No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, October 30, 1995

The Wolf Within -- Pamela Belle

The Wolf Within is the sequel to The Silver City, which told the story of Ansaryon and his defeat of the usurper Tsenit. Ansaryon's son Bron, dedicated to the Death God Ayak at his birth, is growing up. A shy, self-contained child, he is haunted by the knowledge that the power inside him killed six thousand enemy soldiers - and that Ayak, the Wolf Within, revelled in the slaughter. Bron must keep the Wolf at bay - but he doesn't know how. His father takes him to Zithirian, the Silver City, to teach him to control his own magic, but as Bron reaches adolescence it becomes clear that the Wolf is only waiting for his chance to destroy all that Bron holds dear. The only safety he can give his family is by running away, out into a wider world of warring kingdoms. Away from his family, he can pretend to be a normal youth, playing music and travelling downriver towards the Sorcerer's Island Jo'ami, where his salvation may lie. But it is not an easy pretense, and the malevolent presence of the Wolf inside him - while preserving him from danger - cannot be kept under control forever ...
Bron's travels take him through wastelands, past ruined cities, and to a matriarchal theocracy which shows him a presentiment of his fate. He flees to Toktel'yi, the sprawling city from which the Emperor Ba'alekkt plans his domination of the known world - and his oppression of the lands he's already conquered.
Here Bron meets Mallaso, 'a woman who carries the pain of her slaughtered people'. She has no reason to love the Emperor - and Bron, discovering Ba'alekkt's plans to overthrow the Silver City itself, cannot help but agree with her. It is suddenly imperative that Bron comes to terms with his own power, which may prove to be Zithirian's only defence; but is the price too high?
Pamela Belle paints a detailed and evocative world which is richly imagined and has an internal consistency which is often lacking in fantasy worlds. It's reminiscent of our own world in the age of Alexander the Great - with the one, massive, difference that sorcery works. All sorcerers - except the divinely-cursed Bron - must take the drug Ammatal in order to use their powers. There are four rules of magic to which they must adhere: sorcery must be used unselfishly, without hurting anyone; the sorcerer must employ restraint and accept responsibility for his own actions. A laudable charter, and largely adhered to; the existence of these laws adds an extra moral dimension (again, often lacking in fantasy) to Bron's actions.
Bron himself is an appealing character; far from perfect, and - despite his awesome powers - with very human fears and failings. Even the minor characters with whom he interacts are deftly and realistically described. Pamela Belle may be working on an immense tapestry, but she doesn't stint on detail.
Perhaps the most telling recommendation that I can make of this book is that, having read it, I wanted to read the first one - and the events of the last few pages make me keen to find out what happens in the third volume of the trilogy.

Monday, September 25, 1995

Interview: Neal Stephenson, September 1995

This interview took place in September 1995, while Neal Stephenson was visiting London to promote The Diamond Age. It's an initial transcript so you may have to guess the questions from a few key words in some places ...

T - The Big U was your first published novel, but hasn't been available for some time. Could you tell me about it?
NS - It was a campus comedy ... a satire on large universities. It was set at a fictional university with 40,000 students, all in one huge building - a building that was run by a computer system that had been infected by this computer worm that was sabotaging it.
T - When was it written?
NS - 1982, 1983.
T - Before the great cyberpunk revolution, then.
NS - In retrospect it had cyberpunk elements to it, but it just sank without a trace.
T - Is there any prospect of its being reissued? Do you want it reissued?
NS - I don't particularly want it reissued; it has its moments, but it has other moments that are distinctly first-novel-esque.
T - Snow Crash is really quite different from Zodiac; a more intellectual novel, more concerned with idea. It was Snow Crash that made a huge impact ...
NS - It's not supposed to work that way, is it? It's supposed to be the other way round, I believe; you write the brainless sludge and that makes a great success. If you try to get fancy, nobody buys it.
T - Why do you think Snow Crash was so successful?
NS - It has a hell of a lot to do with the fact that the timing, through no particular virtue of my own, was perfect. It came out just as interactive media was becoming a huge news story, and it just started to get mentioned quite a bit as being some kind of a sign post in that field. I think a lot of it was luck.
T - It started as a computer-generated graphic novel ...
NS - at the time we were doing it, things like CD-ROM's and Internet hookups were not very common, to say the least; The idea was that I'd use a computer to generate the imagery for a paper graphic novel that would then be published like any other paper graphic novel. I never got far in the writing of the ... libretto, I guess ... because there was no point getting ahead of myself and there was a lot of work to do on the technology we needed. All I did was come up with a few characters and a few little vignettes involving them. Later on, when it became evident that that notion was not going to work, I just started from scratch and took some of those characters and didn't even use many of the vignettes - just the characters.
T - It wasn't a case of converting it from a graphic novel.
NS - No, it wasn't a problem at all; to the contrary, it was certainly easier to just sit down and write it from scratch than to try to take something that had been conceived for another medium and rework it. That's a recipe for some sort of disaster. Much better to start with a reasonably clean slate. All I knew was that, for example, because YT and her skateboard had been conceived for comic books, that it would be visual and if I could describe her in the right way, that might come across.
T - It's a visually-paced novel ... with a hundred-page info-dump in the middle, with the Librarian giving Hiro a crash-course in ancient history.
NS - It used to be much worse. The entire contents of the conversations with the Librarian were in one solid slab, because it seemed to me that it had to go in one way or the other so lets just get it over with. Then I was persuaded by cooler heads to break it up a bit. It's still some pretty big chunks.
T - How seriously are we supposed to take the infodumps?
NS - All of the historical, factual information that the Librarian presents to Hiro you can take as seriously as you want, because it's all straight from actual research. the two gods really did exist; they really did have these things called me, which in some way we don't really understand were the instructions and the rules that people followed to create a civil society, and the possession of the me was of great importance, and they were fought over by different gods; the whole battle thing is a myth that appears in various cultures. All of that is for real; you can take it as seriously or as lightly as you would any other ancient mythology. The only thing that's really fictional is the way in which it's projected into the modern world.
T - The me were effectively a social program. There's echoes of that in the Neo-Victorians of Diamond Age; the whole emphasis on the moral code.
NS - That's an interesting connection that I haven't heard made before. Clearly, how to run a society is a big question and we haven't quite worked it out. An approach that might have been used speculatively, thousands of years ago, was to have the people as automatons. That has its drawbacks, so, in the modern era people are thinking for themselves - in fact, they insist on doing so. How do you run a society then? There's different paradigms for doing that, and one of them has some sense ... includes some kind of instruction for passing that set of rules onto the next generation. By definition, because if you have a culture that doesn't include that then it will only last for one generation. I think there are some cultures like that around right now, but not for long. In Diamond Age, the government thing is gone, and its just all these different cultures - different systems - that are propagating their sets of beliefs and behaviours through time. They all co-exist, and if you don't like the one that you happen to be in there are others available to you.
T - Language as a virus ...
NS - That's the first time that's come up today. Every interview I go to people ask me new questions - and everyone apologises for asking me the same old questions.
T - In Snow Crash, language is a virus; you draw parallels with the Snow Crash virus itself. In some ways it's a rather negative way of looking at language, because we do have this negative reaction to the word 'virus'.
NS - The virus idea's pretty powerful, and it may be so powerful that it's possible to overuse it sometimes. It may be better to speak of systems of information that have the ability to propagate and adapt through time. Virus is a quick, simple way of saying that. Another one that's popular is 'meme'. In a way, when you say 'this is a virus' or 'that is a virus', you're making a good point; but one's also guilty of being a little bit reductionist and glib, so it's probably better to say that in many different contexts we can see systems of information that propagate and perpetuate themselves through time. Having made that observation we should try to be a little cautious about slapping the label of virus onto all those systems and somehow treating them as though they were all diseases.
T - Even if they're beneficial ones.
NS - Right. Some of them are good. Most of them are a lot more interesting and a lot more complicated than a virus.
T - On the SF Encyclopedia you spoke of music as a virus, presumably with the same limitations.
NS - Oy! I'm not Jewish myself, but the Jewish 'Oy' is one of the most expressive words ever coined. Oy ... That may have been derived from ... when you're trying to explain this whole virus thing, you need examples. One example I've been known to use is tunes that get caught in your head. 'Georgy Girl' is my bete noir - in fact I shouldn't even have mentioned it - once it gets into your brain it keeps going and going and you can't get it out. If you're in an elevator and you start humming it then someone else might pick it up and they might spread it -
T - When you go down in the elevator at the end of the day, everyone's humming it, surreptitiously, in different keys ...
NS - Everyone's waiting to ambush you and beat you up for having infected them. Or reinfected them,. Melodies are another thing that exhibit this property that we've been talking about. I hope I never actually said, in so many words, that music is a virus.
T - I was fascinated by the concept of the Wet Net in Diamond Age - running in parallel to but unconnected to, the old-fashioned hardware side - the concept of nanosites infecting various other humans by the
NS - exchange of bodily fluids?
T - yes ... that wonderful euphemism.
NS - I think we've all been fascinated and horrified by the notion that there are these unintelligent but highly effective information-carriers that spread through sex particularly, and that during intercourse not only can there be transmission of the information needed to create a new human being, but at the same time there can be transmission of this deadly information that can destroy whole swathes of humanity. That's just a staggering concept. It brings home the notion that we are all repositories for genetically-encoded information that we're all spreading back and forth amongst each other, all the time. We're just lousy with information. In our DNA we've got enormous amounts of junk DNA in each of our cells that's purely useless; that's left-over vestiges from when we were frogs and amoebas. It's still there and it still tags along in all of our cells, and it will probably always be there. In these times of rampant Internet excitement, it seemed natural to try to make the jump from that to the notion of a wet Internet that would spread information as we have described. I think it's an SF writer's duty to freak people out, so you've got to throw in the occasional bit of stuff like that.
T - And the nice - nasty - idea about spontaneous combustion.
NS - That's a tie-in with a lot of Joseph Campbell's work on mythology. Campbell divides all mythological systems into two very broad categories - the one of the hunter-gatherers, and after that, the Way of The Seed, the agricultural; societies. The transition that seems to happen between the two is that agricultural societies have a lot of sacrifice, particularly human sacrifice. They all seem to have this need to do sacrifice. The big advance of Christianity is that we do it symbolically. We don't actually have to kill people or indeed animals. There are a lot of other ancient cultures in which there was a whole lot of sacrificing going on - the statistics on how many people the Aztecs killed are just unbelievable; they would kill 20,000 people in a weekend. I thought there was a nice tie-in to that neo-primitive thing, there; there's some technical justification for it in that it's been established that one of the major problems - design challenges - with these nanotech computers is that they would generate a tremendous amount of waste heat. A great deal of engineering would have to go into building systems to carry away the waste heat so that they wouldn't just explode. If you started up one of these computers in a building, it would just incinerate the whole block. That's the underlying technological justification, if there is one, for the thing that you're referring to.
T - There's a great deal of technical information which was certainly not served up in chunks as in Snow Crash - very clearly presented.
NS - That's gratifying. I tried to make it .. once I started learning about nanotech, basically just by reading Drexler's book Nanosystems, I decided on the one hand that one couldn't responsibly write SF without talking about this any more. On the other hand, I felt that a lot of the speculation that I was seeing about nanotech and how it might be used was not very well thought out, because at least according to Drexler's explanation of the subject, which is conservative and cautious, and I think a responsible estimate, it would be tremendously effective in some areas. There would be clear limits on what it could accomplish, and for example if these machines were exposed to light or to air they would be instantly destroyed. It would be like opening up the back of a fine Swiss watch and dumping sand into it. It seemed like the time was ripe to try to write a book that, on the one hand, didn't ignore nanotech, but on the other hand didn't just make it equivalent to magic - capable of being a deus ex machina for any purpose that the author wanted to achieve.
T - Reading Diamond Age, I was reminded of information and ethics as discussed in Snow Crash. Information doesn't have a moral tag attached to it; what's done with it and who is allowed to access it is where the ethical decisions come - the ethical aspect of the story.
NS - We're in a bit of a pinch - we've got this basic belief in freedom of speech, but it's difficult to say 'You can say whatever you want as long as it's not encrypted'. If we're going to be consistent and advocate freedom of speech we have to advocate freedom of encrypted speech too. But what if what's encrypted turns out to be child porn or a murder plot? That's the bind we're in right now. The easiest possible and least thoughtful approach is to say, well, we won't allow encrypted speech; we'll place limits on what kind of encryption can be used. That's what the US government's trying to do right now. It's a really bad idea because the genie is out of the bottle, cryptologically. Even if that were the morally correct position, it's no longer a wise position, because it's too late; it's not going to work. Instead we have to face up to the fact that in the future anyone who wants it will be able to hide their speech from the most powerful governments and corporations on earth. That's the situation today. I have a program on my laptop that can do it. That being the case, what should we do? How should we respond to possible unethical uses of this? I think that society will find ways to adapt to that, but it's not going to be a straightforward or a simple process; it's going to cause some changes in how society's organised, and it's also going to involve some subtle technical tricks, some engineering tricks, that may take a while to implement. As an example, after the Oklahoma City bombing, it came out that on the Internet you could get recipes for how to make one of those bombs. One response is to say 'That's terrible,. We have to find all the people who have that information on their computers and shut them down'. Which is what a lot of people wanted to do. Another response is to put their hands up and say, 'Well, that's life, that's the way it's going to be'. To do nothing. There's another idea, which is to get some chemists together and you get them to come up with a thousand fake bomb recipes, and some of them don't work at all. Some of them produce a noxious odour. Some of them blow p and spray purple dye all over your skin. Some of them just involve a whole lot of expensive chemicals and a lot of time-consuming work and don't do anything. None of them makes a bomb. You type 'em all up in the same demented style that is used by people who post bomb recipes on the Net; and it is a very distinctive prose style, which I would be hard-put to duplicate. You post them on the Net, so if some asshole gets on the Net looking for a bomb recipe, he's got to select which of the thousand recipes available to him really makes a bomb.
T - Or go and ask his friendly anarcho-chemist.
NS - There's not so many of those. Those people can already do it. We don't care about them. What we care about is people like Tim McVeigh - anyone like that ... It would make the Net completely useless as a place to distribute bomb-making information.
T - Also to distribute any other information on the basis that it might be junk.
NS - It's already the case that most everything on the Net is crap, which is why I don't really go out there very much any more. But I do spend a fair amount of time on the Well, because I know people on the Well. I haven't met some of them, but some I know just because over the years of being on the Well I've read a bunch of what they've posted, and I've got this mental tabulation of who's who. There's a couple of guys that, everything they post is just horse-shit, so I don't care what they put, I just scroll right past it. There are other people who almost invariably post really insightful, well-informed messages there. I'm always eager to read what they've posted. The answer to the problem of information overload on the Net is reputations. At the moment we carry reputations in our minds; we tabulate our own set of reputations, but it's possible to engineer a system called a reputation server that automatically, if you tell it how you'd react to certain things, it'll try to keep track of how you feel, and how everybody else feels. If you were looking at a message from someone you didn't know very well it might say 'Most of the people who share your opinions think this guy's an asshole'. Or it might say 'A lot of people like you really enjoy the messages this person's been posting; they like this guy's Web page; you should check it out'. It's something that's far from being technologically trivial but it's an approach to Net ethics problems that's not, on the one hand, fatuous and ignorant, and not irresponsible or hands-off or anarchic either.
T _ Is that the way you feel it should be going?
NS - I think it's our only choice - a choice that jibes pretty well with what's reasonably ethical. There is a breed of Net fascism, which is to say that change of a particular sort is inevitable, there's no point in resisting it, rather let's all just join with it, and surf on it, and imbibe the awesome power of this change. Is it ethical or not? Well, it's a waste of time to even talk about morals or ethics, because it's inevitable. It's really reminiscent of German politics in the '30s; I don't like it. There's a middle way there somewhere where you can use technological systems that are workable and that won't just be swept aside, that may help to realise some kind of responsible, ethical vision, in parallel.
T - Diamond Age struck me as in part a novel about making ethical decisions. Hackworth's decision to steal the original primer, which is a crime; he feels that he's doing it for the greater good. Then he decides to make it available to thousands of unwanted female children. The way in which he weighed up those two decisions, and the morass of ethical decisions which entailed from those. Ethical test cases ...
NS - That's one of the charms of the Victorian novel - you've got these people who have a strong concept of right and wrong, who sincerely believe in it. They're not weasels; they're people trying to do what is right, and they - through no fault of their own - find themselves in complicated situations and they have to muddle through. The decisions that they make with their imperfect information can have elaborate and unforeseen consequences. It's that kind of thing that makes the Victorian era such an ideal setting for a novelist. That's why people keep reading - and writing - those novels. People keep going back to that era -
T - Or in your case, forward to that era -
NS - Yes. People keep finding some excuse to write a Victorian novel.
T - Mannerism ... an expanded and reworked Victorian code that was there as a framework for the ethical decisions; the neo-Victorians in contrast to the neo-primitive Drummers, and to the trivial and short-lived societies which made up other phyles. It was a more positive view of the Victorian ethos than tends to come out in modern writing.
NS - It's cheap and easy to bash away at the Victorians. It's partly because a lot of people seem to have a pretty cartoonish view of what that era was like, that everybody was a pompous buffoon. Some smart person said that the past is not just the present dressed up in funny clothes. there's more complexity and intelligence in the behaviour of those people than we sometimes give them credit for. If you go back and read biographies of that period you find that although the image is one of repression and conformity, in some ways they seem to tolerate eccentric behaviour and original behaviour better than modern-day society does. It just did it in a different way. We hear about how Oscar Wilde was treated, and that was a shabby and terrible thing; but at the same time there were a lot of other gay men and women in Victorian society who had ways of working things out. They were tolerated in a different way from what we now think of as tolerance. There were all of these really odd characters like Sir Richard Francis Burton running around, leading completely bizarre lives; there's a lot more complexity to Victorian culture than it's generally creditted with. In a lot of ways it does compare favourably to our own today, and I keep wanting to ask people, 'If modern culture is so wonderful, then why's everything so screwed up?'
T - You make that point in Diamond Age - comparing average Victorian child in workhouse with average child in Washington DC, 1992, and concluding that mostly they'd prefer to be in the workhouse.
There's an emphasis on society and its disintegration, fragmentation, franchisement ... and how the moral code, or lack thereof, interweaves with the economics. In Snow Crash, I felt that morality was almost an individual construct, that didn't for most of the characters seem to be an external system.
NS - It was closer to what we've got today, everyone making their own way through a pretty complicated moral universe. It's a transitional state which might then converge on ... people might then cluster around particular attractors, and decide to espouse neo-Victorianism.
T - Ethics .. Zodiac ... Greenpeace ... nuclear testing. Discuss.
NS - The thing that impressed me about Greenpeace - at least the last time I was current on the subject, back in the '80s - was not so much their daring and skill at doing these operations, as it was their amazing facility for manipulating the media. The media are so soft-headed that they cry out to be manipulated; they deserve whatever they get. It's a point that I try to make in Zodiac, that this guy has a lot of technical skill, and he is good at these operations, but he's got this essentially contemptuous view of the media as this instrument that he can manipulate at will. he doesn't even derive any satisfaction from manipulating them, because it's so easy. I don't think that's changed. Looking at the Shell thing - the media ate it up, then Greenpeace came out recently and said 'we were wrong'. Which was good of them, it enhances their credibility to my eyes that they admitted that; but it doesn't do much for my view of the media, that they lapped it up. I don't get any more outraged at Greenpeace than I might otherwise because I don't agree in every particular with what they're espousing, but for the most part it's pretty harmless stuff, like 'Let's control toxic waste. Let's not nuke things. Let's try to keep major species from becoming extinct.' That's all perfectly reasonable, and as I may have indicated, my opinion of the media is so low that when they are manipulated I don't care, because everything that appears in the media is one way or another a result of direct, conscious manipulation by someone. It's not as though the media depiction of Greenpeace is any more focussed than anything else that appears in the media. The only thing that I take issue with is that sometimes they get things wrong - as with Shell - and sometimes they just are a little flaky. They make a tremendous exercise about issues that have a lot of media appeal but that are not intrinsically that important. The example of that in Zodiac is where they refer to the baby seals as their 'furry fund-raisers'.
T - Interface.
NS - Penguin bought it at the same time as Diamond Age; so I would imagine that they're going to publish it pretty soon.
T - It was a collaboration under a pseudonym.
NS - My uncle is a history professor, and he and I have now written two novels together; Interface and The Cobweb, which will be published in the States next summer. We've got ideas for a few of these things.
In Interface, they've chosen 100 Americans who represent a cross-section of the electorate, and they've paid each one of these Americans to wear a little wrist-watch with a little TV which shows coverage of election-related events. It's also got sensors that react to their emotional reaction, and radios that data into headquarters. The data's run through a computer to figure out what the ramifications are in terms of electoral votes, and then it's piped to the chip in the politician's head. The guy becomes the ultimate politician in that he can do a flip-flop in mid-sentence, if he senses that the electorate doesn't like what he's just said. That's the basic premise; the politician in this case is a decent and likeable guy who's got this thing in his head through no particular fault of his own, and is having to fight against it at the same time as it's controlling him.
T - Do you see that level of control to be 'where it's going' in the US political system? That level of reaction?
NS - It's pretty close. During Reagan's last campaign they almost had it set up that way; he was doing a debate, and they had a real-time poll going in Portland, Oregon. The debate was in Ohio, but they were monitoring peoples' reactions in Oregon, and telephoning the data to someone who was standing off-stage, about six feet away from Reagan. He wasn't quite able to close the loop and give direct feedback to Reagan, but it would have been trivial to set that up. It's a simple thought experiment; take the situation as we have it now and exaggerate it.
T - Will the two-party system last?
NS - The real question is, will the whole concept of government as we know it last? I think the two-party system is sufficiently entrenched that it'll continue as long as the government as we know it continues; but government as we know it is so out of it that it just may not be able to adapt fast enough to really hang together.
T - What's The Cobweb about?
NS - It's about a lowly homely deputy county sheriff in a county in Iowa. This county has two towns; one's a university town, the other's a depressed industrial town. The sheriff starts to figure out that the Iraqi graduate students at the university are up to no good. It's set in 1990, before and leading up to the Gulf War; he's in the awkward position of strongly suspecting that something really naughty is going on with these Iraqis, but having limited credibility and limited resources to work on. It's a page-turner. The Stephen Bury stuff is our little stab at writing enjoyable, fun, mass-market fiction; you won't find anything about Sumerian deities in there.
T - One comment about Snow Crash was that it was 'William Gibson with laughs'. How do you feel about that?
NS - Any comparison with Gibson is one that I'll gladly and gratefully accept. If people think it has laughs then that's also nice. I tried to put some funny stuff in there and so it's good that some people are laughing. One reaction I get in a small number of cases, which always pisses me off, is that there are people who are always dismissive about any book that has humourous content; anything that has the occasional laugh in it can't possible be taken seriously. That always gets my dander up, but I don't see it that often. I saw it more when Snow Crash was pretty new. Now it seems to have some established credibility and people who are inclined to think that way may be a bit more cautious about saying so.
T - What makes you laugh?
NS - P J O'Rourke, who's just really devastatingly funny from time to time; Hunter Thompson certainly has his moments, becoming few and far between; I'm a huge fan of the Simpsons; I adore the Simpsons; and Matt Groening's other work, for instance his 'Life in Hell' series, is also quite funny. Those are the main people to whom I routinely look for laughs. I used to like a lot of the National Lampoon and Harvard Lampoon stuff, but I have a strong suspicion that that was just because P. J. O'Rourke was there; wherever he is funny stuff comes out. There's a columnist in the States who may not have made much of an impact here; Dave Barry. Some of his column work shows evidence of being spread a bit thin; but whenever he sits down and gives some thought to a subject, he's unbelievably funny. There's a really funny comic strip in the US called Dilbert, which is about a dirty engineer working in this huge, Kafka-eque hi-tech company, which is modelled after the phone companies. It's a really brilliant study of organisational politics.
T - Cyberpunk the genre - still active?
NS - There's some distance to go yet. It seems to bring in new people; I like Simon Ings' work; I haven't read Jeff Noon yet, due to the unfortunate bankruptcy of his publishers, but I hear nothing but good about him. My reaction when I saw Gibson's work, was to say 'Oh, that's really cool, I have to try that'. That's how I got into it; I get the sense that there are other writers who are still doing that, and there's certainly no shortage of subject matter to be delved into. For example, the whole ... Naturally, when a book becomes successful, there's often a rush to capitalise on it, so one sees a certain number of knock-offs coming onto the market. I don't begrudge them that. If you see a bunch of those it's easy to become discouraged about the genre, and think it's dead. But new stuff keeps coming along. If one book in ten, or one in twenty, is really interesting that's a pretty good ratio.
T - Still ground to be broken even after 10 years?
NS - Absolutely.
T - Women. Strong women characters.
NS - I should tell you there is a critic named Gwyneth Paltro in the US who takes the opposite view, but whenever I read her stuff I get so steamed up that I just set it aside. I don't know - the situations that women find themselves in are, in a lot of ways, intrinsically more interesting than men's' situations. The classic male protagonist is a lone wolf, like Hiro Protagonist, which can make for a great yarn, but it's not very real. You could write a character, a guy who has family and attachments; I guess that's what Hackworth is. But H. goes off on his own for a long time. It's intrinsically more complicated and therefore more interesting to write about women. I think it's because, to make a generalisation, they're just more patched into a whole web of people, and this lone-wolf thing seems like a pretty silly, simple-minded view by comparison. It just gives rise to more interesting situations that make for things to write about. They can handle those connections without in some way compromising who they are.
T - Does YT appear in Diamond Age?
NS - I have established a strict policy against taking any stance on that.
T - Diamond Age was interesting in that Nell starts with less than anyone, on a class basis; she's the one who comes up to revolutionise society. Gender and class ...
NS - The class thing is one of those heavy Victorian-novel things. You can't write a Victorian novel without class. I tried to put a new spin on it because in the Victorian system, class was almost like race; it was what you were born with and you couldn't change it. It was your station in life, and stations don't move. People made the argument that that was good because that way you've got some upper-class idiots and some lower-class geniuses. The upper-class idiots don't deserve it, but by interbreeding with the upper-class smart people they keep the upper class from getting too smart. The lower-class geniuses don't deserve to be lower-class, but by interbreeding with everyone else in the lower class they help to keep the lower class from falling behind. On the other hand, if you go for a system of total meritocracy, where everyone rises to their own level, and smart people always interbreed with smart people, and idiots always interbreed with idiots, then what happens over the course of a thousand years? It's a somewhat alarming issue. Diamond Age is a little bit about a class system that for better or worse is based more on merit and less on the station of your birth. We don't see that much of the upper class, but the one we do see - Lord Finckle-McGraw - is from a humble background. The school that Nell goes to has a program specifically to adopt new people from outside the tribe and inculcate them, make them over into people of a higher class than they were originally. That's the key difference between the old Victorian system and the fictional neo-Victorian. It's explored a bit in the novel, but it could be explored in a great deal more detail, which I didn't have time nor space to do.
One of the key differences between Brits and Americans is that Brits aren't afraid to be somewhat literary. A lot of the Yanks are, especially when they're working for mass-media outlets. Needless to say, when you're dealing with a mass-media outlet you're going to get the same dopey questions over and over. With someone who's not afraid to be a bit more high-minded about it, the range of possible questions opens up tremendously.
T - A hectic life.
NS - For brief intervals. I try to limit it to one- or two-week periods. The first day of my first book tour, Bill Gibson stopped by. He said 'It's OK to do this once, and it may be OK to do it twice, but don't try to do it too often, because you'll end up like a bowl of salad that's been sitting out in the sun for a few days.' Good advice.

Tuesday, September 05, 1995

The Vampyre -- Tom Holland

The subtitle gives it all away - Being the True Pilgrimage of George Gordon, Sixth Lord Byron. Byron sits in his easy chair, deep in a London crypt, and relates his mortal and immortal adventures to the hapless Rebecca, his distant descendant. Rebecca is trying to trace Byron's memoirs - she believes that a copy was made before the original was burnt - and is determined to find out what became of her mother, who vanished on the same mission twenty years ago. What she finds instead is more terrifying than her wildest nightmares.

This is true Gothic horror; heavy, sensuous and decadent, as befits a work whose narrator is the infamous Lord Byron. A strong supporting cast - Shelley, Polidori, Lady Caroline Lamb and Countess Cenci - alleviate Byron's occasionally tedious degeneracy. And Byron himself, it must be said, makes a convincing vampire. Wandering Europe, sampling every vice available, he is bored with life and the succession of inferior companions who share his travels or his bed - until he meets the barbaric Vakhel Pasha, whose name (of course) strikes fear into the hearts of ignorant peasants. Byron fancies himself above such superstitious terrors; Pasha's castle offers new pleasures to suit his jaded palate. And when he awakes, unwillingly, as one of the vardoulacha - the blood-sucking undead who prey on the villagers - it is the ultimate experience. Never one to apply conventional morality to his own behaviour, he is confronted by a whole new set of ethical dilemmas. Under the dubious guidance of the Restoration vampire Lovelace (can this be the Lovelace who was to marry Byron's daughter Ada?) he returns to the giddy perversions of London, and is shocked to discover that the blood he needs to survive must come from the most appalling source of all.

Yes, Byron makes a good vampire - but he isn't a likeable one. Even before his rebirth as a vampire, he appears an arrogant, self-opinionated dilettante who imagines himself superior to mere mortals. Once he's undead, there's no stopping him. Some of the most poignant scenes in the novel are those between Byron and Shelley, who is more human than Byron has ever been. Byron is more than ready to mock Shelley's liberal politics, his love for Mary, and his passion for life; but the life of the vampyre is wretched and lonely, and Byron wants a companion. What anyone else might want is, of course, of no interest whatsoever to our dissolute hero.

Tom Holland brings Byron to life (or unlife) with a precision of tone that echoes Byron's own work, and a wealth of historical detail which is seldom less than convincing. Beauty and horror are mixed to an exact formula:
‘"I remember reading your letter," Rebecca said ... "About the Albanians in their gold and crimson, and the two hundred horses, and ... the boys calling the hour from the mosque ... I always thought it was a wonderful description."
Lord Byron suddenly smiled. "It was a lie. A sin of omission, rather. I neglected to mention the stakes. Three of them ... Two of the men were dead - shredded hunks of carrion ..."'
And Byron's own despair is no less convincing; he attains ‘the wisdom of those who drink blood', but it only reinforces the blank nihilism that drove him, as a mortal, to seek out ever more shocking excesses. His affairs are many, but they do not touch his heart. Lady Caroline Lamb is driven to madness by the supernatural pleasures he offers her; his wife Annabella flees with their child; Mary Shelley's sister follows him to Italy - but their love bores him, and provokes his scathing mockery. Only one person seems to matter at all to him - Haidee, a slave of Vakhel Pasha's - but she is doomed, and Byron sees his own doom in her.

The Vampyre is not a cheerful novel. Byron's despairing decadence, his hopeless realisation that he is doomed to immortality in a less than perfect world, becomes as oppressive as the scent of incense in Vakhel Pasha's labyrinth. Holland's lush prose, while evoking Byron's voice admirably, has a cloying sensuality; separate events seem to ooze together into a mass of rich imagery and grand passion. Rebecca, who might have provided a balancing sensibility, is seldom more than a passive listener, a sort of inverted Scheherazade encouraging Byron to continue his tale and thus delay her own death. The Vampyre is a maelstrom of decadence, but has no heart.

Saturday, September 02, 1995

Wind Whispers, Shadow Shouts -- Sharon Green

Tiran and Alexia are shapeshifters who have risen to become king and queen of a fantastic, mysterious realm. But all is not well; treason and rebellion are rife, and strange things are happening. Alexia falls prey to enemy magic, which transforms her from a strong and decisive woman to a quaking wreck. Tiran, trying to cope with his beloved wife’s inexplicable decline, must also fight off challenges to the throne - without the faintest idea of the identity, or nature, of the challenger. Despite the help of their supporters Brandis and Cadry, things begin to look grim. Alexia and Tiran are pawns on a board they can’t even see, and no one is going to stop play to explain the rules to them.

Wind Whispers, Shadow Shouts is a strange novel; a blend of standard fantasy tropes and deft characterisation. Both Alexia and Tiran are intelligent people, equally at home with Machiavellian intrigue and bloodthirsty swordfights; they’re both magicians and shapeshifters, and the magical elements of the story are handled as capably as the politics and court intrigue. Unusually for a fantasy novel, however, there is a disconcerting lack of description; one finishes the novel with no more than the vaguest idea of what the protagonists look like. Although Wind Whispers, Shadow Shouts is complete in itself, it’s clear that familiarity with previous books in the series would give one a clearer understanding of the events related here, and the world(s) in which they take place. It’s well-structured and nicely paced, and leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination; a point, perhaps, in its favour.

Friday, September 01, 1995

The Haunting of Jessica Raven -- Ann Halam

Jessica Raven, a thirteen-year-old on holiday in France with her family, follows her younger brother Paddy into a strange treasure hunt - only to find herself trapped, with Paddy, in an ancient oubliette. Fortunately help is at hand; but even after the family's return to England, Jessica is haunted by dreams and visions of Jean-Luc, the boy she met on the treasure hunt - who, in turn, is pursued by the vengeful ghosts of children. Jessica's own life is not without problems; her older brother, Adam, is dying of a rare genetic disorder. Is she simply shutting out unpleasant reality and retreating into an elaborate game of make-belief? Or are her visions of Jean-Luc, and the lost Chaplet of Rochers, somehow linked to her brother's fate?

'Ann Halam' is better known as Gwyneth Jones, who has received considerable acclaim for novels such as Northwind and White Queen. The Haunting of Jessica Raven is pitched at a younger market, but the writing is still elegant, and the author doesn't 'talk down' to her intended audience. Jessica is a thoughtful and sympathetic character, with thoughts and emotions that ring true. A short novel - some scenes are, perhaps, over-terse - but not a slight one.

Lethe -- Tricia Sullivan

Lethe is set in 2166, eighty years after genetic warfare has changed the world forever. The cleanup operation is still in progress; purple algae process the toxins from the seabed, and a variety of new species have arisen to fill drastically-changed ecological niches. Meanwhile, the majority of Earth's remaining human population live in reservations, shielded from the poisonous elements and the merciless sun. Outside the rezzes, One-Eyes - mutated human stock - perform the menial tasks that keep the pure humans alive. And in the high tower of the League of New Alchemists - so-called because they transmute matter, in this case their own flesh - live the Brains, who administer this grim new world. The Brains (or Pickled Heads, as they're known 'behind their backs') are bodiless arrays of tissue, connected to the world through a permanent interface - the appalling results of biological experimentation from the days before the Gene Wars. The work of the League - ranging from terraforming the Moon to developing 'only slightly radioactive' crops - is carried out largely by altermoders, products of genetic manipulation who can switch from their human state to an aquatic form in which they communicate with dolphin pods. The dolphin-altermode symbiosis provides massive 'computing' power, which can be applied to almost any problem.

The latest 'problem' is a real teaser. Jenae and her dolphins are asked to interpret a mysterious transmission picked up from Underkohling, an artifact of unknown origin on the outskirts of the solar system. Underkohling's mysteries have already been probed, to no effect. It holds four 'gates'; two lead to uncharted areas of space, one to somewhere that no probe has ever returned from - and the fourth gate appears at unpredictable intervals. Its latest appearance coincided with the presence of software expert Daire Morales, who was searching for the source of the transmission. It's swallowed him whole. Whether he found the source is a matter for debate.

The transmission which Jenae attempts to decode refers to the ship 'Morpheus', which crashed on Underkohling at the height of the Gene Wars, carrying the Board of Ingenix - one of the three companies who, between them, tried to remake the world. Could 'Morpheus' have passed through the fourth gate? Could the gate lead to a new, unsullied world?

Daire, of course, knows the answers; getting them back to Earth, however, poses problems. And the answers pose more questions that he cannot answer. What are the ghosts? Is he a ghost himself? Where is he?

Jenae's discoveries put her in an equally untenable position - one that is even more dangerous. Her obsessive quest for justice leads her from the desert wastes of New Zealand to the uncomfortable cosiness of 22nd-century Oxford - and through the oceans between.

Lethe shows us a future that's distinctly dystopic. Nature is now inimical to human life, and human life knows it only too well. 'Humanity, that once sought to control the world, has succeeded only in changing it, and now ... evolution has taken off like a house on fire ... The world's not (our) playhouse any longer. It's a great big ravenous entropic thing.' That's the ivory tower perspective of an Oxford don. Keila, the One-Eye, might say the same thing; but, on the other hand, she has mutated and survived. This is a world where, more than ever, your DNA dictates your chances of survival. The fight to regain a small part of the earth for humans is a grim one, and the human tragedies which result cannot be allowed to interfere with that reclamation. Jenae's twin sister Yi Ling carries the gene for altermode, but is not an altermode herself; Daire also carries the latent gene. Both will come to regret their genotype, for very different reasons.

Lethe deals uncompromisingly - and unpedantically - with one of the recurring themes of science fiction - what it means to be human. Is it in the genes? The brain? The 'soul'? Lethe doesn't offer us any real answers; but the questions are posed in new and intriguing ways, inviting us to consider all the implications of genetic manipulation. Sullivan's rigorously constructed future contains little that is fanciful - and much that is poetic. As Daire says at one point, 'anything is possible ... you just have to suspend your belief in reality.' The reality offered in this novel is disturbingly plausible, as convoluted as a naked brain, and brilliantly described. An astonishing debut.

Tuesday, August 01, 1995

This Immortal: An Obituary for Roger Zelazny, 1937-1995

This was originally published in Vector #184 (Summer 1995) , the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. At the time I included an incomplete bibliography: there are far better ones available now on the Web, for example here and here.

Roger Zelazny's death, on the 14th June 1995, prompted mixed reactions. Someone on the Net posted a message to the effect 'at least he won't be writing any more bad books'. The author of the message was promptly flamed, both by dedicated Zelazny fans and by those who thought (rightly) that it was a tactless thing to say.

In general, the obituary writers have hung fire on the merit of his recent work, preferring to laud the Hugo-winning Lord of Light (1967) and the long-running 'Amber' series (1970 - 1991). He won (they recite) three Nebulas and six Hugos. He published nearly thirty solo novels and at least four collections of short stories. He was a Grand Master of science fiction.

In recent years, it's true, Zelazny's best work has been his short stories - which have appeared at increasingly long intervals, no doubt because of the illness that he hid from the SF community. There have been a number of collaborative novels, most notably Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming (1991, with Robert Sheckley). Zelazny's last solo novel, 1994's A Night in the Lonesome October - a cheery (if occasionally whimsical) fantasy with Lovecraftian overtones, narrated by Jack the Ripper's watchdog Snuff - received enthusiastic reviews. The wit, and the elegance, which had characterised his earlier work were still evident from time to time. As his career progressed, though, Zelazny seemed to be moving towards fantasy, and away from science fiction; and, while his fantasy novels were entertaining enough, they didn't have the originality of his science-fictional work. Dilvish the Damned (1982) even featured elves ... Over the last two decades it became increasingly apparent that Zelazny was no longer the force majeure he had been in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Back then, when the New Wave was in its infancy, Zelazny's themes were epic; men as gods, life and death, the nature of the mind, parallel worlds ... Zelazny had quite a reputation as a reworker of myth. Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) shuffled the Egyptian pantheon; Lord of Light (1967) features a colony ruled by men and women who have taken on the attributes of the Hindu gods. There are elements of Greek legend in This Immortal (1966); and, more recently, Eye of Cat (1982) featured Navajo myth. While Zelazny never ignored the psychological aspects of religion and belief systems, he was at pains to assign a hard scientific provenance to his 'gods'. Thus, for example, Osiris and Anubis have animal heads as the result of cosmetic surgery, while the Hindu pantheon of Lord of Light switch from body to body and wait for each new brain to adjust to their individual mutated minds. In This Immortal, a variety of myths and monsters infest post-holocaust Greece, snapping eagerly at the heels of the narrator, who resolutely denies his own mythic qualities.

In his short stories, he sometimes played the trick the other way around. Mythical beings were uprooted from their natural habitat and deposited in mundane times. In Zelazny's Hemingway pastiche, 'The Naked Matador' (1981), a criminal on the run is assisted by a strange woman who wears a headscarf and dark glasses. She turns his pursuers to stone. In a neat, low-key touch, the villains' car is a blue Fury. Elsewhere we find Morgan le Fay working as a Tarot reader, Jack the Ripper (again) relishing a snuff movie in Los Angeles, and a chess-playing unicorn, Tlingel, with a taste for lager. Whatever else Zelazny lost in later years, his sense of humour was as strong as ever.

Many of Zelazny's heroes are more god than man, whatever their origins. The 'Amber' series (starting with Nine Princes in Amber, 1970) features a family of superhuman near-immortals, who walk through infinite parallel worlds, competing for the crown of Amber - the Immortal City, the reality of which all other worlds (including our own) are mere shadows. The princes and princesses of Amber communicate with one another by what could be called, unkindly, a fantasy mobile phone - Tarot trumps bearing likenesses of each member of the family. Conveniently, these can also be used for teleportation. Amber's royal family behave, at times, like the cast of a Jacobean revenge tragedy (Zelazny was a professor of Renaissance and Jacobean literature for some years). There's a curious blend, which for a time typified Zelazny's style, of hard-bitten prose and poetic imagery. Consider a ride through Shadow, with Corwin - the narrator, and Man Who Would Be King - shifting reality around him as he moves:
"We race a great meteor, we touch upon its bulk ... speeding across its pitted surface, down, around then up again - it stretches into a great plain, it lightens, it yellows ... it is sand, now, beneath my horse's hooves ... thudding along the beach beneath a lemon sky, blue clouds scudding - the salt, the wrack, the shells, the smooth anatomy of driftwood ... white spray off the lime-coloured sea ..." (The Hand of Oberon, 1976).
Zelazny plays with archetypes throughout the 'Amber' series - Amber, after all, is the archetypal city. There are magical messenger birds (which have a habit of shitting on one's cloak), mazes, surreal landscapes strewn with iconic images .. since everything exists somewhere in Shadow, it's simply a case of getting to the right - or wrong - place to encounter Lancelot, visit an underwater city or be interrogated by the Sphinx (which doesn't know the answer to 'What's green and turns red at the touch of a button?')

The 'Amber' books encompass an epic tale, but perhaps - even in the first five books - at too great a length. The second part of the series - while featuring computerised shadow-shifting and even more Machiavellian intrigues - doesn't have the same spark as the earlier books, perhaps because its narrator, Merlin, has less godlike arrogance - and considerably less common sense - than Corwin. The 'Amber' books, however, are perhaps the most popular of Zelazny's work; they've spawned interactive novels, a Tarot set and even a role-playing game on the Net.

Zelazny first explored the 'Amber' theme of Order versus Chaos, with all possible worlds existing in between, in Creatures of Light and Darkness. The earlier book is perhaps the more effective. The thirty thousand 'midworlds' lie between the houses of Life and Death, ranging from medieval societies to worlds which foreshadow some familiar cyberpunk images. (Zelazny was writing about mechanised prostitution, where a human being is wired into a machine, before Gibson had his first typewriter). It's a far more poetic, almost experimental novel, which blends poetry, play scripts and strong imagery - and, among the poetic prose and the vivid characterisations, there's some pretty solid scientific grounding. Black holes and population dynamics mingle with dead cities and shapechangers, and a teleportationist who - like the Amberites - can project himself to anywhere he can imagine. There is also a remarkably funny passage concerning the use of human entrails for prophecy.

The mingling of science fiction and fantasy, which typified his earlier novels, is most blatant in Jack of Shadows (1971). The world has stopped turning; one side, eternally facing the sun, is devoted to science, while the other is governed by magic. The eponymous hero, a creature of twilight, reincarnates again and again, seeking to destroy the machine at the heart of the world - a task which can only be performed with both science and magic - and a generous dose of cynicism. There are some neat metaphysical conceits, not least the World Machine - a Darkside image, which the Daysiders claim is really a fire demon. Both views, of course, are correct. "Each of you colours reality in keeping with your means of controlling it," says Morgenstern, the fallen angel who is waiting for the sun to rise.

Zelazny's gift for evocative philosophical metaphor is also present in Roadmarks (1979). Any point in history - including alternate histories - can be reached from the Road: "Time is a super-highway with many exits ... the sideroads have a habit of reverting to wilderness when there are none to travel them". Like his earlier Doorways in the Sand (1975) this is an entertaining adventure novel with an exotic setting, rather than a serious exploration of a theme. Nevertheless, Zelazny's prose is literary and sprinkled with wit and vivid imagery.

Another theme which Zelazny returned to time and again was that of the mind. His first novel, published in 1966, was The Dream Master (expanded from the novella 'He Who Shapes'). This posited a future branch of psychiatry in which dreams - and nightmares - are lived out under the control of the Shaper. Like any good novel, the setting is only half the story. The Dream Master is a powerful description of a great man with a flaw - too strong a liking for playing God.

I've already mentioned that the characters in the Amber novels use their minds to shape the world around them, adding and taking away elements until they reach the Shadow world they seek; Zelazny has some profound (and also, on occasion, facile) things to say about the attitudes that this power evokes:
"Solipsism is where we have to begin - the notion that nothing exists but the self ... I can find, somewhere off in Shadow, anything I can visualise. This, in good faith, does not transcend the limits of the ego. It may be argued ... that we create the shadows we visit out of the stuff of our own psyches, that we alone truly exist, that the shadows we traverse are but projections of our own desires. Whatever the merits of this argument, it does go far towards explaining much of the family's attitude towards people, places and things outside Amber. Namely, we are toymakers and they, our playthings - sometimes dangerously animated, to be sure; but this, too, is part of the game. We are impresarios by temperament, and we treat one another accordingly. While solipsism does tend to leave one slightly embarrassed on questions of etiology, one can easily avoid the embarrassment by refusing to admit the validity of the questions." (Sign of the Unicorn, 1975)
Zelazny was fascinated with immortality; indeed, if he could be said to have had a major theme, particularly in his earlier works, the concept of living forever - or almost forever - would have been it. He offers a variety of ways in which immortality can be achieved; for instance, in this lecture from Creatures of Light and Darkness:
"By one means or another, certain individuals have achieved a kind of immortality. Perhaps they follow the currents of life and draw upon their force, and they flee from the waves of death. Perhaps they have adjusted their biochemistry, or they keep their bodies in constant repair, or they have many bodies and exchange them, or steal new ones. Perhaps they wear metal bodies, or no bodies at all ... they cheat on life, on death, as you can see, and their very existence upsets the balance, inspires others to strive to emulate their legends, causes others to think them gods."
Elsewhere he has body transfer via computer (Lord of Light); rejuvenation drugs (Isle of the Dead, 1969); and sheer good luck (or, perhaps, mutation) as in the case of Conrad Nomikos, the narrator of This Immortal (1966). Conrad has been alive for at least two hundred years, although this is not generally known. On the other hand, it's difficult to hide in a computerised society ... Conrad never thinks of himself as a god, but eventually godhood is thrust upon him by the Vegans, who bequeath him the Earth: "I feel I have made a good choice in naming you as heir to the property commonly referred to as Earth. Your affection for it cannot be gainsaid ... you appear to be the closest thing to an immortal overseer available."

The flipside of immortality is death. Perhaps Zelazny's most powerful short story is 'A Rose for Ecclesiastes' (1967), in which the poet Gallagher is sent to Mars to translate the holy books of a dying race. His love affair with a Martian girl, Braxa, leads him to fight the doom-laden pronouncements of the Mothers, who have decided that their infertile people should, effectively, give up the will to life. "The dance was good. Now let it end." He preaches to them from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and from his own work, trying to persuade them to accept help from Earth. Gallagher convinces them to choose life; then, finding that Braxa was only doing her duty, he attempts suicide. That's a glib summary of an immaculately crafted story; deservedly, it won a Hugo.

Zelazny's own enthusiasm for life showed in much of his work. His was an eclectic range of interests; fencing and wrestling (most of his books contain exquisitely-choreographed fight scenes); philosophy and psychology; computer science; astronomy; literature .... He quoted many poets in his work, from Chaucer to Whitman, and was a poet in his own right - although his poetry is not easily obtainable. The influence of Jacobean tragedy has already been noted; reading the 'Amber' books is much more fun if you've a Dictionary of Quotations to hand! He had an eye for detail - both emotional and physical - that, at its best, was reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon; and a tendency to philosophise:
"Sipping beer in a mountain lodge on the planet Divbah ... I once looked out through a wide window and up at the highest mountain in the known universe. It is called Kasla, and it has never been climbed. ... It is one of those crazy things you think about and promise yourself that someday you're going to try, and then you wake up one morning and realise that it is probably exactly too late; you'll never do it." (This Immortal)
In his time Zelazny was one of the great; he co-authored a novel with Philip K. Dick (Deus Irae, 1973), and even appeared as a character in Delany's story 'We Who In Some Strange Power's Employ'. (Zelazny was not averse to basing characters on his friends and colleagues; Fred Cassidy, the hero of Doorways in the Sand, is based on Joe Haldeman.) While little of his recent work had the brilliance of earlier years, one can't help feeling that there were still some ideas coming to fruition.

Best, then, to let his own words, again from This Immortal, serve as an elegy:
"Had you died young, your passing would have been mourned as the destruction of a great talent before its fulfillment. But you lived and they cannot say that now. Some choose a short and supernal life before the walls of their Troy., others a long and less troubled one. And who is to say which is the better? The gods did keep their promise of immortal fame to Achilles, by inspiring the poet to sing him an immortal paean. But is he the happier for it, being now as dead as yourself? I cannot judge, old friend ... May the lords Phoebus and Dionysius, who do love and kill their poets, commend thee to their dark brother Hades."

Saturday, July 01, 1995

Blood Ritual -- Frances Gordon

Frances Gordon is best-known for her work under another name. Fantasy fans will recognise the cheery gruesomeness that distinguishes Bridget Wood’s Celtic novels, beginning with Wolfking. Blood Ritual demonstrates that she can write contemporary horror at least as well as dark fantasy.

Michael Devlin is a journalist returning to Eastern Europe, where he lost his sight while investigating the fate of Bosnian refugees. With him travel Sister Hilary and Sister Catherine from St. Luke’s, the convent where he has been nursed as far back to health as is feasible; Hilary is accompanying him to the Viennese clinic where he hopes his sight will be restores, while Catherine is returning to her family home to visit her beloved brother, who is dying. Or so she believes.

Michael and Hilary travel to the Romanian borders in search of the organisation Tranz, which offers sanctuary to the dispossessed. Michael interviews a local innkeeper, and learns of Nazi atrocities committed within CrnPrag, the Tranz stronghold. He begins to formulate his own theories about the missing refugees - until Hilary visits CrnPrag and escapes with tales of something much older, much darker and with a great thirst for blood.

And Catherine? She’s been lured back to the familial bosom in order to accept the heritage she has been attempting to exorcise - that of her famous ancestress, Elizabeth Bathory, who had a taste for the blood of young girls. It’s a taste that lingers in her descendants, although without the sexual element which Elizabeth enjoyed so much. Back in London, the nuns of St. Luke’s are beginning to discover some unpalatable truths about Tranz, and about Sister Catherine - truths the family cannot allow to be rediscovered.

Gordon concentrates on the perverse sensuality of blood, rather than simply exploring the sexuality of vampires - or humans. Elizabeth’s descendants aren’t strictly vampires; they have a complex relationship with blood, rather than the simple physical addiction of the more traditional vampire. A complex and mature novel; it’s closer to the timbre of Anne Rice’s work than are many of the new crop of vampire novels, but with a style and tone which are refreshingly original.

Covenant with the Vampire -- Jeanne Kalogridis

It is 1845, and Arkady Tepesh has been called home to bucolic Eastern Europe after the death of his father. He is the last of his line, and management of the family estate must pass to him. His sweet, heavily pregnant English wife Mary travels with him to meet the in-laws for the first time. Like any new wife, she is healthily suspicious of them, and soon begins to realise that something is very rotten in Uncle Vlad’s sprawling castle, set in acres of gloomy forest in the heart of beautiful unspoilt Transylvania ...

Covenant with the Vampire is composed of extracts from the journals of pragmatic Arkady, sensible Mary and Arkady’s sister Zsuzsanna, who is mad. It’s the first in a prjected trilogy by Jeanne Kalogridis, a ‘bestselling American author whose work, published under a pseudonym, has been translated into seventeen languages’. Any guesses? Here’s a clue: I don’t think it’s Anne Rice. Despite a blurb which promises an ‘erotic, stylish and page-turningly terrifying’ novel, Covenant is less bloody and sensual by far than Rice’s novels. (Granted there’s a certain amount of biting and sucking, as has come to be de rigeur in vampire novels, but it takes more than that to make an erotic novel). Kalogridis’ style is (deliberately) more reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s as she charts the gradual descent of Arkady Tepesh from man of reason to supernatural creature.

At first Arkady’s journal entries are a triumph of Victorian rationalism over ignorant peasant beliefs. After a long journey through a dark and stormy night (of course) to his uncle‘s castle, the first person he sees is his brother - who died horribly as a child - pointing ominously into the forest. A lesser man would run screaming: Arkady sensibly attributes the hallucinations to ‘the stress of travel’, adding, ‘I am a modern man who puts his hope in science rather than in God or the Devil’.

As the novel progresses, however, his naivety begins to seem like blind stupidity - especially when contrasted to Mary’s growing fears, confided only to her diary. Arkady’s fears are still those of a rationalist: that the police won’t believe him when he reports a servant’s disappareance, that the peasants are abusing Vlad’s good nature, that a guest has accidentally fallen from a high window. Only when he begins to recall some of his repressed childhood memories does he realise the horror of his situation.

Never one to place his faith in the supernatural, Arkady devises a cunning stratagem which may save his immortal soul, but will estrange him from everything he knows and loves. Once aware of his doom, he becomes an altogether more interesting character - as does Mary, never a weak woman but hitherto constrained by the mores of her time.

As this is the first in a trilogy (which will end where Dracula started) a cliffhanger ending is to be expected, and Kalogridis doesn’t disappoint.

The Detached Retina -- Brian Aldiss

"Science fiction seems to offer an elusive something ... a sense of looking at things and finding the familiar strange ... for this it needs the SF writer's gift, a detached viewpoint, a detached retina. Perhaps ordinary readers are not comfortable with detached retinas. As Delany pointed out, you have to train yourself or be trained to appreciate the tropes of SF."

The Detached Retina is a collection of essays drawn from Aldiss' critical work over the last fifteen years. Their provenance ranges from book introduction to obituary; their degree of detachment is similarly varied. There's an open letter to Salvador Dali, and essays on futurology and psychology. There is a great deal of incisive criticism, and a recurring defence of his own works - both fiction and non-fiction - which, whether intrusive or not, is seldom bland.

"The past is rich in life ... it's the future that's dead, stuffed with our own mortality" writes Aldiss. His view of current trends in science fiction is not particularly optimistic. He bemoans the trend towards the impersonal and the massive - "towards humans as machines" - and ties this into the social context of much science fiction - "our SF culture springs from nations with most power, so power is naturally a prevailing theme". Cyberpunk offers a renaissance of human individuality, which 'seems to extend to infinity - but within the limits of the machine". In his introduction to Decade: The Sixties (written in 1977), he posits that the Sixties was the decade when science fiction "began to stand outside itself and look at itself". The relentless forward march of technological progress was shoved out of the way to make space for experimentation and hedonism. There's a distinct sense that this was a Good Thing, and that things have been in decline ever since. Considering that this essay was written from a vantage point of only eight years, one can't help wondering what changes Aldiss would have made, had he not considered that it should "stand as it was when first published".

There are several indications that, on occasion, he despairs of much modern SF. "The nutritive content has been fixed to suit mass taste," he writes. "Nowadays, the world ... has to be saved by a group of four or five people which include a Peter Pan figure, a girl of noble birth, and a moron ... the prescription thus incorporates an effigy for everyone to identify with. In the old days, we used to destroy the world, and it only took one mad scientist. SF was an act of defiance, a literature of subversion, not whimsy." (Old days? Does he mean Good Old Days?) On occasion, one can't help feeling that Aldiss is comparing the worst of the new with the best of the old - a comparison which does no favours to either side of the balance.

At one point he writes, "(SF) should be about the future. And of course about human beings. When it gets involved with telepathic dragons, I'm lost." This is an example of Aldiss at his most irritatingly dismissive. Quite aside from the slur on McCaffrey (who, at least in her earlier works, was playing the good old SF game of 'what if?', and examining human-alien relationships) it's a horribly anthropocentric viewpoint. Human beings? What about 'people'? Where does this leave the work of writers like Stephen Baxter and Gwyneth Jones, who write intelligent SF with alien protagonists? Aldiss is often scathing about 'formula fantasy' (and, indeed, formulaic SF) and its practitioners. The Detached Retina deals mainly with science fiction, and with non-genre fiction that shares some SFnal tropes. However, In 'One Hump or Two' (the text of a lecture given at the IAFA Conference of the Fantastic) he makes some salient points about the differences between US and UK fantasy: "(the) spiritual aspect is largely absent in American fantasy and at least flickeringly present in the English stuff ... Did the 1980s yield in the US anything so ... full of ancient power as Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood?" In part, according to Aldiss, this may be attributable to our 'buried past': "we have Stonehenge, you have Scientology". But, in the end, the two have largely merged. Aldiss manages to dismiss fantasy, post-Tolkien, as "a giant step forward for womankind to the Age of Le Guin and Earthsea and Anne McCaffrey and her dragons". With this aggravating summation, Aldiss dismisses recent fantasy and female writers in one fell swoop. Female writers? I'm sorry; there's half a page on feminist utopias. And an essay on Anna Kavan; not a familiar name, but at least a female name.

And, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley - 'Science Fiction's Mother Figure'. This essay is perhaps the weakest in the book. It starts out as a defence of Aldiss' view - first aired in Billion Year Spree (BYS), his 1973 critical overview of science fiction - that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel. And, on the subject of Shelley and her monstrous 'child', Aldiss is informative and entertaining. "She captured the Irrational," he writes, "dressing it in rational garb and letting it stalk the land." He explains the social and political context of Shelley's writing lucidly, drawing comparisons between Shelley and earlier utopian writers, and discussing her little-known novel The Last Man. But where the essay falls over is in its second half - "a more personal view". This concerns itself less with Aldiss' personal view of Shelley, and more with his reaction to the critical slamming of BYS. We already know (from several iterations of the same phrase) that he regards the work as "an asset to scholars ... carte blanche not to have to study texts a million miles from the real thing". (The 'real thing', of course, as defined by Aldiss.) While his defence of the book's tenets is scholarly - if occasionally repetitive - Aldiss tends to react personally to mention (and non-mention) of his work. Describing del Rey's omission of his fictional works in The World of Science Fiction, Aldiss magnanimously remarks that "this particular instance can perhaps be ascribed to jealousy". And he is "grateful" to be mentioned in the Clute-Nicholls Encyclopedia of SF. He defends BYS on both the critical and the personal fronts; the first is certainly justifiable, the second perhaps less so. One of the few flaws in this collection is Aldiss' tendency to self-reference: discussing Amis' Something Strange, he writes (apropos of nothing) that "it bears a family resemblance to my story 'Outside'". P.D. James' The Children of Men "bears an astonishing accidental resemblance to my 'Greybeard'". While few would deny that Aldiss is one of the seminal figures of SF, it hardly becomes him to remind us of the fact.

There are proper places for self-reference, and in that respect Aldiss doesn't let us down. His obituaries of James Blish and Theodore Sturgeon are affectionate and revealing. In his discussion of SFnal style, it's only fitting that he writes of what he knows; his own. The autobiographical pieces - 'A Personal Parabola' and 'The Adjectives of Erich Zann' (a painful, and extremely funny, piece on Lovecraft) - have a fascinating intimacy, reminiscent of his fiction.

And there is creativity along with the criticism - the 'Rough Guide to Utopia', for example. The Detached Retina is often amusing and, just as often, contentious. Aldiss covers an immense ground, only occasionally stopping to mark out a piece of his own territory. Scholarly, witty and perverse at times; a book which deserves the adjective 'thought-provoking'.

Friday, June 23, 1995

Paint it Black -- Nancy A. Collins

Paint it Black is the third novel to feature Sonja Blue, schizoid punk vampire extraordinaire. Sonja hasn’t given up hope of destroying Morgan, the aristocratic vampire who made her what she is. The hunt, however, doesn’t stop her amusing herself by hunting down other vampires who prey on unsuspecting humans - and by seducing her own prey. But the Other, the violent and bloodthirsty creature that lurks in her back-brain, keeps getting out. And the Other isn’t nearly as well-mannered as Sonja; the survivors could tell of that, although there aren’t many of them.

In a secluded house in Yucatan, the vampire-child Lethe is growing up fast. Palmer, looking after her and waiting patiently for Sonja’s return, doesn’t know what Lethe will become; it’s evident, though, that soon she’ll be ready to go out into the world, and fulfill her mysterious destiny. Meanwhile, through the sultry nights of New Orleans and the sleazy private sex clubs of New York, Sonja walks among the Pretending Races - werewolves, vampires, demns and seraphim - seeking Morgan, and a solution to her own divided nature.

Collins’ nocturnal world is richly detailed, contemporary and all too credible. There’s a depth to the characterisation - both human and Pretender - that fascinates and seduces the reader. The climax of the novel reveals Pretender plotting on an almost Biblical scale - and the key to Sonja’s own nature. There’s one problem, though; how can Collins follow this?

Thursday, June 01, 1995

The Night Inside -- Nancy Baker

Ardeth Alexander, a research student in Toronto, has measured out her life in careful plans and predictable behaviour. It’s a guarded life, with no one allowed to become too important to her - except her younger sister Sara, singer with the rock band Black Sun, for whom Ardeth is a refuge in an uncertain world. But Ardeth’s researches, unknown to her, have uncovered truths that some would rather not have revealed. She is abducted and imprisoned in an abandoned asylum - where, each night, she is required to give her blood to the monster in the next cell. Helplessly, she submits, planning her escape; but gradually it becomes clear that there is only one, ghastly, way out. How else can she avenge what has been done to her? And Ardeth is not the only victim; there are all the dead girls, the actresses, out in the gully with stakes through their hearts ...

The sacrifices Ardeth must make are sympathetically described; there’s a real sense of the anguish she feels at giving up everything normal and safe. Only then can she learn the lessons that her old, orderly existence denied. In the city, a killer is stalking. Sara is hunting, relentlessly, for her lost sister. A wealthy recluse sits and pores over her grandfather’s diaries, searching for clues. And Ardeth is seeking out the real monsters; whatever they may be, they are more dreadful than the man who shared her imprisonment.

‘The Night Inside’ combines elements of thriller, romance and gory horror; despite the occasionally clumsy style, it’s a good read.

Monday, May 15, 1995

Fate -- Mary Corran

Asher's childhood is spent in a small world, like most children; her parents are farmers, her playmates are the other children from the village and the manor house. Then the Grey Men invade the country, and everything changes. The Oracle says that Vallis, Prince Lykon's infant daughter, will save the realm - but Vallis has disappeared, and Asher grows to adulthood in a land crippled by heavy tributes and the presence of the hated invaders who now rule half of the known lands of Tenebran.

Fourteen years after the invasion, Asher has fled a repressive marriage and is living in the city of Venture and working as a senior clerk at the Treasury. Only recently have women been employed in such important positions, but it's good political sense; women don't have to be paid as much or treated as well as men, and anyway many of the men have been sent to internment camps. Asher appreciates her position. It gives her the chance to embezzle money for the women's underground - which helps women escape the city, and their male oppressors, and head north to freedom in the lands of the alien Saff.

Asher has another advantage; she believes she is immune to destiny. The people of Tenebran are deeply fatalistic; there is no religion, only a strong belief in destiny and in the cryptic rhymes of the Oracle. The death of Asher's twin brother when they were born seems to have cancelled out her own fate; she is free to act as she will. If she needed proof, it is supplied by her immunity to the magical wards and hexes which guard warehouses and strongboxes.

Then the Oracle summons Asher. She is horrified to find that it has a prediction for her - and more horrified to meet her childhood friend Mallory, now a wealthy merchant, in front of the statue of Lady Fortune. Clearly their fates are linked - but Asher has spent too long running from her past, and from destiny, to accept the Oracle's message graciously. She sets out to tempt fate ...

Fate describes a world with real people engaged in real moral dilemmas, asking - and finding answers to - age-old questions. Is gender destiny? Can an individual have free will and yet be destined to perform a particular act? Can men and women be friends in a society which oppresses women?

Mary Corran's City background is evident in the detailed structure of her society; the politics and economy of a country under the thumb of the invader are clearly and comprehensively described without lessening the roles of magic and fate in the lives of the inhabitants. More unusually, Corran manages to write a novel with feminist leanings which neither damns or apologises for the behaviour of men and women in a strictly patriarchal society. While some of her male characters seem at times to be little more than ciphers, it's made clear that this is simply Asher's perception of them. She slowly becomes aware of her bias: 'Because he's a man, I acted as if he had no feelings, or no right to have feelings. As if he were first a man and only second a friend.' Perhaps Asher's major insight is when she realises that much can go unnoticed unless one has eyes to see; this realisation is the crux of her quest, but it changes her in smaller, more personal ways as well.

Asher has a quest to fulfill, courtesy of the Oracle; but Fate is as much the story of her philosophical quest for meaning and understanding as it is the tale of the Oracle's prediction and how it is finally fulfilled. 'All I ever wanted was to have control over my own life', she muses at one point. By the end of the novel she is left with more questions than answers; but she, and others, have a freedom that is new and wonderful.

Thursday, March 02, 1995

MagicNet -- John DeChancie

Like many an American fantasy before it, MagicNet begins in the enchanted groves of academe. Schuyler King, professor of English at a New England college, has just settled down for the evening with a volume of Keats when he receives a disturbing phone call from an old friend. Grant turns out to have been torn apart by a demon - but not before he’s mailed King a set of computer disks. The disks contain a program which is, effectively, Grant’s ghost. Apparently he’s been messing about on the Net and upset a few people too many - but this isn’t your normal everyday infobahn. This is MagicNet, based on rationalised magic, where demons roam dataspace and the response time is instantaneous. "It’s not like any other computer network you’ve experienced".

Now a hacker called Merlin is going for world domination through the Net, and he must (of course) be stopped. King, armed only with a new laptop and accompanied by a lesbian witch, sets off for San Francisco where the bad guys hang out. King swiftly realises that a virtual San Francisco is even weirder than the real thing. Fortunately Jill has a non-Net friend with whom they’ll be safe - one Harlan Ellison ...

MagicNet is an extremely entertaining book, although there are enough loose ends to weave a very tangled web. Elements of assorted Eastern mythology creep in, and together with DeChancie’s witty, fast-paced prose style, create an ambience not a million miles from Zelazny’s later works. Fantasy’s answer to Neuromancer? The lighter side of Snow Crash? Decide for yourself.

Wednesday, March 01, 1995

Raiders of the Lost Car Park -- Robert Rankin

Robert Rankin’s previous novels didn’t make that much of an impression on me; competently written, ingeniously plotted and occasionally very funny, but something didn’t quite click. Despite this I tried to keep an open mind about Raiders of the Lost Car Park, and was pleasantly surprised. My knowledge has been broadened no end. I now know what really turns Prince Charles on (and the current royal revelations do little to disprove Mr. Rankin’s allegations); I’ve also discovered where travellers really come from, and the names of the people who are responsible for corn circles. And that’s not the half of it ...Rankin has a gift for describing people and places: from the opening scene in Minn’s Music Mine, where the ashtrays are overflowing with ancient stubs, to the grand finale in the King of the World’s throne room (located, unsurprisingly, somewhere under West London) there is an attention to detail which demonstrates a keen eye and a keener imagination. Cornelius Murphy (the Stuff of Epics) and his minuscule friend Tuppe make endearing heroes, matched with an equally appealing set of blacker-than-black villains and assorted helpers and hinderers. Throw in a suitable mixture of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and a few traditions and old charters, and you have a hugely enjoyable book - much shorter than ‘Illuminatus!’, and even funnier. The humour isn’t as heavy-handed as Pratchett’s can be, and the self-referential mockery of Rankin’s style makes the text itself part of the joke, which should keep the post-modernists among us happy as well.