07 November 2005

Mitchell, Priest and Mo[o]re

I've been getting more time to read recently with B. at work in the evenings, which means I've now finished David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Christopher Priest's The Glamour and Alan Moore's V for Vendetta as well.

[NB: What follows shall contain spoilers. Not Invented Here and others who don't want to read details about Cloud Atlas may wish to skip this entry.]

Cloud Atlas is a clever, intricate, substantial read, and also thoroughly entertaining. As mentioned previously, it's structured as a series of nested novellas, with multiple connections between and across them; the primary conceit being that the protagonist of each story encounters in some form the story of the previous protagonist. The outermost novella, which starts and closes the book, is therefore the earliest, set in the Pacific islands in the 1840s, whereas the central, undivided narrative is that of the final collapse of what may be civilisation's last remnant, also on a Pacific island hundreds of years hence. The novel's setting thus comes virtually full circle, but only by way of 1930s Belgium, 1970s California, 2000s England and vaguely-2100s Korea.

This allows for some wonderfully effective stylistic pyrotechnics, as each separate narrative is told not only in its own extremely distinctive voice, but also in an identifiable genre: nineteenth-century sea tale, epistolary novel, crime thriller, contemporary satire, futuristic dystopia and finally post-apocalyptic. Each section has its own distinct language and vocabulary, with the two future settings developing their own rich and unique dialects only partially indebted, like the settings themselves, to existing science fiction.

The novel has an indignant and vocal sense of a history where injustice and oppression are rife, from capitalist expoitation by Victorian missionaries, to the enslavement of genetically-engineered "fabricants", to the heartless incarceration of the elderly in contemporary Britain. Mitchell's theme is the urge for power and the self-destructive lengths to which it will drive both individuals and societies -- including, on the largest scale, human civilisation itself. There's a strong suggestion that the individual protagonists are in fact the same reincarnated soul, forging similar relationships and making equivalent choices from one era to another: that said, there's also the suggestion that some of the stories are fictional rather than historical in relation to one another, and in particular that the future segments could be the product of the present-day protagonist's stroke-induced delirium.

It's the kind of book which demands an obsessive (and fannish) nitpicking to tease out the relationships between its stories: what, for instance, is the significance of the comet birthmark? The repeated motif of falls from bridges or balconies? The messy romantic breakups? The Cloud Atlas Quartet? The words "hydra" and "slooshed"? Are characters other than Ewing / Frobisher / Rey / Cavendish / Sonmi / Meronym also reincarnated -- and are those six actually the same person, or is the author playing a trick on us? Who is "fictional" and who is "real"? Is the 1970s crime novel segment deliberately bad, or is this just a product of the voice that Mitchell is pastiching?

Ultimately, the novel functions as a historical thesis drawn from a wide compendium of exploitation and compassion, incarceration and escape -- the contrary urges which underpin all our behaviours, savage and civilised alike. I keep changing my mind as to whether or not it counts as SF.

On which note, The Glamour may have a stab at justifying its central conceit of "naturally invisible" people in terms of hardwired social behaviours, negative hallucination, post-hypnotic suggestion and the like, but in fact it is -- as the climax definitively proves -- a work of magic realism emerging from the SF tradition. Indeed this description seems to cover all the Priest novels I've read so far: The Prestige with its late-Victorian stage magicians using the emergent marvel of electricity to perform the impossibilities it once seemed to promise; The Separation with its dreamlike (and possibly dreamed-into-existence) ambiguities about the true outcome of the Second World War; and A Dream of Wessex with the virtual reality which becomes, thanks to its participants' emotional investment, reality itself.

I also suspect that at some point Mr Priest may have been involved in a love triangle with a nice middle-class young woman and her monstrously manipulative ex-boyfriend, who may just possibly have had the power to bend reality to his will. It's just a hunch.

The novel is compelling and sophisticated, blending the theme of literal invisibility (the "glamour" of the title, with its wide range of potential applications to human social relations) with those of our reconstructed memories of the past, and of our interaction with time and landscape. The final twist, which brings all of these elements together in an unhappy ending which effectively redefines all that we've read so far, is unsettling and beautiful.

All of which was marred for me by the annoyingly half-arsed attempt to bring the text "up to date". The Glamour was published in 1984, yet the copyright page bears the ugly legend "© 1984, 1985, 1996, 2005", suggesting the successive amendments which have managed to turn it into a huge mess. Nominally the characters own computers, spend euros when abroad and have at least heard of mobile phones, but every so often the story's original 1980s reality makes an Ubik-like attempt at reasserting itself with a reference to sending a telegram, or to the "flickering orange digits" on a petrol-pump. More seriously, the characters' actions and decisions take no account of the existence of the internet, mobiles or even answering machines, making a nonsense of, if not the plot, at least many of its constituent events.

This is particularly irritating because it's so utterly unnecessary. Why on earth do the publishers imagine anyone would object to reading a novel set in the '80s?

I see that The Extremes is similarly "© 1998, 2005", which makes me somewhat less eager to read it. At least seven years isn't too huge a gap, but I really hope Gollancz don't do this to all of Priest's older works -- the Soviet-inflected future of A Dream of Wessex, for instance, would end up looking particularly silly.

V for Vendetta is set in 1997-98, and I would really prefer it if that wasn't changed for the forthcoming film version, thank you very much. It's a distinctively Thatcher-era vision of the dystopian future, with a near-miss nuclear apocalypse leading to a fascist takeover of England, where all the gays, blacks and other subversives are neatly expunged in concentration camps, and the barmy neo-christian dictator bears certain startling similarities to Chief Constable James Anderton. (I couldn't help noticing that it had almost exactly the same plot as Frank Miller's supposedly groundbreaking The Dark Knight Returns, as well.)

The book suggests that the only way a society like this can be overturned is to tear it all down and begin again from the beginning: an argument with considerable historical justification, but one which makes for deeply uncomfortable reading, as the terrorist protagonist in his Guy Fawkes costume murders his way through the upper echelons of government, blowing up several London landmarks and psychologically brutalising his young female companion along the way.

V for Vendetta was Moore's earliest attempt at an ongoing series, and compared with the flawless virtuosity of a work like Watchmen, his lack of experience does show. Nevertheless, many of his trademark devices are already present: games with the panel layouts; dialogue with double or triple meanings; echoes of previous images and dialogue; songs both original and found which comment chorically upon the action; and extensive use of poetical quotations. Plus of course an unsettling yet charismatic superantihero.

For anyone who's enjoyed Moore's later work (and frankly who's read it and hasn't?), it is an essential read. I'm certainly glad I got round to it at last.

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