01 May 2009

Books Update: Mars to Magrs

Lord, I'm being useless at the moment. Keeping the twittering classes entertained with daily microfiction isn't helping me keep up, either with the personal writing projects I'm working on or with this blog. Speaking of which...
Here lies Billy Joel Underton (1984-2011, 1947-1981) with his beloved wife Deborah (1925-2010). This monument erected by his son and father.
This one may be slightly more obscure than I intended (Was Billy Joel named after the popular entertainer or after his "grandfather"? Was there an original Mr Underton whom he replaced?), but I like it anyway.

Still. I've wittered enough recently about the fiction I've written -- it's time to give other people's work a turn. Here's a roundup of what I can remember reading over the past -- blimey, about three months now.

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, I said I'd come back to this one. I've blogged quite a bit about the experience of ploughing through the trilogy over the course of more than half a year, and I haven't really the heart to give the experience the dissection it deserves now. Suffice it to say that this colossal triptych defines and delineates Mars as a human society, with plausible political, social and religious movements -- and original developments in philosophy, morality and even physics -- which initially are merely transplanted to, but later respond to and eventually arise from the planet's stunningly evoked landscape, the whole amounting to a complex, monolithic yet realistically textured history of a kind which SF has rarely, if ever, managed to convey. It's a towering achievement.

And yet... it could have been done, quite honestly, in half the length or less. It's true that the sheer time it takes to read assists in giving a sense of the characters' own epic struggle with history, culminating finally in the long-sought Martian utopia of their dreams. But sheer length isn't the only technique that could have achieved that, and frankly there are others that would have been kinder to the reader. Robinson states upfront that he's put 17 years of research into these books, and he's keen to give us the benefit of his prior thinking in every area from geomorphology, astrophysics, mathematics, etymology, ecology, cerealogy, economics, social history, politics, anthropology, comparative religion, nuclear fusion, psychoanalysis, hydrology, alchemy, soil biology, oceanography, metallurgy, chemistry and botany, to sailing and kite design. It's utterly exhausting.

My other quarrel with the trilogy is that many of the original protagonists survive well into their 230s, simply so that we can have a consistent viewpoint on the progressive development of Martian history. The "longevity treatment" is a separate novum that has nothing directly to do with colonising Mars, it adds a spurious extra malthusian pressure which the future doesn't honestly need, and -- given that some of the political clashes are intergenerational -- it absurdly obliges us to accept characters in their 80s or 100s as bold young rebels. It also limits the organic development of new points of view which would have helped keep the whole thing fresh: as it was, my favourite section of Blue Mars wasn't even set on the planet, being the section where the Martian great-granddaughter of the first astronaut on Mars visits Mercury, Earth and Miranda.

Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon: Chabon's a brilliant writer, but I didn't feel his imagination had the room to unfurl itself in these short stories. Though told from various points of view and with some clever variants, these are all essentially portraits of middle-class American marriages in collapse. They're well-written and fun -- except when Chabon strays into the area of US sports, making no concessions to the ignorant reader and becoming completely impenetrable -- but basically inconsequential. The one exception is the final story, "In the Black Mill", an exuberant and loving Lovecraft parody attributed to the nonexistent pulp author August Van Zorn, which nonetheless manages -- if I'm reading it correctly -- to implicate the unthinking antisemitism of Lovecraft and some of his pulp-writing peers in the attitudes which led to the Holocaust.

The Casebook of Carnacki - Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson: I could, if I had the space and time, say almost as much about these nine brief vignettes as about Robinson's Mars books. Stories of an Edwardian ghost-hunter whose scientific approach means he explains away as many supernatural phenomena as he endorses, these always leave you guessing as to exactly where they're going, and are at times genuinely very creepy. There's a weird cinematic feel to them, as if Hodgson was writing with a medium in mind which scarcely existed -- I'd love to see a Carnacki feature film combining elements of, say, "The Haunted Jarvee", "The Horse of the Invisible" and "The Hog". These stories are relatively neglected -- certainly compared with Lovecraft's -- but well worth seeking out.

Top Ten: Beyond the Farthest Precinct by Paul Di Filippo and Jerry Ordway: Hmm. Alan Moore's original Top Ten series, together with its 1940s prequel The Forty-Niners, are scintillatingly-plotted, clever, entertaining police procedurals set in a city where everybody's a superhero. Having apparently lost interest in the series Moore has farmed it out to others, in this first instance SF writer Di Filippo.

Sadly, despite a few clever jokes, he has none of Moore's deftness of touch, and it's painful to watch his diminution of the characters. The cybernetic-American Joe Pi, who in Moore's comics deliberately talks like a cliched sci-fi robot largely in order to freak people out, now apparently just talks like that; while the religious police characters, whose respective christianity and satanism were formerly just single facets of rounded believable personalities, now rant about "infidels" and "blasphemy" exactly like every other religious character written by a lazy atheist. There's even an utterly gratuitous appearance by Jesus in a Superman costume, which makes no sense on any level except pointing and laughing at what a crap god Jesus is.

These points are especially galling since Di Filippo's idea of continuing Moore's eclectic aesthetic is to steal his villain wholesale from Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a novel deeply informed by Dick's sincere, if highly eccentric, interest in christianity. (Di Filippo makes no effort to disguise his source here, even referring to his steel-eyed demiurge as "the Hell Ditch Pilgrim".) This follow-up is a disappointment; I'm hoping other writers will do better with the property.

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross: I spoiled myself, I think, by making the inventive Accelerando my introduction to Stross's work. This, an earlier novel, is certainly better than Singularity Sky which it sequels, but still nothing more special than a generic post-cyberpunk space opera. Stross inhabits the safe genre-SF niche like a jigsaw piece, with no apparent wish to stretch his pseudopodia a micrometre beyond its confines. I'm not sure I'll bother with any more Stross, except perhaps Accelerando's sequel Glasshouse.

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod: Another police procedural with religious characters, but this time written with a conviction and sympathy that's rare in an author who doesn't share their beliefs. This is a fascinating counterpoint to MacLeod's earlier near-future thriller The Execution Channel, whose tagline read: "The war on terror is over. Terror won." In this second future, terror lost, and the major world powers have enacted strict laws enforcing secularism in public life, defining religion as a private matter which official bodies are forbidden even to recognise. MacLeod doesn't shy away from the repression which was entailed in creating the resultant secular utopia, but as presented it's one I'd cheerfully live in. Of course there are religious individuals who disagree, and it's their attempts to bring others round to their way of thinking that drive the plot.

The Night Sessions is several very clever things, including a philosophical meditation on the relationship between faith and power, and a convincing portrayal of nuts-and-bolts police work in an information-rich post-cyberpunk future. (It also steers refreshingly clear, for MacLeod, of the topic of the inevitability of the revolution of the proletariat.) It doesn't entirely satisfy as a story, something that's true of a number of MacLeod's novels, but it's well worth reading for the world it portrays.

Conjugal Rites by Paul Magrs: The third in Magrs's "Brenda and Effie" sequence, about the Bride of Frankenstein trying to keep her Whitby B&B running smoothly whilst getting embroiled in various multitextual crossover adventures, reads as usual like the bastard love-child of Buffy Summers and Alan Bennett. For important plot reasons this one's told in the third person, and I missed being addressed by Brenda's voice, but it's still an awful lot of fun. This one sees Brenda the Bride, Effie the witch and former girlfriend of the sinister Count Alucard, and ageing child-bride Shiela Manchu meeting up with their various departed loved ones during a day trip to Hell. It's fab.

Since that lot, I've started on The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. It's entertaining enough, but I'm waiting for the bit where it stops being a knowingly postmodern rewrite of Michael Marshall Smith, and starts justifying the critical hype that's splattered all over the cover.

And that's all the literature.

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