Saturday, 7 December 2013

Jack Womack – Random Acts Of Senseless Violence (1993)

“Lookabout people. Beef me overlong and I groundbound you express. Down down down you go down and I be bottomed out set to catch. Snatch your whispers and tape what plays then hit rewind and scream you to sleep, siren you ass and then ex you proper. Lookabout all you. Spec your mirror and there I be. Crazy evilness be my design if that’s what needs wearing. All people herebound be evil-souled heartside, no ho they sweet talk. Shove do push and push do shove and everybody in this world leave lovelost hereafter. Lookabout. Chase me if you want. Funnyface me if you keen but mark this when I go chasing I go catching. Eye cautious when you step out people cause I be running streetwild come nightside and nobody safes when I ride. I bite. Can’t cut me now. Can’t fuck me now. Can’t hurt me now. No more. No more.”

‘Random Acts Of Senseless Violence’ is the most brutal, the most disturbingly prescient and the downright best work of dystopian fiction I’ve read in a while. It’s a great piece of writing, imbued with enjoyable future slang. It’s also a reminder of what a powerful tool SF can be to engage with issues in the real world. Although it was written in the 90s and is clearly – vividly – set in a pre-gentrification New York, its setting of a world where capitalism in hyperdrive has lead to economic and social collapse is distressingly familiar.    
   Our viewpoint into this world is Lola Hart, a smart and level-headed 12 year old girl in a lower middle class family who receives a diary for her birthday. Due to an increased difficulty in finding jobs in their own field and escalating debt, her family is forced to move from their nice middle class house to a poorer area. What follows is a process of education and transformation, as Lola discovers just how sheltered her life has been up until this point, and that she needs to adapt to her new surroundings in order to survive. News events previously confined to the TV screen, such as mass riots, feral gangs roaming the neighbourhood or the army occupying the streets, has become an unavoidable part of her daily life. Five presidents are assassinated in one year, the economic recession becomes so bad the government decides to print new denominations of money, and Lola’s parents are hopeless at saving money and supporting their children. While her father works himself to an early grave, her mother sedates herself and her sister withdraws, Lola adapts and survives.
   Womack uses the framing device of Lola’s diary very well. It’s a great way to really get inside the protagonist’s head, and you can mark her progress as her voice mutates from standard English bursting with enthusiasm and grammatical errors as you might expect from a child, to the hard future slang she learns off the street with her new friends. The future slang is so good I almost wish the whole book was written like this, in the manner of A Clockwork Orange or Riddley Walker, but the cumulative effect of experiencing the change is worth Womack opening the book normally. Too the point, choppy and violent, with a lot of plausible-deniability-providing passives for verbs, the slang actually tells you a fair bit about the people who use it, and is just a whole lot of fun. However the emotional range Womack is able to convey, with and without the slang, is what is truly impressive. By the book’s devastating ending, Lola sounds heartbreakingly world-weary for anyone, let alone a child of 12.
   ‘Random Acts Of Senseless Violence’ is also noticeable for its natural and positive portrayal of the lesbian relationship between Lola and her friend Izzy, and Izzy’s relationship with Jude. Izzy and Jude are African American girls around Lola’s age whose gang she falls in with when her family moves. Their friendship and relationship is never portrayed as anything other than loving and supportive, and they are engaging and well-rounded characters in their own right. Womack also deftly subverts any snobbery, having them reveal just how smart and ambitious they are in a game of make believe that echoes one played with Lola’s public school friends at the beginning of the novel. Lola’s old friends come off as petty, pampered and narrow-minded by comparison.
   It is impossible to talk about this book without mentioning Womack’s Manhattan. The city is evoked as vividly and as graphically as Delany’s Bellona, yet any mythic allure is utterly seeped in griminess and seediness. I cannot think of any other novel, let alone SF novel, that so intentionally drags the reader down the roughest of back alleys to expose the heart of corruption. This is beautifully reflected in the world of politics, the conniving politicians, and the implied arranged assassinations. The sleaze of late Rome is conjured up by how the succession of forgettable presidents, king for a day, step up to power and profess to be sorry about the death of their predecessor and exert ever more insane and draconian laws, like so many rival gangsters in The Pit.
   Lola needs to be adaptable in order to survive the book. Over the course of the narrative Womack really puts her through the shredder. Her father dies, cutting off the family’s main source of income to boot, her mother becomes increasingly ill, her sister is put into the care of her horrid, snobby aunt Chrissie and Lola’s increasingly erratic behaviour drives Izzy away from her and back into Jude’s arms. As she says, “The world brutalizes however you live it whatever you do.” Her adaptability allows her to continue to survive despite all this, but at the cost of her previous identity. Ultimately there has to be a line somewhere. Jude and Izzy understand this because they grew up with the street, Lola is new to it so she has a harder time appreciating it. Hence how the ‘random senselessness’ comes into it; Jude and Izzy are frequently violent, but always for a reason. They steal but they dupe rather than bludgeon the victim, they take revenge for transgressions against them but it has to be personal and the other person has to understand why it is you are doing this to them. To be more than the dreaded DCons, the bogey men of this world, you have to be able to rationalise your actions. In times of chaos that line is even more important, and Lola crosses it when she brutally murders her dad’s old boss. Womack plays a nice sleight of hand here, because the boss really is an odious little shit and you are gunning for Lola to take her revenge, but when her friends call her out for it you realise basically they’re right. Lola has broken the code of the street, so she must become an outcast. The book ends where it does because she recognises this and actively casts off her diary, the last vestige of her old personality. 

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Gene Wolfe – Peace (1975)

“...that is to say, in all of this, I think, I believe in some sense much akin to the belief of faith, that I noticed, felt, or underwent what I describe – but it may be that the only reason childhood memories act on us so strongly is that, being the most remote we possess, they are the worst remembered and so offer the least resistance to that process by which we mold them nearer and nearer to an ideal which is fundamentally artistic, or at least nonfactual; so it may be that some of these events I describe never occurred at all, but only should have, and that others had not the shades and flavours – for example, of jealousy or antiquity or shame – that I have later unconsciously chosen to give them...”

Gene Wolfe is a notoriously slippery author, and ‘Peace’ may just be his most slippery work. In SF and Fantasy we are so used to the unquestionable authoritative voice, whether the competent, level headed first person or the infallible omniscient narrator. Gene Wolfe’s work works completely differently. His narrators, like Severian in The Book Of The New Sun, or Alden Dennis Weer in ‘Peace’, often explicitly announce their own unreliability fairly early on in the text, leaving the reader to puzzle out from inferences what actually is going on. But whereas in The Book Of The New Sun, for all its ambiguities, features lots of plot and action, ‘Peace’ is a much more unconventional work which is much less tied to SF and Fantasy traditions and tropes.
   ‘Peace’ takes the form of the memoirs of Alden Dennis Weer’s early years, growing up as a child in a sleepy Midwestern town and eventually becoming the wealthy president of an orange juice production plant. Weer’s narrative voice reveals him to be affable and talkative, with a tendency to talk around big events and an almost Ronny Corbit-esque talent for going off on diversions. ‘Peace’ features many nested stories, as Weer recounts tales told to him as a child, and one of the themes of the book is why we tell stories, and in particular why Weer himself tells, but never finishes, so many of them. Stories act both as a way we make sense of the world around us, and as a form of escapism. The stories Weer heard as a boy shaped the man he was to become, but now that he is an embittered old man, the unfinished stories represent both his desire for escape and his own frustrated potential.
   ‘Peace’ could just about pass as the incredibly well-written ramblings of a dying man, but this is still Gene Wolfe we’re talking about. There is something sinister on the margins of these pastoral reminiscences that’s actually kind of difficult to pinpoint. Weer is quite happy to insinuate romantic relationships with a whole host of young, attractive women, but he stops shy of saying it in black and white. Early on in the book, Weer tells us that one of his childhood friends died young, and it is only from details eked out later on that you discover that the friend was killed in an accident involving Weer. Mention of the boy disappears from the text soon after. In much the same way, characters appear, interact with Weer until he uncovers some deep truth in them, then disappear from the narrative until Weer casually mentions that they died some time back. You can’t help wondering if he killed them all. This also brings out a meta aspect of Wolfe’s text. The author exerts a god like power over the characters in their story, in effect killing them when they are dropped by the main thread of the narrative; being figments of the author’s imagination, without the oxygen of the author’s attention they cease to exist.
   This is accentuated by the warping effect Weer has on the text. Does he have magical powers, or is he delusional? Either way it shapes the story he tells us, as he believes he can travel back to other points in his life to talk to characters who have long since passed away. When Weer catches the bookstore owner Mr Gold forging books, Mr Gold explains that when he forges an ancient text, reality reshapes itself around it to accommodate it. Rumours spread, and memory is more malleable and suggestible than we give it credit for, and so something that never existed becomes part of history. Multiple characters observe that history is merely biography, the selected and selective memoirs of the victors. Weer takes issue with both of these, and it’s ironic that he speaks for objective reality when these are the processes by which his story shapes what we perceive of his world.
   And then there is the central ontological uncertainty of Alden Dennis Weer himself. He tells us that he is recovering from a debilitating stroke. But the event that starts the book is an elm tree falling over. Perhaps not full of import in and of itself, but we hear later on that it is a local custom to plant trees on people’s graves, the weight on their chests prevents their spirits rising. Certainly a lot of the stories Weer relates are ghost stories, and he claims he once attempted necromancy. There are other hints too, in the way Weer moves listlessly from room to room in his abandoned old house, and the way his house seems to melt into all the different places he lived and worked, the way he keeps circling around the deaths of those he knew, his compulsion to relive his past. And if you look carefully at the language throughout, but especially in that opening paragraph:

“I was asleep and heard nothing, but from the number of shattered limbs and the size of the trunk there must have been a terrible crashing. I woke – I was sitting up in my bed before the fire – but by the time I was awake there was nothing to hear but the dripping of the melting snow and I was afraid I was going to have an attack, and then, fuzzily, thought that perhaps the heart attack had wakened me, and then that I might be dead.”

It is possible that Weer is a ghost, unaware that he has died, for his sins denied the eponymous peace. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Pat Murphy - The Falling Woman (1986)

"Do not look for revelations in the ancient ruins. You will find only what you bring: bits of memory, wisps of the past as thin as clouds in the summer, fragments of stone that are carved with symbols that sometimes make sense."

After however many reviews of effusive praise, here's a book I have mixed feelings about. This isn't going to be a hatchet job like my review of 'Tau Zero'; I actually very much enjoyed 'The Falling Woman'. It's a well written and engaging book with a well researched and fully realised setting in which rounded characters act, for the most part, in a believable way. So why the reservation? Well, 'The Falling Woman' is a book by a white person about Mayans. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but whenever one encounters something like this the warning lights begin to flash somewhere in the back of one's head. White people don't have a great track record of writing non-offensive stories about Native Americans, from the reductive and patronising portrayal of them as the noble savage in Pocahontas/Dances With Wolves/Avatar to the source of mystical evil in Poltergeist. Pat Murphy is clearly someone who's done her research; I felt I learned a fair bit about archaeology and Mayan civilisation reading this book, and she takes care to portray the Mayans as individual people and not a homogeneous mass. This only makes it all the more disappointing when the only Mayan main character winds up playing the role of the villain, and her role in the story, and that of the disappearance of the Mayan civilisation, is to act as a plot device to repair the mother-daughter relationship between the two white main characters. Problematic.
   Before I sink my claws in, I'd like to say a bit more about what was good about the book. 'The Falling Woman' follows archaeologist Elizabeth Butler, a woman who left her family behind to concentrate on her career, and Diane Butler, her estranged daughter, and Elizabeth's colleagues and students as they excavate a Mayan city in Yucatan. Elizabeth can see shadows of the past, which is no doubt useful for her job, but starts to become a problem when the shadow of a Mayan priest, Zuhuy-kak, begins talking back and tells her that the goddess requires a sacrifice from her. Last time the cycle of the goddess came around, Zuhuy-kak sacrificed her own daughter...
   As you can imagine, writing Elizabeth Butler is quite the balancing act and something the author handles remarkably well for the most part. The simplest explanation is that Liz Butler is suffering from schizophrenia, but the book presents all her encounters with the past as natural and believable. For the most part she comes across as a prickly, fiercely independent woman who is a bit too wrapped up in her job. The book intelligently considers that what may be seen as madness in one context - for example, human sacrifice as practiced by the Maya - is seen as part of everyday life in another, and Liz is an example of this, a woman who never wanted to settle down and have a family but was coerced into it by the pressures of society, at great damage to herself. In a way, she has already sacrificed her daughter by abandoning her to be brought up by her father alone, which makes it all the more important that she doesn't sacrifice her a second time.
   Diane Butler herself is another compelling character, forced to the brink by her father's death and beginning to inherit her mother's visions, afraid that she is going insane. The building of bridges between her and her distant mother, as they slowly come to understand and like each other better, is well done and genuinely quite moving.
     Right, now that's done, scalpels out.  'The Falling Woman' recalls Michael Bishop's 'No Enemy But Time', which is another book about the past encroaching on the present. However 'No Enemy But Time' benefits from having a more racially diverse protagonist than the whiter than white leads in 'The Falling Woman'. 'No Enemy But Time' emphasises the similarities between ourselves and the Homo habilis that the protagonist spends time with, forms friendships and eventually a fulfilling relationship with; whilst in 'The Falling Woman' the Maya wind up being a threatening other.

On reflection, the better book

   For the little its worth, Zuhuy-kak initially appears as well drawn and ultimately sympathetic, and her point about her and Liz Butler being quite similar in their own way is well taken. However her reduction to cackling villainous joke by the end of the book is unwarranted and unpleasant. After the book has spent all this time trying to demystify the Mayan religion, it seems counter productive to have ghosts screaming for blood. Throughout the book, Mayans are referred to as Indians by professional archaeologists, who should know better. The curse of being a ghost is to lack your own agency, to be stuck outside looking in on the world of the living, only able to influence receptive people. The Maya as a whole are reduced to this in the book, a colourful backdrop for the story of the white protagonists to work out their issues against. So however much I enjoyed Pat Murphy's evocative writing, the book wound up leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

John Crowley – The Deep (1975)

“Crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude, of joy or pain he couldn’t tell, for of course they all smiled with teeth. Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance.”

In ‘The Deep’, as much as in ‘Engine Summer’, John Crowley displays both his gift with beautiful prose as well as his empathy with everyday suffering. Which is not bad at all for a first novel. Where its political manipulations between multiple morally ambiguous sides anticipates George R R Martin’s ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’, while Martin delights in dreaming up new and inventive mental and physical punishment to destroy his characters’ lives, Crowley’s characters meet with simple, unglamourous deaths, frequently lost offscreen in the indiscriminate chaos of battle. All that’s left is the sadness of pointlessly wasted human life.
   I suspect you could argue long and pointlessly as to whether ‘The Deep’ is SF or Fantasy. It is set on a flat circular world that is supported on a giant pillar that rises out of the eponymous Deep, a void of nothingness that surrounds the world. The sun and numerous moons orbit around it, and an ancient beast known as Leviathan sleeps underneath the world, coiled around the pillar. So you have a premise not dissimilar to a severely warped Discworld or World Of Tiers, and indeed you might wonder what effect living on such a different world to ours would have on the people living on it. Well, the answer is perhaps less than you would think, seeing as the whole world is caught up in a viscous struggle for power that has been going on for time out of mind. You have your fairly standardish Fantasy set up, where the Folk, your average common people, are looked after – read exploited – by the Protectors, the landed gentry. The Protectors are divided into two factions, the Reds and the Blacks, who have been fighting each other for many generations. The knowledge in the world is controlled by the Grays, a brotherhood of priests and scholars, and just to confuse matters there is a group of freedom fighters called the Just, who see it as their task to assassinate everyone in the Protectors’ class to gain freedom for the Folk. Not that the vast majority of the Folk support their endeavours in any way. The neutral Endwives camp out near battles and clean up the mess, saving who they can.
   Much of ‘The Deep’ deals with the futility of war, the pointless and never ending cycle of revenge, betrayal and violence. The two sides are even named after chess pieces, suggesting how they are all reduced to pawns in someone else’s strategy, pieces on the board. Or perhaps checkers is the more apt metaphor, with everyone’s brilliant strategies shown to be so much hot wind. Much like a game, whoever is in the position of power seems to have absolutely no significance for anyone outside of the people playing. The most sympathetic Protector is the vaguely Ned Stark-ish Redhand, whose honour and general decency get him absolutely nowhere fast in this particular game. At least by the end of the book, there is a sense that everyone is sick and tired of war, and there is at least some kind of hope for a way out of the cycle of destruction.

Guess how many of these people are alive by the end of the book
 Into this confusion a Visitor is sent from beyond, a nameless being with silver skin and superhuman skin with a vitally important purpose to bring to the people, if only he could remember what it was. Due to his amnesia he starts the book as a wide-eyed blank slate, and is thrown right in the middle of the power struggle between the Reds and the Blacks, following a Red takeover from the Black king. Slowly we see him become wise in the ways of selfishness and deception as he learns more about the world he’s found himself in. The Visitor’s corruption is deftly handled. In his initial state, friendly, unthreatening and full of a hunger for knowledge, everyone he encounters finds him unsettling for these character traits as much as his bizarre appearance. Up until the moment where he takes action for himself, he is guarding the life of his friend.
   But it’s not just his surroundings influencing his behaviour; the call from his true purpose is too strong to ignore. And his change in behaviour is linked to what that purpose is. The Visitor is a messianic figure, sent from the heavens to redeem this poor war-torn realm. And to a certain extent that’s true. One of the characters spends a large chunk of the book trying to figure out an ancient riddle: if everyone has two parents and so four grandparents and so on all the way back up the line, how come the small world is not overcrowded? Where do they go? Well, of course, they die. The Visitor has been sent to facilitate this by being a bloodthirsty warrior, leading the world even further into mayhem, death and destruction in order to keep the population down.
   This is a brutal and shocking twist, and it gets right to the heart of what the book is about. Just because it is possible to imagine a higher power, should it exist there is no guarantee it would be the kind of higher power we’d like, or that its idea of our best interest would match ours. The world of ‘The Deep’ is ostensibly one where bad things happen on a regular basis, but it’s not in spite of God’s plan, but because this is God’s plan. When the Visitor, having travelled to the very edge of the world, summons Leviathan and speaks to it, he finds that the god-like being – it is never named explicitly – originally took mankind from another planet to this artificial world because people begged for a return to simpler times, without fully understanding what that wish meant. Eternal life as the perpetual motion of eternal struggle and strife. In ‘The Deep’, the covenant God made with humanity is simply a really bad bargain on humanity’s side. 

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Jonathan Carroll - The Land Of Laughs (1980)

"Reading a book, for me at least, is like travelling in someone else's world. If it's a good book, then you feel comfortable and yet anxious to see what's going to happen to you there, what'll be around the next corner. But if it's a lousy book, then it's like going through Secaucus, New Jersey - it smells and you wish you weren't there, but since you've started the trip, you roll up the windows and breathe through your mouth until you're done."

Notice how the dog has a human's shadow...

The act of writing is akin to that of creation. The author creates whole characters, settings, and if they write SF or Fantasy, whole worlds out of the ether. But because the writer is creating a work of fiction, and not living, breathing people, their responsibility to their art is somewhat different from, say, Dr Frankenstein's shunned responsibility to his monster. If the characters from A Song Of Ice And Fire were real people, we'd have to try George R R Martin for war crimes. In 'The Land Of Laughs', Jonathan Carroll explores the difference between these two responsibilities, and what would happen if they somehow started to merge.
   Schoolteacher Thomas Abbey's life is in a rut, so he decides to take a break from his work to write the biographer of his favourite author, Marshall France, legendary writer of children's books, with the help of his girlfriend Saxony. The arrive in the sleepy, idyllic small town of Galen, Missouri, the place where he wrote all his books, to try to convince France's notoriously difficult daughter Anna to give them permission. but as sleepy, idyllic small towns are wont to do, Galen has a dark secret at its heart. Almost all the inhabitants of the town are fictional characters brought to life by France's writing. France has absolute control over the large events in their lives - who they will marry, when they will die, what they like to eat, and anyone who leaves Galen for more than a week will die. France planned the lives of the townfolk up to the year 3000, but some years after the great man's death his powers are fading, events are no longer happening as he wrote and the people live in terror of simply winking out of existence one day. Anna France has been waiting for someone as obsessed with her late father as Thomas clearly is to come along and bring Marshall France literally back to life by writing his biography. But of course once he returns she will have little need of interlopers such as Thomas and Saxony.
   'The Land Of Laughs' is a powerful work about our relationship with fiction and how much we really want our fiction to be real. A fantasy novel is a particularly good choice of medium to explore this, as it's so frequently stereotyped as a genre of pure escapism. Marshall France is a children's author for precisely this reason, and it's no surprise that Thomas and Saxony were lonely, bookish children, due to Thomas' famous film star father Stephen Abbey and Saxony's childhood illness. We can extrapolate that Anna's childhood, with her famous father and surrounded by people she knew to be fictional, was probably similar. The characters' reading material, when they're not reading biographies to see how it's done, is almost exclusively children's classics or fantasy classics. Marshall France himself is compared to a cross between Lewis Carroll and Lord Dunsany. We also learn about Thomas and Saxony's world view from their other hobbies. Thomas collects masks, symbolising his unease with his own identity from living in the shadow of his famous father, and Saxony collects and makes marionettes, indicating her frustrated desire to exert control over both her destiny and her sickly body (she spends more time in hospital following their move to Galen, and the force of control France's power exerts over her to bring her back to Galen to get her to help Thomas finish the biography is by making her sick again).
   Thomas Abbey is the book's viewpoint character, and Carroll does an impressive job of keeping him utterly compelling yet thoroughly unlikable. Appropriately enough for a book that is about our childish impulse for escape, Thomas is childish and petulant. He treats Saxony like crap, patronising her, sulking when she talks back, and ultimately cheating on her with Anna after telling Anna that he does in fact love Saxony. However he is compelling because he has just enough awareness to realise how much of a jerk he is, yet his massive personality problems prevent him from ever actually doing anything about it. In the end, Thomas never outgrows his need for the two giant absent father figures in his life, Marshall France and Stephen Abbey. After successfully resurrecting France and going on the run after the Galeners kill Saxony, he starts writing his father's biography and summons his own father into existence. He has become the father to his own father figures.
   Although Thomas himself is too far caught up in his hero worship of France to every really turn against him, he does realise that what France has done is a terrible thing: he has brought these people into existence and denied them any free will or agency of their own. His attempts at providing for them are, in the end, just further control exerted over these people. The great Marshall France himself has the same childishness and selfishness displayed by Thomas, a desire to live in this imaginary world no matter the cost to others. Perhaps it is because in the end these two men are so similar that Thomas is able to inherit France's ability.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Joe Haldeman – The Forever War (1974)

“Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there... the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity. Or Buddhism. Or get drafted.”

‘The Forever War’ is at heart a war novel. Joe Haldeman had served in Vietnam and his experiences inform the book. The concept is pure hard SF worthy of Robert Heinlein or Larry Niven. Soldiers are conscripted to fight in an interstellar war. Because of relativity a few years passing for the soldiers means many decades passing back on earth, they return home to a world hopelessly alien to them that has forgotten all about them. The soldiers finding themselves lost and out of touch in a world that has drastically moved on without them is a powerful metaphor for the reception the soldiers returning home from Vietnam received in reality. The main weapon that the soldiers use to fight the hive-mind aliens is even powered armour, same as in Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’. But the two books could not be further apart. ‘The Forever War’ is about the horror and futility of war, and the senseless waste of lives lost and displaced that follow.
   The protagonist is William Mandella, one of a hundred strong and healthy young people with IQs above 150 called up to fight against a terrifying unknown alien threat that has been destroying Earth spaceships. From the beginning, Mandella is cynical about the army. He studied physics and was looking to go into teaching and has no desire to be in the army or fight in a war. Unlike the protagonist of ‘Starship Troopers’, who learns that the army is always right, Mandella’s experience is one of horror, pain and grief. There is an argument that any anti-war story has the problem that it is inherently glamourising war by turning it into entertainment, no matter what the ultimate message. ‘The Forever War’ uses this to its advantage by initially appearing to be a fun, Heinlein-esque space adventure yarn, in much the same way that William Goldings’ ‘Lord Of The Flies’ initially appears to be a Ballentyne-esque boys’ adventure before things start to go wrong. Mandella, with his high IQ, his easygoing competence and his laidback, wry tone, could easily be a Heinlein protagonist.
   The recruits start off their training on the moon, and then on the planet Charon, more than twice the distance from the sun as Pluto, to prepare them for the conditions of war in space. It doesn’t take long for things to start going wrong in these harsh conditions. The soldiers are warned that the slightest mistake in space can lead to their deaths, and many of them die messy, unglamourous deaths in training. Much of the novel’s power comes from the way Haldeman describes these deaths. The tone is achingly sad but never over the top, calm and without embellishment as Mandella describes truly horrific death. It effectively conveys the feeling of loss over this senseless waste of human life.
   Soon enough Mandella and the others are shipped off to the first confrontation with the Taurans, engaging in a series of bloody battles that most of them don’t survive. Mandella doesn’t relish killing other sentient beings, and survives more through luck rather than battle prowess, and the one battle that he does actually lead goes pretty poorly. Haldeman does a really good job of conveying the idea that war is not full of glorious victories and excitement, but long stretches of routine interrupted by moments of terror and violence. It’s another reason why ‘The Forever War’ is so crucial; it’s just about the only military SF book that’s not violently militaristic. The book is also sensibly cynical about both the military and the government. The army is not above implanting subconscious conditioning in the soldiers’ heads to make them better killers, without telling them. At the end it turns out that the Taurans had never known war until encountering humanity, and that the war had been started and prolonged by humans because the Earth economy needed a war to fuel it.
   On top of all this, ‘The Forever War’ is a deeply affecting love story. Mandella’s relationship with Marygay Potter, another soldier in his original company and the only one to survive as long as he does, is perfectly natural and believable. Throughout the novel they become more and more important to each other as they end up being their only remaining connection to the world they grew up in. I will admit to getting a bit emotional at the bits where he discovers her grievously injured in the acceleration shell, when they are separated again the final time they are ordered back into duty, and again at the end when he discovers that she has been waiting for him to return all this time.
   The message of ‘The Forever War’ about the human cost of war is always relevant, and it’s all the more important in a genre that frequently celebrates and glorifies violence. At a time when an adaptation of ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card is hitting the theatres, (a book that is well written but problematic before you even get to Card’s deeply unpleasant personal opinions), it’s clear that militaristic tendencies are still alive and well in the genre, and Haldeman’s deconstruction of those ideas remain just as powerful and moving as it must have been when it was first published.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go (2005)

"I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold on to each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it's just too much. The current's too strong. They've got to let go, drift apart. That's how I think it is with us. It's a shame, Kath, because we've loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can't stay together forever."

Did I mention I hate movie tie-in covers?
   The one thing that everybody knows about 'Never Let Me Go', that they're all clones created for the purpose of giving up their vital organs for medical treatments, isn't really a twist. So I don't feel bad for just spoiling it for you. Like all great SF, 'Never Let Me Go' uses its technological premise - in this case that human cloning was perfected shortly after World War II, and people have been raising clones in large numbers since then to provide back-up organs to normal people - to look at how it affects its characters. In this case our characters are Kathy H., Tommy and Ruth, three school friends who drifted apart as they got older. Only in this case, their nice public school is a rearing ground for expendable clones.
   Ishiguro's tone throughout is masterful. Kathy narrates the story of her and her friends' lives, as they go from school to becoming carers for clones undergoing surgery to going under the knives themselves, in a clear, conversational manner that is deceptively naive. The salient information is deftly parceled out; from the beginning the chilling euphemisms tip you off that something is wrong. The term 'donor' for clones giving up their organs so that other people can live is especially cruel, and tells you a lot about how people in this world view clones. At the end, when Kathy and Tommy find out that there is no escape from their fate of being butchered in their prime, they learn that their school Hailsham is notably more humane than the grim factories in which most clones are brought up.
   More than any other book, 'Never Let Me Go' reminds me of 'The Giver' by Lois Lowry. Both books feature a seemingly idyllic society that the children protagonists eventually discover is run on other people's pain and exclusion. Ishiguro and Lowry both get good mileage out of showing a young person's trust in the adult world around them shattered by brutal revelations of the harshness of reality. 'Never Let Me Go' really brings out the unfairness of the clones' situation. It is a powerful metaphor for disenfranchised peoples growing up in a world set against them from the beginning. Anyone reading the book, sharing Kathy's hopes and dreams as she grows up, will of course see her as a person with a soul, but in much the same way as everyone watching TNG knows Data has a soul it needn't mean that everyone else within that fictional universe would automatically feel the same way. We discover at the end that the reason Hailsham pupils were encourage to produce art that was taken away if it was any good was so that the teachers and administrators of Hailsham could have proof to show the outside world that the clones growing up there did have souls. In a particularly cruel twist the headmistress of Hailsham even admits to her former pupils that she had to repress her repulsion at them every day in order to spend time with them.
   But more than all of this, at its core 'Never Let Me Go' is a great love story. Kathy and Tommy are kept apart while they are growing up because their best friend Ruth is dating Tommy, but finally years later while Kathy is a carer and Tommy has already become a donor they are able to spend a short time together. The way Ishiguro slowly and subtly develops these two characters' feelings for each other is marvelously done, with everything only being made explicit very late on. Every beat, every development of their relationship rings true, so it is genuinely heartbreaking at the end when of course Tommy is called for his final donation and decides he would rather Kathy doesn't see him in his final stages of sickness and death. Kathy outlives her true love, but with the knowledge that soon she too will be called to give her first donation.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Robert A. Heinlein - Double Star (1956)

"Let us protect our own - but let us not be seduced by fear and hatred into foolish acts. The stars will never be won by little minds; we must be big as space itself."

It's not difficult to argue that Robert A. Heinlein was the greatest out of SF's Big Three. Out of him, Asimov and Clarke, only one of them was consistently able to write character and dialogue. He pioneered many of the subgenres and basic ideas of SF, and wrote great stories in the ones he didn't himself help to develop. So why have I read far more Clarke and Asimov than Heinlein? Michael Moorcock nails much of what makes me uncomfortable with the man's work far more eloquently than I ever could here. To illustrate from my experience, last year I read Heinlein's 'Have Spacesuit - Will Travel', one of his classic juveniles. It's a tremendously fun, fast-paced space adventure filled with well-drawn characters, inventive aliens and sound physics. So why didn't I like it? At the end, the Mother-Thing's race kill an entire planet-ful of aliens because they deem them dangerous and aggressive. They then put mankind on trial and decide that humans aren't quite dangerous and aggressive enough to warrant genociding them out of existence. Basically, I find this morally objectionable as well as wildly inconsistent. No one has the right to mete out judgement to other species, or rain down destruction on a less powerful people utterly unable to defend themselves against  you as punishment for aggression. I found the Mother-Thing's people to be smug and hypocritical, yet the narrative and the narrator side with them, and if you have a problem with that, or with the way that the alien aggressors' ugliness is treated as part and parcel of their villainy and why they deserve to be destroyed, Heinlein couldn't care less. Heinlein's strong, uncompromising attitude colours much of his more iconic work - like, say, Starship Troopers, even more so. This is, of course, Heinlein's prerogative and Heinlein's opinion, and I in no way deny his right to it, but it makes much of his work difficult for me to enjoy uncritically.
   So imagine my surprise on finding out that 'Double Star' finds Heinlein defending democracy and equality. (Mea cuplua - it's worth remembering that people you disagree with are as capable of complexity as anyone else). The premise of the novel - a sleazy out-of-work actor his hired to impersonate a politician - could be horrifically cynical, but it actually turns out to be the opposite. True, you have to find a super good reason to justify duping the public, but the book isn't really about that. It's about Lorenzo Smythe's transformation from a xenophobic, selfish and petty man into the genuinely honest, altruistic and thoroughly moral politician Bonforte.
   Many of Heinlein's characters are born special. Kip from 'Have Spacesuit - Will Travel' has his fair share of adversity to overcome in the shape of his poor background and unsympathetic surrounding community, but there's no question about his intelligence and courage, even before he discovers he's a kid genius and saves the world. Lorenzo Smythe is a more engaging protagonist because he has to overcome personal issues as well as situational difficulties. As he studies Bonforte through recordings of his life, speeches and beliefs, he comes to understand where the man's moral centre and convictions come from, and to cast of the shackles of his own prejudices. It is Lorenzo, not the real Bonforte, who makes the speech quoted at the top of the page. Like Bonforte, he comes to realise that in order to reach the stars, humanity is going to have to overcome its petty prejudices, and that it is imperative that humanity not turn the stars into yet another empire run on exploitation and human privilege.
   Heinlein's gift with characterisation and dialogue is in full swing here. The novel is told in first person from Lorenzo's point of view, and his crude, sarcastic and cynical voice is frequently hilarious and ultimately a very canny instrument with which to tell this particular story. His transformation is handled deftly and subtlety as his character changes and he adopts more and more of Bonforte's dignified tone. 'Double Star' is as breezy, fun and engaging as 'Have Spacesuit - Will Travel', but not only do I find its outlook more palatable, it is also an excellent character study.

K. W. Jeter – Infernal Devices (1987)

“I have seen the gears and furious machinery of the world that lies unreckoned beneath our feet. No longer can I note, as other men do, the passing hours upon the heavens’ gilded face, without a vision of a hidden master-spring uncoiling to its final silence. I await the day when all clocks shall stop, including the one that ticks within my breast. Do thou the same, Reader, and profit from my example.”

K. W. Jeter coined the term ‘steampunk’, somewhat in jest, to describe the warped alternate history Victorian feel of the books he, James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers were writing. Although the term has since taken on a life of its own, the books they were writing at the time – specifically ‘Homunculus’ and ‘Lord Kelvin’s Machine’ by Blaylock, ‘The Anubis Gates’ and ‘On Stranger Tides’ by Powers and ‘Morlock Night’ and ‘Infernal Devices’ by Jeter – retain a strange alchemical magic that sets them apart from everything that has come under the label since. Indeed, Jeter, Blaylock and Powers remain difficult to classify by any rubric, and despite being the forefathers of the genre all three of them have written a wide range of stories that cannot be so easily classified under steampunk or any other heading. While those core six books are a lot stranger than most steampunk fare, they also contain many of the key elements of the genre, most prominently the recognisable but noticeably alien Victorian (or thereabouts) London, and steam technology run amuck. Out of all of them, Jeter’s ‘Infernal Devices’ is the most quintessentially steampunk, and the one that pre-empts so much of what would come later. Despite similar ground being well trod since, the original retains much of its charm, and has enough characteristic Jeter weirdness to still surprise and entertain. Much criticism is justifiably thrown at steampunk that it glamourises the Victorian age whilst ignoring all the exploitation, jingoism and racism that fueled the British Empire. However, the original works by Jeter, Power and Blaylock avoid this pitfall due to their focus on poor, down and out and disenfranchised characters and their healthy cynicism towards the upper classes.
   ‘Infernal Devices’ is a rollicking adventure story about George Dower, the very normal son of a genius clockmaker and inventor, who manages to gets swept up in a plot to destroy the world, shenanigans with a clockwork double and petty criminals who can see the future, human-fish hybrids straight out of H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Out Of Innsmouth’, and an attempt to save a dying race of selkies. It’s written in convincing mock-Victorian style. Yet the reason it succeeds so well is because it questions the assumptions of the time it emulates. George Dower, our viewpoint character, maybe a model level-headed and morally upright English citizen, but he is almost Bertie Wooster-ish in his bumbling incompetence. He spends the whole book being manipulated by more savvy characters, and only really figures out what’s going on right at the end. The only lord in the book, Lord Bendray, is a dangerous lunatic bent on destroying the world, while the only other upperclass character is a well-intentioned extremist who spends most of the book trying to kill Dower for the greater good. Dower’s most trustworthy (well, it’s a relative term) companions wind up being a pair of petty criminals. Scape and Miss McThane may be confidence tricksters playing everyone for everything their worth, but they wind up being the most charming characters in the story, and are one of the few people who, for the most part, never wish Dower any harm and team up with him on several occasions. Their modern, slang-heavy speech, learned through hours spent looking into the future, offers a nice counterpoint to Dower’s formal old fashioned style.
   Crucially, ‘Infernal Devices’ doesn't shy away from either depicting the ingrained racism of the time or commenting on it. When the Brown Leather Man – actually the sole remaining selkie in an environmental suit – first pays Dower a visit and so sets the plot in motion, Dower’s butler mistakes him for a person of colour and makes some standardly racist assumptions – that the man is there to rob them, and is drunk – and is immediately deflated by Dower, who for all his daftness knows better than to stereotype people.
   ‘Infernal Devices’ also explores the environmental impact of the industrial age, another thing rarely given consideration in steampunk. The reason for the Brown Leather Man’s villainy is that the entire species of selkies save him have been wiped out because a seaweed harvesting device invented by Dower’s father destroyed their breeding ground. Like the classic scientific romances by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne it emulates – the final chapter is even titled ‘Mr. Dower Sees It Through’ in a blatant shout out and an echo of the same device in ‘Morlock Night’ – ‘Infernal Devices’ warns against science unchecked by morality. Dower senior is the very figure of scientific progress regardless of the cost – the doomsday device he built Lord Bendray actually works because the man was too arrogant to pass off a non-functioning piece of work even when scamming a delusional lord. It is this hubris that allows everything else in the plot, all the other characters’ various schemes, to take place. The old man’s folly is only prevented from destroying the world at the price of his son’s innocence. 

Sunday, 1 September 2013

David Gerrold - The Man Who Folded Himself (1972)

"I went back and talked myself out of eliminating Jesus Christ."

Not as cool as the original cover.
   Since H. G. Wells' 'The Time Machine', time travel has been an essential part of SF, but it's rarely thought through to any great extent, not even by TV shows that have time travel as part of the central conceit. Frequently little more than lip service is given to the mechanics of the process, the paradoxes that can result from it or the practical applications that it provides to those using it. I like to point to 'Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure' as a good example of time travel used well, as not only is the time travel in that film internally consistent, the heroes, for all their apparent idiocy, realise that because they can travel through time, there's no reason why they shouldn't make life easier for themselves by coming back later and leaving useful items in convenient places. Leaving aside the blatant missed opportunities, Michael Bishop points out in 'No Enemy But Time' that the problem with travelling back in time, say, to the Pleistocene era to make out with some hot Homo habilis, (read the book, this is exactly what happens), is not just the temporal difference - the Earth, Solar System and Milky Way itself have been moving for all those millions of years, winding up in a completely different relative position. 'The Man Who Folded Himself' by David Gerrold is one of the fullest, most complete explorations of time travel and its implications the genre has ever produced.
   In 'The Man Who Folded Himself', Daniel Eakins is left a belt and a document by his recently departed Uncle Jim. The document purports to be from an alternate version of himself, who received this belt in turn when his Uncle Jim died. The belt is a timebelt which allows him to travel to any set point in the past or future. Daniel proceeds to use this new found ability to cheat at the horse races to make money, see great historical events, and interact with past and future versions of himself, including having sex with both male and female versions of himself. In short, all the things you would probably do if you discovered you could travel through time.
Would that this belt were a timebelt!
   The time travel in 'The Man Who Folded Himself' is thought out to the last detail. Daniel sensibly does some experiments to determine how it works, to find out if he can change the past or not. He likens time travel to painting, and changing the past to going back and painting over a previous mistake - the artist knows the original mistake is there but just covered up, but no one else does. Ultimately he realises that each time he travels through time he is jumping to an alternate universe. This allows him to change events in this universe without affecting his origin in a different universe - he can go back in time and kill his great grandfather, but his great grandfather still existed in the universe that spawned him. It also provides a sensible rational for why someone would invent such a potentially dangerous device - all the malcontents who would wish to rewrite time to their advantage can cheerfully go and do so in some alternate universe, preserving the original. Daniel can always go back in time and stop himself from making some change by appearing to his past self before he makes the change and talking himself out of it. This transports both versions into new variant universes, and so means he can make changes like this without the fear of erasing this variant of himself from history.
   David Gerrold is probably most well known to SF fandom for writing one of the most iconic episodes of the original Star Trek, 'The Trouble With Tribbles'. After reading 'The Man Who Folded Himself', I think the most quintessentially Gerrold-ish part of the episode is where, after the fight breaks out between the crew of the Enterprise and the Klingons on Space Station K-7, Kirk interrogates his crew to find out what happened. What could be unspeakably tedious as we hear described exactly what we just witnessed instead becomes a deft piece of comedy as Kirk ekes out the truth from Scotty that the fight broke out not because the Klingons insulted Kirk but because they insulted his precious Enterprise. Gerrold here gets similar comic mileage through describing events from different perspectives, as Daniel interacts with his past and future selves, but at the same time he uses it to make serious points about the nature of perspective and the difficulty of communication between people. Even between different versions of himself, there is a gap between the intention and how it is received, as he finds different versions of himself naive or cocky.
   As well as being about time travel, 'The Man Who Folded Himself' is about individual people and what it means to be one. Daniel welcomes the opportunity to interact with another version of himself because he finds the strains of interacting with other people exhausting. I think we can all relate to this on some level. When he is with another version of himself, Daniel no longer has to worry about impressing the other person whether or not they like him, if what he says or does will be misinterpreted. However as the different versions of Daniel diverge and undergo different experiences, even though they started out as the same person they become different people. In effect, it's the things we experience and the things we do that make us who we are. Change this and you change the person. In this way, 'The Man Who Folded Himself' is a tribute to the almost infinite potential within each person.
   The book also explores just how complicated human sexuality is. 'The Man Who Folded Himself' was notable for its frank depiction of both homosexual and heterosexual sex, something the genre still to this day is not exactly well known for. It is not accurate to define Daniel as either purely straight or purely gay. As the different time-variants of Daniel branch out, some of them find happiness in relationships with other Daniels while some of them are ashamed by their attraction to other versions of themselves. The version of Daniel we follow through the main narrative finds sexual satisfaction both with the male Daniels and with a female time variant of himself, with whom he has a child.
   This child ultimately grows up to become Daniel, while Daniel himself becomes his own Uncle Jim, leaving the timebelt to himself as his own inheritance. Thus the circle is completed, Daniel's life is like the worm Ouroboros eating its own tale, with no beginning and no end.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Michael Moorcock – The Cornelius Chronicles (1969-1977)

“Jerry didn't mind the bombs as much as the rock scene. He wouldn't care what they sent so long as it wasn't Simon and Garfunkel.”

Jerry Cornelius is quite possibly the weirdest incarnation of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion. Jerry is an achingly cool secret agent assassin pansexual music snob who dies and comes back to life frequently. He's armed with supercool weapons like the needlegun and the vibragun, and he throws parties so cool that everyone from Elric to Charlie Parker to Hawkwind attends, (though no one leaves). While all incarnations of the Eternal Champion strive to restore the balance between the forces of order and chaos, Jerry is purely a force of chaos who is never happier than when tearing down empires, regimes and civilisations, or just generally running amok. All this is weird enough, but it doesn't cover the way in which the stories are told. Moorcock wrote the original four Cornelius novels at the height of the 60s counterculture and SF's bold and experimental New Wave, leading him to write a series firmly engaged with its turbulent time and enlivened by the avant-garde techniques of William Burroughs. Aside from the first book in the quartet, the Cornelius stories are told out of chronological order and interspersed with cut-up text from headlines, adverts and newspaper articles to emulate a true sense of chaos. But for all that, Moorcock's pulp instincts and his feel for a good story hold the whole thing together, creating one of those rare pieces of art that manages to be both boldly experimental and immediately engaging. Indeed, these four books may be the great man's crowning achievement.

The Final Programme (1969)

Amazingly, the actual book is arguably weirder than the cover. 

   'The Final Programme', the first Cornelius novel, is relatively straightforward. 'Relatively' being the operative word. When we are first introduced to Jerry Cornelius, he is scheming with a bunch of dubious characters to storm his father's house by sea where his brother, Frank, has holed up so he can steal back his sister and lover, Catherine, from him. This should appear familiar to fans of Moorcock's work, as it's basically the same plot as the first Elric novel. But it is far from simply being a retread. Whereas Elric has always been about moral ambiguity - Elric realises that a lot of the stuff he does simply isn't very pleasant, and boy does he angst about it - Jerry Cornelius is gleefully amoral. Even when he accidentally shoots and kills Catherine, as Elric does to his sister in 'The Dreaming City', he seems more sulky because he's lost this particular game rather than devastated by the death of his true love. 

Jerry, seen here Corneliusing
   Jerry's associates are lead by Mrs. Brunner, the ying to Jerry's yang, a Thatcher expy who represents order at its most fascistic and stiffing. She is hoping to use the technology designed by Cornelius' father to create a computer capable of running the ultimate programme that would be able to predict the fate of the earth and everyone in it to the smallest detail. On the promise of revenge, Jerry tags along with Miss Brunner to track down Frank through secret Nazi caves in Lapland to find a secret document left by Major Newman, an astronaut who allegedly gained some profound insight on a mission that went wrong. This of course Moorcock fans will recognise as a retelling of the Elric story 'While The Gods Laugh'. 

Pictured: cosmic illumination
   Like Elric and his sword Stormbringer, Jerry and Miss Brunner are suggested to be two halves of one whole. In much the same way as Elric draws energy from Stormbringer eating souls, Jerry is a kind of energy vampire who feeds off the life energy of those around him. But Jerry shows himself to be a very different kind of (anti-)hero to Elric. For much of the book he just coasts along; even the promise of revenge against Frank hardly seems to get his blood flowing, and he barely tries to stop Miss Brunner from completing her evil plan. In addition, unlike Elric, Jerry Cornelius likes sex. A lot. In addition to his incestuous relationship with Catherine, Jerry will and does sleep with anything that moves, male or female, allowing himself to be seduced as much as seducing. 
   In the end, Miss Brunner runs her final programme and has sex with Jerry, and the merge into the hermaphroditic being Cornelius Brunner, forming a kind of dark messiah that brings about the apocalypse by leading the whole of the human race into the sea to drown. Perhaps as chaos and order have been united in the perfect balance, there is nothing left for this universe. (This is the first book in a series).

The triumph of Cornelius Brunner
 A Cure For Cancer (1971)

"This book... has an unconventional structure."

   Jerry Cornelius returns in 'A Cure For Cancer', apparently none the worse for wear for merging with Miss Brunner and causing the apocalypse. Perhaps more than any other incarnation of the Eternal Champion, the Cornelius stories make full use of the concept of the multiverse - different alternate universes in which the same struggle between order and chaos is endlessly recapitulated. 'A Cure For Cancer' warns us at the beginning that it has an unconventional structure. While 'The Final Programme' is a linear story that, while weird, still holds together and makes narrative sense, the rest of the Cornelius Quartet from here on out is told out of chronological order, in a series of disjointed but related scenarios playing out in different times and in different universes, as characters representing larger concepts interact. We already have Jerry representing chaos and Miss Brunner and Frank representing the extremes of order, but 'Cancer' expands the Cornelius troop to include the greedy and lustful Bishop Beesley, who represents organised religion. 

Pictured: subtlety
   This time round, Jerry manifests as a photo negative version of himself from the previous novel - white hair and ink black skin and teeth. This Jerry is hardly a moral inversion of the old Jerry - he's just as amoral here as he ever was. This time he's searching for a device he invented that allow him to switch between universes - at the cost of absorbing life in this universe - in order to find a universe in which his beloved Catherine is still alive. 

   As well as facing off against Bishop Beesley, who wants to steal Jerry's device to create a universe of such pure order that time itself will stop, Jerry has to contend with the deranged military forces that Frank has allied himself to this time, militaristic psychopaths who have turned England into a battleground in order to wipe out what they see as some kind of ideological cancer. 'A Cure For Cancer' was written during the Vietnam war, but it's not hard to see how its satire remains pertinent today. 
   While the disjointed structure makes it difficult to figure out exactly what's going on, that's kind of the point. Here Moorcock is plunging us directly into the chaos, and his disruption of conventional narrative structure comes off as a masterstroke. The characters are well drawn enough and there is a consistent texture of atmosphere that the novel maintains its own momentum and is able to come together somewhat for its conclusion. While Jerry may be amoral, selfish and dangerous, he's a darn slight better than the forces he's up against. 

The English Assassin: A Romance Of Entropy (1972)

"As he had often suspected, the end had come quietly and the breakdown had been by slow degrees. In fact the breakdown was still going on. Superficially there was nothing urgent about it. As the weeks passed and communications and services slowly worsened, there always seemed to be a chance that things might improve. He knew they could not improve."

Ashes to ashes...
   Jerry Cornelius himself sits this one out for the most part, which is understandable as the guy's in something of a bad way, drudged up from the ocean floor or screaming incoherently. But that's OK because it gives us more time to focus on the supporting cast. Una Pearson, the suave female assassin who first appeared in the Oswald Bastable novels but is much more at home in the Cornelius crew, takes centre stage here, acting as much as an agent of chaos as Jerry ever did, shooting up European aristocracy and taking his place as Catherine's lover as well. Catherine herself finally gets to spend some significant time alive and undergoes some character development herself. We are introduced to Prinz Lobkowitz, who represents the fading European aristocracy (and gets killed by Una a lot), Major Nye, who represents British Imperialism, Jerry's larger than life cockney mum and her lover, the lugubrious Colonel Pyat. 
   'The English Assassin' follows the unconventional structure of 'A Cure For Cancer' but takes it even further. While in 'Cancer' there was more or less a single narrative thread that it was just about possible to untangle, 'Assassin' atomises the narrative further, providing a series of vignettes occurring across multiple universes and time streams as the characters struggle for the upper hand in this particular iteration. Whilst not providing a solid narrative drive, each of these scenarios deepens our understanding of these characters and the way they interact. Although they all have different agendas, over the course of the novel we see just about every possible permutation of characters working together to further their own needs, proving that they are not as different as perhaps they would like to believe. The openness of the symbols recurring throughout the Cornelius stories and the vagueness of the actual plot allow a myriad of interpretations, which again is perhaps part of the point. 

The Condition Of Muzak (1977)

"Soon he was nearing London. In the evening light the city was phosphorescent, like a neon wound; it glowed beneath a great scarlet sun turning the clouds orange and purple. And Jerry was filled with a sudden deep love for his noble birth-place, the City of the Apocalypse, this Earthly Paradise, the oldest and greatest city of its Age, virgin and whore, mother, sister, mistress, sustainer of life, creator of nightmare, destroyer of dreams, harbour of twenty million chosen souls."

"All art constantly aspires towards the condition of muzak."

   How do you bring to an end something as open-ended and bizarre as the Cornelius Chronicles? 'The Condition Of Muzak' manages the nigh-impossible by acting as both a summation, a clarification and an obfuscation of everything that's gone before. The narrative is as jumbled and as piecemeal as in 'The English Assassin', but here the pieces of story we get appear to be from in between and behind the scenes of all that has gone before. Or is it? Are we catching Jerry in between the missing gaps in 'A Cure For Cancer', are we going to get enough context to be able to put all the events in 'Assassin' into a coherent order? Moorcock is aiming for nothing so simple. These could be the missing pieces of story, or they could be part of some other similar iteration in a different universe, or it could be Jerry sighing and going through the motions of repeating everything from the previous books for our own benefit. Or perhaps, as some sections of 'Muzak' indicate, Jerry is just some seedy kid from Ladbroke Grove who dreams of being a multiverse-surfing super spy because he and his beloved spacerock group The Deep Fix just can't catch a break. The Appendices at the back of the book thumb their nose to the very idea of continuity, giving a timeline of events across the whole of the Twentieth Century and the whole of the world which one man could not possibly have taken part in.
   The interactions between the characters this time round give us some of the clearest examples of who they really are. For example, Miss Brunner explains to Jerry, "Liberty! How I hate it! Given the chance I intend to establish a sane element of authority in this country again." 'Muzak' also puts Moorcock's vision of the future into clearer focus. A recurring element of the endgame scenarios dreamed up in the Cornelius Chronicles is the Balkanisation of larger states, and this is shown clearly here, with England splitting up into a multitude of tiny city states. 
   Also in focus is is Jerry himself and his role in the narrative. The novel's title refers to something that was once shocking and invigorating becoming mere background noise, a condition both Jerry and the Twentieth Century find themselves in at the beginning of the story. The sixties have given way to the seventies, the hippy dream has died and as a new age of cynicism is ushered in Jerry finds himself disillusioned with all his musical heroes, and perhaps with the very idea of heroism to begin with. If you deal in it all the time, even chaos can become boring. Jerry's ensuing identity crisis is played out with reference to the comedia dell'arte, with Jerry (and the audience) assuming that he has the role of Harlequin, with Catherine as his Columbine, and this drives his attempts to find a universe in which he can be with her. However, as the story continues, he begins to realise that his true role is that of Pierrot, the sad clown, and that he is always destined to lose his Columbine, and that Una Pearson is her Harlequin. While this suggests that Jerry will never be able to be with Catherine, it provides Jerry with a way out by taking the narrative pressure off him. Jerry ends his chronicle with the chance to shrug off the chains of narrative conceit, to stop being merely a symbol of chaos and perhaps to live a while as just a person. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

George R. R. Martin - A Song Of Ice And Fire Book Two: A Clash Of Kings (1998)

"What good was it to take a kingdom if you could not hold it?" Theon Greyjoy

"You should have learned by now, none of us get the things we want." Cersei Lannister

   At the end of book one, the Seven Kingdoms teetered on the edge of chaos as five kings laid claim to the Iron Throne. 'A Clash Of Kings' picks up pretty much directly where 'A Game Of Thrones' left off, but as well as focusing on all the pieces already in motion, George R. R. Martin continues to expand the world of Westeros, adding more characters and more viewpoints. So while Tyrion Lannister becomes the King's Hand and sets about trying to fortify King's Landing and minimise the havoc caused by King Joffrey, Robb Stark cements his position as King of the North by leading more battles against the Lannisters and Arya tries to escape to the North with Yoren and the Night's Watch, the late Robert Baratheon's brothers Stannis and Renly gather their forces to make their claim to the throne. If that sounds like it would make for a narrative even more packed and complex than that of 'A Game Of Thrones', well, it does. Astonishingly Martin just about manages to keep all the juggling balls still in the air, though perhaps inevitably the strain does show at times. For all that, it's a thoroughly satisfying sequel, and the action-packed siege of King's Landing is even more exciting than anything in the first book. 

Another book, another map
      As Theon neatly points out at the top of the page, one of the main themes of the book is that being able to achieve power doesn't necessarily mean you are fit to rule. Robert Baratheon became king because he was a great warrior, the one who defeated Rhaegar Targaryen at the Trident. However the very characteristics that made him a great warrior made him a lousy king. Renly shares Robert's easy charisma, but is similarly blase about the practicalities of running a kingdom. Stannis, with his strong sense of justice and serious mind, is much better suited to rule, but his lack of charisma means he is unable to get the popular support necessary to support his claim. In his desperation he winds up allying himself with Lady Melisandra of Asshai, a member of a creepy cult built around the creepy Lord of Light and possessed of sinister dark powers. We see Stannis mainly through the eyes of Davos, a former smuggler knighted by Stannis for single-handedly allowing Stannis to last through the siege of Storm's End. At the same time Stannis also cut off Davos' fingers to punish him for smuggling, which tells you all you need to know about Stannis' sense of justice. Davos is staunchly supportive of Stannis, and his story arc, where he sees the man he respects and loves making worse and worse decisions and heading further and further into the abyss, are grim and powerful.
   Arya Stark also finds herself allying with dubious powers. Yoren's attempt to save her and one of King Robert's bastards by smuggling them north with the new recruits for the Night's Watch is quickly and brutally punished in the way only Martin does. In the ensuing chaos, Arya assists dangerous Lothari madman Jaqen H'ghar, and so when Arya is captured by Gregor Clegane and forced to work as a servant at Harrenhal, he pays her back by offering to kill three people of her choice. She uses this new power to free the Lannister's Northern prisoners and help them take over the castle, but it is a tribute to Martin's gritty cynicism that the servants and workers are no better under the Northern bannermen's control than under the Lannisters. 
   While Arya and Stannis struggle with morality and fight to retain their souls, Theon Greyjoy cheerfully jumps right past the moral event horizon. Nothing more than a minor annoyance in the first book, in 'A Clash Of Kings' Theon becomes a viewpoint character and we get to find out what a toxic environment the inside of his head is. Much like Joffrey, he is revealed to be a twat before his villainy is revealed. Writing for Theon must be a delicate balancing act - he gets enough of a sympathetic backstory that we know exactly where he's coming from and why he is the way he is, whilst his actions always keep us from feeling any actual sympathy towards the character. The Greyjoys as a whole are just awful - parasites who smugly announce 'We Do Not Sow' because they get everything they need by thievery. Desperate to prove his worth, Theon betrays the Starks and takes over Winterfell. His absolute lowest moment comes when he tries to kill Bran and Rickon, and failing to do that murders two similarly aged children to prove he will not be screwed with. As the quote at the top of the page shows, he has moments where he is quite savvy, but because he's an idiot he makes a series of spectacularly poor decisions and gets his thoroughly earned comeuppance. 

The Greyjoy words are "We're going to try our darndest to be worse than the Lannisters! Wish us luck!"
   If the main storyline of 'A Game Of Thrones' was Ned Stark investigating the circumstances surrounding John Arryn's death, the main plot in 'A Clash Of Kings' follows Tyrion's attempts to rule in Joffrey's stead. Tyrion is probably the only character in the book with both the moral fibre to rule justly and the cunning to survive in the cutthroat environment of the King's court. Much of the book involves Tyrion, Varys and Littlefinger snarking at and manipulating each other. It's thoroughly entertaining, and I would happily watch a TV show that was only that. Tyrion has enough awareness that in order to survive and keep the peace in an increasingly fractious environment he is going to have to do some fairly unpleasant things. At one point in the book he comforts himself with the thought that "It is not what we do, so much as why we do it." Really he should know better. Like Ned Stark he is surprised when he discovers that his idealism has alienated people; in fact he winds up the most hated Lannister. Some of this is discrimination, and some of it is that people don't realise the work he does to undermine all the damage Joffrey does, but some of it - that he's filled the city with murderous sellswords - is actually fair enough. For all his careful planning, in the siege of King's Landing at the end Tyrion leads the battle, which winds up getting him grievously injured.    
   'A Clash Of Kings' is also a great book for Sansa and Catelyn. Sansa continues to grow and develop as a character, showing remarkable fortitude in the face of adversity, for what good it does her. At least by the end of the book she is no longer betrothed to Joffrey, though how much good this does her in the long run is debatable. She also acts as the audience's viewpoint on Cersei Lannister for much of the book. Cersei herself gets a fair bit of character development as well, even having a couple of humanising moments as well as neatly summing up how Martin's universe works. Jaime only appears for one scene, but it's a good one, as he baits Catelyn in his cell at Riverrun. Catelyn continues to exemplify the Tully family motto: 'Family. Duty. Honor." Whilst dealing with her grief, she frequently winds up being the only sane man in a world with more than its fair share of hotheads and idiots. Martin's cheap trick of making her believe that Bran and Rickon are dead really stings; the poor woman has enough on her plate already. Meanwhile the threat beyond the Wall grows ever greater as Mance Rayder gathers the forces of the wildlings together for a massive assault; Jon Snow winds up having to seemingly betray his oath as a brother of the Night Watch and joins the wildlings in order to become a double agent.
   The only major character I've not mentioned so far is Daenerys. There's a reason for that. While Martin finds plenty to keep her busy with over the course of the book - she leads her Dothraki raiders through a desert, meets a warlock and has a dream quest - her story is noticeably separate from everyone else's. While all the other characters' actions have impacts on the other characters' stories, creating a complex, interweaving narrative, nothing Daenerys has done so far has had an impact on this, nor has any of it effected her. Hopefully that will change in the next book, as at the end Illyrio Mopatis makes himself known again and provides her with the means to get her forces to Westeros. Hopefully next time round she will have more interaction with the main plot.
  Oh, and yes, Tyrion does get to slap Joffrey again. I really hope this happens in every book. 

Stanisław Lem – Solaris (1961)

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.”

The photo is sideways because I hate movie tie-in covers. And not because my photography skills suck. Shut up.

Aliens may be central to the ideology and appeal of SF, but they are frequently not all that, well, alien. Frequently life on other planets is reduced to a thinly veiled caricature of some culture the writer feels is suitably exotic, or a broad representation of whatever human characteristic the writer feels like dealing with today. Both of these approaches are as common as all hell and are thoroughly problematic, the former being straight-up racist and the latter robbing the aliens of any real sense of agency and reducing them to simplistic stereotypes. This is especially common in TV and movie SF – think the classic Star Trek rubber forehead alien – for fairly obvious reasons. Before the advent of CGI it was simply not feasible to build truly alien aliens, and it doesn’t hurt that having human actors makes them more immediately easy to relate to. This isn’t to say that Star Trek and others haven’t told some good stories in this mode. Occasionally Trek would try to come up with more unusual aliens, usually resulting in the god-like alien, who had the power to take human form so they could conveniently be portrayed by a human actor, but also had whatever magical powers the plot demanded. In many ways this is an even lazier alternative, exchanging science for the worst kind of deus ex machina magic. Again this isn’t to say that good stories haven’t been told using this mode.
    When it comes down to it, many of the aliens we encounter in SF can fit broadly into either of these categories. Both of them are disappointingly unimaginative and ultimately unscientific. The appearance of humans has been determined by millions of years of evolution, shaped by the circumstances and environments we encountered on this planet. It is simply unrealistic to assume that any intelligent life we might encounter would have been exposed to exactly the same evolutionary pressures, and simply arrogant to assume that our bipedal mammalian structure would be the gold standard in an infinite universe. Then there is the assumption that aliens would think and behave in ways that are broadly analogous and understandable to human beings. An intelligent life form would again be shaped by its own alien culture, however that may have developed. There is no reason to assume that it would share our values; perhaps we would not even be able to understand each other’s cultures or even thought processes and motivations. Very few works of SF acknowledge this; even writers like Iain M. Banks who create aliens with wonderfully imaginative appearances still have them behave in understandable, relatable and ultimately human ways.
   ‘Solaris’, by Polish author Stanisław Lem, is an exception to this rule. It takes as its major themes how utterly unknowable the truly alien is and the difficulty of communication between life forms so radically different they cannot share any common reference points. It is a tribute to the power of Lem’s vision and the importance of his ideas that ‘Solaris’ is one of the few works in translation to find a permanent place in the British/North American canon of science fiction, despite the only English translation available being the notoriously poor 1970 translation from a French translation of the original Polish. (The first direct Polish to English translation was finally released in 2011 as an audiobook and then as an ebook, but as I dislike audiobooks and I do not own a kindle, this review is of the old translation). It has also been adapted into a film three times, which considering the philosophical nature of much of the text and the sheer trippiness of much of the action, is thoroughly baffling.
   The book centres on Dr. Kris Kelvin, a deeply damaged psychiatrist visiting the Solaris Station, a research space station located over the ocean planet of Solaris. The ocean on Solaris is a single living entity that appears to have some form of intelligence, but all attempts to communicate with it have proven futile. He has been sent to investigate the mental health of the crew, but he soon has his own problems to worry about as he is faced with an apparition of Rheya, his dead wife. It turns out the crew have all experience these visitations, and that it is the ocean’s equally futile attempt to communicate with them. One of the scientists eventually develops a technique to destroy the apparitions. This is pretty much all of the plot, but the novel makes up for the thinness of the plot with its psychological depth.
   Much of the novel is taken up by Lem’s description of the Solaris and the various scientific attempts to understand it. This is an example of exposition done incredibly well. Much of the point of the book is how unknowable this alien life is, and this is reflected by the fact that the scientific community, despite decades of research, actually knows very little about Solaris. In a sequence worthy of Douglas Adams, Lem hilariously lampoons self-important scientific writing and the fickle gaze of mainstream media’s scientific interest. Despite Solaris being the only known example of such a life form, the scientists have nonetheless given it a scientific name and classification. Humanity’s history with Solaris is a history of competing scientific theories of philosophical interest but of absolutely no practicality as the organism is so far outside our experience no one has the slightest idea about how to go about testing these theories. There is not even a scientific consensus on whether or not Solaris qualifies as intelligent life.
   More seriously, Lem takes the opportunity to satirise scientific post-colonialism. The quote at the top of the page shrewdly points out the post-colonialist attitude present in much of the way SF deals with aliens – the Trek ideal of humanity spreading justice and democracy across the unenlightened galaxy. Humanity is incapable of dealing with Solaris because people have approached first contact expecting to see something recognisable and ultimately human reflected back at them within the alien. Solaris is so utterly other that many scientists refuse to acknowledge that it counts as intelligent life, not so much because it doesn’t appear intelligent but simply because it doesn’t conform to our narrow ideals of what ‘life’ is.
  Yet by the end of the book we are left with no doubt that Solaris is an intelligent being attempting to communicate. Solaris is prone to bizarre formations that appear and disappear across its surface. Some of the novel’s most poetic (and most resolutely unfilmable) sequences arise from Lem’s description of the mysterious and beautiful formations such as symmetriads and asymmetriads that spontaneously form and collapse across the surface of the ocean. Dr. Kelvin eventually realises that simply being able to accurately copy a symmetriad and drop it in the ocean wouldn’t necessarily allow us to communicate any better with Solaris because we still fundamentally don’t understand what these formations could possibly mean for the ocean. This is reflected in Solaris’ doomed attempts to communicate. While it is able to flawlessly replicate Kelvin’s wife from his image of her in his mind, the replication isn’t able to act as an avatar for the ocean – an obvious solution to the communication problem that a lesser author would have taken. Because of Solaris’ nature as a massive sentient ocean it can no more understand what individual human beings are than we can understand it. So while the imitation Rheya appears to have consciousness and self awareness, as well as all of the original Rheya’s memories from prior to her death, and can communicate as the original to Dr. Kelvin, she cannot know that she is the creation of an utterly alien being or what that being is trying to communicate. Her presence causes Dr. Kelvin such emotional distress he assumes that Solaris is intentionally trying to torture him, before recognising it as an attempt to communicate using the only information it has available to it yet utterly devoid of understanding of what that information means. But it does reveal that Solaris wants to communicate with humanity and is willing to try, perhaps the only thing these two widely different organisms share.