Filler content with alternative history

A review that originally appeared in Sol #30 back in 1998:-

Milton in America by Peter Ackroyd. Published by Vintage. ‘B’ format paperback. 277pp. £6.99.

Biographer of Dickens, T. S. Eliot and Blake, winner of the Somerset Maugham award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, Peter Ackroyd is a writer who comes with an impressive literary pedigree and is not someone you would automatically associate with genre fiction, though the horrific and supernatural elements in such books as Hawksmoor and The House of Doctor Dee are undeniable. With this latest novel he dips a toe into the waters of alternative history, one of the most distinctive of science fiction’s many sub-genres, at the same time indulging his love of England’s literary heritage.

In the real world John Milton served in Cromwell’s government and was an outspoken critic of the institution of monarchy, but when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 the blind poet was forced to go into hiding and only narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose. In later years he wrote Paradise Lost and the other great poems for which he is chiefly known today, becoming an inspiration to many and a power for good.

In Ackroyd’s fictional alternative, rather than wait on the mercy of King Charles, Milton takes passage aboard a ship bound for New England, with the boy Goosequill as his guide and secretary, where he is welcomed with open arms by the Puritan colonists. Milton quickly becomes their leader, uniting the far flung settlements under a strong central government. The result however is not so much Paradise on Earth as an illustration of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting influence of power.

Beautifully written, in a language that harks back to the time of Milton but won’t alienate modern readers, this is a sombre novel, a compelling exercise in the art of seeing ourselves as others see us. Milton believes himself to be a deeply moral and righteous man, one who always acts in accordance with the will of God and for the greater good of his people. In opposition to this self-view we have the testimony of Goosequill, who sees his friend and mentor transformed from an amiable visionary into a stern and intolerant demagogue, undone by a carnality his religion forbids him to embrace, until at the end he is the personification of the very tyranny he fled from.

Ackroyd is not interested in the game of consequences and the tricks of name dropping that seem to delight most dabblers in this sub-genre. Instead he simply uses alternative history as an embarkation point for a sublime exploration of the malleability of human nature, the way in which our most dearly held ideals and visions can be undermined. If poets are indeed, as Shelley contended, the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, then Ackroyd seems to conclude it were better they remain so. Recommended reading.

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Filler content with a long sun

A review that originally appeared in The Zone #5 back in 1997:-

Gene Wolfe
Hodder & Stoughton hardcover £16.99

In the years since publication of his landmark ‘New Sun’ tetralogy, Gene Wolfe has written books that have been good, bad, and indifferent, but has produced little of a quality to justify his high standing in genre circles. That state of affairs is now rectified with a novel sequence called, appropriately enough, ‘The Book of the Long Sun’, of which EXODUS is the fourth volume. This ambitious project sees the author return to the themes and ideas that made his reputation, and infuse them with new life and vitality.

At the command of a minor god known as the Outsider, the charismatic young augur Patera Silk set out to save his house of worship from closure, a quest that has led him deep into the secret heart of his world. EXODUS opens with Silk proclaimed ruler of his native city of Viron, but it seems that his troubles are only just beginning. The factions opposing him are not so much beaten as biding their time, while Silk’s ostensible allies, a female army sent by the matriarchy of Trivigauntis, seem intent on pursuing their own political agenda. And while this three-way power struggle is being fought out in the spotlight, backstage developments are taking place that threaten the very existence of Silk’s world.

With a cast of more than twenty major characters and a plot that can truly be called labyrinthine, EXODUS is not an easy book to step into. While it may be regarded as a standalone volume, readers will undoubtedly find the book more rewarding and accessible if they first familiarise themselves with the others in the sequence. And, with that small caveat in mind, let me say that EXODUS FROM THE LONG SUN is a book that is well worth the effort.

Wolfe takes the trappings of Science Fiction, generation starships and computer consciousness et al, and twists them through a full 360° to produce a work of fiction that is both familiar and startlingly new. His prose is as vivid as ever, creating a scene, a character with just a few well-chosen words that effortlessly bring it all to life. Much of the story is told by means of speech at which Wolfe has shown himself a past master, and at times it reads like nothing so much as one of Plato’s dialogues, with Silk cast in the role of Socrates and using his interrogative skills to uncover the truth about his world. And perhaps in that comparison lies a clue to the book’s real concerns. While there are enough feats of derring-do and sensawunda material to appease the most demanding fan of such fare, you get the impression that ultimately this is all just surface noise and is not where Wolfe’s true interests lie. At the heart of this work is a philosophical detective story that takes on board the nature of God and our obligations towards Him, the problem of evil and the paradox of freewill.

Comparisons with Orson Scott Card’s ‘Homecoming’ seem inevitable, given the common ground that both series share. And we can only speculate as to why two major SF writers should embark on such similar journeys at this time. However, Wolfe has produced a work of far greater subtlety and insight, one that should be welcomed by anyone with an interest in what SF is capable of when it declines to accept the limitations imagined by critics of the genre.

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Filler content with virtual light

A review that originally appeared back in 1997 in #8 of a magazine called Maelstrom:-

Virtual Light by William Gibson. Published by Penguin. Paperback, 296pp, £9.99.

It is 1995 as I write this review and Cyberpunk, which only a short time ago looked set to turn the science fiction world on its head, now seems slightly passé. Writers within the genre have assimilated the stylistic quirks of the movement, which Cyberpunk in its turn borrowed from the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, while reality itself seems to have caught up with the technological tropes that were its brand mark. Phrases like ‘surfing the Net’ and ‘information super highway’ have become part and parcel of our everyday experience, and only social historians of the future will have any hope of realistically assessing the extent to which fiction informed life and vice versa.

Against such a backdrop Virtual Light, the new novel by Cyberpunk doyen Gibson, seems almost an anachronism. Reading it I was reminded of nothing so much as Hammett’s hard-boiled classic The Maltese Falcon. Instead of wisecracking Sam Spade we have Berry Rydell, ex-cop and ex-private security guard, a hero who simply muddles through, managing to do the right thing. Instead of the curvaceous Miss Wonderley we have Chevette Washington, an ace bicycle messenger, skinny and punk coiffured. And instead of the jewel encrusted bird as a McGuffin Gibson gives us that archetypal Cyberpunk icon, a pair of mirrorshades.

These glasses are stolen by Chevette from a man who annoys her at a private party she has gate-crashed. It’s an act of pique, but the consequences are deadly serious. The mirrorshades are virtual light glasses containing information that certain parties do not wish to become public knowledge. Chevette finds herself on the run, pursued by a posse of bad guys that includes renegade policemen, the skip-tracer Lucius Warbaby and a ruthless assassin called Loveless. Berry works for Warbaby, but changes allegiance when he realises that his employer intends to off Chevette. There follow assorted acts of derring do and low-down treachery before Berry and Chevette get it all sorted with a little help from the Republic of Desire, a secret brotherhood of computer hackers. End of story. Gibson avoids the temptation of having them marry and live happily ever after, but there’s a strong hint the relationship will develop in this direction post the final paragraph.

There are some well-rounded characters in this novel and Gibson’s writing is always a delight to read, his terse prose driving the narrative along at a cracking pace, but anyone expecting the originality of Neuromancer will be sorely disappointed by this book. I’m not even sure that it should properly be regarded as science fiction; as Gibson himself acknowledges, much, if not all, of the technology he so adroitly stage manages is already in existence. Rather, Virtual Light seems to me like a run of the mill detective story by a better than average writer with some science fictional trappings tacked on almost as an afterthought.

And the sad thing is that those trappings, peripheral as they were, had far more potential than the main story. I didn’t care all that much about Chevette and Berry. I already had a fair idea what was going to happen with them after the first fifty pages, and nothing that followed held any surprises for me. But I did want to know more about how California got split up into two states, North and South. I wanted to know more about the shantytown built on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Japanese sociologist who comes to study its people. I wanted to know more about the Christian sect that watches TV in the hope of hearing God speak to them on the soundtracks of old films. Gibson could have told me about these and many other things besides, but instead he just uses them for window dressing in a not particularly interesting cops and robbers story, perhaps with his mind already on the possibility of a lucrative film deal.

With Virtual Light William Gibson has written a good novel, an enjoyable novel, one that I do not hesitate to recommend as escapist entertainment. I’m just not convinced that he has written the right novel.

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Filler content with a river between worlds

A review that originally appeared in Maelstrom #7 back in 1995:-

Riverrun by S. P. Somtow. Published by Orbit. Paperback, 257pp, £4.99.

Born in Bangkok, educated at Eton and Cambridge, now a resident of California, S. P. Somtow comes from a cosmopolitan background and this wealth of cultural diversity is reflected in his fiction. Somtow won the prestigious John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1981 and has written eighteen books in science fiction and related genres. To readers in this country he is perhaps best known for his horror novel Vampire Junction and its sequel Valentine, two books that stunningly transplanted the age old myth of the vampire into a modern, media-dominated landscape.

Riverrun is set in a cosmos of innumerable dimensions and realities, many of which have been thrown into a state of constant flux by the events that form the book’s backdrop. Running between them is the great river of the book’s title, a thread upon which countless worlds are strung, and their only hope of stability. Such is the epic scope of Somtow’s vision, but at the heart of the book and its mighty conflicts is a simple story about two families and their different approaches to life. On the one hand is King Strang, whose madness threatens to unhinge the cosmos itself, and his warring offspring, pale Prince Ash, the vampire Thorn and the weredragon Katastrofa Darkling. On the other hand is the poet Philip Etchison, his wife Mary who is dying of cancer, their children Joshua and Theo. The two families represent different forms of bonding; the ties of love that heal and renew, the chains of hate that enslave and destroy. In the grotto deep below a Chinese restaurant built in the middle of the Arizona desert their worlds collide with far-reaching results.

Theo Etchison is the key to it all, the hub round which everything else must turn. Locked up in the body of this young boy is the ultimate power of a Truthsayer. Theo must discover this potential in himself and learn to use it before those who seek to control him destroy all that he holds dear. The boy must become a man.

Vampire Junction was remarkable for its imagery and that quality is shared by this latest book. The reader is plunged into a world of lizard warriors and fire-belching dragons, Chinese magicians and Indian shamen, giant castles that crown unscaleable peaks and cities that float through the air. Somtow throws everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into this cultural melting pot and the result is a feast of colour and spectacle. In contrast to this and effectively counterbalancing it is the believability of the main characters. The Etchison family may be strangers in a strange land but they still have very human concerns, such as weight loss and sexual frustration. Theo might be the saviour of the universe, but he still has to put up with his big brother’s moods.

What must be conceded, despite the vividness of Somtow’s writing, is that there is little in the way of genuine invention. So many of the book’s ideas will seem, if not clichéd, overly familiar to the veteran reader of fantasy. There are echoes of Zelazny’s Amber, Farmer’s World of Tiers, and the Moorcockian Multiverse, while Theo could easily pass for a young Thomas Covenant, sans ring and long trousers. There is little that is new. And not a lot actually seems to happen, regardless of all the pyrotechnics and often frantic activity. By the end we are more or less back at the point we started out from, and poor Theo has it all to do over again. Ostensibly the first volume of a series, in retrospect Riverrun seems more like a prospectus for events to come than an integral part of some major storyline. The scenery you pass through on this journey may well be of more account than whatever destination the author has in mind.

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Filler content with dynamite

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #34 back in 2003, with the omission of the final paragraphy which contained a pissy little swipe at a ‘celeb’ who had the temerity to blurb a book I didn’t like as much as he did (I’m fifteen years older and not quite as petty nowadays – in these twilight years of my life I probably wouldn’t be as pedantic about the book needing to have a point either):-

Mitch Cullin
Weidenfeld & Nicolson pb, 192pp, £9.99

The narrator is eleven year old Jeliza-Rose, the daughter of a once famous guitarist who injected his success in an arm. When her mother dies of an overdose and drug dealers come wanting the money dad owes, the two of them flee LA and head for rural Texas, where they set up house in the old family homestead, a ramshackle and tumbledown building called What Rocks. Dad dies soon after, though Jeliza-Rose thinks he is only sleeping, leaving her alone with her collection of Barbie heads, Classique and Cut N Style, Fashion Jeans and Magic Curl. She roams the surrounding area, having all sorts of adventures and using her powerful imagination to reinvent the world. And she meets the neighbours, demented embalmer Dell and her brother Dickens, an epileptic with unspecified mental problems who keeps two sticks of dynamite under the bed. It’s a recipe for disaster and sure enough disaster is what we get.

The theme of children left to cope for themselves immediately brings to mind McEwan’s The Cement Garden, but this short novel is far lighter in tone by virtue of the narrator’s cheery obliviousness to so much of what is going on and ability to land on her feet no matter what. The writing is sparse and evocative, suggesting the power of imagination to make the intolerable not only bearable but actually appealing. While the rest of us may feel pity for Jeliza-Rose, she appears entirely happy with her lot. A particular delight are the conversations she with Classique and the rest of the Barbie gang, these disembodied heads becoming characters in their own right, each with its own telling traits.

And yet although I enjoyed the book I’m left wondering what was the point of it all. It starts, things happen, and then it stops, with an ending that is abrupt and contrived, leaving us no further forward. While Jeliza-Rose is a joy to know, none of the other characters is portrayed with much sympathy or feeling. Dell is the typical clichéd loner as loony and Dickens could pass muster as poster boy for people campaigning against care in the community. What exactly is Tideland trying to tell us? That drugs can screw you up and imagination can be a wonderful thing? Or, more appositely, never let a mentally handicapped person play with dynamite? These all seem pretty obvious truths, banal even, so why bother?

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Filler content with nocturnal searchers

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #34:-

Lauren Halkon
Cosmos Books pb, 179pp, $14.99

This first novel by talented short story writer Halkon concerns three races who warred in the past to the point of extinction but now exist in symbiotic dependence. Kai-ya is the last of the Pale Ones, once a being of great power but now close to exhaustion. The second race are the Dark Ones, a tribal culture with shamans and a rich magical tradition, though they also are in decline. These two exist inside the dreams of the third race. Immortal, the Humans exist in the real world, living in three towering cities, each one in his or her own self-contained unit and having no contact with the others. They are quite literally insane and their depredations are draining the power of the sacred mountain that gives life to all. Extinction beckons for all three races unless they can be shocked out of their complacency and some sort of rapprochement achieved, but the old hates of the past will not easily be overcome. The best hope for their continued survival lies with the shaman Sahla of the Dark Ones, who must journey into the world of mortals, but her task is fraught with many dangers, not least the threat of a human psychopath intent on destroying the three cities and the barely suppressed lust that her mentor Kai-ya feels towards her.

This is a strikingly original book, and far more complex than my brief precis would suggest. The plot could perhaps have benefited from a bit more exegesis. Although Halkon uses the term ‘human’ it appears to be a label of convenience and the reader is warned to not seek correspondences with our own world. The depiction of people living in isolation brings to mind Simak’s classic City, but there the comparison ends. Computers are mentioned but Halkon makes little effort to provide a scientific backdrop for the world she is writing about. Its logic is internal, to be taken on its own terms, and emotional verities have more weight than scientific truth. The work is perhaps best approached as an allegory in the tradition of books like David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus or even the Biblical Revelations.

The characters are involved in a spiritual quest and in some sense the landscape reflects their inner turmoil, so that the true struggle is to see, ultimately, which race’s will can be enforced on reality, with the only working solution a kind of spiritual gestalt, one that makes allowances for the needs of all and the mistakes of the past. The subtext here seems to be that we can only progress once we accept responsibility for our own actions and recognise that nobody’s hands are clean.

All this could easily have come over as fuzzy mysticism, but Halkon gives it a hard edge, and while I might have doubts about the narrative framework her writing rocks and there’s no denying that her heart is in the right place. And ultimately it was the intensity of the emotion and sheer quality of the writing that won me over, swept along with the characters on a torrent of words, language vivid enough to transfix the hallucinatory and visionary quality of the events taking place. The use of short chapters enhances the narrative drive and constant shifts of perspective help give a rounded view of all that is taking place. Halkon is adept at stage managing a large cast of characters, giving each their own signifiers of race and individuality, and deftly capturing the more delicate nuances of emotion, those fine shades that can make a character real no matter how fantastic their situation. And she excels too in delineating moments of horror, with some scenes that I found truly revolting and which a less courageous writer might have shied away from describing in such powerful detail.

Night Seekers is a strong and original work of fantasy fiction that comes highly recommended as an antidote to all those Tolkien by beginners volumes that are cluttering up the shelves in high street bookshops.

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Filler content with hands

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #34:-

Paul Harland
Aeon Press pb, 264pp, £8.95

This novel by Dutch writer Harland, the first from Aeon Press, follows in the footsteps of David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo sequence and Monica* McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, with a future dominated by the Chinese, though in this case the focus is not on mainland China but new economic superpower Taiwan (during the course of the novel they purchase Korea and put in a bid for Japan).

Talented scientist Jeremy Rose is the son of a Chinese father and an Irish mother. His boyfriend, the artist Shikegi, has a cybernetic hand fitted that will enable him to paint as fast as his mind can conceptualise, but then walks out on Rose with no word of explanation. Months later his body is found in a Taiwanese alley, the hand missing. Rose learns that a similar fate has befallen over one hundred and fifty other artists. He relocates to Taiwan, determined to learn the truth. At the same time he takes up a new job, pursuing scientific research that will change the metabolisms of poor people to enable them to eat practically anything, but this has disastrous consequences thanks to sabotage, giving Rose yet another mystery to unravel. Both plot strands lead back to the sinister genius Yeh, who died several years ago but seems to have left behind a powerful organisation to carry on his work.

Harland has an interesting idea or two here, but seems unwilling to do the groundwork to make them tenable. The book is set in the near future, but little or no effort is made to make the changes we see credible. We are told that Taiwan is a global economic super power, but get no explanation for this change of fortunes or even speculation, other than a couple of characters admitting that they have no idea how to account for the nation’s prosperity, it just happened, which simply isn’t acceptable. Missing too is the cultural richness of the Wingrove and McHugh; change all the names and the story could just as easily, and more credibly, be set in California. Rose’s own oriental side isn’t put over particularly well, consisting of a few odd culinary affectations and a love of Chinese writing; these traits seem like add-ons rather than an essential part of who he is. The problem is compounded by giving him comic cut-out parents, a philandering diplomat father who disapproves of his son being gay and an IRA mother who sleeps with semtex beneath the bed.

The plot, when you boil away all the froth, is rather lame, the old cliché about the mad genius scheming to take over the world. Most of the elements are entirely transparent to the reader so that we end up not marvelling at Harland’s invention but that his characters are so obtuse, constantly missing out on what seems obvious. The things that could have made for a challenging story, such as the use of cybernetic hands by artists or the moral implications of adapting the homeless to eat garbage, are shamefully ignored, used simply as window dressing in a piece of sub-James Bond nonsense.

Where the book does score is in the depiction of Rose’s emotional state. The desperation grounded in loss that makes him unable to accept Shigeki’s death and drives him to extreme acts is tellingly conveyed, making his grief palpable to the reader. Rose’s post-Shikegi relationship with the ‘death whore’ Pittaya, a male prostitute who has been altered so that he can be killed by customers and then later revived, provides the potential for a love triangle that, had it been exploited, would have made for a much stronger and more interesting story than the one we actually get. Disappointing.

*I’ve allowed to stand as it appeared as Monica in the magazine, but the actual name is Maureen McHugh

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