Wireless by Charles Stross
There are many reasons why publishers release books into the market but, being profit-motivated, the thought uppermost in everyone’s mind is usually the generation of more moolah. In this endeavour, it helps if the author already has an established fan base that, when given warning of the impending launch of another masterpiece, will rush all slavering to the nearest bookshop to purchase said tome. For those of a less fannish disposition, it helps if the book is actually worth reading. Although, when you look at the success of authors like James Patterson (and his team writers), the ability to write coherent English in an intelligent narrative pursuit is not a prerequisite of success.
In this case, we have what, for some authors, is the collection no-one wants to talk about. The modern trend is for people to establish themselves as novelists and, if they do work at the shorter end of the spectrum, they keep quiet about it. This reverses the publishing model which started with the majority of authors building reputations in magazines and only later moving on to novels (which were, by modern standards, little more than novella length). So, the majority of publishers mute the fanfare when a collection emerges. This is a distraction from novels (particularly those in a series) which represent the main milk-cows. Well, this starts exceptionally well. “Missile Gap” is a wonderful reworking of the cold-war mentality story set in a gonzo science context. The idea of human civilisation being transplanted to a disk where, in the literal sense, it sinks or swims, is quite simply delightful. This is Stross on top of his game with an ingenious twist on Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen Versus the Ants” thrown in for good measure. Similarly, “Rogue Farm” is another delightful idea and, not wanting to strain the suspension of disbelief too far, comes in far shorter with self-discipline in full control.
We then come to the first of the Lovecraftian stories. Now let’s start off with the required statement of prejudice. I’m a big fan of Lovecraft done well. I first came across the source author back in the 1960s and have studiously followed most of the professional work in the “universe” he and the other writers have conspired to create. “A Colder War” reruns the theme of “Missile Gap” but, by introducing an alternate history, gives us Oliver North running covert ops involving elder technology. Again, it’s a good idea and, with touches of humour, just about manages to hold up. But it’s a little diffuse, as if Stross could not quite decide whether this was to be a little guy caught up in a big machine story (as in the Laundry style) or full-blown Lovecraftian epic. “Maxos”, originally published in Nature, is an elegant joke which serves as a punctuation mark before Bob Howard makes his appearance in “Down on the Farm”. This is again Stross at his best with Bob struggling with Laundry bureaucracy and incidentally overcoming a power-crazed entity. Bob is a wonderfully modest and self-effacing protagonist who, despite being occasionally trapped in stories too long for his own good, always seems to emerge from cosmic confrontation with nothing more serious than an interminable set of report forms to complete.
Collaborations are often an embarrassment as the author with the idea fights with the collaborator on how to write it down. Egos can be brittle and fragile. Results can be patchy and indifferent. All of which heralds a genuine success in “Unwirer”. Here Stross teams up with Cory Doctorow to produce a lean and muscular story about the infrastructure to support the internet. This has everything from investigative journalism, the natural paranoia of subversives to the agents provocateurs of a repressive regime. The whole is neatly wrapped in an action-packed format and served in cohesive style.
If the collection had ended here, it would have been declared a triumph. Unfortunately, publishers tend to think in bigger scale these days. It’s no longer considered acceptable to offer the 192-page format so beloved of typesetters when I was no more than a sprog at my mother’s knee. The mythology is that buyers today will only shell out for bigger books. This forces the inclusion of padding. The first is a “long spoon” story in which the Devil is out-eviled by a drunken Scot. It has the virtue of being mercifully short — something that cannot be said about the last two entries. As I have commented in another review on this site, I am not averse to pastiche. If you know and love the original, it can be interesting to see someone having fun with the style. Occasionally, it works brilliantly at length. I grew up with the books by Dornford Yates so Tom Sharpe’s Indecent Exposure, sequel to the magnificent Riotous Assembly, is a double delight. What more could anyone ask than for a writer of rare talent to take themes and style from a revered source and then elevate them to new levels of absurdity. This is not to say that P.G. Wodehouse cannot be lifted to new heights. Lurking in the midst of the period dross, there are some good story ideas. But trying to reboot Jeeves into interplanetary hobnobbing is never going to be a success for me. As Stross himself comments in an afterword, “Humor is hard.” I might have stayed patient at two- to three-thousand words. This length is disastrously tedious for a one-trick pony. Which, sadly, brings us to “Palimpsest” which should either have stayed in his bottom drawer or been subjected to serious editing to reduce it to a bearable length. As it is, this is a very clever idea, but the execution is just endlessly boring.*
So there you have it. Good in parts, excellent in others, and then it runs out of steam and dies. Worth looking at if you are already a Stross fan. Otherwise, the price of the hardback outweighs the quality.
*With some degree of amusement, I note that “Palimpsest” won the Best Novelette Award at this year’s Hugo ceremony held 2-6 September at Aussiecon 4. Obviously, my chaffing from wheat needs more practice on the threshing.