Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Joe Abercrombie: The First Law Book One: The Blade Itself (2006)

"'People are born to their station here. They have commoners, to fight, and farm the land, and do the work. They have gentry, to trade, and build and do the thinking. They have nobility, to own the land and push the others around. They have royalty...' Bayaz glanced at the tin crown '...I forget why. In the North you can rise as high as your merits will take you. Only look at our mutual friend, Bethod. Not so here. A man is born in his place and is expected to stay there. We must seem to be from a high place indeed, if we are to be taken seriously. Dressed as we are we wouldn't get past the gates of the Agriont.'"

'The Blade Itself' is a joyride through humanity's worst side. Joe Abercrombie has created a fantastically cynical work. Violence is very much a way of life in The Circle Of The World. In the Agriont, the king is a dribbling moron; arrogant, conniving and corrupt noblemen vie for prestige and ruthlessly exploit the working class whilst the real power is wielded by the treasonous Merchants' Guild and the fanatical and paranoid Inquisition. To the North, the barbaric Northmen are being united under Bethod, their first king, who is keen to take back Angland from the Union; in the South, the Gurkish Emperor is massing forces under the guidance of Kahlul and the Eaters, those who have broken the Second Law and eat human flesh. Truly it would be hard to conceive of a more grim set up. So how does Abercrombie manage to make it so much fun?
   Much of the book's success comes down to Abercrombie's characters. Everyone in 'The Blade Itself' is far from heroic, especially the protagonists, but they are all compelling and well drawn. So we have Logen Ninefingers, a world-weary barbarian tired of fighting, who when the battle madness takes him becomes a psychotic killing machine. Then there's Inquisitor Glokta, once a dashing soldier and fencing champion who was captured and brutally tortured by the Gurkish, now he is a torturer himself, tasked with eradicating corruption and treason in the government, unsure of why he still goes through with all the horrific things he does. And Jezal dan Luther is a handsome, rich young nobleman tipped for greatness in the fencing championship, and a spoiled, arrogant, conceited jerk. None of them are particularly likable, to say the least, but because they are intriguing characters with believable flaws and understandable drives, the reader becomes invested in their fates. Logen, Glokta and Jezal also make effective protagonists because all three of them balance each other out quite nicely. Logen and Glokta know damn well that they're far from good people, whilst Jezal is utterly unaware of how much of a schmuck he is. Both Glokta and Logen are sick and tired of the brutality and violence of their lives, but Glokta suffers from niggles of conscience, whereas Logen is more down to earth and able to resign himself to what he is. Despite this, Glokta's conscience rarely stops him from torturing people, whereas Logen, when he's not in his berserker rage, exhibits genuine acts of kindness and friendship towards others. And Glokta is a twisted reflection of Jezal's possible future; he once was as handsome and feckless as Jezal before his capture and torture. The contrasting yet complementary natures of the characters allows Abercrombie to effectively show us different perspectives on the fictional world and to delineate each character more strongly.
   The plot is complicated. Logen is separated from his fellow Northmen after a skirmish with the Shanka, and is summoned to Bayaz, the First of the Magi, because he can see spirits. He travels with Bayaz to Ardua, the capital of the Union, so Bayaz can take up his place on the Closed Council and open the House of the Maker. Jezal is training for the fencing competition, drinking too much, hitting on his friend Major West's sister and generally making a nuisance out of himself whilst Major West tries to prepare for the inevitable war with Bethod, the new king of the Northmen who wants to take Angland back from the Union. Meanwhile Inquisitor Glokta uncovers a plot by the Merchant's Guild, which he eventually discovers was set up by elusive bankers. All three protagonists are brought together at the end, as Bayaz leads them all into the mysterious and unsettling House of the Maker to remove an ancient artifact. As the book ends, Bayaz demands that Jezal accompanies him and Logen, along with Brother Longfoot the prolix Navigator and Ferro, an ex-slave out for vengeance against the Gurkish for wrecking her life, on the next part of their quest, and Golkta is sent to Dagoska to protect it from the Gurkish forces whilst investigating the disappearance of the last Superior of the Inquisition there. Meanwhile war breaks out between the Northmen and the Union.
   'The Blade Itself' is very much the first part of a trilogy, with no resolution at the end of the book, so I will have to wait until I have read the other books to see how this all pays off, but there is plenty of interesting stuff happening here. The supporting characters are varied and well developed, especially Logen's old band of Northmen, who go on their own quest to warn Bethod that while he is fighting the Union the Shanka are growing in number and becoming more dangerous. Major West and his sister Ardee make good foils to Jezal. The West family is working class, and Major West worked his way up to his position on merit alone, the complete opposite of the privileged and pampered Jezal, and his quiet dignity and competence begin to challenge Jezal's inherent snobbishness, especially when he finds himself attracted to the fiercely intelligent and devastatingly witty Ardee. The long suffering Major West is the closest thing the book has to a straightforwardly 'good' character, at least until he loses his temper and beats Ardee. It's worth noting that 'The Blade Itself' is low on female characters. However the book does take the plight of women in an oppressive, male dominated society seriously, and if Ardee is sidelined from the action, Ferro is a strong, unusual female character with agency who gets some good opportunities to kick ass, especially in the fantastically bloody climactic fight.
   Beyond the excellent character work, 'The Blade Itself' has interesting things to say about stratified class systems. There's an excellent scene, quoted at the top of the page, where Bayaz and Logen have to go to a theatrical costume shop before they present themselves to the court. The pageantry reveals as much as Bayaz's speech does about how ludicrous the whole set up is. This is contrasted with the barbarians in the North, where their society may be anarchic and violent but at least a person's position is decided by merit rather than birthright and social status. This is shown in the contrast between Logen's old gang, who bicker and fight but are sensible and down to earth and get things done, and the nobility of the Union, swanning around like peacocks in their fancy dress, utterly unprepared for the war encroaching on them from both sides. There is also clearly something interesting going on with the magic and folklore of this world. No one in the Closed Council believes Bayaz is who he says he is, because Bayaz, First Of The Magi, is a near mythical figure from the Union's past. Is Bayaz lying for some ulterior motive? What exactly he is up to is not made clear in this book, yet we have seen him scorch Northmen troops to nothing with his powers, so he is clearly no mere charlatan. The magical history of the Circle Of The World is only hinted at as well, with the rival forces of Juvens and Kanedias the Maker, their conflict with each other and the Magi. But it's clear from the episode in the House of the Maker that magic does exist in this world, and that Bayaz is up to something big.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

M. John Harrison - The Kefahuchi Tract (2002 - 2012)

Here are all my reviews for M. John Harrison's The Kefahuchi Tract, one of the key texts of modern space opera, in one place:

Book One: 'Light'

Book Two: 'Nova Swing'

Book Three: 'Empty Space: A Haunting'

M. John Harrison - The Kefahuchi Tract Book Three: Empty Space: A Haunting (2012)

"The thing about life is that if you get it wrong you can't go back."

"The things she missed about this town were gone. They had never been here anyway. They had vanished not into the current disaster, but years ago, into her own. The past wasn't real but it was all she had: that's how you feel when your life has faltered."

"Never do anything unless you're lost of on fire, Doctor. Otherwise how will you remember it?"

In the third and final book in the Kefahuchi Tract sequence, M. John Harrison doesn't tie up loose ends so much as explore how in real life we rarely get the neat closure supplied in narratives. 'Empty Space' lives up to its title, not in terms of content, but thematically; the space between people, within their understandings and perceptions of themselves and others, and the spaces between the stars, becomes a central motif of the trilogy. In 'Empty Space' we learn that Anna did not pass on Michael Kearney's hard drive with the new system of physics on it to Brian Tate at the end of 'Light', uncoupling the parts of these books set in the past from the parts set in the future. This rift is left unresolved. We also learn that the fate of Fat Antoyne, Liv Hula and Irene the Mona has been less than plain sailing since their decision to move on with their lives at the end of 'Nova Swing', and that following the disappearance of Lens Aschemann, the assistant has been able to fill his shoes amply in Site Crime but still has no idea who she really is, still has not chosen a name for herself. The building tensions alluded to at the end of 'Nova Swing' are inexorably heading for interstellar war, and the tipping point is the discovery of the Aleph, an alien artifact and possibly devastating ancient weapon which manifests as a woman falling into eternity. 
   Structurally 'Empty Space' echoes 'Light', with one strand set in the near future following Anna Waterman, Michael Kearney's widow, who since his disappearance remarried and had a child but never quite moved on, and two set in the future following the crew of the Nova Swing as they attempt to smuggle goods from the Site under the guidance of a returned Ed Chianese, and the assistant as she attempts to track them down and stop them whilst searching for her own identity, while galactic war breaks out. Like 'Nova Swing', while Harrison once again takes great delight in deconstructing standard space opera tropes, 'Empty Space' is essentially about the human characters. Whereas the previous book was all about the importance of moving on from your past, 'Empty Space' is about how difficult that really is, the one mistake in our past that we are forever afterwards untangling and trying to make sense of. 
   The main SF trope Harrison plays with this time round is the old classic, the space battle. There are several fantastic sequences of spaceships fighting, so intense, action packed and explosion filled as to verge on the parodic. One of them climaxes with a spaceship blowing up an entire planet by flying through the planet core. Clearly Harrison learnt from the late, great Iain M. Banks that there is absolutely no point in having a Big Dumb Object unless you are going to explode it spectacularly further down the line. Yet Harrison deflates these scenes by reminding us that this is a war, and people are dying. Unlike other space operas, we get to see the cost of exciting interstellar battles in terms of billions of displaced refugees frightened for their lives, friends, relatives and loved ones lost, families split up with no way of ever finding each other again. Harrison also subverts the standard trope of human superiority. The boys from Earth were spoiling for a fight and arrogantly convinced that the ancient artifact would be a deadly weapon that would put them in a position of military power; when it turns out not to be the case they are given a sound thrashing by superior alien forces.
   Beyond the pyrotechnics, 'Empty Space' focuses in on what makes its characters tick. Anna and the assistant's ultimate fate together as the falling woman makes narrative sense. Both of them are self-absorbed and fixated on a past that they cannot get back. Anna's selfishness, her fixation on her own needs while her daughter is undergoing a serious health scare, is reflected in the assistant's constant search for her own identity at the expense of everything else. Both of them, once uncoupled from time and able to look at themselves objectively whilst trying to warn them about their futures, become frustrated with their own tunnel vision. Meanwhile, Fat Antoyne, Liv Hula and Irene the Mona have to deal with the decisions way back in their pasts that lead them to become the people they are now. Ultimately, despite a life of running from it, each of them has to face their past. In many ways, the main thread running through the whole series has been our relationship to our past, and how the way we deal with it determines our future. The characters in the Kefahuchi Tract series who fall are all doomed, not by outside circumstances, but by their own inability to face their pasts and move on from them. 

Ken MacLeod - Intrusion (2012)

"'The neoclassical... uh, the standard model of a truly free market assumes that everyone in the market has perfect information. They must know what choices they're making, otherwise it isn't a free and rational choice, right?' He raised a didactic finger, half-smiling in acknowledgement that he was about to forestall a sensible but predictable objection. 'Now obviously,' he went on, 'this doesn't actually obtain in the real world. Nobody really has perfect information. In fact, even if we make it a bit more realistic, they don't have all or even most of the relevant information. So for the market to be really free, it has to work as if everyone involved had perfect information, or at least as if they had all the relevant information. This is where the social side comes from - the state, of course along with civil society, the unions and campaigns and so on, steps in to allow people to make the choices they would have made if they'd had that information. Because these are the really free choices.'"

Ken MacLeod's 'Intrusion' is a thoroughly unsettling dystopia, not least because of its immediate relevance. Whereas many classics of dystopian fiction take a troubling aspect of their current society and turn it up to eleven, 'Intrusion' points out how many of the standard tropes of dystopian fiction are simply an accepted part of our every day lives. The world in this book, with its state surveillance through CCTV and data mining, its government-sanctioned torture and police stop and search powers, is not terrifying because it's a hitherto-unseen endgame on the path we're taking; it's terrifying because it's so damn familiar. The other thing that sets 'Intrusion' apart is that it portrays a democratic dystopia. The atrocities are not carried out by a brutal dictator crushing resistance to maintain his grip on power; they are carried out by a democratically elected government that genuinely believes it is acting for the safety and best interests of the people. Ken MacLeod achieved all of this without resorting to hysteria or soapbox preaching, with a tight plot and well drawn characters.
   In the near future, a pill has been developed that prevents birth defects by rewriting the infant's genetic code in the womb. Islington mother Hope Morrison refuses to take the pill, and finds herself under increasing pressure from health workers, her peers, and ultimately the government. Not taking the pill hasn't yet been made illegal, and Hope has no religious or moral motivations for refusing to take it. Objections to Hope's decision are framed in terms of 'what's best for the child', a frequent fall back for governments and institutions that want to regulate what a woman does to her body. And so Hope's personal decision becomes the concern of child welfare services and puts her on the terrorist watch list. Geena Fernandez, a social scientist, and her activist friend Maya, take an interest in Hope's case and find a potential way out for her: her husband Hugh and her son have a gene, a mutation of rhodopsin which detects tachyons and so allows them to see the future.
   'Intrusion' has some moments where it slyly pokes fun of academia, with the meta-meta-scientist winning a prize for coming to the conclusion that the only person his recursive studies benefit is himself, but at the same time it makes a serious point about how the very tools that should allow us to challenge and deconstruct hegemony can also be used to prop it up. After Geena is tortured by the police as a result of racial profiling and targeted entrapment, she turns to her academic supervisor, who as a published critic of the establishment she expects to be outraged, but he merely points out that the purpose of all his left-wing rhetoric is not to change the system but to perpetuate the system as it is, and tells her she is better off not kicking off a fuss about these things. In a direct shout out to my favourite scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Geena says to him, "They got to you, too!", and he replies, "They got to me a long time ago." I like this because it made me grin, but also because the two characters' positions reflect Winston and O'Brien's in Orwell's book whilst pointing out the differences between the dystopias in the two books. Geena's naivety has resulted in her being betrayed by her mentor, but not because he's working for the thought police, rather that his whole intellectual outlook is merely rhetorical.
   The society in 'Intrusion' only works because it has the popular support of the people who live under it. Much of what makes the book so chilling is that the tech is so instantly recognisable, both in its shape - people use mobile phones, tablets and electronic glasses - and in the way that the presence of gadgets that track and log your every move is so internalised in the characters. Once Hope and Hugh are on the terrorist watch list it is of course very easy for the government to compile information from the security cameras Hugh himself placed in their London flat, their mobiles and their gadgets, to get a comprehensive picture of not just where they are or what they are doing but what they were doing and talking about in the lead up to their run to Lewis. Similarly police profiling, interrogation and torture is simply accepted as part of daily life. Out of the major characters, Geena and her colleague were tortured due to racial profiling, Maya was tortured because she's an activist, and Hugh is tortured on terrorist charges because he was carrying an air gun when he went on the run with his family. The police have the power to hold someone in custody for sixty four days without charging them, and once you are suspected of being a terrorist you can be disappeared. The government justifies this by saying it is protecting the safety of its citizens and preventing terrorism. Both Hope and Hugh reflect that, once they are caught, it doesn't really matter what they're being accused of or if legally they are entirely innocent. And, as Orwell pointed out in Nineteen Eighty-Four, you don't torture people to get information out of them, you do it to break them. Hugh and Hope are only released in the end, and their son Nick returned to them, because the discovery of the genetic ability to perceive the future, and Hugh and Nick's ability to enter and return from this future place, is more useful to the government than making an example of them would be.
   And what of the Naxals, the vandals at the gate, the terrorists who have no fixed ideology but just want to  burn civilisation to the ground? These are the ultimate bogeymen of the twenty first century, a convenient tool to keep the populace frightened, a name to invoke in the House of Commons in order to pass more and more intrusive laws. It's not made explicit in the novel whether or not they actually exist. However Hugh and Nick's vision of the future is of a return to barbarism, people living after a technological apocalypse. The Naxals are the ultimate negation; they are against modern technology, modern society, and the modern way of life. And ultimately oppressive regimes tend to have their own half life built into them because people don't like being treated like shit at the end of the day. Torturing innocent people breeds anger and resentment. By the end of the book Hugh has figured out how the Naxals would have to achieve their goals, and while before his experience being tortured by the authorities he would have reported it like a good citizen, after his treatment by them he has no intention of doing so.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

J. G. Ballard - The Drowned World (1962)

"'It suits you, Kerans, you look like the man from inner space.' The rictus of a laugh twisted his face. 'But don't try to reach the Unconscious, Kerans; remember it isn't equipped to go down that far!'"

Ballard's 'The Drowned World' is revolutionary because it takes what has always been the underlying theme in British post-war apocalyptic fiction - that the apocalypse comes from within us as a reaction to outside events, rather than being forced upon us by the events themselves - and vividly foregrounds it. This theme had been present in the 'cosy catastrophes' of John Wyndham, where the down to earth, practical British protagonists calmly take stock of their new situations and immediately adapt, through to the more brutal scenario in John Christopher's 'The Death Of Grass', in which the protagonist is forced incrementally to adopt a violent new morality to protect his wife and children, culminating in the murder of his brother. 'The Drowned World' certainly derives from this fictional traditional, and its vivid descriptive passages and crisp prose consciously echo these books. But what 'The Drowned World' does differently is to explicitly connect the post-apocalyptic landscape to its protagonist's psyche, the outer world the characters walk through reflecting their inner mind state. 

Ballard's early apocalyptic fiction is thus as much an exercise in exploring different extremities of human mentality as much as coming up with imaginative ways of destroying the world. In 'The Drowned World', the rising sea levels have left the cities submerged, creating a warm, swampy world reminiscent of the early Triassic. Correspondingly, the characters experience a series of regressions, whether down the spinal lumbar to an earlier, lizard evolutionary intelligence, as reflected in the tops of buildings sticking out of the water like a back bone, or a regression into the womb, as experienced by Kerans when he goes diving in London's old planetarium. As Kerans sinks further into a fugue, the modern part of his brain becomes submerged, like the old cities beneath the swamps. In this way, Ballard uses the world the book is set in to map and amplify the internal mental state of the characters.
   Later in his fiction, by the time of 'Crash' and 'High Rise', Ballard would focus on characters whose mentality allows them to live perfectly happily in their dystopian settings. It's interesting to note that this idea was present almost from the beginning in his work. 'The Drowned World', like any post-apocalypse novel, has a frightening setting, but Kerans' character arc is to shed any last remaining vestiges of previous civilisation, to submit to the calling of the dreams that plague everyone in the lagoon, and to make his way to the uninhabitable south, happy and at home in this hostile environment. Colonel Riggs, with his desire to continue a life of meaning, order and productivity, and even the pirate Strangman, who drains the lagoon to loot the ancient city underneath, are ultimately making the incorrect response to this environment by trying to force their respective visions over the top of it rather than just accepting it.

Ballard's writing is spare and precise, yet tremendously evocative. The thick, oppressive heat and humidity permeates the book's atmosphere, and his description of London submerged under a tropical marsh is almost psychedelic in its intensity. This is appropriate enough considering the book's fascination with the subconscious and dreams. Kerans' journey back through evolutionary time is reflected again in his journey from consciousness down to subconsciousness. Events unfold feverishly, with the narrative getting more bizarre as the book progresses, adding a touch of haze and unreality to the proceedings, as we are left to unpick what happens inside and out of Kerans' own head. As the book continues Kerans becomes more and more under the control of his own instincts as much as anything else; Colonel Riggs and Strangman are men full of agency who get things done, both would have made fine protagonists of an earlier strain of British apocalyptic fiction, whereas Kerans is happy to sit back and let others take charge, his own agency only kicking into action with the strong, primal urge he has to return to the equator. Really his objection to Colonel Riggs' and Strangman's two very different aims is the same; they both get in the way of him making this journey.
   The business of SF writers is not to predict the future; it is to write about the future in a way that reflects something resonant within their present. Ballard was certainly aware with this. As the extent of the damage caused by climate change becomes increasingly apparent, the vistas of sunken cities in 'The Drowned World' becomes more and more eerily prescient. Yet in the book itself, Ballard could not be concerned less with the actual causes behind his apocalypse. The thing that interests him is the psychology of people and how they fare under extreme conditions and mindsets. Ballard's great theme, that technology or the apocalypse don't aggravate anything that isn't already within us, proves more salient with each passing day. It is Ballard's understanding of the human mind under strain as much as his prophetic vision that makes 'The Drowned World' so resonant all these years on.