Snatched: A British Black Comedy by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2014) finds us in the Hulliborn Regional Museum and Gallery with its director, George Lepage who’s now in dead man’s shoes, the previous director having passed on to a place only a platypus would know. It seems there’s a riot in the hallowed halls. Crowds baying for blood run through the museum. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and our director knows this is his time for heroic action. I should explain that, like all public enterprises, museums have had to adjust to economic realities. There have been economies. Older staff have been persuaded to take early retirement, while the middle-ranking remnants have been promoted beyond their pay grade to do the work of the departed for only slightly more cash. It’s a tough life when you’re trapped in a senior management role. So now underpaid fortysomethings must outperform those they have replaced in a museum running on a reduced budget. At first, this is going well, but then comes the riot. It seems someone dressed up and inserted himself in a tableau of life in earlier times. When the party from the girls school entered, he stood, exposed himself and departed before anyone had a chance to catch him. Now Lepage must take control of the situation before the reputation of the museum is damaged — they are negotiating to take a display of early Japanese medical instruments and want nothing to prevent this coup.
One of the board decides to take direct action to protect the museum. Simberdy and his wife dressed in black, with a burglar his wife has recruited as backup (she’s his solicitor), wait in the darkness outside the museum to catch the man. Except the burglar, living up to the high standards of his trade, breaks into the museum, steals four painting which may, or may not, be valuable, and drives off in the Simberdy’s car with the loot. This comes as a surprise to Lepage who’s inside the museum waiting for a telephone call from the female teacher who was so outraged by the indecent exposure during the day. He’s not sure, but he may have found someone simpatico whom he can dissuade from taking action against the museum. The burglar, respecting the status of his solicitor, returns their car and three of the paintings. This is a poisoned chalice. If the paintings are never recovered, they can be worth millions on the museum’s insurance policy. But should they be returned, an expert evaluation might find them fake and expose the museum’s incompetence in parting with millions to buy them.
I should remind you Snatched is billed as a “British black comedy” with satirical overtones. All life involves some degree of suffering and, for the most part, we view those who do the suffering as deserving of our sympathy, if not pity. So it can make a refreshing change when an author decides to recalibrate the response to those who are victimised by circumstances. This goes beyond the prat fall on the banana skin. Every one of us has slipped and fallen at some point in our career as walkers. A laugh generated by depicting such a scene is a there-but-for-the grace-of-God-go-I moment of relief. It’s human and understandable. But suppose we take a more alienated point of view and show existence as pointless and so somehow comic. This would enable the author to use all the standard tropes of physical and emotional violence, and death, in a different light. They may still be seen in some sense as tragic events but, with a satirical twist, they elicit a humorous response because the point of view is unexpected, perhaps even shocking, to the reader.
So here’s a museum: an institution which should be considered an ultimately safe and rather boring place (unless Hollywood decides to bring exhibits to life in a moment of fantasy mayhem). If we use stereotypes, the people who administer these cultural and educational organisations are staid and unimaginative. They are married or partnered with fellow professionals who never take risks because they have reputations at stake. Well, all such expectations are turned on their heads by the situations which emerge in this book. The problem, for me, is that the situations are slightly too realistic. The true art of the black comedian is to be able to dabble in the grotesque. This is sharply observed, not a little satirical, occasionally surreal, and somewhat farcical, but I don’t think it’s a black comedy. Does this matter? Well, probably not. It’s highly readable as the plot takes our small group of characters careening down an ever-more vertiginous slope, but I don’t find any of it even remotely humorous (although I do confess to a slight movement of the lips when the security guard gets the name of one of the missing paintings wrong). Perhaps it’s an age thing causing me to be slightly out of the mainstream when it comes to modern comedy. So if you want to see an author at the top of his game in constructing a plot of increasing complexity as even nicknames sprayed as “graffiti” are absurdly misunderstood as suggesting individuals may not be as dead as previously thought, this is the book for you. Snatched is great fun albeit not in the smile or laugh-out-loud league.
For the review of another book by Bill James, see Noose.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
As I move ever faster into advanced adulthood, I await with interest the supposed memory phenomenon which permits me to recall what happened thirty years ago as if it was yesterday. This would be very convenient for the purposes of this review. All those years ago, I was collecting the work of K J Jeter. He was considered very edgy, producing distinctly different novels upon which to feast. One of these published some twenty-five years ago, was Infernal Devices. This, you understand, was long before the label steampunk had been invented. The book was marketed as a “mad” Victorian style of adventure story in which various weird and rather wonderful things happened. As it is, I have no difficulty in remembering what I had for breakfast this morning (to eliminate doubt, I have eaten the same breakfast every morning for sixty years), but cannot remember clearly what the earlier book was actually about. All I know is that I read it. Fortunately the absence of symptoms of Alzheimer’s is not a problem for these purposes. The sequel, Fiendish Schemes (Tor, 2013), stands up well on its own.
First let’s resolve the problems of labels. The marketers would have you believe this is a return to steampunk as conceived by the prophet Jeter. In literal terms, this has some mild credibility given the majority of technology on display is either powered by clockwork or those machines have been converted to steam. Not out of concerns for the environment, you understand. This is not steam produced by the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels. For now, climate change is not rearing its head. Rather the Victorian entrepreneurs have hit upon geothermal power. Following the designs of Arthur Conan Doyle channelling Professor Challenger in “When the Earth Screamed”, they have driven deep shafts into the earth and now draw up magma to superheat water and distribute it by a complex network of pipes from the blasted landscape of northern areas to the sultry, steam-ravaged cities of the south. The result is an apparently inexhaustible supply of steam piped into every home which can afford to pay the going rate. Needless to say, the businesses investing their capital in this source of power have grown excessively rich.
If we had stayed at this level, we would probably have been willing to accept this as mere steampunk, but the actual book is rather more rooted in surreal or absurdist fantasy. Set in Victorian Britain, one fact is inescapable. Britain is an island that has, since recorded time began, depended on trade to survive. Secure logistics for shipping are therefore essential. This was achieved until the seas achieved sentience. Yes, large bodies of water are now intelligently watching what we do on the land. If they disapprove, they can raise or lower the water level in their area. This can rip the bottom out of ships plying routes normally full fathom five or flood low-lying farm land. To deal with the first, Victorian scientists have developed mobile lighthouses which can literally walk from one point to another as required to warn ships of changing conditions in the area. Of course, this movement is expensive, inconvenient and reactive. It would be so much better if we humans could negotiate treaties with the seas or at least predict where the shallows might move next. The answer is to talk with the whales. They can already converse with the seas. All we need do is find the notorious universal language machine built by a brilliant inventor before his death. To help us in our quest, we rely on his son. If anyone can find this machine and make it work it will be him. Unfortunately, he lacks the inventive brilliance of his father and, in many ways, is an innocent. This book therefore follows him as he moves through this alternate history Victorian England, observing his strange escapades with the steam-powered orangutan, his exposure to fex, his introduction to parliamentary debate, and his encounters with divers other strangenesses and oddities.
All this peregrination is described in a wonderfully antique first-person writing style which captures the rather dull and podding qualities of some Victorian prose while actually describing some completely extraordinary events. In general, this is a great success, producing smiles from the juxtaposition of our naive protagonist and completely surreal events, e.g. the coupling of a man and woman who have had their biological systems surgically attached to steam engines. The only problem lies in the sometimes quite extended dialogue between our innocent protagonist and the duplicitous antagonist who lures our hero into ever greater difficulty with promises of great wealth. Although these debates offer an opportunity for some satire and commentary on modern morals, they do go on. . . As to the schemes in which our hero becomes embroiled, they are genuinely fiendish in a surreal replay of future history (if you see what I mean). The resulting climactic dispute between two behemoths lurching over a burning London is an appropriate way of bringing much needed sanity to the proceedings. The only note of sadness is the essential determinism. The fate of the whales seems to be sealed no matter which version of the future comes to pass. So with the caveat that I think some of the debating goes on too long, I find myself impressed. The old master has not lost his flair for the absurdities of the world. Fiendish Schemes is recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
One of the ways of getting perspective is to look back at how things were in the past. This is not nostalgia for its own sake, you understand. But distance helps more clearly to see how dishonest some of the mythologising has become. As a working adult during the 1960s, I’m now surprised to learn this was a decade of drug-fueled rebellion. Apparently, we were all hippies and invented free love. This version of history comes from the dual launch into the wider market of the oral contraceptive, which freed us all from the fear of siring the next generation, and LSD which enabled us to go on trips without leaving the chair in which we were sitting. When able to move, we could rut away like bunnies to psychedelic music and then run out into the streets, rip up paving stones, and pelt the nearest policeman. I seriously missed out here, having spent a quiet decade finishing my university degree, training and earning a living. Although there were moments of excitement as I was reading the New Wave science fiction which, for me, was best captured in the work of J G Ballard whose focus on people in completely different situations (often involving the end of the world) was pleasingly provocative.
I’m inspired to think back because of The Devil Delivered and other tales by Steven Erikson (Tor, 2012) which, in spirit and to some extent style, reminds me of Ballard with echoes of The Burning World and Vermilion Sands filtered through “The Terminal Beach”. This is a collection of three novellas originally published in separate editions by the excellent PS Publishing. The point of titular story may be captured in a single image. A child has been chained to a bed. It never knows what crime it committed to justify such punishment. It just dies. So as a species, we’ve damaged the world and generated such a catastrophe, our children have no choice but to be born into it and then die because of it. We were always a selfish species and only thought of our own convenience and never what price our children might have to pay. Earlier I mentioned the process of mythologising. Well, the idea of the noble savage is a classic modern invention. No savage has ever been noble. The only good thing about “him” was there were not enough of his ilk to damage the environment. We only managed to begin the real destruction of the world when we multiplied and got civilised.
Out in the centre of a new completely ozone-free area of North America, William Potts thinks about the collision between what we were and what we might become. He communes with the ghosts of the past and wonders if it would really benefit humanity to move off the planet via a space elevator rather than suck the last of the oil out of the ground to eke out the last few minutes of energy before dying. Physical adaptability when faced by the threat of species extinction would be the answer. He sees it in the changes to invertebrates and small mammals under the radiation. But humans don’t have the capacity to change so rapidly. His cameras broadcast evolutionary “truth” as it happens and the internet soaks it all up. The human survivors are hooked on the notion at least some plants, insects and animals will survive when the higher species have gone. Except, of course, some humans may already have evolved — and did we do this before? Ah, such nice questions to contemplate as you die under the pitiless glare of the sun.
The second novella, “Revolvo” also has resonances in the 1960s because I was strongly into theatre and therefore watched productions of work by Eugène Ionesco, Fernando Arrabal, N F Simpson and other playwrights who produced absurdism with comic overtones before it went out of fashion. This story is a wonderful modern recreation of the nihilism that entertained me fifty years ago. As the negative side of existentialism, absurdism is a reflection of the general sense of powerlessness we all face in a world we cannot control and which often seems to have no purpose other than “to be”. By definition, I can’t really tell you what happens in this novella because it’s absurd. All I will say is that individuals may exhibit symptoms matching the state of the economy and the behaviour of the stock exchange, the poor may be taken into protective custody by an anarchist philanthropist until being left in the sympathetic glare of the press, while the one true artist may find a niche for himself where Neanderthals and others will never find him — in this, he echoes Berenger in Rhinoceros who proclaims at the end, “I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!” As strong an assertion for the right of individual liberty as you could hope to find. In other reviews I’ve reflected on how difficult it is to write this type of fiction well. Anyone who aspires to write in an absurdist style should read this as an example of how to do it really well.
We finish with “Fishin’ with Grandma Matchie” which is a surrealist fantasy pretending to be the story as told by a nine-year-old with a big imagination. This is the least successful of the three because it lacks discipline. The art of really great storytelling is knowing when to stop. This breaches the golden rule, and grows repetitious and rather boring.
Taken overall, The Devil Delivered and other tales is one of the more interesting books of the year simply because Steven Erikson is brave enough to attempt to push out into less well-travelled areas of literature. “The Devil Delivered” is not routine eco-catastrophe as science fiction collides with Armageddon. Rather it’s science fiction aspiring to capture some sophisticated ideas about the adaptability of the individual and what someone might have to sacrifice to reach the next level of existence. “Revolvo” reinvents a form of writing that was rooted in the post World War II experience of life and relocates to a modern world where we face a slightly different struggle to find any real meaning in our lives. Finally, even though not a complete success, “Fishin’ with Grandma Matchie” is seriously inventive in playing with the standard tropes featuring the relationship between Satan and ichthus, the power of love, and the need of comedians to see the big picture where two walls make a corner.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess by Simon Brett (Felony & Mayhem, 2012) is as magnificently ridonculous as it’s possible to get on a wet Friday afternoon in the Gobi Desert when your umbrella sticks halfway shut and all you get for your troubles is a sweat-soaked sun tan. It’s the second title in what has now amounted to a hill of four beans — actually since we have two series characters in Blotto and Twinks, I suppose that should be eight old beans, what?
As to whether you will like this. It’s a bit hard to say. I loved the hyperrealisation of upper-class antics in defence of the realm — fighting a German bomber with cricket bats is definitely hyperreal if not delightfully absurd. It took me back into the past to the time when I was young and devoured the works of Sapper (aka Herman Cyril McNeile), particularly favouring the Bulldog Drummond books (later continued through the kindly ministrations of Gerard Fairlie), Dornford Yates (aka Cecil William Mercer) with his Berry books, and so on. There was something inherently pleasing about my betters pretending to be stupid, but actually being ace detectives and crime-fighters on the sly. These Edwardian bods were supposed to be our lords and masters, so I appreciated one or two of them taking time out from their busy schedules of country house parties to solve a few murders and disrupt the operation of some fiendish criminal gangs. It made me think they were worth having around. Indeed, without those literary inspirations, I would more rapidly have turned into the cynical republican I am today. Now I’m all for abolishing the House of Lords and sending the current batch of relics out to pasture. There’s not a decent crime-fighter among them to follow in the tradition of Queen Victoria’s exploits as a demon hunter.
Continuing in this retrospective mood, the problem with the books I read when young was their appalling jingoism and patriarchalism. Think about it. Apart from Molly Robertson-Kirk from Baroness Orczy, Tuppence Beresford and Miss Marple from Agatha Christie, Maud Silver from Patricia Wentworth, Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley from Gladys Mitchell, and Harriet Vane, later Lady Peter Wimsey, from Dorothy Sayers, there were no major female detectives who could interact with the upper classes. They were all so terrible middle class, my dears, apart from Harriet Vane who became respectable through her marriage. To this sexism was added an inherent racism as part of a casual anti-foreigner bias. This was beautifully lampooned by Flanders and Swann who, in the chorus of “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice” assert, “The English, the English, the English are best, I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest!” So reading about the exploits of Blotto and Twinks is very equal opportunities as Twinks has the brain that powers the duo to their successes. Although, truth be told, Blotto can occasionally interject the odd idea of merit when no-one is looking.
So putting all this together, anyone who delights in seeing Edwardian period charm mercilessly deconstructed and ravaged by a senior pro from Dover with an eye for absurdity, will enjoy Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess. I’m not sure I could read one of these every week. Simon Brett is wonderfully laid back and a consummate professional when it comes to stringing words together, but there’s an inherent shortage of targets. I suspect some aspects of the humour would get monotonous quite quickly. But once in a blue moon, this is the book to lift your spirits and gladden your heart — assuming you enjoy a very English sense of humour, of course.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Years ago, before the current vogue for labelling genres really took off, we were able to use the word “weird” in the more general sense of something that was rather strange or bizarre. Yes, there were overtones that the source of the weirdness might be supernatural. But the word was equally applied to people and the way they dressed and behaved as much as to the uncanny. However, thanks to the development of the ghost story into a more mythic supernatural form, e.g. as written by Lord Dunsany, H. P. Lovecraft and others, it’s come to describe a mixture of other-worldly fantasy and horror fiction, with New Weird flowing from the likes of China Miéville. Well, in the rather more old-fashioned sense of the word, Jim and the Flims (Night Shade Books, 2011) by Rudy Rucker is weird. Or, perhaps it’s an example of absurdism. . . or surrealism. . .
Starting from basics, this book retells the classic myth of Orpheus, where our hero enters a rather curious version of the Underworld in the hope of rescuing his lost wife. Although music does play a part in this venture later on, we begin with the more usual symptom of absurdism: a hero who, because of the collapse of his life as a low-level research scientist, followed by the death of his wife, loses any real sense of purpose in his life. In existential terms, the accumulated tragedies destroy the meaning in his life. He drifts, creating a parable of modern life in Santa Cruz, California where strung-out surfers are paralleled by equally strange folk on the “other side”. Except this would suggest a relatively benign allegory with drug-induced fantasies proving all too “real” when our hero has a seizure and, thanks to copious amounts of different substances, is then able to cross between worlds that are separated only by a shy snail — yes, it’s that kind of weird. All he has to do is open the snail’s mouth and walk through. Fortunately, this is a mirror-image gastropod, so he does not have to emerge anally. There’s another mouth in the other dimension — a Janus snail, you might say. Except this is also a war story and, in war, we have propaganda so the first thing sacrificed is truth (whatever that is).
I suppose the good thing about the way the book begins is that it has quite a jaunty feel to it. There’s whimsy and elements quite fantastical. It bowls along with a kind of free-wheeling, free-association quality as we’re bombarded by different images without any real sense of logic or reality as a constraint. Except, after a while, this quite entertaining quality loses it appeal and, by the time we finish, it’s grown rather annoying. When something is novel, it seduces the reader by its difference and originality. Yet, through repetition, what was pleasingly absurd becomes normal and devolves into a cliché of itself. The mark of good absurdism is knowing when to cut your losses and stop. This just grinds on until, frankly, I kept reading only out of a sense of duty to see how it was resolved. It’s rather the way I was brought up. Sometimes during a visit, your host offers you food. Naturally, you eat it and, even if it’s the worst thing you ever tasted, you manage to find a smile and nod happily, finding an elegant excuse for refusing seconds. Well, Rudy Rucker has invested oodles of his time in writing this so, out of the same sense of courtesy, I finished it.
Now it’s entirely possible you may like this non-stop quirkiness. After all, death is rather depressing so the idea you can pop through a convenient snail into another dimension, find the spirit or ghost of your wife, and bring her back, is likely to improve your mood. The fact you might have to become the host for an invasion force when you return to Earth is a small price to pay if you’re recovering the one you love. So, discarding my dislike for the prose style, is the story any good? If it had been written as a straight weird fantasy, would I have liked it? I think, with a different structure, it could have been rather more entertaining. At the heart of this book is a malign plot to destroy the Earth as we know it. Although, truth be told, there’s actually a further plot in motion, but we don’t have to go into spoiler territory for this review. The chain of cause and effect is quite a work of art and, if instead of this faint jokiness, we’d had the atmosphere of a threatening Egyptian mummy, real parasitism and the incidental deaths at the outset described with a sense of impending doom, I would have been hooked. As it is, we get to the other side and find farmers, a more testing skate park, and a shopping mall with a difference. You just can’t maintain the credibility of a threat when nothing is taken very seriously. So Jim and the Flims is only for the die-hard Rudy Rucker fans.
The jacket art by Bill Carman is actually quite pleasingly surreal and, for those who like this style, his portfolio is worth a look.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.