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

Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Atom -- Steve Aylett

"The city sprawled like roadkill, spreading more with each new pressure. A grey rain slicked Campag Street - cars slewed through smoke and collided with pieces of the Brain Facility. Little flames dotted the rubble like Zippos in a darkened stadium…"

Welcome to Beerlight, Steve Aylett's cyber-noir vision of a near-future metropolis with a comic-book aesthetic and a cartoon morality. Down these mean streets a man must walk: meet Taffy Atom, whose card reads 'Private Defective' - and that may not be a typo. Atom is the naked detective, with mysterious origins and ambiguous motives: occasionally he dons a huge black coat and plays shamanistic clarinet at the Creosote Club. His business partner, Madison Drowner, upholds the tradition of the smart, mouthy babe who can look after herself and take care of any trouble-makers, whilst mixing a mean cocktail and creating psychoactive weaponry (rather like Gibson's Chrome). Atom's security consists of Jed Helms, whose human head has apparently been grafted onto the body of a bulldog-sized fish:
    "What kind of goldfish is that? It's a monster!"
    … the fish snarled, "Define your terms, meathead."
    Joanna's bulk wired with shock. "It's talkin' semantics!"
Add a selection of stock characters from the golden age of cinema - criminal masterminds, dumb bodyguards, blandly perfect blondes - and mix in a generous measure of post-modern irony and a few SFnal devices, and you'll have Atom.

In fact, there's something very cinematic about Atom. At 137 pages - more of a novella than a novel - there's little space for much in the way of plot development. Elaborate metaphors and slick, accomplished prose adorn (or obscure?) a fragmentary plot, the main strand of which concerns the theft, pursuit and recovery of Kafka's brain, stolen from the City Brain Facility by the scheming Candyman. Lightning-fast cuts from scene to scene, and from tableau to action, heighten the noir effect. Blade Runner set standards for the look and feel of futuristic urban noir: it's a setting into which Atom fits neatly, albeit with a satirical Western flavour.

Slaughtermatic, Aylett's previous excursion into Beerlight (he also writes contemporary crime) succeeded because of a serendipitous match of plot and style. It was a stylish take on the old time-travel paradox about travelling back in time and meeting yourself: what if you shoot that self? Atom, less narrative-driven, elevates style over substance to a degree that will confound the traditional reader. That said, this novel has the charm of a superbly-crafted animé film, though perhaps one without subtitles.

Wednesday, November 01, 2000

This Immortal -- Roger Zelazny

This Immortal is the earliest of Zelazny’s explorations of the solitary, long-lived hero who – in different guises – recurs throughout his fiction. This fast-paced, Hugo-winning novel (expanded from the 1965 novella ‘…And Call me Conrad’) reads like a pastiche of Homer and Hemingway. The ‘immortal’ of the title, Conrad Nomikos, is a centuries-old, retired freedom fighter who’s seen post-holocaust Earth abandoned by humanity. Embittered by the failure of the struggle, he finds small consolation in his role as Commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives. The humanoid, blue-skinned Vegans, who’ve taken in and sheltered the remnants of humanity, are fascinated by the tragic history of the Earth, and by the social problems the refugees bring with them. Earth has become a pleasure resort, and most of humanity is content to forget its ancestral home and create a new civilisation offworld.

Conrad becomes tour guide and protector to a Vegan ambassador and his human followers - one of whom, at the behest of the Returnist movement RadPol, has joined the tour expressly to kill the Vegan and save the Earth from alien rule. Despite his best efforts, Conrad’s past as Konstantin Karaghiosis, folk-hero and founder of RadPol, comes back to haunt him. Too many people know who he is – or was – and, if he’s betrayed the cause, are prepared to kill him in order to get at the Vegan. Meanwhile, the radioactive Hot Places are throwing forth hazards of their own – satyrs, zombies, and the Black Beast of Thessaly, not to mention an anthropologist who’s gone native and knows far too much about ritual cannibalism. Conrad must complete a set of labours worthy of a modern-day Herakles before he can receive a surprising legacy.

The mythological framework – Homer’s Greece, recreated by the Promethean fires of radiation – is delicately drawn, and the slow, melancholy decline of human civilisation is conveyed without melodrama. This is a dated future, though. This Immortal was written at the height of the Cold War, when nuclear devastation was the Armageddon scenario of choice: it is nevertheless the narrator’s attitude – rather than the socio-political background – which now seems outmoded. Despite the exotic backdrop and the motifs of death and decay, the tourists behave like guests at a Swinging Sixties cocktail party: flirting, gossiping and upstaging one another. Conrad’s – and the author’s – casually sexist treatment of the females in the group may seem patronising to a reader hypersensitised by the recent trend towards political correctness. There’s a macho sensibility to the whole narrative that recalls Hemingway: not necessarily a bad thing in an adventure novel, but here the blending of fantasy with gritty realism is less assured than in Zelazny’s later work.

The Chronicles of Amber -- Roger Zelazny

"It was starting to end, after what seemed like most of eternity to me…"

So, paradoxically, begins Nine Princes in Amber, the first volume of Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber – a series that eventually comprised ten volumes, published between 1970 and 1991. This Fantasy Masterworks compendium edition contains the first five novels: Nine Princes in Amber (1970), The Guns of Avalon (1972), Sign of the Unicorn (1975), The Hand of Oberon (1976) and The Courts of Chaos (1978). The second sequence of five volumes, whilst entertaining, is less epic in scope.

A man wakes, amnesiac, in a hospital bed, survivor of a car crash that he believes was no accident. He begins to piece together his identity: Corwin, son of King Oberon of Amber. Amber is the one true world that lies at the logical centre of an infinite array of possible Shadows. Oberon is missing, presumed dead: Corwin’s least-favourite brother Eric has usurped the throne: and now Corwin, exiled for centuries, is rapidly regaining his memory – and his ambition. The stage is set for Machiavellian plotting by assorted combination of Oberon’s surviving children, together with a cast of, literally, millions of ‘Shadow dwellers’, the unreal and thus expendable inhabitants of the Shadow worlds visited by the Amberites.

When Nine Princes was first published, Zelazny’s reputation rested on clever SFnal reworkings of various mythologies: the Hindu gods in Hugo-winning Lord of Light, the Egyptian bestiary in Creatures of Light and Darkness, and a post-apocalyptic Classical pantheon in This Immortal. Men like gods – with all-too-mortal failings – people his novels, which are typified by strong characterisation, exotic scenery, and a pacy blend of hard-boiled prose and soaringly poetic imagery.

Distorted echoes of Earth’s legends and literature people the various Shadow worlds through which Corwin and his siblings pass. When any possible destination is just a journey away, and every scion of Amber can manipulate the stuff of Shadow as they move through it, the only limit is the Amberite’s – or the writer’s – imagination. Keats’ Belle Dame Sans Merci lurks in her lakeside pavilion, waiting to distract Corwin from his hellride to the Courts of Chaos, cosmological antithesis of Amber. Odin’s raven Hugi (or a Shadow of him) drops by for breakfast, and Lancelot du Lac battles demons on the road to Avalon…

Thirty years ago, the fantasy genre was still heavily influenced by Tolkien. Zelazny’s iconoclastic creations proved that fantasy epics don’t have to be powered by magical spells and good intentions. Corwin can journey to any possible world: but that’s an innate ability, not an acquired skill, and all of Oberon’s children can do the same. Brand and sister Fiona are sorcerers of note, but most of the family prosper – or otherwise – through a combination of brute force and personal charm. Their attitude to sibling rivalry is suitably bloody-minded, too.

The Chronicles of Amber present an epistemological, rather than a moral, conflict. Order and Chaos may be equated to Good and Evil elsewhere, but, as Corwin discovers, life isn’t that simple. There’s evil, in a sense, to be conquered: but that’s in the form of a traitorous sibling cabal, rather than a Miltonian war between Amber and Chaos. If there’s a moral element to this story arc, it’s that Balance should prevail.

Zelazny being the writer he was, though, morality and epistemology share the limelight with choreographed fight scenes, the long struggle to maturity of near-immortals, and the memory of chestnut trees in Paris in 1908. The sheer joie de vivre is worth the trip, even if the setting’s no longer fresh.

The Proof House -- K J Parker

At the close of The Belly of the Bow (1999), Bardas Loredan had just committed an unforgivable crime – a sin of the kind that, traditionally, begets Furies and divine vengeance (and phrases like ‘a Use of Weapons for the fantasy genre’). The conclusion of the trilogy, then, surely features Fate knocking on the door, and subsequently the head, of the offender. Right?

It’s not that simple: The Proof House is not your regular heroic fantasy. This is a world whose ecology is mercifully free of elves and dragons. The gods, if not yet dead, must be hiding, since no one believes in them any more. The heroes – like Bardas Loredan, whose claim to fame in this concluding volume is that he’s survived the collapse of a siege tunnel – are only too ready to tell you that it could’ve been anyone.

Magic? Well, there’s the Principle, which teaches (rather like Time Travel 101) that there’s one right and proper way for history to go. If anyone attempts to use the Principle to change the course of events, history becomes self-adjusting and generates a coherent, if not comfortable, alternative route to a logically-equivalent conclusion. (Does it matter, in the long run, which city falls, or which man dies?) Way back in Colours in the Steel (1998), someone set a curse on Bardas Loredan: the wrong curse. Everything that’s happened to him, his family, his former secretary and his business associates can be traced back – albeit tortuously – to that mistake. If it was a mistake…

Actually, there’s more than a tinge of the conspiracy to this trilogy. Alexius the Patriarch, well-meaning originator of the wrong curse, is convinced that it’s all his fault, and spends the rest of the trilogy attempting to make amends. Bardas’ sister Niessa, with a lifetime’s experience of manipulating family, friends and colleagues, has an entirely separate agenda. Their brother Gorgas has always had Bardas’ well-being and happiness at heart, sometimes beyond all reason: an unsettling case of brotherly love that’s definitely too much of a good thing.

Freud would have found, in the Loredans, extensive material for a study of the dysfunctional family. K J Parker’s characterisation is subtle enough that the Loredans’ behaviour is simultaneously shocking and convincing: not an easy feat when the characters in question are borderline sociopaths whose family motto might well be a reversal of the old saw about being cruel to be kind. They’re the real (anti) heroes of the trilogy – as much instruments of Fate as they’re its victims.

Colours in the Steel used the metaphor of a sword being tempered in fire: The Belly of the Bow described the strength that comes from being under pressure, like the wood in the inner curve of a bow. Bardas Loredan’s ‘promotion’ takes him, as overseer, to the proof house, where armour is tested to destruction for weak points and flaws. In amongst the exhaustively detailed descriptions of every stage of manufacture, there’s plenty of room for metaphor and allegory – and for chillingly prosaic battlefield scenes (mud, blood and folly) which reveal more than a passing acquaintance with military history.

This was never the sort of trilogy that would end with everything neatly wrapped up, married off or killed: there are plenty of unresolved threads to tease the mind long after the book’s been closed. The Proof House is a fitting and unpredictable conclusion to the trilogy, executed with enough artistry, humour and intelligence to set it apart from the summer crop of fantasy epics.

A Short, Sharp Shock -- Kim Stanley Robinson

A man is drowning in the surf: hands pull him ashore, next to a female swimmer with close-cropped hair. When he wakes again she’s gone, prisoner of the Spine Kings. The man with no name is a solitary stranger in a surreal place, where a single ridge of rock – the Spine – circles a gigantic planet.

Having no other purpose or destination, he sets out to rescue the swimmer. On the way, he encounters strange and fascinating characters: tree-people with shrubs growing from their shoulders, sorcerers who dance every night, women with second heads. The tree people gift him with a name, Thel (meaning ‘treeless’), but they can’t tell him of his origins, or their own.

Gradually it becomes apparent that this isn’t simply a heroic quest with rescue as its goal. Thel and the swimmer (who remains unnamed) meet, part, and meet again as they journey west along the Spine. Thel – who may be a traveller from another world – suspects that the Spine is unnatural. He asks each group of people how the world came to be, and listens gravely to the cosmologies they recount.

The sorcerers are perhaps the most credible. The gods (who ‘fly through space in bubbles of glass’) argued over aesthetics, and whether beauty is an independent quality or if it depends on love and loss. The world of the Spine is their experiment; it has been made as beautiful as possible, while ‘leeching every living thing of love, to see if the beauty would yet remain. And here we are.’

It’s a credible cosmology because Thel constantly regrets the passing of time: each time that he recognises beauty, he is overwhelmed and wishes the moment to last forever. But he’s no native, and he is still capable of love: it is the concept of past (and the expectation of future) that he lacks.

It’s not clear whether the swimmer is a native or not. Near the end of the book, Thel realises that she doesn’t share his language: "when she said arbitrary she meant beautiful, and … when he said ‘I love you’, she thought he was saying ‘I will leave you’". Eventually both are transformed, and their different origins become explicit. Whether the narrative is as circular as the Spine, and that transformation is simply the start of another cycle, is less clear.

A Short, Sharp Shock, Kim Stanley Robinson’s self-declared fantasy novel, is available in a mass-market edition for the first time since its small-press publication in 1990. It’s more of a novella than a novel, but here – as in his short stories – Robinson proves that he doesn’t need exhaustive detail to create a world.