Monday, 29 September 2014

Gareth L. Powell, Hive Monkey (2014)

[Steve Wright voice-over]: so, pop-pickers, now that the Beeb has excised all the material fronted by Savile, DLT and the other Yewtree disgracees, there's hardly any usable TOTP2 footage left! But I'm still here, have no fear, to talk you through this classic hit. It's the follow up to the BSFA award-winning Ack-Ack Macaque, and as kink-y a tune as you could hope for. The original Ack-Ack Macaque, as you know very well pop-pickers, was an old fashioned SF yarn, a twisty-turny plot written in efficient storytelling prose that never got in its reader's way, full of high adventures and fun and neat spins on classic genre tropes, but all tied-together with the marvellous central creation, the titular simian, cybernetically uplifted from computer-game duties and into Powell's future world. Ack-Ack's genius was his attitude: his overall foul-mouthed, cigar chewing, spitfire-flying, trigger-happy, "monkey fucks given? None" in-your-hairless-face ness. It is a splendid creation: the Hyde to our 21st-century Jekylls. In the afterword to Hive Monkey, Powell references the old PG Tips television ads; and part of Ack-Ack's appeal I think resides in the sense we viewers had that those chimps-in-human-clothes, shifting pianos and grinning idiotically, were secretly really really pissed off at having so demeaningly to cavort for the diversion of homo sapiens. Ack-Ack is one such, but without the need to act nice for the cameras. I assume, too, that Powell at some point in the past has clocked these old Hellboy panels:

... except that Powell's monkey wears clothes. So anyway (and noting, in passing, how little I sound like Steve Wright, I know, I know) Hive Monkey picks up where the first novel stopped, offering its readers more of the same. Some of the shine is inevitably taken off the conceit, now that it's not brand-new any more; and some of this second Ack-Ack story is a little in-his-dinted-steps-he-trod. It's still great fun, though. The ape, now world-famous, is working a low-profile as a zeppelin pilot. Adventure starts when a passenger on the dirigible encounters his own double, bleeding to death, in his cabin. We get a similarly Ack-Ack Macaque front-loading of action, although perhaps a slightly less dense level of cool-ideation; this time the story involves parallel dimensions, a weird religion called the 'Gestalt', Neanderthal assassins, a second cyber-enhanced monkey, a plot to rule the world through mind-control and a high quotient of bang!-bang!-bang! It's not Proust, pop-pickers! But it has no desire to be. The main misstep, I thought, was the inclusion of a rather self-indulgent SF writer character, there in part to enable a series of not-very-amusing in-jokes and genre-mockery-mockeries. And if I, Steve Wright, the in-the-afternoon Steve Wright, not the US comedian, and certainly not the pompous prof who usually reviews here ... if (I say) I felt a touch peeved by the ending, it's perhaps because its knight's-move lurch into oddity seemed to me a naked pitch for Ack-Ack #3. Still, the fans won't mind that, pop-pickers! Wait. Wa-a-ait a minute. 'Pop-pickers' isn't my phrase, at all. That's Alan 'Fuff' Freeman, isn't it?


Well, without further ado, pop-pickers, here's the Ack-Ackinks, and "Ape Man".

I think I'm sophisticated
Cos I'm reading my genre like a good lit-e-rary fan
But all around me actual readers are preferring
Something less airy-fairy, man.
Though you might think I'm a rip-off of the side-kick off-of Generator Rex, man
Compared to the other kinds of primate-uplift texts (man)
I am an Ack-Ack.

I'm a bit Dirty Harry and a bit Richard Scarry
And a little bit like Ape-X
But with genre pollination and inflation and apeflation
We're all living in the Matrix.
I don't feel safe in this World Of Powell;
Drinking and shooting and a-practising my scowl;
A face like prosthetics worn by Roddy McDowall --
I am an Ack-Ack.

I'm an Ack-Ack, I'm an Ack-Macaque, I'm an ape man
I'm a Throw Back man, I'm a sweary man
I'm an ape man

Cos compared to the books that aim to be nice
Compared to the stories that anthromorphise
Compared to the space-bugs and malignant AIs
I am an ape man
I'm an Ack-Ack, I'm an Ack-Macaque, I'm an ape man
I'm a Throw Back man, I'm a sweary man
I'm an ape man
I look out my window, but I can't see the sky
Cos my own cigar-smoke is a-fucking up my eyes
I want to get out of this story alive
And swear like an ape man.
I'm an Ack-Ack, I'm an Ack-Macaque, I'm an ape man
I'm a Throw Back man, I'm a sweary man
I'm an ape man

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Tom Harper, Zodiac Station (2014)

What we have here is a very competently handled Arctic thriller. US Coast Guard ice-breaking cutter Terra Nova is working the frozen Nansen Basin when a desperate man comes looming out of the mist, skiing across the ice, and is shot by a startled security detail. The man lives, and in the vessel's sickbay tells his story: he is called Thomas Anderson, and has come from the research base Zodiac Station hundreds of kilometres away, a place full of (as Anderson tells it) high-strung scientists and administrators, a crucible of murder of conspiracy and violence. The base has now been exploded, as if by a bomb. As it happens, I have likewise planted a major spoiler in this review too, in the second paragraph, and it may well explode your enjoyment of reading the novel (if you haven't already read it). You have been warned. Otherwise, the authorities fly to Zodiac, and recover other survivors, who tell a rather different tale to Anderson. There are schemes and counter-schemes by climate scientists and climate change deniers in the pay of big industry, CIA involvement, freaky science, lots of polar bears; there's loads of zipping across the ice, exploring abandoned mines, falling down crevasses. As is the way with 'classic' thrillers a good deal of Quite Interesting Facticity is kneaded into the running-around, exploring, shooting, threatening-and-being-threatened plotline. The reader learns a good deal about the far north, about methane and arctic fauna and how you have to lift a snowmobile's back-end off the ice before you fire it up, since if its treads have got frozen to the ice you'll burn out the engine. Which is all fine. I thought the book starts very well, and then dissipates itself in a too-many-plotlines, too-many-red-herrings middle section. It might be that the red herrings looked redder and more obvious than they would otherwise have done, set against the bright white background of the ice-pack. Then there's the ending.

So, yes: spoiler. The brighter-hued herrings swim away to their red sea, and we're left with the normal-coloured herring -- Zodiac Station is a reworking of Frankenstein, taking its cue from the powerful initial and final scenes of Shelley's novel, also set, of course, on the polar ice. The Terra Nova is Harper's version of Walton's ship; the creature is genetically engineered instead of being stitched together from corpseparts but is still called The Creature, still stronger and cleverer than us, still a full grown adult of only a few years mental maturity and so on. Now all this is fine by me, and a fairly clever reveal; and looking back over the narrative lots of things (names, clues, quotations from Milton) drop into place. But it's tricky too. It's the two stools problem. For a SF geek like me, there's something anticlimactic about bringing in the Novum only at the very end; it ought to have been the starting point. Whereas a fan of straight thrillers (and Harper has written several of those, with considerable commercial and fannish success) is liable to agree with this Goodreads reviewer, who says: 'Good page turning thriller. A good few twists to keep you guessing. Fairly believable plot right up to the end where it does get a bit silly.' Hmm.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Emmi Itäranta, Memory of Water (2011, 2014)

Amongst the many impressive things about Emmi Itäranta's debut novel Memory of Water is the fact that its author wrote the book in her native Finnish and also in English. It was published (as Teemestarin kirja) in Finland in 2011; and now, like Beckett, she has become her own autotranslator, with an English version, Memory of Water. What's doubly remarkable is that the English is as good as it is, considerably better than many a native-speaker I could mention. Like Hannu Rajaniemi, Itäranta is capable of writing not just serviceable but actively beautiful English prose. I admire, too, the way this novel is content to tell a plain story, eschewing the bang!-bang!-bang! attention grabbing hyperactivity of too much contemporary genre fiction, proceeding by inflection and rather than clunking direct statement.

It is set in a post climate-meltdown world where the freshwater rivers, lakes and springs have all dried. Water is now a precious resource, and a zealous, oppressive military guard it, permitting each family only the one official water-pipe that is plumbed into their house, and from which a trickle of ill-tasting fluid drips. The narrator, Noria Kaitio, is the 17-year-old daughter of a 'tea master'; for although being set somewhere in the after-disaster Scandianavian/Baltic/West Russian area, there's a strong Japanese cultural inflection here: raking the gravel garden, respecting the elaborate rituals of tea preparation. Mr Kaitio has access to a secret and pure spring; if the military find out it'll be curtains for the whole family. Meanwhile, Noria and a friend uncover an old recording that seems to contain information contradicting the official history.

So, to stay with the good for a moment longer: the relationship between Noria and her father, written with immense sensitivity and delicacy, is genuinely touching, especially when she graduates against the odds to tea master herself and he [spoiler] dies. And the novel's world is vividly evoked, its parched people so bothered by horrid insects they can't go outside without donning an 'insect hood', rummaging through the heaps of rotting and discoloured plastic our culture bequeathed them. But vividly, oddly enough, doesn't necessarily equate to plausibly or suspensive-of-disbelief. And to be frank I didn't really believe it. Early on, Noria's friend Sanja buys some water from a travelling salesman, and reacts furiously that she's been conned: 'bloody sham sold me salt water! I tasted the water first, like I always do, and it was fresh' [16]. Noria explains the ruse ('a double-pipe fraud ... inside the dias there's a secret container with salt water in it. The pipe has two settings ...') But by this stage I'm thinking: the world clearly has no shortage of brine, for the ice caps have melted (Noria's mournfully reflects that she will never see the glorious ice packs of history). And desalination is not hard to manage; a couple of glass bowls and a transparent plastic sheet in the sunlight will do the trick. Accordingly I did not believe that the military would be able to control water distribution so totally, or that water for personal use would be so scarce.

But I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: 'why must you read in so deadeningly literal-minded a manner?' I concede it; it is my curse, for I have a narrowly literal mind and never read poetry. And I'm certainly prepared to accept that Memory of Water figures more metaphorically and pseudo-poetically than it does by any of the restrictive codes of Hard SF plausibility. Water in this novel 'remembers' the abuse humanity inflicted upon the world, both in the sense that it carries the pollutants in its body, and in a more spiritual sense. And Itäranta is good on the intermittencies and strangeness of memory: 'memory has a shape of its own, and it's not always the shape of life' [92] is how Noria puts it. Although in places awkwardly done, there is something commendable in the way Itäranta structures her novel to try to reflect that queer shape. But, at the grave risk of alienating your sympathy altogether, dear reader: too often her poetic-prosy meditations on the nature of water seemed to my ear like unto the sounding brass and tinkling cymbal of pure Fotherington-Thomasness. Too many of these passages read like slogans from inspirations posters, ready to printed over pastel photographs of morning-misty landscapes, or purple-and-cyan mountain peaks arrayed beneath a full moon starry sky.
Water is the most versatile of all elements ... Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn't afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you. [5]
It's all the way through the book:
Water is the most versatile of all elements. It isn't afraid to burn in fire or fade into the sky, it doesn't hesitate to shatter against sharp rocks in rainfall or drown into the dark shroud of the earth. It exists beyond all beginnings and ends. [221]
You may indeed, if your soul be less crusted and derelict than mine, find this uplifting and beautiful. Your moisture, that is, mileage, may vary. Water is delicate, and evaporates and evanishes; but it is also strong as a mighty tide or tsunami, when each individual water droplet says to its fellow, 'let me add my strength to yours'.

PS: And wholly unrelated to this novel, my favourite motivational posters remain these Malcolm Tucker ones.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Deep History of Boxtrolls

The key is remembering that whereas Tolkien's Rohan is (of course) a fantasy version of the Anglo Saxon northlands, his Gondor is more medieval than Old English, and draws more on French romance than anything else (the horn of Roland, for instance). Let's say that in the JRRT Middle Ages, Minas Tirith looked like this:

Fast forward to an imaginary early-to-mid 20th-century Middle Earth. The town has been developed:

Its name is now called 'Cheesebridge'. Presumably 'Minas' was modified over time to 'Frominas', and thence to 'Fromage'; just as 'Tirith' softened its initial 't' and mutated into 'férié'. The white tree has long since been lost to the city, but the aristocracy maintain tradition by wearing treetunk-like 'white hats' to signify their authority.

And what of the orcs?

Well, having been repeatedly defeated in battle and subjugated, these beings have lost their more aggressive instincts, taken to wearing discarded cardboard boxes, and now reside in the sewers under the city where they work as garbage men, recycling rubbish into useful equipment whenever possible.

It's at this point that the late Tolkien fanfic movie The Boxtrolls (directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, 2014) takes up the story. The twist is that, though the cheese-obsessed citizens of new-Minas-Tirith continue to think of the orcs as monsters, said orcs are actually the good guys. The leaders of Cheesebridge agree to a policy of ethnic cleansing, putting the task in the hands of Archibald Snatcher -- perhaps an individual descended remotely from the old Gondorian king Atanatar II. It's a dark story of persecution and misery, with an improbable ending where the citizens of Minas Tirith completely revise their opinion of the Jews Orcs Boxtrolls, and embrace them all. But then again, Tolkien was always fond of eucatastrophic endings.

The only wonder is that the Tolkien Estate hasn't sued.

Marcus Sedgwick, A Love Like Blood (2014)

It’s Paris in late ’44,
and nearly the end of the war.
The novel’s narrator
looks into a crater
and isn’t the same any more.

From that moment on his life’s cursed.
He sees a man slaking his thirst
by drinking the blood
from a girl’s fresh-dead bod,
(we think he’s a vampire at first...)

Fast forward to March '51.
Our guy’s back in France on his own.
He spots the blood toper
whilst eating his supper:
a lifelong obsession's begun.

With dread that he cannot assuage
he follows the haematophage
from café to home
to Cambridge, to Rome
for page after page after page.

In decades that follow he chases
the guy through all sorts of dark places,
past scenes European
both posh and plebeian
pursuing his bloody red traces.

It turns out he’s not Nosferatu,
this diner who likes a-la-carte goo.
I thought about slating
this twist—zero-rating—
but realised I hadn’t the heart to.

The book's a quick read, as a gory
‘blood cries from the ground’ kind of story.
It has no pretensions
to deeper dimensions:
but that doesn’t make it deplore-y.

A grisly and violent gazette, a
purple prose Gothic French letter.
It’s fine, in its way.
though I would still say
that Hannibal does this stuff better.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Graham Edwards, Talus and the Frozen King (2014)

Some time ago, prompted I think largely by the global success of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels, many writers cast about for historical periods into which to embed their investigating detectives. For a while a great many whodunits got themselves written starring Victorian, Tudor, eighteenth-century, Ancient Roman and so on detectives. Then the vogue fizzled out—Peters died in 1995, and the historical whodunit form has largely gone out of fashion (Death Comes to Pemberly style exercises aside). Still, even when this kind of sub-genre was in vogue I don’t think anybody thought of writing a prehistorical detective, conceivably because the elevator pitch sounds, well, stupid. (What's that you say, Mitchell-and-Webb? Ah yes: 'Caveman Detective!’)

Graham Edwards’ Talus and the Frozen King has decided to plug that gap, whether or not you realised it was a gap that needed plugging: ‘Introducing the World’s First Detective’, declares the cover shout-line. Caveman detective, indeed! Now, Edwards is a veteran writer of genre Fantasy, and knows how to put a story together—it’s not Nabokov, but neither does it shirk its storytelling puzzle-box responsibilities. Talus is a sort-of rhapsode, travelling about with his companion, Bran. Once upon a time fire rained from the sky, ruining his left hand; Bran saved his life and now they have a special Caveholmes-and-Wats-ugh! thing going on. In this case, the mystery is a Warrior King frozen to death on a mysterious island called Creyak. The murderer could be any one of the king’s six scheming sons, or perhaps one of the other prominent islanders. Talus investigates. Edwards’ idea here is that detection is a matter of telling oneself stories, and that Talus has a more advanced story-telling lobe in his brain than many of his fellow cavecitizens.

It’s not entirely to Edwards’s discredit that his imagined prehistory feels underpowered compared to a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent Shaman. It’s bound to, of course. This is not a matter of specific historical anachronisms; it is a matter of tone—characters chatting on with one another like Agatha Christie ciphers in bearskins, saying deeply unNeolithic things like ‘is it true what they say, that Love survives death?’ [14] and ‘our work here is done’ [265] or Talus doing a Columbo impression (‘Just as the morning fog was folding itself around Cabarrath’s retreating form, Talus called, “Actually, I have just thought of another question”’ [151]). That’s all fine. Puzzle-whodunits are a game, and it’s boorish to complain about the rules. If you don’t want to play, don’t play. Still: I retain my reservations.

I’m assuming from the style of the title that Edwards is planning a long string of ‘Talus and the …’ murder mysteries set in prehistoric Scotland. Who knows; it could become a Thing. The problem I have with this novel is the problem I had with Brother Cadfael, back in the day. It is, fundamentally, a Foucauldian problem. The structures of detection are part of a larger episteme of mass surveillance and discipline. The lone detective figures, paradoxically, not as a solitary genius, but precisely as the epitome of the larger social forces of industrialisation and embourgeoisification, and the carceral episteme they entail. That’s the name of the game, and it misfits a pre-bourgeois world as glaringly as if Talus rode onto Creyak on a unicycle smoking a cheroot and singing an a capella version of Depeche Mode’s ‘Master and Servant’. The detective—the Holmes, the Poirot, the Rebus—is the externalisation of the principle of imprisonment; he (and usually, it is he, for reasons to do with the close structural connections between patriarchal authority and Capitalist society) intervenes in the free play of libidinal anarchy represented by the murder, and imposes the narrative-deductive grid that is his defining feature. It is entirely uncoincidental, given this discursive logic, that successful whodunit writers end up manufacturing a great quantity of mass-produced items—the seemingly endless production line that churns out Poirot novels, Cadfael novels, Maigret novels, not to mention the myriad ‘Inspector X and the Y’ style novels. ‘Is it surprising,’ Foucault asked rhetorically, in Discipline and Punish 'that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’

Friday, 19 September 2014

Bethany Griffin, The Fall (2014)

Griffin’s third fourth novel is no great departure, concept-wise, from her first previous two (The Masque of the Red Death and The Dance of the Red Death)—that is to say, it is a novel that briskly spins its hand-whisk in the rich cream of Edgar Allan Poe, producing something recognisably Poe-like that is, at the same time, considerably less dense and rich. (‘Cream of Poe’ is like regular cream, except that is, you know: black. And tastes of mausoleums. Goes well with over-ripe strawberries.)

This aerated and rather temporary concoction is The Fall of the House of Usher turned into a novel-length Gothic-y YA yarn. As such it’s all about the mood; Madeline Usher, our point-of-access beautiful, doomed young heroine, wakes up inside a coffin (‘tears wet my cheeks. I cannot breathe. I cannot breath. Blood trickles down my fingernails and I am choking’ [3]) as per Poe’s original story. Indeed, without a knowledge of this original text it seems to me this rather oddly structured tale wouldn’t make a great deal of sense. The problem is, with that knowledge, it feels a little redundant: why do we need this novelisation, when we have the original? Griffin mixes the timeline up (chapters are all named after Madeline’s age, and hop about: ‘Madeline is sixteen’, ‘Madeline is nine’, ‘Madeline is seventeen’ and so on); but the novel drags its heels. Its stacked, black, vinyl heels. The whole is 420 pages long, and could easily have lost 200 or more from the middle without missing them. But, sure: the rather repetitive plotting isn’t the point. The mood is the point. I readily concede that sour middle-aged male university professors are not the target audience for this book. The most I will say is that I tried, when reading, to unlock my inner emo teenage girl, and failed. On the plus side, props to Griffin for actually opening her novel with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’. (Strictly speaking, this is the start of chapter 2; but that’s close enough for government work, especially since chapter 1 reads like a kind of prologue):
Wind and rain, lightning and thunder, a storm throws itself against the House of Usher, rattling every window, including mine. Thunder pounds the earth and the house groans. [5]
And so on: the whole is written in this rather gnashing manner throughout (it’s less fruity than Poe’s prose, though; which is a good thing. Although more fruity than Poe would be hard to achieve. He is the fruitiest of the fruity. Hence—the cream.)

There ought to be a name for the—I think, genuinely recent—cultural logic by which a short, powerful text is expanded into a longer mode, because ‘we’ respect length in a way we don’t brevity. I’m thinking of things like: the, we can agree, dreadful, movie version of The Cat in the Hat; or the many famous short stories (‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’ pops into my head) made into lengthy movies, and often then translated back into lengthy prose form as ‘novelisations’ of the original movie. What would we call this, I wonder? And what does it say about us? One thing that strikes me is that this cultural-evaluative bias towards length (‘epic’ as a term of praise, and so on) is happening at a time when or attention spans are supposed to be getting shorter, when our online reading is supposed to be shaped by a twitter-esque logic of tl;dr. What’s up with that?