Sunday, 28 April 2013

Jeff Noon - Vurt (1993)

"Deja Vurt. Must be. That's the name of the feeling you get sometimes, in Vurt, when you've done this one already, but you're in the Vurt anyway, remember? And you're thinking it's real. So a loop is made in the head, and it becomes a kind of Haunting. Memories of your previous trips start to play on the feather dreams, shifting them out of phase, like a feedback wave. Maybe this was the answer. I'm in a Vurt, getting a real cool Haunting."

   Jeff Noon's 'Vurt' is The Pavement to Philip K. Dick's The Fall. 'Vurt' is explicitly PKDickian, from the way the title and the sly Vaz advert echo 'UBIK' to the way the plot plays out as a sort of 'greatest hits' of elements from some of Dick's strongest works. As well as 'UBIK', there are touches of 'The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch' (dimension-hopping drugs), 'The Game Players of Titan' (dimension-hopping Lovecraftian horrors) and 'A Scanner Darkly' (state surveillance and drugs). Two of the female characters, Bridget and Mandy, could even be expies of the interchangeable brunette and redhead doomed femme fatales that crop up in most of Dick's novels. Yet, in much the same way that Pavement's debut LP 'Slanted And Enchanted', for all its obvious Fall influence, still manages to sound vital and relevant, 'Vurt' is able to reconfigure these ideas in a way that is engaging and timely, as well as being a damn slight more streamlined than a lot of PKD's own work.
   To give credit where credit's due, 'Vurt' is still a sublimely odd fish. It manages to fit in nicely with the then-current cyberpunk milieu without actually featuring many cyberpunk elements. Perhaps this is one more artifact of Philip K. Dick's influence, seeing as he was so influential on the cyberpunk movement. However, there's a bit more to it than that. While nothing in 'Vurt' is particularly 'cyber', it is quite explicitly 'punk'. Perhaps moreso than any SF novel since Thomas M. Disch's '334', 'Vurt' focuses on the down-and-outs. This is not so much William Gibson's vision of the street finding its own use for technology as a bunch of kids on the dole in Manchester council estates finding release where they can. The setting is vividly and memorably evoked, and is one of the things that gives the book its own distinct feel, despite its obvious predecessors. 'Vurt' also has a lot of fun with language. Jeff Noon was influenced by dub music and the idea of 'remixing' his text to come up with something similar to William Burrough's cut-up technique. 'Vurt' is never as radical as Burrough's work - indeed, it's probably not as radical as Norman Spinrad's similar experiments in 'Bug Jack Barron' - but it's a compelling and ambitious idea that gives rise to some startling, effective passages.
   'Vurt' is set in a recognisable but distorted Manchester, in which robots, psychics, talking dogs that can interbreed with humans and humans coexist. Vurt itself is a sort of shared dreamspace that you access by sucking on feathers. Objects, feelings and people themselves can be transferred to and from Vurtspace, providing they are replaced by an object of equal value. Our protagonist, Scribbler, lost his sister/lover to the Vurt in this way and woke up with a tentacled Lovecraftian horror that they nickname The Thing From Outer Space. In a retelling of the Orpheus myth, the book follows Scribbler's quest to exchange the Thing for his sister so he can rescue her from the Vurt. He is helped by his gang, The Stash Riders, when they're not all too blitzed out of their skulls on feathers to do anything, and hindered by the police and their sophisticated surveillance robots.
   What makes 'Vurt' truly Dickian is the upsetting of the hierarchies of reality. From fairly early on, it's insinuated that the Vurt is not merely a psychological space but is also a series of alternate dimensions, arguably as 'real' as our own. The Thing is a nice subversion of the standard H. P. Lovecraft story of malevolent unknowable beings encroaching on our own reality; the Thing is here entirely by accident, all it wants is to get back home, and it winds up being as much a victim as anybody in the book. The twist at the end features another UBIK homage, which also functions as a cute reference to Lewis Carroll's 'Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There'. Scribbler manages to rescue his sister, but the price he pays is that he has to stay trapped in the Vurt, where he learns that they are all stuck inside the dream of a sleeping woman, and all of the various realities will simply disappear if she ever wakes up. Scribbler is being groomed to eventually take her place.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Catherynne M. Valente - Palimpsest (2009)

"Terrible things occur when you outgrow the space allotted to you. You cannot really circumnavigate Fairyland like September did, not really. It's too big for you." 

   'Palimpsest' is one of those weird, monolithic tales about a different reality that impinges on our own, or, in this case, we impinge on it. The only other books remotely like it are John Crowley's 'Little, Big', in which we learn, by insinuations, that the world of faerie is encroaching on our own, and 'Dhalgren' by Samuel R. Delany, in which the protagonist journeys through a shifting, mythic city cut off from the rest of the world. Indeed, the quote above echoes the central mantra of 'Little, Big' - "The further in you go, the bigger it gets", while the lyrical and evocative closing lines of 'Palimpsest' remind me of the iconic ending of 'Dhalgren'; if the narrative of 'Palimpsest' is not recursive, it does suggest that others will follow the protagonists' journey. More than that, Catherynne Valente's prose achieves a level of hallucinatory vividness and poetic lyricism on a par with Delany and Crowley, although her narrative voice is most definitely her own. And like those two books, 'Palimpsest' manages to weave together strands from mythology and folklore into something so convincing you have a hard time believing it's not real.
   This is all the more astonishing when you consider how loopy the premise is. Palimpsest is a magical dream city that you can only visit by sleeping with someone who has already visited the city. Everyone who has visited it is marked by a tattoo of a portion of a map of Palimpsest. This is the area of the city where you wind up after your night of passion, and the tattoos of your prior lovers mark the limits of the areas within Palimpsest where you are able to travel. When people arrive in the city they are bound together in a group of four known as a Quarto, and all four people feel whatever the others do while they are in the city. The story follows one Quarto on their quest to find a way to move to Palimpsest permanently.
   So far, so bonkers, but from that description you'd be forgiven for thinking this is simply a more risque portal fantasy, a sort of X-rated Narnia. However the book easily transcends such accusations, thanks both to the detailed world-building in the scenes set in Palimpsest and, more importantly, its excellent character work. In many ways, 'Palimpsest' is a deconstruction of the portal fantasy, asking what type of person would want so desperately to escape the real world that they seek to leave it permanently. Obsession, addiction and debasement are all major themes.
   All four of our main characters are severely damaged. Amaya Sei is a Japanese train-enthusiast whose mother was mentally ill and eventually committed suicide; November Aguilar is an American beekeeper who was dragged through her parents' long and painful divorce; Oleg Sadakov is a Russian-born locksmith living in New York who has an intense relationship with a hallucination of his dead sister; Ludovico Conti is an Italian book binder whose wife has left him. All of them are ill at ease in the real world. However, with each of them it's not just a case of being an outcast with a tragic past finding a magical world where everything finally makes sense. The city manages to find exactly the right weak-point in all of their psyches to claw its way deep into their being; it doesn't take long for all of them to be desperate to move to Palimpsest permanently.
   The interesting thing about this is that Palimpsest is not some idyllic fantasy land. It is a strange and frequently hostile and dangerous place. It is revealed early on that injuries gained in Palimpsest will not go away when you wake up in the morning, and that visitors have been killed there. Palimpsest has just emerged from a bitter war, fought between Casimira, who believes that immigrants (i.e. us) should be allowed to visit and stay in Palimpsest, and the other supernatural beings who live there, who see mere humans as inferior being who do not belong there. As a result, visitors are frequently in danger of muggings or worse. In addition, all four characters wind up having to pay a price for entry, likened to the coins placed on the eyes of dead people to allow them to pass into the afterlife. November loses her fingers and is covered in bee stings, Sei becomes accidentally pregnant, Ludo has his tongue cut out, Oleg goes through such a deep depression he almost starves to death.
   For any of this to make sense, Palimpsest itself has to be vividly realised. Valente's descriptions of the dream world are incredible. Despite the danger, the city is genuinely alluring, with its heavy air of mystery, its impenetrable social rituals, its people with heads or limbs of animals and its finely crafted vermin. Valente's command of atmosphere is deft, and she is able to change the tone from whimsical to sinister and genuinely quite frightening without missing a beat.
   Valente also does interesting things with the structure of the book. It is told in the third person omniscient, and devotes alternating pairs of chapters to each of the characters. In the beginning, the first chapter in the pair is set in the real world and the second in Palimpsest. About halfway through, when the characters are starting to become more and more obsessed and entrenched in the world of Palimpsest, the order switches over. The chapters in Palimpsest are written in a different, slightly more ornate font than the rest of the book, and this is matched by the language, which becomes more poetic and descriptive, at times approaching Lord Dunsany levels of floridness, at other times addressing the reader directly. By the end we learn that these portions of the book have been narrated by the city of Palimpsest itself. All these techniques serve to subtly create a solid distinction between the real world and Palimpsest.
   In the end, all four characters are able to move to Palimpsest permanently. I really like that the book leaves it up to the reader whether or not this is was a good choice, or if it was worth the price they paid. At the beginning of the book, when the four characters first visit Palimpsest and are bound in their Quarto, a fortune-teller gives them each a strange tarot card prophesying all the disaster they will face over the course of the story. This being fiction, the prophecies play out, all though not necessarily in the ways you might imagine, so being able to snatch any kind of happy ending from that is an achievement. The book ends with Casimira's war finally won, the gates of Palimpsest opening, and the city itself calling all who hear to enter, which manages to underscore the triumphant and emphasise the sinister.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Ward Moore - Bring The Jubilee (1953)

"Although I am writing this in the year 1877, I was not born until 1933. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error - let me explain:"

   Listen: Hodgins McCormick Backmaker has come unstuck in time. Well it's clear from that incredible opening sentence that time-travelling shenanigans must be involved, but it quickly becomes apparent that it's far from the whole story.
   'Bring The Jubilee' is an iconic and early example of Alternate History, a variant of SF in which instead of imagining the future the author imagines what would have happened if a crucial moment in the history of our world played out differently. Two of the most popular Jonbar points in Western SF, where the alternate world diverges from our own, are the American Civil War and World War II. Philip K Dick's 'The Man In The High Castle' is the go-to example of the latter, in which he vividly imagines a world where the Nazis won; 'Bring The Jubilee' is the most celebrated case of the former, with the South emerging victorious.
   In many ways, 'Bring The Jubilee' is a much purer example of the genre at its finest, and a stronger case for  what alternate history can bring to the table that perhaps straightforward SF can't. Excellent as it is, 'The Man In The High Castle' is very Dickian, with its multiple shifting realities and the final revelation that the alternate world within the book in which the Allies won is not the same as our world, and in fact neither may be 'real'. 'Bring The Jubilee' is much more focused on the historical details of its alternate world, with historical and cultural differences thought out in great detail. It's also a lot more character-based than the traditionally plot-based PKD.
   In a recent interview, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy, was asked about the differences between straightforward SF and alternative history, and had this to say:

"In a way, there's not much that alternate history can do. I think it's a weaker form than science fiction proper. In science fiction proper, you're saying, 'This is going to happen to all of us. It's not my dream, it's not surrealism, it's prophecy, this is coming for us,' and you read science fiction and go, 'Wow, this is going to happen for me or my children,' or whatever. Alternative history is saying that, well, this didn't happen, but if it had, it would have been a really interesting cool thing. That's a much weaker statement than, 'This is coming.' So, all you can do, I think, is make a new story space, which is nice, and you can also suggest that history is changeable." Kim Stanley Robinson, interviewed by io9

   This is certainly a valid stance, however, I think it also hits quite nicely at what can make alternate history done well so appealing. Works like 'Pavane' by Keith Roberts (Queen Elizabeth is assassinated on the eve of the Spanish armada) or Robinson's own 'The Years Of Rice And Salt' (the Black Death kills 99% of Europe's population) have a very individual texture and atmosphere, drawn from a setting at once instantly recognizable yet subtly alien. 'Bring The Jubilee' easily sits in such exalted company. The world-building here is truly exquisite; in its slim 240-odd pages, Moore packs a surprising amount of detail about the history and culture of this alternate timeline. Impressively, much of this is done by naturalistic dialogue and the attitudes and actions of the various characters.
   Alternate histories also allow us to reflect how fragile the strands of history are; we got where we are today by a combination of luck and happenstance, rather than by forethought, careful planning and great men choosing the correct choices at crucial moments.
Adapted from the extensive 'Bring The Jubilee' Wikipedia entry

   This is a theme that crops up a lot in 'Bring The Jubilee'. Our protagonist Hodge is constantly pulled between the two opposing concepts of fate and freewill. An inhabitant of the impoverished North, his great passion is history, and he wants nothing more than to be able to study it. However at every turn he is confronted with difficult moral quandaries. This is highlighted early on by the opposing views of his two mentors, one a cynic representing resigned fate, the other an idealist representing freewill. Despite the nagging of his conscience, Hodge repeatedly avoids doing what he believes is right by not taking any action. But, as a great Canadian progressive rock trio once said, 'If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.'
    When he finally becomes a historian, he gets the opportunity to travel back in time to witness the decisive Battle of Gettysburg first hand and jumps at the chance. Of course our protagonist would never be so bold as to intentionally alter the chain of events, but it turns out his mere presence there is enough to change history so that the Confederate forces don't occupy a crucial point in the battle, allowing the Union to win. Hodge winds up stranded in the past, as his actions have erased his timeline in which the time machine was built, and history unfolds as we know it.
   What I like about all this is how it emphasises the randomness of history, the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time. 'Bring The Jubilee' would have been a much less effective book if it had been about an actively heroic figure going back in time to set right what once went wrong. Hodge realises how badly his world turned out - companies are allowed to hold people in what amounts to virtual slavery, minorities are exploited and have little to no rights - but the key facet of his character is his lack of moral fibre in the face of conflict. He never intended to change anything, and does his best to avoid it happening, but it happens anyway. I also like how this leaves completely unresolved the conflict between fate and free will. How can Hodge have free will, when the pivotal action that he takes was done entirely by mistake and against  his will? How can there be such a thing as fate when our timeline only exists because Hodge's timeline existed beforehand and he went back in time and made a mistake?
   And while it's clear Moore feels our world turned out better than the world in 'Bring The Jubilee', he refreshingly keeps a clear head about the bad things that have happened in our reality. Hodge is writing his account before the turn of the century, and is not filled with hope and optimism for the future. We learn that World War I in the original timeline, fought from 1914 to 1916, was less bad than in our reality, and Hodge faces the new century with trepidation, fearing that human nature has not changed and that the emerging conflict will be unavoidable. And of course, we all know how that turned out, because this is the REAL timeline. Isn't it?

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Poul Anderson - Tau Zero (1970)

   There is a cliche about hard science fiction, that it concentrates on the science aspect at the expense of the character work necessary to make compelling fiction. This is frequently unfair to a genre that is at its heart about the human condition - great SF is resonant because, however weird and wonderful the world the author creates, the characters still reflect something recongisable back to the reader. This can allow SF writers to ask daring questions about the directions society may be heading in, but equally it can mean an enthusiastic and gifted writer can get bogged down in the technical details. Personally, I don't tend to read SF books based on their 'hardness'; as long as the ideas and characters are compelling I'm willing to allow some pretty flagrant flaunting of the laws of physics. However, I do appreciate authors doing their research, and if the writer can teach you about a new aspect of science whilst speculating entertainingly on how people will use that technology and how it will affect people's lives, you have the makings of a compelling story. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is a fantastic example of hard science fiction taken to the level of high art. Robinson's research on everything from the physics and bioengeneering necessary to colonise Mars to pertinent aspects of psychology for space travel is endlessly fascinating in and of itself, but it's coupled to a complex and tightly woven narrative about personal and social change, told in evocative and lyrical prose. The Mars Trilogy refutes that old cliche about hard SF, but if you wanted a text-book counter-example to support it, you could do worse than point to Poul Anderson's 'Tau Zero'. 

The equation's on the cover because it's the main character.
   'Tau Zero' is a thoroughly frustrating read. It's built around a fascinating concept - the characters travel in Bussard ramjet, a spaceship which is able to accelerate to just below the speed of light, which allows it to travel the vast distances of light years between the stars within a relative shipboard time of a number of years.  The closer you get to the speed of light, the slower relative time passes for you compared to outside the ship. Or at least that's as well as I understand the concept. 

Our hero's first appearance
   Anderson is really good with describing these concepts in a simple and engaging way. Or at least I presume so, for all I know he may be grossly oversimplifying, but I'm willing to take this on trust. And the book takes this core idea to a very interesting place. During their travel, the ship's deceleration mechanism is damaged, which means that the ship has to keep on accelerating, driving tau further and further down, and so  over the course of a number of years relative time, the ship outlives the entire collapse and rebirth of the universe. 
   This is a wonderfully compelling idea. The concept of relativity is a difficult one to intellectualise, and there is a wonderful sense of vertigo induced by that unimaginable amount of time and vast interstellar distances, all shooting by in the blink of an eye. There is something both tragic and heroic about this little ship, this small pocket of surviving humanity hurtling onward into infinity, long after the very galaxy that birthed her has dwindled and died. Plus we see that Anderson is very much interested in the human element. He is concerned with the physical and psychological toll that such a flight into unknown space and time would have on the people themselves. All the elements are here for a really compelling tale. So what goes wrong?
   There are two main problems here - the characters themselves, and how the author treats these characters. Anderson's ship is populated by a diverse, international crew of astronauts and scientists, both male and female. So far, so good. Unfortunately, much of the characterisation is very broad. I'm sure the intention here was to depict a future where minds from all over the world work together in harmony for the good of science, as Kim Stanley Robinson does very effectively in 'Red Mars', but in 'Tau Zero' many of the characters are so broad as to be stereotypes. Also, there is a tendency for the characters most important to the plot to be American or European; several of the scientists with more exotic sounding names only appear in scenes when the author feels like we need more speaking parts to share the exposition. 
   And oh, the exposition. Being a fan of SF, I actually quite like exposition, and am all for a quick paragraph explaining everything nicely and concisely when otherwise you would be stumbling around and hinting at things that later wind up being crucially important to the plot. Unless you're, say, Gene Wolfe, and creating this kind of ambiguity is your intention. But Anderson deals in physical certainties, and boy do we struggle with some truly clunky pieces of dialogue, where characters explain things to other characters who already know these things for the benefit of the audience. You could design a good drinking game around the different variations of 'As You Know, Bob' dialogue he uses throughout the book.
   Then we have the characters themselves. Our protagonist is Constable Charles Reymont, a square-jawed, masculine, no-nonsense kind of guy, who, once the crisis occurs, manipulates everyone so he can basically run the ship, because someone has to keep a level head, especially with all these women faffing around with their emotions. Other characters occasionally grumble about his heavy-handed methods, but the narrative and the author go out of their way to justify every one of Reymont's actions, to the extent that he comes across as somewhat Mary Sue-ish. This could have been made more bearable by having some of the supporting characters have stronger viewpoints or motivations, and allowing the conflict between these characters to play out. Again, Kim Stanley Robinson does this very well in 'Red Mars', where all of the characters have their own motivations and differing political beliefs, and no one really gets favourable treatment from the author. Indeed, 'Red Mars' has a character, Frank Chalmers, who resembles Reymont both physically and in character, and in the course of the book his Machievellian attempts to gain more power and influence over his fellow shipmates and colonists very much comes back to bite him in the ass. It's hard not to wonder if Robinson had read 'Tau Zero' and written the character of Frank Chalmers as a direct response to Charles Reymont. In 'Salt' by Adam Roberts, the central conflict between the two groups of colonists begins on the ship, and the author is able to explore the motivations and the greivances on both sides of the conflict; indeed one of the strengths of Roberts' book is that it explores the hypocrisy and narrowsightedness of both sides as human beings rather than supporting one political agenda over another. Intershipmate tension is a great method to ratchet up the conflict in SF, but by pandering to his favourite character Anderson doesn't really get the most out of it.
   And then there's Anderson's treatment of the female characters, which is just lousy. All the female characters are nominally scientists, which is nice, but the narrative treats them either as rewards or incentives for the important male scientists, or producers of babies. There is actually a scene where the female First Officer basically has to have sex with the brilliant physicist to stop him from having a nervous breakdown, because they need him as a functional member of the crew. There's another scene where a woman selfishly jeopardises the safety of the ship  by secretly allowing herself to get pregnant. It's clear that Anderson shares his protagonist's old fashioned casual misogyny, and one gets the impression the only reason either of them tolerate the presence of women on the ship is because, when the Leonora Christine finally touches down, they're going to have to restart the human race somehow.    
   I found 'Tau Zero' an exasperating read. Here you have a truly engaging concept, and an author with the intelligence and enthusiasm to do the concept justice, stymied by uninspiring writing and casual misogyny. It's a real shame, because there were sections of the book I enjoyed very much, and I still think there is the core of something very good here, but by the end of the book I was struggling to engage with the fate of the Leonora Christine, because, as much as I'm always up for watching something circumnavigate all of space and time, I no longer cared what happened to the people inside that ship.