Bleak History by John Shirley
Reading is a strange process. You think you have it all worked out and then, suddenly, it surprises you. When I started reading this book, the first thought was how quickly it reads. Having just staggered through an anthology with some stories distinctly challenging to finish, I was immediately seduced by the transparent, albeit noirish, style. John Shirley has a flair for cutting everything back to basics and getting on with the story. The eye seems drawn through the text as if all bumps in the road have been smoothed away. The mood improves. There’s a greater sense of enjoyment. And yet. . .
I have to start with an admission of prejudice. I’ve been a fan of Shirley ever since I read City Come A-Walkin’ some thirty years ago. Wow, you say to yourself. Was it really that long ago? And you smile because you can still remember the plot. Sometimes, good things just stick with you. So when I start reading an urban fantasy whose hero prefers independent action against bad guys, I feel on familiar territory. OK so this is a bounty hunter rather than the physical manifestation of a city’s consciousness, but there are resonances. And yet. . .
And yet, this is not quite as good as it threatens to be. It has all the elements that should be there for a successful witches brew of terror, except it’s all rather matter-of-fact. Take our hero. He’s had traumas to deal with. His brother died (or at least went missing) during childhood. He finds he’s got supernatural powers (disconcerting to even the most calm of people). His bible-bashing parents can’t stand having him around and send him off to a military school. From which he joins the army and learns all about survival (a little supernatural power here and there helps him through on the physical side, but he’s left with emotional scars). And then he’s chased by the usual government agency that wants to lock up all mutants as a threat to national security.
But, as is predictable, this government agency is run by an out-of-control megalomaniac who wants to use the people with supernatural powers to rule the world.
And only our hero can stop him. I have seen this kind of plot before.
It all starts off quite well as our hero meets the girl, but I’m immediately curious to understand how this magic system works. It seems he can draw on power to form “bullets” or transfer this power into real bullets which then act like grenades. He can also levitate and has this neat ability to know when he’s being watched. And he can talk to ghosts which is useful if you want someone to look inside a room for you and warn you of possible danger. But how does this bullet throwing thing work? He’s something of a softball pitcher and obviously has a good arm. But instead of being to guide these little packages of energy to their targets, he can miss. Except, when confronted by men with guns, he can suddenly fire at will and hit the guns (not the men holding them) every time without apparently taking serious aim. It’s all a bit frustrating for the reader because slightly more time is taken in explaining how Gulcher, one of the bad guys, interfaces with a comparable power. I would feel better about the hero if I understood the strengths and weaknesses of his abilities. He seems to prefer human fighting to solve his problems. Why is he so reluctant to explore and use his supernatural powers? If he can bend tranquiliser darts away from himself and shield himself from an exploding fragmentation grenade, why is there a problem with bullets? Put another way: for someone who has had years to live with “powers”, he does not seem that comfortable in using them. He could see a fence and walk over it. He could break down doors or knock holes in walls. It could all be so casual. Yet he seems to have to steel himself to do any of it. Indeed, even those with comparable powers express frustration they have never really seen him in action.
This seems to cast a shadow over the tone of the book. Our hero is not that convincing. Worse, he’s been set up by fate to be manipulated through his relationship with the girl. This leads to a somewhat curious situation in which, eventually, the girl shoots someone important to him. And his reaction is muted, ending up with them getting in some sack time. OK, so we know from the out that the hero will get the girl, but his reaction to the shooting is curiously numb.
The major threat from Moloch is also understated. Even though only a small portion of this being is able to get through the barrier, it seems content to feed on a few people in a casino until taking over a key General with access to the President. There’s very little mayhem even though we are told other “bad guys” have been affected. I suppose evil prefers to move quietly until a positive foothold is established, but this is all very small scale.
So we have Shirley’s trademark prose whizzing us effortlessly through the story, but have a story that’s a bit thin. It’s a case of almost a great book. With slightly more thought invested in the development of the ideas, we would have had real drama and tension. As it is, I was interested to see how it turned out and, when I finished, I picked up the next book with hope in my heart.