Filler content with velocity

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #31:-

Steve Aylett
Gollancz pb, 131pp, £9.99

This slim volume is billed as ‘Accomplice Book 2’, Accomplice being the name of the city in which the action takes place, so it’s a series then and yes there’s a map inside the front cover, showing that even avant-garde writers such as Aylett must sometimes conform to genre conventions. Of course the packaging could simply be artifice, an ironic commentary on said conventions, but if so then I’m not particularly amused as the end result, assuming it only goes to trilogy length and the third volume has a commensurate page count, is that the reader pays £30 for a 400pp paperback. The fact that some of the text satirises marketing and vile commercial opportunists only rubs salt in the wound.

The book’s hero is Barny Juno, a Walter Mitty in reverse, who’s desperately trying to pass himself off as an ordinary guy so current squeeze Magenta Blaze, who likes a man of action, will take a hike and free up Barny to be with the woman he truly loves, Chloe Low, but reality is working from a different script. Poor Barny keeps getting into scrapes. His enemy the demon Sweeney sicks underling Skittermite onto him, which makes for all sorts of complications. Then there’s Mayor Rudloe, who invents Cyril, Public Enemy No. 1, to coerce Accomplice’s citizens into donating blood for his Conglomerate masters, only to have this figment of his imagination come to life, a transformation in which Barny plays an unwitting part. Add to that the Fuseheads, with their Velocity Gospel, a cult who believe the way to salvation is to be fired from a cannon, or something equally silly. And let’s not forget the Dangerous Reptiles Competition, which… No, on second thoughts, let’s forget it.

There’s not a lot I can add to Andrew Hook’s comments on Book 1 in an earlier TTA. Aylett dishes up some bravissimo invention and wordplay, but also inflicts a lot of nonsense on the reader, material that is absurdist per se. Despite the primacy suggested by the title the Fuseheads are only a sideshow in a book that’s all sideshow, hung together on a tenuous narrative thread. The best I can do by way of offering comparison is to name drop something like Monty Python and The Holy Grail; there’s the same mix of inspired lunacy on the one hand, and on the other moments when the writer tries just too hard for off the wall effects, and we end up not laughing but wondering what’s on the TV. The excuse for much of the absurdity is that it’s satire of the kind of nonsense talked by politicians and religious fanatics, but this is an area in which reality trumps fiction nearly every time. Aylett tries hard but what’s on the page pales when set beside such real life exemplars as Paxman trying to get a straight answer out of Tory leader Michael Howard or the comet cultists committing mass suicide.

Yes, I enjoyed it, but not very much and with qualifications. I’m mildly intrigued to know how it all turns out but think I’ll wait until Fantasy Masterworks, or someone else, decides to call it a classic and publish the whole series in one reasonably priced volume, which, given the way that classic status has been devalued by marketing hype, in the case of Accomplice should be about five minutes after Aylett finishes writing it.

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Trailer Trash – Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

Now whatever you do, don’t miss this film.

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Filler content with lighthouse

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #31:-

Alice Thompson
Virago pb, 151pp, price not shown

This novel is set in the 1860s, and opens with a young woman washed up on an isolated island, the site of a lighthouse. She has no memory of who she is or how she got there. Simon, the younger of the two lighthouse keepers, a pagan whose shamanistic powers have been enhanced since he came to the island, names her Lucia, after a painted ship in a locket round the girl’s neck. Cameron, the older, a rigid man of strong religious convictions, seems unsettled by the girl, but also going to unusual lengths to ensure she cannot leave. As Lucia wanders the island she sees things that the others assure her exist only in her imagination, including visions of a young coloured girl. It becomes clear that the island is haunted, and Cameron knows far more about Lucia’s appearance than he is letting on.

This is a very short novel, with little in the way of real substance. The cover blurb touches on the idea of memory being linked to identity, but the story doesn’t explore this in any depth. There’s an attempt to build ambiguity using the trick of having the ghost’s identity blurred, as popularised in films such as Sixth Sense and The Others, but at the end what we have is the usual vengeance from the past reaching out into the present shtick. The plot doesn’t hang together that well, and some of the causal connections seem horrendously coincidental, while the ending is something of an anti-climax. Characterisation throughout seems arbitrary, people acting as they do from author diktat rather than out of any consistent internal motivation. There’s some vivid descriptive writing, but that’s about all there is to commend it. As ghost stories go Pharos is pretty much a take it or leave it example of the type, contrived and unconvincing, to be read, if at all, for the language rather than the story.

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Song for a Saturday – When the Day Goes Down

This is for the broken dreamers.

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Filler content with leaks

A review that originally appeared  in The Third Alternative #28:-

David Langford
Big Engine pb, 209pp, £7.99

Big Engine is a new independent publisher looking to promote talented new writers, rescue popular works from out-of-print ignominy and challenge the accepted wisdom that ‘anthologies don’t sell’. Their list of titles for 2001 is a promisingly eclectic mix, one that will whet the appetites of most SF fans. This 1984 novel by Langford, complete with an introduction by Terry Pratchett, is their launch publication, and it’s an auspicious start.

Roy Tappen works at Robinson Heath, a top secret nuclear research facility run by the Ministry of Defence. One day on a dare he smuggles out a surplus to requirement filing cabinet, only to discover it contains the plutonium core from a nuclear warhead, put there for safekeeping by one of the cleaners. Unfortunately getting a warhead back into Robinson Heath isn’t as easy as getting one out, taxing all of Tappen’s considerable ingenuity, the situation deteriorating with each new attempt.

This is a lively book, one that deftly satirises the excesses and paranoia of the security community. It has some memorable characters and grand comic set pieces, taking well aimed pot shots at bureaucratic muddle-headedness and red tape, like a modern and more purposeful equivalent of P. G. Wodehouse. Tappen could easily be Bertie Wooster with a science O-level and Robinson Heath some little known annex of the Drones Club, patrolled by security guards in lieu of draconian maiden aunts. Only the reality hinted at behind the text (Langford used to work in the nuclear industry, so presumably knows what he’s talking about) seems to offer more in the way of absurdity, but really that’s not funny at all.

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Trailer Trash – The Transfiguration

Vampires never go out of fashion.

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Filler content with imagined slights

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #32:-

James Lovegrove
Gollancz pb, 276pp, £6.99

The table of contents presents the thirteen stories that make up this collection in the form of a pie chart, which is perhaps emblematic of Imagined Slights itself. The novel form is a pleasing conceit, but for all that it remains only a table of contents. Similarly, while enjoyable, in the main these stories contain nothing that is truly new or original or striking. What we get are competent variations on old themes, familiar plots given a little tweak here, an added shade of emotion there.

‘Wings’ is probably the best of what’s on offer, deftly capturing the anguish of an earthbound child in a society where people can fly and using that as a metaphor for disability in general, along the way adding such nice touches as having the characters named after angels. And the worst is the aptly titled ‘The Unmentionable’, in which a man inherits an old house and uncovers a deadly secret, a Lovecraft parody that falls over itself to be funny but succeeds only in being ridiculous. The humour is less forced in ‘Britworld TM’, a tongue in cheek satire of cultural stereotypes, which has Britain recycled as a theme park for American tourists. ‘The Gift’, another highlight, exploits the scenario Lovegrove developed in his novel The Foreigners, looking at the effect on two very different people when the aliens on whom mankind has become economically dependent leave Earth, a story that demonstrates a firm grasp of character and the subtleties of emotion.

Most of the other stories though are tainted by a heady whiff of déjà vu, such as ‘The Drifting’, in which an all-female community is disrupted by the arrival of a stranger, and no prizes for guessing what the tuberous growth between her legs is. ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ is an indifferent version of the hold horror staple about a man falling in love with a corpse, while the equally unremarkable ‘Thanatophile Seeks Similar’ has a sickly young woman beguiled by the romantic possibilities of a guy who lives in a graveyard. In the ghost story ‘Rosemary for Remembrance’ a woman waits fifty-two years for the return of her lover who went off to war, while ‘The House of Lazarus’ presents a future in which dead relatives are stored in cryogenic tanks and can converse with their descendants, who have to pick up the bill.

Lovegrove’s voice is assured if unremarkable and, with a couple of exceptions, all of the stories in this collection are worth reading, but the pleasures arising out of the exercise are transient and derive from the undeniable satisfaction of seeing a story competently told rather than from any shock of the new.

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