The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2014) is the fifth in the Burton and Swinburne series and it amply demonstrates the problem in having to deal with multiple parallel universes when, as an author, you have taken the strategic decision to limit yourself to a single protagonist. As an aside, the alternative approach is in the completely wonderful, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, where one man begets a multitude of himself (and, surprisingly, herself which is good for the perpetuation of themselves). Because we have a single point of view, we therefore face a slightly obscure first few chapters to this novel. In theory, each separate reality in the multiverse is a closed channel but, for our purposes, there’s a coincidence overload, i.e. because so many people in different universes do exactly the same thing at the same time, there’s an overload that breaks down some of the barriers. We first get to see the results of this at precisely 9 pm on the 15th February, 1860, as Babbage performs a critical experiment on the damaged time-travelling suit worn by Edward Oxford. Almost simultaneously in multiple time tracks, the damaged suits disappear. As the time bubble forms around them, there’s damage to Babbage. In part, this is physical with the precise removal of a limb. But it also induces a non-responsive (fugue) state. There’s no sign of life but, in an entirely mechanical being, it’s hard to tell what might have happened to the person stored inside.
In different parts of London, we also get the sudden appearance of Spring Heeled Jacks, all of whom prove to be disoriented but determined to find Burton. As a form of running joke, Burton is then serially barred from restaurants, clubs and organisations such as the Royal Geographical Society because he’s held responsible for all these Jacks turning up and disrupting normal business activities. Thanks in part to his ingestion of Saltzman’s tincture, Burton’s mind is also moving between universes and times. During these episodes, we pick up clues and pointers as to how the parallel worlds are faring and, perhaps more importantly, what happened in the future to persuade Edward Oxford to research time travel. We also have some unusual weather phenomena and, with the deposit of seeds, what seems to be a homage to H.G. Wells’ Martian red weed (the great man does show up again later in the book). However, once this excitement abates, the book becomes a slightly more conventional linear time travel exercise as our motley crew of chrononauts sets off into the future.
This has the supreme advantage that they may well be the catalyst for rewriting what happens in their future but, whenever they arrive when they are going, there should be a single timeline between their Victorian stating point and their finishing point (whatever the name of this era proves to be). In order to avoid overtaxing themselves and their machine, they plan to make the journey in a series of short hops. To pave the way, members of the Cannibal Club are told to go forth and multiply so there will be children and grandchildren waiting to greet them at each stopping point. Financial arrangements are also put in hand to ensure there will be enough money, if necessary, to rebuild their machine as they move forward in time. This gives us a series of snapshots of how the world could change. This is rather more successful than the first section of the book. It also shows us how Edward Oxford is emerging as the villain of the piece, and prepares the ground for the final battle when our heroic team arrives in the year when Edward Oxford first set off to travel to Victorian times. Needless to say, the time they find is nothing like the time Edward Oxford left. The bow wave of change has preceded them and the first version of Edward Oxford’s time has been completely overwritten.
In tone, most of the humour of the early books has disappeared to be replaced by a slightly more grim feeling as we survey the wreckage of the world as Edward Oxford and Burton’s movement through time, bends the future out of shape. Some of the ideas are interesting and we do have unintended consequences to genetic engineering albeit slightly more heavy-handed this time around to make a political point. But I have the sense this series is reaching the point it should stop. The freshness has gone out of it and there’s a slight air of repetitiveness about some of the elements we encounter. This is not to say another book would not be interesting. The inventiveness to bring this to fruition is outstanding. Indeed, I stand to applaud the sheer ingenuity to weave the preceding four books together to produce this plot. But any more than one to follow The Return of the Discontinued Man would probably kill the golden goose. Needless to say, you should not read this unless you have read the others. You will not have a clue what’s happening.
Once again, the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.
For reviews of the first four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.
And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this episode, it may be better to delay reading this.
This review now captures the rest of Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) rather than focusing on individual episodes and captures my frustration with how the story develops. To clear the decks, let’s confirm this has nothing to do with time travel as understood in the West. Rather it’s a morality tale building on the notion of a supernatural power bent on establishing a balance in the karma (or the lotus root, your choice). Imagine a world in which a group of people are tied together through time. They are continuously reincarnated in relationships which are substantially the same from one generation to the next. At a critical point in each cycle, one key character has a decision to make about the fate of another. If that decision is for “evil”, the same group are doomed to rerun the scenario when they are reborn, and so ad infinitum. But in our modern age, the supernatural being grows tired of this key character always making the wrong choice. Our interventionist God therefore decides to change one of the variables.
When one of the modern characters is “killed”, Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun), the Joseon version, is brought forward to take his place. Ah ha! So this new player knows how the scenario was unfolding three-hundred years ago. His first problem is to understand the new culture and try to work out who everyone is. Once he’s less gauche, he can more safely begin interacting with people. But when he tries to apply his understanding of past events, it causes a chaotic response from the modern players. It takes him a while to understand he had misunderstood what was happening around him in Joseon. Obviously the court politics of the past don’t fit the culture of private wealth and the phenomenon of the chaebol — a large corporation controlled by one or more family members. This element in the series actually proves interesting as one faction in the family led by Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) tries to manipulate the holders of a key block of shares to gain control. Had this been run as a straight contemporary drama, there was more than enough meat to make a highly effective thriller as one person dies and attempts are made on the lives of others. But this is not allowed for two reasons:
The initial set-up forces us into a “time travel” mode and prevents the police investigation from building up any tension. Instead, we have the Crown Price constantly trying to work out what has to happen to enable him to go back to his own time. Investigative punches are therefore pulled as our hero slowly pieces together who everyone is and how his return might be triggered. The script also leaves giant holes with no effort made to explain exactly what happens to the bad and not so bad characters in modern times. It’s a whole lot easier when the Crown Price does go back to Joseon because he can torture them, banish some, and execute the rest. Those were the days when a hero really could get things done properly.
The series is a romance and the Crown Prince has to meet and fall in love with Park Ha (Han Ji-Min), the modern version of the woman he was supposed to marry in Joseon. This further dilutes any tension because our hero can’t do the hand-holding and gazing into her eyes bit if he’s behind bars or on the run from the police. So subject to the one major plot device, everything has to enable our couple to fall in love.
Ah yes, the plot device. Way back in Joseon times, the first episode shows us a view of what happened. Except it’s fundamentally dishonest! I’m not against scriptwriters allowing their characters to make mistakes. We’re all human and not immune from misunderstanding the events as they occur around us. Yet this “error” is so fundamental that it lacks all credibility! There’s no way this could have happened! Someone would have noticed and said something — unless we’re supposed to believe not only that the Crown Price had his eyes closed at the critical times, but that the bad guys had paid everyone around him not to draw his attention to this rather stunning fact. So why do the scriptwriters have to engage in this deception? Well, if they showed us the choice being made in Joseon times, it would rather give the game away as to what the choice would have to be in modern times. If the series were not being run as a romantic drama, this could have led to our watching Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi), the key character, continue to make the decision for evil. That would have been a high-powered tragedy, leaving the Crown Prince adrift in time and our supernatural being resigned to trying to get it right the next time round. As it is, there’s no tension because although we know this couple of star-crossed lovers are doomed to part, we know they must be together so tears can be shed when the Crown Price is whisked back to Joseon.
The modern ending is frustratingly mushy. The mawkishness comes from the instant love-at-first-sight between Park Ha and Yong Tae-Yong. Yet more frustration comes from not seeing how that plays out with the families on both sides. The control of the chaebol could be consolidated in them if the appropriate share transfers were confirmed. Worse the time travel is proved real because the Crown Prince sends a love letter to Park Ha by burying it under the pavilion by the lake. Watch out the gift of the gold medallion — that’s a real tear-jerker. Historically speaking, it seems Park Ha and Boo-Yong are going above and beyond the call of duty to protect the man they love. So, as a time travel plot, this is a disaster (why does Park Ha end up in the juice shop and Boo-Yong write an expanatory note to the Crown Price?), but it works quite well as satire and a romantic fairy story.
For those who want to know what they missed, here’s Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) the set-up and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2.
This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this episode, it may be better to delay reading this.
Well here we go with Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) episode 2, which has our time-travelling Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun) and his pack of three fugitives from Joseon, materialise in front of Park Ha (Han Ji-Min), our modern heroine, and when they go out on to the roof, they realise they are no longer in Kansas. Naturally they assume she’s a witch who has brought them into the netherworld. Eventually realising they want to “return to the palace”, she loads them into the back of her open truck, and drives them through the city. This is a disconcerting experience to people only used to horses. Dropping them off outside the palace (now only open to the public during daylight hours), they are completely lost when the police chase them away. Unable to relate to people and without money, they find themselves starving. Fortunately they get themselves properly arrested and this creates the possibility of food if only they can say who they are. Eventually, the clever one with a photographic memory is able to remember the licence plate of our heroine’s truck which lands them back at her house.
Out of charity, she feeds them vegetable omelette but, when she leaves them alone, they reward her by being totally freaked out by all her gadgets which speak to them (including a teddy bear). They also accidentally set the place on fire. This is not an auspicious beginning to their relationship. So because they now owe her the cost of all the kitchen equipment, teddy bear and other items destroyed (boy is that swordsman good with his weapon), she has them working in her fruit and vegetable business to pay it off. Except, of course, the Crown Prince refuses to lift a finger and the eunuch has no strength. The most interesting cultural aspect to this is the inversion of expectation about how females are supposed to act. Even in modern Korea, there’s an expectation of deference when women relate to men. But she not only dresses them in colour-coded track suits, but then treats with with the same tender loving care as a drill sergeant major. Even the Crown Price finds himself momentarily cowed before his massive ego gets him back on Crown Price track. He does, however, fantasise about killing her and all the generations of her family he can find. Which is, when you think about it, the proper response in this situation.
Meanwhile, it turns out that Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi), the elder sister-in-law, is seeing Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung), the evil cousin. Now isn’t that a surprise, bringing all the players together into the plot. Yes, the evil sister works for the rich granny who’s lost her beloved heir — almost like a fairy story instead of a time travel adventure. It gets worse when our heroine takes the four to the hospital. The Crown Price gets to see the evil stepsister who’s the “dead” Crown Princess, and Granny sees the Crown Prince but doubts her eyesight.
So now the combined brain power of the four has worked out they have travelled three-hundred years into their future. Since they entered this time through the rooftop apartment, they feel they have to stay there and wait for the portal to open again. Soon our temporally mismatched couple are drinking on the roof and spraying each other with cream (it’s an erotic experience when you come from the morally hidebound Joseon period). The morning ritual of teeth brushing and gargling is endearing. Once she accepts they have slipped through time, the teaching of getting on a bus, etc. is fun. Their reaction to discovering the King, his father, is on a banknote, is a delight. Their confusion about escalators is understandable and their failure to realise the lift (that’s elevator for my American readers) is actually travelling between floors gives rise to an embarrassing consequence. The effort at the car wash is an unfortunate misunderstanding, and so on. We run a good race at very gently making fun of them. I had assumed they would be shown as far more intimidated for longer.
Of course the Crown Prince must finally meet rich Granny and confront the evil cousin who thinks he’s a successful murderer. This precipitates the standard plot with the evil cousin taking action just in case this newcomer is actually the lost heir and the evil sister sticking the financial knife into her stepsister. What makes this all the more unbearable is that this is turning into the worst kind of fantasy where everything possible is done to drag out the running time. For example, Park Ha’s friend visits from America on her honeymoon and hands over a box. No matter how distressed she is, any sensible person opens the box. But this script has our heroine flirting with opening it. She has it here, she has it there. But there’s no opening. This is just annoying and tiresome as are the extended sequence of the Crown Prince dancing in a panda costume (and our heroine not recognising this is a male not a female, even when sitting next to him and holding his hand — we can pass over her not noticing the smell of the sweat), the evil cousin going through gyrations over the cellphone found in America, and so on.
In other words, this series has one again insulted all the conventions of time travel, and devolved into an increasingly banal rerun of all the other romantic comedies that Korean television inflicts on the unsuspecting world. My patience is already at breaking point.
For those who want to know what they missed, here’s Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) the set-up and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts
This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this series, it may be better to delay reading this.
Well here we go with Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012). With some trepidation, I’ve decided to start watching another Korean time-travel drama (not Queen In-hyun’s Man or Hyeon-wanghu-ui Namja (2012) which is more seriously romantic). After Dr Jin, we’re reversing the process and instead of some metaphorical Connecticut Yankee turning up at King Arthur’s court, we’ve got some Josean bright sparks brought forward to modern Korea with predictable opportunities for mocking their complete inability to understand what’s going on. The set-up requires us to establish two parallel situations, peopled by the same cast of characters three-hundred years apart. So first of all, we’re back in the past with Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun) stirring in his sleep. He knows in his bones something really bad in going to happen and, moments later, a flunky comes waddling down the corridor (he may be walking funny because he’s a eunuch) to announce the body of his wife has been found floating in a nearby pool. Yes, the Crown Princess Hwa-Yong (Jung Yoo-Mi) is a goner and now he’s all in a lather to find out whodunnit. This is all dramatic stuff. Now the flashback to show the process of marrying off the young Crown Prince which involves introducing the rivalry between two sisters. Their father prefers to submit the name of the younger Boo-Yong (Han Ji-Min) because she’s more age appropriate. Naturally, the older one finds a way to scar the face of the younger, so she gets to marry the prince. This leaves the disappointed sister masked and in the background, but the Crown Price does notice she’s more intelligent than the shallow sister he married.
In modern Korea, we have two step sisters whose ages match the earlier versions. Se-Na (also played by Jung Yoo-Mi) the older deeply resents the arrival of the younger and goes out of her way to dispose of her “rival” for her mother’s affection. Now the clock winds forward and we have Yong Tae-Yong, a modern version of the Crown Prince (also played by Micky Yoochun) eyeing a version of his sister-in-law now called Park Ha (and also played by Han Ji-Min). This is “engineered” by the device of an embroidered butterfly leaving the work “she” did in Joean time, travelling forward and landing on her shoulder while she’s selling fruit at an open market in New York. We can skip over the embarrassing attempt to fit our heroine into the American setting. Anyway the plot is that Yong Tae-Yong is heir to a Korean fortune and inline to take over the running of the family business. Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) his cousin, was sent to America to persuade him to return, but they end up fighting while in the harbour. One swift and unexpected punch sends our hero into the water where he starts to sink, lost without a hope of rescue. The evil cousin wipes all his prints off the boat and swims to shore. When he returns to Korea, he reports a complete failure to find his cousin. That puts him inline to succeed to the fortune.
When our heroine returns to Korea, expecting to find her long-lost father, she discovers he’s just died. Obviously a lot is happening between these flashbacks. For Park Ha it seems there was a traffic accident, long hospital stay, loss of memory, that type of thing. Which is a good thing when the stepsisters meet at the funeral — at least I assume she’s telling the truth and doesn’t know how she came to be lost. Meanwhile back in Josean times, the court officials cover up the murder as an accidental death. To get round the problem, the Crown Prince puts together a top undercover team to find out the truth. This is Song Man-Bo (Lee Min-Ho), Do Chi-San (Choi Woo-Sik), and Woo Yong-Sool (Jung Suk-Won) a bodyguard, a “savant” and a eunuch with hidden talents. They are making real progress, eliciting evidence of poisoning by arsenic, when they are called to a night meeting. It’s a trap. As they try to escape, there’s an eclipse powerful enough to send them into the future. They had strong eclipses back them! What makes this an appallingly lazy piece of writing is that the four have been separated in the fighting, but all four travel together and end up in the same place in the future. Three of those are on horseback, but no horses appear in the future. The probable explanation is that all four were killed, but have been reincarnated as their future selves.
Before they arrive, two years more have passed in the future (I hope you’re following this). The good, younger daughter from America has fitted back in with the step mother and they are selling fruit and vegetables in the market, while the older one is into spending the family’s money on fashion to give herself the right appearance while swanning around with the evil cousin. When our modern heroine goes to her apartment, it’s on the top floor (not surprisingly, there’s a rooftop patio area with potted plants).
Well I’m relieved we have this first episode out of the way. I can almost tell the series is not going to be worth watching because we have temporal slippage thanks to an eclipse with older characters having parallel lives in modern times, i.e. it’s a fantasy fairy story with none of the rigour that’s supposed to accompany time travel. All I can hope for is that the humour of our four characters acting like fish out of water will strike a rich seam of comedy to carry us through a few episodes.
For a brief consideration of what happens next, see:
Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2 and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts.
The Homecoming by Carsten Stroud (Knopf, 2013) is the second in the Niceville Trilogy and, for once, this fact caught be completely unprepared as I came in without having read the first. The problem, you see, lies in the difference between three books which, in a general way, continue the plot, and a single story that just happens to be spread over three books. Put another way, I now know this book starts immediately after the first book ended. Under normal circumstances, you can open any book at the first page and either the author provides a convenient preface in which the previous novel is summarised, or there are explanatory elements written into the immediate book whenever an understanding of past events is relevant. In this case, it didn’t seem to matter. I was quickly into an immensely pleasing police procedural and galloping along at a rapid pace. There were odd moments when I wasn’t entirely sure what the significance of a sentence might be but, in the general run of things, I was enjoying myself.
Then I got all confused.
I was suddenly confronted by the undeniable fact this plot is profoundly supernatural and, later, may even have a time travel element.
Wow! I didn’t see that coming. So it’s on to the internet to get some idea of what Niceville, the first in the series, was all about. In my opinion, this research effort should not have been necessary. An author should help out people like me by having greater exposition in the early phases of the book so we are not wrong-footed when the book pivots into an unexpected genre. With a better grasp of past events, I then read this book to the end.
So where does this leave us? The prose in the police procedural elements is outstanding. There’s a real sense of the camaraderie between the officers in both the police and FBI, and fairly considerable wit in the way their work is described. As and when the supernatural rears its head, the prose grows more subdued and the humour darker. The set pieces involving a major police chase, an infiltration and confrontation to deal with a hostage situation, and the defence of a house in an exposed country position are classic examples of tight plotting and precisely executed thriller writing. Some of the supernatural elements are slightly more diffuse because it’s in the nature of the genre that “creatures” and “beings” able to interact with humans are less tangible. Descriptions must therefore be left more vague and events described with more circumspection.
At a technical level, the plot is very well managed. All the major elements that can be resolved are clearly ended. Some are obviously carried into the concluding volume to come. And then there are the distinctly mystery/puzzle elements that may not be capable of explanation because of their supernatural or science fictional nature(s). We may just have to accept them as inexplicable. So I definitely rate the police procedural elements as among the best I’ve read this year. The primary characters are given the space to develop and, despite the increasingly incomprehensible events going on around them, their behaviour is plausible. Even the children who are important retain their credibility. As to the supernatural and horror elements, the major focus seems to be on some fairly well-established tropes involving possession and the use of mirrors with some fairly standard ghosts visible to some who live in Niceville itself and the surrounding townships. My uncertainty revolves around the apparent time travel. This is the fantasy and not the science fictional version, there being no characters called H G Wells with an appropriate machine to move people around. I’m always faintly uncomfortable when people or things appear able to bend time around themselves and skip from one moment to another (and back again) by an exercise of will or with help from an outside agency. This didn’t spoil the book for me. I’m just left with the need to read the third book which is called The Reckoning and due out in 2014, to see how this element will be resolved. This leaves me praising the book, but I have the sense I would be ranking it as one of the best books of the year if I had read Niceville. The moral of all this is not to read The Homecoming first.
A copy of this book was sent to me to review.
For some inexplicable reason probably connected with the increasingly rapid death of brain cells, this book reminded me of several works from the 1950s. I start with Earth vs the Flying Saucers, one of the better alien invasion films I paid to see when it first came out in 1956. These pesky creatures land in their ships and so long as they stay inside their force fields, they are invulnerable to our primitive weapons, until. . . As a short story, I always liked William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” (1953), while Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke (1953) has a slightly more peaceful, but nevertheless disruptive, invasion. As to the alien’s motive for the assault on our green and pleasant lands, I offer The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch and Of Men and Monsters (1968) by WIlliam Tenn. I suppose these works have stuck in my memory as yardsticks against which to measure the level of intelligence in the vast number of alien invasion plots encountered since.
All of which brings me to Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead (Solaris, 2013). This plot depends on several overlapping ideas. The aliens have invaded and the devastation produces a post-apocalyptic situation in which survivors struggle to survive in a devastated environment. In this thread, Kylie and her man (he’s impotent thanks to the residual poison in the environment, so he’s not her lover) live in what’s left of Oakland. In this thread, it’s 2013, and her nemesis is a mentally unstable religious fanatic who has plans for her which he claims will save Earth. There’s one anomaly in the devastated landscape. It’s called the Seattle Preservation Dome. As in Groundhog Day (1993), this is a city caught in a time loop — it’s always the fifth of October. The questions, of course, are how this anomaly came into being and what sustains it as Ian Palmer and his friend, Zack, iterate through marginally different versions of the same time period.
The good news it that the post-apocalypse element works well as Kylie is forced to leave Oakland and ends up at a survivor-inspired project to bring down the dome. These humans have both a theory as to what the dome is and a fighter jet which they believe can fly inside. The less good news is that, despite the valiant attempts of Zack to remind Ian they are in a time loop, our hero in this narrative thread is stubborn. Admittedly, it does sound a little nutty to suggest everyone is stuck in time, destined to repeat the same day over and over again. But Ian does take a long time to admit the truth of his situation. This means we have to read through the same day quite a few times before things grow more exciting.
As our example to compare, the short story by William Tenn is nearest in spirit, i.e. the cause of Earth’s destruction is similar. The essential difference lies in the introduction of the time loop which, in a Matrix kind of way, offers some degree of preservation for those inside the dome. As a plot, this is all rather elegant even though the first step for exiting the loop (the first time) is not completely voluntary. I would have been more impressed if the relevant individuals had come up with this idea and then had to trigger the major change. The uncertainty in whether it will work would have produced real tension. I was also slightly disconcerted that, as written, the plot has Kylie disappear from the action for quite a long time as we move through the final third of the book. Since their relationship has been set up as love-at-first-sight between two humans who share a certain characteristic, I’m not sure I approve of this way of finishing the book. I understand the author’s choice. He’s free to write the book he wants. But if the final answer is going to depend on the strength of their romance, the demonstration of their love is long time coming.
So as written, Life on the Preservation starts off in a way confirming the strength of Jack Skillingstead’s craft. There’s real cleverness in the different ways in which the fifth of October are presented. Once the ultimate alien threat kicks in, the pace picks up and there’s considerable excitement. This just leaves us with the ending which is slightly muted. I suppose it’s appropriate for there to be an absence of triumphalism. That would be “unrealistic” in this context. The best we can hope for as an outcome is a marginal rebalancing of forces. If nothing else, it’s a triumph of persistence. As George R Stewart tells us, for now Earth Abides.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.