As we pass into the reality of a cyberpunk future, and stories about brain-hacking move away from down on their luck noir-types in trench coats infiltAs we pass into the reality of a cyberpunk future, and stories about brain-hacking move away from down on their luck noir-types in trench coats infiltrating space stations, it starts to feel like the future of the genre will simply consist of various rewrites of Flowers for Algernon--which I am surprisingly okay with. Certainly, we're bound to get uninspired rehashes, like Speed of Dark, but we'll also get more interesting looks, like this one from the famously anonymous Aussie Hugo-winner.
Appropriately enough, I found this story on my Kindle with no recollection of where I'd gotten it or what it was meant to be--jut another overlooked blip in the system. For the first few pages, I assumed it was some Gawker-style first person confessional that I'd saved for later--until it became obvious that the 'cutting edge' medical science being discussed is somewhat beyond our present capabilities.
The fact that Egan can so readily capture the confessional style without pushing it too far speaks of his prose skills, as he delivers on the timely theme of 'what makes a mood disorder?' Instead of a journey through IQ, as in Algernon, we get one through emotional capability, from one extreme to the other, and Egan does an excellent job of hitting the right notes throughout.
His final question: what might we choose for ourselves, if we could choose our own emotional reactions (or would we be able to make the choice at all, without sliding into a self-destructive spiral of highs and lows) is poignant, and I would have liked to see him push it a little further, make it a little dirtier and uglier--instead it's left largely as an open question.
But even without that final push, it's a solid story, and I'm glad that I found it--or that it found me....more
I came to a strange realization while reading this book: that practically every instance I can think of where an author used an unreliable narrator, iI came to a strange realization while reading this book: that practically every instance I can think of where an author used an unreliable narrator, it's always the same character: he's an intelligent, introspective guy with a slight cynical mean streak, a man with a fairly high opinion of himself (which is constantly reaffirmed by the world around him)--he succeeds without trying too hard, usually in a number of fields, though the success never lasts (because where would the plot go if it did?), he gets into fights and scraps due to his pride, and always wins out in the end--and of course his life is full of a succession of lovely women who flit in and out, flirting, desiring him, ultimately discarded.
It's such an overt, laughably transparent fantasy of the life of a writer that it's simply not possible to take it seriously--which means of course that no serious author would condescend to write something so blatantly adolescent. But, if you take that concept as the base of the story, and then place a veneer of deniability over it, then you can suddenly claim complexity and depth without actually having to write a more unique and intriguing protagonist--you can have your cake, and eat it too.
And yet, I don't quite buy it--it's too convenient to simply say that anything in the book that is stupid or insulting should be taken as sarcasm, while all the good parts were on purpose. It can in a book like Flashman, where the character is so obviously execrable, and the story so obviously a farce--but the more subtle it becomes, the more it is mixed with realism and genuine sympathy, the more character thoughts and motivations become vague, the less pointed it is.
Just as with satire, in order to capture the unreliable narrator properly, you have to do the hard work of separating the subject from the object it is mocking or commenting on, otherwise, all you have done is recreated the object, nearly whole--creating a supposed satire that is hardly distinguishable from the original. Just because an author did something on purpose is not an excuse--they still have to do it well.
And it's not just the main character, Van, who feels like an escapist ideal of the intelligentsia, it's the whole structure--one that should be recognizeable to any fan of Wes Anderson movies. It's all so aspirational--but carefully calibrated so as not to trigger simple jealousy from the moderately sophisticated reader, who feels insulted at being openly pandered to, but will take all the slightly-obscured pandering he can get.
So, we have the wealthy family of good blood--but of course, they've fallen on hard times, they're a bit out of favor, a bit worn down. Money is never really a problem, but neither is their wealth outrageous. The children are all brilliant and charming, well-dressed and good-looking, knowledgeable and full of clever banter. They're good at everything, but they never really pursue any of it (like good idle aristos), and so just have the occasional success, here or there--the sort of thing the average literary person would kill for: a successfully published book, an appointment to a major academic post--but these are always downplayed by the characters as not really important to them, not really as great as you'd imagine. They have oodles of free time to waste in little projects, or bits of melodrama--can't be rushed, darling.
All these pretty people who are just fucked up enough to avoid being totally perfect--though even their flaws are desirable, the sorts of things romanticized in Victorian poetry: they don’t fit in, they are biting and cruel, they are careless, they take too many risks, they're prideful--any ostensibly negative trait that falls neatly under the auspices of being ‘cool’, and doesn't really end up being problematic. It's just so fucking precious I can hardly stand it.
The whole section about Van's supposedly transformative theory of time was just so dull and long-winded. Some authors are able to present a fascinating philosophical or scientific digression in their works, but the long pages outlining Van’s thoughts didn’t feel profound or intriguing, they didn’t confront assumptions, they just seemed vague and half-cooked. The whole final section, about how great the book is and how Van’s thoughts on time changed everything felt overly contrived. Clearly, this is Nabokov, so we’re supposed to assume that it’s ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but I simply don't see how that reading makes it any more interesting.
The fantastical elements were a fun twist, but used too sparingly--they weren’t pervasive as in a work of Borges, or Gogol, or Conrad and Ford’s mostly forgotten The Inheritors. I find such experiments are most effective when they are allowed to change the very texture of the book, to rush through it and alter its meaning and interpretation, as in Harrison’s Viriconium. Here, they ended up feeling too much like interludes, not really integrating with the downright quotidian everyday of the very light plot.
The plot really doesn’t move, aside from a few more frantic chapters, such as the picaresque series of failed duels a la Dumas père--indeed, even the inner lives of the character remain mostly static, so that they are the same people at the end, in their nineties, as they were in the beginning, in their young teens. Of course, this is all meant to relate to the ‘illusion of time’ as Van explores it, but since the theory itself isn't particularly interesting, it does do much to improve the experience of watching a few unchanging people pass through rather everyday events. Indeed, they don’t even same to be creating the sort of false melodrama that we all make of our lives, making coherent stories out of unconnected events and coincidences.
The unreliable narrator shtick also means that we we don’t really get Ada’s side of the romance. We’re constantly being given all the little things Van finds attractive, what excites him about her, physically, but we don’t get to see any of her attraction, how it progresses, what she sees in him, what excites her. It all becomes rather blandly male-gaze, where the charms of the woman are described over and over, yet the man’s physical presence is largely ignored. I mean, we do get Ada's voice peeking through, here and there in notes, but it's never quite enough to tear through Van's veil and let the reader inside the deeper story. Plus there’s the fact that Nabokov had already tackled that dynamic with greater ironic force in Lolita, so it’s rather unfortunate that a supposedly transgressive author like Nabokov would just end up revisiting the same territory over again.
Then there's the prose itself--the first thirty pages are famously overstylized--with the wit jangling and clanking along so conspicuously that it doesn’t leave much room for subtlety or naturalism, for genuine emotion and connection. It’s all such an obviously indulgent performance, like that of a precocious child who must be interrupted: ‘Yes yes, you’re very clever--now was there something you wanted to tell me?’.
After the initial bombast, it settles down and the style almost completely changes for the rest of the book. The change is jarring, and didn't seem to have any purpose, or reason behind it--though it's not as if Nabokov lays off the wordplay at that point, it just settles out a bit. Indeed, it started to make me tired of puns--which is odd, since I’ve been a longtime proponent. It began to feel like too much work for too little payoff, that puns simple work better in conversation than in books, because a book is so carefully crafted, one can afford to take one's time and perfect it, polish it up--while a rough pun's strength is in its suddenness, its extemporaneous quality. But then. with Nabokov, the sheer amount of work seems to be the point, that all the glitter and movement on the surface is worth all the trouble it takes, that we’re not meant to appreciate the joke itself, or the punchline, but all the circuitous labor the author went to to set it up in the first place.
I began to feel a funny parallel between Nabokov’s style and the chapter about the fellow who cheats at cards with mirrors, surrounding himself with all of these ostentatious, flashy bits that he’s constantly tweaking and nudging to get them to work--and we’re supposed to think of him as pitiful, watching as he’s easily dispatched by the ‘true’ sharpery of Van, who instead manipulates the cards without it ever being obvious, due to his sheer master (well, until he’s unable to hold it in and flashes one from his sleeve at the end)--yet one begins to think that if Nabokov were at the table, he wouldn't be able to resist flashing his sleeve every hand, and thereby ruining the effect from the outset.
And such a style can work for a farce, because it is so overblown, and the characters and plot aren't really central, but often act as set pieces for absurd situations and wry commentary on the nature of life. It can also be effective in works like Sartor Resartus, or Moby Dick, or Gormenghast, where the language is inextricable from the characters, where an almost overbearing style is used as a tool to delve deeply into their thoughts, their point of view, to force the reader into the thoughts and senses of a person that is completely different, a world with colors and textures and relationships that pierce through its very fabric, through the land itself, the characters' flesh and hearts and minds, then drag the reader back through that hole like a baited hook.
But Nabokov's voice is not pervasive enough, it spends its time flitting along the surface, and so fails to enmesh wholly with his world and characters. It begins to feel more like a compulsion for wordplay than a deliberate construction--a love of words just spilling out onto the page because Nabokov is fascinated with language. The fact that the book spends a chunk of time discussing how to play Scrabble should tell you all you need to know. After all, he was a man who grew up a multilinguist, suspended between various languages and dialects and forms of communication--who wrote the English version of Lolita himself.
Of course, it should be noted that my own skills in languages outside of English are fairly pathetic--my years of Italian and Latin were some time ago, and so I unquestionably missed innumerable little asides and jokes. Yet, the jokes I did get, even the more obscure ones, like a veiled reference to an old name for Tasmania which I only got because I happened to reference in my book, weren't especially amusing to begin with--and so it simply didn't seem worth the time to go through and decode the rest of it--just another case of more time spent for insufficient reward.
And yet conceptually, it has its strengths--it is an interesting and unusual book, clearly a case of an author throwing himself into a wild experiment, which certainly takes courage, and if he didn't always succeed, at least he was always moving, always probing and doing something. It wasn't an insulting work, it wasn't simplistic or flat, and that was what kept me reading through to the end, that even if I don't think all the pieces quite came together to make it work, it was something curious, something worth experiencing and rolling around in my mind....more
Moorcock has a reputation among fantasy editors for the speed with which he can turn out a story--call him and tell him you have a slot in an upcomingMoorcock has a reputation among fantasy editors for the speed with which he can turn out a story--call him and tell him you have a slot in an upcoming anthology that need filling, and he'll send you something the next day. It reminds me of an old truism in writing: if you never seem to be able to finish anything, then you're too critical of yourself, but if you are finishing things constantly, then you probably aren't critical enough.
That isn't to suggest that Moorcock has a swell head--from everything I've heard, he's a pleasant, self-effacing fellow--but that perhaps sometimes, his pen ends up working faster than his brain. I'd heard that the ideas he begins to touch upon in early works like Elric don't start coming into their own until later pieces, like Corum or Von Bek--which was why I was surprised that a number of elements in Corum felt less sophisticated than their treatment in Elric.
Unlike Elric, Corum doesn’t maintain his internal conflict throughout. Though he comes from an artistic, intellectual, peaceful background originally, this doesn’t really color his later actions or thoughts. Once the ‘badass warrior switch’ is flipped, that seems to be it, and he’s onto his new life. Certainly, there is a sense that he wants this to be over with, so he can return to a state of peace, but one would expect that his former life would change the way he approaches being a sword-weilding demon fighter, but it simply doesn’t seem to.
Doubtless, there was plenty of reason for the character to change--his whole life, everything he knew was ripped away from him--but I still would have liked to see that transformation play out, to see the contradiction between how his expectations and assumptions just don’t match the world around him, and the life he is forced into living. The whole story of his race is that they are ancient, wise, but naive and out of touch, and it would have worked better to see more of that in Corum, instead of the ‘take it as it comes’ style of the average sword and sorcery hero.
Likewise, the romance, while a central part of the story, is dealt with in a rather perfunctory fashion. We don't really see how the characters fell in love, or why this particular relationship formed, and so it ends up feeling less personal and more like a plot point--especially when compared to something like Dancers at the End of Time--but then, that was an occasion where Moorcock really took the time to get into the characters heads, to let the romance develop over the course of several books, and to explore the conflicting feelings at its heart.
Of course, it's not quite a fair comparison to make, since in that series, the romance really is the central plot, while here, as important as it might be to Corum's character, it's still secondary to the massive multi-dimensional conflict that takes center stage. It's unfortunate, because by focusing on that, he really could have separated Corum from Elric, who hardly has much time for sentiment.
The introduction of the dimension-hopping heroes' companion in book two didn't work especially well, either--like in Leiber's Swords of Lankhmar, the series suddenly takes an odd left turn, introducing this silly dimensional traveller who suddenly starts explaining the makeup of the universe and other such dull exposition.
We were reading a story about a man embroiled in a great conflict, but also a personal one--trying to avenge the death of his family, the only life he’d ever known, who has since become bitter and broken through struggle, but who has also found love, and keeps fighting for the sake of that love. To have this secondary character burst in with a completely different voice and tone, insisting that Corum is just one of many distracts from his story, cheapens his struggle, and makes the whole thing feel oddly goofy, especially compared to the opening book.
From there on, especially as we go into the third book and near the climax proper, the story becomes more piecemeal, where each scene begins to feel more like a self-enclosed event. It’s very much the cliche pulp approach, where this happens, then this happens, and we’re technically moving forward toward the final conflict, but the individual episodes aren’t placed in a meaningful order. It brings to mind the old writing adage that every scene should be followed by a ‘but’ or ‘therefore’ which connects it directly to the next scene. It’s not enough that they’re simply given to us in a certain order, they must be reliant on each other, there must be a sense of build, of inevitability, of meaningful connection from moment to moment.
The writing likewise vacillates in quality, from the flat exposition of the prologue to the quite visceral and imaginative scenes in the palace of the horrid chaos god Arioch at the end of book one--which indeed, are much more effective than the climaxes of the next two books, making them feel rather underwhelming in comparison.
But for all that, I can see why people find Corum to be an expansion on Elric, because there is one very real way that Moorcock is pushing the envelope here: the shifting dimensions, the alternate realities and identities, and layers of contradictory worlds are a great way to push the boundaries of what fantasy is, and how it operates--and yet, I'm reluctant to give Moorcock his due here as the self-defined 'bad writer with big ideas', because these aren't quite ideas.
What he's doing here is playing with form and structure, with the symbols that authors use to explore their ideas--but he's not creating themes and concepts beneath these symbols to hold them up and give them meaning. Magic is a symbol, and there are many different ways magic can be presented, and many ideas we can explore through our magic. However, far too many authors are content to simply produce complex magic systems without ever bothering to connect them to meaningful themes and ideas.
As other authors have proven in later books, like Viriconium and Bas-Lag--or even games like Planescape-Moorcock's symbolic innovation provides an exceedingly rich field of play for any writer to explore and represent a plurality of ideas--but unfortunately, Moorcock himself does not do much with them here.
Likewise, his focus on law vs. chaos instead of good vs. evil presents a number of interesting opportunities, from entropy and the Social Contract to the nature of the creative spirit, itself--but again, he's not pushing these representations very far.
It's the same problem he has in Dancers at the End of Time: he's given us a very strange and complex world, but the characters and themes in the book just aren't strange enough to match it. The structure Moorcock presents, wherein different individuals from various times and dimensions might come together, and that some of those individuals are really the same person, expressed in a different age--that’s quite interesting, but it’s also disappointing that he doesn’t do more with it. What does it mean for one person to meet a different version of himself? How does that feel, how does it affect him, moving forward? It should certainly offer some profound insights, or at least force us to confront some common preconceptions.
Likewise, it’s a great opportunity to explore the nature of storytelling, itself--the fact that we authors do keep writing about these similar kinds of figures, who really do feel like ‘versions’ of the same hero, or love interest, or villain--one begins to imagine the way that Gaiman would approach it. Once again, it’s something that Harrison spends a great deal of time exploring in Viriconium, where the same plot and characters are destined to recur, over and over again, but with such different pacing, voice, and tone that it becomes clear that these standard forms and types are really not the heart of the story--that indeed, they become almost superfluous.
After all, think of all the various stories in any medium, books, movies, comics, that play out pretty much exactly the same, whether they take on the form of the monomyth or the murder mystery or any other, with the same standard character types (hero, sidekick, wise man, love interest, villain, henchmen)--and then realize that this has nothing to do with the quality of the work. It’s all the other stuff that makes it good, that makes it feel original--or fails to.
The fact that, to combine their powers together, the characters are compelled to link arms and form a sort of cosmic kickline certainly does not help to make the experience feel as profound and strange as meeting an amoral albino version of yourself ought to--and really, what else is a good fantasy book but an opportunity to meet a version of yourself you'd never previously imagined could exist?
In the end, Moorcock gives us a blueprint for what the curious future of fantasy might look light, but sadly, it's largely inspirational because it invites other writers to fill in the holes he's left in his story, to take that huge, complex symbolic structure and really make it do some of the heavy lifting--and happily, they best fantasists of the modern era have done precisely that--but it's still a bit disappointing that Moorcock himself didn't sit down and take the time to give us his version of it.
As a writer, it's hard for me to imagine how people can just keep writing the same thing, over and over--just providing slight variations on the sameAs a writer, it's hard for me to imagine how people can just keep writing the same thing, over and over--just providing slight variations on the same plot, characters, and setting, where the only thing that changes are the names. At that point, it's less a creative endeavor than the symptom of a neurosis: an obsessive need to recreate the same familiar pattern, over and over, in hopes that it will free you--and truthfully, I can think of few better ways to murder creativity than to write in this way.
Of course, we writers have certain interests and concerns that are going to crop up again and again, our favored themes, whether it's PKD's paranoid uncertainty of self or Le Guin's mutual cultural incomprehensibility, but as long as we keep finding different angles of approach, different ways to explore these themes, then we're not just treading water.
Of course, I know that many writers do it to get paid, and that in any field, after years of working your way up with fresh ideas and hard work, it can be tempting to sit on your laurels and stop really trying, just letting the paycheques come in--hell, plenty of folks end up at that point without ever having had a fresh idea in their lives. I mean, I've written ten thousand words in a day before, so if I wanted to pump out a generic fantasy novel every week, I'm certainly physically capable of doing so--it's the mental aspect that prevents me.
Not just the fact that I can't stand the idea of filling the world with more generic crap (which I can't), but the need to completely turn off my brain and not care at all about what I've made--and that's part of what makes Moorcock interesting, is that he is clearly capable of not being critical of himself. He has a reputation in the field of being able to turn out a short story faster than anyone else, and I have sometimes gotten the impression from various works of his that his pen was outstripping his thoughts--because he has produced works like Corum, which is more or less a rewrite of Elric with slightly duller characters and slightly weirder cosmology--but then he comes along and writes something like Gloriana, or An Alien Heat.
It's as if you took a writer as flat (though intriguingly madcap) as E.R. Burroughs and told me that he'd tried his hand at something in the style of Conrad and Ford's The Inheritors--it's such a complete change in voice and approach. Indeed, Moorcock's book has much in common with that tale of profound intelligences lost in the stream of time, the past and future colonizing and changing one another in unpredictable, unexpected ways.
As with Gloriana, Moorcock is working in a completely different voice here, a different tone and pacing. While in Corum, the romance may be central, it is perfunctory, accomplished in a moment, without bothering to delve introspectively to shore up its foundations--no real depth of feeling is ever produced. Yet here, the romance is the plot, is the conflict, drawn out over the length of the series, the back and forth of it, the inner turmoil of it all are more Darcy of Pemberly than Carter of Mars.
Instead of revolving around a series of cosmic villains, as in Elric, it is a story built upon the decisions and feelings of its characters, built from the inside out instead of imposing some artificial external conflict upon the characters to motivate them--and the former method is always going to seem more personal, more vital, and more perilous to the reader, even when the stakes of the conflict are much lower.
Indeed, in terms of sci fi tropes with farce, Moorcock seems to be laying out a prototype for one of my favorite series: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Indeed, in the third book, when Moorcock's characters are trapped in the beginning of Earth's history, the parallels are almost too remarkable to be coincidence.
However, Moorcock does not quite have the precision necessary for a well-turned farce, as Wodehouse so often demonstrated, where the timing and rhythm of the scenes must be constructed with great care in order for them to work like the well-oiled machines they are. As such, in his pointed satire Adams ends up perfecting the form that Moorcock laid out--as is so often the case with his grand and intriguing but somewhat rough ideas.
However, An Alien Heat does share some shortcomings with works like Corum--quite literally, in that the exceedingly strange and imaginative world that he sets up for us is populated with characters who are all too mundane. In a world that is not only post-scarcity, but in which people have an ability to reshape the world to their liking beyond the wildest dreams of virtual reality, it seems odd that the characters would stick so closely to modern conceptions of identity.
For example, if a person can change their gender at will, or negate it entirely, or invent a new one, you aren't going to see the same old gender roles continue on as if nothing has changed. In a world where physical identity and appearance are completely fluid, you would expect peoples views of themselves to be similarly mutable.
Likewise, in a world where people can create anything with a thought, things like gold and gems would no longer retain the status rarity affords them currently--indeed, Moorcock often touches upon the fact that really, the only thing that produces value in his world is novelty, and yet he does not always succeed in demonstrating this effectively in his actual descriptions.
There are certainly good touches--that once we have all we want, things like depression or moroseness become interesting as poses, as markers of difference for their own sake, even when they aren't necessary--precisely because they aren't--but he might have done much more.
Indeed, one can also see the effect the work has had on another great writer who took the ideas and ran with them: Moorcock's protege M. John Harrison, who in his Viriconium series does begin to explore what a world of such profound difference might look like, where things like reality and identity begin to lose their meaning, and cohesion in the face of an ever-shifting world in which very little can be taken for granted. Once again, in the third book, when Moorcock gives us his hallucinatory cities, intelligent entities dying and going mad out in the wilderness, where most folks are happy to leave them alone, though some are drawn in by curiosity, we see a blueprint for the world that Harrison will later present us.
I do think that this book ends a chapter too late--that the conclusion Moorcock gives us originally produces an intriguing tale along the lines of Kafka, almost an inversion of Bierce's classic Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. As it is, Moorcock gives us a denouement which is altogether too tidy and easy, wrapping everything up and explaining it away, which I think would have made a much better opening to the next book.
Then again, perhaps his mainstream sci fi publishers were not ready for that sort of book--just as they weren't ready for Harrison, and put a Burroughs cover on his Kafka story. In any case, while the next book in the series is a bit of a lull, giving us much of the same, over again, the third book does much more with the setting and characters--even if the conclusion is a bit tacked-on.
Overall, the vision Moorcock gives us here is a testament to his creativity--he does not stick to just one story, or just one kind of world, even when his worlds are all interconnected, he still manages to give each one its own tone and voice, and second only to his masterwork, Gloriana, the End of Time series is one of his most intriguing....more