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Light (GOLLANCZ S.F.)
Light (GOLLANCZ S.F.)
by M. John Harrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Light, 18 Nov. 2012
This review is from: Light (GOLLANCZ S.F.) (Paperback)
I've read in numerous places, which I'm far too lazy to reference here, that M. John Harrison's 2002 novel Light does for Space Opera what his Viriconium sequence did for Fantasy back in the 1980s. This is quite the claim, as Viriconium towers over the landscape of postmodern fantasy literature as a definite and unchallenged Olympus; the book that finally did-away with the literary naivety of the field by drawing direct attention to the problematic artificiality of secondary-world High Fantasy, all the while remaining deeply enamoured of the tropes, traditions and history of the genre; a genre with which Harrison is clearly well-versed and much in love.

To think that the same writer could reinvigorate not just one, but two distinct genres both of which, let's be honest, suffer from more than their fair share of cliché, repetition and imaginative exhaustion is difficult to believe, but having read the frankly staggering (and not to mention extraordinarily beautiful) Light, I'm definitely coming round to the idea. It's 30-odd years since Harrison seemingly abandoned New Wave sci-fi with his early (and criminally underrated) novel The Centauri Device, but his forays into the lands of Fantasy and (later) Literary Fiction were obviously time well spent, as Light meshes a keen commitment to psychological realism with a penchant for inventive, stripped-back imagist prose. The book toys with and deconstructs many of the familiar tenets of science fiction, but in a joyous and celebratory way, never sneering. Harrison's frame of reference is galaxy-spanning, and Light is replete with subtle (and not-so-subtle) tributes to the canon of famous (and not-so-famous) science fiction literature, T.V. and film. Please don't think the book is just some big party of self-indulgent genre references, it most certainly isn't: the narrative is dominated by an unflinching and unsympathetic portrayal of horrific violence, manipulative sex and mental illness, but underpinning this grit is a definite comic treatment of the vagaries of space opera. The satire is tender, and the commitment to sensawunda is genuine.

Light focuses on three larger-than-life characters; the theoretical physicist and serial killer Michael Kearney; Seria Mau Genlicher, a woman who's been (voluntarily) cybernetically mutilated and encased in a vat of protein fluids from which she pilots a strange alien craft - an artefact from some long-extinct race of star-moving galactic engineers; and Ed Chianese (/Chinese Ed), a Virtual Reality addict enlisted in what can only be described as a... er... space circus. Michael's story takes place in 1999, the latter two narratives (Seria's and Ed's) transpire around 2400 AD, with chapters alternately flitting between each character.

All three protagonists are haunted by different manifestations of `The Shrander', an ungraspable and incarnately weird creature that variously functions as terrifying apparition of death, anti-hero, malcontent, surgeon, seer and sage. The Shrander's most memorable form is that which haunts Michael Kearney in the guise of a be-robed and spritely stalker with a horse's skull in place of a head. Not only is this a clear aesthetic reference to the Celtic Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd (and a knowing wink to fans of Viriconium with a suggestion of a shared universe), but the horse skull-headed version of the Shrander also acts as microcosm for one of the book's major themes: the estrangement of the familiar. By tradition the Mari Lwyd is a luck-bringing and festive Celtic ritual, and while The Shrander definitely contains elements of this festivity, it is by turns a much more terrifying and grotesque presence: it's the Mari Lwyd uprooted from its traditional contexts and placed, instead, within a weird and defamiliarising alien landscape. Removed from its place as a curio of Celtic festive and musical history, the writer imbues the image of the horse skull-headed puppet-creature with more sinister connotations - death, madness, murder. This is largely achieved by a fixation with the anatomical otherness of the Mari Lwyd. In general the image of a skull is inseparable from the concept of death, and Harrison manipulates this to truly horror fiction-esque scales. A big part of Lights' aesthetic is a making-strange of otherwise common place or traditional objects.

Outside of The Shrander's haunting, much of the plotting is concerned with explaining how the three protagonists found themselves in their current situations. Seria Mau's life before her cybernetic implantation into an alien ship is told through a series of disjointed and cryptic dream sequences that, though initially baffling, come together in a way that rewards patience and is immensely satisfying. The disorganized memories of her troubled childhood gradually expose the awful circumstances that led her to make the irreversible choice to be implanted into her ship, and I expect the visceral scenes of techno-surgery to stick with me for some time. It's a testament to Harrison's skill as a writer that something so physical and disturbed can also be so moving. Seria Mau is mutilated, trapped and profoundly alone, but these are truths the reader has to parse out from prose dense with scientific jargon as she concerns herself not with pitying introspection, but with the everyday mechanisations of her FTL alien ship and the technical demands of operating in nano-second time frames stretched out by mind-altering drugs to last, for her, for subjective minutes. The tragedy of Seria Mau isn't her present circumstance, but that the universe organised itself in such a way that she made the choice to live like this.

Choices made and not-made, then, form the thematic heart of the novel. This is re-iterated by Michael Kearney's work as a quantum physicist exploring the various theories surrounding probabilities, quantum states and branching, possible universes. Driven half-mad by the stalking Shrander and his failure to devise a useful system of quantum computing, Kearney defers all of his choices to a strange set of dice that he stole from the Shrander in some un-written prologue to the novel. The dice are loaded (... I apologise in advance for this...) with symbolism... with connotations that range from choice theory and quantum mechanics to the world that could have been if only different choices were made. Of course "dice stuff" is a big cliché of post-modern fiction, but here the beauty and pitch-perfect tone of Harrison's prose and the playful morality of his ideas stop Light from ever seeming trite or disingenuous. Also there are cats (two cats - one black, one white) that manifest in all three timelines and that play a significant part in the choices and directions of the characters' lives, both literally and figuratively.

This is all well and good, but where Light really (again, I'm sorry...) shines... is in its examination of the ways these characters' choices affect the lives of the people close to them. The supporting cast is a lowly and agency-less collection of tragically damaged individuals tossed around like ragdolls by the selfish and often misguided decisions of the three protagonists. Michael Kearney's ex-wife Anna, for example, is a mentally unstable woman in thrall to Michael's every movement. The beautifully constructed, psychologically piercing and eloquent exchanges between the two are a stylistic highlight of the novel, albeit harrowing and difficult to "enjoy" in the usual sense of the word:

"I try to help you - only you won't let me"

"Anna" he said quickly, "I help you. You're a drunk. You're anorexic. You're ill most days, and on a good day you can barely walk down the pavement. You're always in a panic. You barely live in the world we know."

But in terms of its style, Light is a book of many shades (... just take my apologies as a given from now on...). Several long passages of esoteric technobabble (much of which I suspect is more nonsense than science) are almost David Foster Wallace-esque in their challenge to the reader to actually look up the words you don't understand (only to find that a percentage of them actually are nonsense). While some may argue that this renders the "science" part of "science fiction" arbitrary and spurious, I think the real point is a playful fixation on the glorious sounds and tones of jargon, absent their content, to become a kind of poetry. It doesn't have to make sense, as the narrator puts it: this is "a place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out".

Light is a challenging, oftentimes abstract novel that, in spite of (or maybe in complement to) it's title, contains a lot of dark. The novel's dénouement ties the three narratives together in unexpected yet fulfilling ways, and the book's examination of senseless cruelty and selfishness only lend the ending greater poignancy. It's a book of clichés turned in on themselves, of constant references to a saturated history of science fiction that Harrison neither attempts to ignore nor to revolutionise, but to celebrate. I'm not sure if Light is the Viriconium of Space Opera, simply because I don't think Space Opera suffers from the same institutionalised problems as modern Fantasy literature. It is, however, an incredible novel; perfectly balanced, relentlessly beautiful; puzzling but always fascinating.


The Crossing (Border Trilogy)
The Crossing (Border Trilogy)
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Crossing, 3 Oct. 2012
Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing isn't so much concerned with the violent and sudden breach of clearly demarcated borders as much as it is with the slow bleed-out and eventual death of innocence, tradition and stability. There's a parallel to be found between Billy's journey from affectionate and naive purity to hardhearted maturity (via, of course, the violent upheaval of cruel experience), and the changes that the American South underwent during the sudden industrialisation of the early Twentieth Century.

It's almost a truism for reviewers to draw a distinction between the literal crossing of borders undertaken by the book's protagonist (America to Mexico), and the subtextual crossing of child- into adulthood; but there's also a third implied narrative, one that concerns itself with national identity, with the U.S as a frontier nation, in a state of perpetual flux. It's telling that McCarthy begins the novel with an assertion that the country "was itself little older than [a] child", and ends with an allowance that "The past is always this argument between counterclaimants. It is history that each man makes alone from what is left. Bits of wreckage. Some bones.". It's these more allegorical boundaries which, much like its predecessor All the Pretty Horses, firmly establish this novel as a uniquely American bildungsroman.

The Crossing tells the story of three journeys made by teenager Billy Parnham from his home in New Mexico down into Mexico proper, all in the late 1930s. The first expedition sees him attempting to lead an injured, pregnant wolf back to her home territory; in the second journey he travels even further south, looking for the horses stolen from his family; and the third crossing sees a hardened yet defeated Billy searching for his missing younger brother, Boyd. The book doesn't quite hark back to the levels of cruelty and darkness that McCarthy displayed in his earlier output (Blood Meridian, Child of God, Outer Dark being the most nihilistically exposed of his opus), but it is nonetheless unremittingly bleak and violent; a definite system shock when compared with the relatively more optimistic tone of its sort-of prequel, the aforementioned All the Pretty Horses. The heartbreaking and insistent sequence of tragic events that punctuate Billy's journeys and which all encapsulate some form of loss (both literal and figurative: his family, his home, his innocence) do run the risk of overwhelming the reader, or even verging on the self-indulgent; but separating the book's more shattering set-pieces are long passages of wilderness writing, which often act as sympathetic fallacy for Billy's situation - dark and tempestuous when he's at his lowest ebb. This not only imbues the book (and Billy's journeys) with an impressive sense of scale and majesty, but further establishes the notion that The Crossing is as much concerned with America as nation and landscape as it is with the struggles of its individual characters.

Stylistically, The Crossing is characteristic McCarthy: long sentences constructed in polysyndetic syntax are very much the grammatical standard, with a striking and only occasionally tedious penchant for meticulous physical descriptions. As with all McCarthy novels, there's also an attendant lack of punctuation: no marks to indicate direct speech, very few apostrophes (even when they're grammatically appropriate) and even fewer commas.

"The winter that Boyd turned fourteen the trees inhabiting the dry river bed were bare from early on and the sky was gray day after day and the trees were pale against it a cold wind had come down from the north with the earth running under bare poles towards a reckoning whose ledgers would be drawn up and dated only long after all due claims had passed, such is this history."

I'm tempted to make some twee comparison between the barren emptiness of the book's landscapes, and the typographical ways this is reflected in the absence of punctuation, but there's really only a very limited extent to which even I could draw-out such a trite association. Ahem. I will, however, remark on the unusual sense of power that McCarthy's prose seems to carry. There's something about his narration that's so heavy and authoritative, as if Cormac McCarthy isn't describing his personal vision of America, or giving us some lyrical interpretation of a subjective point of view; he seems, rather, to be telling things exactly as they are, as if he's carved into stone an absolutely inviolable and sacred record of the world in its making. I'm not sure how he achieves this: maybe it's the sheer length and microscopic focus of his descriptions coupled with his lexicon of earthy, physical words, or maybe the simplicity and directness of his writing contains some biblical and hypnagogic quality that transcends the usual vagaries of fiction writing to imbue upon The Crossing a sense of absolute authority. Either way, the book almost defies its notional identity as a novel to feel, instead, like some kind of definite, objective and truthful record of America. This is exacerbated by the book's unsympathetic treatment of its readership; with almost all of the dialogue rendered in unstranslated Spanish, there's a faithfulness to realism that's given precedence over the needs and concerns of the individual reader.

The Crossing is an extraordinary novel. It's difficult to discuss the finer points of its plot without resorting to massive spoilers, but Billy's compassionate treatment of a trapped wolf that is the book's beginning, and his violent attack against an old dog that is the book's end should give you some indication of the bleak and pain-filled journey contained within the intervening 400 pages, and of the histrionic and deeply moving changes that effect and re-mould the perennially lost protagonist. It would be somewhat amateurish of me to list, verbatim, all of the different `crossings' (metaphoric or otherwise) that dominate the book, but I couldn't help but feel that the most significant journey is the one that none of the characters ever truly accomplish: to cross the vast landscapes between one another, and to stop themselves from ever feeling acutely and profoundly alone.


Yellow Blue Tibia: A Novel
Yellow Blue Tibia: A Novel
by Adam Roberts
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yellow Blue Tibia, 30 Aug. 2012
There's a scene in Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia in which the narrator, Konstantin Skvorecky, is interrogated by a (presumably junior) member of the KGB. It's your archetypical interrogation set-up: windowless room, tape recorder, table and two chairs. During the course of the questioning, the seemingly polite and considerate interrogator will reach across the desk, pause the recorder, and subsequently launch an abusive tirade of threats at Skvorecky, paying particularly gruesome attention to the protagonist's balls. He'll then un-pause the recorder and pursue his inquiry in the aforementioned polite and courteous manner, only, of course, to stop the tape machine again and make progressively more disturbing and violent threats of injury to Skvorecky's testicles. The scene progresses in this manner for a number of pages until, in a somewhat predictable but nonetheless hilarious switcheroo, it's revealed that the KGB officer has been unintentionally recording the "stuff about balls" but pausing the tape while conducting the interview proper.

It's very funny (and nothing I can write in this review could possibly articulate quite how ball-obsessed this KGB guy is); but as well as serving to bathetically undermine the seriousness of the interrogation scene as over-used genre trope, this sketch also functions as microcosm for the entire novel. Yellow Blue Tibia essentially examines the tensions between state-sanctioned truths and the deeper, behind-the-scenes, capital-T Truth (while asking the question: can such a thing be said to exist anyway?). As this interrogation scene pertinently demonstrates, there's often a gap between the history as it's recorded and it's wider, un-written contexts. The book's key thematic elements are the narrative problems of memory and the recording of the same, and the reconciliation of different characters' conflicting subjective interpretations of the same events. It's the kind of thematic fodder that you might expect from more mainstream literary fiction; but don't worry, Yellow Blue Tibia doesn't skew quite as close to such middle-brow bore-fests as The Sense of an Ending as I've perhaps made it sound. One of the key questions Yellow Blue Tibia attempts to address is this: what, exactly, is science fiction, and, then, what, exactly, is science fiction for? Fittingly for a book that examines truth, openness and the problems of definition, the setting is Perestroika era Russia. Oh, and there's loads of stuff about UFOs too. Lots and lots of UFOs.

In brief: A group of renowned Russian sci-fi writers put their heads together to produce a collectively authored alien invasion yarn on the orders or none other than Mr Stalin himself, who feels that a new enemy is just what Russia needs to unite its people. Not long into the creative process, the writers are ordered to abandon their efforts and, on pain of death, never speak of their narrative again. Jump-cut forty years to 1980s Moscow, where one of the writers, Konstantin Skvorecky, now an elderly divorced ex-alcoholic, is working as a Russian-English translator. Just as Gorbachev is having his way with Communism, the alien invasion that Skvorecky and colleagues cooked-up all those years ago begins to transpire for real. Or maybe it doesn't.

Of course, any book that takes as its subject the nature of truth and the trouble with definition presents some particular difficulties for the reviewer (i.e me). Whether or not I label Yellow Blue Tibia as predominantly realist fiction psycho-drama or escapist sci-fi is somewhat dependent on my own interpretation of its events. In reading, the novel offers a kind of genre mashup: equal parts literary realism, sci-fi novel, historical fiction, thriller, and satire. All of this is perennially augmented(/problematised) by the narrator, who will frequently refuse to commit himself to any one version of events, a feat he achieves by constantly employing the book's defining refrain: "It was [x]; or it was [y]; or it was some third thing".

So, is there an alien invasion in Yellow Blue Tibia or is there not? (or is there some "third thing?"). Well, refreshingly, the text doesn't encourage the reader to plant a flag and take sides with either the `yes' or the `no' camps. Of course our objectivity is somewhat limited by the necessarily biased first-person narration (Skvorecky's testimony is our only source), but one of Roberts' most extraordinary achievements is never pushing the balance too far in favour of one interpretation over another. In this regard Skvorecky is a perfect narrator and an effective canvass for reader-sympathy; being a Russian-English translator, Skvorecky, like the reader, also finds himself adrift between two irreconcilable perspectives; held in suspicion by the Russians (surely it's impossible to learn English without simultaneously appropriating some of the fundamental deep-structures of the capitalist mindset?), yet not at home with the Americans either (there is a (cold) war on, you know etc.). This dualism transcends the sub-text to characterise the page-by-page style of the book's narration. Skvorecky's confusion over the alien invasion (that both is and isn't happening) is charmingly reflected in his narrative voice, which frequently employs bi-lingual puns, hilarious Russian misunderstandings of 20th Century Americanisms and a charming penchant for both Slavic self-deprecation and American pride and blow-hardedness. Yellow Blue Tibia is a novel of unresolved parities and long-drawn passive conflicts (if you wanted to be reeeally twee about it, you could argue that the book's overall structure functions as a long-game metaphor for the cold war).

Elsewhere the supporting cast fulfil their roles well: the matter-of-fact and aspergic nuclear physicist-turned-taxi-driver Saltykov offers a pleasing comic foil to Skvorecky's self-indulgent world weariness, and American love-interest Dora gives a satisfying non-Russian perspective while simultaneously providing Roberts with an excuse to have his narrator explain all of the clever puns he's making. Trofim is your prototypical Bond villain henchmen, whose brief moments of verbal eloquence come only when he's repeating verbatim the philosophy of his superiors, an affectation counterpointed to great comic effect with his otherwise lumbering stupidity.

That Yellow Blue Tibia revels in these kinds of conflicts and ambiguities is what makes the book so special (I also enjoyed the constant and often contradictory attempts to define science fiction, e.g.: "science fiction is a conceptual disorganisation of the familier" etc.) Being the nerdy reader of sci-fi and fantasy that I am, I'm usually pre-disposed to the more fantastical interpretation of any given set of events. But Yellow Blue Tibia almost denies me this readerly choice by making both of it's possible outcomes a reality: the alien invasion both is and isn't happening - and while I can't explain how the writer achieves this without resorting to massive spoilers, suffice to say the ending really is something else. For the immovably cynical among you, Roberts offers an out in the form of an `it was all a bump on the head' possibility, but this is by far the least interesting of the explanations offered up by the text.

In a brief end-note, Adam Roberts states that the kernel of the novel was an attempt to reconcile the "seemingly contradictory facts about UFOs: that, on the one hand, they have touched the lives of many millions [...] and on the other, that they clearly don't exist"; but I would posit that Yellow Blue Tibia also carries with it some strikingly more literary connotations, and that Skvorecky's dilemma ( the synchronized existing and not-existing of the book's aliens) stands as a metaphor for the interpretive pluralism is literary texts - those wildly different readings of books which are, nonetheless, all equally valid. That the book is narrated by a writer, and that the story constantly draws attention to itself as a multi-layered work of fictions within fictions adds further weight to this argument, I feel. I enjoyed the book immensely. Yellow Blue Tibia is about the different ways we read and interpret texts; it's about the consequences of fictions; or it isn't. Or maybe it's some third thing.


A Wizard of Earthsea (Puffin Books)
A Wizard of Earthsea (Puffin Books)
by Ursula Le Guin
Edition: Paperback

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Wizard of Earthsea, 22 Aug. 2012
Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea is an example of short form fantasy that encapsulates all of my more favoured genre aesthetics - a bleak and ambiguous approach to history, psychologically impactful monsters, a sense of massive scale, a barrenness of landscape and a convincing depth of characterisation - and does all of this, without, thankfully, running to 900 pages.

I'm wary of making any grand claims that Le Guin was, in 1968, attempting to subvert a genre whose Tolkien-derived clichés were only just beginning to be instituted, but there's definitely something gloriously cavalier and anti-establishment about both A Wizard of Earthsea's form and its content. Nowhere is this more immediately apparent than in Le Guin's treatment of mapping. Epic fantasy has a strange hang-up tendency to offer the post-war comfort of relegating evil to a definite and confined place on a map (c.f. Mordor, D'hara, Northland etc.) - and perhaps it's my own historical imperative of being a post-9/11 reader that's doing the talking here - but I find this model simplistic, over-used and somewhat of a fop to nationalism and the idea of evil as exclusively external alien otherness. (I should note that I have no problem with fantasy mapping or imagined geography as a concept - it's the awful metaphors for good and evil that get pasted over the top of these maps that really grind my gears). Of course such an established and rigid convention of mapping (good is here, evil is here, monsters be here etc.) paves the way for some wonderful tom-foolery at the hands of more ironically self-aware writers - nowhere more so than in the `evil' empire of Grenbretan featured in Moorcock's Hawkmoon - a fantastic mapped inversion of post-war geopolitical paranoias. A Wizard of Earthsea takes a subtler, but nonetheless powerfully disdainful approach to subverting this perverse tradition.

I knew I was going to enjoy the book, then, when I encountered the wonderfully indecipherable Jackson Pollock mess that is the mandatory hand-drawn map printed at the start of the text. Imagine tearing Middle Earth into a thousand pieces and re-assembling it at random, and you'll have some idea of the paratextual cartography that dominates A Wizard of Earthsea. The scrawly, scatter-gun map with its too-small-to-read annotations, half obscured by the crease of the binding, is of absolutely no use to the reader - neither as an aid to narrative clarity nor as an aid to a visualisation of the world's landscapes - but that's entirely the point. Its narrative uselessness functions as an ironic and playful exposé of this most drab convention of the genre.

But Le Guin's playfulness doesn't end here. There's a beautifully post-modern dismissal of these conventions in the actual narrative - specifically the ending - which takes place (I kid you not) off the edge of the map. It's perfect fodder for imaginative fantasy, and not only pokes fun at the (anachronistic) medieval notion of a flat earth, but makes a more theoretical statement about the limited ability of these fantasy maps to aid or contribute to narrative coherency. Just as the novel ends, when one might arguably rely on the map the most, the map becomes its most useless. It's extraordinary.

***

In plotting, A Wizard of Earthsea melds the more familiar tropes of high fantasy (faux-medieval setting, dragons, wizards etc.) with what can only be described as a penchant for those darkest aspects of Weird fiction-inspired horror. The protagonist, Ged, is a young wizard who, in an ego-driven attempt to impress his classmates, hubristically summons a face-less, name-less, tentacular black monstrosity from some unknowable cosmic place of panic and violence: it would sit comfortably within Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. And it's this monstrosity summoned from within, rather than any invading dark wizard with his deformed armies of foreign others, that stands as the primary antagonist. The book is essentially a bildungsroman; Ged's quest to locate and overcome this dark, passion-ridden and uber-brutal creature stands as a metaphor for the suppression of the id and his arrival into adult life and responsibility.

Only one man's life is at stake; and, as I've stated, there's no mad, demonic force trying to destroy the world without ever quite explaining how it is they'd benefit from such an endgame. While this offers a pleasing alternative to the standard fantasy plot, the tight focus on one individual does come at the cost of weaker characterisation elsewhere. The majority of the book's characters play to familiar type: there's the pederastic old wizard-mentor, the homosocially charged relationship with a loyal best friend, the parents who aren't themselves magical, and the usual given allotment of tavern maidens, dragon kings, helpless villagers and taciturn knights. So although A Wizard of Earthsea wilfully experiments with the praxis conventions of epic fantasy, it remains very much enamoured of the base aesthetics of the genre: it's still a rollocking good medieval Fantasy at heart.

So, yeah, A Wizard of Earthsea stands as further testament that it tends to be within the constraining vagaries of short form Fantasy that the genre is at its most experimental and subversive. The book isn't a radical genre departure, nor is it dismissive of its roots, but if like me you're feeling more-than-a-little fatigued with "epic" fantasy, I recommend you give short form a try - and this is as good a place as any to start.


Railsea
Railsea
by China Miéville
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Railsea, 18 July 2012
This review is from: Railsea (Hardcover)
I've always believed that fiction is, at best, very problematically related to the real world; and this, to a degree, is the reason why I don't review many so-called "realist" novels, as I find the greater part of that entire genre to be so much hubristic mulch. Having read Railsea, China Miéville's extraordinary riff on Moby Dick, I'm pretty sure that he feels the same way. The metaphorically loaded setting allows for an exuberant and playful examination of not only the ways that narrative relates to anything `real', but the fundamental relationships between literary texts, and the fact that meaning isn't some solid unity of ideas offered up by the writer, but a reader-created end point: a subjective culmination of interpretation, reading history and individual political and moral proclivities.

To achieve this examination, China Miéville has written a book rampant with puns, false references, deliberate misappropriations of the literary canon, and an absolute obsession with the idea of salvage, re-use and doubling. Reading Railsea, I was continually reminded of Roland Barthes' seminal essay `The Death of the Author', and the continental notion that all texts are "a tissue of quotations" taking cues from "innumerable centres of culture", leading in countless directions all at once; a concept for which, if you want to be twee about it, the Railsea itself stands as a great big metaphor. In Railsea, China Miéville challenges the implied directionality of narrative by having his narrator constantly break the fourth wall and tease the reader with questions and misdirects about the plot's chronology, its twists and turns and doubling-backs. Not only is this a nice nod to Moby Dick's "Call me Ishmael" reader address, which likewise serves to undermine the reader's confidence in the narrative's reliability, but it's also a pleasing echo of the meandering, looping, back-peddling trains that dominate the book's imagery. To this extent, I'd hazard to describe Railsea as the first example of post-structuralist teenage fiction I've ever read ("a book for readers of all ages" is how it's being marketed, and in plotting and characterisation at least, it definitely is a YA novel - a raucous teenage bildungsroman with an attendant absence of the profanity and sex that so colours China Miéville's other work). It's also gloriously silly. But characteristic of Miéville's oeuvre, there's plenty here for grownups like ..er.., I guess... me. Indeed, Railsea might also be the world's first example of teenage fiction to contain an impassioned discussion about the vagaries of the floating signifier. And this isn't just some tendentious post-facto theorising on my part; Railsea delights in its roots and, much like the inhabitants of its setting, it forges its own identity by melding together what the past has left behind: there's a kind of traditionality here that manifests in the book's iconography, language and events. Railsea is literary salvage.

Parenthetically, I should note however that i) the book isn't some pompous and grandiose attempt to re-write Moby Dick; Miéville treats his sources playfully - substituting the White Whale with the "bone-yellow mole" is daft, and the text knows it - and ii) I hope what I've said above doesn't give the impression that Railsea is unoriginal or in any way plagiaristic - it's as fiercely creative and as protean as you'd expect, albeit within a specific literary mode.

And that mode is the `Sea Quest'. While I'd hesitate to use the word `uncanny', Railsea unremittingly presents the reader with the familiar tropes and literary procedures of classic maritime adventure stories, albeit deracinated from their original contexts and placed instead within a world that has endured at least one apocalypse, one alien visitation and a whole miasma of climate change. The Railsea itself, for example, is more akin to a vast desert than an ocean; criss-crossed with so many rail lines that a train can, via some vividly described switching mechanisations, pretty much travel wherever it wants. If this seems counter-intuitive (trains unbound by the conventional limits of track to act more like ships than, well, trains), then you'd be right: Railsea's defining aesthetic is this re-placing of traditional maritime staples within a steampunk or fantasy (or whatever you want to call it) world.

The protagonist, for instance, is your prototypical cabin boy with ideas above his station; he's charmingly presented - likeable in a way that so many over-ambitious and precocious heroes of modern teen fiction just, aren't - his journey is driven more by the impetus of curiosity and investigative clout than some flood of Big, Important events beyond his immediate control. There's also a tentative back-story that hints at a personal childhood tragedy but without wallowing in the melancholic; a level of authorly restraint which I found particularly refreshing. This hero is knowingly named `Sham', which is not just a further indicator of the layers of fakery and salvage that pepper the narrative, but also a wry joke on Miéville's part; an expression of comic humility over what he's doing to Moby Dick. There are pirate ships, slave galleys, wrecks, sea monsters (okay, okay `Rail'sea monsters - both organic and mechanical), mutinies, bawdy ports, cannon battles and sea lore; and while it's impressive quite how many facets of the classic sea adventure Miéville has managed to cram into the book, there's the occasional passage that's just too much, and smacks more of genre trope box-ticking than anything serviceable to the plot - notably a marooning on a desert island/`Man Friday' sequence that the book could probably do without, and a few too many pirate chases, which eventually begin to stifle the plot and hinder the momentum.

But why, Tomcat, you ask, why this explicit focus on form? Well, these relatively abstruse concepts of genre appropriation, doubling, copies of copies, and a narrator that calls into question the reliability of his own story - these are the foundations of Railsea's structure, rather than some patina achieved through a gimmicky prose style and just pasted over the narrative. Obviously the fiction works on a literalized level, so you don't have to be into the theory of storytelling to enjoy the book - but it's always nice to know that such ideas underpin the writing, rather than simply sugar coat it. The central message of Railsea might be: narrative is unreliable and ungraspable and tricksy, but let's embrace it all the same.

[SPOILERS]

The obligatory treasure map, for example, is a description of a photograph of a photograph - a kind of blurry remove from the original landscape in much the same way that Railsea is a blurry remove from Moby Dick, or Literature is removed from the everyday, waking world. A copy: the same, but not the same. It's a mise-am-abime that serves as a metaphor for the way texts reproduce themselves within other texts. What the treasure hunters are following isn't a faithful reproduction of the real world - it's a, kinda... sham. Such problems of authenticity are comically counterpointed in the book's Ahab analogue - the damaged and obsessive Captain Abacat Naphi (note the Captain Ahab anagram) - whose prosthetic arm is eventually exposed as a fake fake - a shell covering very human insides. This offers a pleasing bathos to the apparent nobility of her quest to kill the White Mole, and exposes her "philosophy" (as she calls it, as if she's read and understood Moby Dick on a level that most of us couldn't) as being as much about glory and a constructed personal narrative than it is about revenge. What's significant to Naphi isn't that her arm was really lost, or that the White Mole dies at her hands, but that there are stories of her arm being lost and that there are stories about the White Mole dying at her hands; stories to be reproduced and told over and over. One of Railsea's most memorable passages is the description of previous captains' successful hunts - Naphi is captivated by these: she wants to be a story. What's significant is the narrative representation of her adventure - Naphi's "philosophy" isn't a quest for revenge, but a quest for narrative.

[END OF SPOILERS]

I'm wary of making any grand claims that China Miéville adheres to theory x or theory y; but a challenge to the veracity of narrative is unquestionably part of Railsea's aesthetic. There's more that I could go into, such as the quasi-devotional Moletrain refrain of "Well grubbed Old Mole", which is actually a direct quote from Marx, which is actually a deliberate misquote of Hamlet etc. but I don't want to get too list-like in exploring these kinds of removes - hell, there's loads of them!

Sorry if you were hoping for a more comprehensive overview (whooops), but there are plenty of great Railsea reviews that focus on plotting and characterisation, and even some good debates over its suitability as teen fiction etc. etc. - and I encourage you to check these out. For what it's worth, I think Railsea is amazing - and if none of this narrative theory stuff is your particular brand of literary tote bag, don't worry - the book has baddies and goodies and chases and violence and jokes; and monsters too - in buckets.


Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidons Children 1)
Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidons Children 1)
by Alastair Reynolds
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dwarf Elephants!!!!, 10 July 2012
Blue Remembered Earth feels a lot like Alastair Reynolds sticking a middle finger up at all those pompous critics who like to posit that science fiction writers can't `do' characterisation. The book is essentially Reynolds' take on that classic literary staple, the "family saga" (or maybe an attempt to propagate a new sub-genre: the family saga IN SPACE), and explores the tensions, upsets and disloyalties that rise to the surface when a fracted and disparate family is forced together following the death of a long-standing matriarch. As such, the novel is significantly less bonkers than his previous book, the steampunk-esque Terminal World; and in fact, BRE is somewhat difficult to place in Reynolds' oeuvre as a whole, coming as it does from a literary tradition more concerned with the microscopic examination of human relationships than the exploration of big, brain-hurty sci-fi ideas that I'd usually associate with his writing. Idiosyncratically, at least, this is still very much an Alastair Reynolds novel: there's a fierce inventiveness coupled with his attendant attention to rigorous scientific fidelity; but what's most striking about the book is also perhaps what's most unexpected; a tender and convincing look at individual responses to death: from grief to epiphany to opportunistic greed; and the re-kindling of a long-neglected brother-sister relationship. This casting of siblings as the de facto `main characters' brings a refreshing and playful dynamic to the standard boy-girl protagonist duo by removing the trite will-they-won't-they sexual subtext that would otherwise colour such a proximal and intense relationship, instead allowing for a keener focus on the moral and political tensions that divide the two - after all, unlike lovers, Geoffrey and Sunday are stuck with each other for life. Having read BRE, I've actually realised what an under-used literary pair-up the brother-sister combination is; I'd like to see it more often.

So, yeah, Blue Remembered Earth is a pretty radical change of direction for Alastair Reynolds - not just in terms of its narrative focus on death and family, but also in terms of its setting: near-future Africa. I admit I was worried when I first heard that Reynolds was writing a novel with an almost exclusively black African cast - somewhere in the dusty corridors of my mind some cultural misappropriation alarms were sounding (don't look at me that way - you've all got them!) - should a white, Welsh, male sci-fi author be attempting to ventriloquise the voice of a black, female African, I wondered? But I decided to give Alastair Reynolds the benefit of the doubt - why the hell not? Anyway, I'm pleased to report that BRE's treatment of race and nationality is sensitive and perceptive, with, most thankfully, no uneasy attempts to render vernacular accent and dialogue with phonetic spellings or trite colloquialisms; which more-often-than-not such attempts over-shoot the intended destination of "realism", charge through port patronising and finally grind to an almightily hubristic stop at racist station (I'm look at you, Kathryn Stockett, and you Chris Cleave, and you Martin Amis etc. etc.).

Having said that, Blue Remembered Earth doesn't really engage with race as an "issue", either; in line with Reynolds' stated utopianist agenda for the novel (and let's face it, his novels to date have predominantly favoured very bleak, dark projected futures), the society of BRE is essentially post-racist, post-sexist and post-homophobic. And while it's incredibly uplifting that a 21st-Century sci-fi writer is willing to describe a future in which we finally get over ourselves in this regard, I would have liked a little more context and background given to explaining how the end of racism came about; as it stands, it's all seems a bit sui generis. Either way though, it's a joy to find a sci-fi writer with the balls to compose a novel dominated by strong female characters, black protagonists free from caricature, and the presentation of a genuinely tender and affecting homosexual relationship: all of which are character issues alarmingly rare and neglected in modern speculative fiction. [[As a note: Alastair Reynolds has (on his blog) also written about the shameful invisibility of women writers in the mainstream sci-fi market, and has drawn my attention to both Linda Nagata and Lauren Beukes - both of whom I highly recommend.]]

But if the end of racism is a narrative thread not given any explicit context in BRE, the same can't be said for the end of violence. In another ballsy and somewhat genre-defying move, Reynolds has crafted a society in which violence is, literally, impossible: any violent thoughts/actions are immediately intercepted by `The Mechanism', a kind of re-imagined literalisation of Orwell's Thought Police. The Mechanism reads and manipulates the networked nano-machines implanted into every human being and temporarily paralyses an aggressor before he or she can complete any violent action anywhere on Earth. While this may seem like the sort of audacious plot device that, though interesting, would eventually stifle narrative momentum, actually quite the opposite is true: The Mechanism helps develop another of the book's more focused binary sub-texts - the individual versus society. Geoffrey's mid-novel decision to physically attack his cousin, for example, isn't extraordinary in and of itself (believe me, the cousin has it coming), it's extraordinary because Geoffrey knows that The Mechanism will intercept his swing before his fist makes contact, but he makes the swing anyway. What follows is a gloriously bathetic sequence in which Geoffrey is temporarily paralysed and collapses, sobbing. You could probably make some hackneyed comment that Alastair Reynolds is writing about the irrationality and empty-headedness of rage here but, for me, this whole scene carries the broader significance of emphasising Geoffrey's frustration with the systems of control that make this Utopia possible; his unresolved societal loyalty on the one hand, and his desire for absolute freedom of agency on the other. Some of the novel's more memorable passages describe the giddy abandon the siblings enjoy on the Moon and on Mars, where they're free from the over-bearing restrains of The Mechanism.

Similarly, this narrative tension has resonances in Geoffrey's relationship with his own family. There's some nice cognitive dissonance at play in his all-consuming desire to dedicate this life to zoology and the study of elephants, and the pressure he endures from the family to take up an inherited position maintaining its lucrative business. Individuality vs. familial expectancy is an obvious and well-established trope of the Family Saga genre, and like many clichés, is most interesting when so skilfully played with.

Geoffrey's sister, Sunday, by comparison, suffers from no such internal conflict, and has left Earth and all familial obligations to pursue a career as a sculptor. Like her brother, she's far from the two-dimensional heroine I so heavy-heartedly expect from the majority of sci-fi I read. There are some deeply affecting passages in which Sunday contemplates some commissioned sculpture or other, despairing at the financial necessity at being a chisel for hire, while simultaneously hoping that this will be the piece that affords her enough money and time to work on her own art - all the while, deep down, fearing (and, perhaps, knowing) that her ideas and ability aren't good enough, anyway. Sunday's interest in art permeates the story-telling to the extent that the visual aesthetic of Blue Remembered Earth is constructed by constant references to real-life artists. Landscapes are often described via references to paintings by, say, van Gogh, or Dali. Reynolds' description of a lunarscape and its attendant severe horizon as being a "late Rothko" is extraordinary in its simplicity of expression yet simultaneous exactness of image - it is, without exaggeration, the most spot-on visual analogy for the moon I've read in any sci-fi, like, ever.

So, how to finish this? My agenda in reviewing Blue Remembered Earth has largely been to disprove the few ambivalent reviews I've read that describe the book as nothing more than a round-the-solar-system treasure hunt at the behest of a dead grandmother (and Eunice is so much more than that - my copy of BRE is covered in notes where I saw her functioning as a metaphor for the God-like role of author:: Eunice may not feature in the novel physically, but her influence both diffuses through and smothers every single scene as she, post-mortem, pulls all the strings, exerting (in some places very literal) authorial control over not just her grandchildren's lives, but the direction of every event, conflict and tension in the book. Eunice, then, is more than an absent character; she is a metaphor for the process of writing). As always with novels of this ilk, there's so much I haven't covered - weird body-altering cults, the odd business-tech language that makes up the dialogue of cousins Hector and Lucas, and the mesmerising sequence in which Sunday electronically transmits her consciousness into what she assumes is a robot proxy, only to discover that she's inhabiting an electronic space-suit that houses a rotting corpse (Alastair Reynolds has always had a great eye for the horror implicit in advanced technologies); and not to mention the jaw-dropping ending (among Reynolds' best - and that's saying something) - so I apologise if I've neglected something of specific interest to someone.

What Blue Remembered Earth successfully offers is a striking marriage of hard science fiction genre proclivities (and all the expected scale and wonder) with a microcosmic focus on the loyalties that hold together and tear apart one family. It's at once gigantic in scope and pint-point sharp in focus. Its head may be up there in the unimaginable massiveness of space, but its heart sits very much in the more fragile, brief moment of family. That and dwarf elephants. Amazingly cute, genetically-engineered dwarf elephants.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 24, 2012 1:54 PM BST


The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
by Philip K. Dick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, 18 Jun. 2012
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is characteristic of PKD's opus in that it presents a focused and imaginative exploration of substance abuse, sinister technocracies, planetary crisis and the moral controversies that surround developments in technology and scientific research. It also hints at the more transcendental/metaphysical themes of personal identity and existentialism that would come to dominate his later output, and which offer a refreshing counterpoint to the bigger, colder, investigations of business practices and political manoeuvring that dominate much of the book's back-story. In this regard, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (hereafter TTSOPE) reads somewhat like an ur- or proto form of Valis or A Scanner Darkly.

Unfortunately, being characteristic of PKD'S opus, TTSOPE suffers from an attendant weakness of characterisation that, in some places, actually began to impinge on and confuse my understanding of the narrative. I was baffled, for example, by protagonist Barney Mayerson's self-imposed exile on Mars that dominates the middle of the novel. Baffled, that is, until the narrative helpfully informed me that the roots of this voluntary ostracism lie in Mayerson's irresolvable feelings of guilt over abandoning his friend Leo. All well and good; except that, until this point, I had no sense whatsoever that Barney and Leo were so close, or that the former's betrayal of the latter was at all the `big deal' that the subsequent chapters made it out to be. Even when the book takes great post-facto pains to make this clear, I struggled to buy into it. The two leads, Barney and Leo, may as well be the same character: their frequently inconsistent actions, dialogues and behaviours seem more in service to the demands of the plotting than any graspable notions of distinct personality or character. If you were feeling particularly generous, you might posit that this vague and blurry presentation offers some kind of narrative reflection of the book's concerns with addiction and its accompanying destruction of individuality and independence, but to do so would be somewhat disingenuous. Pushing it, even.

The supporting cast, however, is significantly less two-dimensional. Freed from the overbearing mechanisations of Dick's stringent plotting, the minor players are afforded more breathing room for development and expression. I particularly liked the ambitious and intelligent Miss Roni Fugate, whose initial presentation as an over-sexualised foil in contrast with the lead's cold ex-wife is eventually revealed to be a crafty misdirect, and she is quickly developed into a deep and (dare I say) complicated character piece that stands as testament to PKD's reputation as a master craftsman of post-sexist sci-fi societies. I also liked the titular Palmer Eldritch himself, especially the pleasingly un-resolved events that culminate in his madness/reincarnation/apotheosis (/whatever the hell happens to him). Regrettably, the cumulative screen time of these two characters only amounts to a tiny percentage of the overall book, but nonetheless, they do contribute some much needed breadth of characterisation, and stop TTSOPE from becoming entirely stolid and staid in the character department.

Thankfully, the strength and momentum of TTSOPE's ideas carries the narrative forward in a way that almost transcends the book's numerous problems with shallow characterisation. I guess it's down to the caprice of the individual reader whether or not the brilliance of a book's ideas are enough to compensate for a weak and unsympathetic cast (-and obviously the two aren't mutually exclusive-), but the novel definitely functions better when approached as "ideas fiction". TTSOPE is about the arrival into the solar system of a new transcendental drug ("Chew-Z") which, when imbibed, radically alters the subjects' perception of time, allowing them to enter a hedonic dreamworld of their own devising. It soon becomes apparent, however, that users of the drug are haunted by the cadaverous spectre of its creator, Palmer Eldritch; both while under its influence and long after its immediate effects have worn off. Obviously there are some quaint real world parallels to be made between this and the paranoic side-effects of real long-term substance abuse; but where these druggy connotations become most interesting, I think, is in their potential to screw with the reliability of the narrative. Once under its influences, a user has no choice but to wait-out the drug's trippy effects, no matter how many subjective years this may take:

"Be a rock, Mayerson. Last it out. However long it is before the drug wears off. Ten years, a century. A million years. Or be an old fossil bone in a museum."

What's more, Chew-Z presents its users with various layers of reality - dream worlds within dream worlds within etc. etc. The first time a protagonist takes the drug may represent the actual end-point of the novel, with all subsequent chapters (even those which appear to show a return to the real-world) merely being further dreams within dreams. Never one to sit on the fence, I like to assume that this most definitely is the case, and that page 100 or whatever marks the chronological end of the book, the subsequent 200 pages (including the happy ending and eventual defeat of Chew-Z) are just a trick of the light - a fantasy held by Leo while trapped (presumably for hundreds of subjective years, but a real-time of mere seconds) by the drug's weird trippy effects.

Both scenarios (the entire second half of the novel being a dream within a dream, or being an actual reality) are supported by some very nice stylistic idiosyncrasies on the part of PKD. I posit as my evidence for the former scenario the constant mispronunciations of the protagonist's name, which only begin to pepper the text after he has used for the first time, suggesting that something in the narrative representation of the world has changed. Of course, this could similarly be read as a post-recovery side-effect or auditory hallucination; but, as always with me and such things, it's the more fantastical interpretation that most appeals.

What The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch lacks in characterisation it more than makes up for in narrative playfulness and the scope of its ideas - it's cosmically ambitions sci-fi that forces the reader to constantly re-adjust assumptions about the direction and reliability of narrative - how it relates to itself, and how it relates to the real world. When the first character pops his first dose dose of Chew-Z he can no longer rely on the veracity of, well anything - but neither can the reader. Stylistically the book's a bit hit-and-miss; some swift and functional constructions occasionally interrupted by more purple, less convincing, prose. But, as I say, this is Big, Ideas fiction, rather than a subtle microcosmic work of art. If you want a modern corollary, TTSOPE is a bit like the 2010 film Inception - it has a similarly wooden cast of characters and weird examination of dreams-within-dreams, albeit without any of the massive plot holes; or the rampant plagiarism of a mid-period Philip K. Dick novel *cough*.


The Great Lover
The Great Lover
by Michael Cisco
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.75

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great Lover, 30 May 2012
This review is from: The Great Lover (Paperback)
The most significant problem I encountered with Michael Cisco's newest book was that I kept having to explain to people that I wasn't reading some kind of self-improvement sex guide for the amorously deviant. I mean, it's called 'The Great Lover', which, if it really were some variety of coital strategy guide, would be a laughably over-ambitious objective for the likes of me; but also - just look at that cover art! - it's like a quasi-cubist, bi-gendered, demon-tongued, masturbating sex robot. Thing. Reading it on the train - eyebrows were raised. Questions were asked. "No, it's a novel - it's really good; it's not smutty". Okay, so in places it might be a little smutty - but that's ironic. I think.

The second most significant problem I encountered with Michael Cisco's newest book is that it's a book by Michael Cisco. I don't mean this as any kind of jab or derision - I think the man's a genius - but being a book by Michael Cisco, 'The Great Lover' carries all of his idiosyncratically voluble, stylistically arch, modernism-esque prose, which, in some places, can be incredibly abstract and difficult. In a general sense, I found it more accessible than his last effort, The Narrator, but page-by-page there were some passages that left me very confused and disorientated, with no genuine sense of what the hell was happening. It's not that his idiolect is particularly avant-garde - I know all of the words he uses - but these words when put in this order become alter and alien and deracinated of their everyday meanings and contexts: there are just so many images! I'm sure there's an enormous narrative depth of reference and literary in-joke hidden among the cloying, hot dark of these abstract passages, but I'm nowhere near well-read enough to comment on what kinds of weird sub-sub-sub-genres of foreign existentialism have influenced The Great Lover. These occasional, long, opaque tangents test my analytical praxis and render it... useless.

Instead I chose to read these semantically obtuse sequences as mood pieces or tone poetry, passages in which Cisco's "metered but unshaped words" work as emotionally-manipulative bombardments of imagery and metaphorscapes, supposedly with the intention of imbuing a feeling or mood rather than of moving the narrative forward. It's not frustrating or irritating in the least - it's actually beautiful and dreamscapey, infused with Cisco's characteristically gothic and horror-fiction-inspired language. There's a hypnotic tonality that's more about sense than meaning. Indeed, such long, imagist sequences aren't an arbitrary bringing-together of dissonant words: it's obvious that Michael Cisco constructs his sentences with the delicate care of a neoclassical prosodist, and it really can be an incredible if ungraspable thing to read; frequently horrifying, undoubtedly grotesque, but also gentle and deliberately, beautifully rhythmic. Some may accuse Cisco of disingenuously elevating tone at the expense of clarity, but ambiguity and unknowability permeate the story in ways that transcend its telling (more on this later).

Elsewhere, the regular (I should probably say "less strange") prose is still highly stylised, in places completely lacking in any conjunctions or prepositions whatsoever - it's always fascinating, and as Thomas Ligotti puts it "has an identity as much as any writer I've read:

"She moves in foggy landscapes of primordial earth before life, walking from fog to fog. Wherever she stops, the wings that hang all over her drop down and squirm together to form a throne, raising above her a dirty carapace made of the same waxy biological plastic of feathers, like a cloudy hood of fingernail."

"He frisks her, as though he could find her life somewhere and put it back where it was."

"He wakes with tears streaming down his face and into the grass. They never stop."

I know what you're thinking though - what, if anything, is the book about? Well, in plotting (if that word even applies) 'The Great Lover' is an eccentric mix of hyper-original tableaux and characterisation, with frequent nods to well-established genre tropes from more conventional horror/urban fantasy/weird fiction. These wry moments of reference to Frankenstein or Kafka or Orwell or Peake or whoever, while never veering too close to parody, help orientate the reader in what is an otherwise completely baffling and unfamiliar narrative landscape. The Great Lover (/The Sewerman/The Demon/"Name") is a resurrected corpse who spends his nights entering the sexual dreams of women he's passed by in the street or on trains. There's definitely an unsettling, even ironic, disconnect between the protagonist's name "The Great Lover" (whether it's forced up on him or of his own devising is never made clear) and the relatively rapey, non-consenting nature of his sexual antics and the strange magic (erotomancy??) he performs to make them possible. Either way, he's soon approached by a strange sub-way dwelling cult who're trying to bring into being some new Godhead, all the while fighting the brutal forces of `vampirism' - here imagined as a kind of white noise of social conformity that chooses fascistic, upper-middle class students as its representatives (in the UK we might call them `Rahs'). There's more, lots more: the city of Sex, the Deep Sun and Hollow Earth, the Gnomes (so-named because the `know'); in fact, it's almost impossible to précis the plot without simultaneously performing a sacrilegious disservice to its complexity and weirdness. Man this book is hard to write about.

Most exotic among the novel's dramatis personae, however, is the incredible, relentlessly strange `Prosthetic Libido' (I think that's meant to be him on the cover), a homunculus or golem assembled by The Great Lover to house the libido of a restless scientist. The Prosthetic Libido is this cosmically tragic, permanently aroused yet perennially unfulfilled and childlike manifestation of the Freudian sex drive whose personality and dreadful circumstances can only be read as a kind of metaphor for love itself. At one point the narrator announces, with more than a little wry sardonicism, "in all of literature there is no character more beautiful". Counterpointing this is an equally strange creation, the Prosthetic Death; possibly the most terrifying, and definitely the most unusual thing I have ever encountered in a novel. The creation of the Prosthetic Libido is one of the more lucid and definitely the longest passage of any clarity in the book; by contrast, all of the prose that surrounds and makes-up the Prosthetic Death is significantly more esoteric and slippery - a stylistic dualism that perhaps reflects the relative graspability of the two notions involved.

But reducing the novel in this way: sex//death, style//clarity, originality//pastiche is to massively oversimplify what's going on, relegating the work to a straightforward exploration of binaries. In reality, The Great Lover doesn't exist in the extremes of these contrasts, but in the hinterlands between them. It's as much a narrative investigation of the problems of defining, well, anything - not least of all the nebulous and elastic relationships between author and character (the narrator constantly flits between first- and third-person registers); character and character; character and reader. The book is immensely difficult and ambiguous, vague and demanding; the characters aren't "Characters" - they're too ill-defined; and the story isn't plotted, but flows organically (an idea metaphorically echoed in the ever-shifting maps and train tracks - usually the most dependably solid of journeys - that dominate the imagery). And you, as reader, become something other: co-conspirator, maybe? Accomplice, definitely. Michael Cisco's style isn't a shiny plastic coating around an ambiguous and non-descript capsule; his style is inextricably related to the novel's aesthetic identity and philosophy. The action, like all the best horror, transpires in the in-betweens: in sewers and dreams and on trains and through windows.

"Hold that feeling of the story ending - of the life that you turn to when you put the story down starting to shine through it it is becoming transparent and to feel like a dream hold that feeling and stay in it. Just stay in it."

There's so much I haven't touched on; the humour is scatological, the action overly dramatic and aestheticised; the central love story is extraordinarily moving (even if Cisco couldn't resist the urge to bombard his sightless heroine with the almost cruel aphorism `love is blind') and the final chapter... well, don't get me started. The Great Lover is phenomenal - at one point I read for six hours without (and I'm well aware that I'm about to spurt a horrible cliché) noticing the time that passed. You could let its twisted dark poetry wash over you, or you could (try to) wrestle it to the ground and into submission. Either way, Cisco sticks a massive middle finger up to almost all of modern fiction by showing you that getting lost is far more worthwhile than finding your way.

Reading 'The Great Lover' is like staring at the sun - it hurts, but it's beautiful, and when you close your eyes afterwards, its image still there.


Cold Hand in Mine
Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.00

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cold Hand in Mine, 16 April 2012
This review is from: Cold Hand in Mine (Paperback)
Robert Aickman's stylistic proclivities are in line with such writers as Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft - (and more recently Thomas Ligotti owes Aickman a debt) - in that his stories are characterised by a wanton sense of ambiguity and a frequent refusal to provide the reader with any kind of closure or resolution. It's telling that Cold Hand in Mine quotes in epigraph Sacheverell Sitwell, "In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation", and I took this as a useful heuristic when faced with the frustration of an abruptly ended story or the never-arrival of a long-teased denouement. `The Swords', for example, opens with the sexually suggestive question "My first experience?" and a short biography from the narrator that baits the reader into expecting an entirely conventional loss of virginity bildungsroman. What follows, however, is a journey to that staple locale of so many classic horror stories: the out-of-the-way mist-shrouded town, and an encounter with a strange kind of theatre in which a woman is repeatedly stabbed by members of the audience - (coming to no apparent harm) - before being sold as prostitute to our narrator and literally falling to pieces during the sex act. It's tempting to paste some hackneyed psychoanalytical significance onto the repeated stabbing of the woman, and the sexual metaphor of swords as phallic substitute is perhaps a little too in-your-face; but fundamentally this is a narrative that demands reader-input and analysis if it's to make any kind of sense. The language of performance coupled with the theatre sequence definitely casts the reader in the role of scopophiliac audience member, consigning all sex scenes to acts of inherent voyeurism with the reader as the third party onlooker. The sense of horror is thus created when the act of reading is equated with passive observation, suggesting that you, as just another audience member, are, by continuing to read, somehow complicit in the mass on-stage rape of this woman. Furthermore, the woman's gross disintegration under the inexperienced thrusting of our protagonist can be read as either i) non-literal nightmare manifestation of his sexual anxieties and naivety; ii) a heartbreaking metaphor for the psychological disconnection the prostitute has to make during sex between her inner self and her physical body: a kind of mind//body separation that functions as self-preservation; or iii) a telling moment of tragic revelation in which the prostitute's apparent immunity to the on-stage stabbing is finally broken down and her true pain revealed: her on-stage and back-stage personas being not so different, after all. The `death of innocence' so often explored in works of sexual initiation is here coupled with a much more bleak and literal examination of death.

But not all of Cold Hand in Mine's stories are so analytically yielding. It's anybody's guess what strange combination of folk tale, ghostlore and German mythology have gone into creating `Niemandswasser', in which a reclusive and suicidal German lord wrestles with doppelgangers, sibling rivalry and a strange correlation of literal topographic borders with the finer internal boundaries between mental balance and madness: a kind of horror that ties humanity to nature not in a way that's organic and beautiful, but in a manner which exposes man to all of nature's violent vagaries, inconsistencies and dangers. Elsewhere, `The Real Road to the Church' sees a demonic and otherworldly funeral procession pass through the garden of protagonist Rosa's new island home, coupled with an almost Socratic exchange between Rosa and a retired priest that's peppered with unnervingly personal and quasi-romantic non-sequiturs, "I can hear the beating of your heart". Precisely what's going in is difficult to pin down, but that's entirely the point: the stories of The Weird function at their highest when they transcend the everyday and the predictable, even rendering the language of exegesis imprecise and unhelpful. The more I tried to dig out these stories' foundations, the more I felt like I was just piling stuff on top of them.

It's probably somewhat ironic, then, that the most disappointing stories of Cold Hand in Mine are those that offer the comfort and succour of logical explanation. When, for instance, the vampire in `Pages from a Young Girl's Journal' is revealed to be just that: a vampire, I couldn't help but feel deflated. Before Aickman's `big reveal', the vampire could have been anything; the ultimate revelation is a massive letdown in the face of the story's brilliant lexical pastiche of Jane Austen-esque romance, which would have benefited from a much more avant-garde supernaturalism. What we get instead is a fairly run-of-the-mill, period vampire romance. If The Weird has an agenda to horrify with the suggestion of an unknowable other, it fails itself when resorting to specificity and explanation; that which is sensible cannot be Weird.

And that's really the crux of it. Robert Aickman's best stories are not yours, not mine; they're not even his, because when it hits its stride, Cold Hand in Mine is so unknowably strange and tenebrously cryptic that the reader is almost too scared to look deeper: the suggestion is that the truth of these tales is even more horrific than their mysteries. So it's never the narrator who is uninformed, nor the by-standing secondary characters, nor the landscapes themselves: it's the reader who is exterior. The paranormal hysteria generated by the almost-living steampunk-esque time pieces in `The Clock Watcher' makes perfect sense to Ursula, likewise the titular protagonist of `Meeting Mr Millar' knows exactly what strange things go on in his offices. Cold Hand in Mine is successful because it doesn't show something `other' to the reader, instead it makes something `other' out of the reader; the reader is on the outside: and what could be more strange, horrific or, indeed, Weird than realising that it's not the world or it's people that're mad: it's you.
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Unclay
Unclay
by T.F. Powys
Edition: Paperback

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unclay, 16 April 2012
This review is from: Unclay (Paperback)
Mr Death has been sent to `Unclay' (verb - not really the same as 'kill', but kinda similar) two of inhabitants of the quasi-fictitious village of Dodder, but finds himself unable to do so having lost the slip of parchment upon which the names of the unclayees are scribed. Unsurprisingly, the narrative is peppered with such horrible wink-wink/nudge-nudge constructions as `Death is just around the corner' or `with gladness they saw Death come' (etc.), but given Powys' elsewhere magnificent prose, it'd be somewhat harsh to attribute the clumsy and frankly boorish nature of such phrasings to any deficiency of his; rather, this ungainliness, lacking in both humour and depth, more likely exposes the weaknesses and inherent problems in this kind of personification as a narrative form than in Powys as a writer. But setting that aside as my own idiosyncratic problem with the genre, I quickly discovered that there's a heck of a lot to like about Unclay.

T.F. Powys' prose is a strange mix of aphoristic religious argot, abstracted dreamscape, grammatically non-standard expression and hallucinatory horror that calls to mind modern Dadaoist writers like Michael Cisco or Thomas Ligotti far more than any of Powys' own 1930's contemporaries. Yet counterpointed against this arch and affected style is a lyrical romanticising of the rural and bucolic English countryside that's almost Thomas Hardy-esque, both in its nature-heavy descriptions and its eagerness to present a countryside that's at once beautiful and wild; sacrosanct and carnal. And if that's not weird enough for you, wait until you encounter the book's supporting cast: a woman who thinks she's a camel, a man who's transferred his libido into a line of nut trees, and a priest who convinces women to become prostitutes, only to spend hours reading Jane Austen to them in an attempt to curtail their wickedness. I swear I'm not making this up. 'Imagine Tess of the D'Urbervilles' on acid, and you'll get the picture:

""As Joe Bridle bent over the pond, two dead corpses rose up but, when he thought he knew their sodden dead faces, the waters thickened and the faces vanished [...] When the wind grew still, other things happened, Horrid creatures - great pond beasts - newts and vipers, swarmed about him in the darkness. A year-old corpse crawled out of the water and clutched at the paper with foul dripping fingers.""

Once settled in Dodder, Mr Death discovers sex in what is, essentially, a strange literalisation of the Thanatos meets Eros psychoanalytic paradigm. It's (at last) a creative use of death as personification, as Powys externalises the death//sex desires by making his Mr Death sexually irresistible. By having (almost) the entire cast sleep with Death at one point or another, Powys converges the sex drive with the death drive in what's both a striking visual tableau and a blackly comic attempt at a literary proof of Freud's most famous subconscious conflict. Of course there's more than a little ironic sardonicism in Death's new found joi de vivre and sex addiction, but this kind of mischievous exploitation of ostensibly incongruent ideas is probably the best way I can sum-up the dark, goulish playfulness of Powys' writing. There's definitely some sympathy with the notion of Death as the cosmic jester, as epitomised in the medieval danse macabre aesthetic tradition; and if death vs. sex isn't your particular brand of literary tote-bag, don't fear - there's a whole cardinal's migraine of sinful/holy pairings being subjugated to Powys' gallows-humour marriages of the disparate.

There's also some dramatic irony at play: the reader knows that Susie, the significant object of Death's affection, is the very person he has been sent to Unclay, and while this adds a trite level of predictability to the book, especially with regards to the you-can-see-it-coming-from-a-mile-away ending, the obviousness of the dénouement is essentially mitigated from any tedium because inevitability and fatalistic determinism (if not nihilism) are the very themes the book is all about. There's a pleasing sense of closure as Powys simultaneously toys with and meets the reader's expectations of the narrative in a way that mimics the teasing unpredictability yet ultimate inevitability of death (and Death).

As far as I can tell though, a lot of people's negative reactions to the book have origins in T. F. Powys' meandering, abstract and, let's be honest, very difficult prose. Everything I've mentioned above; the comic exploitation of BIG and SERIOUS ideas, is all undercut (though I think, also, augmented) by the achingly sad and obvious fact that Powys was a man plagued by deep religious conflict. There are frequently long, tangential and inconsistent musings on the book's themes and characters, as Powys performs exegesis on his own text in an attempt to settle his religious problems. These often take the form of grand philosophical aphorisms or maxims, which are then only repudiated and thrown into question by more grand aphorisms and maxims later on. Definitely Christian, it's difficult, however, to parse any sense of an established orthodoxy. The kind of moral inconsistency that glorifies in comic representations of sex and marriage but expresses a shocking disgust and conservatism over, say, the notion of unbaptised babies makes Unclay a dramatically unstable and ungraspable book - which I think adds all the more to its beauty and depth, but could understandably be read as incredibly irritating.

I've probably not done Unclay justice, if only because it's strikingly difficult to write briefly about without also performing an almost sacrilegious disservice to its complexity. It's at once beautiful and disgusting, open-minded but horrifically sexist. There's a sadness to be found in Powys' brave and comic but ultimately unresolved wrestling with his own strange conception of religion and morality. The danse macabre trips its steps all over the fields of Unclay, in all its inconsistent, cadaverously cackling jest.


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