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 if 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 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.

[Jangle-jangle-guitar-strummy]
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: Piranesis 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.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Rene Cloke's Alice

Gorgeous Irene ('Rene') Cloke illustrations in this 1930s edition of "Alice in Wonderland", including a splendidly alien-like Caterpillar.











I also like this rather diabolical endpiece:


Saturday, 11 October 2014

Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things (2014)



Faber is a novelist I esteem a great deal; but this novel left me pulling my 'lost dog pondering a sign-post' face. It's not badly written, or wholly uninteresting; but by the same token I can't honestly say it really works or that I liked it, or that it struck me as ultimately worthwhile. I'd be tempted to peg it as falling down in the ways familiar from previous 'literary' novelists deciding to have a go at genre sf; except Faber's debut Under the Skin was a proper SF novel, and a very good one. So what goes wrong here?

I'll qualify myself straight away and say that some elements here go very right. The core of the novel is a portrait of a happy marriage, Peter Leigh and his wife Bea, put under the strain of enforced separation, and that's very precisely and movingly worked. I also liked very much the way Faber treats the Christian faith of his Peter and Bea: it's central to their senses of self, and it's handled in the novel with great scads of earnest Christian evangeloid and soul-searchy discourse, as they both try to comprehend and do what they take to be God's will. Like the marvellous BBC series Rev., Strange and New Things manages to give a sense of Peter's life as a vicar in England as one defined by external stresses and practicalities without losing sight of the inward, sustaining faith. It's rare to see that in contemporary fiction. (Of course, the fact that strangeness and newness have always struck me as the crucial Christian salients, howsoever obscured by centuries of tradition and the affection people have for tradition, doubtless helped Faber's representation of Christianity strike home for me where that was concerned). One of the novel's best moments, I thought, is when Peter recalls the day he proposed to Beatrice, 10.30 on a morning of sweltering heat, as the two of them were standing at an cash machine in the high street prior to doing a supermarket shop.
Maybe he should have gone down on one knee, because her "Yes, let's" had sounded hesitant and unromantic, as though she considered the proposal nothing more than a pragmatic solution to the inconvenience of high rents. [203]
Everything in the day goes wrong: their bank card is swallowed by the machine; when they go to the branch to get a new one the teller is rude and insulting and Bea storms out in a rage; outside they discover a vandal had scratched a swastika into the paintwork of the car; Bea's phone loses battery; the first garage they visit is shut, the second quotes a huge sum for the work to repair the scratched paintwork; then they discover the car exhaust is shot and will need replacing, none of which can they afford. When they eventually get home Peter realises the lamb chops they had bought had spoiled in the heat. He is about to throw them out in fury, but changes his mind. He finds Bea on the balcony of their flat, gazing at the brick wall opposite.
Her cheeks were wet.
'I'm sorry,' he said.
She fumbled for his hand, and their fingers interlocked.
'I'm crying because I'm happy,' she explained, as the sun allowed itself to be veiled in clouds. 'This is the happiest day of my life.' [204]
It's a moment more-or-less nicked from Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale of course, but never mind that. It works very well.

So, alright, but here's the problem: all this stuff is prologue and backstory only. The main focus of The Book of Strange New Things, and the reason why Peter is separated so painfully from Bea, is that he has accepted a job with a commercial corporation called USIC to work as a Christian missionary on a distant planet, Oasis. Most of the novel is set here, a hot, rather barren world with 72-hour-long night, constant rain and a spongy surface that soaks all the water up. How the water thereafter convects back into the sky to fall as rain again is not explained. Indeed, throughout these sections, the SF fan's imagination taps Faber's writing to find it not ringing true. Peter agrees to go despite knowing absolutely next-to-nothing about the distant world (Earth as a whole seems improbably uninterested in this habitable, populated planet with its English-speaking aliens), and even less about the organisation that is taking him on. He doesn't even know what 'USIC' stands for. On the space flight to his destination, and upon arrival, other characters drip-feed him (and us) information, but the notion that he'd be parcelled off on this epochal journey without training or briefing simply boggles the mind. There is some hand-wavy intimation that the hyperspace jump has scrambled his memories, so that he's forgotten stuff he was briefed on, but it's not very convincing. When Peter arrives on the planet he's left to his own devices by the other members of the colony; oddly offhand behaviour by his otherwise cost-conscious new employers, given that the expense of transportation means every coke he drinks costs hundreds of dollars and every email he sends his wife (and with nothing else to do he sends a lot) cost them $5000 a pop.

Eventually Peter makes his way to a village of aboriginals -- humanoid in shape and wearing hooded abayas, the main difference to us being that their faces look like 'two foetuses curled up'. Whatever that looks like. Peter discovers, which fact nobody had bothered to tell him, that there was a previous missionary called Kurtzberg who has subsequently disappeared; and that the otherwise opaquely baffling aliens are desperately enthusiastic to receive more Biblical teaching, readings from what they call the 'Book of Strange New Things'. So Peter sets to; and his learning the world is interspersed with epistles between himself and his wife in which she details an increasingly desperate climate collapse on the home planet, and slowly grows apart from him.

The further I read, the more I began to wonder if the weird conceptual ellipses and apparent clumsinesses were going to be explained by some clever final reveal. But, no. They're not. The rather infuriatingly leisurely telling finally works its way to an end, whereupon the reader pauses to reflect how debilitatingly second hand the whole SF element is. This is Blish's A Case of Conscience, without the focus or imaginative steel; and without Blish's deep engagement with the problematic of the human, rather than alien, incarnation of Christ in the gospels. It's Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (a much inferior book to Blish's) with only the blandly nice aliens and not the rapist feline overlords. The result is The Book Of Depressingly Familiar and Old-Fashioned Things.

Nor, despite some lovely passages here and there, is it an especially well put-together novel. Faber's novel starts slowly, and then drifts through hundreds of pages  detailing Oasan agricultural routines and Oasan funerary practises and the Oasan habits of shitting in the streets without breaking stride. It picks up some emotional heft again towards the end, though the actual ending itself, avoiding spoilers, is very anti-climactic. When he wants to represent the Oasans speaking their own language (and the difficulty they have speaking English and pronouncing our 's' and 'd'), Faber goes fontbonkers:



Over on Twitter, Samir H. (@ap0cryphal) tells me this is indeed Arabic, though in garbled form ('a native Arab speaker would be able to tell what's actually in that sentence, reading right-to-left' he tweeted me; adding 'the "s" character is called "meem", phonetically it's an "m" sound; "t" character is called "lam," phonetically it's an "l" sound'). I stop short of accusing Faber, with his bernouse-wearing, crumple-faced, shitting-in-the-street, yearning-to-hear-the-true-Gospel, white-protagonist-can't-tell-them-apart, village-dwelling, Arabic speaking aliens, of trading in racist stereotypes. But I'm standing right on the line, there. Who knows? Maybe he uses Arabic font because it's available on the MS Word font menu, and so was ready-to-hand. I don't know, though. (Near the end of the book, he refers to one of the alien's hoods as a 'hijab', so maybe it's all deliberate).

The real problem, it dawns on you as you read, is that Faber just isn't that interested in his alien Others. His story is about the strain placed upon a loving marriage by distance and other difficulties. That in turn makes the alien worldbuilding, the planetary colonisation plans, the aliens themselves pasteboard, set-dressing. A shame, all in all.

On the upside: nice cover design!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Ian Sales, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (Apollo Quartet Book 3) (2014)



Sales is a friend of mine, or as close as any male from the south of England can be friends with a male from the north of that country (never a proximity to be measured in millimetres, that. It can't be helped. It's stipulated in Magna Carta). What this means is that you must take any praise I offer here with a pinch of salt. Then again, you don't need to take my word for it. The first volume of his Apollo Quartet (2012's Adrift on a Sea of Rains) deservedly won the BSFA award, and was shortlisted for the Sidewise to boot. If I liked the second volume, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself (2012), a smidgen less, it wasn't because it was any less well written, but rather because the central conceit seemed to me to have a flaw in it. In another writer, flaws matter less; but with Sales you notice even slightest imperfections, because his literary sensibility is so fine tuned. He writes with control and precision, taking the rocket science of his alt-historical Apollo era seriously, getting all the technical details right and not shying away from the equations. At the same time he writes with conscious and only sometimes self-conscious literary skill. It's a combo that has made for a fascinating and compelling series of novellas.

Sales isn't the only writer to meld hard-sf accuracy with a properly literary sensibility, of course. Amongst contemporary writers Paul McAuley, for instance, comes to mind. But McAuley's 'literariness' has much to do with a fine style and vividness of observation out of William Golding. Sales is a different sort of author: stylistically quite purged and plain, but structurally quite ambitious. Not for nothing is he writing a 'quartet': Apollo is Lawrence Durrell without the wild thickets of purple over-prosing. And of the three Apollo Quartet books out so far, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above seems to me easily the best. It is divided between 'up' and 'down' chapters (with a leavening of 'strangeness' and 'charm'). In the up sections, an extended Korean war has resulted in Mercury astronauts being recruited from the ranks of female pilots. In the down we're in a different timeline: a US Navy bathyscaphe descends 20,000 feet into the Atlantic Puerto Rico Trench to recover a film packet dropped from a spy satellite. The two stories are well balanced, the absorbing pseudo-facticity of the former playing well off the genuine tension and excitement of the latter; and as in the earlier books (and as with the earlier books, on a formal level) the implications of juxtaposition are only partly spelled out. The result is a very memorable and effective piece of writing indeed. I am very much looking forward to seeing how Sales finishes the quartet off, not least because it will then become more apparent how the whole quaternion structure fits together. Excellence is here.

Eric Brown, Jani and the Greater Game (2014)



Steampunky alt-historical India: British Raj, 1920s vintage. A mysterious energy source called 'Annapurnite' has enabled Britain to maintain a boosted global empire. Jani Chatterjee, precocious teenager and the daughter of an Indian government minister, is returning home from Cambridge University via airship when the Russians attack. She is saved from Russian violation and murder by a weird creature: 'long and thin, its skin deathly white ... its features were almost human' (alien? Frankenstein's monster? Peter Crouch?) From there-on it's a series of diverting adventures in Brown's alt-Raj: dastardly plots are afoot; life-size mechanical elephants are there for the riding; Annapurnite is not all it seems. It's enjoyable stuff, if perhaps a little underinflated, narratively speaking. Sometimes it reads like a jolly novella expanded to novel length; and few of the twists surprised me. Still, Jani is an appealing protagonist, and the pastiche Edwardian-y ripping yarn style is fun. But why take my 21st-century word for it? Why not go to the source: actual journals and newspapers from the alt-1920s. How do they describe the book? General Sir Rochford Faughles said



And? And whom? No matter. Turn instead to the celebrated sapient dog and critic, Sir Collie Wilkins, who identified the key elements of the story as comprising:



All in all: tasty.



The following image has nothing to do with Eric Brown, and is in no way intended as a caricature of him.