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Thunderer by Felix Gilman

June 30, 2009 1 comment

I have written book blurbs. It’s a mildly diverting game to capture the essence of a book and sell it to potential customers in the shortest possible number of words. The trick is to reassure potential readers that their money will be well-spent. So every book becomes the latest novel channelling Tolkien, Enid Blyton or some other literary heavyweight. As a recent experiment, I asked a question on LinkedIn, “If The Waste Land is a below-par gardening manual and Portnoy’s Complaint is about a diner who gets a poor meal in a five star restaurant, which works of literature do you find inspiring?” It was intriguing to find that half the answers were serious recommendation of favourite books. Obviously, any descriptive reference to a work of literature is potentially true and people “trust” what they see in print.

Most recently, I observed the adjective “Dickensian” rolled out in support of Thunderer by Felix Gilman. Perhaps it’s a reaction to time spent in school when I was forced to read him as a literary giant of the Victorian Age. Coming to an author out of choice always predisposes you to think better of him or her (until the reality of the reading overcomes initial optimism). As a rebellious teen, the well of resentment rose with buckets of scorn to pour over the teacher’s choice. As a social commentator, I concede that Dickens was reassuringly preoccupied with the problems of his age. But his prose style was often overwrought and the narrative shaped to the dictates of episodic publication. Although stated simply, the plots and their characters achieve some degree of timeless universality, they are mired in the language and sentimentality of his times. I have enjoyed some of the more modern BBC television adaptations. But, as someone to read with modern sensibilities, I do not recommend him.

Coming to the Thunderer, the plot may be stated simply. A man on a quest to find the voice of his god comes to a great city and, after some difficulties, manages to save the city from a great danger and, incidentally, stays hopeful that he will ultimately find what he is looking for. This takes some 527 pages. Let’s clear the decks for action. I am not against long books. All I ask is that the length is used constructively for driving the narrative forward. Thus, if a work is full of incident, I am prepared to accept a reasonable amount of background information to offer colour and context for these excitements. But this book is full of the worst kind of padding. We have a multiple point-of-view narrative structure with sequential chunks of text devoted to each major character. This is standard and the usual convention is that time starts to run at the first page and then continues sequentially or with some overlap until the last page when some or all of the characters have met and served their purpose as fixed by the author. In Aristotelian terms, this gives us unity of time and place as the author moves towards a logical (and, sometimes, moral) conclusion.

In this case, the primary protagonist is called Arjun and the first chapter enjoys unity of time as key players react to the arrival of a magical bird over the city where all the significant action occurs. Except the second chapter is largely Arjun’s backstory, simply dropped into the middle of the narrative as a lump of exposition. All of this content could have been slowly drawn out of Arjun as he meets different people in the city and explains why he has come. But this sets an unfortunate trend. Whenever we meet someone new or visit another part of the city, we get these information dumps. In the “good old days”, we praised most world builders, making exceptions for the obsessives like Tolkien whose interminable ramblings have been immortalised in uncountable numbers of posthumous books capturing his notes. But this modern drive to satisfy the apparent desire of readers to get “value for money” is leading to grossly overwritten texts. It is a reversion, but of the wrong type. The reason why Dickens put in so much background is because he had a word target to meet for each episode. So rather than rushing the plot to its conclusion (killing Little Nell had to be delayed as long as possible), he dallied in the descriptions and so maintained his income stream over the maximum possible number of instalments. The bean counters in charge of modern publishing houses also want the maximum number of words for the buck, regardless of the quality of those words.

The result is a book that could have been interesting if an editor had hacked away the unnecessary text. It is a work of metaphors. The city is mutable, shifting and changing its nature through space and time. At any one location, one might meet people out of time or from the future. It all depends on how you look. In this unmappable city lurk supernatural beings and those who would exploit or benefit from their power. Jack becomes a symbol of anarchic freedom. Arlandes becomes a symbol of raw oppression invested with tragic impotence. Then there is Holbach whose intellectualism marginalises his access to power and Shay whose various machinations destabilise the existing order of things. Among all these cyphers walks Arjun who vaguely follows the dictates of his quest until he is diverted by the appearance of a pestilent threat to the city. Frankly, I didn’t care very much what happened. The threat uncoils slowly and without much sense of menace. It kills people in increasing numbers, but that is it. It is perfunctory, a mere plot device because there must be something for Arjun to confront as a delaying tactic in the pursuit of his grail. The resolution is neither victory nor defeat. It is an ending in the sense that a cul-de-sac is an ending and so brings us to the end of this first instalment of journey in what will turn out to be a trilogy or more. Dickens would have approved of this device as a means of selling more books.

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

Bloodline by F. Paul Wilson

First a few words for all those who are intimidated by strangers in public places.  You know the kind of situation: a large and obviously aggressive person is playing music to all within earshot on a bus or train. A polite request to turn it down provokes our friend into increasing the volume to maximum. What to do? Well, along with the majority, I labour under conflicting psychological burdens: Doormat Syndrome and Superhero Complex. Being of retirement age by local standards and never having more than five mussels available to me at any one time, I tend not to be confrontational in public (particularly because fighting with seafood is never very effective). Yet my mild-mannered exterior conceals a Wolverine or Bananaman (sorry, wrong fantasy) that would brush aside anyone threatening me or mine. Alternatively, I’m an NRA member and will pull out a gun and shoot the damn box making the noise.

À propos of nothing, on UK television from 1975-1994, the ubiquitous catchphrase was “Jim’ll fix it!” Now as Sir Jimmy Saville fades into relative insignificance (albeit that the game 80-year old did reappear briefly on British screens in 2006), he’s been overtaken by Jack.

By way of introduction to the new Mr. Fix-it, one of the key questions of 1984 was posed by Ray Parker Jr.:

If there’s somethin’ strange in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call (Ghostbusters)

By one of those meaningless coincidences, Repairman Jack first hit the streets in The Tomb (1984) and, when confronted by something strange, it would be hard to find anyone better at defending your interests. So now our hero returns in the 11th episode to continue fighting the good fight in Bloodline courtesy of F. Paul Wilson (Gauntlet Press, 2007). [Wilson is another of these writers where a mass of his fiction ties together into a single oeuvre — for an outline, I’ve included a brief afterword to explain things.]

So who is this Jack guy? Well, he’s a libertarian, not to say, contrarian, independent, self-reliant kinda guy who’s chosen to stand outside the bounds of conventional society. Physically, he’s the ultimately faceless Average Joe — except, of course, he’s anything but “average” in his fighting abilities. He’s also clever enough to construct false identities under which to hide, yet a highly moral White Knight who will ride out to rescue the innocent victims of crime or circumstance. By nature, he would take a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach but, because he fears the attention of the authorities who might recognise the falsity of his identity, he’s usually circumspect.

What then is Jack’s appeal and why has he become a real hero? Lets start with an assumption, accepting that not everyone will agree. The stereotype of a vigilante is negative. Thus, anyone who steps outside the prevailing legal system and administers their own brand of justice whenever the need arises is potentially a dangerous member of society. In fact, because they seek out and kill specific individuals or “types”, they’re probably more blameworthy than most “ordinary” murderers. But Jack doesn’t quite fit. He’s distinguishable from Brian Garfield’s Death Wish character, Paul Benjamin, because Jack isn’t generally motivated by the need to avenge some past wrong. Further, he doesn’t dismiss existing laws or the policing systems. Rather, he takes a dispassionate view of the world (except where his own family is involved).

I suppose, in an odd way, he’s more like Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — a complex lonely character, wary of relationships because they slow him down and not afraid to consider killing villains on utilitarian grounds. Jack is a blend of good intentions and dark menace. If we stopped there, we would have an urban mercenary, available for hire, prepared to fix difficult problems for those in need. This is the Jack of Legacies and, in this role, he’s become a very popular figure with many more books, both sequel and prequel, already contracted. But Jack unintentionally comes to be no more than a pawn. Well, to be precise, he becomes the Heir to the role of Sentinel — a position with very bad fringe benefits — intentional paradox — that involves defending the human race in an ongoing cosmic conflict. A responsibility up with which he is forced to put.

At this point, we need to get into Aristotle (the original Glock-toting Athenian philosopher)

What do you know about Aristotle?
Perhaps a little or not a lot(le).

In Poetics, Aristotle discusses the unities of time, place and action. The first two unities reflect the idea that a drama should last no longer than the time it takes to act it out on a stage, and occupy only the space that would fit on to a stage. In more modern times, we’ve grown used to authors manipulating time with leaps of days, weeks or even years between scenes not uncommon. Similarly, with either bare stages or complex sets, playwrights suggest or depict completely different places. Now add in cinema and television dramas with their use of the new CGI technologies, and the ability to play with time and space is limited only by the willingness of readers and viewers to suspend disbelief.

Yet, Wilson more or less observes the unities. Each of the Repairman Jack novels takes place in no more than one month, and each chapter is one day. Wilson also tends to favour limiting Jack’s movements, only allowing him to travel outside New York in the later novels in the series. To that extent, the pressures of time seem more real to the reader and the books feel more claustrophobic.

As required by the Poetics, Wilson also stresses unified action, where all the main events in the plot carry a definite link to other actions, and subsequent actions are the necessary and probable outcomes of the former. OK, those of us who read the Adversary Cycle years ago know where the narrative has to go — it’s the end of the world as we know it in Nightworld. Wilson therefore has the seriously difficult job of maintaining interest in the character’s development in each book-length instalment while moving the plot along to its inevitable conclusion. Worse, the fans know what they like about Jack and they would prefer a conservative approach, i.e. don’t change nothing, just give us more of Jack the murderous mercenary kicking butt. Yet the need to complete the narrative arc forces Wilson to goad Jack in the right direction and give us an increasingly sophisticated explanation of how and why things are happening.

Which brings us to the latest instalment. Unfortunately, I think Wilson gets the balance slightly wrong. We’re into the tried-and-tested formula which sees Jack asked to do one of his fixes and, fairly rapidly, he recognises that there’s no such thing as coincidence. He’s been pitched back into the conflict. In most of the previous instalments, the plot-driving McGuffin is dynamically integrated into the narrative with Jack having to find it and/or neutralise it. But, here the device is nothing more than an info-dump to advance our general understanding of why different people in the serial have different abilities. It’s information we have to have if the assumption of real power is to feel credible in the books yet to be written. Equally, it serves to introduce at least two new characters who will obviously reappear. I’m not denying that the central situation for Jack to fix moves along at a brisk pace but, more than any of the previous books, this feels like a stepping stone to progress the overall plot. Now that we have all the oDNA/genetics and associated science out of the way, we can look forward to searching for Dawn and dealing with the Kickers in the next book or two. Which leads me to conclude that even though this is clearly not the best in the serial, it does contain the signature no-nonsense transparent writing style and a reasonable degree of the expected dispensation of “justice” that we fans have come to expect from Jack. Thus, if you’re following the story, this eleventh volume contains vital information and is worth reading. If you’re only reading it for the traditional Jack, be prepared to flip through the boring bits. And, finally, if you’ve read this far and I’ve inspired you to start reading from book one of the Adversary Cycle, you’ve a long way to go to catch up. For the completists among you, can can even try the origin story in the Secret Histories.

Afterword

A simplified version of the overall serial follows but, before you continue, repeat after me, “Learning new stuff is good for the soul.” The Repairman Jack serial is actually a kind of ex post facto repair job in its own right. Wilson started off by writing the Adversary Cycle (now available as a limited edition boxed set if you want to spend the extra money through http://www.borderlandspress.com/adversary.html). The Tomb is the second book and introduces Jack. Wilson liked the character so later returned to tinker with the detail of the timeline in the Adversary Cycle. This has allowed him to write a new series featuring Jack to parallel events in the first series and to fill in the gaps before we get to Nightworld — the final book in the Adversary Cycle. Warning. If you’re starting from scratch, always try to buy the most recently revised editions of each book so that the best level of continuity is maintained. This shouldn’t be a problem buying new, but you may be tempted on to the second-hand market to get the very cheap reading copies. And read them in order otherwise you’re likely to lose the thread of what’s happening. Those of you who like to see the big picture can find a detailed list at The Secret History of the World

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
Bloodline
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

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