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Posts Tagged ‘unreliable narrator’

The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby

September 16, 2012 3 comments

We need to set out on this journey of discovery with a short discussion on how to define a “comic novel”. Historically speaking, it could be judged by criteria of blandness, i.e. that it all turns out well for the good and the bad get their just deserts. This is fiction as seen by the Miss Prisms of this world (as in The Importance of Being Earnest) which, as Cecily Cardew observes, is not the fairest way for things to turn out. The reason? Because it fails to answer the question actually posed for who’s to say how the goodness or badness of the protagonists is to be judged. For example, we might think Malvolio in Twelfth Night gets his just deserts, but he’s rather more narcissistic than bad, an arrogant hypocrite who deserves to be taken down a peg or two. So this makes this Shakespearean humour more as defined by Plato who thought comedy lay in people’s failure to understand themselves and their roles in society. Together with Socrates and Aristotle, he explored the idea that there’s something ugly, if not hateful, about those who demonstrate ignorance of themselves. This does not, of itself, make the characters bad but it can make the humour cruel by exposing their weaknesses. Yet, the fact we may see people’s behaviour and beliefs as delusional and ludicrous does not prevent things from turning out well for them. Indeed, if they learn the extent of their errors and make efforts to reform, they can avoid the bad outcomes. Authors need not be heavy-handed moralists with an agenda to punish all who transgress social boundaries. In the midst of amusement at the expense of these characters, the authors can be asking the reader to think about the social themes woven into the narrative. Indeed, it’s often the case that by framing a novel as an apparent comedy, we can be seduced into thinking constructively about taboo issues — an inherently good outcome.

Which slightly heavy-weight discussion brings me to The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2012) and our first meeting with Marius dos Hellespont and Gerd, his sidekick. Since they live in a time of war, they turn their hands to mining the battlefield dead for their cash and personal valuables. This would be a relatively safe and highly remunerative business opportunity if Gerd had grown to be more than the village idiot who was seduced from the care of his grandmother by the smooth-talking Marius. But, in sidekick terms, he’s as smart as bait. In this case, he attracts the attention of soldiers searching for the body of the King. They don’t take kindly to “graverobbers” and despatch poor Gerd. Although this is a short-term distraction and allows Marius to evade capture, he’s them forcibly invited to join the dead under the battlefield. They’re upset at the prospect of being without a King so, in military terms, task Marius to recruit a King for them. They make the usual threats to encourage him to take the task seriously, even returning Gerd as a factotum.

Lee Battersby, bearded as all good Nottingham-born Australians

Except, of course, once he’s released back into the world, his mission is to get as far away from the dead as possible, and that includes Gerd. But how does someone dead blend back into the human community? And just where in the human world are you far enough away from the dead to be safe? So begins most of the most amusing fantasy journeys of the last few years. I’m not going to stick my neck out and say this is anything like the best fantasy book of the year but, in its own terms, it’s certainly one of the best comic novels I’ve read for many a year. Marius is a man who’s grown comfortable in his own skin as a bilker and hustler. When he dies, the skin shrivels and the marks won’t stand still long enough to hear the pitch. They’re far more interested in running away as quickly as possible. With his style completely cramped, he elects to go on a sea trip, i.e. we get into a picaresque format as our roguish hero tries to get by on his wits but is continually frustrated. This leads to some introspection, triggered by occasional sensations. As a question to chew on, how dead are the dead who are still walking around and able to interact with the living? It’s a tricky question and, courtesy of some backstory and one or two meetings with individuals he’s known in the past, our hero comes to a better view of himself. His self-ignorance shrivels along with his skin. He ponders on whether there’s a way of reversing his condition. Should he actually find a King who can lead the dead, would “death” release him? Could he and Gerd actually return to life? For the entertaining answers to these and other relevant questions, you’ll have to read the book. While doing so, you can be assured that the comic greats, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, would probably have found it hilarious.

The Corpse-Rat King is completely beguiling and genuinely amusing, something you rarely find in a book clearly marketed as fantasy. So kudos to Angry Robot for picking up this delightfully non-standard novel and bringing it to the market. If there’s any justice in the world, it will sell like the proverbial hot cakes.

For a review of the sequel, see The Marching Dead.

Cover by Nick Castle Design.

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

No Sale by Patrick Conrad

July 15, 2012 2 comments

Those of you who read these reviews will know that, although there’s never any chance of film or television replacing my love for books, I do in fact enjoy the visual media. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise to encounter a book where the love of film is intrinsic to the plot. No Sale by Patrick Conrad (translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Lynn) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2012) is a wonderful, not to say magnificent, piece of metafiction dressed up to look like a police procedural and murder mystery. For those you you who like the jargon, the primary devices are intertextuality and the use of an unreliable narrator.

In the world of semiotics, the concept of intertextuality has been rather overdone of late but, if you wanted to find an example of it, this comes as close as it’s possible to get. At more or less every point during the narrative, we get examples of vertical intertextuality with references to films, or to the dialogue within films, or to the real-world identities and lives of those involved in the making of films, or to songs and their lyrics, the lives of the singers and composers, and so on. We also have significant horizontal intertextuality with long quotes from different sources based on separate literary conventions incorporated into the narrative, thereby connecting the reader to different views of the same set of circumstances. Naturally, all the text appearing in the book is written by the same author except where otherwise attributed, but the sense and meaning of the words is being drawn from the work of different creative individuals. So, for example, one character may describe the scene of a murder and, later, a second character may give the synopsis of a film plot which has features matching the initial murder. This is art mirroring cinema with the fictional serial killer meticulously staging the murders to recreate actual film scripts or real-world events associated with film stars. The author is reminding us that we should never see one work in isolation. Our understanding is always enhanced by being able to relate elements of the text being read to other texts and symbols.

Patrick Conrad

Patrick Conrad: thriller writer, poet, screenwriter and film director

I need to note one other semiotics-related irony. The author has gone to much trouble to translate many lines from US noir films into Dutch for his intended readership, only for Jonathan Lynn to translate them back into English for us to read. Presumably the meanings stayed the same even though the languages were different.

There are two narrative tracks through the text. The key figure in the expanding investigation is Professor Victor Cox who teaches the History of Cinema at the Institute of Film and Theatre Studies. He comes to the attention of police when the body of his wife, Shelley “Dixie” Cox, is fished out of one of the docks in Antwerp. The initial signs are that of a hit-and-run with the dead body thrown off a bridge. The second thread features Chief Superintendent Fons “The Sponge” Luyckx, and Detective Inspector Lannoy who assume the responsibility of trying to unravel a number of murders which, at first sight, appear unrelated. The Sponge is the quiet thoughtful one who hates to be beaten by any problem, while Lannoy is quicker to feel the frustration of being unable to make progress through the mass of detailed information that emerges.

At first, the Professor appears entirely normal insofar as anyone so obsessed with the study of any single subject can be considered normal. He’s amazingly encyclopaedic on early American cinema and we’re treated both to excepts from his lectures and memories that suddenly seem relevant given events around him. There’s also a direct link with Lolita by Nabokov in that our “good” Professor seems perpetually drawn to young women, preferring those who resemble the heroines of his favorites films. It’s at this point we encounter a real problem because he’s not proving to be consistent in what he remembers nor how he sees the world. Indeed, there are distinct indications he may be mentally ill — schizophrenia would be a distinct possibility if, in the usual way it’s shown on the screen, this involves twin personalities as in Jekyll and Hyde. The structure of the book is carefully managed so we’re never sure whether the Professor is a retired academic helping the police solve a series of murders or the murderer hiding in plain sight and misdirecting the police.

I was hooked from the outset because I love a good mystery and am a sucker for noir films. There are also some rather pleasing jokes as the book goes along. However, I’m forced to raise one slight caveat. In a way, the book is slightly too clever for its own good. It has to twist the events so that they fit the needs of the immediate plot while staying faithful to the sets of circumstances being replicated. This gives the whole a slightly surreal form. In the more general sense of the word, mysteries need not be credible. If we’ve willingly suspended our disbelief, authors can convince us their murderers can do anything. But it does raise a slight problem when we’re in a police procedural. This subgenre is somewhat more real than reel, i.e. the police should be seen chasing down criminals based on the evidence that emerges. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely anyone could actually commit these murders. That said, No Sale is a masterful piece of writing and creates a genuinely tragic figure in Professor Cox. He’s a man who seems to have the capacity for great suffering and, when reality becomes so unpleasant, who would blame him for retreating into the world of his own imagination and, perhaps, acting out what he finds there.

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

Immobility by Brian Evenson

June 25, 2012 4 comments

It happens every now again that I feel the urge to slip back into the realms of academic discourse and try vaguely to say something intelligent about the construction of a narrative. This time I’m seduced into walking this rocky road after reading Immobility by Brian Evenson (Tor, 2012). In other circumstances, I might mutter darkly about this being a post-apocalyptic novel, one of these science fiction efforts that places us in a world left in ruins by the unrestricted detonation of nuclear bombs. What is not physically demolished, is substantially extinguished by the radiation. At a stroke, this precipitates an almost complete collapse of civilisation as we know it and, in the best sense of the word, we’re depressed that humanity should have been so cavalier with its own existence. Yet, of course, there are survivors. Such novels would be impossible without a few rats left to crawl out of the rubble. So what makes this book different?

 

Well, here we go with more thoughts about our old friend, the unreliable narrator. Our point of view is a man just being revived from suspended animation. He finds himself unable to remember anything about himself, let alone the circumstances which led to his storage. As his eyes open, it’s therefore for us to view this world as a tabula rasa. We have no way of knowing its history nor who these people are. Literally, we see everything as if for the first time. Although our hero can report his surface interpretation of what he experiences, it’s entirely possible he’s misinterpreting the data. At this point, I need to make a distinction. Because of his lack of knowledge, the guesses he makes could be the best he can make on the basis of the evidence. Hence, some could be correct. Or everything he comes to believe could just be wrong.

Brian Evenson as seen by his wife

 

Let’s take a simple early question. When he recovers some upper-body mobility, our hero’s first instinct is to attack the technician who revived him. He has no idea why he should feel so aggressive. Later, when discussing the situation with Rasmus, the leader of this community, he’s told he was a kind of fixer. A man who would carry out difficult tasks without caring too much about the morality of the means. As someone with a killer’s reflexes, coming out of storage in a confused state, he might mistakenly consider the technician a threat and lash out in self-defence. Rasmus reassures him that he should not feel guilty about the attack. That’s actually his virtue and the reason for his revival. The community needs his fighting reflexes. And the task? Well, they need him to go and recover some stolen property.

 

Unreliability in this instance stems from his complete lack of memory as to who he is or what his moral values are. When asked to judge the truthfulness of those he meets, he has no real basis on which to assess credibility. Perhaps Rasmus is lying but, if so, what would his motives be? Since we as readers know no more than our hero has told us, we’re also rudderless. Although we might have genre expectations about the way narratives of this kind would normally develop, all we can do is observe and reserve judgement until more information is forthcoming. The only comfort we can draw is that our hero is aware of the gaps in his memory and so appreciates his own unreliability. From this, you will understand this is a very clever piece of writing. It deliberately plays with our genre expectations, challenging us to work out what’s actually going on. Except, of course, even that could be a trap. For all we know, our hero has not actually woken up and is simply dreaming all this.

 

For once, I’m not going to say very much more about the way the story develops. All that it’s necessary to do is explain the title. As he wakes, it rapidly becomes apparent that our hero is paralysed from the waist down. His upper body is very strong but, as Rasmus sadly explains, he’s the victim of a disease that will ultimately cause him to lose all his mobility. The only way in which he can move around is literally by being carried. When he sets off on his mission, two large individuals take it in turn to act as beasts of burden. He has a small window of opportunity to recover the stolen property and then get back before the paralysis completely overcomes him. He will then be put back into storage until a cure has been developed.

 

Immobility is very impressive. It’s beautifully written and, most importantly, it nicely reinvents many of the standard tropes, often inverting expectations. I admit to being surprised by the revelations that come at the end. With decades of reading experience in my locker, that’s a neat trick for an author to pull off. I usually keep up with the story and have the situation analysed before the final few pages. Except, I chose to forget the mindset of those who greenlighted the nuclear launches. When you think about the extent of the disaster that has touched every part of this world, the attitudes of the survivors are completely understandable if not very laudable. At every level, this is a must-read, if slightly downbeat, post-apocalyptic novel.

 

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

 

Purple and Black by K J Parker

June 14, 2012 1 comment

Purple and Black by K J Parker (Subterranean Press, 2009) is slightly unusual in being an epistolary novelette set in the same world as the Engineer trilogy and Company. Most modern prose at length will include one or more letters or other communications. This story is told exclusively through an exchange of military dispatches with covert messages included in the official mail. In the novel length works, we have followed the internecine war between members of the royal family which left Nicephorus alive. The reason for his survival is that he was never interested in the throne. He had hidden himself away in academia and was therefore disconcerted to find himself suddenly elevated as the King. No-one has ever come to power so reluctantly. Because he has no experience and no idea who might be trustworthy, he drags colleagues with him from the ivory towers.

In modern terms, he finds a government based on the interests of the nobility as filtered through an essentially corrupt and inefficient civil service. To force through reforms, he introduces what should have been a technocracy where people are appointed on the basis of their knowledge and expertise. Under normal circumstances, this would see economists appointed to run the department of trade and the treasury, experts in military history to run the department of defence, and so on. Except Nico does not have that many friends he can trust. So, regardless of whether their knowledge is relevant to the different posts, his friends are appointed and told to get on with things as best they can. The result is an advanced form of cronyism. The only justification for this is all the appointees are highly intelligent and come into the political fray without any prior allegiances. If they have the skill and can seize control, they should be able to introduce reforms that have some rational basis and do not excessively favour one group as against another. It should be government from the academic centre of the universe, i.e. hopefully utilitarian.

However, there’s one really difficult post — the regional governorship of Upper Tremissis, the northern provinces where, from what Nico can discover, there’s an invasion or a war or a civil uprising. This is potential dynamite. If the army is allowed to leave the capital, it could turn around, depose the current King and instal one of the generals as the new ruler. It has happened many times in the history of this kingdom. So, if at all possible, this fighting must be brought under control without having to call out the army. Nico therefore appoints his friend Phormio who has no idea how to run his own life efficiently let alone mount a military campaign without any additional soldiers to call on. This sudden banishment to the cold of the north comes as a severe shock to Phormio’s system. To make matter worse, he soon finds his civil servants have every interest in following the letter of the law and never letting him do anything. Indeed, he’s not entirely sure there is any fighting anywhere in this province. And as for finding ink of the right colour to write with. Well, that’s equally impossible. For the record, only purple ink can be used for official communications to the King. Black ink is reserved for private communications. Failure to use the right coloured ink is a serious criminal offence. People have been executed for less.

When old friends correspond, they may actually speak the truth to each other. Friendship means you have the right to be the bearer of bad news or to criticise without fear. Even when one of the friends has become king and has acquired the power of life and death over his subjects, this still holds. . . Or perhaps not. The notion of the unreliable narrator is well established and here we have two ex-colleagues either or both of whom may have a hidden agenda. So, from the outset, we’re looking carefully at what they say, what they imply and what they carefully do not say. The result is a rather pleasing resolution to the problems of leadership at both a national and provincial level.

This is another nicely produced book from Subterranean Press with rather moody jacket artwork from the ever reliable Vincent Chong. My only comment is that the story is rather shorter than the design and typesetting suggests. Purple and Black is elegant and somewhat ironic and only just good value for money in this hardback edition.

For a review of another novella published by Subterranean Press, see Blue and Gold. There’s a standalone novel, Sharps and a collection, Academic Exercises.

Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 2) by Patrick Rothfuss

May 31, 2012 4 comments

Well, after an unexpectedly long delay, aggravated by my need to spend several months in weight training to be able to handle another brick of a book, here we go with Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 2) by Patrick Rothfuss. The story is easy to capture. As if we have not already spent long enough in the University of Magical Lore, we start off and end there. In the extended middle section, Kvothe finds it expedient to disappear from the public’s view, so he goes off to a relatively distant land where he saves the life of a powerful man, pretends he’s playing the lead in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, leads a fractious team of mercenaries in pursuit of bandits, spends a year or so with a succubus fairy, and learns to fight (which may prove useful). As if that’s not enough, he murders nine people in cold blood and generally does enough to enhance his reputation as Kvothe the Arcane, a person of myth whose truth is woven out of fantasy.

 

There are two basic changes from the first book (ignoring the increase in length from 672 to 994 pages). The first is that the language, while remaining of high quality, has lost some of the poetry-as-prose feel that gave the first volume such a distinctive edge. This is slightly more functional with the author preferring to get the job done with more economy of style. The second is a significant increase in the complexity of the plot. You can see the basics of the story as a tale of revenge. Having watched his parents murdered and then, to some extent, recovered from the trauma, Kvothe has been on the trail of those responsible. In a way, everything that has happened to him in these two volumes has been a kind of preparation for what is likely to be a reckoning in the third and final volume (whenever that appears). Since Kvothe has been overcome by fatalism and is waiting to die, we may be tempted to assume he’s not exactly brimming with confidence. But, if we revert to my earlier thoughts about his status as an unreliable narrator, this could be a ploy to bring the Chandrian to him.

Patrick Rothfuss doing his impression of Ian Anderson just before he plays the flute

 

There are notable developments and continuing absences. As a character, we’re allowed to see Kvothe slowly losing some of his underlying naiveté, particularly in his dealings with women, and generally coming to a better understanding of how the world works. If I wanted to be dismissive, I could call this an extended coming-of-age story, but the increasing darkness of the story militates against this. In a way, the trauma he suffered as a child taints his world view. He could have become hypervigilant, trembling in fright at the thought of more supernatural violence directed his way. Instead, he becomes a magician and, despite the arrogance of youth, finally begins to understand what the learning process is all about. There are, however, some significant absences. Although we briefly catch sight of one of the Chandrian, there’s no direct progress in tracking them. His efforts to gather information indirectly do lead to a more general mystery that historical records relating to the Amyr seem to have been tampered with. Presumably we will get an explanation of why so many records should have been purged or changed in the concluding volume. Then there’s the continuing mystery of why this trilogy should be called The Kingkiller Chronicle. Under the conventional rules of fantasy, our hero joins the court and meets the King. In due course, for noble or other reasons, the killing follows. Except most of the action in this series to date has been firmly rooted in the university, its staff and students. So perhaps Ambrose will be promoted to King in the final volume. At this point, he’s the only one who obviously deserves to be killed.

 

The one bright spark is the meeting with the Cthaeh. This seems to be changing the nature of the plot from simple revenge to a more general meditation on determinism. In part, this would explain Kvothe’s current passivity. Although it’s inherently a choice to do as little as possible, the fact of few choices makes it less likely there will he bad outcomes. Yes, the world around him does appear to be in a declining state but he may not be the cause of this effect. In this, I suspect Auri’s role will become highly significant. It follows from where she lives and where another door can be found.

 

My final thoughts revolve around an increasing thematic repetitiveness. Let’s assume for a moment that the way in which you do magic in this world is by achieving a kind of mental state in which the two parts of the mind grow closer together. For these purposes, we can dispense with clever Freudian notions of the trinity, id, ego and super-ego, and merely focus on the idea of mental life as depending on the conscious and unconscious. If I asked you which individual muscles you use to move your body, you could not begin to tell me. But if you decided to stand up, the conscious decision would be executed by all those unknown muscles. It’s the body moving in response to your generalised wishes. So when it comes to magic, you need to learn which muscles to move to achieve the desired magical effects. A baby learns how to walk, i.e. forges the autonomic link between mind and body. Similarly, a magician has to learn which mental processes affect the world around him or her. This is not something that can be taught. That’s why Elodin appears frustrating in not simply “telling” his students what to do. People with ability have to learn how to do it when no-one can actually tell them what “it” is. Describing it as a naming process is as meaningless as saying you have to have a heightened form of awareness in which you see beyond superficial reality, capture the ideas about what your senses detect, and develop means of interacting with the newly perceived reality to change its state in some practical way. So a baby may learn to crawl across a flat surface, but will require completely different sets of perceptual and autonomic controls to walk down a flight of steps without falling.

 

So Kvothe has to begin developing the strength of his Alar, while trying to wake his sleeping mind, while naming things, while understanding the nature of danger with Felurian, while expressing the Lethani as a Ketan and entering the Spinning Leaf. All these are separately described, but they are inevitably the same mental process using different words and in different contexts. Hence, it’s repetitive.

 

Frankly, I think Patrick Rothfus is demonstrating a significant ego to the detriment of his ability to deliver a simple story in the most elegant possible way. Someone somewhere in the publishing house should have taken an axe to large chunks of this text and cut it down to something more manageable. Alternatively, it should have been sold as two separate volumes. This is a ludicrous length, bedevilled by thematic repetitions and burdened by the emotional struggles of a callow youth. That said, I did read Wise Man’s Fear to the end. In other words there’s just enough about the language used and the development of the plot to keep me interested but, for me, the gloss has rubbed off this young author’s reputation and he’s going to drop into obscurity if he continues to churn out overwritten content like this. Nevertheless, this book was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

 

For my review of the first volume, see: The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss.

 

For the record, Wise Man’s Fear won the 2012 Legend Award for Best Novel.

 

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod

This is a review I need to construct with some care to avoid overly annoying readers. Let’s start with the headline which is that The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (PYR, 2011) is a terrific read. The prose positively crackles with invention and quite considerable wit for what may properly be classified as a kind of political thriller in a science fiction frame. It’s relatively unusual to read through a revenant of Russian espionage thrillers with a smile hovering on the outskirts of my face, waiting to come in from the cold when summoned by some unexpected delight. That said, the actual content is a reworking of some “old” ideas.

We need to go back to books like Time Out of Joint (Lippincott, 1959) by Philip K. Dick, Counterfeit World (Gollancz, 1964) (also published under the name Simulacron-3 and later filmed as The Thirteenth Floor) by Daniel F Galouye, Surface Detail (Orbit, 2010) by Iain M Banks, and so on, in which people are living in a virtual reality. We then take a small detour into the Dragon’s Egg (Ballantine, 1980) and its sequel Starquake (Ballantine, 1989) by Robert L Forward which are wonderfully accessible hard science fiction novels in which we first meet the Cheela and then help them rebuild their civilisation. The point of the duology is that, by virtue of the difference in time between the human outside observers and the Cheela on the neutron star, a Cheela day is 0.2 seconds in our time dimension. This allows us to watch the rise of a civilisation and, with dubious morality, influence its development. Finally, we need to come to books like Deep State (Orbit, 2011) by Walter Jon Williams in which online multiplayer role-playing games are used as a mechanism for planning and executing espionage activity.

Like the painting of the bridge, Ken MacLeod is a work in progress

At this point, some of you are likely upset because, without the courtesy of a spoiler warning, I’m apparently telling you what the book is about. Well, you’re both right and wrong. The book’s title tells you we’re dealing with a game. The Prologue starts with a quote from Wikipedia defining an “exploit” and is titled, “First-person shooter: Mars 2248 A.U.C.” Reading that chapter will confirm the exact set-up of the history experiment being run by rogue AIs and the unintentional flaw in the design of the simulation. It’s one of these silly mistakes any advanced artificial intelligence system might make (or not, depending on how stupid you want the machine to be). Except, of course, the inhabitants of the simulation will believe the scientific measurements they make. It will take them “centuries” to understand that there’s a certain lack of consistency in the physics. And, even if they do get confused, why should it matter? They are only simulations, after all!

Ah, so this brings us to the nub of the problem as presented by Ken MacLeod. By personalising the sims and spending most of the book describing their lives, he’s reinforcing the notion that they are people in the same way that we are people. When we go back to the Prologue, we should also notice that Daphne Pontifex herself seems interested in the collection of points. This gives us the implication that her world is simply another level in a gaming simulation where the players have been tasked with solving the problem of errors in an AI-generated simulation. Think of the structure of this book as a matryoshka doll with simulations of reality packed inside each other in descending sizes. Each simulation, from its own point of view, would consider itself real unless something fairly dramatic happened to disturb that consensus view, e.g. if scientific experiments were consistently to prove neutrinos may travel faster than the speed of light.

Back to dealing with your potential complaints. Everything discussed here is drawn from the first two chapters. The author is not interested in hiding the nature of the worlds in play here. He wants us to think about what responsibility, if any, we might have for any of the simulated realities our technology might create, whether now or in the future. At present, we might “inhabit” these worlds through avatars, but what would happen if there was enough computing power to make each character partially or wholly self-aware? Would it be murder to turn off the power without saving them all to hard memory? Finally, the fact the book is recycling “old” ideas does not make it any less interesting or enjoyable. If you compare romantic novels, a male and female meet at a social level. In due course, they explore the possibility of a relationship. There are problems. In the final chapter, they do/do not have sex depending on whether the book is propagandising abstinence before marriage.

The real enjoyment in this book comes from following the life histories of the generations through Eugenie, Amanda and Lucy. Somehow, the entire family seems tied into an obscure place called Krassnia, formally a part of the USSR. In all the telling, Lucy is a wonderfully unreliable narrator, in due course ably assisted by Ross Stewart. Then there’s the question of her paternity and why a version of the South Ossetia War might be fought. All in all, The Restoration Game is great fun told by Ken MacLeod with a knowing wink and a sly look in our direction.

The cover illustration is by the consistently excellent Stephan Martiniere.

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

For the record, The Restoration Game is a finalist for The Prometheus Award for Best Novel 2012.

For a review of another book by Ken Macleod, see The Night Sessions.

The Croning by Laird Barron

The Croning

The Croning by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2012) starts off with a gem in its own right. Although it’s only the first chapter, it could be a free-standing short story retelling the Rumpelstiltskin myth with such verve and inventiveness, you want it to continue. Except you’re then abruptly moved forward in time to 1958 when Donald Miller and his wife Michelle, née Mock, go on a trip to Mexico City courtesy of Louis Plimpton, one of his wife’s colleagues. When his wife goes missing, Don tries to find her and is almost killed in weird circumstances he finds very difficult to recall. In 1980 agents, certainly government and possibly FBI or an early version of the NSA, are present at the death of a Person of Interest at Wenatchee, one Louis Plimptom. We then jump up-to-date with Don and Michelle into their retirement years although she stays more active, going off on trips every now and then. They live quietly in the Waddell Valley, possibly close to the The Sanguine Stone. So, the book hits the ground running and then slows to a walking pace before taking off again.

Now here’s the thing about families. Most of this happy couple’s relatives are either missing in action or sufficiently weird there’s no regular contact with them. Don has spent a lifetime as a geologist, both commercial and academic, and, not surprisingly, was an active spelunker when young. Michelle acted the part of a mainstream scientist, but was actually obsessed with the idea there are little people who live underground — as I recall, the fairy story reports Rumpelstiltskin was of small stature. Now, apart from trips with friends, Michelle largely restricts herself to the investigation of her family tree. The early Mocks, particularly the women, seem to fascinate her. Strangely, their son is prone to sleepwalking and has been found in odd places around the house and outhouses. He may also have memory lapses, and had a strange supernatural experience during a séance when a teen. But that’s new history.

Laird Barron, the young sea dog

Going back to our happy couple, the common denominator who brought them together in the 1950s was Professor Plimpton. He worked at the university they attended. When they eloped to marry, he let them use his farmhouse in Wenatchee. Indeed, he was the main driving force behind much of Michelle’s early work. That’s why they were saddened by the news of his death in 1980 and attended his funeral. Later that day, they went on to the Wolverton Mansion, perched high on a cliff overlooking a forest, for the wake. But Don’s memory of that evening and what he heard about the relationship between his grandfather, father and an unrelated young man vaguely connected to the Mock family somehow slipped his mind. Indeed, a lot of things have disappeared from his mind and only some of them have later returned.

This marks the nature of the narrative. As with all good unreliable narrators, the ageing Don is increasingly aware of just how much he might have forgotten. Obviously, by virtue of the memory losses, he doesn’t know how significant these gaps may be. But there are times when odd snippets surface. Indeed, in itself, the re-emergence of memories is strange. If his brain forgets certain events so completely, why should there be moments when he remembers odd events? Perhaps it’s all part of some cosmic plan. Yet what possible role could a mere mortal like Don play if other worldly forces are involved? Such is the underlying mystery as we slowly begin to see how the pieces in the jigsaw fit together. In this, Laird Barron is building on “Mysterium Tremendum” in which four men find a copy of The Black Guide. This small travel guide suggests there’s a dolmen somewhere in the foothills of Mystery Mountain out on the Olympic Peninsula. Their trip into the forest to find it proves challenging. So, Don’s life may somehow be set on a trajectory that will also bring him to Mystery Mountain. Planning such a life journey would require an ability to transcend time and exercise considerable influence over human affairs.

To get a better understanding of this scenario, think about the fiction of Arthur Machen who warns against lifting the veil to reveal forbidden mysteries. He, more than any other author of his time, was fascinated by the relationship between specific places and the mind, suggesting that sensitive people might connect with otherness by being the lonely figure on a landscape or, in our case, a cave system. In this, he was expanding on the idea of genius loci, the religious concept from Ancient Rome, in which numinous spirits interact with the mind. H. P. Lovecraft recognised his debt to Arthur Machen in developing the Cthulhu Mythos and, others following in Lovecraft’s footsteps have built on the supposed power of a place to produce a link between a human mind and different orders of being.

Laird Barron is one of the best of the writers currently exploring how this traditional cosmic environment can be developed to make the fiction more appealing to our modern sensibilities. He’s Lovecraftian in the general sense of the word, but he increasingly blends old-fashioned weird with Mythos tropes in modern settings to produce a different perspective from which to view old gods and monsters. The Croning, his first novel, sees him invest significant effort in Don, a character with whom we can readily empathise as he tries to reconstruct his memories and so find peace of mind. Then we have the detail of the family backgrounds and the careful structuring of the story to move us around in time. Once we have all the relevant information in our hands, it’s mounting dread as we accelerate towards the final revelations. Anyone even vaguely interested in cosmic horror with Lovecraftian overtones should read this. It’s beautifully paced and wonderfully innovative.

For a review of the collection containing “Mysterium Tremendum” see Occultation. His third collection is called The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. There’s also a short novel called The Light is the Darkness.

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

I’ve also interviewed him here.

Kino by Jurgen Fauth

February 5, 2012 1 comment

This is an elegant book, wrapping the core of a thriller in ideas that play with literary and semiotic conventions. It’s about a man who called himself Kino. In German, this means “cinema”. So the book is about the life and work of a man who, for a time, became so famous within his own country, he was personified as German cinema. It’s also implicitly about the power of film in general and of one film in particular, Tulpendiebe or The Tulip Thief. We have a description of the moving images constituting that one film and then a deconstruction showing how they might be interpreted. From this we might conclude words are a poor substitute for the reality of viewing a film, but then words can always fill in gaps and tell us about what we missed seeing. As text, we have a conventional prose format and a diary. These are words that form a narrative and words that represent a form of continuous consciousness or interior monologue reduced to paper. In other words (sic), the main theme of Kino by Jurgen Fauth (Atticus Books, 2012) is the meaning we attribute to symbols and how that meaning may change over time. A secondary theme is the nature of the relationships we make and break.

As to the first theme, a director uses the medium of film to communicate a message to his immediate audience. “Making a movie is like constructing a creature. The cast is the face, the director the brain, the cinematographer the eyes and the crew the hands.” Then we have to ask why copies of this and other films should have been burned by the Nazis, and why a single copy of Tulpendiebe should suddenly reappear, only to be stolen after a single private viewing. Later, we discover Kino was asked by doctors to write down his thoughts about the past. Yet the moment we learn he was in a hospital, accused of being a danger to himself and others, this labels him an unreliable narrator. How much should we trust this director and his creative intentions in making the film? To answer this question, we should be able to view the film, yet it has been stolen. How much should we trust what he later writes about his life? The answer to this question comes through the story of what happens to the remnants of his family when the copy of the film appears.

Jurgen Fauth, a man equally at home in two different cultures

As the source of these questions, Germany is often considered something of an enigma during the Weimar Republic as the initial chaos following the loss of World War I slowly subsided to be replaced by Goldene Zwanziger (the Golden Twenties). Kino’s diary is a kind of metaphor for the conversion of an innocent from the country to a lionised film director in Berlin, for the transformation of lies into truth, for the evolution of a broken society into a Golden Age where even the children can be wise beyond their years. That all changed, of course, when Hitler became Reichskanzler in 1933. Despite trying to conform, Kino’s films were banned as degenerate. Except he continued to make films. Sadly paradoxical, then, that after he attempted to leave Germany without permission, he had to watch as they were all burned, even those made with state approval.

Then we hear grandma’s version of the same reality. Except she’s high on drugs, alcohol and natural malevolence, so what she says is no more reliable than poor dead granddad. The most interesting accusation she makes is about the power of images to affect the mind. It’s less overt propaganda because the message is in the subtext. Just imagine if you really could weaponise the cinema. . . which, of course, leads our granddaughter as heroine to view the director’s lone US film called The Pirates of Mulberry Island and to hear the backstory of how that film came to be made. Then there’s the possibility a director’s cut of the US film exists. It’s called Twenty-Twelve.

On the secondary theme, we’re offered the chances to understand the nature of family, and explore why couples should decide or refuse to stay with each other. We see relationships under pressure once the Weimar Republic is suspended and the Third Reich begins. This continues into America as it goes through the Second Red Scare and into the more liberal sixties. Time then lurches forward to contemporary America which gives us a whole new perspective on the cultures of the past. Indeed, Jurgen Fauth is demonstrating that history is mutable. We can make different stories from the past seem equally credible by manipulating our interpretation of texts and oral histories. Let’s now put this into a modern context. With only fallible controls over the internet, access to the discourse has been democratised. Thousands of people are prepared to blog and publish their own assertions of truth, so it’s no longer possible to maintain a single, politically correct view of the past.

Perhaps I should offer an apology for all this idle rumination. I’m simply touching vaguely on some postmodernist ideas inspired by the text. Nothing of this appears in the book. Kino is not a dry philosophical tome. As a thriller, it flows rapidly along, told against a background of a bomb threat to a plane, chases across rooftops and, later, gunfire. Life gets exciting for our heroine when she receives a copy of Tulpendiebe and flies out to Germany. Then it’s back to America for an extended family reunion and a resolution that’s satisfying for the more important characters we get to know. I can’t say I’m completely convinced by the motives of those doing the chasing which includes hints of supernatural powers and a possible government conspiracy, but it does not change my opinion of the book. As a final thought, it’s always interesting to meet an author who’s so obviously comfortable in two rather different cultures and languages. I’m pleased Atticus should take a risk and pick up this first novel. Jurgen Fauth has a confident touch and is worth watching in the future. So, if you like a thoughtful thriller, delivering some history that may be true, Kino is the book for you.

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

Blue and Gold by K J Parker

August 26, 2011 1 comment

It’s curious how, when you grow old, you lose that questing spirit of youth. I used to range far and wide in search of new and interesting writing talent. Now I have to wait for someone to hit me over the head and tell me to try an author. In this case, no-one seems sure who it is — apparently it’s a kind of Alice Sheldon situation with an author jealously guarding anonymity. Anyway, no matter who this is, he or she writes beautifully. I’ve just charged through Blue and Gold (Subterranean Press, 2010) by K J Parker. It’s a delight. I’m increasingly impressed by the Subterranean series of novellas and, to improve my mood, it turned out there were two more short stories by said Parker on Subterranean’s site. So I got three for the price of one — great value!

This is an unreliable narrator story which, if done well, is among the most interesting to read. By their nature, a puzzle is presented for the reader to solve. Why is it this particular character has a need to lie or feels the need to conceal his or her essential nature. This ignores the less interesting variations where the character is plainly less than sane. It’s bad enough trying to make sense of my own tendencies to irrationality as my body weakens and mind degrades through age. Being invited to look inside the mind of a fictional character with a similarly weak grasp on reality is not attractive as a mirror to my own problems.

So, from the first page, we have this first-person narrator, one Salonius, assert with pleasing honesty that, in the morning, he cracked the age-old problem of how to turn base metal into gold and, in the afternoon, murdered his wife. Obviously, for some, this is the ideal way of celebrating the sudden acquisition of unlimited wealth. Who wants to share all this gold with anyone who would only waste it on herself? Except, as the book progresses, we discover this was no ordinary death. Nothing so crude as an attack with a blunt instrument, you understand. And not a death motivated by gold, of course. Everyone knows it’s impossible to change base metals into gold. So here we are with the undoubted fact of a death and no clear understanding of how and why it should have occurred. What makes this even more surprising is the reaction of her brother, one Phocas who, courtesy of an outbreak of a virulent disease, skipped over the normal rules of succession as relatives closer to the local throne fell by the wayside. Why should the local ruler. . . Well, there do seem to be local political difficulties but, for now, he’s more or less in charge. So why should a loving brother be prepared to forgive our narrator for the death of his sister. Ah, yes, I did forget to mention that Salonius was married to the ruler’s sister. Sorry about that. I’m an unreliable narrator as reviewer, you see.

One thing rapidly becomes clear as you read this delightful little book. Salonius is a bright and intelligent person. In fact, he’s probably too bright for his own good, what with this demand for alchemists who can rustle up useful stuff like gold. In career terms, this is somewhat confusing because he never intended to become an alchemist. Like spending some time as a thief, it was a profession he drifted into as the need arose. He probably should have become one of these ivory tower professors who spend their years musing over problems with no obvious solution, writing impenetrable monographs no-one would ever read. But his life was never destined to be quiet. He was always going to make a name for himself, one way or another.

The story is a particularly pleasing slow reveal of the broader circumstances leading to the death of his wife. I was entranced by the author’s sly humour. Not in the sense of jokes, you understand. No, nothing so crude as jokes. The humour arises from the cut-throat nature of the society being described. If an intelligent man is not only to survive but make money, he needs to develop problem-solving skills. Solonius demonstrates a mastery of the obvious trick.

Some years ago, I had the good fortune to know a professional sleight-of-hand magician. He could make a variety of small objects appear and disappear in the most surprising ways. Having seen one or two of the manipulations in slow motion, I can attest to the fact he had great skill. But even seeing a trick deconstructed, I still have no clear idea how he did it. The level of physical dexterity was beyond belief. As a dispassionate observer, you know it’s not magic. After all, like alchemy, you know there’s no such thing as magic. But there are times when you encounter skill levels so high, you would like to believe magic is real. So Salonius makes people around him want to believe. Even when he tells them the truth — that it’s impossible to turn base metal into gold — they still gather round to see the trick one more time.

I cannot recommend Blue and Gold too highly. When I have a little more time, I’m going to read it again, just to remind myself how the trick is done.

For a review of another novelette published by Subterranean Press, see Purple and Black. There are also a standalone novel Sharps and a collection Academic Exercises.

Home Fires by Gene Wolfe

The mark of a good author is to be able to take a rather tired trope and breathe new life into it. I suppose I should not be surprised that Gene Wolfe can do it but, in Home Fires, he has not only contrived to reanimate some old favourites, but also to do so in one of his more accessible novels. Frankly, Wolfe can be heavy going. He tends to write rather dense prose. This level of complexity is sometimes matched by the subject matter. So, for example, The Shadow of the Torturer will remain a classic for decades to come. But there have been times when the reading effort required was not rewarded by the quality of the content.

Here, we have an inversion of one of his characteristic literary devices. Wolfe is particularly associated with the unreliable narrator, leaving it to the readers to puzzle out which of the possible variations of reality might be true. Yet in Home Fires, we have the epitome of rationality — an expert defence attorney, skilled in the art of cross-examination — surrounded by a crowd of people, all of whom may, to some extent, be unreliable. It’s therefore left to him to try puzzling out who each person actually is and what their motives may be for being there.

To make all this more challenging, Wolfe reuses the standard brain mapping/recording trope. In this future world, the technique may be used in a number of different ways. A person going into hospital or, say, a combat situation will be recorded. Depending on what happens, the recorded version may be replaced in the same body, or it could be transplanted into a different body. It’s also possible to edit the memories in recorded form so that, as transmitted to the body, key events may be erased. At the two extremes, this could be a therapeutic device intended to relieve a patient from post-traumatic stress or some other psychological disorder, or it could potentially create the perfect spy. Imagine you wipe the mind of a key person and insert the mind of a spy. . . In this novel, we also have the technique used for reanimation with a person employed by the reanimation company used to become the carrier — the body survives as the mind of the former occupant goes through a form of suicide and a second mind awakes to the news she died some years earlier and is now in a younger body. Of course, no-one ever manages to make an infallible machine when it comes to dealing with the human mind. The editing or wiping process may not be as complete as the manufacturers promise in their ads.

As a variation on this theme, let’s take a secondary “ghost in the machine” question. If you have the medical technology to graft a large enough portion of one dying person on to a wounded soldier, does anything of the previous owner of the body parts pass with the flesh and bones? It might, of course, depend on exactly which part of the body was replaced. Acquiring someone’s legs might not have the same effect as acquiring some of their brain.

Gene Wolfe shows his inclination

To add depth to this thoughtful exploration, the four central characters are father, mother, their daughter and her “nominal” husband. The daughter enlists to fight in the alien wars. Because of the time dilation effect, the short tour of duty is twenty years of Earth time. During her absence, her mother dies, her father becomes an enigmatic figure, and her husband becomes a highly successful defence lawyer with a long-term mistress. When the daughter is seriously wounded and rebuilt, she returns to Earth. Her husband has her mother reanimated as a Welcome Home gift. Her father observes events from a distance for the first half of the novel. So, as a good Catholic author, Wolfe assumes the nominal marriage will survive the twenty year hiatus. Our hero dutifully sheds his mistress and prepares to court his wife a second time on a sea cruise. But what of her parents? Does the wife’s reanimation in a younger body also resurrect her marriage? And, after twenty years, how should a daughter who divorced her parents before she left now relate to them on her return?

To make all this fun, the sea cruise turns into a murderous voyage as, first, pirates take over the ship and, then, various secret agents and spies make their presence felt. It seems some of the different Earth factions and the aliens have an interest in what our returning heroine may know following physical and mental reconstruction. To make matter even more exciting, the body now occupied by the mother’s mind also seems to be a target for murder — finding out who first occupied this body is therefore essential before the wife dies again.

Although this sounds like a seriously tangled web, it’s actually fascinating as our cool lawyer interrogates everyone and speculates on exactly who everyone is as the body count rises. Indeed, you have the sense Gene Wolfe was having fun when he wrote this. Dare I say, he actually made me smile several times. This is not an author cracking jokes, but it’s as close to it as Wolfe ever comes.

So, as we have the crackle of gunfire and explosions disrupting the quiet waters of the Caribbean, Home Fires contrives to produce an interesting discussion of what it means when two people make commitments to each other. For once, I can positively recommend a Wolfe book to almost everyone. Although this is set in a future where we are fighting aliens for the rights to occupy life-supporting planets, it’s simply an excuse for humans to engage in the usual spy/undercover agent roles on a sea cruise — with pirates taking over the ship, holding the passengers for ransom, and creating enough mayhem to keep us entertained. This is a vessel for a thoughtful exploration of ideas in a sea of confusion, told with a general sense of fun and followed by a more or less complete explanation of what’s happening as our heroic lawyer makes his best guesses.

For the review of another book by Gene Wolfe, see The Land Across.

This book was sent to me for review.

For the record, this book has been nominated as one of the 2012 John W Campbell Memorial Award Finalists.

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