We all have our weaknesses and foibles. Ostensibly, they give each one of us some degree of uniqueness and individuality, separating us from the herd by the foolishness of our eccentricities. The reality is less flattering (as if that was possible). Because most of us are aware of our weaknesses but do little or nothing to curb them, we cultivate our personalities in a loam leavened with a fertiliser whose origin may be all too human in a fundamental way. As to me, I am a complainer. I make it sound better by describing myself as a campaigner for consumer rights — after all, if no-one ever complained, we would all get second-rate service. But I enjoy fighting with people. One of my pet peeves is the practice in some pubs to serve a pint of beer which includes the head. To me, the order of a specific volume of liquid requires satisfaction by the delivery of just that amount. To deliver less than one pint is a breach of contract. Indeed, CAMRA reports that one quarter of all pints sold in the UK are 95% or less than one pint. Since the law is unclear, I am a personal crusader and always ask for my “pints” to be topped up.
Which brings me to The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum, a collection of short stories where the need for substance meets the froth of style resulting in an unhappy mixture. The author is hyped as one who engages in surrealism or absurdism. Coming to the fore in the period immediately following WWI and flourishing in the 1920s, surrealism has a genuine historical pedigree. Whether “classical” surrealism has survived into our postmodernist world is the subject of some academic debate which need not trouble us here. Suffice it to say, I do not find Rosenbaum’s work to be surrealist, although I do concede some absurdism and satire.
The lead story, “The Ant King” is a satire on life in California. At one level, we might generously find parallels with Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco save that, instead of everyone turning into a herd of Rhinoceros, the people of California become exaggerated versions of themselves. This is not to deny there are odd flashes of wit and humour, but the whole is somewhat thin. Following Ionesco, we then have elephants that socialise but are fickle, shape changers that are voyeurs of death, and giants who hide in a distant valley. Rosenbaum certainly likes to attempt surprise but given that most stories are only a page or so long, he offers us only a few opportunities to observe how he might develop the ideas. Sometimes the ideas are satisfying: human-transmissible viruses which enable a new interface with the prevailing computer network and memories stored in commensuals that live from one host generation to the next and allow a form of eternal life to those whose memories are strongest. When it all works well, it’s really good as in “Red Leather Tassels” which contrives to match coincidence with improbability to excellent effect. The stand-out story is “A Siege of Cranes” which is a more conventional fantasy story, nicely capturing the transformation of a humble man into someone who can defeat the White Witch. Perhaps the price he has to pay for the courage to achieve this is one we might all be willing to pay.
But, overall, I found the collection tiresome. When at length as in “Biographical Note” and “Sense and Sensibility”, he can become overly impressed by his own cleverness. When the author thinks so little of an idea that it is thrown away in three or four hundred words, or prefers superficialities to substance, I walk away unsatisfied. The one underlying reality of a pint of beer is that at least 95% of it is usually substance that one enjoys drinking. Sadly, the balance in this collection favours the froth and, thus, represents poor value for money.
In theory, writing should be the easiest activity in the world. It is, after all, nothing more than speech captured on paper. Since everyone seems able to speak at nineteen to the dozen, dashing off the odd short story before lunch and a novel or so on your summer hols should be no problem. Except that, if you ask the few who can string more than two sentences together to make a coherent paragraph, there’s a lot of craft to learn before the paper version is worth reading. One of the key problems to resolve is the issue of narrative structure. Starting on page one, the author has to offer a coherent exposition of events, sufficiently interesting and credible to lead the readers through to a satisfactory ending.
One approach is like building a tower or digging a tunnel. Once the author sets off up the tower or down the tunnel, we are all obliged to follow, limited in what we can see because of the structure through which we pass. If you’re like Ted Chiang, you write something like the Tower of Babylon which, incidentally, won the Nebula in 1990. This should be the ultimate linear story of a man who climbs up the titular Tower, except the only discovery is that, like Ouroboros, what goes up, must come down. In non-linear stories, the events as described are not necessarily chronological or immediately related to each other. They exist like pieces in an unmade jigsaw until the author assembles them in some hopefully pleasing manner. The most common example is a multiple point-of-view structure that introduces a cast of characters that may not meet until the end or may not meet at all but influence each other indirectly. In the vast majority of all plots, we get to see an increasing convergence between all the narrative strands as the plot develops and more characters do meet.
Under normal circumstances, the author is modest and limits the cast of characters. This keeps the storytelling manageable. All of which brings me to The Revolution Business by Charles Stross. This is the fifth volume in what has been projected as a cycle of six although, unless everyone with nukes uses them in a MAD way, there could be a new series involving expansion into, or interaction with, different worlds as they are discovered. Stross has been attempting something only rarely seen. He has been building an upside-down pyramid, i.e. he placed the apex stone on the ground and then began to fan upwards and outwards without the structure falling over. It has four faces, one for each world and, as new characters are introduced and situations develop, the volume above the apex stone has been expanding. Frankly, I thought the whole thing too ambitious. It would have been an easy ride to take if the lead character, Miriam, had been the sole point-of-view. But Stross has been running multiple characters in each of the worlds (albeit the fourth world has merely been visited so far and appears enigmatically empty).
I thought the monumental effort was threatening to fall over in the fourth book, The Merchants’ War, but Stross seems to have more discipline in this latest episode and I feel more confident that the sum of the parts will prove an interesting whole when we can all look back and see how we ended up. The plotting here is more taut and, it must be said, all the better for being less ambitious. Much of the activity surrounding a subset of the lead characters is kept in outline. We see only as much as we need to see to get us where we need to go. It’s all building up towards an interesting high-stakes game in the final episode.
As one final thought, I was amused to see Paul Krugman’s endorsement on the front of the jacket. I find Krugman’s twice weekly columns in the NYT a fascinating read. My estimation of the man has been enhanced by his willingness to publicly endorse science fiction. Too few big-name intellectuals are prepared to admit opening the boards of an explictly SF book. As a world-renowned economist, I wonder what he makes of Mack Reynolds and Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo. Reynolds was a one-man army when it came to speculation about economics and, although it’s all a little wooden by modern-day standards, the ideas remain interesting. Spondulix is just good fun and should be read by all — it’s probably slightly better in the short version rather than the full novel. Di Filippo is one of the very best short story writers around.
For a review of a collection by Charles Stross, see Wireless. The concluding volume of this series is The Trade of Queens. Also see The Apocalypse Codex, Neptune Brood, Rule 34 and The Fuller Memorandum.
Ignoring the old chestnut of the nature/nurture debate, we contrive to become people as we age. How successful we are depends on a variety of factors varying from blind luck to judicious planning. As we look back on the roads we have travelled, some moments stand out as signposts, vaguely pointing us in potentially desirable directions. In a retrospective mood, I am arbitrarily reminded of two quite different moments. The first comes from an early foray into Sherlock Holmes where, during an investigation into the disappearance of Silver Blaze, Holmes enigmatically opined that the failure of the dog to bark was a “curious incident”. The beauty of this is that it leaves something completely obvious lying out in the open for all to see, waiting only for the author to explain just why silence is so revealing. The second was a cartoon introducing an article in a serious periodical about how one assesses credibility in a narrative. It showed a crocodile on trial for murder and, under cross-examination, it was retorting, “Of course, I’m cold-blooded. I’m a reptile, you idiot!”
Humour done well is always satisfying because it punctures the self-importance of an individual or group. In Biter, Bit moments, those who make a living out of criminal trials always look to twist words to show people in the best or worst possible light. Trying to convince a jury that an accused is a cold-blooded killer seems a sound strategy yet such statements of the obvious are often double-edged. When it comes to judging the credibility of witnesses, we use our own experience of life. If we were in a similar situation, what would we do? What have we seen others say and do in such situations? If there is a general trend and the accused matches this model, the characterisation of the accused is more credible. But if the accused claims feelings and emotions out of step with our experience, this accused lacks credibility. Once we enter the world of fiction, the same rules apply to naturalistic storytelling. We empathise and identify with the characters who tend to act as we would act. So, even though Sherlock Holmes is clearly in a league of his own, Watson, Lestrade and others represent the humans of ordinary ability as foils to the great detective. All great problem solvers require a sidekick to ask the everyman questions. If the author trespasses into “unnatural” surroundings, he or she needs to define the rules. If there is new science or magic, how is it supposed to work? Now, when we see people reacting to these new environments, we have expectations on how they will react. When done well, they will act credibly.
I confess to being a sucker for books that unashamedly wear their intelligence on their sleeves. Perhaps I have a general control freaky that prefers ‘i’ to be dotted and ‘t’s crossed. Whatever the reason, I find myself immediately seduced when an author thinks so clearly on paper that every answer to every question just feels right. There is, of course, a trap because some authors are just too clever for their own good. Their imagination produces situations so baroque and unreal that there is little interest in disentangling their Gordian Knots. They become self-indulgent. But, as in Castro’s case, the best authors are minimalist, doing only as much as they need to get the situation defined and the characters off and running. Then, if dogs happen not to bark, this adds to the pleasure of the experience when the silence is later explained.
No-one can ever say with certainty why it happens. It may be an entirely objective assessment of a book — that there is something so powerful about it that it demands to be heard. Or it may be that there is a coincidence of mood — that the reader is predisposed, for some unquantifiable reason, to be entranced by a book. There is never certainty in life. All I can say is that, in this instance, I am in awe of Emissaries From the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro. How or why this has happened is neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that this was a book I read from cover to cover in a single sitting, determined to see how it all played out in the end. This is a cross-genre book blending science fiction and a mystery element. It begins with Counsellor Andrea Cort arriving on an artificial environment created by alien intelligences. She has been sent (or summoned) to investigate the murder of two members of a human team invited by the aliens to observe the habitat and its “animals”. The task looks simple. There are a limited number of people in a closed environment. Picking out which one is the “villain” should not be too taxing. Except little is what it appears to be and, thanks to the initially unobtrusive way in which the narrative develops, we are suddenly pitched into successively different explorations of the environment in which the “cast” find themselves. Everything is exactly what it appears to be except that it takes a magician to keep showing us why the dogs are not barking. There is a reason for everything and I found myself tipping my hat to the author on a regular basis as what was standing in plain sight was so elegantly reinterpreted. Is Andrea Cort a new Sherlock Holmes? Well, I doubt Castro had him in mind when creating this character and the thinking processes are rather different. But both have their own demons and see the world through eyes that are somehow better able to see beyond the surface reality and to ask the questions we would all like to think we could ask given the time to think and analyse. I suspect Doyle would have enjoyed this novel. It has a strong story and a continuously inventive way of entertaining us with understated intelligence.
For once, I will not engage in any spoilers or discussions of the way in which the narrative is developed. I suspect everyone will find their own delights and I will not risk spoiling the moments by my own heavy-handedness. Let me simply recommend it as a must read. Hopefully, the sequel will be just as good.
Never one to be shy, my Grandmother’s lexicon of bon mots occasionally brought shades of dark violence into the home. As indicated in an earlier post, one of my favourites was, “The things you see when you haven’t got your gun.” She had been brought up in the houses of the well-to-do in Victorian Yorkshire. The Dales were dotted with old colonels who retreated into their smoking rooms or studies to bask under the baleful eyes of all the animals they had shot while serving abroad. No self-respecting officer could ever come home from an overseas posting without a wall full of heads. Yet, in the tradition of fishermen who always tell stories of the one that got away, so officers would tell of the fierce creatures they would have shot had they had the chance. All this came to mind the other day as my wife and I were sitting in the shade outside a local coffeeshop. A young lady walked by. She attracted attention because, in the mid-afternoon sun, her dress was almost completely transparent. She seemed not to care that every eye, male and female alike, followed her confident stride. This was a woman at peace with who she was. With no British colonels around, she was safe.
In fictional worlds, it is a somewhat tired trope that heroes, uncertain of their ancestry, should set out on a quest to determine their identity. A recent example of this is Template by Matthew Hughes who is ploughing the same furrow as Jack Vance with some success. I confess to being a major Vance fan, and a mild fan of the Hughes/Vancean style. The problem with overtly maintaining a style is that, over time, it pales by comparison with the original. Jack is always Jack even when he is past his best, which he was in the last published effort. You forgive an old man these parting gestures because of the oeuvre he leaves behind. He is original to the end. Hughes, however, grows somewhat repetitive. The early works, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, are the best because he was so obviously having fun. Now that he is stuck in the groove, I have the sense that he is going through the motions.
So it is with this book. It adopts the peregrination or picaresque model as our somewhat roguish hero travels from one world to the next, observing the local cultures and gleaning information that may lead him to his identity. It would have been better at two-thirds the length. The idea underpinning the narrative is reasonable and the execution competent, but he doth protest too much. The message is tired by the time it is delivered and, despite some pallid satire, there is just not quite enough wit and invention to maintain the suspension of disbelief. I wanted it to be good but I was somewhat disappointed.
As a survival characteristic, I was programmed to catch every conceivable disease going. That way, I would get it all out of the way early on and have immunity for the rest of my life. This meant that, as a child, I spent many weeks flat on my back, vaguely contemplating death a couple of times, while my mother, desperate to distract me from my physical woes, read the classics of fiction to me. It seems I was destined to be a well-read survivor. So, my encounter with Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson came early on, closely followed by Verne’s Lighthouse at the End of the World and Mysterious Island. This gave me a fascination for stories about the sea and pirates. The discovery of Conan Doyle’s Tales of Pirates and Blue Water simply added fuel to the flames and, before you could say, “Long John Silver”, I was off with Captain Sharkey and enjoying the spookiness of the Polestar. Yet, even with a fair wind behind you, the repetition of the tropes becomes boring and interest wanes over time. One waits for someone to come along to reinvigorate or reinvent the genre so that the same dishes can be enjoyed all over again.
A brave attempt was made by William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan to produce a musical entertainment, Victorian style, in The Pirates Of Penzance Or The Slave Of Duty. J. M. Barrie also takes firm aim at the clichés by having his pirates become the butt of Peter Pan’s youthful exuberance. Hollywood briefly entertained by making the thugs debonair and daring with Errol Flynn and others bringing wit and charm to the roles. Then, equal opportunities bore fruit with Jean Peters and Geena Davis swashing their buckles along with the men. More recently the Muppets and Johnny Depp have been entertaining rather than frightening. Along the way, there was more serious fictional meat from C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian who combine historical accuracy and intelligent storytelling. While others engaged in more overt silliness by transplanting pirates to science fictional settings with Edgar Rice Burroughs and others relocating the tropes to Alien Mains. But, to my mind, with the possible exception of The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser which brings a brilliant over-the-top lunacy to the subject, no-one has really “rescued” the pirate novel.
Thus, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key by Kage Baker. When she is on form, Baker is a highly entertaining writer and the sustained inventiveness of the Company saga which does, incidentally, have a pirate element to it, encouraged me to set prejudice to one side. If someone can reinvent the “cyborg” tropes as a time-travel device, then this author can single-handedly do something to breathe new life into old pirate stories. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed within the first few pages. Indeed, as I continued to read, I simply grew more angry. This is nothing more than an outline an author might dash off in haste to prove to a willing publisher that a book can be delivered on the given topic — everyone expecting that, upon acceptance, the author will then sit down to more seriously “write” the book. There is no attempt to flesh out the catalogue of clichéd plot devices. Everything is flat, simplistic rather than simple, completely devoid of context and setting, and one dimensional where we might have expected two or even three dimensions. There are no interior monologues to illuminate character and motivation, no omniscient author to give us hints and insights. It is a plot, with some dialogue and the minimum possible number of words to get to the end.
I note the irony because, in other posts, I rant about the failure of editors to take out their blue pencils and cut away all the dead wood. Here we have the exact reverse. The publisher should have said, “Thanks, but no thanks” to the manuscript as delivered. This is not a book that should be allowed out into the real world at $35 without a health warning. In the good old, bad old days when editors did cut chunks of redundant prose out of already overblown novels, these excisions did appear in print but more honestly labelled. Thus, for example, Stephen Donaldson was told to cut down his first draft of The Illearth War, the resulting deletions being picked up and published by Underwood Miller as The Gilden Fire. But there was no attempt to deceive the reading public. This was for the die-hard fans as deleted content. Unfortunately, Subterranean Press has chosen to advertise Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key as an “exclusive pirate novel” as if this is some special event. I despair of publishers. They talk themselves into contracts with “big name” authors and then get caught with the sorry task of having to promote something not even third-rate to get their money back on the advance.
Well, as a sucker who shelled out $35 for this drivel, I can only advise you to wait until the word-of-mouth spreads. This will soon be hitting the second-hand market for a few dollars. If you really do feel the need to see just how bad this is, you need not waste any serious sum of money to find out. In mid 2009, I see Amazon.com has two copies going at $5 plus shipping. That’s about the right price to pay.
I was a Spock child. This does not mean my parents had pointy ears and a tendency to say, “Live long and prosper”. But rather they were followers of Benjamin McLane of that ilk, who did wantonly produce a book on child rearing. It swept around the world and, for better or worse, my parents adopted the idea that I should be raised as an individual. So, from an early age, I was treated as a young adult and consulted on how I would like to lead my life. Except, of course, when parents knew better. The main area in which they asserted better knowledge was how to grow up strong and healthy. I was therefore liberally dosed with cod liver oil. So, most of my circle of acquaintance quickly learned the power of the word “halitosis” as my exhaled breath came to resemble the output of the local fish glue factory. This ensured Spock’s individualism applied to me as no-one would come near me for fear I might speak.
All this, for now, brings me to Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who, in 1826, wrote a book called Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante in which he offered the profound remark, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, et je te dirai ce que tu es.” This roughly translates as, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” The more modern version of the original French idea is, “We are what we eat”. By this circuitous route, we come to Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison, and other novels about the ruthless exploitation of humans and aliens for food and other purposes. In modern terms, the saying now is, “Conspiracy theorists of worlds unite, you have nothing to lose but your urban myths.”
Science fiction enjoys speculating on the capacity of the human race for evil. This is not to say that there are no redeeming features in individual humans or that aliens are not just as bad. But the plot of Blue War by Jeffrey Thomas is built around an unfortunate discovery when the human race meet the Ha Jiin. It seems that, when buried underground, dead Ha Jiin bodies give off a gas as they decompose. This gas has vital properties for humans. They decide the burial grounds must be tapped. Worse, if there are not enough bodies, ways must be found to increase the death rate. So, just as humans on Earth go to war for access to water, agricultural land and minerals, future wars can be fought over gas. The cause and effect get morally interesting for a balance must be struck between life and death to ensure continuity of supply over time. The solution is to “liberate” an oppressed group who agree to allow humans free access to their burial chambers.
The immediate story is told as a PI investigation set some years after the end of the war. The fragile peace is being literally undermined as a new human terraforming system goes rogue and consumes land occupied by both majority Ha Jiin and the newly independent Jin Haa. The unstoppable expansion threatens to destablise the three-way relationship because access to the burial chambers is also blocked. Our hero, Jeremy Stake, moves between the human and Ha Jiin as he tries to understand exactly what forces are at work. There are conspiracies and corruption on both sides. There are also redeeming individuals prepared to do the right thing as old battle lines are redrawn and better understandings are reached. In a sense, the novel is a metaphor for a study of identity. People wear different faces as warriors and lovers, as governments and vested interests, as racketeers, terrorists and religious leaders. In some senses, these words have no fixed meanings. People may be labelled collaborator, warrior, terrorist, hero or traitor depending on who records the history and what their motives are in the telling. So when we meet these people, we can either take them at “face” value or look beneath to see their strengths and weaknesses.
Is this a perfect book? As if there ever could be a “perfect” anything. We can always find minor irritations. It suffers from the contemporary fad of being too long. Books like A Case of Conscience by James Blish are better for being short. But this is moderately economical as many modern books go and the narrative moves along at a reasonable pace. The exposition is kept to a minimum and well embedded. The social and cultural relationships on all sides are explored with surprising honesty. It is pleasingly uncompromising at times. More interestingly, it also defies genre boundaries. Although it is mainly an SF novel, there are elements which could be fantasy, bits which are plainly horrific and all told as an investigation by a PI. So, on balance, I recommend it.
This is one of the more underrated science fiction novels, managing to embed an interesting discussion on the meaning of identity in a framework blending SF with horror.