Tag Archives: vector

Reading Glaze by Kim Curran

Another from Vector, last year

Glaze by Kim Curran
(Jurassic London, 2014)

It happened that while I was reading Kim Curran’s Glaze, Slate writer Martha Graham decided the moment was perfect to lambast adults for reading Young Adult novels when they could, and indeed should, be maintaining their hard-won maturity by reading books for grown-ups, from which they would learn so much more about the business of being an adult than from the necessarily limited viewpoint of young adult novels, with their “uniformly satisfying” but “far too simple” endings. And then Graham went on to criticise adults reading YA for seeking “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia” and abandoning “mature insights”.

Graham’s article tells us more perhaps about her own concerns and SE Smith took issue with it in the Daily Dot, arguing that many readers of YA fiction are Millennials, for whom growing up has become a lengthier and more challenging process, thanks to economic crises which force them to live with their parents. Reading YA fiction reflects this prolonged childhood. I’m not convinced by the argument but it might say something about the fascination with the so-called dystopian, as well as that desire for a ‘satisfying’ ending.

Coincidentally, at the same time I read an article by Ursula K Le Guin in which she observed that “My fiction, especially for kids and young adults, is often reviewed as if it existed in order to deliver a useful little sermon.” Le Guin dismisses this by suggesting that “the meaning of the story might lie in the language itself, in the movement of the story as read, in an inexpressible sense of discovery, rather than a tidy bit of advice?” Indeed, Curran herself comments that “In writing for teens, there’s one thing that makes me more wary than anything else. And that’s ‘issue books’. Books which are written with the sole purpose of ‘helping young people these days’. Books with ‘clear moral messages’.”

It is almost certainly true that there is no overt moral message in Glaze but I would argue that regardless of what Curran may think, and pace Le Guin’s comments, there is more than a passing whiff of ‘issue’ to the novel. In fact, I suspect it is part of the nature of YA fiction but the question is whether the writer allows such issues to drive the narrative or else lets them sit in the background, to be noticed or ignored as the reader sees fit.

In Glaze the ‘issue’ certainly doesn’t drive the narrative but neither is it inconspicuous. As we read we’re constantly ask to think about the significance of opening ourselves to being controlled yet encouraged simultaneously to ignore it, which is somewhat confusing. Glaze is pretty much every social network you’ve ever experienced, all rolled into one and delivered via a chip inserted into the brain, requiring its restriction to the over-sixteens (and hence the concern about control and suggestibility). It is, as one might expect, the ultimate adolescent rite of passage. While it fosters a sense of togetherness in those who do have access to it, those who are not chipped inevitably feel excluded. It is also possible to revoke chip privileges. Given we live in a society which more and more often uses the threat of exclusion as a tool for social management, it’s difficult not to think of Glaze standing in for a range of other things, everything from poor internet access to denial of benefits.

However, that part of the story is mostly relegated to the background. We focus instead on Petri, who feels this exclusion particularly strongly, given she is a year younger than most of the people in her class and already set apart by her intelligence. Yet, one suspects that Petri already knows that things won’t change significantly but her desire to be part of the crowd, come what may, is instantly recognisable, as indeed is the conviction that possession of the latest technology will somehow fix everything. Neglected by her mother, Zizi, politically if anachronistically right on, well-intentioned but clueless about bringing up a child, it is perhaps not surprising that Petri invests so much in attempting to build her own community even though she is painfully isolated from people, and that this leads first to acquiring an illegal chip and then to the discover that Glaze is not – surprise – as innocent as it seems.

Glaze works best when Curran’s characters are interacting with one another moment by moment or when Petri suddenly grasps a situation. In terms of emotional intelligence, the novel is streets ahead of its plotting, which is, bluntly, either ho-hum or intensely melodramatic. The setting feels more like a stage backdrop than a convincing recreation of a near-future London. There is nothing distinctive about the school which Petri attends (although we are clearly in a future in which Michael Gove never existed) and there is some general handwaving towards a political situation which has school students with a strong sense of social justice out on the streets but uncertain what it is they’re campaigning for or against. Clearly, something is wrong with society but, given we see it through the eyes of a self-absorbed teenager, we’re left with an interpretation that is necessarily partial and superficial.

Which I found very frustrating as there were moments when Curran hinted at other fascinating narrative possibilities, only for Petri to turn away distracted, although what she was doing didn’t always seem as interesting. I often questioned the plausibility of the story while accepting the need to just run with it, because this was Petri’s experience. Irritation was balanced by the recognition that Curran generates enough pace to bridge that gap between accepting and resisting the story. What makes it work finally is that however bizarre Petri’s experiences seem to be, Curran catches that tension between an adolescent conviction that the world can be made a better place and the realisation that the world is actually a lot more complicated than it initially seems.

Reading The Ninth Circle by Alex Bell

The Ninth Circle – Alex Bell
(Gollancz, 2008)

This novel begins with an arresting image: a man wakes up on the floor of a room he doesn’t recognise. His face is glued to the floor with someone else’s blood. He has no idea how he comes to be in such a bizarre situation. In fact, he has no idea who he is at all. In an effort to, as he puts it, avoid fading ‘right out of existence’, our narrator, who quickly, and maybe a little too conveniently, discovers that his name is Gabriel, decides to keep a journal in which he records his discoveries about himself and his situation.

The first-person narrator is traditionally unreliable; we have no one’s word but the narrator’s that he or she is telling the truth, whatever that means. In daily life, if someone tells us a story we can often verify or refute it via secondary sources. In fiction, we are at the mercy of the narrator. In which case, what are we to make of Gabriel’s story? His situation is peculiar: he is in Budapest, in a beautiful flat, with a seemingly limitless supply of money, and no idea how he came to be there. He is aware almost immediately that he does not seem to be subject to the same bodily needs as other people: he can go without food or sleep for days at a time. All he can do is wait, convinced that sooner or later other people will return and tell him what’s happening.

The days hang heavy for Gabriel, and indeed for the reader too. As a character he tends towards the histrionic, and I wearied quite quickly of his soul-searching, which is unfortunate as the novel moves very slowly, lingering on Gabriel’s every small discovery and slight shift of mood. He is for the most part not a man of action, but a watcher, an observer, and the first-person journal obliges the reader to stick with him all the way as he roams the streets of Budapest in a suitably melancholic fashion.

Which is no kind of life, as Gabriel comes to realise, and yet he seems to find it difficult to engage with the outside world. He establishes a tentative friendship with his neighbour, the pregnant Casey March, and strikes up an acquaintance with the mysterious Zadkiel Stephomi. Casey offers him a vicarious domestic life, but Gabriel’s experiences with Stephomi, including witnessing a fight involving a burning man, seem to point towards Gabriel himself being other than human, and we gradually come to realise that we may have strayed onto a battlefield, in which the war between heaven and hell continues unabated, and the Antichrist is arriving earlier than anticipated.

Or have we? For as fast as Gabriel presents the reader with an explanation, it’s ripped away and a new, better story, the real one this time, emerges from behind it, until that in turn is discarded for another. Is Gabriel human or supernatural? Did he lose his wife and son, or are they just another layer of camouflage? One is left with a sense of Gabriel making it up as he goes along, so to speak, filling his journal with whatever comes to mind as a means of explaining his situation. Is this the journal of a madman, or someone with too much time on his hands? By the time we reach the point where the author offers an explanation for Gabriel’s behaviour that seems marginally more plausible than the rest, the point at which I think we are supposed to feel that his histrionics are fully accounted for and to feel sympathy for him, if we did not feel it already, it’s become too much like hard work to do so. Exasperation sets in as the story then lurches back in the direction of the divine, though with an odd little twist that is intriguing but wasted at that point in the novel.

To say much more about the plot would be to give away the denouement completely. Suffice to say it is less dramatic than I think the author imagines, and the is it, isn’t it?’ open ending is trite rather than thrilling. This is an intensely disappointing novel; I want to like it because it has some interesting ideas, but their development is frustrated by an almost wilful refusal by the author to engage directly with the bigger picture. The possibilities remain unrealised because we are trapped by the limited viewpoint of Gabriel Antaeus’ self-absorbed journal, obliged to slope round the streets of Budapest with him as he feels sorry for himself. He is a witness to hugely significant events but a player only belatedly; as a result, the real action mostly happens in the corner of the reader’s eye rather than centre-stage, and we are left with the delicately realised but ultimately not-terribly-interesting minutiae of Gabriel’s attempts to find out who he really is, and why these people have done this to him.

It is debatable how one might, in a post-Dawkins world, address the great Miltonic themes of paradise lost and regained. I admire Alex Bell for trying to take them on but I remain frustrated by the sense of reductio ad absurdam that leaves me in the hands of a narrator who is a lot less interesting than he needs to be to tell this story.

Reading The High House by James Stoddard

The High House – James Stoddard
(Earthlight, 1998)

It’s rare now that I have the chance to recapture the sense of discovery I experienced when I first began reading science fiction and fantasy. After reading Tolkien, I was hungry for more of this new diet and set off down the primrose path of ‘in the tradition of Lord of the Rings’. In the mid-Seventies, this phrase actually meant something, and I was happily placed to take full advantage of the appearance in the UK of Lin Carter’s ‘Sign of the Unicorn’ series, which he edited from 1969 to 1974. Carter brought many long-unpublished fantasies to readers’ attention, including novels from William Morris, E.R. Eddison (who actually met Tolkien), George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake and the incomparable Hope Mirrlees, and while Carter’s introductions were outrageously egregious, they listed still more books to seek out. It was a rich and varied diet which undoubtedly shaped my taste in fantasy reading forever after. James Stoddard seems to have been similarly affected for his first novel, The High House unashamedly acknowledges his debt to Lin Carter, and he offers this book as an homage to those exciting times.

There is, though, nothing blatant about this homage. It’s as subtle and elusive as those old-style fantasies, a name or country here, a character or building there, a half-remembered … but no, it’s gone. Stoddard recreates that sense of atmosphere, of ‘otherness’, that so few modern fantasies evoke, while his heroes are unconventional and old-fashioned, imbued with a numinosity that modern divinely-inspired heroes seem to lack. The High House itself, in which the adventure is set, stretches on forever, spanning worlds and times, its function only dimly hinted at, and within its all-embracing walls, Carter Anderson enacts a quest to find his father and the Master Key, to restore equilibrium to Evenmere.

This novel is perhaps not to everyone’s taste. Those who like their fantasy sprawling across continents, peopled by races engaged in enormous wars and heroes who lack introspection may find it tame, but for anyone who ever read Eddison or Peake or John Crowley with any pleasure, reading The High House will bring a sense of recognition, a feeling of ‘you too?’ to accompany an absorbing story.

Reading Thin Air by Storm Constantine

Another review from Vector, first published during 1999

Thin Air – Storm Constantine
(Warner Books, 1999)

Although Dex  vanished mysteriously, inexplicably, several years ago,  his lover Jay has never believed that he died. She has survived incapacitating grief and rebuilt her life, perhaps not entirely satisfactorily, but she has never lost hope that Dex might reappear. And now he has been seen again, not by over-excited fans but by people who knew him well, who want to find him, to recoup their investment, and when Jay won’t play ball, they destroy her life all over again, until her only recourse is to find Dex for herself. All this takes place in the first part of the book, when Storm Constantine describes the twin worlds of the rock musician and the rock journalist, a place of uncomfortable symbiosis in which Dex the musician and Jay the writer somehow seemed to achieve a miracle of accommodation. Constantine depicts this world as a cold, sterile place, echoed by Jay’s gradual discovery, confirmed by his former colleagues, that she really didn’t know Dex as well as she’d thought.

One might expect things to change in the novel’s second part, when Jay discovers that she has, seemingly, driven out of her former, terrible existence  into a strange, comforting, perfect place, Lestholme, peopled by victims of media whim, and where Dex, if alive, remains tantalisingly out of sight. And yet, Jay carries with her the journalist’s hard, fact-driven vision, and is able, only with difficulty, to accept that her former employers, Dex’s former employers, are embroiled in a business which is as much about manipulating people’s emotions for occult ends as it is about record sales and balance sheets. And perhaps because we only reach Lestholme when the book is already half gone, it’s difficult to accept its raison-d’etre as unquestioningly as we seem to be expected to, and exploring it as we do, through the eyes of someone who shouldn’t be there and is not expecting to stay long. Similarly, it’s unfortunate that we have, for the most part, to rely on Dex’s account of his initiation into the darker mysteries behind the bosses of the Sakrilege record label rather than having the time to examine it for ourselves. It’s not that I don’t believe what’s happening in this book, so much as I feel I’m not being given a proper opportunity to test each event before I’m whirled on to the next, and that Jay stands firmly, perhaps too protectively, between me and the action. The result is that a story which promises to be deeply absorbing, in the end becomes as dry and factual as a newspaper report, a situation surely to be regretted .

Reading Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright

Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright (Adventure Rocketship!, 2013)

Let’s All Go to the Science Fiction Disco, the first volume in a new anthology series, Adventure Rocketship!, is ‘devoted to the intersection between SF, music and the counterculture.’ With a remit that broad, it is not surprising that it lacks a clear focus. Are we talking about science fiction involving music or about music using sf themes? The answer is apparently ‘both’, though in practice we’re dealing with the relationship between rock, pop and sf in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century. And though the table of contents suggests a historical survey one has little sense that the pieces were specifically commissioned with this in mind, which would account for the bittiness of coverage, particularly between 1980–2000.

Contemporary classical and experimental electronic music are mentioned only because of Delia Derbyshire, inevitably included here for her realisation of Ron Grainer’s Dr Who theme rather than for her other groundbreaking work as a composer and musician. Her presence also underlines the paucity of women subjects or contributors, though N.K. Jemisin offers a storming piece on her identification with the work of Janelle Monáe. There is only one significant female protagonist in the fiction, in Tim Maughan’s excellent ‘Flight Path Estate’, and only one story written by a woman, Liz Williams. Odd when you consider that punk provided opportunities for women musicians to get their music heard as never before.

Most of the best articles concern the 1970s, with David Quantick’s well-observed piece on Bill Nelson and BeBop Deluxe, Minister Faust’s thoughtful discussion of the relationship between George Clinton’s Mothership and the Nation of Islam’s Mother Plane, and Mark Sinker on the electrifying weirdness of Boney M. Going back to the ’60s, Sam Jordison’s encounter in early 2013 with Mick Farren (who constantly assured Jordison that ‘I’m not dying’) stands now as an epitaph. But too many of the articles feel like unformed anecdote, or stop just as they start to get interesting. Christopher Kirkley’s piece on mp3 markets in Mauretania is a prime example of the latter.

The fiction is also a very mixed bag. Apart from Maughan’s story, Lavie Tidhar’s ‘Between the Notes’ stands out, not only for acknowledging the existence of music pre-1960 but for its account of a time-travelling serial killer specialising in musicians confronted with a moment of great personal uncertainty. The poignancy of Martin Millar’s brief encounter between Hendrix, Joplin and other ’60s musician resists accusations of sf cliché but other stories demonstrate how difficult it can be to achieve a satisfying balance in mixing sf and music while avoiding banality.

Nor does Science Fiction Disco achieve an entirely satisfying balance between fiction and non-fiction, not while the magazine style – short articles, half a dozen short stories, ‘20 Mind-bending Ways to Start Your SF Album Collection’ (no, really) – seems ill-at-ease with the book format. Adventure Rocketship! clearly has potential but could look less like a grab bag and more as though it has a clear editorial direction with each issue.

Reading Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

Another review from Vector, circa 2011. (I will compile a proper bibliography one day, honest!)

The Heroes Joe Abercrombie
(Gollancz, 2011)

Earlier this year [2011], in a blog post entitled ‘The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists’ Leo Grin rounded on Joe Abercrombie, accusing him of belonging to a group of writers who were ‘clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage’. For Grin, ‘our mythic heritage’ comprises the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, both of whom he considers to be vastly superior to Abercrombie. Grin claimed not to be interested in fantasy per se, but in ‘something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old’. Clearly, Grin has a very particular view of what should fantasy consist of, and equally clearly, Joe Abercrombie’s writing doesn’t fit that template (although Abercrombie himself acknowledges Tolkien and Howard as influences, to which I would add Fritz Leiber’s Fafrhd and Grey Mouser stories). However, it is surely going too far to suggest that Abercrombie is contributing ‘another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing’, employing ‘cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism’.

In fact, Abercrombie is doing nothing of the sort. Instead, I would argue that he is doing something that Tolkien simply couldn’t, given the social mores when he was writing and his own literary background as a medievalist, and that is to provide the authentic voices of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ and the villains, voices that are crucially missing from Lord of the Rings except in the crudes of examples. Tolkien does not glorify war but he does ennoble it; after all, it provides the refining fire for many of his characters. They are also positioned within a clear moral framework which shapes their behaviour throughout. There is little room for moral ambiguity, which mostly manifests itself in unwise decisions made for what appear to be the best of reasons. However, with the exception of Sam Gamgee, moral angst is the province of the burghers and the nobility.

One of the most striking things about Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy was his ability to persuade the reader to take a sympathetic interest in the most unlikely people, a prime example being Sand dan Glotka, the swordsman turned torturer. Most memorable of all were Logen Nine-Fingers and his group of mercenary fighters, Named Men such as the Dogman, Harding Grim and Rudd Threetrees, hardened by years of fighting for whoever would pay most. They are skilled fighters who approach battle simply as a job to be done but they have a well developed if idiosyncratic moral code.

In The Heroes, Abercrombie tightens the focus, concentrating on the three days of battle that ensue when the King of the Union goes to war against the Northmen, now led by Black Dow, another former member of Logen’s dozen. The Dogman, meanwhile, is fighting on the side of the Union. And if reference to the Union prompts thoughts of the American Civil War, the model for this engagement would seem to be, in part, Gettysburg, with the Union forces, confusingly, taking on the Confederate role in this fictional encounter.

Abercrombie’s war is anything but glorious spectacle. Instead he gives the reader a polyphonic account of battle, with voices and thoughts from all levels of the two opposing armies, woven into an extended meditation on the nature of warfare itself, and the different ways in which it is fought. The Union forces are run according to a strict hierarchy and fights in a highly structured way that cannot react easily to sudden changes in the battle plan. The army’s leaders have been appointed not according to their abilities as soldiers but through patronage. As a result the men are ill-led and the army makes many avoidable mistakes. The Northmen’s army has a loose-knit structure, with small groups of men who can respond quickly to a situation but who are less easily controlled as a large group. They are, however, led by men who have earned respect, and indeed fear, for their fighting skills. There is a clear sense that Black Dow and his cohorts have some idea of what they’re supposed to be doing.

Yet, Abercrombie shows that the warriors of both sides are beset by similar doubts and worries. Corporal Tunny has learned to survive by getting the raw recruits to do his work and would never dream of admitting that he cares about them, yet poignantly we see him writing secretly to the families of those who died to assure them their sons died good and noble deaths. Beck, son of a Named Man, goes to war filled with high hopes of earning glory, only to realise that he simply is not cut out for the fighting life. Craw, Black Dow’s Second wonders if he is growing too old to fight; Prince Calder, who seeks peace, discovers he has a talent for strategy and treachery, and Bremer dan Gorst is heedless of danger as he expiates his sins through battle. The inept are often rewarded for their stupidity while the competent remain unnoticed. And fighters like Craw and the other Named Men know that the next battle will look pretty much like the last one.

Once again, Abercrombie challenges the received notion of what a fantasy epic ought to look like in what is his darkest novel so far. There is little glory to be found in this epic battle, only profound gratitude at having survived. Abercrombie’s characters continue to find a cynical humour in their situation, not to mention looking out for those closest to them. Abercrombie’s war may be less ennobling than Tolkien’s but his portrayal of it possesses an honesty that Tolkien himself would, I think, have recognised, even if Grin continues to dismiss it as unacceptably nihilistic and inappropriate material for a fantasy novel. I for one am happy to skip the ‘mythopoeic subcreation’ in favour of this stark portrayal of the consequences of war.

Reading The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson

And this is a review from Vector in 2000

Kij Johnson – The Fox Woman
(Tor, 2000)

To the Japanese, the fox is a subtle creature, a shape-shifter, an illusionist whose magic is the stuff of deception. In the fox’s world, nothing is ever quite as it seems. The world of the Japanese court is equally subtle, with a wealth of meaning made manifest in the manner of a gesture or the colour of a robe. Having inadvertently fallen from favour at court, Yoshifuji has returned to his neglected country estate to ponder his future. He is fascinated by the foxes who live in the garden, and  who seem to represent the freedom which is missing from his own life, rigidly governed as it was by the protocols of court and city. But Yoshifuji’s wife, Shikujo, fears the countryside, the foxes in particular, and their effect on her husband, whose erratic behaviour is becoming ever more incomprehensible to her. Meanwhile, one of the foxes, a young female called Kitsune, is equally fascinated by the humans who have unexpectedly invaded her domain and falls in love with Yoshifuji. Determined to possess him, she begins to study what it means to be human, performing the fox’s mysterious magic in order to have that which she most desires.

In some respects, The Fox Woman embodies the classic British tale of the town mouse and the country mouse, each unhappy in the other’s chosen milieu, but there is much more to the story than this. Instead, one might more reasonably think of Kitsune as embodying that part of themselves that Yoshifuji and Shikujo cannot otherwise express, each of them in their own way longing to break free of the well-regulated but stultifying life of the city. Kitsune, in trying to become like them, finds her own animal spirit almost crushed by the literal weight of appearing human, of remembering what is appropriate at every moment, unable to give vent to her own authentic feelings for Yoshifuji. The tragedy of Yoshifuji and Shikujo is one of conformity, that neither can truly express their feelings to the other, although each is lonely and unhappy. It takes the intrusion of Kitsune into their lives, and her efforts to understand human happiness,  to make them understand what it is they fear, and to realise what it is they truly want even while the illusion of Kitsune’s fox-magic points up the sham nature of their own lives.

Kij Johnson’s debut novel explores a mythological tradition which will be unknown to many readers, although we know of the fox as a cunning and resourceful character in British folk tales. She uses unfamiliar characters and narrative expectations to give fresh impetus to old themes,  and in doing so produces a novel which is very compelling. Although seemingly slow-moving at times, mimicking the stultifying pace of Yoshifuji and Shijuko’s lives, The Fox Woman repays patient reading; after a while, you will find yourself swept into this strange half-world where nothing is quite what it seems, but where each word, every description, is delicately calculated to achieve just the right effect, where you do genuinely care about what happens to these desperately confused people and where the bitter-sweet ending seems perfectly judged.

Reading The Immersion Book of SF, ed. Carmelo Rafala

Another review from Vector, in 2010. <hr>

The Immersion Book of SF, edited by Carmelo Rafala
(Immersion Press, 2010)

Immersion Press, according to its website, specialises in “limited-edition, single-author collections and short novels”. As The Immersion Book of SF is neither, one should perhaps regard it as a calling card, introducing the Press’s authors and laying out its wares. It is a mixed bag.
The majority of these stories feel as though they belong in the Eighties rather than in the 21st century. Chris Butler’s ‘Have Guitar, Will Travel’ is a prime example, with its faux-Gibsonian plot about the consequences of a rock star becoming infected with virus software. Although competently written, the story is unsurprising. Al Robertson’s ‘Golden’ is similarly predictable, its disillusioned salesman receiving tantalising hints of a world where humans have continued into space, its ‘surprise revelation’ heavily signalled. Both stories also suffer from a sense that the sf elements are window dressing for studies of emotional upheavals rather than integral to the story.
This feeling permeates the collection. Aliette de Bodard’s ‘Father’s Last Ride’, dealing with a daughter’s coming to terms with her father’s life as an “aurora rider” might as easily use a non-sf setting and occupation and achieve the same cathartic ending Jason Erik Lundberg’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Son’ is, like the de Bodard, a nicely observed mood piece and there were hints that it is moving beyond a merely evocative account of an mostly absent father with a taste for tall tales but it doesn’t fully realise its own premise.
‘Dolls’ by Colin P Davies and ‘Grave Robbers’ by Anne Stringer are very disappointing. Davies’s story, about child pageants taken to competitive absurdity, swirls aimlessly before ending in a desultory fashion. Stringer’s story is the weakest in the collection (although Eric James Stone’s ‘Bird-Dropping and Sunday’, a leaden fairy tale, runs it a close second). The idea of grave robbers uncovering alien artefacts is not new and Stringer does little to refresh it. Gareth Owens’s ‘Mango Dictionary and the Dragon Queen of Contract Evolution’ has the most ingenious title but, as with so many of these stories, there is no sense of anything beyond the conclusion and it feels more like a writing exercise than a fully-fledged story.
Gord Sellar’s ‘The Broken Pathway’ has flaws but he works hard to create a world beyond the story and sets up an intriguing clash of cultures, expressed through geomancy and cartography. Finally, Lavie Tidhar and Tanith Lee show how it should be done. Tidhar’s ‘Lode Stars’ skilfully packs a fully-realised space opera into twenty pages of story which is full of telling detail and wrong-foots the reader throughout. Lee’s ‘Tan’ is tiny and has an improbable premise involving dead aliens and a sun tan but works because of an unforgettable final image.
But these three stories are not enough to sustain the rest of the collection. The retro feel – even down to the cover picture with its pouting female astronaut, hair floating softly, breast-shaped bulges built into her spacesuit – seems neither intentional nor ironic and as such suggests that the Immersion Press view of science fiction will be traditional rather than innovative. This might not be a bad thing in itself but let it at least be good traditional storytelling rather than, as in so many instances here, something lack-lustre and unappealing.

Reading Sophia McDougall’s Savage City

Savage Cityby Sophia McDougall
(Gollancz, 2011)

It would be wrong to say that the alternative world setting is incidental to Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy but neither is the working out of such a history the driving force behind the series, not when the point of divergence occurs so far in the past. Yet, neither should the series be regarded simply as a story set against a faux-imperial backdrop for local colour. Instead, McDougall has created a world in which various powerful and emotive issues can be interrogated away from contemporary assumptions and received wisdoms. Once this is grasped, McDougall’s choice of an alternative Imperial Rome as a venue in which to explore personal freedoms and political expediency is more easily understood.

Savage City, like its predecessors, focuses on Una and Sulien, slaves who escaped to Europe and were later freed, thanks to their involvement with Marcus Novius, heir to the Imperial Throne, who had fled from Rome after his parents’ murders, fearing his life was in danger. In Rome Burning, Una had come to realise that Marcus’s cousin, Drusus, was behind the murders, so determined was he to fulfil a prophecy that he would become emperor. As Savage City opens, with the deaths of Marcus and other members of the Imperial family in a bomb blast, Drusus once again finds himself thwarted but usurps the throne anyway and attempts to execute Una and various others because they know what he has done.

A power struggle between unevenly matched forces is a fictional staple; one expects those on the side of ‘good’ to triumph somehow, no matter how unevenly matched the two groups might be. What makes Savage City and its predecessors stand out from the crowd is the focus not on the mechanics of the struggle as on the emotional price it exacts from everyone, on all sides of the conflict. Everyone has a particular view of how various issues ought to be handled and no two seem to agree.

All her life Una has dreamed of the abolition of slavery and, having escaped, is determined to do what she can to make it happen; her relationship with Marcus offers a chance to finally achieve this yet Marcus has been made acutely aware that political solutions are not easily enacted, even by emperors – the economic costs of turning slaves into paid servants is made plain. By the same token, his relationship with Una, even as a freedwoman, cannot be sanctioned by the state; she can be his concubine or his advisor but not his wife.

When the state cannot help, Una turns to grassroots activism, utilising people’s strengths and their willingness to perform various actions according to their own convictions. This willingness to accommodate can be linked to Marcus’s attempts to avert war. Drusus, by contrast, believes in absolute authority and with it the right to dispose of people as he sees fit. War is necessary in order to establish his own supremacy; it does not occur to him to question his own right to order to people to die on his behalf.

In addressing such issues Savage City and its predecessors attest to the fact that it is possible – maybe even necessary – to do something with speculative fiction that goes beyond the familiar tropes. While the fantastic elements of the narrative are low-key – Sulien’s ability to heal, Una’s ability to direct people’s thoughts – and the alternative history doesn’t always entirely convince, the passion behind the narrative is highly persuasive.

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.