Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Alex Smith, Devilskein and Dearlove (2014)

The publisher's website for the book is here. This is an endearing if uneven YA fable about a traumatised South African orphan being raised by her aunt in an apartment block who befriends the minor Devil on the top floor. Said demon (‘Devilskein’) trades souls, but takes a liking to the precocious young Dearlove; indeed he—and his talking cricket, the metamorphosed soul of an ancient Chinese warrior—come to love the girl, for all that she is exceedingly bratty. To begin with he hopes to snaffle her soul, together with the soul of her ‘soul mate’, the dishy young teen hero who also lives in the block; although the course of the novel—not without some sentimentality—traces his path away from such evil. But Devilskein has in his gaoler-care the Son of Satan, one ‘Julius Monk’, devilishly handsome and deeply wicked, who more-or-less seduces Dearlove into releasing him. The Unique Specialness of Erin Dearlove is repeatedly insisted upon without ever quite coming alive (that is, it’s told not shown) in the novel itself. The whole is too long, the story structure is on the baggy side—where YA is concerned it has very much not gotta be a loooose fit—and the dialogue is pretty feeble. On the plus side, there’s enough left-field-ness in Smith’s imagination to make many of the episodes really stick in the reader’s head. The SA setting is treated as a normal backdrop, rather than being played up for its SA Tourist Board Qualities, which is very good; and there is something beguiling about Dearlove’s bland courage as she repeatedly engages with creatures monstrous, dangerous and evil

One problem, though, bugged me. Reading this I thought more than once of Dahl, and specifically of James and the Giant Peach: another story about an orphan who goes to stay with aunts (thought Smith’s aunt is considerably nicer than James’s two), whose meeting with a weird fellow sets in motion bizarre adventures involving talking insects and other inventive monstrosity. But Dahl’s book somehow works in way Smith’s doesn’t. It may have something to do with the implied Christian superstructure of Smith’s fantastical narrative (though no specific reference is made to Christianity in the novel). But I think it’s something else. Dearlove lost her family in an assault on their humble farm; the robbers shot her parents and brothers dead, but missed her because her mother had hidden her in a cupboard. A magazine in that cupboard furnishes her with the materials for a compensatory fantasy that enables her to deal with the terrible emotional pain—her father was a millionaire and her family lived in a huge glass mansion until a crocodile ate her parents. Her aunt colludes with this fantasy because she understands it to be part of the process of coming to emotional terms with the horrible events through which Erin has lived.

But wait: where does this leave Devilskein, the talking cricket and Julius Monk? Are they also fantasies spun out of Erin’s imaginative but damaged head? The comparison with Dahl’s story is interesting, I think. Like Erin—or like Fantasy-version Erin—Dahl’s James loses his parents to a large African beast: you’ll remember that on a shopping trip in London, James’s mother and father are eaten by an escaped rhinoceros, despite the fact, as the narrative specifically tells us, that rhinoceroses are herbivorous. James’s two aunts are cruel to him: he doesn’t have enough food to eat, has no friends and is horribly bored. The story that follows is pure imaginative compensation: a vast embodiment of succulent and delicious food squashes both his tormentors dead; inside it he finds a group of new best friends and goes on amazing and diverting adventures. In other words, what James and the Giant Peach never spells out, but what is implicit in every page of its narrative, is that James’s adventures, like the impossible mode of James’s bereavement, are figments of his imagination. (Not that James is not bereaved, for he is clearly that; but that he has constructed a more ‘interesting’ narrative to explain his parents’ death in a traffic accident, or of Spanish flu, or whatever) Read this way the book becomes a testimony to the prodigious power of kids to imagine their way out of present misery. And this could be what Devilskein and Dearlove is about too, except that by specifically drawing our attention to the fact that Erin has fantastically reimagined the mode of her parents’ death, the novel confuses the ground of its subsequent fantasy elements, and dilutes the effectiveness of the whole. Or so it seemed to me.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Hanya Yanagihara, The People in the Trees (2014)

I wonder if this was work that took its jumping-off point, conceptually, from Aldous Huxley’s splendid but rather neglected novel After Many A Summer (1939). In that book a Californian millionaire called Stoyte is interested in developing treatments for immortality, and hires a less-than-scrupulous research scientist called Dr Obispo (and his blithe young research assistant, Peter) to investigate possibilities. There’s also a spiritually wise neighbour called Propter, who is cased on Huxley, and who has a good effect on young Peter. Propter’s philosophy is a three-horned striving after ἀρετή: “every individual is called on to display not only unsleeping good will but also unsleeping intelligence. And this is not all. For, if individuality is not absolute, if personalities are illusory figments of a self-will disastrously blind to the reality of a more-than-personal consciousness, of which it is the limitation and denial, then all of every human being's efforts must be directed, in the last resort, to the actualisation of that more-than-personal consciousness. So that even intelligence is not sufficient as an adjunct to good will; there must also be the recollection which seeks to transform and transcend intelligence.” Anyhow, Obispo sleeps with Stoyte’s mistress; Stoyte wanting to kill him in revenge instead kills Peter; Obispo colludes in this murder for money and the book ends with a breakthrough in the immortality research—a compound derived from carp, which are famously long-lived fish. The characters travel to Europe, where they discover that an eighteenth-century nobleman called Lord Gonister had stumbled upon the carp treatment in the 1730s and is still alive. They finally track him down, only to discover that he has become sort of mindless brutish man-ape, locked up in a cellar.

Huxley’s novel is in part about the paucity of material, as opposed to the richness of spiritual, craving for continuance; and partly about the brash youth-obsessed vigour of America as against the superannuated decrepitude of Europe. Yanagihara’s novel has a similar conceit at its heart: eating not carp but a special breed of turtle, found only on a remote Micronesian island, confers immortality; but only the body is preserved from decay. The minds of the Opa’ivu’eke people of Ivu’ivu crumble away leaving them hale but mindless brutes. Like Huxley, Yanagihara focusses on a set of morally myopic and materialist human characters; but in other ways her narrative is quite different to the earlier book.

The People of the Trees is mostly the first-person memoir of Norton Perina, a Nobel prize winning scientist based, not so loosely, on Daniel Carleton Gajdusek. Like Gajdusek (and this is the first thing we discover about him) Perina has been raising a great many micronesian kids in his American home, and is gaoled for child sex offences against some of these. Unlike Gajdusek, Perina takes 400 densely-printed pages to tell his story, from growing up with his cold-blooded brother, his early days as a scientist, his trip to the island of U’ivu (Ivu’ivu is a smaller island off this main one) as part of the team of a man called Tallant. Most of the novel is set here, and Yanagihara does wonders with evoking the richly colourly and strange flora and fauna, most of it imaginary. The book is slow-burn throughout, and only slowly does the nature of the turtle’s power to prolong life come clear. Then, against instruction, Perina smuggles some turtle meat and several of the ‘dreamers’ (as the mindless, ever-middle-aged natives are called) back to the States. The discover makes his reputation; and the final third of the novel detail the events leading up to his disgrace.

All this is framed and indeed spun by a preface, epilogue and copious lengthy footnotes throughout the narrative—some explanatory, rather more exculpatory—all written by one of Perina’s former students, one Ronald Kubodera. Yanagihara doesn’t play as many pale, fiery games with this conceit as she might have done, actually; except (in one of the book’s rare missteps, I thought) for a few pages editorially excised, and shunted to the back of the volume. These [spoiler] include a horribly vivid account of the rape of a child. If the idea was to try to raise narrative suspense of the did-he, didn’t-he abuse those children kind, it falls flat; Yanagihara does such a good job in ventriloquizing Perina’s voice that you don’t need to have his bad actions painstakingly spelled out to understand how bad a man he is. This is not a matter of ‘evil’. In many ways Perina is not only not evil, he is exemplary in his goodness: he is scrupulous, observant, considered, hard-working, dedicated to improving human existence on this planet. He is moreover conscious of moral obligations as obligations—in a slightly Sheldon Cooperish way, but palpably—and acts upon them, giving a home, educations and new lives to scores of underprivileged children as personal costs that are both financial, practical and emotional. He is not an absolute moral relativist, but Yanagihara carefully makes plain, in a shown-not-told way, that encountering the different social mores of ivu’viu, where for instance adolescent boys are sexually initiated by older tribal men as part of an honoured tradition, reinforces his own sexually predatory nature back in the USA, where such a context does not exist and where such sex is therefore inevitably abusive. I have seen comparisons with Lolita, but they don’t seem to me really to fit the novel. Humbert Humbert knows he is doing wrong; he simply prioritises his individual aesthetic-erotic ‘joy’ over social mores. But Perina gives the impression really of not knowing that what he is doing is wrong. The novel understands that it is; but one of the clevernesses of Yanagihara as a writer is that the novel knows this despite the fact that neither of its two narrators comprehend it.

Yanagihara’s prose is slow, accumulative and her overall effects (however shocking) are never forced. Similarly unforced are the parallels she draws between the sexual abuse of a child by an adult and the ‘rape’ of third world environments by the West in pursuit of profit. The before and after of U’ivu in particular is very powerfully written: the despoiled and degraded latter day island a genuinely pitiful sight. According to Perina, his adopted children go through a teenage phase of ttacking him as an imperialist and a racist but always grow out of this, and come back as adults to apologise and thank him. This is the closest the novel comes explicitly to condemning the Western Colonial Project, and the reticence is well judged: agit prop obviousness of moral condemnation would cruidify the book. The parallels are unmissable anyway. In fact, the tricky thing to triangulate is what part ‘immortality’ plays in the book’s symbolic schema.

This is what brings me back to Huxley: Yanagihara is not suggesting (I think) that commercial exploitation is a kind of senile immortality—nor that imperialism is either. However dead-behind-the-eyes imperialism was, we can at least say that it was a mortal phenomenon, in the sense that empires, from Hittite through Roman to British, die. Huxley’s point is that a focus on purely physical or material pleasures is deeply wrongheaded; and that whilst the end-point of such a focus is not necessarily death, it degrades the capacity of the mind. Something similar, perhaps, is at stake in The People in the Trees. But having finished the book about a week ago, and found that it refuses to vacate my mind (that I keep thinking and thinking about it is one of the surer signs, I'd say, that it is a kind of bleak masterpiece) I find myself wondering. Immortality is life without end, and ends are necessary things. All ethics are teleological as well as local; all metaphysics are the mapping of finite spaces. To appropriate another Huxley title (though this novel has nothing to do with immortality): Time Must Have A Stop. It is the endlessness of consequences, perhaps, the ineradicability of certain modes of harm, that gives the immortality aspect of this novel its rightness.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

James Gunn (dir) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Quite jolly, but hardly the Second Coming, and not (as I have seen bruited about) the best Marvel movie ever. The plot was varied, there were lots of inventive details scattered about and some of the banter was funny; but by the same token there was never any real tension or drama, since nothing was ever really at stake. The more hyperbolic the macguffins (infinity jewels that could destroy the galaxy!) the less we believe it, and clearly none of the team are going to snuff it. Still: it would be out of place to carp. Fun was had. The special effects were very detailed and professionally done. Groot was sweet. It bothered me more than it should have done that Drax the Destroyer's inability to comprehend simile or metaphor ('nothing goes over my head' and so on) was so inconsistently applied: many things are said to him in this film of the 'you defeated him single-handedly!' kind that didn't seem to bother him in the least. More debilitating from a dramatic point of view is that the villains all lacked menace. Karen Gillan's Nebula looked like she was auditioning for the mirror-universe's Blue Man Group; Lee Pace's Ronin was camp without ever managing scary camp (which is totally a thing, by the way) and the only evil thing about Josh Brolin's Thanos was his enormous chin. Really: Jimmy-Hill-worthy chinnage.

Big old chin.

One other thing occurred to me as I watched the big SFX-splurgy conclusion, and it was this: when will big budget Hollywood find a way of ending SF movies that doesn't involve crashing enormous planes into a New York City analogue? Avengers; Star Trek Into Darkness; this film. Which is another way of asking: when will that trauma no longer be so overwhelmingly dominant in the US cultural subconscious?

Steven Galloway, The Confabulist (2014)

A fictionalised life of Houdini (lots of stuff about touring his stage act, with Galloway painstakingly explaining how Houdini achieved all his illusions; beefed-up with extra spy action-adventure flummery in Rasputin's Russia, and a diffusely paranoid subplot about hostility from the American spiritualist community) is plaited with a second story about Martin Strauss—an old man in present-day America whose tinnitus is actually a symptom of some rare brain disease where all cognitive function remains healthy but memories start disappearing to be replaced by ‘confabulations’ of fictional memory. The main thing about Martin is that, in his youth, he was the geezer who punched Houdini in the stomach when the magician wasn’t prepared, thus rupturing his appendix and killing him. Being the man who killed Houdini haunts Strauss

This is a promising-enough set-up; and the novel’s tag line (‘I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice!’) points us towards the revelation that Houdini’s death from peritonitis might not be everything it appeared—the insurance company paid out double indemnity following the death, after all. And there is a twist ending, which is reasonably enough handled (hint: Houdini’s faked death was not about insurance fraud). But the shadow of Priest’s peerless The Prestige lies darkly over this book. It’s considerably feebler than the prior text, not only blandly written and very meagrely characterised (the two main characters never come alive at all), but too eager to explain as it is going along, too unsure of its own tone—too declarative, insufficiently negatively capable. Priest’s book uses its trick plotting to frame eloquent points about doubles and deceit, about fictions and truths. Galloway only pads out a shaggy dog story with lots of details from Houdini’s many biographies (one of which, I was pleased to see, has the triply exclamative title Houdini!!!). Bottom line: The Confabulist just doesn't really work. Less Houdini, more Who-cares-y.

In other news: Priest’s peerless Prestige sounds like a late Victorian emollient lotion. Buy some today!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Marie Rutkoski, The Winner’s Curse (2014)

I don’t want to hate-on this novel (indeed, it is very competently done and not in the least hatable) just because it’s at the Harlequin Romance end of the Fantasy genre. Putting it like that probably sounds snider than I intend. There’s really nothing wrong with Harlequin Romances, and nothing wrong with what my friend Justina Robson calls ‘Fit Bloke Fantasy’ either. Kestrel is the feisty, pretty, immensely rich daughter of an aristocratic general in the Roman-ish empire of Rutkoski's imagined world—different to actual ancient Rome in trivial ways (for one: Kestrel is expected to enlist in the army, which fate she resists). Her relationship with her father is the kind Disney Princesses enjoy with their paternal figures of loving authority. Since this is like Rome a slave society, Kestrel one day buys a slave: the handsome, proud, muscular and altogether dishy Arin. In the author’s note Rutkoski explains the title—it’s a phrase that "describes how the winner of an auction has also lost, because he or she had won by paying more than the majority of bidders have decided the item is worth. .. I was fascinated by this version of the Pyrrhic Victory—to win and lose at the same time. I tried to think of a novel in which someone would win an auction that exacts a steep emotional price. It occurred to me: what if the item at auction were not a thing but a person?” [357]

Anyhow: The Winner’s Curse is the first vol of a trilogy, and so doesn’t work out all the consequences of Kestrel’s impulsive decision to bid ‘fifty keystones’ (that’s a lot of cops) for the dreamy, slightly-dangerous-looking-but-with-a-beautiful-singing-voice Arin. But we get the idea. There’s rebellion and war, but only as a means of magnifying the gosh-wow-ness of the impossible love between them. So, yes: Rutoski has taken a Roman-era Greece model for her Fantasy empire, and dropped-in a few things (like female military officers, and gunpowder, and hundred-key pianolas) to make it clear she’s not writing history. That the actual society written here doesn’t cohere or ever really convince me doesn’t actually matter, because the function of the book is not to mount a socio-economic critique of the logic of slavery. It is to explore the psycho-sexual fantasy potential in the institution, and that’s (of course) an extraordinarily widespread aspect of human sexual play. That slavery itself is the greatest evil humankind has perpetrated does not, oddly enough, mean that men and women playing slave-girl, slave-boy submission and ownership games in bed are bad people. On the contrary. But a book exploring the erotic and emotional potentials of the slave-market has, I suppose, to be judged on how effectively its turns its reader on. Your sexy mileage may vary, but this book left me cold.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Rainbow Rowell, Landline (2014)

Georgie McCool is our heroine: a short, curvy, feisty and funny Californian girl working as a TV sitcom scriptwriter. She’s married to the slightly stony-faced Neal from Omaha, whom she loves and who loves her. They have two young kids together, but their marriage is ‘in trouble’. Matters come to a head when Georgie and her scriptwriting partner Seth get the chance to pitch for their big-break idea: it means hothousing the scripts over Christmas and Georgie missing out on Omaha Xmas with hubbie and kids and in-laws. This, though, is the final straw; she has chosen work over family one too many times; Neal goes off; it’s over. Georgie agonizes at home. Then—and this is the Fantasy premise of the novel—she discovers the landline phone in her mum’s (actually “Mom’s”, but, you know. Blimey!) house calls Neal in Omaha in 1998 rather than 2013.

This is a likeable, enjoyable novel propelled mostly by its sharply written dialogue and by the solidity and believability of its main characters. The plot is romcom-predictable, its time-travel conceit notwithstanding. Indeed, there’s an inevitable second-hand-ness to any romcom-timetravel combo. I don’t just mean that romcoms have rather worn out the idea of time travel, as an objective correlative for ‘weren’t things better back before our relationship soured?’ or ‘how might things have worked out differently?’ (turn a different corner and we never—would’ve—met and so on) or ‘lord keep my memory green’. Though we can be honest: they have. Landline can't help being a little reminiscent of Sliding Doors or The Time Traveler’s Wife or that recent film by Richard Curtis whose name I’m deliberately blocking—or indeed, I was particularly reminded of a short story called ‘The Time Telephone’ by … can’t remember the name of the author (it’s in the Jeff and Anne Vandermeer’s mammoth Time Traveller's Almanac anthology I believe). That’s also about mothers and daughters and magic telephones that can call the past and whether things can be changed. And if I recall, it also has a character in it called ‘Seth’. Or maybe it’s ‘Seb’? But no matter. I read this book with great enjoyment, the flimsiness of its SFnal conceit notwithstanding. It is a very pleasant read. That perhaps looks like damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean it to be. Pleasant is hard to do—there’s real, unfakable charm and warmth here, and the dialogue is always sprightly and sometimes funny. The downside is that the book leans too heavily on it’s one big-pitch idea, and reads like an over-extended short story. It’s not until p.150 that the identity of The Time Telephone is vouchsafed to us, and many of the remaining 150 pages feel a bit treading-watery (though there’s a good set piece near the end where a pug gives birth to puppies).

What it really is, I think, is a sort of love-letter to old-style phone technology, not for its own sake but out of a bittersweet memory of how much the exigencies of that technology shaped lovers’ long-distance interactions back then—all the endless chattering sitting on the bottom step of the stairs, winding and unwinding the windy cord round and about the end of your forefinger, the you hang up firstno, YOU hang up first! gubbins. Ah, I remember all that! But whilst I sort of share the nostalgia for those days, and think young lovers’ nowadays don’t know what they’re missing with their 100% always-on social media phonetexting ubiquity of contact—whilst I enjoyed the evocation of courting in that earlier age, I guess it seemed to me a slender thread on which to hang an entire novel. Still: good stuff.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Ian Watson, The Book of the River (1984)

I enjoyed Watson’s The Book of the River, first published back in the Winston-Smithy darkness of yer actual Thatcherite 1984. It’s the first of a trilogy, completed by The Book of the Stars (1984) and The Book of Being (1985)—collected as an omnibus under the title of its protagonist’s name, Yaleen (2004) and sometimes called The Books of the Black Current. But for the time being I’m going to concentrate on just volume 1, and come back to its sequels at a later point.

The Times (of London) is quoted on the back of my paperback copy of this book praising it as ‘one of the most satisfyingly accessible of all Mr Watson’s novels’, and that’s exactly right, for better or worse. ‘Worse’ seems harsh, I know; but ‘accessibility’ and ‘satisfaction’ are the two stocks-in-trade of many other writers, most of whom are not worthy to rub the blacking onto Watson’s steel-toe-capped boot, such that there’s something ever so slightly underwhelming about finding them here. I'm not sure that accessibility/satisfaction are what I go to Watson for. But I shouldn't complain: I read this novel quickly and with pleasure, and that’s not a thing to be sniffed at.

So (sniff! sniff!) the novel sets up a pleasingly constrained Fantasy realm. It reads more like a chess-problem than the actual en train two-player chess game of life-as-it-is-actually-lived—but, to repeat myself, that’s not a problem. That’s what Nabokov explicitly did in his fiction, and he’s one of the great gods of 20th-C prose (it’s what I do in my writing, often, too; to, you know: step from the sublime to the ridiculous for a moment). The world is a river on an alien planet, flowing from an equatorial jungle to a northern sea. We’re on the east bank of this neo-Nile, in a varied set of matriarchal societies very efficiently and vividly rendered by Watson. To the east is a desert that, as far as the humans who have settled this land can tell, goes on forever. Trade happens up and down the river, and only women can sail the river-craft—men can go on the river once only; twice and they go mad and run towards the centre where they drown. What’s at the centre? Why, a great black current that runs from the water’s source (an unscalable cliff-face out of which the river abruptly pours) all the way to the sea. This black current cannot be crossed, and it acts as an impenetrable barrier. It turns out to be a sort-of sentient superbeing. The west bank is just about visible from observation towers on the eastern side, but there’s not much to see. The inhabitants of the far bank eschew the water and live inland. Early in The Book of the River we get intimations of the harshness of the west-bank patriarchy, when a telescope happens to catch sight of them burning one of their burqa-clad women in a public execution. So the set-up is laid before us, chess-problem-wise: people on the east bank can’t cross the Black Current in the middle of the river—because, well, they just can’t. They can’t go south of the river’s source and come back round, because: unclimbable cliff. They can’t sail their boats out into the northern sea and come back round that way, because: er, I’m not sure that we’re told why not, but they can't OK? And they can’t fly over the river because the technological level of this society is pre-Wright-Brothers (which is to say: pre-Montgolfier-brothers). So that’s your world.

Very early on in the story, it becomes clear that contact will be made with the mysterious west bank; that the mysteries of its society will be laid out before us. Similarly, we intuit, we'll discover the nature of the Black Current. Which is exactly the way the Standard Model Science Fiction Text rolls. How cheated the average reader would feel if she were baulked of proper explanation and loose-end-tying up! It was (sniff! sniff!) unreasonable of me to feel a small sinking at my realisation, early in my reading, that the novel was indeed going to pan-out this way. I think what I felt was a sense of the desolate lack of proper Negative Capability in contemporary science fiction—I mean the phrase in the strict sense that Keats coined it. The sense that obtains in, say, Stalker.

But that’s a large question, and one for another time. And although most of this novel runs along the rails of its kind, a Cook’s Tour round the imaginary realm, discovery, adventure, narrative set-back and set-forward, there are also some set-pieces of proper Watsonian gnarliness and oddity. The best of these (this is a spoiler, sort-of) comes in the fourth section, where Yaleen, wearing a mocked-up old-school diving suit, climbs into the vast mouth of the head of the planet-sized tadpole that the Black Current is revealed as being and stomps about in its innards, like a secular Jonah—Joanna and the Whale.

There are other splendid moments. The novel’s thumb was in the balance to the extent that the women-lead rivertrader’s society was just so much more attractive than the grim, puritanical woman-burning patriarchy on the other side (hard to imagine it going the other way, of course). But beyond this obvious partisan-ship is a more interesting dialectic between straight ‘seriousness’ and ironic comedy. Having sampled both cultures, Erin decides that the ‘Doctor Edrick and his cronies would never get anywhere with their quest for knowledge. They were far too serious about it. The real and the true could only be seized in a laugh, a laugh which would rattle the stars’ [219]. Spot on, that (and A Laugh That Would Rattle The Stars wouldn’t be a bad title for a critical study of Watson. If, that is, I hadn’t already decided on a different title.) There's some interesting speculation on the 'masculine' and 'feminine' principles as thrust and flow respectively. And there’s this nice interpretation on the name ‘Adam’ (an ancient and honourable name! The name of princes and scholars!) by the east-bankers, who have picked up that the west-bankers call themselves ‘Sons of Adam’ and repudiate Satan:
“So what’s Satan?” asked Hasso, expressing the general puzzlement. “And who’s Adam?’

“Maybe Satan is ‘sanity’, mixed up?” I suggested. “Because the black current drives men mad…”

Yosef nodded. “Possibly. And possibly the word Adam had a negative prefix, as in words like ‘abort’ and ‘apathy’—and dam is a female parent? Thus ‘sons without a mother’.” [54]
Hmm. You reckon?

Still, I come back to my off-kilter sense of disappointment that the novel sets up the barrier, and the mysterious people on the far side of that barrier, only in order to reveal so many of the mysteries associated with it. It could be the violation of the principle of Negative Capability that narkled me, I suppose. Or it could be something more specifically Watsonian. One thing he’s fascinated with, as a writer, are the essentially arbitrary but binding barriers that are erected in human life. Externalising those as literal walls, or barriers, is something he has done before. In another place, I talked about his short-story 'Our Loves So Truly Meridional' (it first appeared in Science Fiction Monthly, 1974; and is collected in The Very Slow Time Machine (1979)). This
is set after the mysterious appearance on Earth of 'the glassy Catastrophe Barriers' which divide the whole planet into areas as 'neat as the segments of an orange' along the meridional lines. The story itself is set in that portion that runs from south to north pole including a good quantity of eastern Africa, and bits of Europe and England ('sliced through Greenwich, with the East End of London included in our powerful Conglomeration as a useless backwater town.' Since the barriers are translucent ('not actual glass. Though it looks like glass and feels like it. Some forcefield they say') it is possible to 'read signs held up by the other side' and 'speak in sign language'. Accordingly, our narrator (Obi Nzekwu, a teacher from Eastern Nigeria) knows about the rest of England:
London itself in total decay, and the rest of the country a surly dicatatorship obsessed with tilling the land. What else do they have in their segment? A few French fields, most of Spain, the poverty of Morocco, Mali, the Sahara ... along with a knob of Brazil.
It's a splendid concept, ingeniously batty and fun to inhabit imaginatively (better than some of the premises upon which whole novels are based today, I'd say). But Watson, if you'll excuse my French, pisses it away in a ten-page squib about a trek to the north pole
That’s rather harsh, now I look at it again (it’s a very good short story). But my point is otherwise: Watson is good on barriers, and when—as here—he makes that barrier too permeable, it dilutes the effectiveness of his other insights. But I’m being sniffy. Sniff! Sniff!