Posts Tagged ‘satire’

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

July 17, 2014 2 comments

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo is a reprint collection from Open Road Media, 2014. It was originally published in 1995 by Four Walls Eight Windows, and contains three novellas: “Victoria” (1991), “Hottentots” (1995) shortlisted for the 1996 Locus Award for Best Novella, and “Walt and Emily” (1993) published in two parts by Interzone and shortlisted for the 1994 Locus Award for Best Novella. Ignore the title: recognise that these novellas are not about great airships and mechanical inventiveness on a large scale. Rather this is steampunk as a state of mind. As emotionally repressed people, the Victorians feared they would lose control if their inner passions were allowed free rein. Think Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with a beast lurking inside the sack of skin, just waiting for the chance to take over and cause mayhem. Although it may make us feel more comfortable to restrict this historical trait to sexual behaviour and the threat of men being overtaken by their lust, the reality was a more general exuberance of greed and selfishness, cruelty and ambition — build an empire before tea, exploit it to the maximum possible, and then lose it all as night falls and the downtrodden refuse to accept the continuing abuse.

We start off in the same style as The Importance of Being a Nest by Wilde Birds with The Importance of Being a Newt. Yes, this is the story of Cosmo Cowperthwait who, having expunged Letchworth from the map (those of you interested in this phenomenon should read the excellent Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W Clark), turned his attention to genetic engineering, hoping to satisfy his scientific curiosity by scaling up a newt to human size. Coincidentally, because books like this thrive on the comic effect generated by coincidences, he names his life-sized newt Victoria so, when the Queen of the same name goes walkabout, who else should the prime minister think of putting on the throne as a temporary replacement but the newt? As you will gather from these few sentences, this novella begins with a certain level of absurdity and then elevates the absurdity to previously undreamed of levels. It’s a masterpiece as our heroic inventor and genetic manipulatist ransacks London in search of the missing queen, fighting off temptation from an early suffragette whose self-appointed task is to relieve the suffering of women at the hands of men, only to end up where he started out albeit on a more private basis. Di Filippo’s take on the half-human, half-newt is as a sex toy for the rich that may, in the long term, prove to have a mind of her own. It’s simply an ironic commentary on the science that the combination of the animal and the human produces a more naturally sexual “animal” save that the human Queen Victoria is also discovering the diversity of sexual experience in an upmarket brothel. It seems newt genes and leadership pressures make sexual champions of us all. Although some of the humour is a little “obvious”, this remains great fun to read.

Paul Di Filippo

Paul Di Filippo

“Hottentots” is high quality satire that begins by skewering some of the prejudices that would have been prevalent in Victorian times. Fortunately, in our current post-racial times, we could not possibly hold such bigoted views or, if we did, we would carefully avoid expressing them in public. From our position of enlightenment, it gives us a chance to consider the basis of the beliefs that produced ideas of Übermensch, racial supremacism, eugenics, and so on. Our hero, Louis Agassiz, for want of a better way of describing the man, is a Swiss national working to establish a scientific centre in America. Apart from the intellectually elite to be found in places of learning such as Harvard, he considers America a dire melting pot in which miscegenation has run riot, irrecoverably polluting the gene pool and producing a potentially subhuman underclass of simple-minded people. You can therefore imagine his horror when his calm progress through life is disturbed by the arrival of a white man and his Hottentot bride who are intent upon recovering a lost fetish. There’s much tooing and froing as Agassiz attempts to reconcile his desire for a rational view of the world with the somewhat irrational occurrences around him. All this would have been more successful if the character of the man had been more likeable. But, from the outset, we’re shown how ghastly he is (by modern standards) and so have no sympathy for him at all.

“Walt and Emily” is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson who are involved in that most Victorian of pastimes: the pursuit of the supernatural through the séance and other mechanisms for interacting with the spirit world. Emily’s brother, Austin, seeks a way to communicate with his two aborted children. He hopes the Spiritualist Madam Hrose Selavy is the real deal and engages Walt and Emily to investigate the medium’s claims not only to communicate with the dead, but also transport the living into the spirit world. This involves us trying to reconcile science and the supernatural as the medium discharges ideoplasm from her breasts and transports our poets to an encounter with Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound. There’s a general sense of fun as literary sensibilities are explored across the ages but, as with the other stories, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. As in the other novellas, there’s also a sexual component to the story.

Although there are monsters on display, some more Lovecraftian than others, and there are some beautifully rendered mechanical ideas to satisfy those who want their steampunk to be about machines rather than ideas, full enjoyment of these three stories is somewhat dependent on being familiar with the more general Victorian writing styles and the particular literary flourishes of the poets in the last novella. This is not to say the modern reader will not enjoy these stories, but they will deliver more enjoyment if you have some background in the history and literature of Victorian times. With that caveat, I recommend The Steampunk Trilogy as producing a nicely balanced and occasionally humorous set of alternate histories for us to explore.

For a review of another work by Paul Di Filippo, see Cosmocopia.

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

Snatched: A British Black Comedy by Bill James

April 13, 2014 2 comments

snatched by bill James

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.

Bill James

Bill James


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:


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


Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto

February 25, 2014 2 comments

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) translated by Jethro Soutar, sees the first publication of this prolific author’s work in English — there are fifty-two other books to wait for. This modest volume is subtitled, “The mystery of the severed heads” which suggests it is either a crime or horror novel. The reality is rather different. It’s set in a rundown guest house in Rio de Janeiro. Originally, it was a private mansion, but when the owner departed, Dona Dino, the woman left behind, could not pay the bills unless she admitted paying guests. To call it a hotel would be to miss the mark. It’s rather more a collection of individuals who have come together in cheap accommodation offered by an apparently benign and supportive elderly lady (and her cat). When one of the guests, an elderly man who traded in semi-precious gemstones, is found decapitated, this provokes the police into action and, as each of the residents is interviewed by Delegado Olinto Del Bosco, we’re introduced to their lives.

The primus inter pares resident is Cândido. He’s a modern-day equivalent of Volatire’s Candide, a not unworldly man who makes a meagre living as an editor for a local publishing house while volunteering to help the street kids who get into trouble. He wants to find the best in people which is why, during the course of this book, he becomes involved in defying the military police who are dealing with a mass breakout at a juvenile detention centre. On a whim, he protects a girl who escapes, involving others in hiding her, even though it makes him even more a target for harassment and possible disappearance if he gets caught. Then there’s Rui Pacheco, a political aide and Marcelo Braga, a newspaperman. Both are, in their different ways, relatively powerful. Pacheco has networked into the political class and knows the right people to get some things done. But he’s also a contradiction. He ought to be building up wealth alongside his influence yet he lives in reduced circumstances. Marcelo could write front-page opinion pieces to castigate Del Bosco for his failure to catch the killer. This would probably lead to Del Bosco being sidelined if not dismissed. But he doesn’t think an intervention worth his while. There are few men of talent in the ranks of the local detective force and Marcelo does not believe any replacement would be any more likely to find the killer.

Frei Betto

Frei Betto

This leaves us with the flamboyant Diamante Negro who’s a professional cross-dressing transformista, and Madame Larência who’s reached the age when she can no longer easily turn tricks and so acts as a pimp. Rosaura Doroteia dos Santos is a young and naive fantasist who dreams of becoming a star of one of the prevailing television soaps. While Jorge Maldonado is the general factotum around the hotel and, when no-one else seems likely to have been the killer, he’s the one arrested. He’s lucky enough to have an older bother who was a notorious, if less than successful, crook. Beating a confessional out of him seems the most reasonable solution to the case. Except, while this unfortunate is locked up, there’s a second decapitation.

In a way, the hotel and the sequence of murders is just a excuse to talk about Brazilian society. Through the characters we get an insight into the social dynamics of the culture in Rio. This is not the tourist version with street carnivals and beach parties. Rather it’s a study of the progress being by the post-junta government, highlighting the problems of the disadvantaged and marginalised. The are moments of humour and equal elements of tragedy as the stories of the different residents play out. So you should not pick up this book if you are looking for a traditional whodunnit. Although the final pages do explain who’s responsible for the killings and why, that’s of secondary importance. The real thrust of the narrative is whether Cândido can find love and redeem the girl from the streets. In this, no-one is an angel. Equally, it’s hard to single out any of those who survive to the end of the book as being devils. Everyone does what they must to survive. They may be required to do some things that, objectively, they will acknowledge as illegal or merely immoral. But people will pay such prices if they emerge with their lives intact. This makes Hotel Brasil a social commentary with some satirical ambitions and relatively unflinching insights into Brazil’s current social and political problems.

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

The Strangling on the Stage by Simon Brett

The Strangling on the Stage by Simon Brett

The Strangling on the Stage by Simon Brett (Severn House, 2013) is one of the Fethering Mysteries and it contains one of “those” lines guaranteed to upset a moderate slice of the male population. As a man who, for many years, played cricket on a regular basis, I am doing my best not to be outraged by the suggestion cricketers are the most misogynist of sportsmen. Given the time commitment at weekends, when partners might expect joint activities like shopping, I might admit some degree of selfishness in treating standing solitary on the boundary of a field with a gale blowing and the prospect of rain imminent as preferable to standing in a queue at a checkout. But such solipsism does not inherently betoken hatred for the opposite sex. Indeed, how can one not value the fair sex even more when they cluster together to give us warmth when we come in from the rain, and supply restorative tea and limp sandwiches between innings?

Perhaps I should explain that this “throwaway” dismissal of a sporting fraternity is germane to the resolution of the plot. Indeed, the entire book is a kind of excoriation of the pretentiousness of the English middle class (although one Scottish engineer does come in for a real bashing as well — unfortunately, there’s no-one to complete the joke, “An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walked into The Cricketers and. . .”). So we’re deep into the world of amateur dramatics which, for better or worse, is the preserve of young aspirants and ageing performers with invincible egos. This time Jude and Carole, our pair of lady sleuths, get caught up in the investigation of a death by stage prop.

Simin Brett

Simon Brett

The retired Scottish engineer passes the time by “inventing” interesting devices for stage productions. For The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw, he builds a gallows which, to the surprise of the leading man, proves unexpectedly effective. Indeed, everyone seems completely amazed. There was supposed to be a trick to it all. The engineer had produced a noose that was held together only by a sliver of velcro. The moment any weight was applied to the noose, it should have sprung apart, releasing the victim before even the slightest physical inconvenience could be caused. But someone seems to have substituted a real noose for the “stage” version. Hence the dead man hanging centre stage.

So our dedicated team in their fifteenth outing take up new roles. Jude is recruited into the cast while Carole finds her true vocation as the prompter who notices every mistake and is not afraid to call out corrections during rehearsals. Between them they contrive to talk to everyone who might be able to shed light on the sad loss of such an acting talent. The most unusual conversation is with the deceased’s wife who registers strongly on the weirdometer (as do all collectors, of course — did I mention I also collect books, but not on cricket which would be obsessional?). But, not to put too fine a point on it, none of the actors or the stage crew come over as entirely normal. Or perhaps the other way of viewing the book is that when an author launches into an examination of stereotypical middle class behaviour, he’s not short of likely targets from which to choose his victims. This is not to characterise the book as a satire on south coast village lifestyles. Although there are some pleasingly sharp observations and smile-inducing moments, the book lacks the savagery required to make it genuinely satirical. For better or worse, Simon Brett likes his cast of characters too much to completely dismantle them. This leaves the book in a slightly uncomfortable hinterland. It’s not even remotely a “cozy mystery” in the emerging American style, but it’s equally not a tough-minded, take-no-prisoners book that skewers all-comers. This leaves me placing the tone as probably adjacent to Alan Ayckbourn in some of his studies of the existential despair that afflicts many in apparently normal relationships and roles.

Truth-be-told, The Strangling on the Stage is just another highly enjoyable read from Simon Brett. The puzzle for us to solve depends on who had access to the prop at the relevant time, and who would have had the motive to execute the leading man. As is required, we have a limited cast of suspects, and more or less everyone would have had a motive to execute this Lothario whether it’s the women spurned or their “cuckolded” husbands. In fact, the theme of the solution turns out to be inherently historical and subsequently theatrical, as one might expect in a book such as this. The combination of interesting murder and social commentary provides good value for those who have the proverbial eyes to see and then look away when it comes to holding the guilty to account.

For reviews of other books by Simon Brett, see:
Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess
The Cinderella Killer
A Decent Interval.

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

Typical Day by Gary K Wolf

Typical Day

Let joy be unconfined! I waited years and then two satirical books came along together (thinks happily of the same joke applied to buses on the circle route around Birmingham fifty years ago). Having just enjoyed some wonderful short stories in a collection from a Catalan author, I’m back in a future America with Typical Day by Gary K Wolf (Musa Publishing, 2012) an ebook @ $3.99. This future world has seen a remarkable “scientific” advance. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the world of the LifeMaster. Everyone’s signed up for this remarkable service on birth although they have to wait until thirteen to pick up their cube. When they’re old enough, the cube is slotted into a machine and the day’s game begins.

I have a little piece of software on my Mac that, if I was so inclined, I could use to map out my day, noting appointments and things to do. Well, think of that upgraded by several thousand percent by the ultimate in interactive design. When the game starts off, you’re playing your future day for points with almost all the rest of the population linked together. At every key moment, there are decisions to be made, e.g. on how much time to spend on daily ablutions, what to eat for breakfast, and so on. This affects whether you catch the usual bus to work. Take too long shaving or eat too heavy a breakfast, and your desperate run for the departing transport is in vain. You get the idea. Once the day’s game is over, you check the points. Hopefully, you’re adding to your life savings. Then you go through the day you planned out for yourself in real time. Because all the individual game experiences are slaved together, everyone gets to see his or her day as part of the greater whole. So everyone due to be on the bus sees your feeble run in advance, and they all know what to expect when they look out of the window. It’s a perfect existence for those who enjoy risk taking and play to get ahead. For the more timid, it’s drudgery with low expectations fulfilled. Now suppose an accident destroys the link between man and machine — in this case a lightning strike while he’s at work takes out his pathetic living accommodation and cube. Cast adrift in an unplanned world, how is he to survive when he has no idea what’s supposed to happen next?

Gary Wolf and Jessica but no rabbit in view

Gary Wolf and Jessica but no rabbit in view

Except, of course, the manufacturer has a lifetime guarantee in operation and, within a day, he’s back in an apartment almost identical to the one he’s lost, equipped with a new cube and a machine to put it in. He relaxes. Everything’s going to be alright.

Except, of course, it isn’t.

Or perhaps, it is.

It all depends on your perspective when you play the game of life in default mode, i.e. you make it up as you go along.

I could say all kinds of clever things about free will vs determinism and why cookies taste best when someone makes them for you with tender loving care, but you should already have got my drift. As novellas go, this is a wonderful confection of sly humour and gentle wit all harnessed in service to a nice piece of satire on the way we live our lives. Typical Day is all too short, flashing by with all the speed of a video game in full flow. When you’ve finished it, all you have to do is put what you’ve learned into practice and start racking up those Life points. Satire in action!

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

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts by Teresa Solana

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) a short ebook collection @ $3.99, starts with “Still Life No 41”, shortlisted for Best Short Story in the 2013 Edgar Awards, in which the young twenty-six year old Director of the Museum of Ultra-Avant-Garde Art is pushed out of her job on the orders of the Minister of Culture. She’s naturally outraged. While it’s true she only got the job because the previous director had been her uncle and her father used his political pull with the Minister, it wasn’t her fault that the first exhibition she curated should turn out like that. The Museum had been negotiating for two years to persuade the artist to allow his work to be displayed. Our first-person narrator simply came in at the end with the deal in place. All she had to do was display what arrived. Which is what she did even though there was one more piece than the Museum was expecting. The launch was a triumph. Even the canapés were deemed sensational. After the excitement of the opening, every art critic who attended during the first days of the exhibition was ecstatic, confirming the forty-first work to be one of the finest example of modern art he or she had seen for years. It’s all so unfair she should be the political scapegoat.

Teresa Solana

Teresa Solana

The reason why “A Stitch in Time” is so successful is the tone. I mean if I was going to do something like this, I would have to be organised and stay calm. This is not the kind of thing to do when you’re all-a-flutter. Perhaps one of the more powerful anti-anxiety pills would be a good idea, just to settle the nerves but, once started, I would need to keep myself in one piece emotionally without external aid. And then it’s all as I rehearsed when the police come. Oh yes, the police are almost certain to come. But I’ll have everything ready by then. . . It’s the same with “The Thought That Counts”, a strangely dispassionate history of the life of a vampire. Did you know what having your very own vampire in residence does for the tourist trade? Everyone wants to come for the dark and forbidding castle and to sample the atmosphere where the beast sucked the life out of so many virgins. Anyway, having lived a lonely unlife through the centuries, you can imagine how our hero feels when someone tells him another bloodsucker has moved into his territory, and without so much as a by-your-leave or a friendly “Hello”.

“The First (Pre) Historic Serial Killer” shows a troglodyte of above-average intelligence tasked with the job of investigating three murders. Someone is bashing out the brains of his fellow cave dwellers with conveniently-to-hand rocks which is disturbing the amenity of the cave and putting some of the other men on edge — at least those bright enough to see a correlation between dead men and blood-stained rocks left a few feet away from the body. Our hero is able to discount Geoffrey as a suspect because a bear ate his arms which makes rock-wielding a challenge. But be reassured, our Sherlock of the Stone Age is going to crack the case as soon as he realizes the game’s afoot, or something. And finally, “The Offering” has a pathologist readying himself for an autopsy without realizing it’s the body of one of the secretaries working at his clinic who’s apparently committed suicide. When the truth sinks in, he grows obsessed with the question why she should have taken her life. He visits her apartment and learns something of her by observing what she left behind. But it’s when he confronts the body that he realizes her motive. This story, like the others in this short collection, has a brooding sense of tragedy overlain with a satirical sensibility.

Thematically, we’re concerned with individuals who find their lives turned upside down by events. The Museum director accepts the additional exhibit, the mother can only find love for her child, the vampire is first curious then angered another is attacking the people who live around him, the detective who can penetrate the mysteries of life, and the pathologist who finds unexpected beauty. Set out in simple phrases, this fails to capture the wit and humour underlying the sometimes gory subject matter. Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts is not quite black humour, but it’s certainly dark grey and a delightful surprise in a world that’s largely forgotten the function satire is supposed to perform, i.e. as a form of social commentary or criticism designed to encourage the world to improve. This review should encourage us to try Teresa Solana’s latest mystery novel The Sound of One Hand Killing which comes out in May.

For a review of one of her novels, see The Sound of One Hand Killing.

“Still Life No 41” was nominated as in the Best Short Story category of the 2013 Edgar Awards.

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

Meeks by Julia Holmes

November 28, 2010 Leave a comment

“Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!” I was never entirely clear why the robot in Lost in Space thought Will Robinson was a danger to anyone but, in the 1960s, such niceties were ignored and the words became a catch-phrase, trotted out whenever anyone even vaguely geeky was approaching. Now I suggest resurrecting it to read, “Danger! Will Allegory! Danger!”

Meeks (Small Beer Press, July, 2010) is a slim book that has been garnering a fair bit of heavy-weight attention. That, on its own, makes it a challenge to review. With so many other people of note expressing their opinions, it emphasises the need for thinking through the issues. I don’t want to feel influenced one way or the other. Whatever I write here should be carefully weighed, just like what she done in so carefully selecting every word to ensure it says what it means and means what it says. Whatever.

At this point, I offer a word of apology and gentle explanation. I know this site is me endlessly thinking about books, films and anything else that catches my eye. I ramble on and, hopefully, make a few intelligent points. This makes me self-indulgent. In my defence, reviewing is not supposed to be directly entertaining. It’s intended to inform. But Julia Holmes is an author and, as such, is supposed to be writing fiction as entertainment. Well, my working hypothesis is that she is an author desperately trying to impress us all with her cleverness when there seems no narrative point to the heightened language. When you are writing an allegory, particularly an allegory apparently intended to be satirical, there is no need to cram sentences with erudition. Indeed, when you are writing something allusive, clarity and an absence of ambiguity is a virtue.

The world is a complicated place, more so because of incidents like the rather fascinating Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments and the amusing Sokal affair. When a piece is presented in a form not intended to be taken literally and communicated through a heightened form of language, there’s a temptation to assume the author must know what he or she is doing. Take three sentences as examples.

“Empty bottles stood around my brother’s head like concerned townspeople who had found their king unconscious in the street.” “The shadows of the trees shifted along the glass, vague, changing, in collusion with certain of my senses to generate a picture of fear.” “The sun was setting, casting everything in a blue-gray light, the evening air subsuming more and more, until this world would be reduced to a meaningless thicket of shadows: rock indistinguishable from man, earth from sea.”

And just in case you didn’t “get” the title, the leader of this benighted people was Captain Meeks, but the resultant society relies on the meekness of the citizenry to accept the social structures and the death of those who would be the Enemy. Without wishing to get into spoilers, we are into 1984 territory with a war-footing justifying grim repression at home. People are regimented and conscripted into public service if they cannot marry. The symbolism of clothes as signifiers of status enforces rigid class divisions. Everything is sacrificed to maintain productivity and woe betide anyone who is less than hopeful about the future.

So all these elements are put into a bottle made out of pretty words and we are expected to admire the result without questioning the rationality of this city as described. Where is it supposed to be? How has it come into being? How does it survive? If men really do go off to war, who do they fight and to what effect? What form does the government take? There seems to be a skewed gender balance — how do they manage to breed enough to stay viable? Who buys all the output from these factories? And so on. . . Ah, but wait. This is an allegory, so it doesn’t have to make any sense. You just read it for what it is and don’t ask awkward questions.

Well, my apologies. I think the entire exercise is pretentious rubbish. When Jonathan Swift traps three sons in clothes that rapidly fall out of fashion, there is no doubt he is satirising Christianity. Properly directed satire identifies its targets and then savages them. Julia Holmes fulminates but never matches Swift’s Modest Proposal for solving the problem of Irish poverty. All we have in Meeks is potshots at multiple targets, none of which truly strikes home with the venom that should characterise the best of allegory and satire. When Kafka traps K in a bureaucracy, we can all relate to the greater reality of flawed bureaucratic systems. So what social systems are targeted in Meeks? Well take gender roles as an example. Having been a bachelor in my early life, I cannot relate to the experience of the men in this novel. Nor does it work in contemporary terms if we read women for men and impose the biological clock for reproductive purposes. I suppose the theme relates back to the broad condemnation of women who were “left on the shelf” — particularly after wars left a shortage of marriageable men of the right social quality. Yet our modern generation of youngsters has not been bred to prioritise finding a spouse or having a family. This idea of a cut-off point with teeth for each cohort of unmarried (wo)men is absurd. Unless, perhaps, we are supposed to take it as an attack on the malign sexism and ageism that sees older women denied a variety of jobs because of their appearance. Who knows? I could go on but. . .

. . .from all the above you will understand I do not recommend this book unless you are a particular fan of allegory for its own sake.

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The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum

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.


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