Thursday, 27 March 2014

Dan Abnett - Embedded (2011)

"They'll blame this on minerals. Well, great. It isn't the fucking ground's fault, right? It's probably some giant domino effect. Some asshole somewhere said the wrong thing to another asshole at some fucking summit, and then some other asshole didn't get his preferential deal, and so he cut the profits on yet another asshole's contract and then... and then... and then... and it's a giant rolling ball of shit coming downhill and sweeping everything up. And that giant rolling ball of shit's called history, Bloom, and we were standing in its fucking way."

Greyscale AND CGI on the same cover? You spoil us, Angry Robot
'Embedded' by Dan Abnett is a stodgily written military SF story that nevertheless includes some competently written action sequences. Its central conceit, about a journalist embedding his consciousness into a soldier so that he can get the inside scoop on a military cover-up operation, is intriguing and plausibly played out, and at times the novel flirts with some interesting ideas, which it never really makes the most of. The end result is uninspiring.
   One of the problems with the book is our protagonist, Lex Falk, an obnoxious journalist who is ready to sleepwalk his way through another assignment until he's denied access by the military, at which point he decides it's personal. The idea of a journalist not being this idealistic seeker of the truth is healthily cynical, and to be fair to Abnett Falk does undergo some character development along the way, ending up willing to risk his life to get the truth out because the people deserve to hear it. But unfortunately Falk's characterisation is just so annoying it's hard to enjoy spending time in the man's head. One doesn't need to sympathise, share the views of or indeed like a protagonist for a novel to work, and one of the benefits of fiction is that it asks us to empathise with those we might otherwise not, but for this to work the character does need to be compelling. Falk, with his sense of entitlement, his sleaziness and his casual misogyny, is simply unpleasant.
   Another problem with the book is the writing. Abnett's prose is clunky at best, and he is fond of cutesy neologisms, such as "presearch", or "wealthy" as a term meaning 'well', that are not nearly as clever as he thinks they are. The worst offender is "freeking®", the sponsored swearing that some of the characters have inserted into their speech. The idea of sponsored swearing is marginally witty, though the first time I saw it in writing I wanted to hurl the book across the room, and combined with 'wealthy', and the fact that the book sets up Space Communists as the bad guys, I was kind of hoping there would be some kind of satirical pay-off to having these in the obviously American soldiers' lexicon, as a way of telling us something about two contrasting cultures. However this never happens, these words are just there, glaring, gimmicky and serving no narrative purpose whatsoever.
   Having said that, once Falk is implanted into the soldier Neil Bloom's head, the book finds its footing a bit more and the plot finally kicks into gear. It's just a shame it takes almost a hundred pages before this happens. Bloom gets shot in the head, removing his conscious control and leaving Falk in charge of his body. There's an actually pretty great scene in which Falk slowly comes back to consciousness in Bloom's mutilated body and staggers up like a zombie. Through the rest of the book, Falk has to rely on Bloom's training to get him through the day. This is the real meat of the book, that soldiers train so hard so that they can internalise these actions so when they're dropped into combat situations, the autonomic reflexes take over, and they can trust these reflexes and their training to help them survive.
   What follows is by far the most successful part of the book, as Falk, in charge of Bloom's body, and the remaining soldiers in his platoon, must work together to survive. There is a tightly written, engaging action sequence in which one of the soldiers panics, leading to the death of many of the others. In this part of the book, Abnett at times approaches the gritty, from the ground view, as well as the violence and meaningless death, the horror, sadness and frustration at it all that we encounter in a truly great piece of war fiction like, say, The Forever War. However, as well as being a lesser writer, Abnett also lacks Haldeman's unwavering focus and purpose in writing about war. This comes across in Abnett's tone; he is never able to achieve the sincerity of Haldeman's writing. It also manifests in how easily Abnett lets his characters off the hook. Multiple soldiers all swear that they're going to kill the soldier who made the mistake, and many of them are gearing up to, but his reckless actions kill him before Abnett's characters are forced to make that moral choice. Similarly, at the end, Falk is only able to talk his way out of the situation due to a coincidence that stretches suspension of disbelief, though to be fair to Abnett I think having the military kill everyone before they could spill the secret would have perhaps been too cynical a move. 'Embedded' also spreads its philosophy pretty thinly on the ground, although the discussion quoted above, in which the soldiers make the point that war is frequently fought for the petty reasons of the rich and powerful, while the soldiers do all the dirty work, is well taken.
   'Embedded' is a mess and something of a missed opportunity, but for all its faults it does show the occasional flash of brilliance.  Unfortunately the one-note characters and poor quality of the prose drag it down, but these are things that can be fixed when a writer develops. In particular if Abnett had found something more concrete to hang that middle section of his novel on, 'Embedded' might have turned into something special.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Michel Faber - Under The Skin (2000)

"The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.
   "In the end, though, vodsels couldn't do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn't siuwil, they couldn't mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they'd never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.
   "And, when you looked into their glazed little eyes, you could understand why."

Normally at this point I would bitch about film tie-in covers, but this one is actually pretty tastefully done.
'Under The Skin' by Michel Faber is a striking piece of role reversal and an unflinching look at the ease with which sentient people can be dehumanised. It is at once an impressive piece of SF imagination and a necessary examination of humanity's cruelty, and beautifully written to boot. The novel follows Isserley, a member of a race of dog-like aliens surgically altered to appear like an attractive human female so that she can pick up unwary human male hitchhikers who are drugged, castrated and de-tongued and processed into voddissin, a ludicrously expensive delicacy on Isserley's homeworld. Her normal routine is interrupted when Almis Vess, the idle rich son of the company in charge, visits the farm and sets free some of the human prisoners, claiming that humans are people too and shouldn't be eaten.
   One of the most striking aspects of the novel is the extent to which humans are othered. The novel is told in the third person from Isserley's point of view, so she refers to her species as humans, human beings and people, whilst referring to Homo sapiens as vodsels. This device not only cleverly reminds us of Isserley's alien perspective, but indicates how she and her people view us, not as intelligent beings with autonomy and rights, but as animals for the slaughter. This is further emphasised when Faber describes the processing and holding pens at the farm, and Isserly reflects that it's easy to mistake the vodsels for human when they are wearing clothes and walking around and talking, but it's possible to see their true animal nature once they have had their tongues and clothes removed, have been fattened up and are locked up in pens with their own filth. This of course reflects some of the thought processes that allows real world atrocities to happen in reality, whereby concentration camp guards can come to see their victims as less than human and so undeserving of basic human rights. It's a powerful and disturbing scene.
   But 'Under The Skin' doesn't limit itself to portraying just one kind of systematic inhumanity. Gradually, from the details Isserley reveals about her past life, her betrayed hope and dreams and her fears, we learn a lot about her people and the dystopian world they live in. Her home planet is uninhabitable on the surface, so everyone is forced to live underground. Their society is strictly stratified, with the rich living sheltered lives of luxury, using their power and prestige to manipulate naive young girls like Isserley used to be into sleeping with them for protection, while the vast majority work themselves into an early grave in dire, poisonous conditions. Deftly and in the background, without resorting to any moments of chunky exposition, Faber builds up a truly horrifying picture of a culture built entirely on exploitation and privilege that has destroyed its own ecosystem through its own greed and hubris, a dark mirror to our own. Of course this is a people that would have no problem with eating another sentient people.
   Amlis Vess, for all his professed compassion for the vodsels, is ultimately just a tourist. He admits that at the end of the day he's probably only going on this grand crusade just to annoy his father, who wants him to inherit the family business. Isserley quite rightly calls him out on his privilege a number of times, but she's hopelessly in love with him. This blinds her to the fact that he's perfectly happy to chase a trendy cause like vodsel welfare whilst doing nothing to alleviate the hellish plight of the working class on their homeworld, or indeed the ingrained sexism that is clearly still a problem there.
   It is perhaps in its feminism that 'Under The Skin' is at its most angry, and it is here that Faber reserves the book's most caustic satire, for Isserley herself is a victim as well. Having been through extensive and painful surgery to look like a completely different species, she is wracked by constant pain and in a constant state of extreme dysmorphia. The surgeon took Isserley's image from a magazine, so she has ludicrously oversized breasts that give her incredible back pains. Her face, arms and legs are all covered with surgical scars, but none of this matters to the men she picks up, who simply see a large pair of breasts. Faber mines some truly dark humour out of the idea that this would be enough to entrap horny males. The only parts of the book that aren't told from Isserley's point of view are from the point of view of the males she picks up in her car. The men, not even knowing that Isserley is an alien, other and objectify her as much as Isserley's people do to us vodsels. This is a book about meat markets, after all. Isserley's job is pretty much to act as live bait. Not only is she objectified by the vodsels, she gets this treatment reflected back at her by her own people as well. All her colleagues at the farm are male, and they patronise her to her face and smirk and make crude jokes behind her back, while her bosses put her in a situation where she is exposed to the risk of sexualised violence as part of her job. Small wonder that she winds up having to remind her people that she is the same as they are under the skin.  

M. John Harrison - The Kefahuchi Tract Book Two: Nova Swing (2006)

"How do we know what we come back to is the same?"

'Nova Swing' is less a direct sequel to 'Light', the first book in the Kefahuchi Tract sequence, than a variation on a theme. Whereas that book played with golden age space opera tropes, 'Nova Swing' focuses down its attention on one work in particular: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's excellent 'Roadside Picnic', quoted in the preface. The Kefahuchi Tract, the negative space wedgie from the first book, is falling to earth, and sections of it have landed on the nearby planets. The areas where the Tract has touched down, event sites, are a dangerous no man's land where the normal laws of physics and causality don't apply, like the Zones from 'Roadside Picnic', and as in that book, the desperate and the foolhardy eke a living smuggling alien artifacts and flotsam and jetsam out of the event sites. 'Nova Swing' is a success because it isn't just an excuse to find new ways to play with the Strugatskys' intriguing set up; it's a deeply thoughtful work on personal change, the illusion of the continuity of consciousness, and the difficult necessity of moving on. If anything I enjoyed it even more than 'Light'.
   In 'Nova Swing' a special branch of the police has been set up to deal with artifacts from the site imported into the city and the resulting havoc. With a new type of living artifact making its way into the city, they pretty much have their hands full. While this in itself is a compelling concept, what makes 'Nova Swing' so engaging is its focus on its characters, down and outs whose lives have settled into a rut despite living on the border of this great mess of unknowable constant change. It is this tension between the site and the stagnation of these characters that drives 'Nova Swing' and gives it its heart. So we have Vic Serotonin, a smuggler who earns his living bringing artifacts out of the site and selling them to gangsters and taking foolhardy tourists into the site, a man who is unable to make anything else out of his life because of his destructive fascination with the site. He is being pursued by Lens Aschemann, a brilliant Site Crime detective fashionably altered to look like Albert Einstein, who may or may not be the serial killer behind the one crime he couldn't solve that killed his wife, and who is also driven by an equally destructive infatuation with the site. Their game of cat and mouse drags in various other  bystanders, such as Liv Hula, who's tired of tending the failing bar on Straint Street for  all these years, Edith Bonaventure, ex-child star accordion player to the space ports and daughter to one of the pioneering explorers of the site, now dying of uncountable forms of alien cancers leaving Edith to look after him, and Antoyne, failed space jockey who once flew with Chinese Ed but hasn't done anything since then.
   'Nova Swing' plays as much with the tropes of noir detective fiction as it does with those of SF. The new artifacts working their way into the city are taking the shape of human beings, to disappear in the nightclubs and back alleys where their inherent strangeness goes unmarked. These people appear out of nowhere, no past history to define them or trap them. Elizabeth Kielar, the femme fatale who hires Vic Serotonin to take her into the event site, is one of them. Harrison explores at great length what an alien perspective hers is, and really just how strange the femme fatale archetype is. Compared to the other characters, whose lives and perspectives are shaped by their pasts, Kielar's personality inhabits an uncanny valley where her collection of responses and ticks never quite coalesces into believable human responses, and she knows it. While she may be an archetype character dropped in the narrative to seduce Vic Serotonin for the purposes of the story, she has enough self awareness to be wracked with existential doubt for the obvious and intentional gap she makes in the logic of reality. Similarly, Lens Aschemann is a knowing and twisted take on the invincible detective trope. Like a space age Sherlock Holmes, Aschemann, with his intentionally bizarre appearance and eccentric mannerisms, nevertheless always solves the case so the police have learned to give him the resources and let him get on with it. He wryly dispenses worldly wisdom to his younger and frequently exasperated assistant. However, the more time we spend inside Aschemann, the more we realise he is at least as damaged and obsessive as Vic Serotonin, and in the end their shared unhealthy fascination with the event sites swallows them both. And in the end, for all his grand theorising, Aschemann's understanding of the events that unfold is as flawed and as limited as all the other characters; despite his brilliant powers of deduction he is still limited  by his own human perspective with his own personal biases and blind spots.
   Aschemann reflects at one point that he views all crimes as some form of crime against continuity. But what are the event sites themselves if a constant crime against continuity? To some extent most of the male characters in 'Nova Swing', with the notable exception of Antoyne, share this rigidity of thought, which shapes both their destructive fascination with the event sites and their inability to change and adapt. Emil Bonaventure, pioneer explorer of the sites dying of multiple forms of bizarre cancer, wonders in a lucid moment, "How do we know what we come back to is the same?" But this applies not just to the sites but to anything we go through in life. The experiences we go through change us, and there is never any guarantee that things will go back to normal when you come through the other side. There comes a time when the illusion of the continuity of our consciousness is revealed as just that: an illusion. We are not the same person that we were ten years ago, and we have to face this fact and move on or risk being buried in the past. The events in 'Nova Swing' in one way or another provide the impetus for Liv Hula, Edith Bonaventure and Antoyne to accept that one part of their lives has come to a close and gives them the courage to move on to the next stage. Liv Hula reflects, after selling her bar:

"When she went inside, ten years of her life tucked themselves away in an instant, like the theoretical dimensions of long-ago cosmology. This was how life went. A single moment seemed to extend forever, then suddenly you were snapped out of it. The forward motion of time stretched whatever rubbery glue-like substance had fixed you there until it failed catastrophically. You weren't the person you were before you got trapped; you weren't the person you were while you were trapped: the merciless thing about it, Liv discovered, was that you weren't someone entirely different either."

Moving on from the past is never easy, and you can never leave your past, or who you were, behind entirely, but it's a necessary part of being alive.