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Archive for May, 2010

Ghost Writer

Over the last few years, almost all my output has been published under “house names”. This made the chance to go and see Ghost Writer irresistible. The film is co-written and directed by Roman Polanski, and based on the novel, The Ghost, by Robert Harris. As its theme, it takes an inside look at ghost-writing, a trade rather than a profession since we journeymen labour out of sight. Whereas ostensible authors put themselves about to maintain their reputations and sell the words, ghosts are never invited to the book launches. It would be too embarrassing for all concerned. Indeed, at the earliest possible moment in the offices of a top publisher, the ghost, played by Ewan McGregor, asserts that he is “nothing”, the unadmitted talent who, by a process of stealthy elicitation and necessary bullying, takes the words of another and turns out something readable. The film emphasises this by never naming the ghost-writer. Pierce Brosnan as the client calls him, “Man” — what he calls anyone (insignificant) whose name he cannot remember. Our null-man also uses a slight flippancy as a defence to maintain professional distance. Adding to the image is a genuine lack of interest in personal grooming. Yet, once asked about words, he becomes a different animal, sounding every word until he finds the mots justes for the job.

The skill of ghosting has two major components. The first is empathy to understand the nominal author’s way of thinking. I used to worry about ghosting for women, but words are words and framing is everything. The second is a sufficient core of stubborn competence to see what has to be done to save the work and produce a finished product by the stated deadline. In the film, our ghost is to be paid $250,000 to produce the autobiography of a retired British prime minister in one month. A not-impossible deadline because there is already a 600+ page draft for him to knock into shape. The only immediate blots on the landscape are that the previous writer, a long-standing aide and friend helping the PM, has died and, when he is returning home, the ghost is mugged and a manuscript he is carrying stolen. It’s not the PM’s manuscript, of course, but the muggers were not to know that.

Jet-lagged, he then confronts the real manuscript and finds sleep irresistible. As in most cases, he sees the need to start again. This emphasis on new beginnings is the first of the ghost’s successive failings to maintain that all-important “professional” distance between himself, the client and the notorious man’s entourage. As the mirror, he should reflect on, analyse and recast what the “author” says and writes, acting only as an editorial guide and not as an investigative journalist. He should not question the truthfulness of his author but, as circumstances rapidly change, our ghost is pulled into the real world and must make choices. Unfortunately, his curiosity overcomes his common sense. The running metaphor in the film is the futility of the Korean handyman’s task. Amongst other things, he is paid to keep the grounds around the PM’s retreat free of falling leaves. But, no matter how many times he thinks he has all the leaves heaped up ready for collection, the wind redistributes them.

Insofar as the film is about the war against terror, the most telling moment comes when our ex-PM resentfully attacks the masses who moralise and condemn rendition, water-boarding and imprisonment without trial. He deems this hypocrisy because they all-too-willingly take the benefits of the alleged safety this affords them. This is always the justification of self-deluding and corrupted leaders. They want a get-out-of-jail free card. Instead of applying the best moral (and legal) principles in their decision-making, they claim the luxury of being allowed to match the terrorists in their immorality. The delusion is that the masses will understand and forgive a leader who dirties his hands in their name, so long as he believes it is for their protection.

This is an ensemble cast led by Ewan McGregor who has entirely lost his Obi-Wan persona and, without an exception, even the walk-ons manage to underplay their roles. It would have been easy to make a potboiler melodrama. That it has emerged as a taut thriller is a testament to the willingness of the cast to subordinate their roles to the greater good, and the skill of the director in pacing the inexorable unravelling of the plot. Even Pierce Brosnan manages to look cracked round the edges as his character’s political ego comes under pressure (as when forced by the script to grin self-confidently in a press conference at the White House). The mainly German locations stand in beautifully for London and the American east coast, the completed whole being a lean and economical build to the conclusion. I confess to preferring the ending in the novel. That has a better feel for the ghost’s likely state of mind but, in the interests of dramatic flair, I can understand why Polanski made the changes.

If you have not already seen this film, you should go. That you may not like Polanski as a man should not weigh in the balance. Many men in positions of power are sexual predators. That Polanski may be one of the more guilty does not change the reality that, for more than fifty years, he has consistently made good films.

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Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow

In a previous review, I commented that an editor has an easy task with themed anthologies because it’s easy to identify, say, vampire or werewolf stories, and judge them on their merits. Yet, this simplistic assertion rather breaks down when it comes to Lovecraftian stories. This is one of the most consistently explored of “universes” and the professionals who would contribute to the Mythos have a responsibility to avoid clichéd reworkings of tired tropes. As the editor, Ellen Datlow has to balance the need to achieve quality in the writing against the requirement that submissions show canonical consistency to the Mythos (albeit with some degree of originality to mitigate the potential boredom of mere pastiche).

So, perforce, we must briefly consider what constitutes a Lovecraft story. There are a number of essential elements. The narratives must be enigmatic, i.e. there must be an undercurrent of cosmic mystery that is only partially resolved at the end. This lack of resolution emphasises the forbidden nature of the relevant knowledge. Indeed, because this knowledge is so dangerous, Earth’s population must be protected. To achieve this, the writers must not actually explain the events described. Think of it as being a mercy that we are kept in ignorance of the “things” lurking on the threshold. Humans always have the greatest fear of things “unknown”. Such fear defeats optimism and induces a paralysis of will — what point is there in struggling when we are so clearly outmatched. This leaves us with three key ideas, namely that:

(a) there are higher orders of beings that can, at will, violate what we think of as fixed, natural laws;

(b) we are insignificant creatures, only lately come into possession of Earth; and

(c) the previous occupants might come to reclaim it at any minute.

Authors and readers therefore enter into a conspiracy to treat the Mythos as real. The writing must be allusive, hinting only obliquely at matters of cosmic significance. If an innocent human is confronted by undeniably outré events in a “traditional” story, it must be an experience shattering all preconceptions as to the nature of reality. It must transcend understanding and, in religious terms, strike at the soul. Modern protagonists are allowed a little more spunk.

So it is that we come to Lovecraft Unbound (Dark Horse), edited by Ellen Datlow, twenty stories, sixteen original to the anthology. “The Crevasse” by Dave Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud places us in a familiar polar locale and challenges us to balance the hallucinogenic qualities of incipient snow blindness against a narrator who is less than wholly reliable as he struggles to come to terms with his traumatic experiences in W.W.I and, independently, the loss of his wife to the 1918 Flu Pandemic. It’s nicely atmospheric, musing on what might draw a man with a damaged psyche to explore, while his tough-minded companion prefers denial. “Cold Water Survival” by Holly Phillips has our explorers adrift on a ’burg floating free from the ice cap. This time, the reliability of the narrative is mediated through the protagonist’s direct observation and a video record. This represents a form of mirror image in that the first narrator may be returning to the crevasse, whether physically or in his dreams, whereas the melting of the ice may be releasing more than the explorers expect from the past.

“The Office of Doom” by Richard Bowes plays the dangerous game of leavening Lovecraft with a touch of humour. Why dangerous? Because in our world of postmodernist sensibilities, an author can devalue the core concepts by inadvertently mocking them. Fortunately, Bowes manages to stay on the right side of the line and describes the life of a minion in a library who knows enough to avoid the fate of those who should have known better. “The Din of Celestial Birds” by Brian Evenson and “Light Unseen” by Joel Lane take the same theme of displacement. Outside forces take over the mind and body of a human carrier with results being respectively active and passive, but no less fatal. “The Tenderness of Jackals” by Amanda Downum speculates on whether ghoulish predators can sometimes show “mercy”. It follows in the same vein as vampires who bestow immortality rather than merely drain the victims and leave the empty husks. “One Day, Soon” by Lavie Tidhar is a short, elegant dream story which, so my ageing memory tells me, is unique in being an acknowledgement of the Holocaust in a Lovecraftian context. “The Recruiter” by Michael Shea bucks the more usual trend by being slightly optimistic. It’s good to feel that, every once in a while, someone down on his luck may find a little good fortune, even if only to follow the lead of someone rather delightfully rhyming femur with lemur. “Marya Nox” by Gemma Files is also different in adopting a transcription format for an interview with a priest. This is always difficult to manage and the sparse story is surprisingly powerful despite lacking the more usual trappings of prose.

There are the inevitable weak links, sadly delivered by Joyce Carol Oates and Simon Kurt Unsworth. “Commencement” by Oates is an attempt at injecting some humour into proceedings, but it proves overly long and lacking in intelligence. Even if there’s some form of collective amnesia among the vast number of family members and hangers-on actually attending the graduation ceremony, the immediate “world” is watching courtesy of all the cameras present. This breaks the prime directive of Lovecraftian “forbidden knowledge”. Should there be no direct coverage of the ritual climax, it’s inconceivable that the annual loss of key people would not be noticed and investigated. Finally, with only a gesture at Herbert Westian student experimentation, the dynamic is totally unLovecraftian. “Vernon Driving” by Unsworth is a revenge story only relevant to the anthology because one of the victims writes Lovecraftian fiction. This is unfortunate because, in other anthologies, both stories would be considered better than good.

“Sincerely Petrified” by Anna Tambour is the first of three standout stories. Told in a deceptively simple way, this is a thematically complex story. Imagine the disease vector of bacteria released from careless research laboratories. Now translate this into the power of myths to infect the world once free of the academic minds hoping to manipulate them. Her characterisation of the professors is pointedly satirical, but this does not detract from a neat biter-bit story. The second is “Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love” by William Browning Spencer. The notions of “love at first sight” and “soul mates” to some extent depend on the willingness of the pair to suspend disbelief. But suppose there was a test of compatibility — something to remove all uncertainty. Now that’s something that would inspire all concerned with confidence as to the future. Then comes “Mongoose” by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. All I can say is this must have been fun to write because it’s great fun to read. The future history of space exploitation with Lovecraft meeting Lewis Carroll is probably my favourite story of the anthology. It’s a pitch-perfect Mythos story with genuine affection for the tropes on display. Thank God(s) the Akhamers make friends!

The engine room driving the core of the anthology comes with the best of the “traditional” stories. This comprises “Houses Under the Sea” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Marc Laidlaw’s “Leng”, “In the Black Mill” by Michael Chabon, and “Catch Hell” by Laird Barron. Kiernan reworks the Innsmouth theme with the worship of Father Dagon and Mother Hydra. She follows in the footsteps of other authors by moving West, this time to Monterey, and the story replicates the idea of Cult members being allowed entry to an undersea civilisation. As in other stories, drowned bodies show up and the whole is treated as a mass cult suicide. It presses all the right buttons in a playfully reverent style the Marsh family would have approved.  Laidlaw continues in the venerable tradition of an expedition, this time to Leng. Experienced readers will immediately recognise the payoff once cordyceps is mentioned but, in reality, all this does is heighten expectations. This is a beautifully judged story in which the desire to “know” inevitably proves the undoing of the seeker. Chabon also delivers another seeker story with an archaeologist digging through ancient burial mounds only to find an all-too-contemporary threat. Like O. Henry stories, there’s an expectation of a “twist ending” for Lovecraftian stories. That afterthought where you wonder why you never thought of some key element. In this instance, I cannot recall anything on such an epic scale before. Finally, Barron has us in Nyarlathotep territory with a figure in a remote Seattle wood offering an insight into a potentially chaotic world in which, literally, we become as little children to find the spiritual outcomes we were searching for — it’s all one big cycle of life, after all.

With “Machines of Concrete Light and Dark” by Michael Cisco we are into an interesting parallelism. Remembering images of cold as a metaphor for orderliness and cleanliness, we think of Eric Zann’s music or the cracks in the plasterwork of Keziah Mason’s witch house as being portals to different dimensions. It’s always interesting to speculate on what the precise mechanisms might be for moving from one place to another if not explicitly rooted in the Mythos. Cisco’s answer is cleverly ambiguous allowing ideas to trap us in the mundane, while nevertheless inviting us to consider other possibilities. This is probably the story taking the most risk. And, as is always required, the story to end with, “That of Which We Speak. . .” by Nick Mamatas has a magnificent gesture of defiance with Teacher’s (only a blend and nothing worth saving) finally put to good use.

On balance, this is one of the best Lovecraftian anthologies I can remember reading for a long time, so kudos to Ellen Datlow and all who contributed.

Fortunately, there were no authors from Wales included in the anthology — sorry, an in-joke.

For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Supernatural Noir

As an added note, Lovecraft Unbound was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award 2010 for Best Anthology.

Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard

May 23, 2010 1 comment

This is yet another of those days on which we can celebrate the prophetic powers of science fiction with the announcement of a synthetic lifeform (or, perhaps, it would be more honest to call it a variation on the human lifeform given the new cells are based on human DNA). But, hey, what’s with the details when this is the bestest scientific advance since the invention of sliced bread? Except even that’s an ironic idiom since we’ve had bread and knives to cut it with for centuries. The idiomatic sliced bread is that soggy stuff designed to fit into our toasters and the whole thing is marketing speak to make us feel better about eating cardboard rather than “real” bread.

Anyway, it seems the laboratories of humankind have now acquired godlike powers to bestow life on the clay of the inanimate. So far, there’s been little commentary from the Creationists and others of a religious bent. Perhaps they don’t feel threatened by this one giant leap forward for mankind since, as it stands, it’s hard to see what value this leap has for us (other than the potential to make a monster of some kind — mad scientists in books and films are notorious fabricators of life so there’s no need for them to be shy in replicating this in the real world). Except, it will be decades before anyone makes money out of it (the true criterion of utility in these commercialised times), unless the real plan is for weaponisation as super soldiers or a bacteria that will wipe out everyone on the planet except those with a science gene. A hypothetical Darwin would warn we have created the species that will displace us in evolutionary terms. Being old, I fear I will miss out on seeing how these interesting times turn out.

All of which brings me to the second book in my brief Lucius Shepard retrospective. This is Two Trains Running (still available for you to buy direct from the excellent Golden Gryphon if you are so inclined). This is a synthetic bookform made up of the DNA of non-fiction, journalism, non-genre fiction and a genre-bending science fiction and fantasy. Confused? Well so you should be when confronted by a new lifeform. In his introduction, Shepard explains how he was commissioned to write a magazine article about an alleged “hobo” organisation called the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA). We then have an expanded form of that article, followed by two short stories capitalising on the research — only one is genre fiction. The result is a potential textbook to teach the techniques of writing for different markets. But, for me, it offers little value.

As an inveterate surfer of the net, serendipity offers hundreds of chances a day to read about events and ideas. My eye would have passed unhesitating over an article about FTRA. This is not to deny articles of this ilk any legitimacy but, time being limited for browsing, interest is unlikely to be piqued by information about biker gangs in Tokyo, murderous vagrants in US box cars, and sewing circles in Maidstone. Frankly, actually reading the article on the printed page does not make the information any more interesting. More importantly, it adds nothing to the two stories to understand the actual source material. Culturally, we have all the right stereotypes of those who use freight trains as their private passenger service. Television and film routinely exploits train hopping and the lifestyles of the homeless as plot devices. Indeed, arguably, the one genre story, “Over Yonder”, did not have to rely on “hobos”. The plot is that anyone can be tested and, if found of suitable mettle, offered new opportunities. So, for Shepard, it was serendipitous he happened to be thinking about FTRA when he sat down to write a redemption story.

All this is my fault. Before spending my money, I should have read the blurb posted on Golden Gryphon’s site. As it is, the book came as a rude awakening and will sit in a box untouched by human or Craig Ventor’s new lifeform until I sell on the rump of my current collection. Definitely not worth the money for me but, if you are into an infodump on FTRA, this book is for you.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Vacancy and Ariel
and for a novelette in the anthology Other Earths.

Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard

May 20, 2010 1 comment

It’s a rather strange but understandable human need to seek comfort in certainty. Choose between the two different signs in P.T. Barnum’s tent: “This way out” leads to clear understanding and positive expectations, while “This way to the egress” leads to frustration and an understanding the world is not always reliable. So it is that we live in a world dependent on labelling. For example, marketers tell us whether the cheese is from cows, buffalos, goats or sheep, whether it has interesting additives, was left by a fire for smoking, has been infected with hopefully benign bacteria, and so on. There are hundreds of different varieties to label, but the permutations of processing techniques and the compatibility of ingredients do have a finite limitation. If it will not set, it cannot be labelled “cheese”. Now consider labelling the arrangement of words. Ignoring the fact of different languages, the use of words within each culture is potentially infinite, limited only by the imagination of the creators and the sensibilities of the audience. The number of labels we have invented for describing word usage are therefore mind-blowingly diverse and confusing.

Take, for example, the notion of purple prose — we should be thankful the Romans valued purple as their stand-out colour rather than chocolate which might be mistaken for some of the bullshit we see deposited on the pages of some books. A sentence like, “Her face aglow in the dashboard lights, the sheen of sweat on the upper slopes of her breasts glowing as well.” captures the slightly pulpy feel of romantic fiction as the man observing the woman anticipates a possible explosion of delight. Now, guiding you through my thinking process, where is the line between purple and gothic? I see you pull back, snarling that I’m drawing you down a false path. A single sentence cannot be the litmus test of gothicness. Yes, to the ideas of allusive romanticism and, to some extent, melodrama, but to be gothic it must be in service to the genre we now call horror. Context is everything! So that’s why, when you limit the geography to a small chunk of the US and ensure some horror or supernatural content, you get the label Southern Gothic.

And Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard is a brilliant and sustained example of the most wonderfully purple prose you could ever hope to find corralled between the boards of a hardback book. Frankly, after the first few pages you stop caring that this is an overwritten style. It all blurs into a single tour-de-force, delighting the reader’s ear to hear an author’s voice lusting after just the right words to capture the mood of this Southern town called Grail.

Grail — such a wonderfully ambiguous word with denotational and connotational meanings springing to the ever-alert mind. Perhaps the one most appropriate here would be the notion that, no matter who or what you are, you can spend a lifetime in a futile search for something once important to you. Why futile? Because the activity of searching comes to define who you are. The commitment and determination are investments of effort. The greater the investment, the more likely it is that continuing the search becomes more important than the object of your search. The sad result is often that, even if you do find it, you are unlikely to feel it was worth all that effort. Put another way, a disconnection or breakdown occurs between process and purpose.

Imagine a town rather than an individual entering into a kind of Faustian bargain. Do this and you will prosper. Generations later, the inhabitants still go through the motions. They have had the benefits of the deal, such as they are. But even those most committed to the original spirit of the deal grow tired of its limitations. Two hundred years ago, prosperity in a flea-bitten town on the Louisiana coast might look good. All you have to do is stay put and all but the unlucky chosen will have a good standard of living. Translate that into a modern context where you can see the world outside doing rather better than your run-down pinprick on the map. Now you have to wonder whether the “grail” of prosperity is still worth pursuing. And then you ask whether you are allowed to stop the process and what the consequences might be if you did.

At one level this is a story of “love” at first sight as a stranger in town falls for a local woman. Except such romanticism can never be separated from the context of who we are as people, where we happen to be, and why we are there. Sometimes life, or more supernatural forces, can play tricks on us but, in our hearts, we are always the victims of our own weaknesses and failings. So often, we can never rise above our own limitations and be better people. We can wish it were otherwise. But that’s the inevitable flaw in what makes us human.

At this point, I will reach my climax with two quick bullet points:

buy this book even though it’s only a novella length — it’s cheese set in Southern Gothic and you won’t regret it;

buy this book from Golden Gryphon and, when you look through the in-print catalogue, there are some other masterpieces there. Support the small press industry by buying direct!

See how even my bullet points are shooting blanks today.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
The Dragon Griaule
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel
The Taborin Scale
and for a novelette in the anthology Other Earths.

This is me, Jack Vance by Jack Vance

May 20, 2010 1 comment

Ah, yes, an autobiography? That would be a biography you write about yourself. That would be it. Which rather begs the question why people should bother to write a biography of themselves. This is naught but a feeble gesture of vanity, lacking in any objectivity that might question, analyse or prod the mystery of what makes someone great. Still more remarkable is why anyone else should be interested in the scribblings of the “great”. So many of the books adorning the virtual shelves of Amazon today are ghost-written for flighty celebrities whose greatness is as ephemeral as the headlines in today’s gossip rags. Indeed, I live in awe of a publishing machine that churns out the vapid thoughts of the insipid and manages to sell millions of copies. It’s one of the most remarkable of the current shell games where you have to pick between three books knowing that, under one title, there may be the occasional interesting fact.

Ah, yes, those pesky things we call facts. So tell me, my patient readers, why should it be interesting that X was born in such a place with parents of a given background. This is the nature/nurture game played out on a more global stage. Our actor has risen from rags to fleeting notoriety, so let’s rummage through his or her “ordinary” early years to see if we can identify what tipped him or her into fame and fortune. Perhaps then we could distil it, put it in a bottle and sell it on to the masses who crave the same celebrity. After all, no-one else wants to go through the same hard grind of study and practice to learn the skills. We all want to be [insert name star], gaining recognition through the luck of being in the right place at the right time, but having the magic ingredient gleaned from [insert name]’s autobiography to capitalise on the opportunity once it comes. So, plucked from obscurity as a shelf-packer in a supermarket, X acts everyone else off the screen/is a natural comedian/sings like a pro because he or she read a book supposedly written by Michelle Pfeiffer, Bill Cosby or Marlon Jackson (except the latter reversed the trend, going from childhood star to shelf-stacker).

Well, Jack Vance also bucks the trend. Of all the writers I have collected, I have delighted in Vance, having at one time owned every single stand-alone title before selling off almost all my books (courtesy of the excellent Andy Richards, who may still have some of the paperback 1sts left). There’s a magical quality about Vance’s approach to writing as he contrives to weave fantastical facts into a tapestry of wry narrative. I know of no other author who can make a list of local tourist attractions fascinating — for those who have not read Vance, most of his books have characters wandering from place to place, taking in the sights. Some of the time their travel is voluntary. Other times, they are forced through pressure of circumstance to cover vast distances (on one notable occasion, to get back to where they started from). He’s very much a writer of his time, giving us the opportunity to pass a few hours in an amiable way. Although some of his books have a more serious overtone, the majority are a pleasing froth of words and ideas. They may not be the greatest literature ever written (and who among us would ever dare suggest science fiction or fantasy could be literature) but I have reread them several times and have never failed to find new things to enjoy. Who could ask for anything more in a writer.

So now as he approaches the end of his life, his family and fans have prevailed on him to dictate an autobiography. He may be blind, but he can still spin words out over the pages and make a reasonably interesting read.

Except. . . Except what?

What is it we expect in an autobiography? Should it be full of revelations? I did this, said that, wrote the other because. . . As the reader, I am stunned with sudden understanding of motivation! Should it agonise over life-and-death decisions, delving into the deep recesses of the soul? As the reader, I empathise, I am inspired. . .

Well, for Vance, all this is bullshit! He has written the ultimate anti-autobiography that says almost nothing about the man except that he worked when and where he could, had a happy life with a loving wife, and made lots of good friends. Except, in this very self-effacing quality, we do perhaps see the man. It’s the absence of revelation that is the most revealing. This is not, you understand, a private man. He has led a very public life, globe-trotting, socialising with all he meets, and having the temerity to play a jazz cornet indifferently well. Yet he’s discreet, always aware of proprieties. What for him may be “near the knuckle” is nothing in today’s more profane world. So we are left with the conclusion that his fiction is his autobiography. When his characters drift from place to place, this is a travel story in the spirit of Jan Morris, Paul Theroux or Michael Palin, but with Vance as the main protagonist embroidering the fictional tale with his wry asides. Vance is Magnus Ridolph or even Cugel. We know this because Vance never once appears in his own autobiography except to say “Good-bye” to all his fans around the world.

For Vance fans, it’s an interesting list of places he visited and friends he met. For the rest of the world, meet Vance where it matters — in the pages of his admirable fiction.

For those interested in seeing someone writing in Vancean style, try looking at the work of Matthew Hughes. Here is a review of a more recent offering, Template. For an anthology of stories written in the style of Jack Vance, see Songs of the Dying Earth.

For the record, This is Me, Jack Vance! won the Hugo Award 2010 for the Best Related Book.

The City & the City by China Mieville

The world is an endlessly fascinating place and we depend on our abilities to understand all the signs and signals that surround us to navigate safely from innocent childhood to mature adulthood. The study of this interaction between the individual and his or her environment is most commonly called semiotics. So, when we pass each other in the streets, we make a mass of instant judgements based on the hairstyle, facial expression, posture, clothing and shoes, each factor being shaded depending on the time of day, the geographical location and any other socially relevant information. So we could conclude that, in one context, we see a police officer while, in a different context, we see a stripper about to remove his or her clothes. In some urban areas, there are signs identifying the local gang whose turf you are walking through. In other areas, we might choose not to see some people because their presence is somehow embarrassing or offensive. All of us go through a process of socialisation to learn the local culture and its nuances. Our willingness to conform ensures each culture and its niches survive and, where appropriate, evolve to different but nevertheless mutually compatible forms. This adaptability can make cultures act as if independent creatures. For those of you interested in the theory, you can google autopoiesis and take it from there.

The idea of interstitial areas has been briefly explored in two recent novels: Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams and The Shadow Pavilion by Liz Williams. Both assume that there will be one or more “spaces” or “lands” between more structured spaces. It is also interesting to compare Thunderer by Felix Gilman who is interested in the essential mutability of a city’s geography in time and space. Returning to gang culture for a moment, there may be areas of overlap or separation between two gang territories where members from different gangs may meet in safety, or where a “no man’s lands” exists as a buffer zone, i.e. no gang members may enter, but other citizens may pass through.

In The City & the City, Mieville engages in a clever exploration of two overlapping cities, each one socially invisible to the other. As children growing up in one city, you learn not to “see” the other city or its inhabitants. This is a sophisticated mental trick because, of necessity, you see your surroundings to avoid walking into people and not crash when driving. But other than this basic behaviour to ensure mutual survival, neither side acknowledges the existence of the other. Indeed, the cities are considered located in different countries, with a formal border control between them. Policing this bilocation is the mysterious Breach — a term which expresses both the physical transgression of failing to relate to the city environment in which you are currently resident, and the agency (assumed not to be supernatural) responsible for punishing all transgressions. As you will gather, there is a very detailed system of metarules in place, maintaining the separation.

Into this existential anomaly comes a murder which seems to have been committed in one city with the body dumped in the other without this crime involving a Breach. Thus, at a metalevel, we are immediately pitched into a game of establishing the rules of Breach and then understanding why no Breach has occurred in the movement of the body between the cities. It soon becomes apparent to the investigating officer that another element to be considered is whether there is balance at all levels, i.e. just as there are two cities occupying the same space, are there also two metalevel agencies: Breach and Orciny?

At this point, I want to refer to one of my favourite authors, Anthony Price. He began with a series of outstanding titles and, although he tailed off as he grew older, even at his least inspiring, he was still better than most. To avoid spoilers, all I will say about the quality of the murder and its investigation in The City & the City is that it’s one of the most elegant puzzles of the last few years and worthy of Price at his best. Even though Price is now mostly out-of-print, you should seek him out.

In writing this review, I note I’m coming to this book late (courtesy of the US postal system which lost a complete batch of 2009 titles on its way to me for several months). In the intervening time, The City & the City has been picking up prizes, the most recent being the Arthur C. Clark Award which Mieville is winning for a third time. In every respect, I agree with the assessment of the world. This is a remarkable piece of fiction that seamlessly blends fantasy with detective fiction to produce a mesmerising novel. If you have not already read it, do so immediately.

P.S. For those interested in trying Anthony Price, you have a choice. The first published novel was The Labyrinth Makers (1970). The novel that starts the internal timeline is The Hour of the Donkey. The series is unbeatable as well-developed characters struggle to solve some wonderfully complex problems.

As an added note, The City & The City won both the World Fantasy Award 2010 for the Best Novel and shared the Best Novel Award for the Hugo Award 2010. It was shortlisted for the Nebula Award 2010 for Best Novel. It also placed third in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award 2010. It was Le lauréat du Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire 2012 for Roman étranger.

For reviews of other free-standing novels, see
Embassytown, Kraken and Railsea.

Mariposa by Greg Bear

Frankly, I almost didn’t bother buying this latest effort by Greg Bear. I found City at the End of Time almost completely unreadable, the book having the dubious distinction of being the only one I failed to finish in 2008. Indeed, as he ages, little of his work this century has been of the quality we had come to expect. Yet Quantico had been a reasonably competent thriller so I decided to try the sequel.

Well, here we are in the elephant’s graveyard of great science fiction writers who have decided they can no longer sell in sufficient numbers if they write genre specific content. Their answer is the “near-future thriller” where you emulate Tom Clancy, but bolt on a few sfnal ideas as a sop to the Cerberus representing the rump of your genre fans. Make no mistake. Some of Bear’s earlier work is outstanding and his fan base is justifiably large. But I think this is a sell-out. If he wants a few extra dollars to pad out his retirement fund, he should write another Star Wars novel.

Thematically, we are back in the realm of the paired novels Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children, and Blood Music, this time with human intervention stimulating a potential evolutionary change — although it’s not actually clear the “enhancements” would pass to any children. Having cut my teeth on Van Vogt and other Golden Age authors dealing with the emergence of humans with “super” powers, I suppose I have a predisposition to be interested in modern takes on the original naive outings. This kind of “what if” novel explores how “real” people begin to recognise their divergence from the norm and observes how they react. Fifty or sixty years ago, we had watched the collapse of both the Eugenics Movement in the US and the Aryanism underpinning Germany’s racial hygiene policy to breed a Master Race. Scaling the ideas down to a form of scientific fantasy gives us the opportunity to decide what a society might look like “if”, or how a conventional society might react to a different strain of humanity “if”. It’s safer than fighting wars and avoids the population controls imposed through sterilisation programs in the 1930s.

In this instance, it would have been interesting to have a better understanding of the Talos Corporation’s motivation in moving to shut down the research program. As a militaristic organisation, Talos might see the continuation of the program as a good way of developing conscienceless, supersoldiers who do not stop fighting even when others would be traumatised. It’s possible, of course, that Talos has the optimised treatment to induce this state and simply wishes to eliminate inconvenient witnesses. But, since Talos is plotting to take over the bits of the “world” supposed to matter, there’s no reason for it to care about the witnesses in the short period of time before its plans come to fruition. It could simply hold them on its land and continue the research under direct supervision.

Paralleling the emergence of a new “human”, we have an AI going through early development into an autonomous “being”. But, again, little is made of this. It feels more like a convenient bolt-on, adding little to the outcome. Unfortunately, in the SF world, AIs have become somewhat hackneyed plot devices unless they have emerged into a mature state and are able to defend themselves. In such cases, it can be interesting to consider whether there’s a substantive difference between human and machine-based intelligence.

The good news is that core the thrillerish elements are involving and I did care what happened to Faud Al-Husam who’s working undercover inside the Talos organisation. I also liked the irony in the vulnerability introduced into the Talos “kingdom” through the paranoia of its CEO, Axel Price, even if it did take a superscience weapon to exploit it. There’s a pleasing reality to Price’s decision-making. Even if he had foreseen the vulnerability, he would probably have preferred to take the risk rather than sacrifice maximised security.

So if you think Prey and, to a lesser extent, State of Fear by Michael Crichton are fabulous thrillers, Mariposa is for you. But if you’re an SF fan, as near-future thrillers go, it’s good, but not that good.

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