OR: Who Needs Cleopatra?

A review that originally appeared in Interzone #200:-


Steve Redwood – Reverb – £7.99 PB

Having lampooned first and last things in the mock-Miltonian Fisher of Devils, for his next trick Redwood turns his comic capabilities loose on the chronological conundrums of SF’s time travel subgenre. And a case can be made for regarding Cleopatra itself as something of a time capsule, within the walls and paragraphs of which SF aficionados of the far future will find echoes and reverberations of some of the most significant contemporary works in the field. In his afterword Redwood acknowledges Moorcock’s Behold the Man as his initial inspiration, but debts, known or not, are also owed to Anderson’s stories of the Time Patrol, Leiber’s The Big Time, Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps and, perhaps most significantly, Ballard’s The Greatest Television Show on Earth and Vidal’s Live From Golgotha.

Redwood’s hero, named only as N, is known to the future as the Unreliable Narrator, and with good reason as he tries to reinvent every situation to show himself in a favourable light and imparts his wisdom on female psychology, which in many ways is the most fantastic aspect of the novel, culminating in an ending that is pure wish-fulfilment. The inventor of a time machine, N can only finance his escapades into the past by throwing in his lot with a media mogul who seizes on the opportunity for the ultimate pay-per-view. With the mogul’s son Bertie as his sidekick, N sets out to solve some of history’s most enduring mysteries, such as who the Mona Lisa was, where Cain’s wife came from, how Joseph Smith got the Book of Mormon, why Rasputin was so difficult to kill, the truth about the Roswell aliens and what really happened at the Crucifixion, though unfortunately he never gets to fulfil his heart’s desire with a trip back to visit uberbabe Cleopatra. Something like the first two thirds of the book are taken up with N recounting these adventures to Shimmer, Shade and Shalom, ostensibly officers of the Time Police intent on keeping their records up to date like all good bureaucrats, but in reality agents of a future power with a nefarious agenda of its own, one involving the disappearance of Bertie, the secret of time travel, the war between the sexes and an event referred to simply as The Uncluttering.

From a Science Fiction perspective this book has little new to offer, as readers may already have surmised from my earlier name dropping. But what it lacks in conceptual breakthrough, Who Needs Cleopatra? more than makes up for in sheer entertainment value and authorial chutzpah. Redwood is clearly having a ball here, giving us a series of intriguing time riddles, with special attention paid to the complexities and paradoxes attendant on the use of this particular McGuffin; while his plot literally ties itself up in knots at times, you always have the feeling that the author is in charge of his material and knows exactly what he is doing. The research also seems impeccable, though Redwood wears his learning lightly, with the facts about the various historical events and personages that N and Bertie investigate never less than convincing, enriching the narrative with titbits of gossip and a wealth of supportive detail that compels the necessary suspension of disbelief until he is ready to deliver a resolution that leaves you slightly gob smacked at the writer’s audacity. And Redwood’s prose is a delight, the work of a storyteller who has found his voice, a natural raconteur with a relaxed and agreeably self-mocking tone, the ability to effortlessly keep us hanging on his every word. It’s ideal for the self-deluding and conceited, but ultimately harmless and wholly amiable N, Redwood never missing a trick, demonstrating a drolly comic turn of phrase and sprinkling the text with in-jokes for the cognoscenti, as he wins over even the hardest hearted reader. The author’s wit and irreverence shine through, with many scenes that had me laughing out loud, as houses built on clay are toppled and sacred cows led to slaughter, and bubbling away beneath the surface a Rabelaisian love of what, for want of a better word, I shall describe as smut.

There are niggles. For one thing, some loose ends are left dangling, such as the mystery of the Beckettesque characters who wander in and out of the text at various points, and the role of the time traveller/angel Moroni, who is busy reinventing history for his own amusement; while these rags, tags and bobtails of invention are rewarding in their own right, adding zest to the text and keeping the reader off balance, they also tend to undermine the book’s status as a self-contained work of fiction (as far as I can tell, this is not billed as Book One of the N Chronicles). More significantly, characterisation here pales in comparison to the giants who strode the pages of Fisher of Devils, with N and his cohorts often seeming little more than foils for the author’s comic invention. They lack the compassion, the Miltonian grandeur, the redemptive quality of Redwood’s Lucifer, so that I found it hard to care about them in the same way or ever feel that they were genuinely in peril, narrative tension arising not out of fear for the characters so much as from curiosity as to which rabbit Redwood would next pull out of his hat. But then, for this type of fiction, such considerations are minor. As far as I know nobody has ever dismissed Wodehouse on the grounds that Jeeves and Wooster were not realistic depictions of an English gentleman and his manservant, or that aunts are seldom the minatory ogres found in the environs of Blandings Castle and, genre trappings aside, Redwood is writing in the same vein of ‘genteel’ and typically English humour, only with a dash of saucy seaside postcard panache bunged in for flavour. Overall it’s an irresistible combination, and one which should delight those who want to cast their net a little wider than the next letter home from Discworld.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s