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Bedlam Volume 1 TP
Bedlam Volume 1 TP
by Nick Spencer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.50

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bedlam, 6 Aug. 2013
This review is from: Bedlam Volume 1 TP (Paperback)
What I like most about Bedlam is that the de facto "hero" of its noir-inspired universe - a guy oh-so-facetiously called `The First' - is relegated to the margins of the work, dismissed as a curiosity and given what is undoubtedly the least significant narrative role of any of the comic's characters. We know he's a hero because his attire is so laden with all of the visual signifiers we've come to expect from that archetype: a long flowing cape, an armour-like, skin-tight bodysuit tailored to show off his ridiculous Adonis physique, and a head piece which, of course, obscures his true identity. But what soon becomes apparent is that `The First' has no true identity (at least not yet - the comic is on-going), and if we look closely at the few panels in which he makes an appearance, we can see that his mask is blandly anonymous: a completely featureless blank surface. Indeed, he doesn't look like anything so much as an artist's wooden mannequin, something deliberately under-designed. And on the rare occasions that he does show up, the illustrations always seem unfinished, as if Riley Rossmo - whose inky, loose artwork is usually so concerned with transmitting expression, detail and atmosphere - just couldn't be bothered.

My over-laboured point is that the featureless-ness of this hero (featureless in terms of his dress and his personality) is no happy accident, nor is it the result of lazy writing. The world of Bedlam comprises much of the stuff of familiar super-hero comics, but writer Nick Spencer doesn't care about the individualist mechanisations of a blandly moralistic hero. Rather, Bedlam takes as its subject the philosophy of evil, and poses its major question in a provocative by-line "Is evil just something you are, or something you do?". And so `The First' is representative of the entire visual and narrative aesthetic of Bedlam, a comic that hugs genre conventions close with one hand, and stabs them in the back with the other.

Bedlam's primary focus is the fidgety and garrulous Fillmore Press, a one-time murderous psychopath who worked under the guise of `Madder Red'. Fillmore has spent 10 years undergoing a kind of psychotropic therapy that has erased all of his homicidal tendencies and moulded the former super-villain into an upstanding member of society. The story of his treatment is intermittently told in flash-backs, made visually distinct from the `present day' scenes by an ingenious pallet swap. Fillmore has entered into an informal working partnership with detective Remira Acevedo, and together they attempt to discover the identity of the city's newest serial killer.

There's a lot of dialogue in Bedlam, and it's a testament to Riley Rossmo's abilities as an artist that long sequences of convoluted exposition (that often veer dangerously close to plain old info-dumping) always remain visually interesting and inventive. Juxtaposed against these explanatory conversations are frequent passages of uber-violence and gore, characterised by a liberal application of splashy red ink. But for me the comic's most successful moments come when the two leads - Fillmore and detective Acevedo - interact. There's a definite odd couple vibe to their relationship, and the tension between Fillmore's Joker-esque anxious hyperactivity, and Acevedo's cool professional focus is a delight to watch unfurl. This contrast plays out on a visual level, too, with Rossmo's contrasting character designs offering the perfect complement to Spencer's lively dialogue: Fillmore is all messy corners and pale skinny-ness, whereas Acevedo's lines are confidently curved and definite.

As Bedlam is still on-going I can't write about the plot in any completionist sense, but writer Nick Spencer's refusal to let the comic settle into any kind of monthly status-quo is refreshing and keeps the tension high. I'd be surprised if Fillmore Press has really become the wholly new man he attests to being; there's too much of a disparity between his former identity as the truly terrifying and psychotic Madder Red, and his new life as the helpful assistant to a detective - I just don't trust him... And I wouldn't be surprised if, in a further development of Bedlam's refusal to re-cycle old comic clichés, the as-yet unknown serial killer doesn't have some philosophically complex motive that belies the seemingly base sadism of his acts.

Bedlam doesn't always hit the mark: the chain of murders inspired by various biblical figures and punishments is already a cliché of middle-brow crime fiction, even if it is given a moderately fresh take here. Elsewhere, many of detective Acevedo's actions - such as giving Fillmore access to ludicrously high-level information and materials - seem at odds with her pre-established concerns for professionalism and propriety; such actions seem, to me, more in service to driving narrative momentum than to saying something about Acevedo as a character. But these are small niggles in what is an otherwise very successful new comic, one that challenges the precepts of its own genre, while simultaneously remaining deeply respectful and enamoured of its forbears.


Some Day I'll Find You
Some Day I'll Find You
Price: £5.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science Fiction at its finest., 3 Aug. 2013
'Some Day I'll Find You' is an avant-garde Science Fiction masterpiece belonging to the same densely allusive literary tradition as works by such writers as Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock. The book may initially appear to be a trite and derivative Romance, unworthy of critical attention; but once you've read it three or four times, you'll discover a secondary narrative encoded within the novel's subtext. Far from being an unoriginal and over-long chronicle of a bland woman's bland love life, Some Day I'll Find You is actually a modernist re-fashioning of a classic Space Opera premise. The action transpires on a vast generation ship that has lost its own history; wandering the universe for so long that the book's characters (the descendants of the ship's original crew) don't even realise they're on an inter-galactic space vessel. Society onboard the ship has rearranged itself to mimic that of 1950's Europe, and what at first reading appears to be an examination of post-war anxiety is, in fact, a kind of existential cosmic dissonance: the characters seem to know - on some strange, sub-conscious level - that there's something not quite right with the world that surrounds them, but so total is their immersion in this 20th Century fantasy that they're unable to investigate, or even express, their doubts.

Of course, none of this is stated out-right by Madeley, whose dedication to keeping the true nature of his book a secret can only be admired. As far as I'm aware, there have been no media spoilers of the novel's actual setting. In press releases, television interviews and newspaper articles, Madeley has kept schtum about the science fictional aspects of his book. The more cynical among you may argue that this is a disingenuous marketing strategy implemented so as not to alienate the types of people who would usually be interested in buying a novel by Richard Madeley; but you'd be wrong. Madeley's refusal to even acknowledge the SF aspects of Some Day I'll Find You is an extratextual continuation of the book's themes of wilful ignorance and buried truths. In essence the writer is living his life like his characters, and like his narrator; as if he's unaware of the true nature of things. Supposedly this is some kind of art project contrived to instil in his readers a Platonist questioning of the material evidence for the world around us.

***

The first clue to the fact that the setting isn't actually post-War France is the conspicuous absence of the sun from the novel's front cover; this is surely a paratextual hint that Some Day I'll Find You takes place in an enclosed space. The depiction of protagonist Diana's strangely yellow skin might also be an intimation to some kind of evolutionary tomfoolery that's taken place in the ship's distant past; but I wouldn't tug at this particular thread too much, you might be reading something into the text that isn't really there.

The novel begins in medias res (we are joining Diana half-way through her story, just as we are joining the ship in the middle of its journey, it seems), as we are introduced to one of the novel's more frequent refrains, "Everything was wrong. Completely wrong." True that. Obviously it doesn't take too much of a critical leap to understand this oft-repeated phrase as a kind of narrative incertitude: yes, on some level, Diana's love life is "completely wrong", but we astute readers know what Madeley is really getting at; that this ship's society is functioning in a tragic, unnatural way, having lost its true identity, possibly thousands of years ago.

Further suggestions that something's amiss with this world are ciphered into the book's prose. The constant barrage of terrible clichés may seem to be down to plain old bad writing, but what's really going on is a sort of modernist semantic game, as Madeley challenges his readers to re-evaluate the tenets of everyday language. We may believe that when the pilot on page 98 spouts some tired old chestnut about his vehicle being "an extension of his arms and hands", it's just an example of writerly laziness and an over-reliance on an old cliché, but what if the pilot is speaking literally? Maybe his body is fitted with some vestigial cybernetic implants that enable him to fly the pods of the generation ship (which have been re-fitted to resemble 20th- Century aviation, of course). Likewise one of Diana's siblings is, at one point, described as being "unfinished" - we may take this for non-literal lyricism if we wish, but maybe, just maybe, he's a robot. What Richard Madeley is doing is literalising clichés; turning them in on themselves, making them un-metaphors, just as this book is set in an un-France, in an un-Time. We've talked about how subtle and encoded all of this SF stuff is, but in some places, it's really in-your-face.

Similarly, 'Some Day I'll Find You's various historical inaccuracies function as auxiliary evidence that this isn't the real Europe of 1950. Plus, much of the book's language borrows from a lexical set more in keeping with Science Fiction than historical Romance; expect to encounter such words as "slipstream", "gravitational", and "the End of Days" on a regular basis. The book also makes frequent reference to masks, implying that we should look beyond the surface level of the plot in order to find its true meaning.

***

But what's the point of all this? If Richard Madeley wanted to write a book set aboard a giant, giant space ship, why didn't he just do it like other, normal writers of Science Fiction? Why is it all so cryptic and disguised? I guess it's a funny and clever way of getting fans of the Richard and Judy book club to spend their money on SF, but there's gotta be more to it than that.

Essentially Some Day I'll Find You is a book whose form mirrors the experience of it characters. This modernist device is used by Madeley to generate a sense of empathy with the poor souls lost aboard this generation ship. Just as the book's cast believe they are having Romantic misadventures in mid-20th-Century Europe, so the book actually behaves as a work of historical Romance, rather than the experimental Science Fiction it really is. The book is a microcosm for the generation ship itself; it acts as one thing, while actually being another. It's brilliant; a highly original examination of the nature of identity, knowledge, and how we choose to see the world around us.

Perhaps the best example of this duality is found in the book's title. "Some Day I'll Find You" could be Diana's passionate longing for love, or it could be the first-person voice of the generation ship itself, looking ahead to the destination it's been heading towards for thousands of years.


By Light Alone
By Light Alone
Price: £5.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars By Light Alone, 4 Jun. 2013
This review is from: By Light Alone (Kindle Edition)
You know zombie movies, yeah? Zombie movies? Okay so you know how in zombie movies there's often a protracted period in the opening act during which the characters have no idea that the world has gone to hell and that the zombie horde is almost at their front door, and the only way that the viewer has any idea about the zombies is because she's given glimpses of subtly-placed newspaper headlines and T.V. footage telling her about the zombies - reportage of which the characters all seem blissfully unaware? Well, Adam Roberts' 'By Light Alone' begins in very much the same vein. There are no zombies, but the world has most definitely gone to hell. This may be painfully obvious to the reader, but the rich, self-centred protagonists, sealed off in the hermetic paradise of uber-affluent Manhattan, have no idea about the true state of things - reading the news, you see, has become distinctly unfashionable.

Well, I say there are no zombies - but that's not really true. 'By Light Alone' is set 100 (ish) years from now, when humans have genetically engineered the ability to photosynthesize through their hair, thus eliminating the need for food. This results in a kind of extreme Marxian two-class society: the rich (who can afford real food) are completely sealed-off and unreachable, and affect baldness as a visual signifier of their wealth. The poor masses, by comparison, grow long flowing locks and spend their days prostrate in the sun in order to survive. (I suppose the "jobsuckers" (those who work) form a third class - analogous with the petite bourgeoisie - but the novel never deals with these directly.) The so-called `longhairs' are seen by our rich protagonists as the zombie plague: socially worthless (they don't need food, so there's no motivation for them to work the low-paid jobs of the poor), nomadic and emaciated, they ring the walled-cities and lay-about on rafts, just existing in their millions, described using imagery highly reminiscent of cinema's zombie hordes: gorging all day (albeit on sunlight), walking about, and not doing very much of anything else.

In order for By Light Alone to work, then, the reader has to swallow the ridiculousness of photosynthesizing hair, and for what it's worth I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief in this regard (who says Science Fiction has to be about real science, anyway?). I was wary going-in to a book that so obviously functions as a thought experiment, a transposition of our real world concerns about a growing rich-poor divide that utilises a science fictional gimmick (the "hair") to both simplify and radicalise the terms of the enquiry. But the clinical and gloomy investigation into the nature of poverty is pleasingly tempered by Roberts' knack for charming characterisation and frequently hilarious satire. The satire in question isn't especially subtle (and his caricatures of the vain, ignorant, unsympathetic rich are so extreme as to be unhelpful in some passages), but I generally found the jokes to be successful, and the culture criticism to be biting and astute.

**

The first half of 'By Light Alone' can be uncomfortable reading. We spend most of our time with George and Marie: grotesque, vain, vulgar millionaires entirely ignorant and dismissive of the wider world and its myriad problems. They spend their time holidaying and eating various expensive and exotic foodstuffs; partly because it's fashionable, and partly because they just can. George and Marie's children are cared for by a full-time nanny, who is occasionally commanded to bring the kids out so that they might be shown-off for 5 or 10 minutes to George and Marie's equally abhorrent friends - this being the total extent of the interaction between parents and children.

I experienced a strange cognitive dissonance when reading about George and Marie, somewhere between voyeuristically delighting in their vileness, and morally despairing at the unapologetic pride they have in their own ignorance. Much of the language in the first half of the novel is equally divided: there's a limited narratorial point of view that seems similarly unaware of the wider "real world", but which simultaneously satirises the protagonists' despicable ignorance and gluttony. It's impressive stuff, coloured by Roberts' characteristically dry sense of humour. For example, when Marie admits to a friend that she has two children, the narrator chips-in with this sly description:

`Two!' repeated Ys, as if this number were one of those mind-stunning statistics you hear on documentaries about the vastness of interstellar space.

The primary catalyst for dramatic action occurs when George and Marie's daughter, Leah, is kidnapped while on holiday. Leah is returned to them after several months' frantic communication with the local police, but something about their daughter isn't quite right. She's lost the ability to speak English, has been forced to grow her hair long and, after months in the capture of poor "longhairs", hasn't eaten "hard food" since her kidnapping. After various psychological and pharmaceutical therapies, Leah slowly returns to her old self, but the process takes its toll on her parents, and this traumatic event inevitably exposes the cracks in their marriage.

The change in George's world view at this point is a slightly garish and parable-esque U-turn that's just about in keeping with his pre-established character, but the more interesting emotional fallout is definitely Marie's, whose search for solace in various lovers, drugs, therapies and hobbies reveals an emotional complexity that tested my pre-conceptions of this rich, vain woman. She's still patronising and ignorant, of course, but it's satisfying that Roberts' caricatures attempt some emotional depth. There's a strange amount of posturing in By Light Alone, and the book constantly had me shifting and re-adjusting my opinions of its characters. I'm not sure if this is a consequence of deliberate misdirects and red herrings designed to play on my own prejudices, or if it's just down to some clunky writing.

When `what happened to Leah' is eventually revealed to the reader, for example, I was equal parts pleased by the originality of the twist, and disappointed by its implications for characterisation. I guess it's down to the caprice of the individual reader to decide whether she can buy-into the idea that Leah's parents wouldn't have immediately sussed what was going on, even though Roberts had laid some of the groundwork for their parental ignorance in advance. I'm still not sure what I feel about it, to be honest.

**

The second half of By Light Alone entails a dramatic shift in narrative focus, and the book now concerns itself with Issa, an itinerant "longhair" trying to reach New York. The change in register at this point is welcome; long descriptions of food, affluence and luxury are replaced like-for-like with accounts of hunger, poverty and violence. The tonal move is jarring, but deliberately so. As Issa travels through (I think) Turkey, she is variously assaulted, dehydrated, lost and forced to deal with the Spartacists (revolutionaries set on overthrowing the superstructure of the real-food-eating rich). It's harrowing and often deftly-handled stuff, but I found many of the long passages that recount Issa's wanderings to be tedious, repetitive and a bit too vague in their imagery (I had a lot of trouble actually visualising the landscape). Perhaps you could generously describe such sequences as the novel's form mirroring the experience of its subject... but er..hmmm.

Seen from the perspective of the "longhairs", of course, it is now the super-rich of the book's opening chapters who appear to be the zombies: constantly stuffing their faces, ignorant about, well, everything, and just kinda brain dead and detached. I don't want to take this whole zombie analogy too far (I admit it's a bit fatuous and vague), but it's definitely helpful in describing the somewhat ironic way in which the book's two groups of people (the rich, and the longhairs) see one another. The most successful aspect of By Light Alone is the way the novel appears to set-up simplistic binaries, but then perpetually interrupts the process by shifting the perspective to the other side, to detail the pains and flaws of what was heretofore an "other". As I've said, the rich aren't exclusively depicted as emotionally depthless and selfish, and likewise Roberts is keen to avoid any stereotypes of the noble poor (many of the "longhairs'" actions are truly despicable).

**

So By Light Alone is an odd thing, really. It makes a lot of demands of its readers: you have to buy-in to lots of nonsense that can't always be waved away as "just satire", but if you're willing to read it without too much cynicism, then you'll find the book to be frequently funny, engaging and, at its action-packed dénouement, genuinely moving. I found myself having to constantly re-orientate my opinions of its characters and their actions, and this, in some ways, is a good reflection of the complexities and problems of the debate at hand. The second half of the book is a little too earnest, and definitely over-dependent on unlikely coincidences to drive the narrative forward, but By Light Alone remains a fascinating thought experiment, and definitely worth a read.


The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (Hainish Cycle)
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (Hainish Cycle)

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Dispossessed, 2 Jun. 2013
Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) is a Utopian Science Fiction novel that explores the odd-couple societies of twinned planets; one a capitalist democratic paradise, the other a haven of anarcho-socialism. The protagonist, Shevek, is a brilliant physicist from the anarchist desert planet of Anarres who's developed a method for `Simultaneity' - instantaneous communication across vast interstellar distances. Shevek finds that the technologically basic and bureaucratically corrupt anarchist administration obstructs the development of his revolutionary idea, but when he travels to Anarres' twin planet Urras, he is confronted with a politically conniving capitalism that's more interested in *owning* his ideas than making them a reality. What follows is a sometimes theoretically dense but always readable extrapolation of two very different political approaches to the individual, to genius, and to human relationships in general.

In a recent review of Patrick Ness' The Crane Wife, Ursula Le Guin laments modern literature's penchant for brief, quippy dialogue predicated more on wit and style than realism or meaning: "for me these dialogues, even when clever, fail to work as part of a novel. But expectations change with generations, and the reduction of human relationships to a back-and-forth table-tennis bounce of bodiless voices may be perfectly satisfactory to readers who spend a lot of time on a mobile phone." The Dispossessed, then, definitely offers the antithesis to this post-mobile phone rendering of dialogue. The greater part of the novel comprises very long, politically charged exchanges between Shevek and various characters (notably his partner Takver, a beautifully realised character piece who epitomises the contradictions inherent in, on the one hand, fierce loyalty to her social ideals and, on the other, to her lover and family). But such is Le Guin's ear for realistic speech and characterisation that these long cogitations on politics and morality never feel text-booky or robotic, always coloured as they are by an incredible empathy for human emotion, and enlivened by Le Guin's characteristic wit, "It's hard to swear when sex is not dirty and blasphemy does not exist".

I'm finding it difficult to describe, in the compass of this small review, quite how detailed Le Guin's descriptions of the finer workings of these two societies are. It's extraordinary, and made more so by the human interest that tempers any potential for cold politicising. The book's ending is a tad out-of-the-blue, and there's a revolutionary riot scene on the capitalist planet that takes place in sympathy with the plight of the anarchists and which we would probably now call Miévillian in its tone (sorry, I know that's an awful neologism... alternative suggestions on a postcard, please), but ultimately The Dispossessed is a captivating, ferociously intelligent and deeply moving epic. The book's imagery is dominated by descriptions of walls, of boundaries and their violent breach, and this forms a very successful visual and metaphoric subtext for the more violent events of the plot. It's amazing, is what I'm trying to say...


Nova (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Nova (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
by Samuel R. Delany
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nova, 2 Jun. 2013
Samuel R. Delaney's Nova (1968) is an early example of Science Fiction wilfully deconstructing its own tropes and stylistic proclivities, a wry rebuttal to the hero-centric adolescent nonsense of SF pulp. Delaney has since become a giant of both Science Fiction and the academic study of the same; and this early novel (he wrote it when he was 25!) serves as a good way-in to both his narrative style and his dry wit, without posing the insane post-structuralist difficulties of his later works like Dhalgren.

The premise is classic space opera: Captain Lorq van Ray assembles a rag-tag crew of drifters and aspirants to gather `Illyrion', a game-changing energy source that can only be harvested by flying a ship through the heart of an imploding star. The story is relayed from the perspective of The Mouse, a gypsy from Earth, gifted musician, and one of Lorq's recruits. This seemingly run-of-the-mill premise is soon complicated by the character of Captain Lorq himself; a narrative red herring who initially fits the archetype of noble space captain, but is gradually revealed to be a violent, deformed, ignoble, impatient and dangerous obsessive: the book's shocking, brutal and brilliant ending forcing the reader to completely re-adjust her opinions of this central but ultimately intangible figure.

The `love interest' trope, meanwhile, is a cartoonishly sexualised femme fatale engaged in an are-they-aren't-they incestuous relationship with her brother (Lorq's rival); the jealous, insecure but ambitious Prince Red. The mythopoeia of the setting similarly upsets space opera conventions by being grounded on Tarot law and strange references to the Grail Quest; and it's this, combined with one character's constant musings on the nature of the novel, that gives Nova it's strange bipartite identity, half manic space-race to an elusive fuel source, half thoughtful rumination of the nature of spirituality and art.

It's a relatively short novel (my copy: 224 pp), but one that strikes out in so many different directions (race, sexuality, philosophy of science, revolutionary politics, war, revenge tragedy etc.) as to feel, T.A.R.D.I.S.-like, vastly bigger than it's meagre page count would suggest. Nova is incredible: completely exhilarating, decades ahead of its time, and brimming with challenges to the reader's pre-conceived notions of what SF is, or how it should behave; and it achieves all of this without ever feeling saturated or confusing or in the least bit pretentious.


Non-Stop (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Non-Stop (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Price: £4.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Non-Stop, 2 Jun. 2013
[WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW...]

The idea of a `generation ship' had been kicking around in both scientific non-fiction and SF for quite a few years by 1958, when Brian Aldiss wrote the first novel-length treatment of the concept. Non-Stop concerns itself with several scavenging, semi-primitive tribes who inhabit a primordial jungle; the obvious mid-novel revelation being that these tribesmen are, in fact, the distant descendants of the crew of a vast generation ship that has lost its own history and which, owing to some horrific accident, has become over-grown with mutated plant life (dubbed `ponics' - presumably a corruption of the term `hydroponics'). I say the twist is "obvious", but this is only because it has, in recent years, become an over-used cliché of both visual and literary SF, from Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun and Christine Love's Analogue: a Hate Story, to cinema's abortive 2009 horror bore-fest Pandorum.

The reason for this over-use is obvious: the scenario is an incredibly fruitful one, a twist that generates impressive narrative momentum and sense-of-wonder while simultaneously knocking at the door of deeper philosophical investigations and a Platonist questioning of the material evidence for the world around us. Non-Stop is one of the better examples of this scenario, and is, of course, awarded extra SF points for being its progenitor. The prose is a little dry, occasionally veering on clunky, but the sheer pace of the book mitigates any sense of stylistic aridity, and the deftly handled dénouement is, for modern readers at least, a much more impressive shock than the early disclosure that `they were on a ship all along'.

Generous readers might want to argue that Non-Stop (both its plot and, fittingly, its title) functions as a metaphor for human history and our awakening from an ignorant dark age into a self-aware scientific knowledge. This transition, it's religious and psychological implications, are brilliantly worked-through in the character of Marapper, a priest who leads an expedition to find the ship's legendary "bridge". Unfortunately, however, the rest of book's characterisation is inconsistent at best, with the majority of protagonists seemingly unfazed by the surely mind-blowing discovery that the recognizable world of their arid jungle is actually an enclosed hermetic space aboard an interstellar, man-made ship; I was hoping for at least a little existential panic. (Although there is a strikingly beautiful sequence in which several characters stumble upon and activate a viewing window, exposing themselves for the first time to the stars and the vastness of the cosmos, a moment that functions as an unsubtle but nonetheless arresting metaphor for the death of religion and the revelation of human smallness).

It's not without its flaws, then, but Non-Stop is a swift, highly readable novel that has stood the test of time. It is also, perhaps, one of the best, clearest examples of what Adam Roberts calls the defining dialectic of Science Fiction: the tension between scientific, materialist logic, and the mystical spiritualism encoded in religious myth that pervades so much of our history, literature and attempts to explain the universe


The A26
The A26
by Pascal Garnier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The A26, 12 Feb. 2013
This review is from: The A26 (Paperback)
It's customary for me to begin my reviews by writing about the genre in which any given book functions, but darn it this one has me stumped.

Stylistically The A26 borrows from mid-Twentieth-Century hardboiled noir; stuff like Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon. The writing is often cynical, curt and metaphor-heavy, characterised by an unsympathetic portrayal of gruesome violence. In fact, many of the narrator's observations are so close to something Philip Marlowe would say that they can only be viewed as appreciative nods in Chandler's direction. Where The Big Sleep equates bodies with heartbreak:

"Dead men are heavier than broken hearts."

The A26 follows suit with:

"They say there is nothing heavier than an empty heart; the same is true of a lifeless body."

Of course this specific reference to Chandler may just be an idiosyncrasy of the translator (I don't have a French copy (or a French speaker, for that matter) here for comparison); but needless to say there's definitely a noir-esque tone that pervades the prose. Acts of violence are described with a glib matter-of-fact-ness, and when the writing does become more lyrical, it's always with a snarky undertone and dark sense of poetry:

"The countryside, accustomed to low skies and drizzle, looked ill at ease in its Sunday best. The bricks were too red, the sky too blue, the grass too green. It was as if nature felt embarrassed at being so extravagantly made up."

These stylistic proclivities, coupled with the story's bodycount and focus on social outsiders, should make the act of genre classification an assured thing, right? It's a noir. But once you've read a few chapters, and you start to get to grips with the actual plot, things don't seem quite so clear-cut. The A26 has murders, sure, but it's not *about* the murders, per se; there are no procedural or detective elements, and without meaning to sound dismissive of noir and its pulp roots (of which I am much-enamoured), The A26 just seems too... literary. It's a novel about the strange hinterlands between spaces - both physical and figurative - and the inevitable fallout that ensues when people try to bridge the gaps between, for example, the rural and the urban, past and present, love and hate, life and death.

This thematic pre-occupation with boundaries is made readily apparent in the book's opening chapter, a metaphorically loaded scene that sees Frenchwoman Yolande staring out at the world through a tiny peephole drilled in the wall of the boarded-up house that she never, ever leaves. Yolande believes that World War II is still on-going, and that all of her neighbours are `boche' informants. She is cared for by her brother, Bernard; a retired rail worker obsessed with the construction of the `A26', a major road (and obvious metaphor for death) slowly impinging on their rural community.

Yolande and Bernard have lived in this old house - separate and hermetic - for decades, and the real substance of this book is found in the ways these characters react when the outside - illness, neighbours, the new road, technology, the present - begins to push against and trespass their borders. It's as much an investigation into solitariness, love and desperation as it is a forensic examination of the circumstances surrounding some particularly imaginative murders.

So might we just call it Literary Fiction with noir tendencies, then? Well, no, because to do so would be to perform an almost sacrilegious disservice to another of the book's defining traits: The A26 is really, really funny. It's so funny that (you could probably argue) calling it anything other than a Black Comedy is to decidedly miss the point. The blogger WinstonsDad is correct when he likens the book's premise to the opening of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is comedy to be found in the new road, with all of the traffic and metaphors it brings with it. But WinstonsDad's second comparison - that the siblings of The A26 evoke the reclusive brother-sister duo Edward and Tubbs from the T.V. show The League of Gentleman - is much closer to the descriptive mark. The comedy is decidedly a gallows humour; Garnier's descriptions of a bic biro being used as a murder weapon are gruesome, but also very funny. And the humour isn't exclusively violent; between the book's murder sequences the comedy is frequently scatological and sexual: preposterous in a way that's reminiscent of medieval fabliaux (a genre of writing that emerged from Northeast France - and I imagine it's no coincidence that The A26 is set in Picardy).

But in order to stop the novel descending into abject farce, which would bathetically undermine the book's more serious concerns for loneliness and mental illness, much of The A26's grotesque comedy is undercut by, well, stuff that's just genuinely grotesque: grotesque in a way that provides some nice tonal variance, but also establishes a disconcerting and genuinely unnerving tension. Somewhat predictably, then, this leads me onto another of Pascal Garnier's genre appropriations: horror fiction. Converging with the noir-esque narration, the literary concern with boundaries and the book's strange sense of comedy, are some passages that wouldn't be out of place in Lovecraft or Ligotti:

"Always at the end of this dream, however, his two halves would be wriggling on either side of the track and would manage to stick themselves together again."

Or:

"Something had smashed on the floor, her bowl half-full of red wine. Some creature going past no doubt. They were everywhere. You couldn't see them but they were there, nibbling, scrabbling, gnawing at even the very shadows."

And this description of a rictal grimace is absolutely a reference to Georg Heym's The Autopsy:

"On the mattress the exposed corpse gave a toothy grin."

But much like the other element's I've discussed, the horror isn't prevalent enough to warrant labelling the entire novel as such.

I could go on and on: the changes that Bernard undergoes when he realises his illness is terminal could encourage me to read The A26 as a kind of late-life bildungsroman. The quasi-incestuous nature of the siblings' relationship make me want to tag the novel as a love story (albeit a dark, twisted one); and the neighbours' investigations into the strange murders almost (almost) make this a piece of straight-forward crime fiction. But simply listing verbatim all of the different literary genres that Garnier has appropriated, though providing some glimpse of the book's aesthetic, doesn't really offer, in itself, any kind of critical understanding of the work.

So, why, then, is The A26 such an obvious smorgasbord of so many disparate genre conventions? Well, as I understand it, this blurring of genre borders acts as a deliberate structuralist reflection of the book's actual plotting and themes. Bernard and Yolande have spent decades trying to erect walls (both physical and figurative) around themselves, but their efforts are ultimately proved futile as their borders are all breached with violent inevitability. Within their tiny house, Bernard and Yolande's approach to life seems divided: he is obsessed with death, she insists that "Nothing [is] ever supposed to stop" - but even this distinction is proven to be permeable, as the novel's denouement so powerfully demonstrates: both characters choose the same path, regardless of their individual approaches to death.

The A26 is a warning against hermeticism, blockades and isolation: an illustration that the borders we so unthinkingly put up - even those literary distinctions between genres - are in fact unstable and transient. The proper word for this rejection of boundaries and certainties is probably "modernism" and this, it seems, is the best label for the book: at least it's better than the wishy-washy genre compound "Horror-fiction-literary-black-comedy-noir". But the fact remains that whatever you do decide to call The A26, the book is absolutely fantastic.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 11, 2013 1:33 PM GMT


Thaliad
Thaliad
by Marly Youmans
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.75

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thaliad, 4 Feb. 2013
This review is from: Thaliad (Paperback)
It seems that post-apocalyptic narrative is definitely on a roll here in the early 21st Century; what with Cormac McCarthy, China Mieville, David Almond etc. all turning to the genre in recent years. Marly Youmans' 'Thaliad' is an unusual addition to the field, but it's also one of the best examples I've ever read. 'Thaliad' has a commonality with The Road in that it comes from a literary tradition decidedly outside of the SFF mainstream: it's a mythopoeic epic poem about seven children attempting to survive the aftermath of some non-disclosed apocalyptic event referred to only as `The Fire'. One of the children, a girl named Thalia, soon emerges as the de facto leader of the group, and together they settle in the ruins of an abandoned village on the edge of lake Glimmerglass. What follows is a desperate and genuinely moving cling to life that's equal parts bleak and uplifting, harrowing and hopeful.

A lazy crib would be: `The Road meets Lord of the Flies in verse', but such a label, however succinct, fails to encapsulate the sheer inventiveness and lyrical exuberance of Youmans' writing. Who, for example, could resist such beautiful and strange and violent language as:

Nothing could have halted them from verdict

And vengeance, save angelic messengers

Arrived by unexpected thunderbolt.

A wail went out from Thalia and streamed

Across the mire, across the slough of blood

It's structurally formal, but the poetry never feels rigidly metered or constrained; a feat entirely due to the beauty, flow and vitality of the writing. Sure it's heavily stylised in the way you'd expect from epic verse that channels, among others, Homer; but the writing isn't at all arch or overbearing. Furthermore, the book has some strikingly novelistic traits: chapter divisions, direct speech, and a first person narrator, all of which should act as a helpful way-in for those readers more familiar with novels than poetry.

'Thaliad' is composed in blank verse (that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter), and there's a definite tension between the book's future-looking, sci-fi-esque premise, and the New Formalist way it eschews free verse in favour of this more traditional approach to rhythm and prescribed syllable count. Wrapped up in this tension between the book's setting and its form are Youmans' playful references to the canon of classical epic poetry. The opening line, for example, "It was the age beyond the ragged time" references the first line of The Iliad, with "age" and "ragged" bearing more than a passing phonic and visual resemblance to Homer's first-line repetition of "rage" (as it's translated in English, obviously); and this serves as a definite tonal signifier for the poem that follows. Similarly, such chapter headings as `Seven Against the World' make reference to Greek Tragic drama (as do the frequent allusions to masks), and the text itself is replete with lively puns, such as this clever nod to both the Icarus story and the fabled fluid that supposedly ran in the veins of the Greek Gods (the `ichor'):

The heavens, ichorous, let down a rain

That seemed as if it could have been the blood

Of dying Gods dreamed up in ancient worlds.

The most striking Classical reference is, of course, in the book's name. Using the titular suffix `-iad' would have been an act of pure hubris in the hands of less able writers, and initially I was sceptical, expecting Thaliad to be open to accusations of self-aggrandising pomposity and stylistic misappropriation; after all, calling your book `Thaliad' and hence inviting comparison with Homer could be mistaken as a very cocky move indeed. Happily, there's a fantastic inter-textual rationale behind this book's title and its neo-classical form. The narrator (and supposed writer) of Thaliad, Emma, is speaking 60 years after the events she describes, and learnt her trade as a poet-historian by salvaging what books she could (presumably the Classics) from the ruined world's libraries. So 'Thaliad', then, fictionalises the story of its own creation; the book itself is supposedly a piece of history, written as a record of the first years following `The Fire'.

It's not unlike China Miéville's post-apocalyptic landscape the `Railsea', whose inhabitants have re-ordered society through a kind of collective performance of Moby Dick. The world of 'Thaliad' likewise addresses the problem of overcoming the apocalypse through an act of textual salvage: Emma and Thalia have re-constructed the world's history via this filter of Classic literature, and the results are surprisingly uplifting. It really works, but only because the post-apocalyptic setting provides suitable thematic gravitas: no other genre of 21st Century fiction could get away with appropriating the language of classic Greek literature without simultaneously committing some enormous faux pas.

But don't worry if Homer et al isn't your particular thing. 'Thaliad' doesn't pre-suppose an understanding of Greek literature, and knowledge of the Classics is not a pre-requisite to fully enjoying this poem. The book's real appeal is its language, its characters and the heartbreaking decisions they find themselves making. Marly Youmans takes great pains to ensure that 'Thaliad' isn't one of those post-apocalyptic narratives whose characters are mere passive bystanders swept along by Big, Important, Global events beyond their control. Choices made and not-made are the thematic heart of the poem, and for me the book's most significant event occurs at its very beginning, when the children make their first collective decision: to abandon one of their number, Gabriel, a boy who won't stop crying:

They shouted at him that he'd learn a thing,

Or two, to not be so unendingly

Unbearable, to weep as all could weep

But did not do.

[...] They drove away.

They drove away! And left that little boy

Alone with bridges, river, blowing ash,

Immensity. He was eleven, a child

The six remaining children soon realise what an appalling thing they've done and turn around, hoping to find Gabriel once more, but all to no avail.

The abandonment of Gabriel influences the moral identities of the children more so than any other of the book's events. Chapters and decades later, it remains the significant episode of their lives, presumably because, unlike `The Fire', discarding Gabriel is a tragedy of their own contriving. If the apocalypse can be read as a second Fall (and there's plenty of Biblical imagery at play: "There is no peaceful land, / And gates of Eden long ago clanged shut"), this first decision made by the children is definitely their loss of innocence. On numerous occasions various speakers equate this early naivety with all their future tragedies:

- For where is Gabriel, that child of light,

Who might have been the father of the world? -

[...]

Perhaps the sin of Gabriel, forlorn,

Abandoned on the track has weighted us

Like pocket stones in deepening water.

If you want to be twee about it, you could probably argue that 'Thaliad' functions as a metaphor for the end of childhood and the violent emergence into the adult realm of moral responsibility. I wouldn't tug at this thread too much, but it's there if you really must.

It would be remiss of me at this point not to mention Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who as well as designing the book's cover, has illustrated small iconographic vignettes that head each of 'Thaliad''s twenty four chapters (note: the same number of books divide The Iliad). These striking black and white collages definitely influenced my conception of Thaliad's world, and the grey-tone in which they're rendered acts as a satisfying visual call-back to the descriptions of ash and rubble that dominate much of the poem's imagery. As well as being unusually beautiful, Thaliad's artwork is loaded with symbolism and connotation. The image that heads chapter twenty three, for example, depicts two of the children (now fully-grown) fighting over Thalia. The icon itself is a silhouette-esque depiction of two men locked in combat, with their swords provocatively placed so as to resemble the positioning of erect phalluses in a way that alludes to the lust that is the deeper subtext and reasoning behind their feud.

Thaliad is an extraordinary, deeply moving and fiercely intelligent poem, and I hope I've given some indication of its many achievements. I've not written much about the plot because, frankly, it's difficult to do so without resorting to massive spoilers, but suffice it to say that several of the story's twists are genuinely shocking, genuinely original. Its greatest accomplishment is the way it successfully melds so many disparate literary traditions into something cohesive, without seams. References to Diana Wynne Jones can be found adjacent nods to Ovid or Cormac McCarthy and Andrew Marvell. It plays with form in memorable and mischievous ways (the first fourteen lines of chapter 18, for example, could easily be isolated as a kind of weird blank verse bucolic sonnet), and it always works. Thaliad is a convergence of genre spaces, and we Science Fiction fans, sometimes so rigid and stubborn in our reading, would do well to embrace it.


Both Flesh And Not
Both Flesh And Not
by David Foster Wallace
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Both Flesh and Not, 15 Jan. 2013
This review is from: Both Flesh And Not (Hardcover)
'Both Flesh and Not' is the first of what I assume will be several posthumous bringing-togethers of David Foster Wallace's shorter non-fiction. This collection offers a somewhat disparate array of brilliant and not-so-brilliant essays plonked in concert with seemingly little concern for chronology, consistency of subject matter or overall theme. As such, I've decided to structure my review accordingly:

"Both Flesh and Not" - The compilers hit the ground running with what is arguably DFW's most well-known essay; a long and performative piece about Roger Federer's tennis genius which acts as a way-in for DFW to examine the state of modern tennis in general. Possibly the best example of his tripartite prose style, Both Flesh and Not melds hyperbolic and lyrical writing with high-level technical language and a penchant for multi-page, off-tangent footnotes. The overly long and microscopic focus on, for example, a particular ground-stroke of Federer's, or the ballet of his backhand, is equal parts tedious and hypnotic, but plough through the jargon long enough, and you'll eventually be rewarded with such gems as:

"The truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love."
-----

"Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young" - In which DFW successfully equates the 1980's rise of utilitarian, adjective-hating, snarky prose with "the aesthetic norms of mass entertainment". The idea that "Television's greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding" would later become a significant and oft-repeated part of his critical ideology. It's unfortunate that such a beautifully written and thought-provoking essay is occasionally undermined by such essentialist drivel as "Today's trash writers are entertainers working artists' turf", but all is forgiven by a thinly-veiled yet wonderful end-game jibe at his bitter rival (or so the press would have you believe) Bret Easton Ellis: "many of our best-known [young writers] seem content merely to have reduced interpretation to whining".
-----

"The Empty Plenum: David Markson's `Wittgenstein's Mistress'" - A difficult and meandering book review that's not for the philosophically uninitiated. Some of it I got, a lot of it I didn't get. But mostly, I imagine, there was stuff that I don't even know I wasn't getting.
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"Back In New Fire" - The infamous AIDS essay, and, it seems, the absolute low-point of DFW's writing. Here he lambasts the sexual revolution of the 1960's for taking away any sense of danger or thrill or human connection from sex. He imagines your typical chivalrous knight assailing a castle to win a fair maiden (yes, this really is his metaphor of choice for talking about sex...) but instead of a dragon to defeat (religion, parental control, societal perceptions, unwanted pregnancy etc.), thanks to modern contraception and an openness about sex, there IS NO DRAGON. The knight can saunter in and his maiden will be waiting, legs akimbo. No risk, no taboo. Sex is now easy, so where's the thrill etc?

Ignoring for a second his problematic rendering of sexual relations as exclusively a man assailing a maiden in a castle, he states:

"The casual knights of my own bland generation might well come to regard AIDS as a blessing, a gift perhaps bestowed by nature to restore some critical balance, or maybe summoned unconsciously out of the collective erotic despair of the post-60′s glut. Because the dragon is back, and clothed in a fire that can't be ignored."

He goes on to add "I mean no offense", and follows this with (somewhat dishearteningly) "but our own history shows that - for whatever reason - an erotically charged human existence requires impediments to passion".

It's... it's not his greatest moment, to be honest.
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"The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2" - In which DFW reveals himself to be quite the film critic by rightly pointing out the myriad ways in which the first Terminator film is far superior to the utter bathetic dross that is Terminator 2. I, however, love this essay for the following observation, so beautifully put:

"It was flat-out criminal that Sigourney Weaver didn't win the '86 Oscar for her lead in Cameron's Aliens. No male lead in the history of U.S. action film even approaches Weaver's second Ripley for emotional depth and sheer balls - she makes Stallone, Willis et al look muddled and ill."
-----

"Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. novels > 1960" - In which DFW reveals himself to be a better film critic than literary critic. These five short pieces on his favourite novels are uninspiring, un-insightful, flat and somewhat of a faux pas. His one-sentence review of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian ("Don't even ask") is glib and immature, it seems.
-----

"The Best of the Prose Poem" - Very funny book review taking the form of a bullet-point list, said form employed because, DFW argues, none of the words preceding each bullet point's title "constitute subjective compliment, appositive not any recognised grammatical unit" hence allowing to him to vastly exceed his "rigid 1,000 word limit".
-----

"Twenty-Four Word Notes" - 24 micro-essays, each concerned with an individual word or some esoterica thereof. Here Foster Wallace insists that the word whom, as a relative pronoun, should never be replaced with that (as many people do replace it), and that any progressive linguist who suggests that the increased popular use of that in place of whom is representative of the word whom being phased out of the language is wrong WRONG WRONG.

"This sort of argument is interesting in theory: ignore it in practice. As of 2003, misusing that for who or whom, whether in writing or speech, functions as a kind of class-marker - it's the grammatical equivalent of wearing NASCAR paraphernalia or liking pro wrestling."

Well, that's a nice helping of intellectual and cultural elitism if ever I've heard it. I wish I could say he was being ironic or tongue in cheek. Alas.
-----

"Just Asking" - Brilliant short, provocative essay that asks what price are we willing to pay for freedom of movement/agency/speech within a state, free of government intervention, over-zealous policing etc. and etc. "What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite everyone's best efforts, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of terrible suicidal attack that a democratic republic cannot 100 percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?".
-----

Bonus: The `Best Footnote of the Book' award goes to the medial-question-mark-in-sentence trick, which allows DFW to form a coherent sentence using the word that six times in a row: "He said that? that that that that that writer used should have been a which?"
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 16, 2013 8:37 PM GMT


The American Future: A History From The Founding Fathers To Barack Obama
The American Future: A History From The Founding Fathers To Barack Obama
by Simon Schama
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars American Future, 3 Dec. 2012
Nobody writes history quite like Simon Schama:

"But when you stepped through the bails of scratchy tumbleweed that had come to rest against the broken fence you could see the place was held together by nothing more than the debris of its own ruin; the splintered wreck of a life that was hanging on in the middle of nowhere, so its reproach would endure against the Colorado sky like someone who wouldn't or couldn't stop crying."

Like most people, I assume, I first became aware of Simon Schama when I watched his seminal BBC series A History of Britain way back in 2000. But it wasn't until university that I started paying attention to him as a literary stylist, when a lecturer told me (with all the histrionic hand gestures and unintentional spitting of the enthused academic) that the moment Simon Schama decided to write history instead of fiction marked a terrible loss to the modern novel. I took this gauche statement for all the unqualified hyperbole it so obviously is but, apparently, there was indeed such a "moment" as my supervisor described. In Schama's quasi-autobiographical book of essays Scribble, Scribble, Scribble he writes:

"I made my choice albeit with some torment. I was a History Boy. Hector [Schama's English master] took it badly, as if betrayed, and barely spoke to me for months. Many years later I told him that much of the rest of my life had been spent trying to make the choice between history and literature moot."

Of course you could interpret this statement as a bashful attempt to justify the defiant, un-historian-like floweriness of Schama's prose, but - for what it's worth - the more books I read by Simon Schama, the more I'm impressed by not just his fluency and eloquence as a popular historian, but by the beauty, imagination and emotional insight of his writing. His newest book The American Future, which examines the myriad ways in which America has imagined its own future "from the founding fathers to Barack Obama", isn't any kind of departure from his previous output of so-called "narrative history", and as such is unlikely to convert any of his critics, but it definitely feels more socially relevant than many of his recent publications, which have leant more towards art history than politics (The Power of Art, Rembrandt's Eyes, Landscape and Memory (which is excellent btw) etc).

The American Future, then, sweeps through two hundred-plus years of American history in just under 500 pages. This compression of so much history inevitably results in an unrelenting barrage of names, dates and political terms that make great demands on both the reader's concentration and memory. Attempting to remember every place or event or person mentioned in just a single chapter is akin to standing in front of one of those tennis ball machines set to rapid fire and trying to catch (and hold onto) every ball it serves: some - if not most - are going to pass you by. Thankfully this quick-fire and comprehensive approach is tempered by Schama's narrative (I'm wary of saying "novelistic") treatment of history. Schama's concern for his subjects' emotional lives, coupled with frequent deferrals to diary entries, letters and photographs make The American Future a pre-eminently affecting and story-like telling of history. There's little concern for chronology as the book flits, sometimes in the span of a single sentence, between different decades (and even centuries) of history in a bid to make whatever over-arching thematic or structural point a particular chapter is concerned with. Like all narrative history, then, The American Future is open to such accusations that the book is more concerned with imbuing an emotional impression upon its readers than, say, delivering as much objective information as possible - and that's fine; it is, of course, down to the caprice of the individual reader to decide what they read history for. The prose takes undeniable poetic license with history, but always in an attempt to (cliché imminent...) bring its subjects to life:

"As if in supplication, one of the cassocked choir would every so often slowly lift both arms, palms upwards, trembling, like a marionette worked by a celestial puppeteer."

In the opening chapter `America at War', Schama establishes the dichotomy that he will use throughout the book to analyse various aspects of American history: Jeffersonian vs. Hamiltonian approaches to militarism. Thomas Jefferson favoured a limited army of well-educated specialists trained in engineering and capable of re-building a country's infrastructure following a war - an army to defend liberty. Alexander Hamilton, by contrast, argued for a larger, more militaristic force - an army to spread liberty. The parallels with modern American approaches to foreign policy aren't lost on Schama, who at one point describes Mitt Romney as a "neo-liberal Hamiltonian".

The book uses these two radically contrasting approaches to Americana as a spring board to launch investigations into such wide-ranging topics as slavery, irrigation, the compulsory purchase of Cherokee land and national identity - all contained within their own distinct chapters. Naturally some investigations are more successful than others; I found `What is an American' to be a rambling and ungraspable chapter that comes to few conclusions while spreading itself regrettably thin with its examples and sources. `American Fervour', by comparison, is a passionate and moving examination of the role of religion in the lives of slaves, with frequent quotations taken from the `Sorrow Songs' recorded by black army officer Robert Sutton in the 1860s; it stands as a testament to Schama's emotional conviction that it's not enough to simply "know" history,but that "we've got to understand" it too.

Determined to plant its flag firmly in the Jeffersonian camp, The American Future takes a somewhat hagiographic approach to describing the third President of the United States, and is especially praising of Jefferson's little-studied and undoubtedly enlightened (would we say "modern"?) attitudes towards religion:

"Though Jefferson held Jesus in high esteem, as perhaps the greatest of history's moral teachers, he thought is absurd, if not offensive, to compromise that standing by fairy tales declaring him the Son of God, born of a virgin and such foolishness. [...] Jefferson believed that adhesion to unexamined and irrational beliefs had been the greatest cause of contention and slaughter in the world, for there could be no arguing with those who asserted from revelation alone."

But later derisions of Jefferson's personal life and his contradictory attitudes toward slavery build up a complex and multi-dimensional picture of the book's primary subject: part moralistic, part reviled. This is one of Schama's more interesting stylistic ticks, and in this respect The American Future really is novelistic: red herrings abound as figures are introduced, praised and set-up as likeable, only to be deconstructed and exposed as bigoted or selfish in subsequent chapters. I found myself, for example, quite taken by manufacturing giant Henry Ford when Schama describes the free schools he established for his migrant workforce and his unwavering dedication to a liveable wage, only to be crushed with disappointment when it's revealed that Ford also penned the book The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. It's this up-and-down, wavering and constant re-assessment of his subjects that fuels a lot of anti-Schama criticism from readers who would prefer a more consistent and "objective" approach to history, but I nonetheless enjoyed the complex positioning of the novel, as Schama attempts to present America as very much a frontier nation: not either/or, but filled with contradictions and difficulties.

As you'd expect from Simon Schama, The American Future leans distinctly to the left, and as such the book is most interesting when constructing history via the personal struggles of down-trodden masses rather than the political lives of the elite. Chapters are separated by short present-day vignettes describing Schama's 2008 road trip across America following the Obama campaign, in which he interviews numerous regular Joes in an attempt to gauge not the media or politicians' reactions to Obama, but the people's.

The American Future is a dense, challenging history book made joyously readable by Schama's narrative approach. It presupposes an understanding of American history that I was unable to bring to the book (I frequently found myself Googling the dates of Presidents' terms or the specifics of various legislation, for example) and in this regard it suffers from a lack of a comprehensive glossary. Sure it's a bit of a crash course (after all, who can cover all of American history in 500 pages?!) but if, like me, your reading background is more fiction than non-fiction oriented, then I highly recommend The American Future as both a helpful way-in to American history and an extraordinarily beautiful piece of writing.


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