Category Archives: Science Fiction

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

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.

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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.

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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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Filed under Gibson, William, Science Fiction

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.

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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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Filed under Science Fiction, Wilhelm, Kate

“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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Filed under Dick, Philip K, Science Fiction

“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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Filed under Golding, William, Science Fiction