Earlier this month, the winner was announced of the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The shortlist included collections by a Booker Prize-winningEarlier this month, the winner was announced of the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The shortlist included collections by a Booker Prize-winning author, and two former Booker nominees — and this Elastic Press book of science fiction stories by Chris Beckett. A classic case of tokenism, one might think — except that Beckett won.
‘It was…a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand,’ commented one of the judging panel. Well, the obvious thing to say to that is that you don’t need to consider yourself a ’science fiction fan’ to appreciate science fiction, any more than you have to be a ‘literary fiction fan’ to enjoy literary fiction (not, of course, that the two need be mutually exclusive). Readers interested in good fiction shouldn’t be surprised to find stories of interest in any given quarter — but apparently some still are.
Anyway, I don’t know the other books, but it’s not hard to see why the judges thought The Turing Test a winning book, because Beckett’s stories are superb. He’s especially good at examining human concerns against the background of a science-fictional future. The title story sums this up nicely. The ‘Turing test’ refers to a means of assessing whether an artificial intelligence is convincing enough in conversation to be indistinguishable from a human being. Our protagonist is a gallery owner named Jessica, who finds herself the recipient of a highly sophisticated ‘virtual PA’. Jessica is feeling rather insecure with life (one of her first acts is to ask the PA to change its avatar to something less attractive, and hence less threatening to her self-esteem), and the real question Beckett asks is not whether a computer could pass the Turing test, but whether a person could — perhaps Jessica’s greatest fear is that she could not.
The theme of artificial intelligence returns in ‘La Macchina’, where a man finds his ideas about robots challenged when he vists his brother in Italy. Robots are now commonplace, but they’re not supposed to talk to humans, except in superficial, rote ways — so when one tries to strike up a friendly conversation with our man, does that alone make it a ‘Rogue’ that could cause havoc, and hence needs to be destroyed? Then there’s the ‘Safe Brothel’ staffed by sinteticas made to look indistinguishable from human women– but sinteticas are more popular, so some human women pretend to be robots. What’s the protagonist to make of that? All adds up to a very different kind of robot story; the experience of reading it is distinctive.
The same could be said of many stories here; Beckett transforms SF staples with the ‘ordinary’ grounding he gives them. ‘Dark Eden’, for example, is a space opera where a small group of people travel to an exotic world — but the ups-and-downs of their relationships are not so different from ours. And ‘The Marriage of Sky and Sea’ puts yet another spin on the form with its tale of a spacefaring writer who makes a living from books about the cultures of more ‘primitive’ human colonies than his own — but his latest trip, to a Viking-style society, makes him question his attitude…
My favourite story in the book (which forms the first half of a pair) is about virtual reality, though with Beckett’s characteristic twist. ‘The Perimeter’ is set in a London where the vast majority of people are ‘consensuals’, living in a virtual world; and the more they can afford to pay, the higher their resolution. Only a few, very rich, individuals remain flesh and blood, inhabiting the ruined ‘real’ world, and able to experience the virtual reality through an implant. This story tells of how young consensual Lemmy meets the physical Clarissa Fall, and has his very sense of self challenged. But the tables are turned in ‘Piccadilly Circus’, where we meet Clarissa again a few years later, and she has to face up to her increasing irrelevance as a ‘physical’. To my mind, these stories — and ‘The Perimeter’ especially – have the best fusion of ideas and human consequences; but many of the other tales are almost as strong.
In his introduction to The Turing Test, Alastair Reynolds makes what has turned out to be a very appropriate comment: that he hopes the book will bring more attention to Chris Beckett’s fiction. He ends by saying, ‘I’m confident that you’ll finish The Turing Test wanting to turn more people on to this singularly underrated writer.’ So I’ll end by saying: yes. Yes, I do....more
Tender is not strictly a novel, nor is it a conventional short story collection; it’s not even a typical mosaic novel, story cycle, or whatever name yTender is not strictly a novel, nor is it a conventional short story collection; it’s not even a typical mosaic novel, story cycle, or whatever name you care to give to a collection of linked stories. It is, however, a series of episodes in the lives of the Dax family, beginning in 1974 (when the parents meet), and spanning a total of thirty years. The title appears in the text, not in an emotional context, but in the context of a lamb stew which Ali Dax serves up — but her husband and son don’t seem to appreciate the tenderness of the meat, which had to be cooked slowly for it to attain that texture. All that care and effort, for what? This reflects what is perhaps the main theme of Tender — feeling discontented with life, looking back and wondering what happened, where it went.
The stories in Tender switch (though not in strict rotation) between the viewpoints of Bill and Ali Dax (who meet when he is a footballer and she his physiotherapist), and their children Sean and Rosa (and, for one story, Ali’s brother Frank, who later dies). at different stages in the characters’ lives. Naturally, this structure means that quite a lot is missed out; but the overall effect is of a gradual accretion of detail — not necessarily of plot detail, but of emotional detail — that builds up a portrait of the family.
(One technical gripe: Tender is presented as a single entity — no details of original publication are given, and the author’s acknowledgements page suggest that he has revised at least some of the stories for this volume — yet some later ‘chapters’ describe past events in detail more appropriate to stand-alone stories than the format of the present book.)
One of the most impressive things about Tender is the way that Mark Illis gives equal weight to all four of his protagonists. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, I don’t think, to anticipate the book to portray certain of the Daxes more fully than one or two of the others; but it’s not so — all of them feel equally rounded at all stages of their lives — even Frank, in his brief appearance. It’s fascinating to see the characters from both the inside and outside, and how they change subtly over time.
What sorts of moments, then, does Illis give us? Ali, single, dreaming of swimming the Channel and then, twenty-five years later, discovering it’s not what she hoped, and neither is her life. On holiday for the couple’s first anniversary, Bill tying himself in mental knots over what — indeed, whether — to think about the handsome American that he and Ali have met, and the pretty young woman who flirted with Bill. The teenage Sean wondering what to do with his life, and using a stray horse he comes across as a focus for his hopes. Rosa’s habit of listing three things that she’d like to happen, and how these change poignantly between the ages of thirteen, seventeen, and twenty-two.
I am not sure how well the stories in Tender would fare if read in isolation; but it hardly matters, because they’re best appreciated as a whole. One closes the book feeling that its author has observed and articulated something true about life. Well worth reading....more
Perfume is one of those books I had heard of by reputation, but didn’t actually know anything about. And now I’ve read it… well, it’s not what I was ePerfume is one of those books I had heard of by reputation, but didn’t actually know anything about. And now I’ve read it… well, it’s not what I was expecting, but it’s good. I liked it, but saying so feels a little uncomfortable — as well it ought!
Patrick Süskind tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man with a preternaturally acute sense of smell, but no human odour of his own. Growing up in eighteenth-century Paris, Grenouille begins as a tanner’s apprentice, but soon inveigles his way into the employ of Giuseppe Baldini, the renowned perfumer. Baldini has fallen on hard times, but Grenouille’s unparalleled instinct for concocting scents turns the perfumer’s fortune around, and Jean-Baptiste is subsequently able to leave and become a journeyman.
Over the years, Grenouille learns more of the techniques of perfume-making, and discovers how to manufacture scents that can provoke a certain reaction in people — he can go unnoticed by people, or catch their attention, as he desires. But Grenouille’s wish is for the greatest of all perfumes, the one which will make him adored by — and hence gain power over — all. The secret ingredient of this scent is the essence of innocent girls — and so the murders begin…
Süskind pulls off a very difficult feat in Perfume, which is to write a book about an utterly vile and unsympathetic character, and make it compulsively readable. This is in large part down to his prose style (and, by extension, to John Woods’ excellent translation), which has the feel and quality of a myth or fairytale. The paragraphs are often long, the description often detailed; but in a way that offers depth and flow rather than weighing the narrative down. Süskind is particularly good (as one would hope and expect) at evoking smells: his opening pages are a useful reminder that eighteenth-century European cities would have stunk; more generally, he emphasises the importance of a sense that’s all too easy to forget about when writing and reading fiction.
As a character, Jean-Baptiste Granouille is someone you’d hope never to encounter, the kind of person you’d hope could never even exist. He’s single-minded to the point that his entire being is distorted by his obsession. All this makes Grenouille extremely difficult to empathise with; and the author makes little attempt to help us. Süskind does a lot of telling rather than showing, which has the effect of sealing Grenouille inside his own mind. Even though we see his deepest imaginings, Grenouille remains a cold and distant figure. This is quite deliberate, I’m sure, and in keeping with that fairytale style; it pushes the story slightly out of reality.
Then comes the uncomfortable question: does Perfume make light of mass murder, or at least fail to take it seriously enough? On balance, I would say not; though the issue is thorny. Grenouille gets his comeuppance in the end, but it’s a fairytale kind of comeuppance. I don’t think Süskind dwells gratuitously on the killings, but there is a nagging sense that the idiom in which he’s chosen to write doesn’t allow him to treat the situation with the gravity it deserves.
Still, I think Perfume is a powerful book. Yes, it’s pretty much geared towards doing one thing and one thing only — but it does that thing very well indeed. The book kept me reading to the end, and left me thinking about it afterwards; which is a fine outcome for the reading of any novel.
My first Ishiguro book, Nocturnes is a cycle of ‘five stories of music and nightfall’ (says the front cover). I spent most of the book feeling curiousMy first Ishiguro book, Nocturnes is a cycle of ‘five stories of music and nightfall’ (says the front cover). I spent most of the book feeling curiously unsatisfied; and I still feel that way now I’ve finished it. As far as I can see, the stories are linked so tenuously as to be hardly worth considering as a ‘cycle’. If Ishiguro has a wider point to make with them, I’m not sure what that point is. And if the tales are meant to be entertaining, insightful, or moving… well, bar a couple of moments, I didn’t really find them so.
To take each story in turn: we begin with ‘Crooner’, in which a guitar player in Venice encounters Tony Gardner, a faded American singing star. Gardner enlists the musician to help him give one last serenade to his wife, Lindy, from whom Gardner is about to separate, despite the couple still being very much in love. I don’t follow the logic behind the separation, but this sets up one of the recurring features of the five stories: people (and especially couples) behaving in ways that don’t make much outward sense.
In ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, the narrator, Raymond, is invited from his life as a teacher in Spain to stay with old university friends in London . The couple’s relationship is strained, but Charlie believes that if, whilst he’s away at a conference, his wife Emily spends time with Raymond (the musical connection here is that Raymond and Emily shared a love of old Broadway songs at university), she’ll stop thinking that Charlie hasn’t made much of his life, because she’ll see that Raymond has achieved so much less.
Eh? I know it takes all sorts to make a world, different people react to situations in different ways; but how many people would really stand for effectively being dismissed like that, as Raymond does? And what sort of person would come up with a scheme like that in the first place? The whole thing gets more and more farcical, as Raymond reads Emily’s diary and tries desperately to cover his tracks. The tale goes so far into absurdity that it comes out the other side and ends up strangely believable; it reminded me of Roald Dahl’s work, which is no bad thing. It’s the absurd humour that makes ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ one of the more enjoyable stories in Nocturnes.
Next is ‘Malvern Hills’, in which a struggling guitarist leaves London for the summer to help out at his sister’s Herefordshire café. He meets a Swiss couple whose attitude seems to change with each encounter; and discovers that the relationship between his sister and her husband may be more fragile than he thought. This story highlights one of Ishiguro’s weaknesses: his five first-person narrators sound very similar, which he might just about get away with in the right circumstances; but the narrators in Nocturnes are too diverse – the voice that suits middle-aged Raymond doesn’t suit the (presumably) young guitarist, for example. Ishiguro has more success in creating the voices of characters whose first language is not English; though, admittedly, that slightly formal, awkward manner of speaking is not too much of a stretch from (what I assume to be) the author’s ‘default’ style.
In the story ‘Nocturne’, we meet Steve, a saxophonist who’s reluctantly undergoing plastic surgery at an exclusive clinic, the operation being funded by his ex-wife’s new lover (again, this does not make a lot of sense to me). We learn about his dealings with the patient next door, a recently divorced Lindy Gardner (the only character to appear in more than one of these stories). There’s one very amusing scene where Steve and Lindy are trying to return a trophy that she’s pinched to give to him; but the rest – like so much of Nocturnes – feels quite flat.
Finally, ‘Cellists’ relates (at one remove) how a jobbing European cellist met, and became mentored by, the self-proclaimed virtuoso American cellist Eloise McCormack, who never played a single note on a cello in all the time he knew her. Again, I don’t follow the reasoning behind her behaviour, such reasoning as there is.
What does Ishiguro say about music in these stories? To be honest, the presence of music seems almost incidental (pardon the pun). My best guess is that Ishiguro aims to say that a shared love of music can be the glue holding together a foundering relationship, or the only thing left after a relationship is over, and variations on that theme. In which case, fine – but one could say the same about food, or books, or gardening, or myriad other things. I gain very little sense from these tales of what is special about music specifically.
What does Ishiguro say about human beings in these stories? The problem here is that the most significant relationships in Nocturnes are being examined from the outside; the enigmatic characters whom we’d like to know more about stay enigmatic, because the narrators can see no further into their minds than we can. The blurb mentions a theme of ‘the struggle to keep alive a sense of life’s romance’; I can see this in some of the stories, but I doubt I’d have picked it out as a ‘theme’ were it not for that hint in the blurb.
It’s a strange situation when the best parts of a book are the exact opposite of its dominant mood, but such is the case with Nocturnes. I don’t know if Kazuo Ishiguro has ever written comedy, but I’d love to read the results if he did. As for this book, however… aside from the odd hilarious scene in two of the tales, my overriding impression of Nocturnes is of a collection of stories that, rather politely, don’t say or do very much....more
Solo is the story of Ulrich, a blind, hundred-year-old Bulgarian man who has little to do with his days but reminisce and daydream. He does during theSolo is the story of Ulrich, a blind, hundred-year-old Bulgarian man who has little to do with his days but reminisce and daydream. He does during the course of the novel.
By most standards, Ulrich’s life would be considered a failure. Thwarted (by his father) in his early ambitions to become a musician, Ulrich turned instead to chemistry; but abandoned his studies in Berlin and returned to Sofia when his family’s investments failed. He became a bookkeeper and married a pianist, but that relationship was ultimately doomed; then came the Second World War, and after that, the rule of communism. Regarded with suspicion by the ruling party, Ulrich is nevertheless given a job in charge of operations at a chemical factory, where he works until made to retire. He then does his own experiments at home, until the Party closes down his laboratory. And that, more or less, is the sum of Ulrich’s life.
The second half of Solo consists of an extended daydream of Ulrich, in which he reimagines his friend Boris (whom in reality was executed as a young man in the early 20th century) as a young, successful musician in the present day. Also in the dream are Plastic Munari, the music producer who ‘discovers’ Boris; Khatuna, a Georgian girl who goes up in the world when she gets a job working for a gangster-politician, but flees to New York when he’s shot, and later becomes Plastic’s girlfriend; and Irakli, Khatuna’s wayward poet brother, who becomes dazzled by Boris, though Khatuna hates the musician. There is happiness, of a sort, to be found in the daydream; though it’s not for this post to say which characters find it.
Solo is an exquisite book, one of the best I’ve read all year; but trying to encompass why is quite difficult, because it could go in so many directions — Solo is ‘about’ man different things, so consider this post only a partial treatment. On a stylistic and technical level, the novel is superb. Here, for example, is how Dasgupta describes a change in Ulrich’s mother when her husband dies:
While he was still alive, Elizaveta would say, ‘All he ever does is sit in that chair and look out of the window.’ It infuriated her to see him so inactive. But after he died she never said anything but, ‘That was the chair he loved.’ Or, ‘How he loved sitting in that chair.’ Or, ‘They are spoiling the view your father loved so much.’
The contrast between the novel’s two parts is also well-handled and subtle. It’s not simply that one depicts failure and the other success. It’s that, in life, one of Ulrich’s obsessions caused so much tragedy — chemistry destroyed his marriage, poisoned his country, took his sight; but, in his daydreams, it is Ulrich’s other obsession, music, that brings so much joy. And it’s that Ulrich’s memories, being somewhat hazy and episodic, feel much like daydreams; whilst his daydreams have a structure that make them feel more like reality (come to think of it, isn’t that often the way in our own lives?).
Yet there’s much more to Solo than technique. There’s a political side, too, though it tends to stay in the background (or, more accurately, often has the feel of staying in the background), because Ulrich is rather naïve politically (in retirement, when the police describe his unofficial experiments as ‘dangerous’, Ulrich takes them literally, replying, ‘I wear a gas mask’). Now, admittedly, I don’t know much about the history and politics that the novel’s concerned with, so it may be that my reading is sketchy; but my overriding impression of the politics in Solo is that, whoever’s in power, they’re out largely for themselves, and it makes little difference to Ulrich’s lot.
I’ve heard Rana Dasgupta say that one of Solo’s themes is the ‘Faustian bargain we make with modern life’. Looking at the novel through this lens… well, the twentieth century is not very kind to Ulrich, or to Bulgaria in general; and I’ve already mentioned the fruits of Ulrich’s love of chemistry. The daydream is interesting in this regard, because it’s Ulrich’s attempt to make a better life for his friend Boris, and so he does — but the imagined reality is hardly the best of all possible worlds; there are prices to be paid for the glory. Perhaps Ulrich cannot bring himself to create a world without tragedy; perhaps, Solo suggests, it isn’t really possible (’if we are to feel the thrill of progress and achievement, there have to be sacrifices elsewhere,’ says Ulrich at one point).
Then there is the question Ulrich thinks about at the end of his reminiscing: what does it truly mean to call a life a failure? ‘How can a dog fail its life, or a tree?’ he thinks. ‘A life is just a quantity; and he can no more see failure in it than he can see failure in a pile of earth, or a bucket of water. Failure and success are foreign terms to such blind matter.’ Well, perhaps if Ulrich can imagine a better life for someone else, that can be his success (the way Ulrich thinks and imagines, his daydreams have equal weight to his life). And if Ulrich must fail, at least it will be — in his words — ‘a fantastic failure. A triumphant failure.’
Conrad Williams‘ The Unblemished was one of my favourite books of 2008; sadly, his new novel, One, doesn’t reach the heights of that earlier work — buConrad Williams‘ The Unblemished was one of my favourite books of 2008; sadly, his new novel, One, doesn’t reach the heights of that earlier work — but it’s an interesting read with some very fine moments nevertheless.
The novel is divided into two distinct parts. In the first, ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’, Richard Jane is a saturation diver working on an oil platform off the coast of Aberdeen, when the apocalypse occurs. Eventually making his way back to land, Jane’s only thought is to travel to London in the hopes of finding his young son, Stanley. He sets off, gaining along the way a number of fellow-survivors as companions, notably a hospital radiologist named Becky, and a five-year-old boy named Aidan. After the requisite trials and tribulations, the party reaches London, and the first part ends. The novel’s second part, ‘Lazarus Taxon’, takes place ten years later. Jane still hasn’t found Stanley, but he is now part of a group of survivors in the capital who call themselves the Shaded (because some form of shade, or depth, is what apparently saved them from the disaster). They have to contend with not only the pitfalls one might imagine would be found in a collapsed society, but also with something unimaginable — the Skinners. These are creatures grown from the spores that came with the apocalyptic ‘Event’, spores that invaded the bodies of the dead, distorted and animated them. Even a minor wound could turn you into one of them. There are rumours of a raft floating off the Kent coast, build by scientists and waiting to rescue people. Is it true? And what rescue could there be in this world anyway?
One is the kind of work which makes plain that genre distinctions (in this case, science fiction and horror) are ultimately limiting and artificial. There is a scientific underpinning to the ‘Event’, but it’s never explained in the story itself; Williams’ acknowledgements page refers to gamma ray bursts, so one assumes that’s what did for us here. But Williams is noted as an author of ‘dark fiction’, and his novel is tilted firmly towards that end of the spectrum; which, I think, is just as it should be — after all, if the average person got caught up in the aftermath of an apocalypse, they probably wouldn’t understand what had happened; and what wouldn’t matter nearly as much as what next? There are also scenes of great horror and carnage, that one is wary of visualising, in case they turn out to be even more horrifying in the mind’s eye than they are on the page. But this too is appropriate: One is horror because its subject is horrific, because there could be no response to what happens other than horror. Williams is not a writer of gore for gore’s sake; he understands the gravity of horror, and makes one feel its pull.
What I particularly like about One is that it’s intensely personal, despite the vastness of its backdrop; the novel is very much about relationships and character, and especially those of Richard Jane. There’s a pleasing complexity to his depiction; he’s not a straightforward heroic figure, but can decry selfishness in others whilst at the same time being willing to put his search for Stanley ahead of anything else (and if he’s doing this for his son, is it selfish or not?). Making Jane a diver was an interesting choice on the author’s part, as it automatically generates a certain amount of difference. It’s not just that the image of Jane wandering through the devastated landscape in his protective gear makes him seem like an astronaut exploring an alien world. It’s that being a diver (according to the novel) changes you, subjects you to pressures (figurative and literal) that others don’t experience, involves being away from home and in isolation for long periods, could lead to sights that others would never see (like the bends: ‘All the limbs withdrawn into an impossible core of pain. The welter of blood at every orifice, fizzing bright red. Bubbles opening in the jelly of the eyes’). The demands of his profession have driven a wedge between Richard and his (now ex-)wife Cherry; and Williams skilfully shows the thoughts and feelings of both parties, even as he writes only from Richard’s viewpoint — and Williams is just as adept at writing about the personal as he is at depicting epic disaster.
Of the novel’s two parts, I think the first is the better: what could have been just a repetitive trudge through lists of examples of destruction and scavenged foodstuffs (I did wonder how long it would really be possible to survive in such an environment without proper medical facilities, having to travel mostly on foot and live off whatever tinned food you could find — but the strength of his telling soon put such concerns to one side), instead gains genuine power, most especially from Williams’ ability to evoke the reality of the situation, the sense that, whether or not Jane succeeds in attaining his goal, there can be no lasting escape.
The second part of One is still good but, as it’s necessarily more fantastical, it doesn’t have quite the same resonance — it doesn’t allow one to feel that this is how the world could become, not in the way that the first part does. Still, Williams once again creates that profound sense of unease which is the true affect of horror — an affect born not from blood and guts, but from the utter and irrevocable destruction of what we know. And the ending (which I’ll admit I didn’t fully get) returns to the personal — which seems entirely appropriate for this very human view of world’s end....more
John Grant is a writer who’s not afraid to push the buttons of genre to see what happens (and, by coincidence, he was one of the editors of the very sJohn Grant is a writer who’s not afraid to push the buttons of genre to see what happens (and, by coincidence, he was one of the editors of the very same encyclopedia in which the critical term ‘crosshatch’ was coined); that quality is richly displayed in his novella The City in These Pages. As its title suggests, this is an homage to Ed McBain’s ‘87th Precinct’ novels — though it soon becomes rather more than that. The basic story is that the boys of New Amsterdam’s 14th Precinct have a serial killer on their hands; they dub him the ‘Humor Guy’ because of the darkly comic nature of his modus operandi (the first sees a local crime boss found inside a giant condom, for example). The killings grow more and more incredible, until the Humor Guy turns himself in, claiming that the world itself is not as it seems…
I’ve read only two Ed McBain novels, but all the same, I recognise enough of the similarities Grant’s novella shares. There’s no need to be familiar with McBain’s work, though. For one thing, the style of prose Grant uses here is a joy to read; rapid-fire, with tongue nicely in cheek (’[the cops:] watched in close-up the stationary back of a truck belching pollution at them. It was in town to deliver farm-fresh organic produce for the health benefit of everyone whose lungs it was corroding’). Characterisation is broad-brush, and sometimes feels awkward (one of the cops occasionally ponders some Big Questions, which proves necessary for later in the story, but still jars a bit with the way the rest of his character is presented), but they’re still engaging, thanks to Grant’s humour.
The crime story is… not really a crime story at all (there is a ‘crime’, in a sense, but it’s not the one you think it is). Certainly it’s not a detection as such, because the protagonists don’t undertake a proper detective process — the Humor Guy calls all the shots. In short, the crime story isn’t the point. What is the point is the fantasy, and here Grant excels. I’ve read quite a lot of his fiction and, enjoyable though I often find it, I sometimes feel that, if I know where he’s coming from, I might be able to see some of where he’s going. Not in this case.
The City in These Pages swings from humorous police procedural to grand cosmic speculation — as I kind of expected it would. But, just when you think you’ve got it pinned down, it wriggles free of your grasp and does something else. Even now, having read it, I can’t decide on a definitive interpretation of what happens. The novella offers many ideas to fire the imagination, of which I’m prepared to reveal one: you know all those brief period of life that you can’t recall in detail — boring journeys to work, and so on? What if those periods of time ‘escaped’ and someone else could live in them? Grant’s skill in juggling ideas like this, and all the other elements of his story, makes for a remarkable novella...more
(I’ve been reading discussions on this book by Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts; I’ll be referring to them a few times in this review.)(I’ve been reading discussions on this book by Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts; I’ll be referring to them a few times in this review.) Two things you can almost guarantee of a China Miéville novel are that it will have an urban setting, and that it will play games (albeit probably with serious intent) with genre. And here, indeed, we get both: our setting is somewhere in the region where Europe and Asia meet, in the fictional cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are unique in that they overlap in physical reality.
(Technically, this is a spoiler, but I reveal it because it makes the book more interesting, and because Miéville reveals it himself forty or fifty pages in. Actually, it’s possible to work out what we’re dealing with before then, because the very first chapter mentions an area called a ‘crosshatch’. Now, ‘crosshatch’ was coined as a critical term in the Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997); it means a region where different realities intersect — and, in this novel, crosshatches are the points where the realities of Ul Qoma and Besźel become intertwined. Like Jeff Vandermeer in the comments on Niall Harrison’s post, I’m not sure why Miéville feels the need to employ misdirection over this: if you know what a crosshatch is in a fantasy context, there’s no mystery; and if you don’t, the first-person narrator is happy to spill the beans soon enough, so why does he pussyfoot around to begin with?)
Anyway, the cities overlap, and it’s possible to sense both of them at once. It’s not wise to do so, however, because if you cross the border illegally (and there’s only one place to cross legally), you will have committed ‘breach’, and the mysterious forces of ‘Breach’ (more distinctively different names would have been nice) will take you away and… well, nobody knows, but you won’t come back. So people in both cities try their best to ‘unsee’ the other place.
(Another aside, but I found this ‘unseeing’ business rather wearying. It’s very tempting to read it as a metaphor for the way we ‘unsee’ people in our own lives — indeed, the instinctive ’pull’ towards this metaphorical reading is as strong as any I’ve felt in a long time — but I don’t think it holds up to close examination. To generalise, the people we may choose to ’unsee’ tend to be [so we believe:] worse off than ourselves; but the default ‘other’ in The City & the City is Ul Qoma, which is better off than Besźel. And actually, we don’t really ‘unsee’ people in the same sense; we ignore them, we might even pretend that they don’t exist — but that’s very different from actively trying not to perceive something, as happens in Besźel and Ul Qoma.
(My point here is that I’m left unsure whether I’m supposed to take this metaphorical reading seriously, and there are problems either way. If I am, the metaphor doesn’t work; if I’m not, it’s intrusive. Miéville is surely too canny a writer not to know that this reading is possible, but why make it so noticeable if it doesn’t work? Unless he’s making a point about metaphors themselves, in which case, I wish he’d found a less annoying way to make it.)
Back to the story: our narrator is Tyador Borlú, a Besź detective investigating the murder of a young woman who turns out to be an Mahalia Geary, an American archaeology student, working on a dig in Ul Qoma that was looking at artefacts of the mysterious Precursor civilisation that existed before the two cities became conjoined (whether Besźel and Ul Qoma were originally two cities that fused, or one that split apart, is unknown). Mahalia, it transpires, believed in the existence of Orciny, the third city rumoured to exist in the interstices of the other two, and thought by most to be superstition. She also seems to have made enemies amongst the myriad extremist political factions of the cities. Borlú’s investigation takes him not only to Ul Qoma, but on a journey of discovery to the very heart of his reality… but you’d expect nothing less, would you?
Some negatives: Miéville’s prose and characterisation seem… not so much lacking as unsatisfying; these may be consequences of the story he has chosen to write. There are, of course, moments of very effective writing (on the contrast between the office and the crime scene: ‘Black tea and bread and paperwork, the boredom and striplights, all so much not like the peeling back of that wet-heavy, cumbersome mattress, in the yard, in the dark’), but on the whole, the prose seemed so restrained that the individual cities didn’t come to life in my mind. There’s much more spark when Miéville is writing action and describing the intersection of realities; maybe it’s that the investigation format restricts the author’s opportunities to write those kinds of passages.
In terms of characterisation, Tyador Borlú’s voice comes through as a voice, while nevertheless exhibiting Miéville’s signature style. But Borlú and colleagues feel somewhat flat; they don’t seem to have much personality (though this may be because the narrative is so focused on the investigation that we don’t get chance to see the characters ‘in the round’), nor are they distinctive enough individually.
Be that as it may, the real interest of The City & the City lies elsewhere. Between them, Harrison, Hartland, and Roberts raise two related issues (at least, I think they’re related) that get at the heart of what I think is most interesting about this novel. These issues are how far it is possible to accept the fantasy notions as existing in the real world; and how well the modes of fantasy and crime fiction work together. And most interesting about the novel for me is what I think Miéville is trying to do with the fantasy: to take something fantastic, and make it part of reality — and not just in the sense of ‘what would it be like if..?’, but in a truly fundamental, formal sense.
Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland both have problems ‘believing’ in the overlapping cities, or at least in the cities’ existing in our world. I was trying to pin down exactly what they meant, when I realised there was an unspoken assumption in their discussion: it seems to me that they assume the conjoined cities are a product of shared delusion, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, and that the ‘boundaries’ between them are just in people’s minds (so are all place boundaries, technically, but I trust the distinction I’m making is clear).
Now, it never entered my head — and still doesn’t — to think that the situation in the book is anything other than as literally described; I assumed, and still assume, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are two places whose realities are intertwined; their inhabitants don’t have to ‘believe’ in the relationship between the cities, because that is how things are. So, from that point of view, I have no trouble accepting Miéville’s basic reality, because he imagines it solidly enough.
Why do I assume all this is ‘real’ and not delusion? Because of the words Miéville uses: ‘crosshatch’ is the clearest suggestion that we’re dealing with physical realities here, but there are subtler hints. The author makes other critical terms into everyday words (I spotted ‘alterity’ and ‘equipoise’, to name two); people talk about ‘invoking’ Breach, as though it’s not clear to them whether that agency is supernatural or not, or whether that makes any difference. This all seems to me an attempt to deliberately blur the lines between the fantastic and the mimetic, at the level of the text itself; and in that respect, I think it works very well indeed.
(This is not to imply that I have no problems with Miéville’s reality-building; I do have trouble accepting his characters’ response to their reality. I can’t believe people would have the discipline to keep ‘unseeing’ things for hundreds of years; the sheer effort would surely be too great, not to mention that it’s impracticable (you have to be able to dodge out of the way of traffic from either city, for one thing). I also can’t believe that the rules of Breach, shown as they are to be absurd and morally reprehensible (Breach will come down on you like a tonne of bricks if you accidentally stray across the boundary, but will leave the most heinous crime untouched if it didn’t involve actual breach), could have lasted for so long without protest. Perhaps this is Miéville’s comment on people’s unthinking adherence to unjust rules; if so, it’s too exaggerated to have real impact.)
Then there’s the issue of crime versus fantasy, and whether there need be a ‘versus’ at all. Roberts in particular argues that the two modes don’t really work together in The City & the City; and I agree with him — but I also think the novel depends on that being so. I’d agree that the fantasy keeps the pages turning more than does the mystery (certainly I was gripped the most when I was reading about the fantastic elements); but the two are bound together as tightly as the cities themselves. The mystery element plays into and, to an extent, subverts our expectations of the fantasy — and, ultimately, eats away at the fantasy until all that’s left is a core.
The City & the City works well enough as a detection: it has the requisite plot twists, and the denouement is as satisfying in its unmasking of the villain — but that’s all. The fantasy element is by far the most interesting part of Miéville’s novel; and his stripping away of the fantasy to bring the crime story to the fore means the book loses some of that interest. It’s a case of a book which is fine at what it does, but still makes one wish it was doing something else instead....more
Blue van Meer has lived a peripatetic existence with her father Gareth, a professor of political scie(NB. Ideally I'd have given this book 3.5 stars.)
Blue van Meer has lived a peripatetic existence with her father Gareth, a professor of political science (her mother having died in a car accident several years previously), until her senior year of high school, when he deigns to let the two of them stay in the same town for the whole year. At her new school, Blue becomes drawn into the world of the glamorous, captivating film studies teacher, Hannah Schneider; and the select circle of students, nicknamed the Bluebloods, whom Hannah keeps close. Then, on a camping trip later that year, Blue finds Hannah’s body hanging from a tree — apparently suicide, but could it have been murder? What Blue discovers subsequently may draw into question everything she thought she knew. This is her story, in her own words.
I had never heard of Special Topics in Calamity Physics before seeing it in a bookshop on holiday, but it seems that it caused quite a stir on publication, being lauded as the startling debut of a young, talented author. I’ll be honest and say that I was half expecting the book to be insufferably pretentious — and, in some ways, it does try one’s patience. But it’s actually quite fun to read once you get into it; and there is much to admire within — which may be the novel’s main problem: plenty to admire, but less that’s easy to truly love.
First, the prose. Blue van Meer is a very bookish girl — very bookish, and it shows in the volume she has ‘written’. All the chapters are named after books, the text is full of quotations from books (many of which, in keeping with the novel’s playfulness, have been made up by Pessl — even one of the chapter-title books exists only in the pages of Special Topics), and Blue has a habit of making comparisons by referring readers elsewhere: ‘Jade was the terrifying beauty (see “Tawny Eagle”, Magnificent Birds of Prey, George, 1993)’. Pessl also writes Blue as tending to overdescribe and digress; in short, the narrative voice is full of quirks that become wearying over 500 pages… but not as much as you might think. If these quirks get tedious, they’re quite easily ignored; and for the most part, they make the book sparkle.
What’s less easily ignored is the voice of Gareth van Meer. We often get to hear what he thinks of this or that (he’s usually critical), in his pompous drone that makes one feel almost like tuning into some mindless, lowest-common-denominator TV show, just out of spite. Blue does come to question whether all her father’s ideas are as right as they appear; but that doesn’t stop his interjections dragging the book down. A bigger problem, though, is that, for all Pessl’s undoubted verbal dexterity, she comes up with some real clunkers. I like some of her insights and images, such as ‘Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint’; more often, though, we get lines like ‘ gold, five-tiered chandelier at the center of the room hung like an upside-down duchess shamelessly exposing to the paying public her ankle boots and froufrou petticoat’. It works insofar as you can see what the author means; but it doesn’t half feel awkward.
Moving on from the prose, the characterisation in Special Topics is an interesting issue. I’ve read an interview with Marisha Pessl in which she says she deliberately wrote the novel to be ‘larger than life’, and this it certainly is. Would any teenager be as immersed in books as Blue van Meer, or as beuatiful as the Bluebloods? Would any teacher be as extraordinary as Hannah Schneider, or any academic as relentlessly intellectual as Gareth van Meer? Probably not, but then again… I remember how adult some sixteen-year-olds semed to me when I started high school; and I’ve encountered my share of people who seemed as remarkable as Hannah Schneider does. They might not have been so in real life, but that’s what these characters are like: not real people, but mental images of people viewed at a distance — not how they might really be, but how one could imagine them to be.
Of course, there’s a trade-off associated with larger-than-life characters, which is that the author has to work harder to make us care about them. It’s a task that Pessl doesn’t always succeed in: for example, a scene where Blue confronts her father, and ends up throwing books at him, ought to be one of the most emotionally charged in the book; but Blue lists every single book she throws (complete with author and year of publication), and it comes across as absurd. So, although it’s possible to make real people in one’s mind out of these extraordinary characters, and it’s possible to see Blue in particular learn, grow and make mistakes; one has to dig pretty deep to be able to do so.
And then there’s the plot. Special Topics is very cleverly plotted, with many apparently incidental details brought back and reinterpreted in the final act. The trouble is, the solution to the mystery hinges on information not known to the reader in advance — information that, moreover, is entirely fictional in nature. There’s absolutely no chance of ‘playing along’, no feeling of ‘I wish I’d noticed that’, because you could never have noticed. It’s like watching someone else completing a difficult jigsaw puzzle, rather than being involved yourself.
So, as I said at the beginning: there’s plenty to admire here, but not so much of what can bring a book close to my heart. It’s possible to admire Pessl’s ability to make words dance, but not necessarily what she says with them. It’s possible to admire her depiction of extraordinary characters, but less easy to fully care about them. It’s possible to admire her ability to construct a detective puzzle, but not necessarily to enjoy that puzzle. In the end, I like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I don’t love it. It will, however, be interesting to see what Pessl writes next....more
Jeff Winston is 43, his life at a dead-end, when he dies suddenly — and wakes up back at college in 1963, with full knowledge of the intervening twentJeff Winston is 43, his life at a dead-end, when he dies suddenly — and wakes up back at college in 1963, with full knowledge of the intervening twenty-five years. He has the chance to create a better life for himself, and Jeff seizes the opportunity with gusto, placing bets and making investments that leave him a very wealthy young man. Jeff makes a hash of trying to impress his old wife this time around, and isn’t really keen on the heiress he eventually partners; but Jeff does love Gretchen, the daughter resulting from that relationship. So Jeff has pretty much made it — until he reaches the age of 43, dies at exactly the same moment, and returns to 1963, with the previous quarter-century erased from all reality, except in Jeff’s own memories.
And so the cycle repeats, with Jeff living out his life anew, able to remember each iteration but not to make any lasting change — until, in one ‘replay’ (as Jeff calls these iterations), the anomaly of a blockbuster movie he’s never heard of before leads Jeff to Pamela Phillips, the film’s maker and a fellow replayer. Perhaps inevitably, as the only two who know (or could ever understand) what the other is going through, they fall in love. But they discover a pressing issue: the beginnings of each replay are becoming ’skewed’; though the moment of death for both Jeff and Pamela remains the same, the time their awarenesses return to is growing later and later — so much so that they may only have a handful of replays left.
I came to Replay with a certain amount of anticipation: it won the World Fantasy Award, and was reprinted in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series a few years ago, so clearly it had a high reputation. There was also the general sense of apprehension one often has on reading a ‘classic’ (even one that’s only twenty years old), wondering if it will stand the tests of time and of familiarity with its themes. Well, there was no need to be concerned this time — Replay is a wonderful book that deserves all the praise it has been given.
It’s important to say first what Replay is and isn’t about: it’s a time travel story, but not one about time travel per se; Grimwood attempts no real explanation of why the replays are happening. Rather, he is much more interested in the emotional ramifications of the premise on his characters, and it’s here that the novel really shines. Each replay is different, as Jeff chooses different paths through his life; and these never feel arbitrary — there’s a logic to their progression. He starts off, as one might in his situation, using his knowledge of the future to improve his lot materially. Then he moves to trying (unsuccessfully) to change history for the better; learning from his first replay to create greater contentment in his second; descending into hedonistic nihilism in the third when it becomes clear that nothing he does will last; and so on. And it rings true at every stage.
The interplay between Jeff and Pamela also changes subtly each time they meet, as their different experiences change them; and this too re mains believeable throughout. There’s a moment towards the end that particularly made me smile (I’ll not elaborate on it, to preserve the effect), when Pamela reacts to Jeff in a way he isn’t expecting; and, as readers, we can see the matter from both sides — and have sympathy for both characters. The final position of the protagonists’ relationship is also unexpected and yet, with hindsight, is probably just as it would be in reality. It’s this emotional authenticity that makes Replay such a joy to read.
Something else that makes Replay a joy is the way it’s written — not so much individual nuggets of prose (though it has its share of them, such as the passage describing what goes through Jeff’s mind as he dies for the first time), as the way the novel is structured, and its general tone. There are a few times when the book gets tedious (Jeff’s hedonistic period drags in particular); but, generally, Grimwood knows exactly when to throw something new into the mix to move the story forward, whether it’s Jeff’s discovery of other replayers, or… well, find out for yourself. There’s also a very welcome lightness of tone to the book — not an absence of seriousness, but an energy to the telling. One useful function of this is to stop this moral tale feeling too preachy. There were a few a moments when I felt that Grimwood-the-author was lecturing me-the-reader, but they are few; even the ending, with its moral of ‘make the most of the life you have’, doesn’t really feel didactic, because the story has made the case for that viewpoint so persuasively.
Apparently Grimwood was working on a sequel to Replay when he died (at the sadly young age of 59). I’m ambivalent towards the idea of a second book: on the one hand, if he could have made it as good as this, I would love to find out what he had planned. On the other hand, Replay is fine as it is, needs no embellishments, and deservedly puts its author’s name down in history as one of the greats. Replay was not the first text to examine the question ‘what if you could live your life again?’, and it certainly wasn’t the last — but, in its elegance and eloquence, it must surely be one of the best....more
Ian MacLeod’s Song of Time begins as Roushana Maitland, an aged concert violinist, finds an angelically beautiful young man washed up on the shoreHmm.
Ian MacLeod’s Song of Time begins as Roushana Maitland, an aged concert violinist, finds an angelically beautiful young man washed up on the shore near her Cornish home. He has no memory of himself or his past, so Roushana calls him Adam, which becomes, in effect, his real name. She tells the young man stories from her life — memories of her childhood in Birmingham, of travelling to India with her mother to aid the victims of nuclear fallout, of her musical career in Paris. But there’s another point to these recollections (which alternate with present-tense passages depicting Roushana and Adam in Cornwall): Roushana is dying, but has a chance to preserve herself by ‘uploading’ her memories to a crystal implanted in her brain, which will enable her to enter a virtual ‘afterlife’ (wherein she will still be able to interact with the world, albeit non-corporeally). And, of course, Adam has a secret — but so does Roushana.
My journey through Song of Time was a strange one. For the first third, I found the book very moving; I was feeling the emotions while bypassing the words, which doesn’t happen very often. But the remainder of the novel was much less affecting — apart, that is, from the final pages. Much of that opening third details Roushana’s early life, when she was merely a good musician, overshadowed by her brilliant brother Leo. But Leo had contracted ‘white plague’, an engineered virus that caused multiple food intloerances, and did not have long to live. It’s this early part, laced with tragedy, where I found MacLeod’s writing to be particularly evocative and poignant. For example:
‘All I remember is being summoned from lessons at school just before lunch, and finding Mum sitting waitinf for me on the sofa in the head teacher’s office, her face white and entirely blank. The head seemed embarrassed, and mumbled that it was probably better if she left us both alone.’
So what happens to the emotional impact later on? What changes? In a way, nothing — what happens is that, as the story moves on, something comes to the foreground that had been niggling me from early on. It gives rise to my main problem with Song of Time: that I don’t buy into the future presented by the book. Throughout, the prose style is quiet and reflective; this is appropriate, given the nature of the story, but has the effect of ‘muffling’ the futuristic changes. So, when Roushana describes the more extreme weather of her childhood, we don’t feel that weather — it feels as though life carries on pretty much as it does now, however much the author suggests that it does not. And the Paris of her adult years does not feel as turbulent as the text says it is. Even Roushana’s Cornwall, in the closing years of the current century. has a timeless quality about it; only the sequences set in India don’t feel so distant.
But my credulity was most tested with the eruption in the novel of the Yellowstone supervolcano. I may be mistaken, but my understanding is that such an event would be disastrous for human civilisations the world over. Yet even the impact of this eruption, as depicted in the novel, did not feel as great to me as I thought it should. I had a hard time believing that the world of Roushana’s old age could emerge from that cataclysm, because in many ways it doesn’t feel all that different from our present.
The title Song of Time refers to part of a generative symphony that Roushana performs; music is one of the novel’s key themes, though I can’t really say much more about it — I don’t know enough about music to be able to judge what MacLeod does with the subject. But the book has another important theme, and that’s memory. ‘Memories are what you are,’ says the book, near the beginning. In the case of the dead, with their newly virtual existence, that’s literally true; in the case of Adam — well, he has no memories, so who is he?
And Roushana? Although the connection is never made explicitly in the novel, a life composed of memories could be seen as a ’song of time’, one that can be changed and re-interpreted each time it’s rehearsed. Perhaps, in the end, Roushana is whatever she wants to remember — or be remembered as.
I may have given the impression here that I dislike Song of Time more than I actually do. It’s flawed, no doubt — but at its best, it is beautifully written and moving (and, though I haven’t touched on this, the characters never rang false even though the world didn’t entirely convince me). In short, the good parts are very good indeed; I just wish there were more of them....more
My first encounter with the novels of Alastair Reynolds and… well, for a start, he certainly doesn’t lack vision.
House of Suns is set not just in theMy first encounter with the novels of Alastair Reynolds and… well, for a start, he certainly doesn’t lack vision.
House of Suns is set not just in the far future, but in the far future of a far future (as it were) where humans have colonised the galaxy. In addition to myriad planet-dwelling sub-species (some of whom are barely recognisable as human), there are the star-faring Lines, each comprising a thousand clones (or ’shatterlings’) of individuals who, six million years previously, set out to explore the further reaches of space (they have remained alive so long thanks to various forms of hibernation).
We follow the shatterlings of Abigail Gentian, and two in particular: Campion and Purslane, who broke one of the taboos of Gentian Line by falling in love. They’re late for the Line’s current reunion (at which individuals’ recorded memory ’strands’ will be shared) when they receive a distress call telling them to turn and flee, for the reunion world has been ambushed, and most of Gentian Line destroyed. Accompanied by Hesperus, one of the sentient Machine People as their companion, Purslane and Campion meet up with the survivors; but they’ll discover that a dark secret lies behind the ambush; and their understanding of the universe — and themselves — is about to change.
The novel is told in the first person, with Campion and Purslane narrating alternate chapters; there is also a recurring plot strand dealing with the early life of Abigail Gentian (which could be narrated by either clone, as all Abigail’s shatterlings have memories of her life). The latter does not seem to add much to the story, beyond setting the scene and introducing some apparatus that will reappear at the end; but, since these sections are quite short, it didn’t really bother me. More problematic is that Purslane’s and Campion’s narrative voices can’t be told apart, which weakens the characterisation and makes it hard to keep track of whose chapter is whose (I suppose this could be explained by the two characters’ being versions of the same person, but it doesn’t excuse the difficulty).
Although it’s disappointing that, in effect, the novel has one narrative voice, that voice is not unengaging. I particularly liked some of Reynolds’ imagery, such as this example from near the beginning: ‘…an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons’.
But it’s not the prose that’s the star attraction of House of Suns — it’s the constant flood of imagination. Reynolds’ remarkably busy universe includes not only the exotic humans and the machine intelligences, but also such phenomena as the Vigilance, a vast living library, and the Spirit of the Air, a cloud-shaped higher intelligence who was once a man (both of these latter are beautifully described). Ideas and revelations come thick and fast, the pace builds as the end approaches — and, despite the occasional sense of things being pulled out of a hat (as if to say, ‘ta-dah!’), the author controls it all very well.
However, this approach is not without its problems. In particular, Reynolds’ story raises serious questions about issues like torture and guilt; but I’m not sure that these are explored in all the depth they should have been — indeed, I’m not sure there’s time for Reynolds to do so, given the structure he uses: the plot gets in the way to an extent. But, all in all, House of Suns is a very enjoyable piece of space opera, and surely not the last Alastair Reynolds novel I’ll be reading....more
The story of Matthew Swift, a sorcerer in contemporary London who has been resurrected (by whom, he doesn’t know) with an extra passenger, and soon diThe story of Matthew Swift, a sorcerer in contemporary London who has been resurrected (by whom, he doesn’t know) with an extra passenger, and soon discovers that his old mentor is behind a dastardly plot… The book has its flaws, but is still an entertaining read with some really good imaginative flourishes that lift it out of the ordinary.
They came to New World from beyond the stars, looking for a purer existence, and made their home in Prentisstown, at the edge of a swamp. There was trThey came to New World from beyond the stars, looking for a purer existence, and made their home in Prentisstown, at the edge of a swamp. There was tragedy, of course: indigenous creatures known to the settlers as ‘Spackle’ released a germ that killed all the women of Prentisstown and half the men, and left the survivors broadcasting their thoughts to each other in a stream of what they now call ‘Noise’
Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, though in a month’s time he will turn thirteen and so become a man. One day, whilst out in the swamp with his dog Manchee (who can speak, but only a word or two at a time), Todd finds a pocket of silence – a place where there’s no Noise. This shouldn’t be possible but, as Todd is about to find out, a lot of things he believes about life and the world are actually wrong.
When Todd returns home, he tells Ben and Cillian (who raised him after his mother died) about the ‘hole in the Noise’ – but doesn’t get the response he expects. Ben and Cillian tell Todd he must leave Prentisstown immediately; they won’t explain why, but give the boy a knife and his mother’s diary which, they say, will tell him all he needs to know. Unfortunately for Todd, he can’t read. Still, off he goes with Manchee, soon finding that not only are there females on New World (Tood meets a strange girl named Viola, who has no Noise of her own), but also that Prentisstown is not the only settlement on the planet, and that there’s a dark secret at the heart of the town which explains why an army of its inhabitants are marching after him…
Oh, but this is a wonderful book. First of all, Todd is a superbly realised character. Ness tells his tale in a first-person dialect that sounds like a real voice; finds the right balance between being different without becoming annoying; and reveals as much about Todd as anything he does or says. Here, for example, is Todd describing the difference between his and Viola’s accents:
‘Her lips make different kinds of outlines for the letters, like they’re swooping down on them from above, pushing them into shape, telling them what to say. In Prentisstown, everyone talks like they’re sneaking up on their words, ready to club them from behind.’
There is a downside, though, to having such a strongly ‘present’ first-person narrator, which is that the secondary characters aren’t fleshed out as much. Viola’s character is quite rounded, but those furthest from Todd (such as his adult nemeses in Prentisstown) come across as quite flat (but how could they not, when Todd hardly knows them?). Still, that’s a price worth paying to have the joy of reading Todd’s words.
Ness also uses Todd’s voice to great effect when writing action sequences. His two main techniques are long, breathless sentences full of conjunctions; and extended sequences of single-sentence paragraphs. They really do make the story feel more kinetic; which helps balance out the linear nature of the plot, which is a pretty standard race to the end. In other circumstances, this might be a problem; here, the pages fly by, so it doesn’t matter.
The book’s title is interesting. The formulation ‘The Noun of Adjective’ in the title of a science fiction or fantasy story usually indicates a thing of great power or importance. I was really pleased to see that this novel’s titular knife is just an ordinary hunting-knife — there’s nothing mystical about it. And yet, the knife is highly significant for what it represents to Todd; it’s his symbol of being a man, it gives him the power to do things he couldn’t otherwise do (such as killing), and to let go of the knife is to relinquish that power. So naturally, there is violence, bloodshed, and death in The Knife of Never Letting Go; but these things are not gratuitous or glorified, as Todd comes to realise that violence is not the answer, whatever the question. (That’s not the only way in which Todd grows up during the book; the changes in the way he sees Viola are well handled by Ness, as Todd experiences the first stirrings of feelings he cannot name, but which we recognise.)
Of course, there are problems with the book. One quibble I have is that it’s implied that Todd’s narrative voice is his Noise, and occasionally Viola (who can hear Todd’s Noise even though she has none of her own) will react to something in the narration; but not as often as she would if it were Todd’s Noise. I didn’t like that sense of Ness’ cherry-picking to suit the plot. And a few things aren’t explored as fully as they could have been: we don’t see enough of the Spackle; nor, to the best of my recollection, do we learn the significance of the ‘hole in the Noise’. But, as the cliffhanger ending reminds us, there’s time yet, for a sequel is coming. And one advantage of reading this excellent book in the year after its publication is that I don’t have to wait long for that sequel....more
The Jorgmund Pipe is on fire. It shouldn’t be, because it was designed to be the most resilient structure ever built by humans; but then again, the veThe Jorgmund Pipe is on fire. It shouldn’t be, because it was designed to be the most resilient structure ever built by humans; but then again, the very notion of things that should or should not be looks kind of quaint in this future. The Pipe is vital because of what it carries around the world: a substance called FOX that keeps the Unreal at bay. The fire must be put out, and who better to do so than the people who constructed the Pipe in the first place? That small band of people are hired by the Jorgmund company to do so, and they set out at the end of the first chapter.
And then we go back in time and, for the next 300 pages, follow the intertwined lives of Gonzo Lubitsch and his best friend (who is the novel’s narrator) from their childhoods, through their time spent studying martial arts, to university, and then into the army, where the pair meet the others with whom they will eventually build the Jorgmund Pipe, and where they encounter the weapon which will literally change the world. The Go Away Bomb works by removing the information from matter, leaving nothing behind: the target is simply ‘edited out’ of reality, no mess, no fuss. Except, wouldn’t you know it, there is unforeseen mess and fuss, and it’s the end of the world as everyone knew it.
Back to the novel’s present, and our heroes extinguish the fire — but it’s not over. On returning home, the narrator finds that his life has changed inexplicably. Then the truth dawns, and the course is set for the final showdown…
I don’t know whether to love or hate The Gone-Away World, and I suspect I’ll end up doing both. For one thing, it’s the writing: this is a long book, and Nick Harkaway’s prose is dense, detailed and discursive. For example:
The apple cake is very good. It is fresh and sweet, with moist bits of apple and the applegoo which happens when you make a cake like this and get it just right. There are none of those retch-inducing bits of core which some cooks insist are an important part of the apple, presumably out of a false sense of parsimony, because those bits ruin perfectly good mouthfuls and therefore consume scarce apple cake resources. Elisabeth is an apple cake perfectionist.
Then comes an even longer section about the cake box.
500-plus pages of this stuff is somewhat wearying; but reading The Gone-Away World is not a hard slog, and certainly I never considered giving up. I think the main reason for this was Harkaway’s superb control of the prose: he surely knows exactly what he’s doing — when other characters take over from the main narrator to tell brief stories, the changes in voice are distinctive — and, once you get into the syle, it’s quite easy to accept the eccentricities and digressions (though there are still a few passages where you might feel like skimming). And there are some sharply effective nuggets of prose within, too; for example, when a soldier is injured: ‘Bobby Shank will escape, but he will not be okay. Not unless a miracle happens, and the reason they’re called miracles is that they don’t.’
The prose style adds to a more general feeling of being somewhere sideways of reality. That sense also comes from the novel’s quirky accoutrements (a pig-powered dynamo! bands of ninjas and mime artists!); and in the ways that its world differs from ours — it’s quite feasible to create alternate worlds that feel grounded in reality, but Harkaway’s doesn’t because, for example, its history and geography seem outlandish: Cuba has become part of the UK, and Gonzo and his friend live in a vague place which seems British, but might be somewhere else.
Fair enough, but in the early stages of The Gone-Away World, I started to wonder whether this quirkiness was going to muffle the emotional impact of Harkaway’s story. To a large extent it doesn’t: the author is quite able to weave in sharp satire; and in particular can get across the horrors of war — both its underpinnings (a modern war like the one fought in this book is an ‘un-war’, a ‘hyper-violent peace’) and its realities (as in his descriptions of the consequences of the Go Away Bomb).
Yet there are still times when it is harder to care. The quirky prose can make the characters seem distant; and aspects like the ninjas and mimes never quite lose their sheen of absurdity, which particularly lets down the story’s final act. But the sheer presence of The Gone-Away World is undeniable and, overall, welcome.
At first, The Gone-Away World is like a jolly, eccentric uncle who comes to visit, wraps you in a bear-hug, regales you with strange tales of his past, and never pauses for breath. As time goes on, though, you see more of the person beneath the eccentricity, and discover that you had more in common than you thought. I am glad I read the novel, and I won’t forget the experience in a hurry — for more good reasons than bad....more