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Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter

July 20, 2014 1 comment

gemsigns-12-9-133

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) is the first in the ®Evolution trilogy. As in all good allegorical novels, it begins in the ultimately ironic way. The young paint this century as the best ever because of the unprecedented degree of interconnectivity. Misguidedly, they see only benefit in being soaked in microwave radiation from birth. But, as this author points out, this slow cooking can be bad for the brain. So, as ever more people become mobile receivers for inward transmissions of all varieties, they begin to shut down. This medical condition is dubbed The Syndrome. In the past, when the world faced a catastrophe, it always came up with the best possible names. Think Black Death and our two shots at a World War. These resonate through history. So with depopulation by internet coming to an iPad near you, scientists set to and devise a genetic manipulation that will keep the next generation alive. And while they were saving the world, they decided to create a set of specialised subclasses of workers.

“What?” you all cry with one voice (which is pretty clever when you think about it). “Not another of these ‘they cloned my mother and made a race of Martians’ books?” Well, unapologetically, yes! Although there have been few good examples of this trope over the decades (and an awful lot of bad ones), this proves to be very good, i.e. it transcends the lack of originality by the intelligence of its approach. We start off some time in the future. The world has seen itself recover from the population and economic losses to build a technologically quieter environment for humans to inhabit. When it has had a chance to draw breath and reflect on the means, the norms recognise this minor renaissance has been achieved on the backs of a new race of indentured slaves called gems. In a moment of political bravery, the world takes a step back and, by implication, performs an act of manumission. Whereas all the product of the gene companies had been deemed their property, the gems were liberated. There was just one problem. It’s one thing to sever links between an owner and its property. It’s quite a different kettle of fish (some of the genetically modified were equipped with gills and designed to work underwater) to enact laws to give all these modified humans formal rights and prevent discrimination against them.

Stephanie Saulter

Stephanie Saulter

To help people understand the issues, a team is appointed to spend a year producing what’s intended to be an objective report recommending what should be done. The leader of this group is Eli Walker and, even though his reputation as a genetic anthropologist is unimpeachable, he comes under serious pressure from the gene companies who want to recover ownership of their property. Very late in the day Zavcka Klist, a senior officer of one of the gene companies, gives him a video showing one of its gems running out of control. She tries to persuade Eli there’s a genetic flaw in a significant number of the gems which makes them a danger to the norms. The gem’s leader as we come into the opening of this conference on Christmas Eve is Aryel Morningstar. This should give you a very solid clue about the symbolism of this book. Many of the characters have names directly or indirectly relevant to the Christian belief system, and the point of the book is to discuss the morality of an explicit slavery or an unadmitted form of servitude. For these purposes, we have a mainstream church, a group whose self-appointed mission is to protect the norms from gems by operating as vengeful godgangs, the corporate “ex-slave owners”, the scientific community, the police, the politicians, and the gems themselves in all their myriad glory (or not because many have been seriously abused by the gene companies and left disabled). By shifting the point of view and showing interaction between representatives of the different groups, the range of arguments is rehearsed.

From this, you’ll understand this is a relatively quiet book of ideas rather than some action-packed adventure yarn of mutants saving themselves from abuse and so making a brave new world for all. Equally, it’s not really a dystopian novel although the gene companies are the predatory capitalist exploiters we might expect. In a sense, we’re invited to see this as the story of individual families and communities under pressure, with their leaders facing difficult decisions. This is not to say the book is without action. There are a number of violent deaths and, as you would expect, there’s a big climax at the end where the symbolism almost gets too obvious (in spirit, it reminded me of the revelation at the end of Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke, although it equally borrows something from one of the X-Men movies). Putting all this together, Gemsigns is an impressive first novel with an an overarching sense of intelligence well to the fore. This does not make it “literary science fiction”. Rather Saulter has found a useful set of metaphors through which to explore what it means to be human and under what circumstances, if any, a human might lose the right to be treated with respect. It will be interesting to see where the second book takes us in this future world in ethical transition.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan

April 14, 2014 4 comments

Hollow-World by Michael J Sullivan

Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan (Tachyon Press, 2014) is an interesting blend of the ideas in two classics: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Perelandra by C S Lewis. Both are books about threats to utopia: one as a form of political allegory, the other as a different version of events in the Garden of Eden. Huxley postulates a world in which material needs are provided to a genetically engineered population of controlled size. When John, the Savage, is introduced to this class-structured society, the superficialities become apparent and the book begins an argument with itself as to what might constitute an optimal form of society. Perelandra is the second book of a trilogy which, as an extended metaphor, examines the nature of Christian faith, and debates how society might develop if we lived according to spiritual rather than material values. Although this book in the trilogy is more didactic than the first, all three manage to transcend the limitations of the more cerebral approach to debate and hold interest because none of the books present answers with certainty. They are exploring the issues to see which answers might have the best fit to the questions posed.

On the face of it, Hollow World is a time travel book, yet that’s to completely misunderstand it. In Perelandra, our protagonist, Ransom, is flown to Venus in a block of ice. That has to rank as being one of the more absurd methods of space flight ever put on paper. But the ice casket does what it’s supposed to do, i.e. transport us to the metaphorical planetary context for the action. So, here, Ellis Rogers, our extraordinary mathematician, failed husband and poor father, builds a time machine in his garage which is just an excuse to move us to the “future” where a form of utopia exists. It doesn’t matter whether the machine makes any sense in terms of mathematics or physics. It’s just a literary device.

The world our protagonist finds has had to adjust to a cataclysm on the surface by moving the surviving population underground. At first, this sanctuary was ruled by capitalists who then, quite literally, had a captive market to gouge. This went well for the rich until one enterprising inventor distributed the plans for a Maker (the ultimate 3D printer). At a stroke, this liberation if not socialisation of knowledge produced what’s apparently an altruistic society in which everyone has what they need for material survival. Money has been rendered unnecessary. There’s also been a radical change in reproductive technology with gender abolished and everyone cloned to be physically the same. Medical advances have given such an extended lifespan, it might just as well be termed immortality.

Michael J Sullivan

Michael J Sullivan

In cultural terms, this has interesting repercussions, particularly when there’s a possibility of producing a hive mentality where everyone would be linked telepathically. Theoretically, this would remove the possibility of misunderstandings between individuals, make the transmission of knowledge and experience from one “generation” to the next automatic, and so on. Of course, many fear change and prefer the limited practice of individualism. Even though all the bodies may physically be the same, people are free to decorate themselves with different forms of clothing, and to apply tattoos or other forms of signifier to accentuate their differences.

Ellis Rogers is considered unique not because he’s travelled through time, but because he’s inhabiting a male body which has aged naturally and he considers himself perfectly normal. No-one else in this society could consider true physical difference a normal part of the everyday process of social interaction. Just think. A world in which there are no physical differentiations based on race, colour, gender, and so on. This is not to say there are no status discriminations based on intellectual abilities or psychological characteristics. But, as described, this society has outgrown many of the social problems that have afflicted humanity throughout the ages.

It’s always going to be difficult for an outsider to make reliable assessments of those around him but, in this case, the normal indicators are missing. For better or worse, the first person he meets is the appropriately named Pax. This person is an arbitrator who has accepted the role of social troubleshooter, helping others to adjust to long lifespans, keeping depression at bay, and resolving the inevitable disputes. Sadly Pax comes too late to offer his services to the first murder victim this society has seen for a long time. Yes, our hero finds the body. Such are the burdens protagonists have to bear when landing in future societies. Pax proves to be a catalyst for a different view of this world to emerge. Once the antagonist steps into the light, we can get into the slightly more conventional plot, but it’s nicely rooted in the probabilities of what might have survived from earlier times.

Summing up, it’s interesting to see how Michael J Sullivan has developed in the craft of writing. If you look back to the first fantasy, Theft of Swords, the style is rather elliptical and spiky, focused on delivering the narrative without worrying too much about the niceties of settings and characterisation. This book sees a much more assured craftsman at work with a nicely balanced piece of prose. The plot also moves us along and, allowing for the fact there’s an ongoing discussion about social issues and the role for God, if any, Hollow World delivers an interesting debate about social issues of contemporary relevance. It’s well worth picking up.

For review of the first books in the fantasy series, see:
The Emerald Storm
Nyphron Rising
Theft of Swords.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

November 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Two-Serpents-Rise-200130-f3c77597319bcaae3283

One of the more interesting opportunities arising from the nature of fantasy is the ability to reinvent contemporary issues as an extended parable or allegory. Of course, an author could just write about mages fighting dragons — a significant number of buying customers enjoy these books even though they are superficial narratives. Or the author could use the dragons as a metaphor for capitalists who acquire and horde gold and jewels in caves, breathing fire on anyone who trespasses into their private lives, while the mages are investigative journalists who expose the venal exploitation that allowed the accumulation and stockpiling of the wealth. If the mages’ spells go viral, the evil dragons are destroyed and their wealth is redistributed in Robin Hood style to all those who don’t have health insurance (or a similar fate visited on the poor by uncaring dragons).

So welcome to the world of Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone (Tor, 2013), the second book set in the world of the Craft Sequence. To understand what’s going on, we need to spend a moment thinking about our modern world and then dive into a little practical economics. One of the more spectacular achievements of capitalism has been the rise of brands as dominant forces in our culture. As cynicism has risen and the hold of religious figures on public consciousness has grown weaker, consumers worship at the shrines of the latest retail icons in all their manifestations. People give up a little bit of their soul to queue overnight in adverse weather conditions just so they can be the first people to own the latest model. Now the characters in a movie are sold as toys, appear in electronic games, promote the latest burger recipe, and are used to sell an apparently infinite range of different merchandise fitting the demographic of the movie’s audience. And that’s before we get to the novelisation of the movie and authorised sequels, the comics and graphic novel version, all the fan fiction, and the television animated series. The spirit of these characters becomes as culturally significant as minor gods in the days when pantheism was the norm.

Have you noticed how Apple and Samsung are fighting for domination of the world of smartphones and other gadgets, and how at a deeper level, Apple and Google in the form of Android are also fighting for domination of the world of operating systems within the smartphones? It’s a titanic struggle as major forces battle each other for the soul of the consumer market or to suck the spirit of currency from the consumers with ever greater efficiency.

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone

Now the economics: in a perfect world, the basic essentials of life would be “free”. We need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and so on. The public should have a right to an uninterrupted supply of these necessities. Well. . . hold on there a moment. In the days before urbanisation and the industrial revolution, the agricultural lifestyle had an abundance of free unpolluted air and running water in a nearby stream or river. But then those damn farmers upstream dumped their silage next to the stream and the downstreamers all died of cholera or typhoid or some other fatal disease. So there had to be intervention to prevent thoughtless farmers from killing off their neighbours. Now scale that up following the growth of cities. Who is to pay for building aqueducts and, later, pipes to bring water into every neighbourhood or individual households? Who builds the dams and maintains them? Who deals with the sewage and makes the water drinkable? When the water from the wells and rivers is no longer adequate, who invests to develop desalination technology? There’s a constant battle between the use of tax revenue and the pressure from capitalists to privatise the public utilities and create new business concerns like the water “industry”. As citizens we all want a plentiful supply of cheap and safe water but we resent having to pay to repair and replace the infrastructure that delivers it. So what would happen if free-market ideology was applied to the water supply and water barons emerged to gouge the public and allow all the poor to die because they could not afford to pay the charges? Would the state be strong enough to renationalise the water industry, build new pipelines and water processing plants, and restore public confidence?

At this point I should apologise. I don’t usually discuss the plot of a book at such length without spoiler warnings. But what’s done is done. I can do no more than recommend Twin Serpents Rise as a debate on the merits of free-market capitalism disguised as a fantasy with dry, fusty legal contracts cast as spells, and cohorts of lawyers and risk managers acting the parts of enforcers and soldiers in the wars between business concerns. I suppose the best way to describe Two Serpents Rise is a fictionalised version of a poison pill defence. Having grown in size and significance, the target corporation knows it cannot resist the takeover, so decides to leave an unwelcome surprise in the small print of the contract. It’s a great trick for the magicians to pull off. There’s only one downside. Millions of consumers will die as the world is remade and becomes a better place for the few who survive the cataclysm.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

February 13, 2013 4 comments

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is not quite magic realism because that would require the semblance of something supernatural to exist within an essentially realistic environment. So this is not a fantasy. What we actually have is an extended metaphor for the world of the pre-teens at the point of its interaction with adults. As these youngsters grow up, they begin to experience some of the emotions that can make or break adult lives. There’s prejudice and rationality, selfishness and occasional altruism, dislike and the possibility of love. And at the scout camp which is the central peg on which the metaphor hangs, that’s just before breakfast. For these purposes, scouting is the primary mechanism which allows adults to train the young and celebrate their progress through the various rites of passage by awarding merit badges. Yet the adults in charge are often less than competent, holding office because there’s no competition for the roles. Individuals like Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) may claim to be authority figures but, for the most part, the camp runs without his input. The boys know what to do and leave him to his own devices.

 

Imagine a world distilled down to its basic constituent elements. All the people you need to know live on an island. It’s not a real island, of course, because this is an allegory. The setting is largely irrelevant save as a place in which the action will take place. We have a community that lives apart. Access is by seaplane or boat. There’s no obvious means of economic support. No factories or businesses. Yet, despite the fact no-one is described as a farmer, there’s evidence of crops planted and prospering in the weather conditions. There are houses at different points on the island but no roads as such. There’s a church built on high ground which serves as a focal point for the community and as a place of safety when storms or hurricanes threaten.

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman are never lost

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman are never lost

 

At this point, imagine Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a young orphaned boy who’s not much liked by his current foster parents. At a church event recreating the drama of Noah’s Flood (and representing the first step in the chain of events that will finish with the arrival of a hurricane and storm surge), Sam meets Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). She’s out of joint with her family and the pair sees each other as kindred spirits trapped in loveless homes. They yearn for a better life and, through a stilted exchange of notes, they explore whether they should run away together. Because this is an island, there’s nowhere to run to but, for them, it’s all about the symbolism. Time alone together is what matters. The consequences can take care of themselves. For the record, Suzy’s parents are Walt Bishop (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand). They have four children but the marriage is now loveless, maintained out of habit. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is the local law. He loved Laura when young but she chose Walt. Our law officer never really recovered. The only other person of significance is Social Services (Tilda Swinton), an outsider who proposes to take Sam away from the island and lock him up in Juvenile Hall for running away from his foster parents.

 

So that captures the dynamic. The turmoil of adolescence is reflected in the approaching hurricane. When the storm finally hits, no-one is safe. This leads to sudden readjustments and accommodations that might not have been possible in more peaceful times. Fortunately, this is set in 1965 when teens were a lot more innocent. They did have sexual desire back in those days but, at the age of twelve, this pair approach sex with some curiosity and a will to experiment. That means, apart from a few kisses and some fumbling physical contact, nothing irreparable happens. Although there’s a symbolic marriage, all this does is confirm their friendship. For now, that’s enough to be going on with. In fact, neither has had a proper friend before, so this is a first major step towards becoming a better adjusted adult. In this respect, the film by Wes Anderson actually functions at a level of irony because, for the most part, the “children” prove to have more sense than the adults.

Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Bill Willis

Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Bill Willis

 

The whole enterprise is not a comedy as such although there are some very amusing moments. Not that any of the cast are anything other than completely serious. The humour comes from incongruous events half-glimpsed in the background or, occasionally, slightly surreal outcomes matching the arrival of the storm. In the end, despite all Mother Nature is able to throw at the camp site Sam Shakusky constructs on the shore line, it remains completely undamaged. It was, in every respect, one of the best constructed camps ever! This is a young man who’s able to plan an escape that largely defeats the adults, and build a nest that can withstand a hurricane. He has a seriousness that befits a twelve-year old scouting prodigy. Suzy Bishop is bookish even though this actually depends on her not returning library books. They make a good couple and, if they can retain their friendship long enough for it to become love in the adult sense, they will have more hope for the future than any of the adults around them. You can’t ask for more from a metaphorical couple representing the future of the human race. In every way, Moonrise Kingdom is a gentle delight!

 

Merge and Disciple by Walter Mosley

November 21, 2012 1 comment

The allegory is one of the most difficult of all literary forms to write. When an author writes in factual terms, we have well-established tools to use in judgement of the quality of the narrative. We can decide whether the facts resemble real-world experiences, whether the behaviour shown would be expected of real people in comparable situations. Credibility is a hard task-master, but if what you write purports to capture truth, then it’s a fair yardstick. But what if your text is intended as an extended metaphor? Suddenly all tests seeking to measure truth are redundant. What the author intends as the allegorical message is not mentioned in the literal meaning of the words used to form the text. The intended meaning is hidden in the silences between the words or lines of words. This makes the text enigmatic. In a simile, we’re given a pointer because we’re told what the meaning is “like”. Metaphors lack such a signpost to guide us. We’re forced to intuit or infer the meaning using our intelligence and, in a sense, that’s where the problems start. If the meaning is pathetically obvious, we curl our lips in contempt. We may even suggest we’re being patronised if something has been so dumbed down. Move to the other end of the scale and many will scratch their heads in confusion or even anger that the meaning is so obscure. We bitch the author has failed to make the message clear. We rant that perhaps the author has no message and is simply hiding his lack of inspiration behind the obscurity.

So here we come with two more contributions to the Crosstown to Oblivion series (Tor, 2012) by Walter Mosley. The first is called Merge. An African American who’s not very bright is sitting quietly reading a self-improvement set of lectures when he suddenly becomes aware his world has been invaded. Sorry, that’s both literally and metaphorically true. In the sense of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, a being has come to Earth. Perhaps, fortunately, the intention is not to replace the human as in the novel, but as a trailblazer hoping to merge with humanity. In the metaphorical sense, our human hero has almost completely withdrawn from the world. He has lost his two real friends and the girl who slept with him has gone off with another man. He then won millions on lotto and could passively insulate himself from other people. So when this odd thing appears in his room, he’s not so much frightened as puzzled. His space is invaded but he doesn’t feel threatened. When it asks for food, he offers it fruit which it happily absorbs. So begins a gentle mutual exploration.

Walter Mosley without the usual blue backlighting

The question, of course, is what meaning we’re to draw from this man’s ultimate decision to merge with the alien. We could look back at the history of slavery and wonder whether the modern African American is still subservient, yet the reality of the merger is an equal partnership between the species. This is not a return to the yoke as such, but there’s an amazing quality of humility and forbearance on display. He endures torture at the hands of angry white Americans. Even the Islamic warriors held beside him in Guantanamo Bay sympathise with him. To that extent, this stereotypes the whites as aggressive in the defence of what they perceive as their own interests. By this, they sacrifice their chance of access to the benefits of the merger. I suppose we could be playing “the meek shall inherit the Earth” game, but this lacks the more general trappings of a Christian allegory. Or we could have an immigration debate story. An African American citizen “marries” an illegal alien except, because he becomes an alien (in part), he’s one of the people the GOP thinks should self-deport. That’s why the military inquisitors chop bits off him in Guantanamo. Indeed, when you look at which human groups actually go through the merger process, almost all of them are marginalised outsiders. These are the people who see little or no future for themselves in the current America and are hoping for something better when they merge. It’s ironic because if America was a better place with a fairer society, everyone might feel like merging or no-one would (in the latter case, everyone would perish). In many ways, Merge could be read as quite an anti-American novella taking aim at some of the worst aspects of current society. Or it may be signalling the possibility of some hope for the downtrodden if they embrace opportunities for change. Given all this, I remain undecided what the intended message is. However, this does prove to be one of the more interesting allegories, managing to maintain a good pace and developing a good set of variations on the theme. No matter what it’s supposed to mean, I found it enjoyable all the way to my arrival at the end.

Disciple, on the other hand, is less successful. From my stance as an atheist with only limited knowledge of the detail of Christian beliefs, I take it to be a kind of parable, loosely based on Abrahamic traditions. An alien contacts one of life’s losers and, after offering proof of an ability to see into the future, persuades the man to become its servant. At an early stage, the alien uses our “hero” as an instrument of death. For his obedience, he is rewarded with wealth and as much freedom as he can create for himself. The only problem is the guilt. He takes responsibility for being the immediate cause of a few dying so that many can be saved. It’s an application of utilitarianism and Mosley invites us to consider what degree of responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the “innocent” agent. The man had no idea what effect would result from following a simple set of instructions, yet he was the direct cause of transmitting an infectious disease. Because he infected a high level politician, it was detected far earlier than would otherwise have been the case. His actions saved millions of people.

Once the disciple understands his role, he can never be innocent again. He knows that following the instructions given to him by the alien could be the cause of more deaths. So now he has a choice. Does he abandon the alien? Does he follow instructions to take Isaac to Moriah? Will he actually sacrifice the animal trapped in the bushes? That’s why this is not strictly Abrahamic. In this case, our hero is not substituting a ram. He’s substituting a smaller for a larger number of people. Either way, people die. It’s simply a question of how many.

I’m inclined to give this pair of novellas the benefit of the doubt. They avoid some of the preachiness that has blighted earlier efforts in this direction. Merge is clearly better than Disciple but both are interesting and, in these superficial times, you can’t ask for more than that.

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin
Jack Strong
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
When the Thrill Is Gone

The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

November 15, 2012 Leave a comment

This review of The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman (Tor, 2012) needs to start with one of the oldest jokes in the form of a riddle I know. It goes, “What’s the mystery about the idiom, ‘A fool and his money are easily separated’?” The answer, of course, is, “Where did the fool get the money from?” It’s the “ . . .upon their backs to bite ’em, and so ad infinitum.” wonder of where the first dollar originates so that it may work its way up through the layers of stupidity until it reaches the hands of the one clever enough to accumulate the biggest pile of loot. If I were to put this another way, I would be speculating on whether it’s possible to get something for nothing. In a capitalist market, only them as has the money can buy. There’s no profit in giving things away. But in markets with a more socialist inclination, there’s an acknowledgment that, where the poor are disadvantaged, you can redistribute commercial profit by discounting the goods or services to those in need or by the government taxing the profit and using the money for welfare purposes. Either way, the wealthy subsidise the poor. To regulate this fairly, you need a Social Apparatus that takes some input and then, so long as it’s safe, it runs itself, giving back to the poor. As a model, think of a player piano. Once you’ve invested the capital in building it, it can make music out of nothing for others, i.e. the machine is just a means to creating what others perceive as beauty in sound.

The only problem is that the workings of any such apparatus in this fictional half-made world would be next to magic. Even the inventors might not truly understand how these machines would work except that it certainly wouldn’t simply depend electricity. It would be an interaction between mechanical parts, a programming system and a power source. For many observers, it would be as if the machines had somehow achieved some kind of independent existence and that the best of them could transmit value instantaneously over wide areas, perhaps even distorting literal and metaphorical gravity in the process. This would make some rather dangerous, particularly if there were instabilities in the machinery. Perhaps they should only be put into use right out on the edge of the world where everything is being continuously remade and, if a little bit of this new land should happen to come unstuck from the rest of the world, at least the rest of the world would feel a little safer. Or perhaps these independent machines could only work where the laws of science no longer truly apply and imagination takes over.

Felix Gilman reminding himself what was in the first book

This blending of science fiction, fantasy and a little weird leads us to the war between the Line and the Gun which is the same animism but taken to a whole new level. When you have something as radical as an Apparatus based on the Ransom Process while there’s a shooting match going on between two supernatural/metaphorical forces, this is just one more variable in an already uncertain world. A steadying or balancing force is needed, and it may come through the people. There’s the inventor of the Ransom Process that powers the Apparatus and the apparently reliable Carver who, for a short time, joins the team and then moves on. Then there are the waifs and strays picked up on the road like the “Harpers” who aren’t who they say they are (like John Creedmore and Miss Elizabeth Alverhuysen). In due course, more than a hundred dreamers and drifters who are infected by Ransom’s optimism might join in as part of a crusade. Except that does not mean patriotism and the war. Whatever Ransom may think he has invented, he knows it should not be used as a weapon, but as a way of fighting for a better way of life. Except there’s nothing in this half-made world that says the Line or the Gun has to leave him alone. If there’s one thing that does not come cheap in this life, it’s change. People will always fight over ideas and defy the prospect of progress.

What makes the whole novel so fascinating is the picaresque style with disconnected autobiographical episodes from the life of the inventor, would-be entrepreneur Mr Harry Ransom, a man infused with the power of light while ill but not necessarily dying, edited for our consumption by Elmer Merrial Carson. He’s one of these Genius Jones type of men who are inspired by books to do great things, but aren’t entirely sure how to go about achieving them. This gives a slightly Micawber feel to their journeys of discovery, believing they will learn from their experiences and, in the end, hoping something will turn up to give the best result. In a world that’s making and unmaking itself at the edge, this is actually the perfect state of mind in which to travel across the landscape. For, surely, those who travel believing disaster will strike at any moment are likely to fall off the edge before too long.

The nice thing about this “sequel” is that it does follow on from the first, but only tangentially through a completely different point of view and with a radically different tone. In every way, it’s a delight to see the innocent Harry Ransom slowly learn about the world in which he lives and, to him more importantly, meet the man behind the book that so inspired him. The elegance in the irony of how that autobiography came to be written is just one more delight in a cornucopia of delights when you read this book. So watch as the hegemony of the Line fails. For all it has mass-production, organisation and ideology, it loses out to individualism. This is not to say capitalism has no place in the world when it has finished its initial burst of growth. There will always be a need for business and “profit” but it should always be subordinated to the needs of individuals. Think of it as a process of worship. Initially, the notion of capitalism or socialism seems so powerful, large numbers will uncritically worship. Other time, however, the worshippers begin to see flaws in the beliefs they hold. Their intensity waivers. Walls fall. Assimilation and integration occurs as the world slowly changes itself. But, of course, just as old beliefs fall from vogue, new ones replace them. Despite the centuries of human history, we’re still only half-made and there’s no end in sight. And that’s really the point of Ransom City. It’s the ultimately unattainable Utopia that’s always just within your grasp but never actually reached. It’s a metaphor for society’s holy grail with the quest described here as an allegory. As a final thought, this is a sequel and so you will not understand the real power of The Rise of Ransom City unless and until you have read The Half-Made World (and catch the simple elegance of the jacket artwork).

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
Thunderer

Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham

February 4, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s always interesting to think about the choices an author makes when creating a character. In Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham (Mulholland/Little Brown, 2012), we have a first-person narrative featuring Professor Joseph O’Loughlin, a man with Parkinson’s Disease. This is relatively unusual in detective fiction. Of course we have the Lincoln Rhyme series by Jeffrey Deaver and, in times gone by, Ironside moved around thanks to his wheelchair. Monk has obsessive-compulsive disorder. . . other detectives and PIs stammer or walk with a limp, and so fall below the expected physical perfection. In this, perhaps we should not count drug addiction because Sherlock Holmes retained his abilities as a detective. Overall, apart from age-related disorders, the portrayal of chronic physical disease in fiction challenges stereotypes. You may legitimately wonder whether readers want a younger or middle-aged disabled person to be able to function in the real world. If such a person does appear in the pages of a novel, he or she is expected to be passive. Such characters are usually there to make us feel morally superior when the leading protagonists in the story show them respect. This reflects the sad reality that many are repulsed by the idea of disability. It diverges from the normal. It represents the unknown and is therefore potentially something to be feared.

In Bleed For Me, our amateur detective is also a clinical psychologist. This moves the mystery genre closer to the medical drama. In a mystery, criminals invade the neighbourhood and cause disorder. In a medical drama, a virus or bacterium invades a body and has to be chased down and eliminated by the doctor as detective (as in the case of Dr Gregory House who is doubly disabled with a leg damaged in an accident and as an addict). So Michael Robotham is giving us a doctor-cum-detective whose job it is to diagnose the causes of social disorder and, through the power of his analysis, to eliminate those causes as a danger to society. The criminally disordered will be sent to jail, the mentally disordered to a secure hospital. In this, it’s significant the book begins with a hearing to determine whether a mental patient should be released. It’s the physically disabled assuming responsibility for keeping the mentally disabled locked up.

Michael Robotham now back in Australia

Michael Robotham is playing a very interesting game here. Through the disability, he separates his hero from the “normal” world. People relate to him differently because of his physical limitations and involuntary movements. Even his marriage has ended (possibly because of the disease). This gives him a licence to engage the world outside the usual social rules and power structures. In other contexts, this is the “set a thief to catch a thief” trope. The power to investigate and reason based on what’s seen and heard is enhanced because of prior experience and an ability to empathise with the differences under investigation. A cripple knows how another cripple feels.

In Bleed For Me, Professor O’Loughlin is under pressure. He’s emotionally involved in the case, gets run off the road which suggests he’s getting closer to the truth, his dog is tortured and killed, and one of the men he suspects provokes him into an assault. Who would have thought our hero with a body that doesn’t work properly would end up in court on a charge of malicious wounding. In a sense, this is going back to the idea implicit in Sherlock Holmes. He’s a man whose addiction could be self-destructive, but the power of his mind keeps the problem under control. The weakness of the body in craving the drug highlights the mental strength in denying it when it’s necessary to keep a clear head (for a continuation of this discussion, see the review of Beyond the Bridge. Professor O’Loughlin is a man whose body won’t always do what the mind wants. Indeed, on one notable occasion when speaking with a police officer, his movements are interpreted as preparatory to an assault. The officer strikes him with a baton and pulls him to the ground. This indignity comes at a time when he’s grappling with the distress of divorce and some degree of separation from his children. Put all this together and we have a man in pain who has the “job” of interacting with people in pain. Through his empathy, their violence can amplify his violent tendencies.

At a metaphorical level, Michael Robotham is also using the random nature of the movements caused by Parkinson’s to suggest we’re immersed in an environment where not everything is under control. There can be danger from those who have been damaged, whether by accident, disease or abuse. What makes the opening scene so powerful is that the man with incurable Parkinson’s Disease is effectively telling the Tribunal that the mental patient under review is also incurable. This creates simple binaries: able/disabled, curable/incurable, success/failure, and so on. It also leaves us with a question about this man and his journey through life. While able, he was a successful clinical psychologist with an extensive and well-regarded practice. After disability, he abandoned the practice and became a lecturer. Perhaps with his body failing, he came to doubt the power of his mind to continue doing its work. Even so, having reduced the challenges he faces through his work, he still needs to prove himself to himself. It’s all a matter of his pride.

Of course all of this clever work of character creation means nothing unless the core mystery to be solved is good. You can have the most interesting person in the world on paper, but he has to perform well when challenged as an investigator. Fortunately, I can report Bleed For Me is red hot. It’s damnably dark in some of its content and devilishly clever in how it works out. Although there’s a slightly contrived element in how people know each other or link up, this is a genuinely exciting read. Perhaps as much thriller as mystery, I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys edgy fiction.

For the record, Bleed For Me was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award 2010 for Best Crime Novel.

For reviews of other books by Michael Robotham, see:
Bombproof
Watching You.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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