26 November 2006

Angels, Fairies and Invaders from Magrs

It really is time I caught up with my media reviews. I've been to see a number of films recently, read rather more comics than I'd normally have expected to, and been to the circus. I've also changed my mind about Torchwood.

All of these deserve blogging at some point soon. First, though, here's the update on the most interesting books I've read since... well actually only since September, but for some reason it feels like a lot longer.

I finally finished Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor back in October. That one felt by then as if I'd been reading it since early adolescence, but in fact I only started it in August. Nabokov's writing is great, but Ada is one of his "difficult" novels (correction, one of his more "difficult" novels). I found it awkward to get into -- the prose style is mannered and dense, and doubled names and characters abound, as do confusing family relationships and complex, playful high-culture in-jokes. Nearly all of which passed me by, thanks to my ignorance of French, Russian and indeed any non-Anglo-American literature.

Even so, the story -- of the incestuous passion between aristocratic siblings overendowed with money, breeding, intelligence and prowess (both sexual and otherwise), set on an anti-Earth where the Tartars rule Asia and the name "Russia" refers to a patchwork of colonial territories in the Americas -- was startling enough to keep my attention over the 400-odd pages, and the prose, thick and richly-textured as it is, made for gorgeous reading when I had the energy for it.

Ada refers to S.F. tropes, themes and individual texts, but it's fundamentally not interested in the same ideas as S.F. Indeed, there's a hint that the alternative-universe setting may come from the fantasies of the lead character in his nonagenarian dotage. It's a splendid book, and I doubt I understood more than a quarter of it. I still prefer Pale Fire.

Most of the time I was working my way through Ada I was also reading British Summertime by Paul Cornell -- a really enjoyable book, and an excellent example of S.F. used for explicit theological speculation. Cornell is an alumnus of the Doctor Who novels, who passed through mainstream S.F. and T.V. soaps before ending up writing Doctor Who again. I probably would have found British Summertime more effective, and its content more original, if hadn't previously read Cornell's nine Who-and-related books and his first standalone novel Something More, some of which cover rather similar ground.

British Summertime is essentially the story of time-travelling capitalist angels who corrupt the whole of human history in an effort to avert a socialist utopia, and how to stop them. Jesus and Judas are characters, as is a thinly-disguised Dan Dare. Despite the reprising of familiar Cornellian themes it's conceptually hugely inventive, and politically and theologically challenging. At the moment I think it's the best explicitly christian S.F. I've read that hasn't been by Lewis or Smith or Dick, which is quite a compliment.

I first read Keith Roberts' Pavane when I was about thirteen, and again when I was seventeen or so. I loved it then for its harshly romantic presentation of a backward history where he Spanish Armada prevailed against Protestant England and the twentieth century is a technological backwater still dominated by a monolithic, repressive Church. A weird subplot suggests that this is somehow the second iteration of history, time having been rebooted by some truly devastating weapon discovered in our own timeline. Weirder still, only the fairies seem to remember this fact.

Given that I fell in love with this novel at an impressionable age, some degree of disillusionment is probably inevitable when revisiting it now, so it's to Pavane's credit that I was only mildly disappointed when rereading it a few weeks ago. One passage in particular, where the imagery of Christ's crucifixion is conflated epically with the death and rebirth of Baldur, moved me greatly at an age when I was discovering both my own faith and a lifelong passion for pagan mythology. This time round I find it dulled by familiarity, my interpretation of it having formed part of my mental furniture over the decades since my first reading. (Amusingly, I'm now not at all sure it means what I thought it did.) Still, Pavane remains a very strong book, defiantly part of the English literary S.F. tradition's 1960s resurgence, and well worth any S.F. reader's time.

And speaking of Baldur, Neil Gaiman's short-story collection Fragile Things includes a follow-up to Gaiman's American Gods which reveals the first name of the central character, Shadow. It is, as we might have guessed, "Balder". It's very fine, and a rather better sequel to American Gods than Anansi Boys is.

Most of the other stories in the volume are also pretty strong. The short form seems to suit Gaiman's mercurial imagination, which I've a feeling has trouble sustaining novel-length narratives without getting sidetracked. A few tend unfortunately towards the glib or twee (two qualities Gaiman's writing is accused of more often than it deserves), but most are good and some are outstandingly so, such as the Holmes-in-Lovecraftland "A Study in Emerald", still available to read online. I also enjoyed "How to Talk to Girls at Parties", whose teenage protagonist discovers that the girls at the party he's visiting really are from another planet, and "The Problem of Susan" -- Gaiman's response to the disquieting treatment of women in Lewis' Narnia books, which I've been wanting to read for ages (and which turns out to be, in its way, equally disturbing). There are a couple of rather lovely poems, too. Highly recommended.

Finally, just the other day I finished Never the Bride by Paul Magrs -- a lovely fantasia where nineteenth-century horror and S.F. characters (mostly in their twentieth-century cinematic manifestations) come home to roost in, for some reason, Whitby. It's reminiscent of some of Paul's other novels (notably Verdigris, where alien invaders diguise themselves, for perfectly adequate reasons, as characters from nineteenth-century literature), but it has a freshness and zest which puts it among the best of his work.

Like "A Study in Emerald", Never the Bride belongs to the increasingly popular genre of "massively multitextual crossover fiction", where vast numbers of fictional works -- and sometimes implicitly all of them -- are envisaged as taking place in the same universe. Magrs' treatment is more Alan Bennett than Alan Moore, gently spoofing and camping up his source texts even as he draws on them with genuine respect. If I mention that the central character is the Bride of Frankenstein, now quietly running a B. and B. in Yorkshire, then that should give you some idea.

Never the Bride seems deliberately conceived around a series format -- the episodic structure, and indeed the climax, are knowingly indebted to Buffy -- and indeed a sequel is planned for next year. I'm hoping this fictional world is going to continue for some time. Another "highly recommended" from me.

And if all of this sounds a little upbeat and cheerleading... well, I've read a lot of very good books lately. Wait till you hear what I think about Torchwood.

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