Category Archives: fiction

Reading Plan for Chaos by John Wyndham, ed. David Ketterer and Andy Sawyer

This review was first published in Vector in 2009.

Plan For Chaos – John Wyndham, ed. David Ketterer and Andy Sawyer
Liverpool University Press, Liverpool; 2009, 268 pp. £65.00

One cannot help feeling a certain frisson of anxiety on learning that, forty years after his death, John Wyndham has published a new novel. Plan for Chaos came to light after Wyndham’s papers were acquired by the Sydney Jones Library at Liverpool University in 1998, and given the ongoing controversy over the publication of authors’ lost and suppressed manuscripts, it is a relief to learn that Wyndham would probably have been delighted to see it finally appear. When first completed, it was unsuccessfully circulated to a number of publishers, and revised at least once as a result of editorial comments, but generated little interest despite the best efforts of Frederik Pohl, Wyndham’s US agent – ‘I seem to be almost alone in my enthusiasm for it’ (13). Although Wyndham recognised that it had problems, he struggled to find the best way to revise it, and eventually returned the manuscript to his files.

Looking at the novel now, it is not difficult to see why a publisher in 1950 would demur. When Pohl proposed revising the novel himself, he diagnosed one of the main problems. ‘I suppose the entire Nazi element needs to come out’. Doubtless, people didn’t want to consider the idea of a resurgent Nazi movement formed of cloned humans as a future possibility so soon after the end of World War Two. Whether Pohl addressed what seems to me to be the other major weakness of this novel, David Ketterer’s introduction does not say, but at least one publisher noted that Part 1 would benefit from drastic cutting. There is no getting past the fact that this is a novel of two remarkably disparate halves, to the extent that when I began Part 2 I initially thought the first-person viewpoint had shifted to a different character entirely, and was startled to discover that Johnny Farthing was still telling the story. While I don’t doubt Ketterer’s belief that the two bound volumes of the manuscript do indeed form one novel, and were submitted as such, I am less convinced that they started out as a single entity.

Ketterer’s research suggests that immediately after the war, Wyndham began to rework earlier unsuccessful projects, but as his records covering the immediate post-war period are fragmentary, and the few references in Grace Wilson’s diary and Vivian Harris’s biographical notes about his brother are tantalisingly vague, it is not clear whether Wyndham created this novel from scratch, or incorporated material from another abandoned project. Either way, this is a peculiar piece of work. Wyndham, a man acutely sensitive to the demands of the market, apparently intended Plan for Chaos to be not ‘what the enthusiast classifies as science-fiction, but, I hope, more what the general public thinks s-f to be’(11). Ketterer interprets this as meaning that Wyndham wanted to write something with a broader appeal, which seems reasonable, but the comment remains enigmatic given that I suspect the general public had a very clear idea of what science fiction was, and think Wyndham wished to conceal that he was writing science fiction. Certainly, he had already commented to Pohl that if a novel’s beginning ‘were to be presented in the more familiar style of a detective-story a number of people who customarily scorn s-f might be brought to start it and trapped into going through with it’ (10).

This is what seems to be happening in part 1 of Plan for Chaos, which might charitably be described as a sub-Chandleresque thriller. Johnny Farthing, an Englishman of Swedish descent, is working in the US as a photographer for the magazine Choice. Covering a story about a young woman’s unexplained death, he notices that she looks remarkably like his fiancée, Freda. A second, similar young woman dies inexplicably and when Freda disappears, having apparently left her flat with Johnny, he discovers that, despite his exceedingly striking appearance, he also seems to have a double.

Inevitably, Johnny’s enquiries attract attention and he is picked up by the group behind the kidnap. He is not particularly surprised to find that all the women in the organisation look superficially like Freda, while all the men look rather like him. Moreover, they are all identified by numbers, and find it impossible to account for Johnny’s unnerving similarity to them. Johnny manages to assume the identity of one of the multiples, and is thus able to make his way to their headquarters before the substitution is discovered. The one surprising element of this first section of narrative is that the group he is travelling with is transported by flying saucer, although they remain within Earth’s atmosphere.

As a detective story, Part 1 of Plan for Chaos seems rather half-hearted. Although the story’s initial premise is deeply intriguing, Johnny is an observer, not an investigator. Once the organisation is in control of the action, he functions more comfortably as an observer and commentator than as a man of action, in common with many of Wyndham’s male protagonists. Detached from the action, Johnny has time to reflect on what’s happening, but lacks the ability to analyse his experience, and thus the immediate revelation of Part 2 is far more of a shock to him than seems reasonable given the evidence he already has.

Had I blind-read Part 1, I would have been hard-pressed to identify it as by John Wyndham. There are, with hindsight, certain embryonic themes that one might regard as quintessential Wyndham concerns. The identical men and women will surface again, in slightly different form, in The Midwich Cuckoos, while Freda reminds me strongly of Phyllis in The Kraken Wakes. The classic Wyndham uncertainty about the nature of women is also in place. Johnny is at times conservative in his attitudes towards women, though he is equally admiring of their independence. One is slightly surprised to find that he and Freda are engaged (though not yet married because Freda’s father is opposed because they are first cousins). Their relationship seems to be more one of companionship than one of passion.

In Part 2 the novel’s tone shifts markedly to something that is more recognisably the Wyndham of Day of the Triffids. The prose seems more measured and the emphasis is on exploration of issues than on explosive action. Johnny’s first encounter with The Mother reveals how she intends to bring countries to war through feigned attacks by other powers, after which her ‘children’ will take over and create a new Germany. She lays out her philosophy in great detail, though Johnny is somewhat sceptical of many of her claims, and revolted by others. In particular, he is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of cloning, seeing it as unnatural (and indeed he later expresses fears at the thought of a monosexual race), and he is equally uncomfortable with Freda’s calm acceptance.

Here, we meet those familiar Wyndham themes: the terrifying unknowability of women, and the struggle between Science and Nature. On the one hand, it has to be Freda who identifies The Mother’s failure to fully comprehend her children’s emotional needs. While they may believe in her cause, ‘that hasn’t stopped them at the same time wanting babies, husbands, homes of some kind.’ (175). The Mother, as Freda notes, has devised a machine with no safety valve. (At the same time, Wyndham portrays at least one man who has secretly married ‘out’ and fathered a child, so he apparently is sensitive to the idea that men might seek the same security, even if Johnny hasn’t quite figured it out.) On the other hand, while Johnny is revolted at The Mother’s manipulation of what he sees as natural processes, it is Freda who points out that his attitude would have deprived humanity of such things as safe anaesthesia.

The Mother’s solution to the lack of a safety valve – to use Johnny’s and Freda’s children as ‘new blood’ – is greeted with dismay because it will obviously take at least another generation to come to fruition. This provides the spark to ignite a rebellion; different factions wrangle over whether they should initiate The Mother’s plan, and in the confusion Johnny and Freda, along with a group of others, escape in one of the flying saucers, taking with them a vast amount of data about The Mother’s scientific work.

What finally happens to that information remains unclear, but Ketterer invites us to read Plan for Chaos as a covert prequel to Day of the Triffids, particularly as the two seem to have been written concurrently, and suggests that Wyndham’s work on Plan helped resolve difficulties he was experiencing with Triffids, in terms of establishing the technology that produces the triffids and causes the satellite malfunctions in the latter novel. Ketterer’s arguments are persuasive, ingenious even, suggesting that Wyndham perhaps planned a future history trilogy, though there seems to be little if any substantive evidence for this last thought.

Instead, we are left with Plan for Chaos, Wyndham’s orphan novel. We have no way of knowing now what kind of reaction it might have drawn had it been published in 1950. It would have been groundbreaking, but I wonder if it would have been successful. Now it is more of an historical curiosity but for anyone with a serious interest in Wyndham’s writing, it is a must-read. While Part 1 stumbles badly, Part 2 shows, quite startlingly, the moment when Wyndham became Wyndham. To that end, one can only hope that Liverpool University Press will publish this in paperback, as the hardback price puts it way out of reach of most pockets.

Too, Too Tilling For Words

I came to E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories sometime early in the 1980s, partly because I was already interested in Benson as a writer of ghost stories, partly because Aubrey Woods adapted and read some of the Mapp and Lucia stories on Radio 4 (and seems to have dramatised them as well). His characterisations were such that even now, several tv adaptations later, when I think about Benson’s stories, I still hear Woods’ Lucia trilling ‘Georgie’ or ‘Peppino’ in my head, and imagine her to be a more animated, more nakedly scheming version of Margaret Thatcher, and with slightly better dress sense. His Mapp I don’t really remember but Prunella Scales seemed to me to capture the essence of her.

The other reason I’ve maintained an interest in the stories is, of course, that I live not so far away from Rye, the original of Tilling. It’s a brisk half-hour drive away, or a more leisurely train or bus ride away. Paul Kincaid and I have visited it more than a few times over the years. I like Rye. It is very pretty and teeters on the brink of chocolate-box tweeness, especially in summer, when the tourists flock in, before suddenly remembering at the last moment that it is actually a real place, where people still live and work. I always used to enjoy visiting Lamb House, the original of Mallards, and Benson’s home for many years. Not that you’d have known it when we went there. The tenants at the time were very pro-Henry James, an earlier resident, and one had to look really, really hard for any sign of Benson’s having been there at all. (For that matter, there was no indication that another author, Rumer Godden, had ever lived there.)

And so, Christmas 2014 brings another tv adaptation of Benson’s stories, in three parts, on BBC1. I’d assumed Miranda Richardson would be playing Lucia, so was rather startled to find she was playing Mapp (and with monstrous false teeth that seemed to distort her face. It’s true that Benson appears to have had some slight preoccupation with women with large teeth – his story, ‘Mrs Amworth’, seems to be about a vampiric version of Miss Mapp – but I can’t believe he had in mind anything along the lines of Richardson’s truly alarming dentition). Anna Chancellor’s Lucia looked pretty but that was about all you could say for her. The supporting cast all looked lovely and I really enjoyed their knowing glances and exchanges as they humoured two overweening egos.

Steve Pemberton had been playing somewhat fast and loose with the stories; the episode with the fake guru occurred in Queen Lucia, before Lucia left her beloved Riseholme and moved to Tilling, and other things had been moved around. Initially, I found myself in full ‘it’s a travesty’ mode for the first episode, before deciding that it might not be full-on Benson, but actually I was quite enjoying it. It seemed to me to catch something of the spirit, even if it was a very brisk trot through a few of the best-known set-pieces.

And then I decided that given I hadn’t read the stories for at least twenty-five years, probably longer, I really ought to revisit them. I wasn’t feeling well and I fancied a light read.

Now, I could turn this article into a list of all the things Pemberton got wrong, left out, and so forth, but that’s not particularly interesting, and even I have grasped the idea that tv adaptations are not necessarily faithful to the text (but please don’t start me on series 3of Father Brown otherwise we’ll be here all night). And anyway, that’s not actually what I started thinking about when I reread the books.

Instead, what struck me was how much I had misremembered them. Or maybe, how differently I see them as a 50-something from when I first read them as a 20-something. Because what I recall as being light, frothy, witty, and amusing has with age become, to quote Georgie, quite ‘tar’some’.

The first novel, Queen Lucia (1920), is set in Riseholme, the village where Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and her husband, Philip, live in a house that comprises two cottages knocked into one, part-modernised, part retaining its original features(such as the spit in the fireplace, diamond glass windowpanes, and no electricity – and period furniture). Lucia has an Elizabethan bowls alley, and a flower border devoted entirely to the flowers mentioned in Ophelia’s famous speech in Hamlet. She spends her days flitting from literary appreciation to piano practice to learning Greek and Latin, presiding over the cultural life of the village. The village itself seems to be little more than a stage set – to take one example, the village stocks, placed by the pond, were presented by the Lucases. Everything is very Ye Olde, and deliberately so. It’s laughably pretentious, and that of course is the point. It is meant to be toe-curling as well as funny.

But I was struck by how quickly it stopped being funny and just carried on being embarrassing. Perhaps it is that Daisy Quantock isn’t really sufficient as a sparring partner for Lucia. She may get caught out once in a while but there is never any real doubt as to who is in charge, and it is Lucia. Her iron will has turned Riseholme into an ongoing village pageant, with Lucia in the starring role, of course. It’s a very pretty sort of life but very unwholesome, for the reader as well as most of its participants. And yet, while everyone seems to chafe against the rule of Queen Lucia, no one really protests. Lucia imposes her ghastly cultural totalitarianism on everyone and no one ever quite has the nerve to contest it. (Though I don’t doubt they heaved a sigh of relief the moment her car set off down the road for Tilling.)

Lucia in London (1927) is interesting in that we see Lucia as a brazen social climber among other brazen social climbers, being observed by people who know precisely what they’re all up to. It’s not so much comedy as fairly sharp social observation. What is left ambiguous is whether Lucia has admitted to herself that she simply isn’t cutting it in London society but is swimming in a shoal of other people just like her. In the end, it’s the expense that seems to be the problem with spending much time in London, but equally, one can’t help thinking that it is the sheer hard work of trying to keep up the pretence that sends Lucia back to Riseholme.

In Miss Mapp (1922), one might argue that Elizabeth Mapp performs a similar role to Lucia, keeping Tilling society firmly under control, but I’d suggest that there are several significant differences. First, while Mapp is a social arbiter, I don’t think her image of what Tilling ought to be is as clear as Lucia’s is for Riseholme, and later for Tilling. Second, I’d suggest that Tilling society does, to a certain extent, rather enjoy the conformity of regular bridge nights and little suppers, and so on. And yet, the Tillingites are a most unruly lot when it comes to change, and they will resist it. Variety is one thing, but they like their rituals, too. Nights in and nights out all have their regular patterns – everyone knows where everyone else will be and what they will be doing. If Lucia imposes patterns on people by taking actual charge of social events, Mapp is concerned with social conformity: why do Captain Puffin and Major Benjy seem to keep such late hours, and so forth. Even Quaint Irene’s lack of conformity conforms to everyone’s expectations of her as their resident non-conformist.

Probably the most successful novel of the six is Mapp and Lucia (1931), when the two women finally meet and battle it out for social supremacy in Tilling. Lucia represents the force for change, Mapp stands for tradition and continuity, yet they are so evenly matched, neither can ever achieve supremacy. And in the meantime, the other inhabitants of Tilling are quick to criticise. Something that is never properly explored in the adaptations is the role of Godiva (Diva) Plaistow. If Georgie is Lucia’s confidant and knowing facilitator, Diva might best be described as Mapp’s conscience. She has a very disconcerting habit of telling Mapp the truth, to her face, and pointing out her foolishness. This is something that never happens to Lucia, who is so very often protected from nastiness. Oh, she is aware that people don’t like her, or have snubbed her for one reason or another, but she never seems to me to fully grasp why that might be, whereas Diva is always on hand to make it quite clear to Mapp when she has overstepped the mark.

I was struck too by how much darker the books are, generally. Major Benjy is less genial and tolerant than Steve Pemberton would have us believe. In the adaptation, he and Georgie exchange glances and you can see them thinking, ‘women, eh?). In the novels, Major Benjy is deeply suspicious of Georgie’s apparent effeminacy, to the point of not terribly covert homophobia. Georgie’s grimacing distaste for manly pastimes is set against the comedy masculinity of his huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ and dog-owning sisters. He and Lucia both express a distaste for sex, in or out of marriage, which is apparent justification for their marrying, for convenience and companionship after Lucia is widowed. Mapp’s eventual marriage to Major Benjy is followed by an extraordinary interlude in which she either pretends to be pregnant or does experiences a phantom pregnancy. It is as if she has decided that the only way she can triumph over Lucia is by suggesting that she and Major Benjy do have a sexual relationship, unlike Lucia and Georgie.

And I have to face the fact that the novels are also rather repetitive. Mapp trumps Lucia, Lucia trumps Mapp, stalemate ensues. There will be another panic as to whether Lucia will have to appear to speak Italian when in fact she doesn’t, or be obliged to play all of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, when she can really only play the first movement. There are occasional victories for one or the other, including the story where Mapp loses badly on investments and she and the Major are forced to leave Mallards, which Lucia, who has done well, promptly buys from Mapp, who is then exiled to Lucia’s Grebe Cottage, which is of course prone to flooding. It’s not so much a comedy as rather mean-spirited.

In the end, I find that much as I liked the books when I was younger, I do not like them half as much as I once did. Which actually makes me rather sad.

Archive – Osama – Lavie Tidhar

Another blast from the archive, my review of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama originally appeared in Interzone in 2011.

Lavie Tidhar, PS Publishing, 276pp, hb

After the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, literary commentators speculated about the form of the first 9/11 novel. Speculation turned to disappointment when the novels did begin to emerge. Perhaps they had anticipated panoramic novels that witnessed the heroism and tragedy of those terrible hours, promoting the grand narrative of national survival, validating America’s moral victory through military action. However, the consequences of 9/11, and the other terrorist attacks of the last few years, in London, Europe, across the Middle East, Africa, are less easily marked as they ripple out through the lives of everyone involved however peripherally, uncommented on but always present.

How does a writer address this? For that matter, how does a writer address the existence of someone like Osama Bin Laden, a figure so abstract one suspects he exists only to act as a scapegoat for society? How else but as a fictional character in a pulp fiction. Which brings us to Lavie Tidhar’s remarkable new novel, Osama. At first glance it seems to be a provocatively titled private eye novel, focusing on Joe, who has been asked by a beautiful young woman to find Mike Longshott, the undoubtedly pseudonymous author of the very popular Osama Bin Laden – Vigilante series which everyone seems to be reading. As is the way of detective novels, a new case brings danger and Joe finds himself targeted by mysterious assassins. His only clue to the whereabouts of Mike Longshott is that his publisher is based in Paris. Joe sets out on an odyssey to find Longshott, a journey which will take him to Paris, London and New York.

While the story may start as a genre detective novel nothing is quite what it seems. Our expectations are constantly challenged in tiny ways. For example, unconventionally, Joe works as a private investigator in Laos rather than LA His new client has given Joe no reason why he must find Longshott but the task seems to be peculiarly meant for him. The presence of the Osama bin Laden books is sufficient indication that Osama is set in an alternative universe but it’s not so much detail as mood that alerts the reader. If this novel were a film, it would be in black and white, reflecting Joe’s own sense of the past gathering around him.

If life is simple on a day-to-day level, reality is still constantly reshaping itself in ways that don’t always quite make sense to Joe or to the reader. Characters waver in and out of view, literally. Events lack even a fictional logic. Something is always indefinably ‘off’. It is therefore possible to read this novel as a narrative about the nature of literature, about the way genres speak to another, how borders are never quite as stable as people like to imagine they are. I interpreted the novel that way the first time I read it, seeing Tidhar happily confounding the reader’s expectations.

But this novel is as elusive as it is allusive (and it is filled with references to pulps, children’s books, film); a second reading brings a different, richer and much darker understanding of what’s going on, with clues to the nature of the mysterious ‘refugees’ who are constantly referred to, who seem to press around Joe as he continues his journey. The journey itself now seems strangely drawn out, with no proper end in sight.

Given the genre conventions in play, you may already be anticipating the denouement of this novel; you will be correct, but you will also be wrong. While Tidhar has transformed terrorist attacks into narrative intrusions into Joe’s world in order to write about them without glorifying them, the deeper question that needs to be grappled with is just what kind of world is Joe living in? Or rather, given that Osama is clearly a metafiction, who is constructing Joe’s world and from what? This is a question each reader answers for his or herself, in part because we also re-construct Joe’s world, based on what we know. This prompts us to think about how we tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world; that is what lies at the heart of this novel. Layers of fiction mount up as Tidhar works his way deep into the emotional debris of Joe’s life. As a result, Osama is incredibly complex and intensely moving. It is already on my best of the year list.

Europe in Autumn – Dave Hutchinson

Europe in Autumn – Dave Hutchinson
(Solaris Books, 2014)

The original coureurs des bois (the runners of the woods) were French-Canadian woodsmen who Europe in Autumnventured into the North American interior, trading goods with the native peoples in return for furs, learning their languages and cultural practices, sometimes taking native wives. Early on there was some official encouragement of this as the French, who claimed the territory, needed men who could negotiate with the indigenous peoples but as the authorities became more interested in matters of regulation and ownership, the coureurs des bois, unlicensed as they mostly were, pushed even deeper into the interior in an effort to circumvent the authorities’ attempts to curb their operations. They were explorers and adventurers, intensely romantic figures, often treated as outlaws, and some of them were probably crooks, though on occasion they could also be of use to the authorities. Above all, they were beholden to no one but themselves, careless of borders, able to travel swiftly, and mostly unremarked, thanks to their skills as woodsmen.

The desire to explore the forbidden or the unknown, coupled with a need to pass through territory unobserved, permeates travelogues and spy stories. Explorers were almost by default spies as well: Richard Burton, the translator of A Thousand and One Nights, disguised himself in order to visit Mecca, while a number of Europeans disguised themselves in order to explore the Himalayan region, and the British government sent trained Indian surveyors into the region disguised as pandits in order to map the area. Such activities reached their literary apotheosis in Kipling’s Kim, which also popularised the term, ‘The Great Game’. Closer to home, closer in time, John Le Carré’s stories exemplify Cold War efforts to unobtrusively move information and people in and out of eastern Europe, across tightly monitored borders.

With the arrival of the European Union and the Schengen Agreement, with most of Europe’s borders standing wide open, one might have supposed that crossing from one territory to another would become the easiest thing in the world, yet in the wake of 9/11 and the advent of the Global War on Terror, some borders have become ever more tightly controlled, governed by security operations that come perilously close to farce. And while in western Europe, demands for regional autonomy have, for the most part, led nowhere, despite, on occasion, intense bombing campaigns, further east, the former Soviet Union and its satellite nations are still dividing into a series of ever-smaller sovereign territories, each demanding recognition as an independent nation. One only needs to look at the current situation in the Ukraine to see how this might play out in the next few years, and to start wondering what that might mean for a Scottish bid for independence, the ramifications of which are already being discussed.

And this by no means takes into account, for example, the demands of indigenous peoples round the world, who have found their land taken over by colonial powers. A number of Native American/First Nations tribes do not recognise federal boundaries that have been driven through their ancestral lands, while the Haudenosaunee (formerly the Iroquois) issue and attempt to travel with tribal passports, not always successfully aas lthough the documents are recognised, it depends on the cussedness of US border security).

On top of that there has never ceased being a need for things, and sometimes people, to be moved around the world. Even now, there still exist what are called Queen’s Messengers, carrying documents too sensitive or too private to be committed even to diplomatic bags. Today on the radio I heard an interview with a man who carries donated stem cells from one hospital to another. Smuggling has never stopped, although these days it’s as likely to be people as cigarettes and alcohol that are being moved illegally. Journalist Glen Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was arrested and questioned as he passed through Heathrow, under suspicion that he was carrying documents illegally acquired by Edward Snowden.

hutchEurope in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson’s new novel, takes this situation to its furthest logical extent. Autumnal Europe is one in which the European Union has pretty much collapsed, taking with it the open-border idealism of the Schengen Agreement. Instead, as one character observes, “Europe sinks back into the eighteenth century” (18), fragmenting into a series of “quasi-national states” or polities, some of them stable, others lasting as long as autumn leaves. “I saw on the news last week that so far this year twelve new nations and sovereign states have come into being in Europe alone,” observes Dariusz. “And most of them won’t be here this time next year,” comments Rudi, who claims to have no opinion on the matter. “I’m a cook,” he says. “Not a politician” (17).

This new imposition of borders, this shifting lattice of grudge and allegiance, brings with it new problems. It’s the same territory as before, only “More frontiers. More red tape. More borders. More border police” (18), and more difficulty in moving things around. As a consequence people like Dariusz – we might call them smugglers, crooks, gangsters; they might disagree with us – have to find new ways to transport things. The new coureurs des bois work much like their ancestors, except that they are shyer and rather more retiring. No one knows who they are, who runs them, or anything much else about them. They can be found when needed. When not needed, they fade quietly into the woodwork. Anyone who has read Le Carré will recognise what the coureurs are: an organisation of lamplighters, people who create legends, carry information; they facilitate. And indeed, there is more than a passing whiff of Le Carré about the coureurs, as Rudi himself notes.

Rudi learns all this when he is recruited to their ranks. As a sort of favour to Max, his employer, and Dariusz, who runs the local protection racket and a few other things besides, Rudi,who carries an Estonian passport, which makes him rather more welcome in certain places than, say, Poles like Max and Dariusz has travelled into the city-state of Hindenberg to collect a message. His mission is successful and later Dariusz asks him “How would you like to do that kind of thing for a living?” (35). “I’m a chef. For a living.” replies Rudi, though he finally agrees to be a coureur as a hobby. “So long as it’s a well-paid sort of hobby.” In fact, it seems to be a remarkably well-paid sort of a hobby, so long as one doesn’t ask questions.

And despite Rudi’s regular reaffirmation of himself as a chef, he takes to the work. He’s already served a long peripatetic apprenticeship, working his way through the restaurants of the Baltic states, having taught himself to cook as a child by watching English and Polish cookery shows (which in turn required him to teach himself English and Polish). He is utterly self-contained, a polity all of his own, within the city-state of a restaurant kitchen, so often presided over by a tyrant. He’s already learned to observe, to blend in, to accommodate the foibles of others, and knows when to say nothing. He is punctilious and precise, and has an almost instinctive ability to sense when something is not quite right. Added to that, in appearance he is, by his own admission, “not anything really” (19). In short, he is the pefect coureur.

But the suspicious reader might perhaps be wondering by now whether this set-up isn’t all a little too perfect. Rudi himself acknowledges that the whole thing “smacked of cliché. Cloak and dagger, clandestine meetings on darkened streets in Central Europe” (29). Indeed, all it lacks is a faint hint of zither music for the cliché to be complete, but as Hutchinson is far too intelligent a writer to succumb to that sort of thing, one must and should conclude that he is up to something else. The question is, what? That is, however, a question that is not easily answered. Which, is, I have to say, one of the several great joys of this novel for me.

Rudi’s wry commentary on the new milieu in which he finds himself is a delight. (Indeed, there is a sly humour at work throughout the novel, manifest in almost sotto voce asides that leave the reader thinking “did he really just says that?” and such miniature absurdities as the village-state run by fans of Gunther Grass – “Rudi was vaguely sorry that Grassheim had been reabsorbed by the Pomeranian Republic […] He really liked The Tin Drum” (27).) However, Rudi’s observations do raise some interesting points about what a reader might expect of a narrative that dresses itself in the costume of a spy novel, or indeed of an organisation that apparently models itself on a fiction. Should we read this as someone somewhere recognising that Le Carré’s fictional model of the Circus is so damn good they might as well put it to actual use, or is Hutchinson ever so gently pointing out that our perception of how the secret service works is shaped more by the fiction we can access than the reality we can never experience, with the underlying possibility that they might just be the same. Or is all of this a distraction from something else, a “legend” that Hutchinson himself is fabricating, to draw our attention away from something else?

It is worth keeping that thought in mind as the story unfolds, though it is easy to be distracted not only by the descriptions of Rudi’s apprenticeship as a coureur in which he learns his new tradecraft, but by the account of his apprenticeship as a chef. The two are remarkably similar in their ways, and it’s not too much of a stretch to consider them as a form of commentary on Hutchinson’s own craft as a writer. He’s been writing for a long time, having already published four collections of stories by the time he was twenty-one, and then spending many years as a journalist. I first encountered his stories in the mid-1980s and even then they seemed to me to have an almost indefinable ‘rightness’ about them, something that emerged from a combination of well-crafted writing and a good eye for a “human” story, practiced but not polished to inhuman perfection. That sense of “rightness” has matured beautifully in the last thirty or so years and is very much on show in this novel, from the long opening sequence as Rudi and Max, his employer, deal with a group of badly-behaved Hungarian gangsters who really only want a little respect, in spite of their table manners, to the unexpected jump-cut as the story shifts forward to Rudi’s being recruited to collect a message, all this interlaced with Rudi’s memories of his long and difficult apprenticeship in Max’s own kitchen, ruled over by the implacable Pani Stasia. It takes courage, but also a writerly certainty, to commit something like that to paper but there is no trace of arrogance in Hutchinson’s work. As Rudi cooks, so Hutchinson writes, and the story unfolds.

The pacing is also interesting. From the early chapters with their slow unfolding of a wealth of detail, we move more rapidly through a series of missions which display the variety in the work that Rudi undertakes. He is still a chef even if he no longer cooks. He is good at what he does, he earns a decent living, he tries not to worry too much when things go wrong, though it is of course in the failures that the story lies. By this time we might dismiss the novel as a series of adventure episodes, with Rudi hopping across Europe under a series of aliases. They’re very good adventures, no denying it, but a whole novel of this might eventually become … well, boring, even though Hutchinson has a neatly compressed way of showing how time passes, Rudi’s technical skills improve, the world changes, and so on, all without making a fetish out of the history or the tradecraft. Were this simply an adventure the narrative would demand that something go cataclysmically wrong, and indeed it does – insofar as finding the severed head of a man in a left-luggage locker is ever anything other than wrong – but because this novel was never just about the future of spying tradecraft, if indeed it was ever really about that to begin with, when things go wrong, Rudi goes on furlough, and visits his family back in Estonia.

In terms of storytelling this might be regarded as slightly strange but within the terms of this novel, it fits perfectly, not least because it turns the reader’s attention more fully to the reasons why the coureurs are needed in the first place, and the complex politics of a post-EU Europe, in which territorial identity takes on an ever-deeper significance, more so as the territories become ever smaller. This by no means a new phenomenon – colonisation has occurred ever since humans plucked up enough courage to sail out of sight of land, and there has always been a cost to those who hadn’t realised their home was quite so desirable to others, and never mind the fact that they were already in residence – but autumnal Europe has reached the stage where declaring independence might be the only way to protect, say, a national park, rather as if the National Trust were to attempt to turn the Lake District into a polity. This is precisely what Rudi’s father seeks to do, only Rudi isn’t there to see the resulting bloodbath as he is, unexpectedly, inexplicably, ‘rescued’ by British forces, and finds himself detained in London for no reason he can determine.

The London episode is the most enigmatic portion of the novel. If the rest of the narrative involves travel, movement, action, then this London sojourn seems most notable for its lack of incident. Rudi is not exactly imprisoned in a set of chambers somewhere off Fleet Street, but neither is he entirely free to go. And for his own part he is content to watch until a moment of epiphany reveals the way forward; it’s an unexpected way, one that doesn’t make much sense until a long time later, and it shifts the novel’s dynamic entirely. Were it not that Hutchinson is such a good craftsman I’d be questioning this apparent longueur. Instead, I read it as the novel’s hinge, the point where the narrative changes direction entirely, a necessary moment of reflection while Rudi considers what brought him thus far.

And here it is impossible to deny that the novel has now moved far beyond the conventional narratives of Le Carré, into altogether stranger territory, somewhat akin to that of the Great Game, or maybe a pithier (a much, much pithier) version of Neal Stephenson’s work, or Tim Powers’ Declare, as Rudi and his team (he has a team now, just a small one) uncover the existence of an alternative world, an invisible territory, that hides pretty much in plain view, mapped by its discoverer, and precisely the kind of thing the Coureurs need in order to maintain their service, except that the coureurs are rank amateurs, up against a far, far older network. At which point, the reader might be thinking, “hang on, why didn’t I notice that before?” To which the answer must surely be, because the author didn’t want you to, and he is extremely good at what he does.

Now I am a sucker for a well-executed secret history, and equally so for a cartographic mystery, so this latter section of the novel more than adequately scratches a few of my literary itches. For some, though, I can see that it might appear that the narrative has finally gone altogether off-piste. And yet, I draw your attention once again to the work of the original coureurs des bois, travelling into the unmapped interior of North America. Unmapped by the white incomers yes, but familiar terrain to its residents, the indigenous peoples, who mapped it through story and song, and considered the idea of “ownership” to be utterly bizarre. Yes, each tribal band had its ancestral lands, confirmed through occupation and usage, but the western concept of sovereign territory was anathema to them. This is not to say that everyone could freely cross their land but the underlying philosophy was not predicated on ownership. The coureurs formed a loose-knit community of their own as well as participating in a wider community linked by bonds of kinship rather than land. One might see the latter-day coureurs in a not dissimilar light. Yes, some of them at least are in it for the money or to further criminal ends but there is seemingly an underlying Schengen-inspired philosophy, to keep those borders open. Yet, what if the coureurs have already long since been infiltrated by government departments, their studied neutrality nothing but a front? What then? Or if other players are involved as well?

This is on one level a novel pieced together from apparently meaningless Situations which may or may not have a connection to one another, each executed in tiny, rigidly defined territories that refuse all but the barest connections with one another, other than that of lines drawn on a map. And yet it is an intensely layered narrative. Each revelation brings with it another layer of mystery, as though one is unpacking a set of nested boxes, with no centre in sight.

If the situation was complex at the beginning of the novel, it’s more even more complicated by the end. The tantalising thought of a secret country with the concomitant prospect of free movement across Europe dangles enticingly before us and yet there are clearly other consequences to consider. How might one defend that freedom other than by fiercely protecting those boundaries that are not boundaries in the conventional sense? Which are questions for the sequel that is hinted at and which I very much hope will appear in due course.

For now, though, we have to be content with Europe in Autumn. Luckily, it is the kind of novel that repays more than one reading: one reading to appreciate the plot, another for the writing, a third to figure out what you missed the first two times, a fourth to admire the sheer beauty of how everything fits together, and maybe another to consider the profound issues concerning sovereignty and territory, and so on. I talked earlier of its “rightness” as a piece of fiction and I come back to that finally. This is a deceptive piece of work, seemingly straightforward, but intricately layered. The closer you examine it, the more (and yet less) of itself it reveals. I like fiction that challenges as well as entertains, and this more than fits the bill. It tells an absorbing story in a clever and satisfying way, on the assumption it is talking to intelligent readers willing to do some of the work rather than having it all spelled out for them. And really, what more can one ask for? Which is why, among other things, I shall be nominating this for the BSFA and Hugo Awards next year, and hoping to see it on the Clarke shortlist, because, yes, it is that good.

Rereading Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son, Chapters 45-48

Our Lady of the Streets, the third part of Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne series, will be published by Jo Fletcher Books in August 2014. To celebrate this, they’re conducting a reread of The City’s Son (2012) and The Glass Republic (2013), which I’m taking part in.

The story so far: Beth Bradley has taken to the London streets after being betrayed by her best friend, Parva Khan. Pen has confessed that she and Beth sprayed an unflattering portrait of a much-hated teacher on the school playground. Beth’s father has withdrawn from the world since his wife’s, Beth’s mother’s, death, and Beth has no one else to support her. In the streets Beth meets a strange grey-skinned boy, Filius Viae, the so-called Son of the Streets, and begins to discover a London she has never known before, one inhabited by Railwraiths, Pylon Spiders and other surprising creatures. Filius’s mother, the Lady of the Streets, has been missing since he was a baby, and without her to defend the city, it is under threat from Reach, the Crane-King. Now there are rumours that Mater Viae is returning and Filius is preparing for her return. Filius and Beth recruit an army to fight Reach, but they are struggling to match his strength, and they are losing too many of their fighters.

Meanwhile, Pen has been seized by the Wire Mistress, to use as a host, and has been terribly disfigured by the barbs of the wire. Beth’s father, Paul, has finally been jolted out of his torpor and has gone looking for his daughter. He now finds himself about to go into battle, alongside the Pavement Priests.

Now read on (and there will be spoilers):

Chapters 45-48

In Chapter 47 of The City’s Son, we find this paragraph:

 In some places the walls were tight on her, tighter than a coffin, tight as a birth canal, and she had to thrust her arms ahead of her, wedge her elbows and undulate forward. The spear was strapped to her back, the metal so cold against her neck it almost blistered.

Tom Pollock has noted on a number of occasions that he admires the work of Alan Garner (as indeed do I); and for me that admiration is most fully articulated in this moment. Those familiar with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen will undoubtedly recall Colin and Susan’s epic journey through the Earldelving, a narrow tunnel deep under Alderley Edge. They’re escaping from Grimnir, the Morrigan and the svart-alfar, and with them they carry the Weirdstone, which they are taking to Cadellin. It is by far the most terrifying sequence in the novel, to my mind, much more so than any of their confrontations with Grimnir or the Morrigan, and it is terrifying because the children are not fighting an external enemy but their own deepest fears. Will they become irrevocably stuck? Will they suffocate and die, become fossilised under a vast weight of rock?

Tom is far too much his own writer to simply copy Garner, but I can’t help thinking Beth’s journey is in part a homage to Colin’s and Susan’s flight through the Earldelving, although the setting is so very different. Like Colin and Susan, Beth has to inch herself along on her stomach, with that constant fear of getting stuck. Like Colin and Susan, she is carrying with her an unwieldy item that needs to be manoeuvred through the confined space. But Tom’s description also emphasises a couple of things that Garner’s descriptions, claustrophobic as they are, only hint at – ‘tighter than a coffin, tight as a birth canal’. Garner’s novel was originally intended for a younger audience, and they might not have given much thought to the idea that the passage through the Earldelving represents death and rebirth, the fear of entombment in the darkness, the relief of the return to the world of light. Here, though, Tom makes plain what’s at stake: the passage down the birth canal, into the light, the first steps towards the final enclosure, the coffin, the tomb. Beth may be young, she may have new powers, but there are still consequences.

The Colin and Susan who emerge from Alderley Edge are very different people to those who first went into the caves. They have become an integral part of the battle between Light and Dark, independent agents in the fight, and Cadellin can no longer send them away for their own safety as he did before, any more than Bess Mossock can insist they stay at home while the others travel to meet Cadellin. Susan in particular now has a significant role to play in the action, a role that will be more fully developed in The Moon of Gomrath. (It is only much later, in Boneland (2012) that the adult Colin, will finally take up a more prominent role.)

Much the same can be said of Beth, although I’d argue that there is no one great cathartic moment for her, no single moment of epiphany. Her passage through The City’s Son has been a series of small rebirths, a gradual assuming of new power. Not even her plunge into the Chemical Synod’s toxic pool, baptism as it so obviously is, entirely transforms her. She is not stripped of doubt and uncertainty in that way that Susan is. The key moment, for me at least, comes in Chapter 44, as Beth weighs her options: will she take the fight to Reach or accept she can’t win, and walk away? We know what her decision was, and in this section we see her begin to act.

Except, of course, that not even making a difficult decision brings sudden clarity. We do not find Susan’s intuitive knowledge and certainty in Beth. There is directness, yes, but also poor choices: ‘They die because you are bad general,’ says Victor, her self-appointed guardian, and if he’s blunt he’s also right. After all he is not the first person to tell her that. What Beth can’t take from Ezekiel, the stone angel, she must take from Victor. Unlike Susan, Beth’s job is to recognise her human frailties, and having acknowledged them, work with others in order to deal with them. Even Beth’s projected moment of glory, running to meet Reach head on, is derailed, thanks to Victor, the old military man, guerrilla, whatever he really is, who knows the value of reconnaissance – but more importantly, perhaps, to reiterate what Ezekiel has already made plain to Beth, that it is not just about her. Victor too is willing to say out loud that he is scared, afraid of the dark, of dying, that dreadful thought that Colin could never quite say out loud (in Boneland we can see the effect that this has on him as an adult).

Yet there are quite clearly parallels between Beth and Filius and Colin and Susan. In each case it is the girl who is active, coming into her power, the boy who seems somewhat bemused by the accelerated change of the situation, who is unable to voice fear. But Tom’s protagonists are that bit older, and for Beth at least, the world is no longer black and white. Childhood certainties must be replaced by the harsh verities of teenage life in the city. Beth can make the easy choice of becoming like Filius, but the choice of supporting Filius or going after Pen is a less straightforward one. Whichever choice she makes involves abandoning someone; Beth is always loyal but loyalty is a complex business and in this instance Pen is the winner. Beth’s directness in choosing to go after Pen mirrors Susan’s refusal to retreat in Gomrath.

Susan, of course, represents the Old Magic, that is the intuitive magic, while the other characters, mostly male, represent a more classical form of magic. (The Morrigan although a ‘Celtic’ figure nonetheless employs Latin in her magic, but her hybrid form is a discussion for another day and another place.) And the same is true of Filius and Beth. Filius plays by the rules he has been taught by Gutterglass and the others; it’s Beth’s spontaneous actions that most often move the action forward or encourage others to actually do something rather than simply discuss or else reject it. Beth is idealistic, and perhaps in thrall to the power of story, and how it ought to work itself out, but nonetheless, her position as an outsider is at times vital to break the deadlock when it comes to acting.

But it’s not just The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath that are referenced in this section of The City’s Son. That spear that Beth carries, the spear that belonged to Filius, the spear that looks oddly like an iron railing, has its counterpart in Garner’s work as well, in Elidor, his third novel and the only one with a truly urban setting. The opening chapters of Elidor are set in Manchester in the early 1960s, with wartime bomb damage about to be superseded by the demolition of entire neighbourhoods in the cause of post-war development. The Watson children – David, Nicholas, Helen and Roland – are drawn to an old church in the process of being demolished, and are led through this unpromising portal by Malebron, the maimed ruler of Elidor, a land as damaged as its leader. Malebron sends the children back to their own time with the four treasures of Elidor, including a spear, which is carried by Roland, the youngest of the children, and is transformed into a length of fence railing when he returns to his own world. Again, there are parallels; London is a wasteland, thanks to Reach’s depredations. Filius is injured, like Malebron. Like Malebron he struggles to keep his kingdom intact, as the light fails.

Beth has certain things in common with Roland, not the least being their fierce desire to do the right thing, and their conflicting loyalties, as well as their willingness to give up everything to help a comparative stranger. Like Beth, Roland accepts the presence of magic, even when his siblings try to deny it, and even if this means he must turn away from them in order to do what he believes to be right. But like Beth, he will turn back to help a friend.

And so, with this weight of allusion on them, in Chapter 47, we find Beth and Victor crawling through tunnels under London, undulating, such a horrible word, one that makes me think of worms or snakes (though both can be, in their way a force for good). Note how Beth hates the ‘deadness’ of the place: ‘there was no energy, no life flowing where her bare skin touched the masonry’. We might suppose this is because brick and stone, the built environment, are dead anyway, but by this point in the novel, we know this is not true. Time and again, we’ve learned, as Beth has, that the city is as alive as the countryside, that it exhibits the same interconnectedness that, say, Alan Garner proposes for the Cheshire landscape around Alderley Edge. (It’s also worth noting that Garner returns to the idea of the living fabric of the earth in the Stone Book, in an extraordinary sequence when Mary goes into the heart of the Edge to see the hand- and footprints of all her predecessors.) But, as Beth realises, ‘[t]his neighbourhood had been broken, its vitality leached’; that is, Reach and his cranes are literally ripping the heart out of the ‘living city’, a city created by layers of historical accretion. (This actually raises an interesting point that may be answered elsewhere; can there ever come a point when Reach’s constructions might similarly come alive, given enough time.) And life, when Beth does sense it, comes again from the Masonry Men and the Women in the Walls, not dead this time, but trapped under the cranes. Here, as never before, Beth is confronted by the enormity of the task ahead of her – so much is at stake.

It is in Chapter 48 that Beth confronts her most immediate enemy, the Wire Mistress, one of the nastiest antagonists I’ve ever encountered in a fantasy novel. Barbed wire is the ultimate symbol of modernity and exclusion Animated, it is truly horrible. Snakelike, the wire penetrates the ‘living concrete’ of the city, attacks the Women in the Walls and the Masonry Men, uses their power. The Wire Mistress has already taken Pen, and it is here that she crushes Victor, mysterious, brave, sardonic and selfless Victor, leaving Beth undefended. And it is here, too, that Beth fights for Pen, and Pen offers herself as a sacrifice to save Beth. until Beth finally works out how to save Pen. And again, it’s Pen who reminds Beth of her greater duty to London, telling her that Reach doesn’t understand what he is doing, that he’s killing the city.

And so far I’ve ignored Chapter 46, and for a good reason. Chapter 46 briefly breaks away from Beth’s story to turn to her father, Paul, who has finally emerged from his blankness, to realise that he needs to find his daughter. Parents have always been a problem in fantastic fiction for and/or about children and teenagers. The understanding, in the past, was always that the writer needed to get rid of the parents. In Weirdstone and Gomrath, Colin and Susan’s parents were abroad; in Elidor the Watson parents were present but distracted. Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence uses a similar solution, losing Will Stanton in a huge family, or having him sent away after illness. Which is not to say that there isn’t value in having an adult present, but adult figures seem to be wizards, like Cadellin or Merriman Lyon, though Gowther Mossock might stand as a surrogate father to Colin and Susan. The City’s Son has a plethora of parental figures very much in evidence, reflecting a more modern emphasis on parents keeping a closer eye on their children; even Filius has Gutterglass and Petris watching out for him. Paul Bradley is very much the odd one out, blinded as he is by his own grief and inability to function. When he does face up to his own responsibilities it’s interesting to watch how he sets about trying to find Beth, first in the conventional ways, then in the unconventional, suggesting his own openness to the strange. For readers of my generation it would have been unthinkable for actual parents to get involved in magical battles; here, it seems entirely right that Paul Bradley would become involved, not least because he has shown the creativity and imagination necessary to locate where Beth has gone.

And this is where I pause, and hand over the baton, or should that be the railing-spear, ready for the battle to come.

Archive – Uncertain Places – Lisa Goldstein

The Uncertain Places
Lisa Goldstein, Tachyon Publications, 2011, 237 pp

The story invariably begins with ‘once upon a time’ and ends ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. The protagonist unthinkingly makes a bad bargain and inadvertently agrees to a sacrifice he or she later realises is unacceptable. Usually, the resourceful hero or heroine manages to trick the fairy into undoing the bargain and restoring the status quo, while conveniently retaining the benefits of the bargain. But what if the fairy is smarter than the protagonist after all, and, in undoing the bad bargain, offers one that was far worse in the long run but without any immediate bad effects? And what if the effects of that bargain persist into the present day? What happens then? These questions sit at the heart of Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places, which intertwines the secret history of a lost fairy story with a period of immense social upheaval in California.

This particular story begins in 1971, with best friends, Will and Ben, who are students at Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. We often look back to that time with nostalgia, as though it were some kind of magical period, but for Will in particular, ‘There was never music like that, never those intense discussions, never so many people so passionately committed to changing the world.’ In the middle of this is Will, ‘stupified with wonder, startled and delighted at every turn’, and never more so than when he travels with Ben, north out of San Francisco and into the wine country of Napa Valley to visit the Feierabends, the family of Ben’s new girlfriend, Maddie.

The Feierabend house seems also to have emerged from a fairytale, ‘as if Hansel and Gretel’s witch had taken a correspondence course in architecture’. It is not so much a house as a series of houses, each one concealing something older behind it, and this, as it turns out, provides a useful metaphor for the Feierabend family and for its stories. Livvy, Rose, Maddie and their mother, Sylvie, seem to live at a tangent to the world, engaging with it but remaining somehow untroubled by it. They live comfortably, almost unthinkingly, among beautiful things. Whatever they turn their hands to, they are successful, and indeed expect to be, none more so than Maddie, who sees no reason to doubt that she will have a career in Hollywood. Livvy and Rose are more self-effacing but neither do they question their luck, perhaps simply because this is how their lives have always been. Theirs is an enviable lifestyle, almost a dream in itself, and Will finds it difficult to believe that he too has become part of the fairytale when he and Livvy begin a relationship.

However, from the outset, Will suspects that there is something odd about the family. In the house and the countryside around, he meets strange people whose presence cannot be accounted for. When Livvy inexplicably falls asleep and the family refuse to do anything about this, instead behaving as though it is entirely normal, he realises that something is indeed very wrong. It is thanks to Ben that Will learns about the lost Grimms’ fairytale, the story of the Bondmaid, told by Klara Feierabend to the Grimm brothers but then apparently suppressed before it could be published. The original Bondmaid fell permanently asleep as payment for her family being rescued from poverty; later her father renegotiated the bargain so that she would sleep for only seven years, on the understanding that in all future generations of the family, one member would at some point fall asleep for seven years to continue the payment. While asleep, the bondmaid would help the fairy folk to wage war against their enemies and keep magic alive in the world, or so the story went. Subsequent generations did not question the renegotiated bargain and even when they did, their misgivings have been brushed to one side. It falls to Will, the outsider, to question the Feierabends’ complacent acceptance of this situation, and to ask whether such an old bargain can persisist in the modern world.

It’s an interesting question that Goldstein poses, and there is no easy answer to be found. What constitutes a ‘happy ever after’ for one person may bring misery to another. Perhaps the stories of one continent cannot survive transplantation to another without being somehow changed in the process. No matter how carefully hidden away they might be, sooner or later, as the territory is charted, they’re brought into the light of day. It’s what happens then that Goldstein has so intriguingly explored in this deeply absorbing novel.

Rereading Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son, Chapters 13-16

Our Lady of the Streets, the third part of Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne series, will be published by Jo Fletcher Books in August 2014. To celebrate this, they’re conducting a reread of The City’s Son (2012) and The Glass Republic (2013), which I’ve agreed to take part in.

The story so far: Beth Bradley has taken to the London streets after being betrayed by her best friend, Parva Khan. Pen has confessed that she and Beth sprayed an unflattering portrait of a much-hated teacher on the school playground. Beth’s father has withdrawn from the world since his wife’s, Beth’s mother’s death, and Beth has no one else to support her. In the streets Beth meets a strange grey-skinned boy, Filius Viae, the so-called Son of the Streets, and begins to discover a London she has never known before, one inhabited by Railwraiths, Pylon Spiders and other surprising creatures. Filius’s mother, the Lady of the Streets, has been missing since he was a baby, and without her to defend the city, it is under threat from Reach, the Crane-King. Now there are rumours that Mater Viae is returning and Filius is preparing for her return. In this section of The City’s Son, Filius and Beth begin to recruit an army to fight Reach.

Now read on (and there are inevitably spoilers).

Chapter 13

something was crawling up her lamppost

Chapter 13 is short but extremely interesting, the first complete chapter that is not told from the viewpoint of a human being or, in the case of Filius, someone who appears to be human. Before now, with one exception – the episode concerning the fate of the lost Whitey – everything has been shown either from the third-person narrative viewpoints of Beth or Pen, or else from Filius’s first-person viewpoint. So what does this shift to an omniscient viewpoint give us?

Up until now it might just have been possible to read Beth’s experiences as a product of her own imagination, arising from her encounters with Filius. We’ve already seen how she and Pen spark off one another creatively, What’s to say she’s not constructed something similar around meeting Filius. Even the Whitey’s encounter with the barbed tentacle could be read as their joint invention. But here no human observers are present, and the reader sees one of the Sodiumites directly. This reinforces the idea planted by the Whitey’s encounter that something strange really is going on. The viscerality of both encounters confirms too that this magical London we’re dealing with is a place that is downright nasty.

And that’s even before we get to the astonishing pathos of this short scene. We’ve already seen the Sodiumites in action, dancing with Filius, suspicious of Beth, generally volatile, and we’ve also seen their antipathy towards the lost Whitey. Attractive as they are in their way, the Sodiumites are also difficult to like; they’re jittery, menacing. Yet here, when we see them under attack, presumably victims of whatever it was that took the Whitey, our feelings towards them must inevitably shift to sympathy. Voltaia’s discovery of Galvanica’s body in particular is made more horrific by the beauty in the details – the body lying half unfolded, the skin frosted with tiny cracks. This moment becomes symbolic of what it is that Filius is fighting against.

Chapter 14

When we return to Filius, we can see already that Beth is setting the pace; while the chapter begins with Filius’s observations, it quickly shifts to third person again as Beth, driven by her desire to help Filius, sets about finding him his army. Although Filius has sent out messages via the Pylon Spiders, this chapter marks the start of their actually visiting people to recruit them to the cause (and here one might think of Lewis’s Prince Caspian and the series of calls that Caspian pays on talking beasts and mythological creatures). The question is, who should they call on?

“Doesn’t your mum have a vicar or two to help us out?” It sounded so simple, so logical.

One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this section of The City’s Son in particular is because I am fascinated by the Pavement Priests, and this is where we first meet them. The setting is a graveyard – we might be familiar with the big burial grounds of London, like Highgate Cemetery, but there are many smaller graveyards, lost, overgrown, dotted around the place, and Filius has taken Beth to one of these forgotten places. Even as they travel there, Beth notices for the first time the cranes ‘sprouting like malign winter trees across the skyline’.

And suddenly, they are in ‘a clearing filled with gravestones where life-sized statues stood sentinel.’ In particular a ‘stone monk stood at the heart of the crowd, his heavy granite cowl shading his eyes’. This is Petris, another of Filius’s tutors, ‘who taught me nearly every dirty trick I know’. Petris is one more in a long line of English monks who go about God’s business in a particularly worldly way – Friar Tuck is the obvious model. But while it is one thing to encounter a stone monk who can speak, the full horror of the predicament of the Pavement Priests is yet to be revealed. One moment Beth is making artless jokes about having a heart of stone (that ‘Petris’ suggests petrified is left for the reader), the next she looks into the stone monk’s face to see in his mouth, ‘flesh lips, pink, parched and peeling’. It will be hard to look at a statue in the same way ever again.

And it is perhaps at this point that we see most clearly what it means to be Mater Viae. She may be a goddess, this does not mean that she is ‘good’. Filius has already commented how she ‘made’ the Pylon Spiders, who live on human bodies, especially their voices, but now we see first-hand what she is capable of. ‘His mother’, says Petris, ‘is not as merciful as she might be’. The Pavement Priests turn out to be trapped in their stone punishment-skins, their deaths sold on by Mater Viae to ensure they pay their debt to her for whatever sins they committed in past lives, leaving them to be born over and over again.

My life had a beginning, but it has no end to give it shape. That’s what our Goddess took from us in payment for our sins: the outlines, the boundaries, the very definition of a life.

How a life is defined is something that haunts this novel. Thanks to her mother’s death and her father’s inability to accept it and move on, Beth’s life has also lost any sense of outline, and since her meeting with Filius, what she thinks she knows about her world has become uncertain. For Pen the problem is quite the opposite; her life is far too well defined and she works constantly to blur the boundaries. As for Filius, one has the sense that he has been marking time, waiting for his mother to reappear or to be confirmed as dead so that he can assume her role, but perhaps also he is content in a way with this invisible life. Yet, as Petris notes, ‘the infinity [Mater Viae] has condemned us to is rather easier to tolerate without her actually around’. In other words, is it worth the cost to now disrupt the status quo? Does the possibility of a broader freedom outweigh the certainty of a limited freedom inside the punishment-skins?

And much of what is about to happen is based on worth, even down to those deaths that Mater Viae has traded. Who would buy those deaths, Beth wonders, and is given her answer: the Chemical Synod – ‘traders, bargainers, barterers’. London has long been a place of commerce, a place where everything has a value, even debt, but the Chemical Synod take this to its logical extreme: height, gravity, heartbreak and death – literally everything has a price, but death most of all, given what the Synod can do with it.

Chapter 15

Every step carried Beth further from the city she knew.

There are so many Londons in fiction (there is a useful list here). More than most cities, it’s easy to imagine alternative Londons in which its past comes alive again. So what marks this London as different from the others? For me it is in part the very modernity of the place. We’re dealing with electricity, telegraphy, neon, razor-wire, lampposts, underground trains and of course, cranes. This is not the past re-emerging so much as the present shaping itself in unexpected ways. And to do that it works with a new urban mythology. Other writers may reinscribe older myths on the city – and why not, given it has seen more influxes of immigrants than we can ever imagine – but Tom Pollock’s characters emerge from the more recent fabric of the city.

And if we were ever in doubt of that before, in spite of Railwraiths, Pylon Spiders and Pavement Priests, this chapter makes it absolutely explicit, when Filius takes Beth to the Demolition Field. Here we see the remains of the Women in the Walls and the Masonry Men, victims of Reach’s demolition men. This is a fantastically resonant scene. We might think of the layers upon layers of burials under London, that turn up in archaeological digs. We might think too of those who lost their lives during the bombings of World War Two. We might think, too, of all those who are displaced as a result of rapid or inappropriate redevelopment in post-war London, with communities uprooted and scattered.

The Masonry Men and the Women in the Walls stand for all those who are displaced by Reach’s ‘pretty little towers [built] out of glass and steel’; this is a novel that is deeply preoccupied with the ongoing rebuilding of London and what it does to the city. How has the city changed as much as it has done yet seemed to somehow remain the same? The city has survived Reach’s earlier depredations and returned stronger than ever, presumably thanks to Mater Viae. Yet, if Reach is now manifested in the cranes that dot the skyline, we’re prompted to think about how the nature of that rebuilding is changing, not least the speed and scale of it. London’s Walkie-Talkie skyscraper, the one that reflects light and melts cars, may have come after the publication of The City’s Son but it’s clearly one of Reach’s buildings, inimical to the people who have to live and work around it.

Chapter 16

London is, as I’ve said, a layered city. It is also a city in which so many people are invisible. Not just the beggars and the homeless sleeping in doorways, those people we mostly pretend not to see, but there are the people who choose not to be seen, not because they live in the interstices of the city, but because they regard themselves as too important to be seen. Business people, aristocrats, people who regard themselves as part of the fabric of the city too, but not in the same way as ordinary people. Tom Pollock hits on an ingenious way of commenting on this by introducing us to the Mirrorstocracy, hidden London’s so-called nobility, with all that entails.

I find the Mirrorstocracy as fascinating as the Pavement Priests, though they are much less likeable. Here we have a glimpse of a deeply privileged group of people determined not only to maintain the status quo but also willing to exploit the situation to their own ends, reminiscent of all too many people at work in London as we know it (this is a deeply political novel, if you look closely). The romance of the Son of the Streets taking up arms on behalf of his absent mother is countered by a group of people who can see how they will benefit from Reach’s building glass towers. Their contempt for Filius is clear in the way they refer to him as the Urchin Prince. It may be a term others also use too but in the mouths of the Mirrorstocracy it is an insult. Clearly, they see themselves as better than royalty. Which may be the case, given their London is not precisely a mirror of Filius’s. London-Under-Glass seems to stand at an angle to Beth’s London as well, relying on accidental juxtapositions to create new inhabitants. Note too the anxiety when Filius offers to flood London-Under-Glass with new Mirrorstocrats. The parvenu is always the greatest threat to the blue-blooded – like them but not like them, undermining their exclusivity, and how. But the means of their creation can, at the same time, become the means of their destruction.

And this, then, may be counted as a small victory for Beth and Filius. The Mirrorstocracy won’t fight willingly but they have been forced to honour their obligation to Mater Viae.

Chapters 1-4 of The City’s Son are discussed here, chapters 5-8 here and chapters 9-12 here.

Archive – On Stranger Tides – Tim Powers

A short review I did for Interzone in 2011.

On Stranger Tides
Tim Powers, Corvus, 405pp, pb

The occasion for this reissue of Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides is, of course, the release of the Pirates of the Caribbean film of the same name, fourth in the series. At this stage, one can only speculate as to how much of the novel has found its way into the film; one can however marvel at how certain elements of the novel seem curiously familiar to anyone who has seen the earlier films.

Our hero is Jack Chandagnac, puppeteer and bookkeeper, who is travelling to the Caribbean to confront his uncle, Sebastian, who has stolen Jack’s inheritance. However, when Jack’s ship is boarded by pirates his life changes forever. He becomes Jack Shandy, quartermaster to Philip Davies who is not only captain of the Vociferous Carmichael but a magician of sorts, and an associate of Blackbeard, who is planning the most audacious exploit of his career, to locate the Fountain of Youth. Matters are further complicated by the presence of corrupt magicians Benjamin Hurwood and Leo Friend, both of whom have magical designs on Hurwood’s daughter, Elizabeth.

Revisiting this novel after many years, I am struck first by how much fun this novel is to read, and secondly by how well wrought it is. In a narrative that features voodoo, zombies, magic and pirates, it would be all too easy to be carried away by the possibilities for vast dramatic set-pieces but Powers is pleasingly restrained and thoughtful in his story-telling. The historical and the fantastic elements are nicely balanced, and I particularly like the underlying flavour of elegiac nostalgia for the romance of piracy, even as the novel acknowledges the brutal reality. Whatever the film turns out to be like, as a novel On Stranger Tides remains well worth a reader’s attention.

Archive – Sleight of Hand – Peter S Beagle

Sleight of Hand
Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon, 326pp, pb

I first encountered Peter S. Beagle’s writing as a teenager when I read The Last Unicorn. It was love at first sight, a love further strengthened when I read his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, so different in subject matter yet so clearly a product of the same skewed imagination. Beagle laid out his themes early on and his best stories still return to them.

His men are often gauche but blessed with a way of putting right the deeper problems even as they fumble the everyday tasks, maybe learning a little more about themselves as well. Schmendrick, the magician from The Last Unicorn, is the classic example: in ‘The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon’, set prior to the novel, he meets a widow and her two children, grieving for the loss of a husband and father. The story explores ways of dealing with life by telling stories, hardly an uncommon theme, but the encounter between magician and woman is so delicately drawn as to lift it out of the ordinary.

In turn, it picks up another regular theme in Beagle’s work. His characters are rarely the usual noble or evil inhabitants of epic fantasy. Instead, Beagle focuses on the ordinary people, whose smallholdings are destroyed as armies sweep by, or who make their living as servants or artisans. Indeed, the closer that Beagle moves to more conventional fantasy tropes the less interesting his stories seem to become, as though he loses sympathy for the characters. Thus, while I enjoyed the early sections of ‘What Tune The Enchantress Plays’ I found myself less engaged by Breya Drom once she assumed her powers as enchantress.

It is with the offbeat story that Beagle really shines. ‘La Lune T’attend’, in which Arcenaux and Garrigue, two Cajun old-timers who also happen to be werewolves are stalked by a third werewolf, seeking revenge, after they despatched him as punishment for a particularly vile murder, is undoubtedly a well-made werewolf story in its own right. However, what really makes this story is its portrayal of a long friendship between two men. Beagle has always written well about age, and oddly enough he also has a knack for writing about the young, as shown in ‘The Rock in the Park’, where two teenage boys encounter a family of centaurs in a New York park, and ‘The Rabbi’s Hobby’, in which an elderly rabbi and a teenage boy set out to discover the identity of a mysterious woman in a photograph. But again, as Beagle moves closer to the conventional, the stories don’t seem to work so well. ‘The Bridge Partner’ about a stalker promises much but lacks that certain spark while ‘Vanishing’ is saved only by the fact that its ageing protagonist, Jansen, is so well drawn.

Beagle strives for variety – there are several entertaining written-to-order pieces included here – but his métier is the closely observed character study. I wonder sometimes if Beagle isn’t a little too careful with his characters. He is very generous to them; they rarely die pointless deaths and they rarely die brutally. Violence is saved for those most deserving of it; Beagle’s is a very traditional view of the moral balance. Some stories teeter on the edge of sentimentality but Beagle invariably pulls back from the brink just in time. If he could be accused of anything, it would be of showing more compassion for his characters than is nowadays fashionable.

One probably either loves Beagle’s writing or else finds it a little maybe a little old-fashioned. Beagle himself has expressed a certain distaste for much modern fantasy writing. Nonetheless, few can match him when it comes to a particular mix of the fantastic and the ordinary, with a tinge of nostalgia. As one character observes, the magic is in the telling, always.

Archive – The Diviner’s Tale – Bradford Morrow

The Diviner’s Tale
Bradford Morrow, Corvus Books, 311pp, £16.99, hb

In The Diviner’s Tale Bradford Morrow’s protagonist is named Cassandra Brooks, reflecting her two primary functions within this novel, to be disbelieved, and to be involved with water. Perhaps too, they suggest that Cass cannot refuse her destiny to be a water diviner but that would suggest this novel follows the familiar track of a character needing to acknowledge her latent powers whereas Cass is all too aware of her abilities. Instead, I think Morrow is essaying a more subtle discussion about the responsibilities that come with certain skills.

A clue to this is the fact that Morrow eschews a fantasy landscape in favour of a contemporary setting. Cass, a teacher and single mother of twin boys, lives in a small close-knit community in the north-east US, the town where she has lived in most of her life. Admittedly, this is almost a stereotype but Morrow ensures this is no small-town idyll. Cass’s skills as a diviner are not remarkable; she is her father’s daughter, and dowsing skills are valued when water is at a premium. When, late on, Neptune tells Cass that he was a fraud, she is not surprised, having based her own work on careful research but one suspects that both have combined knowledge and instinct without ever questioning it. It is the acceptance of the validity of both ways of working that lies at the heart of this novel.

Cass also has precognition, among other things predicting the car crash that killed her brother, but has always kept quiet about this particular skill, understanding that it is not always so welcome. Things change when Cass finds the body of a young girl hanging from a tree while dowsing a client’s land. When she returns with the police, the body has vanished, and she is suspected of an over-active imagination. The police do discover a runaway girl who looks similar to Cass’s description but she is not satisfied with this explanation, not least because she also receives a series of mysterious threats referring to the discovery and the presence of the hanged girl remains. At the same time, the community withdraws from Cass, no longer sure of who or what she is. Cass’s choice lies in attempting to conform to her sense of what the community needs her to be or else in being true to herself and seeking an explanation of events, the key to which lies in events she has suppressed.

As fantasy novels go, this is low-key, to the point where some might wonder if the events aren’t simply the imaginings of a lonely woman. It is Cass’s own matter-of-fact account that convinces us that her experiences are genuine and must be addressed on their own terms. It is also true that Cass’s account of living with her powers is rather stronger than the other strand of plot, where speculation about a possible instigator far too quickly becomes certainty with very little actual evidence until much later on. In the end, I’m not sure it matters, because Cass’s growing acceptance of all her skills is what the novel is primarily about.

Bradford Morrow is the founder and editor of Conjunctions, the literary magazine which, several years ago, published the much-discussed The New Wave Fabulists, guest-edited by Peter Straub. A glance through his backlist indicates that Morrow has incorporated fantastic elements into earlier novels and suggests that its appearance in The Diviner’s Tale is not an outlier but part of a much broader pattern of use. His fiction will probably not be to the taste of those like their fantasy to have epic proportions but I think The Diviner’s Tale will appeal to those interested in the ways in which the fantastic weaves its way in and out of daily life. Certainly, this novel has impressed me sufficiently that I want to read his earlier work.