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Archive for July, 2009

Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine

Some watchmakers are guilty of exploiting the sin of pride. They denote themselves as artists rather than mere craftsmen, and introduce glass panels into the casing of their creations so that those who have the money to buy these extravagant works can not only admire the engineering, but also use the watches as tokens to tell the world of their status. In semiotic terms, the prevailing culture  attributes greater meaning to the watch which becomes more than a mere “teller” of the time. Every society has a discourse devoted to the definition of success. Newspapers, magazines and the visual media project images showing what the successful wear and use. They establish templates for those who wish to demonstrate membership of this social class. In the case of a watch, the normally hidden machinery — the boring bits that twist and twirl to enable the watch to perform its function — must be labelled beautiful in its own right. The thing must become more important than its function and, because of the high price paid for all the labour to produce it, the watch becomes a signifier of wealth and status. Those who can afford such luxury hold themselves out as having taste and discrimination. They are the leaders who build up a set of clothes and other symbols of status to follow the plot and become one with the narrative of success for that society.

In literary terms, a plot is the author’s roadmap to get from the start of the book to the end. In the best writer’s hands, the narrative flows with a “natural” feel. The readers instinctively feel the characters have credibility because they react to fictional events in ways that match our own experience and expectations. Sometimes, the plot must be extremely detailed, say, as in a mystery story where all the clues must be worked in to ensure the detective can solve the crime and catch the bad guy(s). The danger is that this forces characters to act in strange ways simply to enable the plot to come out “right” in the end. I am reminded of John Brunner who wrote a novel as an exact re-enactment of a famous game of chess. The Squares of the City is a wonderful invention until the endgame forces a set of character moves that are somewhat arbitrary in literary terms. Any author can compensate for this distortion of credibility by the quality of the writing or the adoption of other literary devices which distract or pacify the reader in some way, e.g. because aspects of the story pander to the reader’s particular likes. Brunner more or less succeeds overall because it remains a good story despite the ending.

However, when it comes to books like Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine, we have a novel where the plot has become so dominant that absolutely nothing can buy off the readers — it’s like someone wearing an expensive watch on each wrist, thereby demonstrating a lack of true taste. Buyout is a “mystery” story set in a “what if” future world (i.e. not quite a science fiction novel). The result will be strongly polarising. Those that like this kind of puzzle and its solution will say, “Well, gee whizz. Who’da thought it!” and reverently place it on their book shelves. In my case, I was sorely tempted to throw it out of the window. Yes, there is some good writing here. Yes, I recognise the basic set of characters as they begin their journey through the plot. But the subordination of everything to one arbitrary fact contorts the plot into an inevitable death spiral. The critical fact becomes the lever to move the fictional world with everything moving to produce the outcome hinging on that one fact.

Worse, I am not really convinced by the economics of the “what if”. The buyout scheme as proposed in the book allows those convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole, to commit suicide for a money payment distributed as they direct. In the real world, the state uses taxpayers’ money to pay the cost of imprisonment following sentencing by the courts. This applies no matter whether the prison service is publicly owned or privatised. If the latter, the ongoing cost falling to the state will be more significant because the prison operators are for-profit. In the case of young convicts, the total payable will mount up to several million dollars for each individual. This suggests the state would save money by paying the prisoners a proportion of the future costs to commit suicide today and free up the cell for another. Thus, instead of a steadily increasing prison population necessitating the building of more prisons, there can be a steady state of prisoners released on parole or suiciding to free up cells for the newly convicted.

This seems to reverse current economics without any obvious benefit. As it is, current state governments kick the can of future costs down the road to future generations to deal with. Who is to say what will happen to the law or penal policy over the lifetime of any given generation of prisoners. Thus, if the plan as proposed by Irvine were to be adopted, the state government would use existing capital, borrowed funds or a proportion of the existing tax revenue to buy out future costs. The day-to-day operating costs for cell occupancy will stay more or less the same as new prisoners come into the system but, with several million being paid as directed by each prisoner who dies, the budget deficit will inevitably rise. Just as the US will not spend money on preventative medicine because that defeats the vested interests of doctors and hospitals, I cannot see states being prepared to spend additional capital on today’s prison service to reduce potential costs tomorrow.

So, as you will gather, I do not recommend anyone to bother with this book unless they like obscure puzzles and their solution.

Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters by John Langan

When you set the bar for yourself, the main danger is that you set it too high. In Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters, John Langan approaches the potential use of horror tropes with the dangerous assertion that he hopes to come up with something new. Characters in short stories, novels and films have been finding or digging up “things” for more than a hundred years. To inspire anticipatory terror in the reader (or watcher), there’s usually a curse and, at its heart, the only question is how many will die before the malevolent force is assuaged. Given that every reader (or watcher) almost always knows from the outset what’s going to happen, the author (or screenwriter) is left to wrestle with the technical challenges of building and maintaining suspense.

In “On Skua Island”, Langan adopts the traditional frame of a club or group of people exchanging stories of their “adventures”. When a timid voice pipes up from the back, we are launched into a calm recital of the “facts” and, overall, it’s a satisfying romp with a paranoid twist in the tale. However, I find the context for the story overcomplicated. All we need is cannon fodder for the “mummy” to slaughter. I know that films like Dog Soldiers have popularised the idea of soldiers being picked off by supernatural forces, but an approach by MI5 to our hero is faintly surprising unless the point of the exercise is to tear up the island to make an outpost for GCHQ. In such a case, I suppose some kind of archaeological survey might be authorised before the destruction takes place. As a matter of record, MI5’s role is primarily domestic. It’s MI6 that deals with external threats from Russia. Whoever the “soldiers” work for, they would take listening or surveillance equipment if they were really tracking and monitoring submarine activity. Then, why would the UK security services pick a non-national when there are plenty of loyal British scholars? Our hero would also have to sign the Official Secrets Act so all the dreams of public glory for supervising the excavation would turn to dust. All unauthorised disclosures describing the site and the circumstances surrounding the dig itself would almost certainly be a criminal offence.

Further, even the real-world Achill Island does not have a bog on top of Slievemore, so I doubt the presence of conditions on fictional Skua Island’s hilltop sufficient to produce a bog body. The pillar would have been seen frequently by passing boats if it was on top of the hill. To give credibility to bog conditions sufficient to produce the body and to explain why no-one had previously investigated the island’s mysterious grave marker, it should have been on flat boggy ground and only visible to a boat very close in to shore. This would have set up a better narrative device of a local trawler captain approaching our hero with photos taken from offshore. They could both be regular drinkers in the same pub. Despite the out-of-focus pictures, our hero would be tempted by the thought of a completely new neolithic or Viking site. So they organise a dig on a shoestring with men from the fishing fleet who are finding times hard. Our hero would promise them a share in the glory for helping to dig up something wonderful and unique (all archaeological finds in Scotland belong to the Crown and are treasure trove unless the contrary is proved). Then all the more guilt when only he and the original trawler captain survive. It’s all very well to invite the reader to suspend disbelief, but there are limits.

Nevertheless, Langan gets everything right in the titular story of “Mr. Gaunt”. It’s completely satisfying on every level and the explanation of how Mr. Gaunt came to be as he is demonstrates a genuinely pleasing, if somewhat mordant, sense of humour. There is also some academic humour attempted in “Tutorial” but, on balance, the story goes on too long and does not have a clearly enough defined rationale. It’s common ground that those with the right tools can manipulate their target readers. I’m not sure that these motives for attempting the suppression of more complex language are sufficiently worked out.

“Episode Seven” is a curious conflation of post-apocalyptic science fiction, fantasy and weird. I suspect that if I had read it in a magazine, I would have been more impressed. As it is, the story sits somewhat uncomfortably in a collection which, to this point, has been primarily supernatural in theme. It is an “action story” rather than an “uneasy encounter”. Although, perhaps, there is a supernatural transformation in progress as (Bruce) Wayne slowly assumes his alter ego. The final story is simply too long. I accept that some academic exploration of the mythology surrounding Laocoön and Doris Lessing’s analysis of the statue now sitting in the Vatican adds a powerful layer of irony to the story but, at this length, it slows down the development of the plot. This is a variation on the transmission system for passing on the characteristics of a vampire, werewolf, etc. and, although this particular plot is a clever step forward in the development of the trope, I find it overburdened with a catalogue of the author’s own interests and ideas. That said, there are some delightful touches such as the son’s nightmares about Darth Vader.

As a first collection, Mr. Gaunt displays some highly encouraging signs and, for all their faults, the stories gave me considerable enjoyment. The “Story Notes” are also illuminating. I shall definitely add this author’s name to my list of people to watch.

For a review of John Langan’s first novel, see House of Windows.

Gears of the City by Felix Gilman

July 9, 2009 1 comment

As age has taken away the essential vitality that used to encourage me to action as an entrepreneur, I have turned to this strange new virtual medium. I come from an antediluvian world of publishing in which typesetters were the masters of hand compositing. Their work was the essential precondition to the printing of physical copy. In those days, we all knew the costs of what we did at every stage of the process of snatching words from the aether and transforming them into text. Now, with an amused detachment, I watch the accretion of millions of my words in this paperless environment. For my commercial output, I know who commissions and buys my words, and I understand how their business models work. But the economics of free sites like this puzzle me. The costs of the servers and bandwidth cannot be absorbed out of altruism. Yet, in sites like this, the masses have access to a virtual publishing system with no apparent costs. It’s as if we have suddenly strolled from a real world into a metareality where different rules apply and the machinery of commerce works in a counterintuitive way.

The Gears of the City by Felix Gilman is a sequel to the Thunderer and I confess to some trepidation when I picked it up. Having been less than enthusiastic about the first, you may raise an eyebrow in surprise that I should even bother with this second volume. But, despite its flaws, I had seen enough in the quality of the writing to hope that Gilman would rise above the episodic and overwritten recycling of old plot devices.

To my surprise, Gilman has returned with a seriously good book. Gone is the insistence on extravagant gestures. There are no giant birds capable of sharing their power of flight with escaping boys. Pestilence does not literally walk the streets. Instead of juxtaposing set-pieces, he adopts a carefully understated form of narrative in which the development of events is more natural and flows more coherently from the initial proposition.

It seems that our primary character from the Thunderer, Arjun, has ben able to penetrate the defences of the mountain in search of his lost God of music. This was a distant and enigmatic peak, always somewhat out of focus in the first volume. Since he could not find his God in the city, the mountain would have been the next logical place to search. Yet he has not only lost his memory, but he is also pursued by implacable enemies — presumably guardians of the mountain. From this starting point, a taut plot operates as a form of mirror image of the first book. In Noises Off, Michael Frayn leaves the proscenium arch in place but allows us to see behind the scenery and reveals the mechanics of a stage production — see it in a theatre and avoid the ghastly film version. In some respects, Gears of the City has a similar metafictional aim because, having seen the big magical bird in the first volume, we are now given theories as to what it and the other “Gods” may be and possible explanations of their function. As the title suggests, the author is disassembling the engine that drives the city so we can see more clearly how it works.

Although we have yet to meet the original builders of the mechanisms that power the mutability of the city and provide the opportunity for magical beings to exist, there is a clever exploration of the tendency of both real and metaphysical systems to degrade. This is not, strictly speaking, entropy because the city and its machinery might have the capacity of a Phoenix: out of destruction might flow the energy to create new possibilities — a kind of big bang. Alternatively, the machinery and its current operator may have reached a point where age brings an end to everything. For example, if the city was no more than the dream of a dying man, it would cease to exist when the man died. You may justly find this notion confusing. How could the characters in a possible dream affect the direction of the dream? Some day, you must ask an author whether the characters of the protagonists in a work of fiction determine the narrative arcs involving them or set the ending of the novel.

Thus, this book is on a mission to rescue the excesses of the first in what could become a successful series. More clearly rooted in a dystopic version of the city sited in the foothills of the mountain, Gilman is exploring the idea of how we perceive the world around us. In the real world, there is a structural layering of tangible and intangible values. Neighbourhoods vary in the physical quality and amenity of their local environment. The commercial values of the properties reflect the desirability of living in each area. Cultural and class boundaries overlay the physical structuring. Yet the majority of citizens remain largely oblivious to all the socio-cultural rules that restrict their freedoms. This gives the few who “see” their surroundings clear opportunities to transcend the rule systems. This may result in manipulation to preserve the status quo or represent a form of rebellion. How much progress in any direction a given group of activists makes is determined by their strength of will.

The main characters in this novel are archetypes including an organiser who builds for the future, a senior police officer who believes the end of stability justifies all means, a debauched man who seeks insight through excess, a pilgrim in search of his God, etc. Each character represents a virtue or a vice and it’s through their interaction that a satisfying conclusion is reached. With this second book, Gilman demonstrates a better command over the craft of writing and deserves watching in the future. It’s a shame you have to wade through the first to get the greatest enjoyment out of the second. But that’s all part of the cost you have to pay to get to the metareality.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City.

The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan

In my previous outings dealing with The Alchemist’s Apprentice and The Alchemist’s Code, I have hitched my wagon of disquisition to the admission that my grandma read tea leaves and claimed powers of clairvoyance. So it was that, once a week at its predictable time, the Lipton’s van pulled up in our street and the driver would start knocking on doors to sell his packets of floor-sweepings as my grandma uncharitably described the quality of the tea. Indeed, everyone from knife grinders to grocery delivery men variously announced their arrivals, often horse-drawn, by the ringing of bells or the honking of horns — dray horses were still making beer deliveries for Scottish & Newcastle Breweries when I left the North East in the 1960s. However, just as fashions change in delivery systems, my taste in drinks has also evolved. Perforce, tea was the main drink with food rationing continuing until the early 1950s and coffee beans hardly a priority for import to support post-war reconstruction. My taste for the overly milky and sweet concoctions of my youth slowly faded to be replaced by coffee — a drink that seemed more exotic to a teenager. Now, I rarely drink anything other than black coffee. This somewhat limits my ability to foretell the future since residual coffee grounds make very poor indicators of likely events. Instead, I rely on track record for predictive purposes.

With The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan, the third in the series, we have an emerging pedigree which predisposes the timorously optimistic book buyer to believe that the latest episode will be as good as the last. In fact, it proves an engaging read. We are plunged straight back into the Venice of the faux Nostradamus and his apprentice Alfeo with the ultimately invisible crime: the murder of a courtesan. As any patriarchally inclined observer will know, all prostitutes invite death simply by selling their bodies to men. That courtesans deal with a better class of men does not exempt them from this reality, particularly in late 16th or early 17th century Venice. Except that the circumstances surrounding this first death are unusual, and when the number of deaths rises to three and then four, it’s obvious that something more sinister is afoot. So Alfeo is sent out on to the mean canals to ask his questions and use his well-honed memory to remember every last detail of what he sees and hears while an increasingly disabled Nostradamus distracts himself from the pain of his rheumatism by concentrating his analytical mind on fitting the facts collected by Alfeo into a potential solution.

The supernatural element is slightly less prominent than in the two earlier volumes. Here Tarot forms the main guidance for the investigation and then there is the curious behaviour of the cat. So how does the “problem” and its solution match up to the previous volumes?

The Alchemist’s Code remains one of the most elegant reveals of the last five years or so. It cannot easily be surpassed. In this third volume, there’s slightly less mystery — the actual whodunit is fairly obvious because of the small number of possible suspects — but the overall context for the deaths is most cleverly worked out and highly credible. Even on the last two or three pages, details are still emerging which give psychological depth to the “answer”. That not everything is played fair because some of the explanation depends on what Alfeo can see but does not describe in sufficient detail is more or less forgivable. Almost all mystery/detective stories “cheat” to some extent. As a story slowly revealed through Alfeo’s investigation and the musing of Nostradamus, this shows everyone caught up in a wonderfully tangled web, with all elements drawn together in a most satisfying way. It more or less stands on its own but, as with all series, the enjoyment is enhanced when you read the books in order and watch how the characters develop and interact.

A new series starts with Speak to the Devil and we have a stand-alone called Pock’s World.

Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox

Many moons ago, there was a girl group somewhat improbably called The Cookies — presumably, they were sweet things on the musical casting couch. Anyway, as is the way of pop culture, their brief reign over the charts bequeathed us “Chains”, a haunting song, penned by Goffin and King, and later covered by The Beatles, which boasts the immortal refrain,

Chains, my baby’s got me locked up in chains

And they ain’t the kind that you can see.

Fast forward more than fifty years, and we find ourselves with the same leitmotif in the Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox. In some systems of magic, there is an expectation that, if you know the true name of a thing, animal or person, you can command it. So it is with some ironic satisfaction that I confront a book about magic knowing that the real name of the pseudonymous author is Chaz Brenchley. He is currently a denizen of Newcastle which was the nearest city to where I lived in the earliest part of my life. At least he has the good sense to stay on the north bank of the Tyne — perhaps he has also had the good sense to read The Fire Worm, a book with autobiographical asides by author Ian Watson on life in Tynemouth, which deals with monstrous consequences to be found in the river dividing the true Geordies from the rest of England.

In this book, we are in the world of Chinese mythology. Yet again, the Son of Heaven (as Emperors liked to be known way back when) comes to the Imperial Throne under the regency of his mother and her flock of feuding generals. The book begins with the court in flight from a rebellion by a general who would not play the mother’s game, the young Emperor caught up in an undignified retreat to an island which is the principal source of jade. His arrival completely disrupts the life of the people whose main interests have lain in mining the jade and fishing. Those on the mainland have the worst of the bargain because the arrival of the pursuing army results in a mass slaughter among the coastal towns which involuntarily provided the men and boats to ferry the retreating imperial forces to the island. It is strange how often the lives of the innocent can be so rudely interrupted when their rulers fall out.

The book is therefore dealing with several well-worn themes. It’s a coming-of-age story for the young Emperor, the young woman he takes from the fishing fleet as his mistress, and a young jade miner who, like the Emperor, has had significant exposure to this stone for most of his life. It also reflects on the social and political forces that shape and constrain the lives of those both within the power structure and without. In theory, everyone including the Emperor is caught in cultural chains, restricting what they can do or the way in which they can do it. While under the sea, chained by sympathetic magic, a real dragon chafes against her intangible bonds and dreams of being free again.

At many levels, this is an unflinching story. It could have glossed over the casual brutality of life and death in early China, yet the author’s gaze is focussed on the use of power as a means of imposing order and discipline on the world. There would be no hegemony over the enormous land mass of China without an iron fist to hold its disparate parts together. There would be no crew of a ship without a captain unafraid to take a limb or the lives of those who offend him. Armies depend on a balance between loyalty and fear to maintain full ranks of motivated soldiers. Mothers need a ruthless streak in them to protect their children. Yet tip the balance too far and Emperors, captains and mothers may find themselves transformed from caring authority figures into monsters with no-one prepared to follow them. Balancing power and respect for, if not love of, others is a difficult art for all to learn.

The book (as the first in a trilogy called Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water) is also balancing social upheaval against the threatened upheaval of the dragon if she can free herself from the chains that bind her beneath the sea. This dragon is not some benign Westernised creature of Hollywood design, prepared to pull up a rock and chat amiably with a young hero in Sean Connery’s Scottish brogue. Rather it is a fierce creature waiting to savour a cold dish of revenge by laying waste to human settlements up and down her part of the coast, including the straits now separating the Son of Heaven from his pursuers. Indeed, as readers, we can ponder which would be worse for the local inhabitants: an army killing all in its path or a single dragon that can call up tsunamis or attack from the air.

All this is told in a most pleasing style. Too often magical fantasy descends into purple prose whose baroque extravagance weighs down threadbare plots. Here we have an intelligent plot with a restrained but evocative tone. The characterisation is allowed the time and space to give us a real insight into motivations. So long as we all suspend disbelief at the magic and forgive Mei Feng her unexpected sophistication as she rapidly changes from a deck hand on her grandfather’s boat to imperial mistress, this represents an auspicious start to the intended trilogy. I recommend it.

For the next volume in the trilogy, see Jade Man’s Skin. For the concluding volume, see Hidden Cities. For a new series, see Desdaemona and Pandaemonium.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

I suppose that, in real terms, we must be the people we remember ourselves as being. Memory is the mechanism that supports identity. Supposedly, it’s the past that informs the present. Thus, we only repeat or deny prior decisions if we recall what we did. Should something interfere with our ability to store or recall information, we are diminished as human beings — hence our dread of the creeping loss of self caused by Alzheimer’s disease. I had this not terribly profound insight while reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry. As I read through the opening chapters, I was in full retrieval mode, finding myself reminded of previous books and films. Generally, I find this echo phenomenon most active when the stimulus text is rich in ideas. The interest created in the current mind resonates through the information stored in my memory and triggers associations.

The novel is set-up in the style of a detective story where the key source of person-power to serve and protect the community is an Agency. It’s easy to see this work as Kafkaesque because the bureaucracy of this Agency allows reality to be rewritten (and potentially distorted) because Mysteries are passed to the Detectives whose work is then edited by clerks on the fourteenth floor and passed on to Solutions for filing. Because each function is separated by Chinese walls, there’s no way of knowing whether the Detective actually investigated the mystery he or she was given. Nor is there any way of knowing how the clerks shaped the Detective’s reports before passing them on to their final resting place in the Archives. In the end, each part of the Agency will remember what it did but, perhaps, only the clerks see more of the information as they whittle down their Detective’s reports into the case files the Agency will remember.

However, for me, the final resonance is not with Kafka, Se7en for the rain that pours continuously throughout the investigation or more surreal explorations of the interface between dreams and reality. Rather, I am reminded of an almost unknown work from the sixties called Smallcreep’s Day by Peter C. Brown. This is a surreal and somewhat macabre satire on the implicit worthlessness of human existence, particularly as experienced by factory workers. After some sixteen years of curiosity, the eponymous Smallcreep abandons his work station to find out exactly what function his component plays in the finished product. As he journeys through the factory, he comes to recognise the futility of his life. Love and humanity are shredded and replaced by a despairing anomie.

So it is that Unwin, a clerk from the fourteenth floor, finds himself pitched into a journey through a cityscape to find the palindromic Travis Sivart, the Detective whose work he has so meticulously edited over the years. The interesting feature of Unwin’s quest is that he remembers all the details he has edited out of Sivart’s reports. In a sense, he becomes the memory of the Agency in seeking to solve the latest Mystery. So just as the author suggests the “criminals” may rely on ageing elephants to remember important facts, it’s the meticulousness of Unwin’s ability to memorise that will finally build a bridge between the perceived and the actual worlds.

The whole is a metaphorical, not to say allegorical, investigation into the nature of the world we believe ourselves to perceive. For some, a dream can be so vivid, they forget whether the imagined events actually occurred. Did they dream about something that had happened, was happening or would happen? If they remember their dreams, does that make them any more real than the physical experiences of a sleepwalker who gets up, makes breakfast and drives to work, only to wake in the carpark still wearing pyjamas? It’s convenient to believe that we all see the same world and can distinguish fantasy from reality. Indeed, those with the appropriate credentials and the status of psychiatrists make a living out of designating different gradations of mental illness if the perceptual line between the real and the unreal becomes blurred in the minds of their patients. But Jedediah Berry would have us think about this. His novel is populated by a stock of iconic cyphers. Their characters are presented ambivalently, challenging us to decide whether their actions are real or imagined, whether what they do is the product of free will or directed by some Svengali.

For a first novel, this is very good because it contrives to maintain plot momentum without sacrificing the quality of the ideas. There are also odd flashes of a wry sense of humour at work which leavens the mood of the writing. Overall, I think it goes on marginally too long. I confess to finding myself slightly jaded as I approached the end. It also lacks the mordancy of Smallcreep’s Day and ends on too sentimental a note. But, for those among you that enjoy something more cerebral, this is well worth a look.

As an additional note, The Manual of Detection has won the Dashiell Hammett Prize 2010.

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