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

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.