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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