Thursday, 21 February 2013

Anna Kavan - Ice (1967)

"Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing. Now, for instance. I had visited the girl and her husband before, and kept a vivid recollection of the peaceful, prosperous-looking countryside round their home. But this memory was rapidly fading, losing its reality, becoming increasingly unconvincing and indistinct, as I passed no one on the road, never came to a village, saw no lights anywhere. The sky was black, blacker untended hedges towering against it; and when the headlights occasionally showed roadside buildings, these too were always black, apparently uninhabited and more or less in ruins. It was just as if the entire district had been laid waste during my absence."

Above: clearly I should photograph my books before I wreck them by reading them.

Seeing as my normal tactic for reviewing books is to compare them to other books I've read, I've possibly bitten off more than I can chew here. 'Ice' by Anna Kavan isn't much like anything else really. Anna Kavan is the pseudonym of one Helen Ferguson, who emerged from a nervous breakdown and a stint in an asylum naming herself after a character in one of her previous books and writing novels that were starkly different to pretty much everything else going. 'Ice', with its images of a ruined world and vivid sense of encroaching doom, shares some of its imagery and concerns with Post-apocalyptic SF, but with its shifting, dreamlike atmosphere and lack of any kind of explanation or rationalisation, it doesn't comfortably fit in that box. Although he doesn't mention it in the original article, 'Ice' very much fits Bruce Sterling's definition of 'slipstream' as 'an attitude of peculiar aggression against "reality"'. 

'Ice' follows three characters, who are never named. While the world begins to freeze over, the (male) narrator pursues a delicate albino girl, who is also being pursued by her husband. These three characters keep crossing paths and interacting in various ways, sometimes friendly, sometimes antagonistic. That's pretty much it for the plot. Pretty much off the bat, the narrator admits in the quote above that he's got something of a problem with reality. Like Severian in Gene Wolfe's 'Book Of The New Sun', this tips off the reader that everything we perceive here is coloured by the character relating the narrative. From the beginning the sense of encroaching doom is heavy and palpable, yet imbued with a touch of unreality. The disaster overwhelming the world, and the world itself, is presented in a detached, almost dream-like manner. This is heightened by the fact that, as the story continues, events just seem to happen without reason or context, without following the normal rules of cause and effect. Dreams, flashbacks and fantasies all intermesh without warning. The overall effect recalls Christopher Priest's masterpieces 'The Affirmation' and 'The Glamour', in that the impossibility of untangling what actually happens from the protagonist's own delusions leads to myriad possible interpretations. The protagonist's central flaw is so central to the story and their perception of events, which is why it warps the fabric of everything around it. (Appropriately enough, Priest writes the introduction to the current Peter Owen reprint of 'Ice').

Here, our protagonist's obsession with the girl overrides everything else, to the extent that it's only at the end that he realises how much of a monster he's been to her. The book serves as a fascinating and thoroughly disturbing deconstruction of the heroic male desire to save the girl; here it's presented as a co-dependent abusive relationship. The narrator frequently fantasises about the girl's helplessness and has frequent visions of her death. Whenever she shows the slightest bit of self determination he loses interest. He fetishises her victimisation. Yet he feels his life is utterly meaningless without her, and both of them are unable to escape each other. The husband is another dominating male character, strong with an undercurrent of hidden violence. The narrator sees the similarities between them, and even gets confused between his identity and that of the other man at various parts of the book, and at other points there seems to be a strong undercurrent of sexual tension between the two of them. 

The book has nightmare-like ambiance, both in the vivid image of advancing towers of ice and in the way the three central characters are unable to escape from their relationship or themselves. The apocalypse here is not the aftermath of climate change, but something almost fantastical and elemental. It is similar the bizarre dream-like apocalypses in J. G. Ballard's 'The Crystal World' or 'The Drowned Word', as much reflections of inner space as doomsday scenario. The imagery the author uses to describe this shimmering wave of destruction is both beautiful and disturbing. There is something distinctly Kafkaesque about all of the characters' inbuilt sense of paranoia and persecution, and in the way this is reflected back by the people they interact with. Each place they visit is affected by the oncoming ice. While the whole book retains the feeling of a numb, dream-like hinterland, the struggle of everyday people, relegated to the background, is curiously realistic and affecting. Whether people choose to blithely ignore it and go about their daily business, party like there's no tomorrow or simply cause violence and destruction to show the world that they are still there, there's no escaping the pervading sense of doom. 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ryu Mitsuse - 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights (1967)

Ryu Mitsuse's '10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights' is in it for the long haul. Starting off with the formation of our planet, and extending its narrative tendrils out to the heat death of the universe, this is a novel that redefines being truly epic in scope. In that sense, the only comparable works are Olaf Stapeldon's 'Last And First Men' and 'Starmaker', but Mitsuse's work is both stranger and more lyrical. In its mixture of hard science fiction and Eastern spirituality, it echoes the work of Roger Zelazny, in particular 'Lord Of Light'. However, at the end of the day it's very much its own beast. The cover of the Haikasoru translation has "The GREATEST Japanese science fiction novel of all time" enthusiastically emblazoned across the front, and while I've not (yet) read enough Japanese SF to comment on that, '10 Billion Days...' is certainly an engaging and thought-provoking read, that easily stands next to the best of Western SF from the same era.

Unsurprisingly, given the novel's massive scope and many narrative strands, it takes a while to set all of the story's moving pieces into motion. Mitsuse saves most of the explanation, such as it is, for right at the end, so you're kept guessing as to what's actually going on throughout most of the book. Fortunately the journey itself is a lot of fun, taking us reeling through ancient Atlantis to Jerusalem in the time of Christ and on to crumbling ruins on distant planets in the far future, and when you do figure out what's going on it's a doozy.

Basically, Plato, Siddhartha and the demigod Asura are rebuilt as cyborgs and sent to the far future, where they try to find out the reasons behind the collapse of human civilisation from the gods themselves. Unfortunately for them, they are pursued by Jesus of Nazareth, who has also been cyborgified and sent into the future, and is a blaster-wielding badass. Our three heroes are pursued by Jesus from the future ruins of Tokyo to collapsing metropolises on other planets where robots rise up against humans who have stored themselves as digital memories to another galaxies where the god-like aliens have preserved themselves in pocket dimensions to outlast the passage of time. These sequences are fantastic, and would be worth the price of entry alone. Mitsuse creates a decaying universe reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's 'The Book Of The New Sun', and as with Wolfe's masterpiece, the reader is left to puzzle out and interpret many of the details themselves, as characters are whisked through times and places they don't fully understand.

In a cruel inversion of 'Childhood's End' by Arthur C. Clarke, at the end of her journey Asura discovers that the so-called gods are giant aliens who, in order to stop humanity from ever reaching its full potential and competing with them, visited earth and planted the seeds of humanity's eventual destruction into the entire human race's psyche. These aliens were responsible for the destruction of Atlantis, and Jesus, mistakenly believing that one of these aliens is the true god, has been acting as their agent of destruction, spreading their influence across the planet. In a final act of callousness, the aliens have set themselves up as future redeemers who in times to come will save humanity, when in reality they are humanity's oppressors. Asura also discovers that she and Siddhartha are agents of a less malevolent god-like being, whose influence was simply not strong enough to prevent the destruction of the human race.

Ryu Mitsuse is asking pretty big questions here. His book is about the' nature of the universe that we live in, and the nature of god. '10 Billion Days...' asks the question, what kind of god would create a people so prone to violence and self-destructive tendencies? Mitsuse's protagonists are inspired to continue their journey against perilous odds simply because they feel they have to know, why would god doom humanity to extinction, and offer a false hope of redemption? There is an excellent scene where Asura confronts the god-like alien directly, and he responds by subjecting her to a violent psychic attack. It reminds me of the scene in Star Trek V when Spock asks the god-like alien, 'What would God want with a starship?' and gets zapped for his troubles. Both scenes show the god-like aliens as being petulant and cruel and act as the final tip-off to the audience that they are nothing like what they claim to be. (Needless to say Mitsuse handles this with far more elegance than Shatner does.) The image of Jesus as a deluded Knight Templar type is both powerful and disturbing, and the book gets a fair amount of mileage out of the fact that this is initially how Pontius Pilate and Judas see Jesus, but they cannot possibly guess how close they are to the truth because of how little of the bigger picture they are allowed to see.

The book ends tragically but beautifully. Asura's long struggle comes to an end, and she gets the answers to at least some of her questions, but she outlives the gods themselves, and is left alone on their planet, now crumbled to dust, waiting for the heat death of the universe. It is a fittingly bleak and vertigo-inducing finale.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Frank Herbert - Hellstrom's Hive (1973)

"The words of Nils Hellstrom Unlike man, whose physical limitations are dictated from the moment of his birth, the insect is born with the ability to actually improve upon his body. When the insect reaches the limits of his capability, he miraculously transforms into an entirely new being. In this metamorphosis, I find the most basic pattern for my understanding of the Hive. To me, the Hive is a cocoon from which the new human will emerge."
Fan fiction is much maligned these days, understandably when bad slash fic of an already poorly written tale of a Mary Sue and her abusive dead boyfriend can top the bestseller list. However, there are examples of works of fiction that constructively take older works and recontextualise some of their elements in a way that the original creator would never have imagined. 

In the early 70s, 'The Hellstrom Chronicle' was a documentary about insects that became a surprise blockbuster hit. In order to encourage people to see a film that might otherwise be something of a niche interest, the film makers marketed it in the manner of a sci-fi thriller, and stitched together the (very fine) footage of insect life with footage of an actor pretending to be one Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an obsessive entomologist who, somewhat smugly and sardonically, informs the audience that insects have been around long before humans, and because they are better adapted to their surroundings, they will be here long after us as well. His admiration, and one suspects his sympathies, lie with the insects. 

Frank Herbert's 1973 novel 'Hellstrom's Hive' lifts the character of Dr. Hellstrom wholesale. Lines adapted from the film are used as introductions to most of the chapters. Readers of Herbert's 'Dune' series will be familiar with his technique of using quotations from fictional in-world reference works to create an added sense of depth and lived-in history to his world building, but tying his text so closely to a real world documentary brings the world of 'Hellstrom's Hive' closer to our reality. And as most of the words belong to Dr. Hellstrom himself, they allow us to spend more time inside his head, which is essential for the novel to work as well as it does. For Herbert's Dr. Hellstrom is not just obsessed with insects, he and his people use the insect as the blueprint to create their perfect society.

Mad scientists are ten a penny in SF, and insect people with a hive mind have been used as villains in the genre, usually rather tiresomely as stand-ins for Communism and the Red Threat in golden age SF, so on the surface it looks like there's nothing new here. Nor is there a simple subversion of the same old symbols - Dr. Hellstrom is definitely the villain, although arguably a villain protagonist. What's intriguing about Herbert's take on all this is that he uses this as an opportunity to reflect on human societies, utopias and dystopias. The Hive is interesting because it genuinely appears as a Utopia to all the people within it, but all the outside viewers see it as horrific. In 'Chronicle', the original Hellstrom muses both on  how individuals in a hive will altruistically lay down their life for their brethren,and how the insect is adapted to its surrounding ecology rather than destroying its surroundings to better suit it like man. In 'Hive', these are among the aspects that Hellstrom and his people consider most important to their society. They genuinely find the Hive a safe and caring place. Herbert gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting this with Outside, where America has become a police state and various corrupt government agencies vie with each other to get their hands on Dr. Hellstrom's mysterious Project 40, not out of any public interest but because it smells like big money and everyone wants a piece of it for themselves. 

However, just when the balance of sympathy is swinging towards Dr. Hellstrom and the Hive, Herbert takes savage glee in subverting it and reminding us that they really are villains. Everyone in the Hive is chemically manipulated by pheromones, hormones and compounds regulated in their food. Old or useless workers, or indeed captured outsiders, are sent to the vats, where they are turned into said food. The Hive runs an incredibly creepy breeding programme (as if there's any other kind) where they select desirable characteristics for future generations of workers, and then there's the whole thing with the 'reproductive stumps', which is truly shudder-worthy. And Dr. Hellstrom himself has the bizarre charisma of a cult leader, for which he is mistaken several times. 

In the end, the government agencies realise what the good Doctor is really up to, but just when they are about to unleash the full might of the US military, the Hive's scientists reveal their secret weapon, which of course is what Project 40 was all along, and hold the world to ransom. In the end, in a brutal parody of the Cold War, both sides achieve an uneasy truce, with both sides claiming victory to their own people whilst secretly gearing up for more confrontations further down the line. It's a particularly cynical and bleak ending. As in 'Dune', Herbert is not shy about mincing important characters, but due to this book's shorter length he has to achieve a lot more destruction in a shorter period of time. 'Hive' quickly builds to a deadly momentum and feels like it is careering out of control as the body count piles up, but behind it all the deft hand of the author is in strict control. In this it reminds me of Thomas M. Disch's 'The Genocides', though that book is even bleaker and more cynical. And although Herbert will always be remembered for the 'Dune' series, it is arguable that Dr. Nils Hellstrom is his most fully developed and compelling character. One of the biggest problems of the original 'Dune' is that the Harkonnens are little more than pantomime villains. In 'Hellstrom's Hive' Herbert proves he can write a well-developed, convincing and compelling villainous character. As for Dr. Hellstrom himself, even his temporary victory over the Outside forces is bittersweet. For he knows, deep down inside, that his charisma and intelligence, his very character, that allowed him to defeat the hostile forces, is what will eventually make him obsolete in his own Hive.