almost no one knew about Nod. The vast majority of the Awakened were living in nameless kingdoms of their own terrified devising, and now they were ranged all around us, trembling and grinding their teeth.

Everything we read is in fact a tiny drama in a global ruin. Paul for a while sees his conflict with Charles as important, but it’s only important to them. His manuscript and the new faith it spawns are relevant to perhaps a few hundred people at most out of billions. What seems to him and Charles central to it all is in fact a side story, and perhaps there are only side stories.

That brings me back to Nod as commentary. Paul sees what happens to him as meaningful, but in the wider sense it plainly isn’t. Charles seizes power when the world falls apart, but it’s incredibly local power and he’ll still be dead within the month. The world of Nod is one filled with people with no sense of context, who think their struggles significant and their victories important but who in the blink of an eye will be lost in an ocean of endless incident.

In real life too we invest meaning in our dramas and our politics and of course we’re right to do so, a change of administration may make real differences to real lives, but step back a moment and most things that seem important either aren’t at all or are important just to us personally or locally, not on any wider level. We live amidst an epidemic of voices shouting at us from all sides, distracted by flickering images only a pixel deep,. Whatever signal there may be out there it quickly gets lost in the noise.

In the end, ironically or intentionally, Tanya has the right of it. She’s the only one who understands that what really matters isn’t the wider meaning and potential of the new world, but how it impacts her and Paul personally and their life together. It’s Tanya who sees that it’s important to protect Zoe, looking past her own descent into madness, degradation and death. Of course making Tanya’s concerns domestic is itself problematic from a gender politics perspective, save perhaps (only perhaps) for the fact that on this occasion she’s so plainly right.

Nod appeared on the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award shortlist, where it was a controversial nominee due to what many saw as its deep-rooted sexism (and with some also just thinking it wasn’t very good). The objections to it were made if anything more pointed by the fact 2013 saw a male-only nominee list, which stood out given how many excellent female SF authors there are.

Unsurprisingly then, Nod was widely reviewed. I’d point particularly to this review by David Hebbelthwaite who is probably my go-to person for quality SF recommendations (and beyond, David doesn’t just read SF by any means). Also on the positive side is this review by Nina Allen, which I thought nicely captured the core allegory of the novel (“What Barnes seems to be saying, put most simply, is: ‘wake up!’”).

On the negative side I’d flag this review by the always perceptive Niall Harrison who absolutely slates the book in a single paragraph (“the reading experience is just limply unpleasant”) and this excellent review by Abigail Nussbaum. Abigail was I thought particularly good on the gender-issues of the book (though I disagree that the book has an incoherent cosmology, I think the lack of coherence is intentional and reflects Paul’s own limits as narrator and a wider point about the partiality of every perspective).

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Filed under Barnes, Adrian, Science Fiction