Wednesday, 23 January 2013

John Crowley - Engine Summer (1979)

'Engine Summer' by John Crowley is one of the most moving, lyrical and downright cruel post apocalyptic novels you will ever read. Although I try in these reviews not to give away too much of the plot, it's nearly impossible to talk about the emotional heft of 'Engine Summer' without revealing the twist at the end, so spoilers for a thirty-four year old SF novel to follow.

'Engine Summer' tells the story of Rush that Speaks, a youth on the cusp of manhood who lives in the idyllic pastoral settlement of Little Belair. Inspired by the stories of saints he hears from a wise old woman, he sets out in search of his own sainthood, and in the process suffers a series of revelations about the nature of the world he lives in and the people he shares it with.

Simple enough so far. It is a coming of age story, which is a familiar set up in post-apocalyptic SF; Russell Hoban would use a similar template for 'Riddley Walker'. 'Engine Summer' lacks the almost violent linguistic inventiveness of Hoban's masterpiece, and its spirituality is more subtle and muted, but it achieves a similar sense of pathos for its doomed protagonist and his dreams of a grander, less ruined age. The images of a youth travelling through the flotsam and jetsam of our ruined future, the significance of which has long been forgotten, also form a central part of Gene Wolfe's masterful Book Of The New Sun series. However it's hard to imagine more different protagonists than Severian and Rush that Speaks; in stark contrast to Wolfe's charming but utterly unreliable narrator who creates a tapestry of possible interpretations of every event that he relates, the people of Little Belair, and Rush that Speaks in particular, pride themselves on 'truthful speaking' - to say what you mean and mean what you say. Indeed, this facet of Rush's nature is what allows him to become the redemption to the 'angels' - the people who inhabited the Earth before the great disaster - at his own personal cost.

We find out at the end that our narrator is not Rush himself - he is a recording, whose purpose is to retell his life up until the moment of recording, which he has done over three hundred times in the past six hundred years. Through sharing Rush's formative experiences of exploration, awakening and disillusionment, the angels, and the reader of the book, are able to come to a better understanding of their own life experiences, but this version of Rush is doomed to relive these vivid and heartbreaking experiences over and over again. It is a strikingly cruel ending, and in a way a powerful metaphor for the existence of, and the way we as consumers of fiction use, fictional characters.

All of this conveys little of the wonder of Crowley's prose. He is a wonderfully lyrical writer. The style of 'Engine Summer' is less ornate and poetic than that of Crowley's influential fantasy masterpiece, 'Little, Big', but it is more naturalistic and affecting for being less mannered. It has an almost brutal concision lacking from the epic sprawl of 'Little, Big'. As wonderous as 'Little, Big' indeed is, 'Engine Summer' may well be his greatest work.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Samuel R. Delany - The Einstein Intersection (1967)

"Endings to be useful must be inconclusive." Samuel R. Delany

'The Einstein Intersection' sure manages to get a lot done in the course of its slim 159 pages. Before embarking on the glorious impressionistic sprawl of 'Dhalgren', Samuel Delany's books were notable for the sheer power of imagination and narrative complexity that he was able to achieve within concise and punchy stories. Published between 'Babel-17' and 'Nova', Delany's other two long(ish)-form early masterpieces, 'The Einstein Intersection' sees him moving towards the open-ended complexity and ambiguity that characterises 'Dhalgren', whilst still maintaining all of his early clarity.
   'The Einstein Intersection' is steeped in mythology and folklore, both ancient and not so ancient. The protagonist Lobey represents both Orpheus and Theseus, as he navigates his way through physical and metaphorical labyrinths to find a way to bring back his Eurydice, a deaf-mute telekinetic, from the dead. As you'd expect, music plays a central role, and in this case is actually a manifestation of Lobey's psychic powers. Along the way he encounters avatars of Billy The Kid and Jesus Christ. The text features quotations at the start of each chapter, from wide ranging and un-sci fi sources as James Joyce, Bob Dylan and Isidore Ducasse's 'Maldoror'. Additionally, some of the text is taken straight from the author's journal from the period when he was writing the novel, giving an unusual insight into the thoughts, experiences and processes that fed into the story's creation. In this way you can feel Delany moving towards the recursive metatextual surrealism of 'Dhalgren'.
   The book is also a post-apocalypse yarn, in which humans have long since departed but aliens have taken use of their bodies to inherit the earth, which would be echoed in the central conceit of Gene Wolfe's 'The Fifth Head Of Cerberus' five years later. The characters are inhabiting bodies alien to them, on an alien world, and are afflicted by an outlandish variety of mutations. They themselves are frequently as confused as the reader is about the world they find themselves in.
   Delany effortlessly weaves these two strands together at the heart of the novel, which is about the extent to which we do or do not inhabit the mythology of the past. Lobey knows that he represents Orpheus; he is told so several times during the narrative, and he knows how the story of Orpheus ends. But Lobey is not human; he is an alien wearing the shape of a human, and so he is wearing the shape of humanity's myths. In the section of the book where we learn the significance of the title, one of the characters asks Lobey what he knows about mythology:

"I don't want to know what's inside the myths, nor how they clang and set one another ringing, their glittering focuses, their limits and genesis. I want their shape, their texture, how they feel when you brush by them on a dark road, when you see them receding into the fog, their weight as they leap your shoulder from behind; I want to know how you take to the idea of carrying three when you already bear two."

Lobey thinks that he is predestined to fail, as the original Orpheus did before him. But each telling of the story is different. At the beginning of the book, Lobey doubts that Orpheus actually made his journey, reasoning that if he went he would have come back with Eurydice. At the corresponding point in his journey, it turns out that looking back was the correct decision, as what he had brought back with him was merely another illusion. While people, their lives and their stories change - we are not the same people as the ancient Greeks - mythology still holds a deep resonance for us. The characters in Lobey's world are unable to escape the pull of human mythology, trapped as they are in what remains of our bodies. Witness the fate of poor Green-eye, Delany's Christ stand-in, murdered as part of a ritual no one involved in understands. But that does not deny them the opportunity to ultimately decide their own fate.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Kurt Vonnegut - Player Piano (1952)

N.B.: This one is from the archives, but I feel it's worth preserving here, at least until I get round to putting up more reviews.

Player Piano was Vonnegut's first novel, and if this shows in a certain roughness of style, the author's voice was extraordinarily well developed, showing off his trademark mix of sardonic humour and good natured cynicism to good effect. In the book, the second industrial revolution has occured, so most manual labour is carried out by machines. Thus, the working class have been put out of jobs. People's worth to society is measured by machines which sort them according to IQ. Those smart enough get to join the elite, becoming engineers and managers. Those who aren't are sent off to join the army or the Reclamation and Reconstruction Corps, which is about as much fun as it sounds. They are bundled into nasty council houses, given wide-screen TVs to placate them and then forgotten by the rest of society. The engineers and managers justify themselves by saying that they've raised these people's quality of living, but the people have been robbed of the dignity of labour and feel ignored and marginalised by society. Basically, the book questions that all scientific progress is a good thing, saying that we should take the time to stop and ask ourselves if all this new technology is actually making people any happier. The novel warns against a society in which all a man's work, and, more saliently, all a man's THINKING, is done by machines instead of himself. In this day and age, I think these points resonate quite strongly. 

The book is not perfect, by any means. It came out in 1952, so naturally the science fiction side of it has dated quite badly, the machines are all miles and miles of wires, vaccum tubes and flasing lights. However, once you get past this, in it's own way it's actually quite salient in a number of ways, certainly I think a lot of the issues it raises are still relevant. And, before you accuse the book of simply espoucing Luddite-ism in the face of scientific advancement, it's worth reading through to the end because this aspect is actually dealt with quite nicely at the end. The novel's protagonist goes up against the system, but, unlike Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, which leaves the ending open, in Player Piano, there is a really good day-after-the-revolution sequence. Vonnegut sweeps you up in revolutionary fevour only to hit you with the punch-line at the end. Like the novel version of A Clockwork Orange, the focus of the book sweeps out to say something about human nature and the way society works. It's both funny and very affecting. Thus, whilst Player Piano is certainly one of the better 'Man vs Machine' science fiction novels, its central focus is on humanity, and is both cynical and hopeful. Many of the themes and ideas would be expanded upon and developed more succesfully in Vonnegut's later novels, but Player Piano has plenty to reccomend it on its own terms. It certainly reminded me where my intense dislike of those self-service checkout machines at Tesco comes from. 

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Hope Mirrlees - Lud-In-The-Mist (1926)

"It was as if the future were a treacly adhesive fluid that had been spilt all over the present, so that everything he touched made his fingers too sticky to be of the slightest use."

Hope Mirrlees only wrote one fantasy novel. 'Lud-In-The-Mist' comfortably predates Tolkein and Peake's defining works of 20th Century English fantasy, yet it still feels wonderfully fresh and decidedly odd. Lud is situated on the confluence between two rivers: the Dawl, bringing trade and prosperity from inland, and the Dapple, which flows from the land of Faerie. The citizens of Lud have renounced all things magical, and with the growing influence of the supernatural preying on the town, it's up to Nathaniel Chanticleer, the town's mayor, to put things right. 
   Though here be elves and faeries, they couldn't be further away from Tolkein's wise, good-natured and somewhat twee creations. Mirrlees takes her cues from folklore; the Fairies are mischievous and cunning, and as in folklore, Faerieland is conflated with the land of the dead. As in John Crowley's 'Little Big', which I am sure must have taken some of its cues from this book, the sense of threat is created by the encroachment of the world of Faerie on our reality. 
   None of this really conveys the great strength of the book, which is Mirrlees' writing style itself. 'Lud-In-The-Mist' gleefully and effortlessly shifts through differing styles and tones whilst maintaining a constant and engaging narrative voice. Throughout the book the wordplay is a delight, and is used by the author to set up and subvert expectations. As a result, you get wonderfully vivid mixed or extended metaphors, like the one I've quoted above. This all adds to the synaesthetic feel of the novel, which really helps at the end where Master Chanticleer rides into the land of Faerie and things get seriously trippy. 
   And then there are her characters. Chanticleer himself is a wonderfully unlikely hero, a bumbling, self-important dreamer; yet his heart is absolutely in the right place so you can't help wanting him to succeed. Among the more villainous characters, her descriptions almost achieve the grotesque surrealism of Mervin Peake's 'Gormenghast', although Mirrlees is more gentle in tone, and even the villains remain sympathetic. After all, the book is ultimately about the reconciliation between the magical and the mundane, as represented by the worlds of Lud and Faerie. A theme throughout is how we need something of the magical in our everyday lives, how the power of words to name things and so to deceive is itself a kind of magic. This kind of meta twist, which finishes off the novel very elegantly, wouldn't be out of place in Gene Wolfe's work. But 'Lud-In-The-Mist' predates all that. It's a testament to the power and originality of this novel that you can feel its influence in much of the more adventurous Fantasy novels so many years on.