16 January 2011

The Adventure of the Anagrammatic Algebraist

I'm beginning to suspect, if I'm to keep this blog going at all, that I need to learn the art of writing pithy but substantial posts, rather than great long screeds which lay out my every passing thought on a topic.

As a first stab at that, here are brief(ish) reviews of the most recent pair of books I've read:

* * *

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks: The latest of Banks' loosely-linked Culture sequence, this combines enjoyably labyrinthine politics with giant space-opera battle and some serious philosophising. The necessarily murky foreign relations of a utopian society are, as ever, highlighted even while the setting itself is evoked with confidence and style.

The new element here is a corollary to an idea I've used in my own writing, of a highly technological society building its own Heaven where its citizens can survive after death. In the Culture universe, we learn, many civilisations have also built Hells in which the uploaded souls of their dead can suffer eternal torment in retribution for perceived misdeeds in life. It's an effectively nasty -- and as far as I'm aware original -- idea, and Banks is just the author to deplore it whilst still having some sadistic fun. (Indeed, a couple of passages suggest that these Hells should themselves be considered artworks in just this vein, as if Dante or Bosch -- or the Banks of Complicity and its ilk -- had worked in the arena of actual experience, rather than in depictive media.)

I suspect most sincere believers in the Christian Hell would see this as an obscene usurpation of God's prerogatives, and the novel didn't work very hard to convince me otherwise. There's also almost no indication of what most of the souls in the Hells have done to be consigned there: although a few are political prisoners, one presumes that many must be guilty of crimes which Banks and the reader would join their parent societies in decrying. Still, Surface Detail's Hells are, fairly uncomplicatedly, a metaphor for fundamentalist religion in general, and going into fictional doctrinal detail would have detracted from that.

It's a highly entertaining novel, but doesn't quite face up to the challenge it sets itself. And some of the Culture material feels very much as if it's re-exploring familiar ground -- an impression which one continuity-based revelation (in literally the last two words of the novel) does little to dispel.

* * *

Zero History by William Gibson: The conclusion to the rather startlingly named "Bigend Trilogy", in which Gibson turns essentially the same sensibility as created his science fiction works on the unadulterated contemporary world. Shockingly, I see that I never properly reviewed either Pattern Recognition or Spook Country, though I did praise them in passing here and there. Both are outstanding, and if you've enjoyed Gibson's SF I'd urge you to seek them out.

Zero History is as gorgeously written as ever, the information-dense prose nonetheless elegantly inventive and enthralling, the characters -- most notably the genially appalling capitalist anti-hero Hubertus Bigend -- convincingly drawn and detailed. As with Pattern Recognition and (the suspiciously similarly-named) Count Zero, one plot strand concerns a typically Gibsonian quest to track down the creator of some mysterious anonymous art -- in this case a "secret brand" of designer clothing. Although I do find discussion of fashion rather wearying, I enjoyed the branding motif in Pattern Recognition, and there's an entire thesis to be written about the parallels between these three realistic novels and the Sprawl trilogy.

Although ostensibly far more closely connected to Spook Country, with which it shares its two point-of-view characters, than to Pattern Recognition, it does a very clever thing with the structure of the trilogy, which I'd better conceal with whitespace (highlight to read): When Hollis Henry, the retired rock-musician protagonist of Spook Country, eventually meets the designer in question, she turns out to be logo-averse Cayce Pollard, whom we last saw performing a parallel quest some seven years earlier in Pattern Recognition.

Unfortunately, the anonymous-designer plot strand is rather perfunctorily resolved, and insufficiently well-integrated with the main plotline (which relates to the commercial rivalry between Bigend and a rogue operator for, erm, the contract to design clothing for the U.S. military). There's also a McGuffin which may be the nearest equivalent to a deux ex machina in a modern mainstream novel, but which equally seems to come out of nowhere. The book's a fantastic read, but ultimately I felt not quite as satisfying a novel as its two predecessors.

* * *

I've a couple of short-story anthologies to read next (both in series I've previously contributed to), but the next novel on my list is Rivers of London, a fantasy-police-procedural by the magnificently talented, and heretofore hopelessly undervalued, Ben Aaronovitch. I mention this mostly because I'm amused by the coincidence -- his two full-length Doctor Who novels draw heavily on the works of Gibson and Banks respectively -- but I'm looking forward to it enormously.

Finally, in a similar spirit of brevity, and in keeping with the mention of the police... here's one more teaser (the ninth of eleven, if I'm not mistaken) for my forthcoming short story "A Hundred Words from a Civil War" in Obverse Books's Faction Paradox anthology, A Romance in Twelve Parts:
     ‘Who was he?’ The investigator wears a greatcoat and muffler. ‘Apart from being a Remake, an academic and a closet gay, obviously. And taking his phobia of Tube travel as read.’
     ‘Remake?’ Inspector Inshaller stammers. ‘No, he was a maths lecturer. Dr Roamers-Jay.’
     ‘Oh, typical,’ he sneers. Hologlyphs in various alphabets and number-systems orbit his camelish face. ‘Someone’s leaving me a trail of dead Moriartys, and none of them are mine.’
     ‘Erm,’ Inshaller says. ‘No offence, but when we hired the Great Detective Agency, we were expecting someone a bit more...’
     ‘Heritage? Yeah,’ he sighs. ‘I get that a lot.’
The book's due out in the spring. Ordering details will appear here as soon as I have them myself.


  1. Helen6:14 pm

    I agree with your reviews of both the Banks and the Gibson, with the exception of the fact that I'm not certain that 'Zero History' *is* the conclusion to the, uh, 'Bigend triligy'. Does Gibson himself refer to it as such? I did some digging around online a few weeks ago, and all I could find was lots of banal chat room commentary and a few snippets of interviews in which Gibson was being pretty much vague about everything. If you've found anything more in-depth I'd love to hear about it.

    Anyway, fwiw I've got two reasons for thinking this (about the series not being finished, I mean). The first is that I can't help thinking that he's not done with the twin threads of a) the fashion industry and b)the kind of anti-capitalist quasi-terrorist activities of Garreth and the "old man". I can't help hoping those threads are going to be brought together more conclusively at some point. This may be wishful thinking.

    The second is that I still have strong suspicions about the true idenitity of the "old man" and I think I mentioned this to you before. I remember thinking, half-way through 'Zero History' that "if he's who I think it is, then a certain other character (trying very hard to avoid spoilers here) is going to have to be reintegrated into the story at some point if he's to maintain the memory of that set of characters in the readers' minds". And, lo and behold, he/she was! And in a very satisfying way too, I might add.

    Of course, it is not in Gibson's nature to make things too neat and tidy, so this all may be wishful thinking on my part. Whatever: I'd be fascinated to know what you think. I have been starving for someone to discuss this book with! All my other Gibson-fan friends don't like his new stuff.

  2. Helen6:21 pm

    Oh, and the McGuffin really is bloody awful, isn't it?

  3. Gibson says in his blog that Zero History is "rounding out that third set of three books". And since his other solo stuff comes in trilogies (there are even three Sprawl short stories) I can see why people are assuming it -- although it would be clever to play on that to prove them wrong.

    I remember you saying that you thought the "old man" might be Win from Pattern Recognition -- was that right? (All the comments on this blog pre-2010 got erased when Haloscan lost interest in hosting them, annoyingly.) It's been a while since I read Spook Country (and Pattern Recognition, although I've now read that one twice), so I can't remember exactly what I thought about that. I think Pattern Recognition works better as a narrative if one has confidence in the closure of Win's reported death, but (as you say) Gibson's not one for leaving such things unproblematic. I didn't see anything in Zero History to support it, mind.

    It would be more satisfying it a fourth novel rounded it out as a tetralogy, mind you. As I say, I think Zero History's actually the weakest of the three novels.

    ...And yeah, the McGuffin is pants, amounting to a third plot strand that turns up a page or two from the end (although I know it's briefly forshadowed earlier). More of an explanation of what it is, how it works and how it can have the potentially world-shaking effects attributed to it might have helped with that, though that would have blown the twist I guess. But it was a rubbish twist.

    I love these novels, and can't understand how anyone who likes Gibson is unable to see them as a natural organic development from his earlier stuff.

  4. "rounding out that third set of three books"


    And yes, I think the old man is Win Pollard. I want to re-read Pattern Recognition to see if there's anything more in that which supports the idea through hindsight, but unfortunately my copy is somewhere (I think) in the UK.

    If there's no more to come in this series then perhaps the Win Pollard thing is either my imagination, or something you either get or you don't.

  5. According to teh interwebs, Win Pollard is described as looking like a younger "William S. Burroughs" in 'Pattern Recognition': then in one of the other two the old man is described as looking like "William S. Burroughs". Haven't checked this because I can't.

    And now I think I am beginning to get obsessive about this, so I shall go and do something else.

  6. Ah. That's interesting. I did notice the description of the old man resembling Burroughs in Zero History (though as I recall that's only a phone caller image, so in theory it could be someone else). I don't remember that description of Win, but as I say it's been a while. I'll try to have a quick flick through Pattern Recognition and see if I can spot it.

    If it's true, then it's an interesting (brilliant, even) secret character point. But I'm not sure Gibson would necessarily want or need to spell it out explicitly.

  7. Well, it turns out you're right -- photos of the younger Win are described as looking like Burroughs in Pattern Recognition chapter 21. The old man is described as looking like the older Burroughs in both Spook Country (chapter 68, tellingly entitled "Snap") and Zero History (er... don't remember the chapter reference for that, but it's about halfway through).

    It's possible, of course, that Gibson just has a Burroughs fixation, and that the old man and Win are supposed to be thematically parallel... but given that all of this is fiction anyway, I'm not sure that that's actually a significantly different proposition.

    It's an interesting wrinkle to the series, but I'm still not sure it needs to be made explicit.

  8. Then I shall pat myself on the back for having noticed it, and stop obsessing about it!

  9. Kevin7:02 pm

    Sorry to be late to the discussion, but I did want to point out a little more evidence for Win Pollard being the Old Man. Near the end of Zero History, Gareth is on the phone, and we can only "hear" one side of the conversation. However, one of the responses he gives is simply the word "Win". And as I recall, both Win Pollard and the Old Man are described as wearing a "seriously good dark overcoat", or something to that effect.

    I too believe that a fourth book is needed to really round out this narrative, and not just for the answer to the Win Pollard issue.


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