I haven't read much SF since I was a teenage fan of Asimov. I'm a big fan of Iain Banks, so who better to introduce me to the modern form of the genreI haven't read much SF since I was a teenage fan of Asimov. I'm a big fan of Iain Banks, so who better to introduce me to the modern form of the genre, especially when I've just finished the magnificent The Crow Road, which he must have been writing at the same time as Feersum Endjinn?
SF writers have always grumbled that they're not taken seriously by the literary world, and clearly they're trying to do something about it. I found the complexities of the plot tortuous to the point of bafflement, with the book slowly resolving itself into four main characters operating in different places, with storylines that don't come together till the very end. Each is in a different part of a completely alien future Earth – one that includes its own alternative reality – which makes it a struggle to keep track of what's going on and to identify which details are important to the plot and which are mere colouring. It doesn't help that Bacsule toks in weerd fonetick teckst speek & u ½ 2 konsentrate reel hard coz it goz on 4 payjiz an payjiz lyk dat.
As far as I can grasp it, the Earth is entering a dust cloud that will extinguish all life. Two factions are fighting for control of some power that might save the planet. At various times they can transport themselves into an alternative reality; one that is infecting the real reality and where time moves at about 1,000 times the speed of the real world.
Gadfium works for the king and is trying to decipher the messages from a mysterious plain of stones, which she thinks might be messages from an earlier race of humans who abandoned Earth centuries before. Count Sessine also works for the king but keeps getting assassinated and is pretty soon down to his last life as he tries to work out who keeps killing him and why. Asura has no idea who or what she is but is trying to find out. Bacsule has lost his pet ant Ergates and is trying to find him. One, many or all of them might hold the key to saving mankind and saving the reader from his utter confusion about what is going on.
What Bacsule calls the "feersum endjinn" isn't even mentioned till the last page, and how it works and exactly what it does isn't adequately explained even then, as if Banks had collapsed over the line, mentally exhausted, hoping his readers wouldn't think it mattered.
This is Iain M Banks (he uses the 'M' to distinguish his science fiction from his literary fiction), so the characterisation is brilliant, there is a subtle vein of humour running all the way through and the prose style is masterful. In anyone else's hands this story would have collapsed under its own weight, leaving the novel with as much structure as a bowl of porridge.
You've got to admire Banks for the feat of imagination that created this richly detailed world and for holding it together all the way to the end. Considering the complexities of the plot and the bizarre universe where it takes place, I'm amazed that I understood it at all, though it still needed an unsatisfactory passage at the end where one character explains to the whole world exactly what was going on. That's always a sign of failure in any novel. And two days after finishing it, I'm not sure I could explain to anyone exactly what it was all about. ...more
An infuriating ending knocks one star off what was a grimly humorous steampunk homage to Catch-22, although other readers might feel that the ending iAn infuriating ending knocks one star off what was a grimly humorous steampunk homage to Catch-22, although other readers might feel that the ending is actually an affirmation of humanity that elevates the book to classic status. They're wrong of course, because I'm always right.
The story centres on an illegal war on a distant planet, with a human corporation intervening in a centuries-old conflict in order to grab land rights. The problems of supply and maintenance mean that the pilots are flying souped-up WWI aircraft, but that's fine because the technology level of the 'indigs' is medieval. But the pilots and ground crew are just starting to realise that something is wrong and that victory isn't just taking too long, it isn't going to happen at all. Quite possibly, they are all going to die on this wet, filthy, miserable planet. Appropriately, they are slowly going mad.
Sheehan does the grim humour well, just as Heller did in Catch-22, although he can't match Heller's dark, absurdist philosophy. Each character gets a sympathetic portrayal, even psychotic commander Ted, who, unlike Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22, is stressed to breaking point rather than blinded by his own pompous stupidity.
It's a well-written, well plotted book - I particularly liked the hisses and consonants of the indigs' language described as like "a wet cat being beaten with an abacus" - although it does meander a bit in the middle. It's just a shame about the ending....more
A good friend of mine has seven copies of 'Neuromancer'. He's got the right idea, because I think I'd need to read it seven times just to understand iA good friend of mine has seven copies of 'Neuromancer'. He's got the right idea, because I think I'd need to read it seven times just to understand it. There's no chance of spoilers here because hardly any paragraphs revealed the plot to me, such that at the end I had to look up the plot summary on Wikipedia just so I'd have some idea of what I'd just read.
Since the concepts of 'cyberspace', 'virtual reality', 'the Matrix' and computer hacking are so much better understood now than when the book was written in 1984, I'm amazed anyone understood 'Neuromancer' at all when it was published. Yet it won shed-loads of awards and influenced a generation of SF writers, so someone made a lot more sense of it than I did. If you're wondering why no-one writes simple, futuristic SF yarns like Asimov or Arthur C Clarke any more, blame William Gibson.
'Neuromancer' is set in a low-rent, post-apocalyptic dystopia that reminded me of Naked Lunch, with the same drug-addled craziness that blurs the boundaries between reality and nightmare to the point of invisibility. There are also strong echoes of Blade Runner and even, with the barely grasped world of deception and dishonesty, The Big Sleep (it's surely no coincidence that the last lines are almost the same). Characters appear and are discarded; live and die and flip into and out of computer existences where life and death cease to have any meaning. The cyber-heist plot spirals away into a grim battle for survival in the real and virtual worlds and the final resolution is as baffling as the journey that led there.
So why three stars instead of one? Well there was something compelling about the narrative; its confused weirdness somehow mirrored the hero Case's bafflement and warped, drugged-up consciousness. I settled on reading it not to understand it but to go with the flow, rather as one listens to a Beethoven symphony. This is the same approach that worked with Jacob Polley's Talk of the Town and Ulysses. Try to understand it and you're on a hiding to nothing.
Whatever drugs Gibson was on, I don't want them. ...more