Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Louis Geoffroy, Napoléon Apocryphe (1841)

Often cited as the author of the world's first alternate history, Geoffroy (1803–1858; a writer whose real name—Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy-Château—rather signals his Bonapartist sympathies) published Napoléon et la conquête du monde in 1836, and revised the book in 1841 as Napoléon Apocryphe. Its jonbar point is Napoleon's successful invasion of Russia in 1812. After this, and in quick order, he takes over England (1814) and then the rest of the world, leading it into a new golden age of technological advance, peace and prosperity. I particularly like the ease with which he conquers the USA. Revolution has so weakened this nation that it has collapsed altogether.
Depuis plus de vingt années, L'Amérique, cette terre sans passé, sans races, sans patries, qui, pour remplacer ses enfants égorgés, avait mendié à L'Europe son trop plein de peuples et à L'Afrique le marché de ses douleurs; cette terre qui, sans avoir eu de jeunesse, était arrivée à la décrépitude au milieu de révolutions innombrables, l’Amérique se dissolvait, et tendait à une ruine complète. [415]
What can be done to assist this benighted place? 'Napoléon seul pouvait sauver l’Amérique ... dans tous les cas, il n’y'avait plus de salut pour elle en dehors de la monarchie napoléonienne.' By 1827 the conquest is completed, and 'Universal Monarchy' finally instituted:
La monarchie universelle! Combien ont prononcé ces mots qui ne comprenaient pas l'idée qu’ils renferment. Combien le sont balbutiées et répétées froidement ces paroles: enfants, hommes, pédants et rois, qui ne savaient ce que c’était que la monarchie universelle, pas plus que l'infini et que Dieu, dont à chaque instant leurs bouches murmurent les noms.
That's the thing about Fascism. Its roots are much deeper than you realised. Here are the articles of the new Napoleonic world order:
Art. 1. Les continents, les îles et les mers qui couvrent la surface du globe composent la monarchie universelle.

Art. 2. Le christianisme est la seule religion de la terre.

Art. 3. La monarchie universelle réside en moi et dans ma race à perpétuité.

Art. 4. Le siége de la monarchie universelle est à Paris, capitale de la terre.

Art. 5. La terre est divisée en quatre parties:
L'Europe; L'Asie à laquelle sont réunies les îles de l'Océania; l’Afrique et l'Amérique.

Art. 6. Les quatre parties de la terre sont subdivisées en royaumes.

Art. 7. La France conserve seule le nom d’empire.

Art. 8. La guerre est désormais interdite aux rois et aux peuples.

Art. 9. L’esclavage est détruit.

Art. 10. Les rois de la terre sont, sous notre souveraineté, chargés en ce qui les concerné de l’exécution du présent décret. Donné à Paris, ce 4 juillet 1827. NAPOLEON.
Nicely ironic, that article 9. Everyone seems cool about accepting Christianity as the sole global religion, including all the Jews, with one single exception ('Samuel Manassès, rabbin de Strasbourg, protesta avec la plus grande violence contre la décision de ses frères, et, dans un moment d’exaltation, il s’écria: 'a que le Christ signale donc sa vérité et sa puissance! Pour moi, fidèle à la loi de mes pères, je le blasphème hautement, et je défie le dieu des chrétiens!'). But this protest doesn't last long: stubborn Manassas is touched by 'le doigt de Dieu', has a fit, falls to the ground and dies there and then. So much for him! 'Cette circonstance extraordinaire,' Geoffroy adds blandly, 'porta le dernier coup à la religion juive, elle expira cette année avec le culte et les constitutions de Moïse.' French is made the universal language; everybody is happy and at peace. Of course 'l’empereur conserva son immense armée', but you'd hardly expect him to give it up, now, would you. N. draws up a plan to eliminates all other races by selective breeding over seven generations ('arriver à la suite de quelques générations à une unité de race et de couleur') and he makes great strides in science, including the invention of flying cars ('des voitures qui volaient avec la rapidité de la foudre sur les routes en fer') and a fleet of 'ballons aérostatiques' powered by 'les forces magnétiques avec l'électricité'. There are odder inventions, including pliable soft-glass (seriously: 'le verre, si résistant et si friable, s’amollit sous les doigts de la chimie, il se plia comme une cire assouplie') and actual mathematical impossibilities are accomplished, including squaring the circle:
Une merveilleuse inutilité, long-temps crue impossible, la quadrature du cercle, fut découverte dans des circonstances singulières
A new planet is discovered ('la planète de Vulcain'). The book doesn't say so, but maybe Napoleon goes off to conquer that one next.

Here's the SFE3 entry on Geoffroy. Never been translated into English, it seems. I wonder if it's worth my doing so. [update: Ian Watson points out that the same SFE3 entry that claims it's never been Englished also cites a 1994 English version. So that saves me the bother.]

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (dir Jonathan Liebesman, 2014)

Driving back from the cinema, I was singing the old TMNT TV theme song, which nowhere appears in this movie. My 6-year old Dan (and why else would I pay good money to see this fillum at the cinema if not for the exceptional pester power of a 6-year old?) joined in, adapting it after the fashion beloved of 6-year-olds everywhere, viz.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turd-tles
Teenage Poo-tant Ninja Turd-tles
Wee-nage Poo-tant Ninja Turd-tles
Heroes in a Half Sh-
I stopped him there. Yet, somehow, he had managed to encapsulate the crucial je ne sais quoi of this movie: it's defining, unmistakeable and inherent crapness. Are you surprised? Of course it has the subtlety of a ton and a half of rotting blancmange dropped from a 50-storey building hitting the pavement. Naturally Liebesman has the skills with comedy of a depressed funeral mute. Bien sûr the plot is nonsensical and full of holes, the pacing all to whack (the first 40 minutes drag terribly) and the fight scenes nothing but clobber-clobber-clobber. Plot: New York is being terrorised by a criminal gang called, if I remember correctly, 'Foot Locker'. Mysterious vigilantes are fighting back, and the film seriously wants us to spend the first three-quarters-of-an-hour curious about the identity of this mysterious crew despite the fact that their NAME IS THE TITLE OF THE SODDING MOVIE. Megan Fox plays a junior TV reporter, shunned by her News Channel because she believes the vigilantes are 6'6" mutant versions of the turtles she released years before from her father's lab. The smiling businessman who promises to help her solve the mystery is, of course, actually an evil businessman in the pay of Shredder. His plan is to pump out, from the roof of his central New York corporate skyscraper, vast amounts of a hideous poison gas that kills instantly by blistering the skin, then to wait thirty days (?), then release the antidote mutagen derived from the Turtles' blood ( ...??), thereby obtaining (his own words) 'a blank cheque from the US government' and the undisputed right to rule NY as his own private fiefdom. Eh? It's a stupid plan. It's the kind of plan that says: 'yeah, our scriptwriters really couldn't be bothered to think up anything better. Yeah, what ya gonna do?' The evil businessman's country estate is situated in those high snow-capped mountains that overlook New York City, just above the half-mile-high cliff that borders Manhattan ... yes, yes, you know the place. Presumably those alpine heights are visible from pretty much anywhere in the city. Anyway the Turtles save the day. Unsurprisingly.

The surprising thing here was how unsurprising the whole experience was. Only two things struck me as not what I had been expecting. One was just how repellent the CGI Turtles and their Ratmaster 'Splinter' are in close-up. Especially Splinter. Genuinely and gut-churningly yeuch! from start to finish. The other is the way the film factors in its non-kid audience. Other cinematic studios specialising in films aimed predominantly at kids (Pixar, say) take the time to write-in jokes and to stage moments for the adults they know will be chaperoning the kids to the movies. This film can't be bothered with any of that nonsense. Instead the movie is built around a repeat visual motif of Megan Fox's bottom, clad in tight-fitting denim (and at the end of the movie, in tight-fitting leather). No matter what else the film was supposed to be doing, the director has worked with the cinematographer to find a way to include Fox's bottom in shot, usually in close up. If there's an Oscar for crassness, this gesture alone makes the movie a top-grade contender.

Did I enjoy this movie? NO!-abunga, dudes.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Laline Paull, The Bees (2014)

The elevator pitch here is 'Watership Down with bees'. I'm going to pause for a moment, to let you ponder that. There's a dash of Hunger Games in there too, as 'Flora 717' (born into a mute caste of Untouchable worker bees, but mysteriously gifted with bee-speech and saved for their own reasons by the higher up bees from the bee-extermination usually meted out to 'deformed' bees) struggles with the totalitarian structure of the hive. But, still. Basically: Watership Down with bees.

I'm old enough to remember watching the peerless David Nobbs/BBC comedy The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (the original, I mean; not the rubbish remake). In the third series of that show, broadcast 1978-79, Perrin opens a sort of commune for all his friends so they can all get in touch with their authentic tuned-in, dropped-out selves. C.J., his erstwhile boss, stimulated by the new environment, lets loose his creative energies. He writes Watership Down with ants.
C.J.: But I wonder if you all would like to hear an extract from my novel onants!

Elizabeth Perrin: Novel!

Reginald Perrin: Ants!

C.J.: I know what you're going to say...

Perrin's Staff Members: [all speaking together] You didn't get where you are today by writing a novel about ants!

C.J.: Exactly, but it's never too late for a leopard to change horses in mid-stream.

Reginald Perrin: What is your novel called, C.J.?

C.J.: I haven't decided between Watership Anthill, Plague Ants, Lord of the Ants, Ants of the Flies, Charley's Ant or No Sex Please, We're Ants.

Reginald Perrin: Yes, I can see the difficulty, C.J. Tricky choice, tricky choice! It would be too much bother for you to go and get the book.

C.J.: [Pulls manuscript from his pocket] I just happen to have an extract here with me.

Reginald Perrin: Oh, dear.

C.J.: [reading] "The owl led Thrugwash Blunt through the forest and then suddenly without any warning—"
I couldn't shake the memory of that sketch as I read The Bees. As I read Watership Beehive. As I read Plague Bees. As I read Lord of the Bees. As I read Bees of the Flies. As I read Bees-y Rider. As I read No Sex Please, We're Bees. It's a fine line between Creatively Estranging and Just Silly; a fine and important line. More important for writers of the fantastic than for other kinds of writer, I feel.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Tania Unsworth, The One Safe Place (2014)

A readable, short-ish YA thriller, this. The first third conjures a well-handled mood of dourness out of its future-set climate-changed future desolation. The opening chapter, in which young Devin struggles to bury his dead grandfather at the remote farmstead the two share, is particularly good. Thereafter, and since a kid can't run a whole farm on his own, Devlin makes his way to the city to start a new life as a street kid, an unforgiving environment of gangs, corrupt cops and the occasional averted face of disdainful rich people hurrying somewhere better. Good. Then the second third shifts mood to a tenser, more insidiously nightmarish set of thrills. Devlin accepts an invitation to a charitable home for orphans, where he is promised food and toys; but it turns out to be a prison in the countryside, where he and the other kids are watched in proper creepy fashion by a bunch of decrepit elderly millionaires. Escape is impossible; and although children are promised that eventually they will all be adopted by happy-ending rich families, we clock early on that this is a lie. Kids starts full of vigour, but after they have been called to the mysterious tower at the heart of the complex a number of times they go weird, or mad. Devlin's synaesthesia is revealed as having a telepathic component which is why the sinister Administrator wanted him in the first place ('I need you to be healthy Devlin,' she tells him. 'I'm saving you for something special.')

The final third loses much of this tension and creepiness, though. Once the true purpose of the place is revealed the novel settles into a more predictable kids-gang-up-against-oppressive-adults, Escape-from-Stalag-YA-Dystopia vibe. I finished the novel with a slightly anticlimactic sense of things, of a great set-up frittered, rather, away. This is a pity, since the first two thirds of this novel touch effectively on something genuinely unnerving. As the cover copy, up there, says: you think you can hide inside your head? Think again.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs (2014)

This enjoyable and absorbing novel is set in a Fantasy-ized sort-of-Russia, chief city Bulikov: a land whose spiritual reality has been ripped from it during a war with their former colony, godless Saypur (a Fantasy-ized sort-of version of the materialist West). And if I finished it wondering whether its very strengths don't go to prove that Worldbuilding Alone, no matter how cool and intricate, cannot carry a novel the whole distance ...?  Well; that's probably just me. In case saying so makes my praise looks like the faint-and-therefore-damning variety, I'll reiterate it, unfaintly: the worldbuilding here is exceptionally cool.

In olden Bulikov, the gods were real, and divine magic sustained the social and material infrastructure of life. Once Saypur found a way to kill off the six divinities, not only did things like medical care and the sewage system stop working, reality itself fractured. Mass death, famine, invasion: fast-forward some decades to the start of the novel and the new Saypur ruling class have declared it illegal even to mention that there were once gods. Bulikov is now a strangely dislocated cityscape, filled (vide the book's title) with stairs that go nowhere, disjunctured walls, massy blocks of unconnected architecture, only partially re-fitted to supply the exigencies of city life for the surviving population. The land is poor and oppressed and the people are chafing under the imperial yoke. The opening chapter is set in a courtroom, where a Bulikov trader is being prosecuted for displaying a symbol that might be interpreted as the sigil of one of the unmentionable, vanished gods. But proceedings are interrupted when (duh! duh! DUHRR!) a famous Saypur scholar of all things Bulikovian, one Efram Pangyui, is discovered murdered.

An investigator is dispatched by the Saypur authorities to get to the bottom of the crime: a woman called Shara (in a slightly strained, even melodramatic touch it turns out that she is the great-granddaughter of Kaj, the Saypur warrior who somehow managed to develop the wonder-weapon that effected the deicide). Shara has a bodyguard, Sigrud: a barbarian of few words (rather Groot-like in some scenes; though in others somewhat more talkative) who seemed to me a little too self-consciously pitched at us as a 'future fan favourite!' I assume Bennett chose 'Bulikov' as a name for his city to honour this individual; that's pretty bold, if so. Certainly the novel never quite rises either to Master or even Margarita levels of powerfully strange. I also assumed, when reading, that Bennett was inspired by those etchings by ... oh, what's his name. Bear with me: I'm going to put you on hold for a moment when I go check this out.
[Tinny music]
There's a writer who's sure all that glitters is gold
And he's writing a city of stai-airs.
When he gets there he knows, if the bookstores are closed
Go online, he can get what he came for.
Oo-oo-ooh, oo-oo-ooh, and he's writing a ci-i-ty of stairs.

Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.
It does make me wonder, too: in a good sense. It is a wondrous novel. I've found the pictures I had in mind: Piranesi's Carceri, of course:

That's what kept flashing onto my mind's eye, at any rate, as I read. That, and a grittier, more Russian version of this:

One reason the worldbuilding works so well is that it gets not only the material details and consistency right; it gets the atmosphere right too. The story takes a little while to pick up momentum, but once it does it rolls very nicely along. Good book.

There are some problems, though, too. At the beginning City of Stairs perhaps reads too derivatively like a Fantasy version of Gorky Park: Shara investigates, overcomes inertia and opposition, pushes on despite high-up warnings, survives assassination attempts and so on. She runs into (another slightly strained co-incidence) to her old college boyfriend, now a wealthy Continental trader with factories producing a rare and valuable commodity: stainless steel. There's a deal of procedural stuff. Then after 100 pages or so of that the tone and pace shift a little jarringly: not all the gods are dead; revolution is in the air; magical artefacts are being stored in secret Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-last-scene warehouses that nobody knows about except that actually everybody seems to know about them.

Shara keeps 'calling' her aunt, who coincidentally is the head of Saypur Intelligence Services, with a magic viewer that's supposed only to be used for dire emergencies. There are attempts at metaphysical proundity that don't quite work; although at the same time the pace picks up from the rather sluggish opening. Bennett only partly squares the circle of bringing his readers up to speed with the complicated backstory and worldbuilding; which is to say, he can't quite resist the infodumpy aside, the as-you-know-Bob (or as-you-know-Boris) dialogue. There are a few too many moments when Shara stops to recapitulate what has happened so far and why it is important; or draws up lists -- seriously, itemised and numbered lists -- of her options for proceeding. It is sometimes wondrous; and sometimes a little jingle-jangly-strummy as it moves from set-piece to set-piece.

I recommend it, though: I enjoyed it plenty. Although I can't quite work out whether the symbolic translation from West/Former USSR into Saypur/Bulikov is muddled in an imaginatively debilitating way, or eloquently complex and tangled. The novel elides, I fear rather inchoately, our sense of 'Russia' as both more spiritual/mystic/religious than the West, and at the same time less so: godless Communism; dialectical materialism; Stalin's famines and gulags. The loss of the gods of this realm channel the 21st-century sense of all those towering Soviet Heroes, whose statues were literally pulled down, leaving a country dislocated, prey to mafia (Bennett calls them 'warlords'), confused about its past. But at the same time, it is Communism itself that dislocated the ancient, god-haunted land of Russia. The West, likewise, occupies a blurry double-state. We're told that Saypur was forced to develop materially and scientifically because it didn't have gods: that on the Continent the gods simply magicked the cities' sewage away, but on Saypur they had to dig proper sewers. So, when the gods disappeared Saypur was well-placed to survive, and the Continent struggled. But the notion that Asia somehow 'had it easy' whilst Europe and the USA put in the hard graft inventing civilisation is a pretty rum one; as is the symbolic identification of the West with atheistical materialism (no Jesusland?) and Asia with soft-eyed reality-bending religious submission. We might call that, oh I don't know, pick a word, 'orientalism'. Are we take 'materialism' here as a cipher for consumerism, against which the USSR held out with the support of their nomenklatura, until the wall fell and their lives went to shit? Seems like an odd position, considering (say) that modern Russia has exactly the same Gini coefficient as the modern US. But, see, this is exactly the problem. I should stop trying to think through the implications Bennett's worldbuilding, and just enjoy it for itself. So I do that. Even if it means the novel thereby drifts into a pleasant-passtime space, rather than a something-interesting-to-say-about-the-world space.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Lavie Tidhar, A Man Lies Dreaming (2014)

I reviewed this depraved novel for The Guardian. Snip:
Perhaps turning so hallowed a site of human suffering into pulp fiction will scare admirers off. It is an approach more common in movies: treating weighty subjects such as nazism and slavery through the medium of schlock is, after all, exactly what Quentin Tarantino does. Like Tarantino, Tidhar may find that some people don't take him seriously. But the joke's on them. Seriousness is the least of it: A Man Lies Dreaming is a twisted masterpiece.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Jeff Vandermeer, Southern Reach (2014)

I wrote quite a long account of Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy for Strange Horizons. Over on Twitter a couple of people have responded to the review by quite rightly deprecating my only-male list of 'strange pastoral' texts: that was feeble of me, no question. Johanna Sinisalo's Birdbrain and Nina Allen's The Race were mentioned. Sadly I have not (yet) read either. Clearly I need to do more work before any conclusions about the masculinist bias of strange pastoral itself can be mooted.