31 March 2007

Books Update: Sex, Lies and Computronium

Well, I don't seem to have had much luck today getting on with writing my own book. So here's what I've been reading recently, when I've had the time...

Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews is the belated followup to The Pooh Perplex, which I was discussing nearly a month ago now. It's certainly not just more of the same, though -- where the original poked whimsical fun at the eccentricities of literary criticism up to the 1960s, critical theory has moved on, as has Crews himself. As I noted before, the satire here is cruel, harsh and very much in earnest. And frankly, modern academia deserves it.

Accelerando by Charles Stross is roughly as interesting as I hoped before I started reading it. This makes it both more interesting than I thought after the first chapter, and less interesting than I thought after the third.

It's the story of a 21st-century family over a hundred years, the conceit being that -- as the title suggests -- Stross' 21st century quickly becomes most S.F.'s very distant future. That first chapter shows the 2010s as a familiar (though well-drawn) post-cyberpunk milieu, with mind-computer interfaces, AIs and other bleeding-edge technologies just beginning to take effect as agents of countercultural social change. By the eighth chapter, set in the 2080s, most of the planetary solar system has been dismantled to create a colossal solar-powered computer on which humanity's incomprehensibly posthuman descendants can run their software personas, while those who choose to remain merely superhuman are using wormhole technology to construct interstellar habitats for their immortal selves, their descendants and their reincarnated ancestors.

Accelerando's scope and vision are breathtaking, and during the first two-thirds there's a constant sense of exhilaration as the future history speeds us through different genres of S.F. -- from cyberpunk into space-opera, from evolutionary speculation into eschatology -- while various familiar contemporary icons, brands and philosophies remain almost recognisable. Stross is a smart writer, and one with a soul as well (I loved his sympathetic liberal imam), a quality which is sometimes lacking in cerebral S.F. But ultimately the narrative slows once more as the focus slides away from the strictly unimaginable subjectivity of his posthumans to the cultural backwaters of those whose weak transhumanisms mean they remain fundamentally recognisable to us.

It's difficult, of course -- many would say impossible -- to write sympathetically about truly alien characters. But in sidestepping the attempt, Accelerando seems to be ducking the challenge its own bravado has set it -- meaning that ultimately (despite having easily five times as much imagination as many S.F. book series five times its length) it disappoints slightly. It's highly recommended, nonetheless, for what it does achieve.

A Pocketful of Lies by J-P Stacey is the self-published pamphlet of short stories I was plugging back in December, and which I've reprehensibly only just got round to reading. It's good, though, both as individual stories and in assembled form. Given the constraints on length, most of the stories are more by way of vignettes than actual narratives, though there are exceptions (and in fact the shortest pieces are the some of the best, the mock lonely hearts ads in particular). The best piece is the last, the distinctly Dickian paranoia-fantasy "Stay Calm", but I also liked the quieter, more lyrical "She Watched Television", a description of how someone spent her evening. A couple of the stories are less successful, but given that the book's free (and available as a PDF just over here) I don't see how you can go wrong.

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls has received a certain amount of notoriety for its rewriting of out-of-copyright children's fantasy as unashamed erotica (or pornography, which is the term Moore and Gebbie prefer). Complaining that the constant, admittedly highly inventive sex makes the book feel rather one-note throughout would clearly be missing the point, on a par with moaning that the characters in Neuromancer keep banging on about computers. But still, it didn't do much for me on an erotic level.

The really clever stuff lies in the reinterpretation of the experiences of the three main characters -- Alice, Dorothy and Wendy. The women, who range in age from early twenties (Dorothy) to late fifties (Alice), meet in a Swiss hotel in 1913, where they tell each other stories and shag a lot, both other people and each other, in a fin de siècle kind of a way. It turns out that each as a girl created an elaborate fantasy-world in response to her early sexual awakening -- whether to romanticise it, to escape from it or (one suspects) a bit of both.

The book seems confused in its approach to the imagination: on the one hand celebrating it, on another it seems to see its main function as the construction of strictly sexual fantasies. Whatever evolutionary biologists may tell us, I find the idea of world-creating fantasy as an outworking of the libido depressingly reductionist. Furthermore, telling each other their true stories (and shagging a lot) appears to allow each woman to face up to her past, suggesting that fantasy is something you grow out of when you discover sex. I can't imagine that this is the message which the author of Promethea and V for Vendetta intended me to take away, but it's in this confusion that I feel the book falls down.

The book (which comes in three volumes and a slipcase) is a very beautiful object, and Moore's writing and Gebbie's art create some wonderful moments. It's full of trademark Moore tricks, including inventive tricks of layout, visual puns and some very clever pastiche. If it's an experiment which ultimately fails, then it's one which comes up with some very interesting results along the way. It's surely telling, though, that -- reading it so soon after Postmodern Pooh -- I found myself wishing for a parody where the elderly Christopher Robin recalls his youthful homosexual encounters with a predatory older "bear", while helping a melancholy classmate come to terms with his own "tail" and discovering one particularly memorable "pole".


Since finishing these various volumes, I've been (and still am) reading The Steep Approach to Garbadale -- which, to someone who's read all of Iain Banks's work to date, feels terribly familiar. I've also, rather unexpectedly, embarked on Spirit Mirror by Stephen Marley, which I picked off the shelf in a vague search for something a bit different. It's an orientalist fantasy about Chinese lesbian vampires in the second century A.D., so it certainly qualifies. So far I'm rather enjoying it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

(Please sign comments -- it helps keep track of things. Offensive comments may occasionally be deleted, and spam definitely will be.)