Monday, 27 July 2009

Brian Aldiss has a mother complex.

There's no other way to explain his novel FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND. In it, Joe Bodenland, a man from the 21st century slips back in time to the 19th century; specifically, to Switzerland, where he first meets Victor Frankenstein and his monster and then, after another displacement, Mary Shelley and her illustrious companions. He becomes obsessed with thwarting first Frankenstein, and then his monsters.

There's some good stuff along the way. Aldiss' portraits of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron are colourful and convincing. The narrator's various meditations on the scientific quest to learn more and improve on nature are occasionally though-provoking, raising interesting questions about, for instance, whether rationality has really done more for human dignity than religion, even when the points they make are debatable (did religion really protect the basic dignity of every human being more than reason-based capitalism? It seems unlikely). Aldiss' depiction of the monster and its mate (yes, Frankenstein Makes Woman in this pastiche) are pretty good, too.

But there's little sense to it all. The narrator is obsessed with destroying the monster and his mate, even though they seem to deserve it little enough. Bodenland himself becomes a bit of a monster in his murderous quest. There are one too many time-slips, and nothing is really explained or tied up.

Most egregious of all, the narrator sleeps with Mary Shelley, for little reason other than that he is there, and he makes her happy by telling her that he is a time traveller who can vouch for the eventual success of her novel. It seems highly out of character from what I've read of Mary Shelley, who was no libertine, and certainly the fact that the narrator is presented as an old man, a grandfather, at the end of his career, makes the liaison that much stranger. I think Aldiss just wanted to fantasise about making love to Mary Shelley, whom he has often described as the mother of his genre, and to hell with sense or plot coherence. Having written this bit of slash fic, he then built a fairly shoddy structure around it, and then, being of a thoughtful bent of mind, fleshed it out a bit with philosophical ramblings.

The end result is less than a novel, not quite an essay. An alogether vexatious and disappointing exercise. Aldiss is one of the more interesting and original literary SF writers, and one with a keen engagement with the genre's nature and history. I expected much more from his take on what he holds to be one of the first, if not the first, SF novel.
I am convinced in my self-sufficiency, and that of those around me. I read about different techniques of thought or systems of belief, introspection, change, and I encounter people who are fascinated by them, by new ideas and new syntheses, and it all strikes me as an elaborate way of deferring the inevitable. You can spend your life chasing transhumanism, the singularity, nirvana, moksha, righteousness, the rapture, some new exciting convergence of human, cyber and divine...it's a fun ploy, but all it does is take up time. We're already self-sufficient, and nothing really changes all that much. An intelligent individual from any period in history could be transferred to any other and, with a few years of training and re-orientation, fit right in. Or not - but so many people from our own time period fail miserably to fit right in. I think by this time, you mostly know what it is you need to know by the time you're an adult, and it's a question of applying it. But people are addicted to searching aren't they? Our myths and religions prime us for it, for looking at life as a quest, a struggle, a search. It can be, for specific new things - a continent over the horizon, a cure for cholera, a new way to paint the sunset, the right words for what you've decided to say. But searching for yourself, or disguising the search for yourself in some other search? It strikes me as silly. How can you search for something with the very thing you're searching for? No, we are already sufficient unto ourselves and it's just a question of realising that and working with it.
3 Days To Never: Tim Powers

I hope that the trade vagaries that resulted in his latest novel being reasonably well distributed in India (this is the first of his novels I have bought here first-hand and within a year of publication - that I then waited an additional two years to read it is another matter) continue to hold good for Tim Powers' future novels. They're just that good. While his earlier novels are more diverse, he's been focusing on fast-paced thrillers that take some chunk of recorded recent history, re-interpret it in the light of wild occult theories and Powers' own unique approach to practical magic and result in what people call 'secret histories'. All this would be so much dry arcana without Powers' knack for creating flawed, credible and appealing characters and his gift for vivid, relentless narrative and tight plotting.

'3 Days To Never' is based on the concept that the nuclear bomb was not Einstein's most horrific brainchild; that he had delved into kabbalic esoterica and developed a device or technique that could, at different levels of application, allow you to erase an individual from the world's history, to travel through time, and at the highest level, to be mentally aware of all time and space at once; to be like a god. Einstein hid these secrets well. Rival secret societies - an obscure branch of the Mossad and a group of European occultists - are on the lookout for them.

When Frank Marrity and his daughter travel to Frank's grandmother's house in response to a very strange phone call in which the grandmother claims to have burned down a ramshackle old outhouse, they discover a long-lost paving slab with Charlie Chaplin's hand and footprints on it, a box of letters written by Albert Einstein and catch a glimpse of gold buried beneath the floorboards of the shed, which is still intact. Grandmother, however, is not - she was mysteriously found dying quite far from home minutes after she must have made the call to Frank.

Frank and his daughter soon find themselves in the midst of a vastly complicated game of spy vs. spy, as each side tries to get information out of them. The plot is complex - really too complex to keep track of at times. But Powers' narration, always grounded in his main characters' experience and impressions is what kept me locked in for the duration. As did the cast of variously noble, cantankerous, tragic or downright twisted characters - Powers has a particularly good line in villains, as usual. As in any time travel novel, there is at least one time-travelling character present. I won't reveal the time-traveller's identity, but it has startling consequences for one of the main characters, and makes at least part of the novel about who we are, who we might become, and how the choices we make, along with an element of pure chance, could some day make us unrecognisable to ourselves.

There was much more I wanted to touch on about this novel - the use of quotations from 'The Tempest' that make the story sometimes seem to parallel Shakespeare's play and add so much resonance to it all, the business with Charlie Chaplin, the supremely creepy Baphomet head, several other characters, but that would result in one of those reviews that wind up being a needlessly detailed plot-summary with a few appreciative gurgles tacked on. Instead, I'll end by saying that concepts like 'slipstream' tend to be bandied - and practiced - as if they were esoteric, ultra-hip and difficult disciplines. It takes a master like Powers to use the idea of melding together disparate genres to create gripping entertainment with both head and heart.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Tibor Fischer is clearly one of those virtuoso writers the UK produces every so often, like Martin Amis or Will Self, or at least that's the mode in which he writes his third novel, THE COLLECTOR COLLECTOR. The premise is fantastic, and brilliant, really - an ancient sentient pot that has been through the hands of all sorts of people over the milennia is the narrator. So, the mainline story - of the psychic antique assessor, Rosa, her troublesome houseguest, the corrupt Nikki, a freebooting sexual adventurer whose past keeps trying to catch up with her (a sort of nod to Amis' Nicola Six? Could be...) and her quest for True Love - is interspersed with tales from the pot's past. These are a collection of unfailingly fascinating, inventive fables - I'd have been best pleased had Fischer minimised the framing narrative and simply given us Tales Of A Pot, like Calvino's Invisible Cities. However, the Rosa narrative is told with the same verbal brio as the pot's potted fables, so everything's readable, even if the endless relationship-talk between Rosa, Nikki and occasionally Rosa's pal Lettuce occasionally reads like a Candace Bushnell outtake. After indulging in some cynical posturing along the way (the pot has never seen good vs. evil in its extensive knowledge of and cataloguing of human experience, but it has seen much of evil vs. evil, or evil vs. evil vs. evil and so on), there's a sudden burst of happy coincidence that leaves Rosa in the arms of her dream guy, an ending about which I can only comment that, well, the book had to end at some point, and an upper is as good as a downer, I guess. The best parts of the book are the potted tales, of course, with the present-day narrative working as a sort of Amis-lite pastiche, as edible as the real thing if not quite as nutritious.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Unexpected fucking consequences will bite you in the ass every time.

Last year, we took in a stray pup. It was the rainy season and she seemed helpless and lost. As time went by, she became part of our household.

Earlier this year, we took in a neighbour's abandoned pup. Again, she seemed helpless and we told ourselves it was only until we found a new home for her.

Today, in the afternoon, we heard a cat screaming on the terrace.

I ran up to find that the two strays had pinned our grey tabby, Happy, down. The stray we took in last year had his neck in her jaws and was shaking him vigorously.

We chased the dogs away and tried to make Happy comfortable, but he died within the hour.

I'd been worried about the way the dogs were chasing our cats - in play, I suppose, but who gives a fuck about that, now - for a while. This was the final straw. I asked Yasmine to call the CUPA shelter and arrange for the dogs to be taken away. The van came for them an hour back.

Now we're boarding them there until we can find new homes for them. I suppose we owe them that much. But that's it. No more fucking dogs in the house. I don't give a shit how appealing or helpless they seem. This was my worst fucking birthday ever, and believe me, that's saying something. I'm not willing to deal with a repeat of it.

In the meantime, Happy, the fierce little cat who was first found in a dustbin, always ready to fight with cats twice his size, but always purry and loving with humans, could well have been left there in that dustbin to rot for all the good being rescued did him. He died cold, wet, frightened and in pain, brutalised by a pair of dogs and, worse yet, betrayed by the humans who were supposed to be keeping him safe.

I am sorry, Happy. I am so fucking sorry. I know your pain is over now, and that's the only thing that gives me any sense of relief in this fucked up situation.

Monday, 6 July 2009

The City And The City by China Mieville

I really like China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels, but I'm well pleased with diverse bibliography he's building up - three secondary-world fantasies, a work of urban fantasy, a fantasy novel for teenagers, a collection of mostly horrific short stories, and now this.

THE CITY AND THE CITY (what a great name for a novel - I'd love to commission a whole gaggle of authors to write books with that name) is a detective novel, set in a city where reality is oddly skewed. It follows Detective Inspector Tyador Borlu's investigation into the death of an unknown female murder victim. Borlu lives in an East European city called Besz; a city that co-exists in mutual avoidance with another East European city, called Ul Qoma.

Parts of the cities are total - either completely Besz or Ul Qoma. Others are crosshatched. Still others are disputed. The inhabitants of the cities go to great lengths to unsee each other and each other's cities - if they cross over by any means other than the single official channel available, they are in breach, and will be dealt summary justice by a mysterious third-party organisation known simply as Breach.

At some point in the past the two cities either diverged or converged; no one is really sure, least of all the North American archaeologists who work the digs in Ul Qoma, fertile with odd, anachronistic artifacts, barren of explanations. The dead woman turns out to have been one of these, a brilliant but maverick scholar who at one point gave credence to a madcap theory that a third city, Orciny, somehow exists in the interstices of the two cities. The theory is discredited, even by the man who first came up with it, but soon he, and another young researcher who has been showing interest in Orciny, come under threat.

Along the way, we're treated to a fascinating exploration of the political and personal dynamics of living in this sundered city - a journey that in many ways is reminiscent of living in any city in a world riven with conflicts and self-imposed divides, but taken to the next degree.

Borlu's investigation lead him into murky areas, and the several layers of deception are stripped away to arrive at the solution. The resolution is much less fantastic than I'd hoped - quite sordid in fact, which says something about the fact that Mieville doesn't expect commerce, politics and morality to interact in any more salubrious a way than in our world, no matter what reality conditions prevail.

I personally expected a bit more than this self-contained, and as a mystery novel, complete narrative. We never really get to know more about why the city and the city co-exist in this strange way, whether the sundering is somehow real or only an elaborate cultural norm, an extreme stratification of the way in which people of different cultures or classes ignore each other in the streets of any city you'd care to sample. Certainly, outsiders, animals and young children seem to have considerable trouble keeping the two cities separate. I'm inclined to think that the whole thing is symbolic, it's in the mind, but why? Besz sounds vaguely Slavic; Ul Qoma has Turkish overtones - is this a multicultural city that has taken segregation to a metaphysical extreme? Or have two physical cities somehow, fantastically, come to overlap in the same time and place?

Perhaps it's better that Mieville didn't resolve these questions - a complete reveal can often be no more than a cheap pay-off when the author was more interested in raising questions and sparking unease than in answering questions and placating readers with a made-up resolution. That would certainly be consistent with Mieville's past mode of operation. It may well be that this novel will rise in my estimation with further consideration. As it stands, I would have to say that it is indeed very good, but somehow didn't quite satisfy me.

Friday, 3 July 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

A much better novel than Neverwhere, Anansi Boys or Stardust. Quite dark, fantastic and gripping, with a male protagonist who for once is not completely nondescript, although he still tends to be overshadowed by his supporting cast. A very tightly engineered plot too, although some of the credit goes to Kipling, whose Jungle Books this story is partly patterned after.

The dark stuff gets going with a brutal multiple murder in chapter one - awesome way to start a juvenile novel, Mr. Gaiman - and just gets better with a delicious visit to a funereal world where ghouls feast on what it is that ghouls feast on and night gaunts circle overhead. It put me in mind of scenes from Lovecraft's 'The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath'. There are lots of other great set-pieces, including a memorable danse macabre, dreamwalking and knock-out final confrontation with the villainous Jacks-Of-All-Trades. The villains, as usual, are exquisitely wicked and genuinely creepy and the roster of supporting characters parallels Kipling's while being memorable in its own right.

Definitely one of his most satisfying long-format works. May even be as good as Coraline.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Unemployment is my long-term goal.
I should have a new short story for children out sometime soon.

I've almost completed another story I have been working on. I've been torn between two endings and have suddenly had the clever idea of putting them both in. Let's see...

The Time-Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I only read this one because it was there, on a shelf at home, and my wife made carefully non-committal statements about it.

It was as bad as I'd feared it would be when I first heard about it.

Momentarily fascinating, fleetingly promising and then thuddingly, ploddingly tedious is this story of Henry, the impossibly cool and versatile librarian, punk rock enthusiast, son of a famous dead opera singing mother and alcoholic second violin father. In other words, one of those annoying hipster Hornby-eque protags, except that he is chronologically displaced, he has a genetic quirk that makes his suddenly leap back or forth in time at times of great stress, or just in general for no real reason. It's also the story of Clare, impossibly beautiful and talented paper-making artist who meets Henry at various points in her life from the ages of 8 and 18 as he keeps travelling back in time to convince her that they are to marry. Finally, they meet in their own shared time line and marry.

There are moments when it seems interesting - mostly when Henry is meeting his own younger selves and they talk about the meaning of it all, whither freewill & c. But once the love story takes over, it is like every terrible romantic movie ever made rolled into one. There's the awkward Xmas with the wealthy parents of the girl. I thought I was reading a novelisation of Meet The Parents when Clare's white bread family finds out Henry is half Jewish. There's the broken old father finding new hope in life thanks to his wonderful new daughter in law. The cool friends. They go to a Violent Femmes concert and dance and Clare confronts Henry's ex to jump-cuts of lyric scraps. Their struggle to have a child against all the odds. Clare's nightmares after losing her mother, after her miscarriages. Henry's nightmares of his penis falling off after he loses his feet in a terrible accident. Has Audrey Niffenegger never met a cliche she didn't love?

This is one of those books that is so absorbed in giving the main characters complex personas and biogs that it forgets to give them souls. I couldn't care for or relate to a man who is supposed to have lived before marriage in a flat that was mostly just a sofa, a bed and 4000 books, just like I used to. That's quite an achievement on the author's part and a mark of how little her characters came to life in a manner that made sense given all the attributes she attached to them. Her characters are so nondescript under all the minutiae that one can barely distinguish between Henry and Clare's first-person narratives, which keep alternating throughout the novel. Note to Niffenegger: If you can't pull off different narrative voices just write in in third-person omniscient next time, okay?

Most of all, the story becomes creepier the more you think about it. How do we even know that Henry and Clare would ever have married if Henry hadn't brainwashed her into loving him throughout her childhood and adolescence? He makes Humbert Humbert seem like Mother Teresa once you accept the possibility that he has simply obsessed over a woman he once met, time-travelled to her past and manipulated her into becoming his wife. Go back and re-read this book with this scenario in mind. It makes incredible amounts of sense. A supremely unsavoury narrative of predation and mind-rape hidden in what people including the author seem to imagine is a love story. Better yet, don't even bother reading it the first time.

To my extreme relief, my wife later told me that she didn't like the book at all, but wanted me to draw my own conclusions. She's probably considerably more of a sadist than I realised at first, but at least neither of us is a time-traveller.

To sum up: Borges once said there is no need to write 500-page novels whose core idea can be summed up in a few minutes. How one wishes Niffenegger had heard and heeded his words.