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

Friday, July 20, 2001

Bold as Love -- Gwyneth Jones [subjective]

(See also my more objective review of this book)

…I really just wanted another chance to ramble on about Bold as Love, by Gwyneth Jones. A very fine book, and the proof that I, at least, think so can be found in the state of my copy: less than a month old and showing signs of considerable wear. 

I still haven't decided whether it is a truly 'good' book, but it's one of the best I've read for years. I can't remember the last time that I re-read a novel immediately (not once but twice!): and I can't be sure that my enthusiasm for the book hasn't blinded me to major flaws in plot and structure.

But I don't care. It's like being in love: a temporary madness, perhaps obsessive. I realised long ago that one of the defining qualities of the books that I adore (as opposed to admiring) is that the characters work for me: that I like them. I've also recently begun to think about novelistic portrayals of relationships - whether friendly, romantic or professional - and how a book can be made or broken (for me, at least) by convincing and appealing character interaction or the lack of it.
Perhaps this is why I enjoy the not-necessarily-worthy Harry Potter books, despite their flaws and their relative simplicity. The friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione, though very different to my own experiences at school, appeals to me emotionally. It also gives the series so far an emotional core, a constant 'safe place': Harry, the outsider, needs that haven: it's where he draws his strength. Considering the news item about the woman whose doctoral thesis argues that Hermione is the real hero(ine) of the books, perhaps there's a place for an academic paper on the role of friendship as magical amulet in recent children's fantasy? Seems to me that many earlier juveniles featured solitary protagonists who were strong because they didn't have that sort of support network: they had to be independent and that prepared them for magical adventures. If they weren't alone, they were often aided and abetted by siblings, which is an entirely different matter.

But back to Bold as Love, which is not a children's book by any stretch of the imagination.

I'm not sure that the future portrayed by Gwyneth Jones can be reached from where we are now. I'm not entirely convinced that any government, even New Labour, would invite a committee of indie rock stars into the policy process. There are elements of characterisation that don't ring entirely true. (There are elements of plot which I find distracting). There's some grim stuff in the novel, as well as plenty of Millaresque festival scenes. But there's also poetry, magic and subtlety. It's a very British future, though perhaps a rather rosier one than we're likely to get. The call of a blackbird in a dark Yorkshire conifer plantation, with a fighter plane 'like tearing silk' overhead … Tube travel after the revolution … the horror of holiday villages. That's Britain: indeed, that's England.

Bold as Love is also, in places, laugh-out-loud funny. That's not through any artificial heartiness on the author's part: we're not talking slapstick scenes or riotous behaviour here. No, the humour resides (almost?) entirely in the dialogue: in people trying to see the funny side, in everyday banter, in the clash of personalities. I don't think I've ever laughed at anything in any of Gwyneth Jones' books before. I've admired them as works of fiction, and as explorations of what might be. She's painted solid, believable, densely-imagined futures which have appealed to me intellectually. But Bold as Love is fun. And it got me listening to rock music (and other popular stuff) again, purely as a spin-off: and of course that taste never really went away, so maybe the appeal is largely in the setting and the (imaginary) soundtrack.

I do wonder if the novel will leave cold those with no experience of, or liking for, the present-day equivalent of the social milieu it portrays. On the other hand … I've had two long letters (as a result of an email to someone else asking for interview questions) from someone who'd been described as Gwyneth Jones' greatest fan. I was pleased to find someone whose obsessive attention to detail was similar to my own. In the first letter, one of the questions concerned the positive portrayal of rock concerts - 'she doesn't mention the pounding beat or the crowds'. Hmm, I thought, a non-rock fan: well, obviously not that important a part of the setup, then!

And the next letter gave it away. The second book, Castles Made of Sand, is due out some time next year. (Can't wait. Must wait.) Remarking on the suspense, my correspondent discloses: "I haven't looked forward to a forthcoming book so much since The Return of the King in 1956. I was 15 …"

I have to say this surprised me: I'd taken him, from tone and comments, as someone of roughly the same generation as myself. But it was heartening as well: as I said above, I'd wondered if Bold as Love was a Yoof book, enjoyable only by people who Do That Sort of Thing. (I'm phrasing this badly but the urge to communicate overrides the desire for eloquence).

Sunday, July 15, 2001

Bold as Love -- Gwyneth Jones [objective]

(See also my more subjective review of this book.)

Imagine a near-future England gently ravaged by flood, GM disasters and economic decline. The Home Secretary announces an initiative to get the kids involved in society (not to mention politics) by creating a 'counter-cultural thinktank' of the brighter stars of the indie rock scene. Maybe promoting politics as the new rock'n'roll will rouse England's youth from post-millennial apathy and rejuvenate England just as the Act of Dissolution - splitting the UK back into its component nations - comes into force. The rock stars will probably be too busy taking drugs and having sex to achieve anything significant, but they do seem to have influence ...

Fiorinda, brattishly independent teenaged daughter of a famous rock star, signs up for the think-tank by mistake while following someone who looks like her father. Skull-masked Aoxomoxoa (Sage to his friends) joins up to keep his friend Fio company. And Axl Preston, the political face of rock'n'roll even before this initiative, could hardly be excluded from such a gathering. To the surprise of many, though, it's not Ax whose political agenda provokes a bloody coup one night in December.

Fiorinda, Sage and Ax find themselves unnervingly close to the new centre of power. The England they live in is becoming stranger daily: by the end of this, the first of a series of novels, it's transformed to an almost medieval state.

That central triumvirate has evoked comparisons with the legend of Arthur: but this is no simple recounting, or recasting, of the archetypal British myth. It's a very English romance, though devoid of warm beer, cricket matches and old ladies cycling to church. The romance is not limited to a traditional love story, whether heterosexual or otherwise. Bold as Love is as much a love letter to the festival counterculture as it's an examination of the relationship between any two individuals.

Jones' future England is deftly drawn, with minutiae that are more convincing than any infodump in portraying the demographic and social changes between Now and Then. The climate's growing cooler, not warmer: the Royal Family have fled the country: Wonderwall is still a classic rock anthem.

We see the transformations wreaked upon the post-Dissolution remnants of the United Kingdom through the mildly distorting lens of Fiorinda’s alienation. 'This is not my world' is her refrain, but she could easily be a new Britannia, or an English Marianne, for a newly-independent, forcibly isolated England. Sage and Ax, charismatic but not entirely reliable heroes, struggle to hold things together through a sequence of revelations and catastrophes that emphasises the immutable frailty, cruelty and fallibility of humankind within this altered England.

Jones portrays these interesting times with an unfailing, occasionally grim attention to psychological and social detail. Bold as Love is not the frivolous romp that its subject matter - the Rock'n'Roll Reich - might suggest. That doesn't mean, though, that the bold new world painted here is unremittingly bleak. Welsh technology is quietly evolving solutions to problems that haven't yet begun to bite. The music scene is healthier than ever (and Gwyneth Jones resists the temptation to describe future gigs in tedious detail).

Whether or not you buy into the politics of the revolution - Bold as Love could be read as a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the counterculture - the focus of the novel is personal rather than political. Sage, Ax and Fiorinda are likeable, flawed individuals who strike sparks off one another as the tangled relationships between them evolve and mutate. There’s an exuberance about these three, even in their darkest moments, that is appealingly infectious. I’m looking forward immensely to encountering them again in the next volume, Castles Made of Sand.

Saturday, July 07, 2001

The Martians are Coming

This article originally appeared in Banana Wings #16, 2000 (eds Brialey and Plummer)

The Martians are Coming
Here's something you'll catch several glimpses of if you search for 'Shoebury' on the Web:

Some of the passengers were of the opinion that this firing came from Shoeburyness, until it was noticed that it was growing louder. At the same time, far away in the southeast, the masts and upperworks of three ironclads rose one after the other out of the sea ... a Martian appeared ... then yet another, still farther off, wading deeply through a shiny mudflat that seemed to hang halfway up between sea and sky.

H G Wells had been to Shoebury, all right, or at least to that part of the Essex coast: he knew about the surreal light and the drifting horizon, and the mudflats stretching out like leaden mirrors towards (I imagine) Holland.

It's easy to imagine a Martian out there, between the shallow sea and the narrow sandy beach, striding along at low tide with a tripod gait that couldn't be mistaken from any distance for any of the water birds that flock to this part of the coast. Foulness Island, now mainly owned by the Ministry of Defence, takes its name from the olden spelling of 'fowl', rather than any inherent Donaldsonian miasma.

Incidentally, Wells’ Martians started a trend for interplanetary vacations: in Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson has Nirgal visit a drowned Southend, and dive off Shoebury: from a boat moored, quite literally, above the beach, he watches the Cutty Sark go racing past, liberated from dry dock at Greenwich. But there’s no true sense of place; surely no writer so enthralled by light and colour could resist the temptation to rhapsodise, at length, about the light.

... an acre of land
Between the salt water and the sea sand

Stuff gets left here for the tide to cover, discover, rust and rot. Part of a prototype for the aborted fourth London airport, Maplin, still hulks impenetrably out on the sands, just beyond the remains of the kilometre-long defensive boom. Further out, and not often visible, there’s a line of sea forts stretching north, including the Independent Republic of Sealand, once home to Radio Caroline. Around to the west, part of the Mulberry Harbour - a vast array of concrete barges destined for Normandy - lies broken-backed where it grounded. You can walk most of the way out to it at low tide, wading like a Martian half a mile from the shore, as long as you don’t mind the risk of drowning. My father says that if you follow the tide out, it will have turned before you reach the edge of deep water. Don't flee for the shore, he says, don’t run: the mud sucks at your feet if you run, or trips you suddenly, knee-deep in a hidden hole.

The mud is thick and black. My father told me of a man he knew back in the 1960s, who shovelled mud into crates and loaded them onto the ‘up’ train for collection by some London beauty salon. Since then, most of the cockle beds have been closed, the shellfish too poisoned for human consumption.

Life below the mud oozes merrily along, though. Ankles lapped by little cats-paw waves, I bend to watch shrimps and baby flatfish dart and hide. Once the mud is exposed, periwinkles make Odyssean voyages from one patch of weed to another, leaving a single broad track behind them. Sudden knee-high jets of water mark the presence of hidden subterranean creatures. Subterranean? This doesn’t feel like land (too liquid), and isn’t – between tides – the sea. Imagine a planet with no moon. This shifting, liminal zone wouldn’t exist.

Let Slip the Dogs of War

Beyond the boom, out of mere mortals' ken, there's a DERA (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) site, which tests all sorts of armaments - including, allegedly, parts of obsolete Polaris missiles - out on the sands where Wells' Martians stalked. There's been a military presence there for centuries, possibly for millennia: the Saxons weren't the first to build a fort on this peninsula of grass-knotted sand, far out at the mouth of England's greatest river. The Nore lightship is moored four miles out: the anchorage around it was the site of the great naval mutiny of 1797.

In the first world war, Shoebury was home to the War Dog Training School, which trained sentry, patrol and message dogs and sent them out to Flanders. There was more of a military presence than that, though. When I mention Shoebury to my father, and show him my photographs of the unforgettable light, he rouses briefly to say 'Your grandfather was there in 1915. He used to exercise the officers' horses out on the sands every morning.'

My grandfather was a French national, though he may also have had British nationality from his Scottish grandfather (hence 'Brown'). He'd have been 30 years old by then, with a child due to be born in November to his wife back in France. What was he doing at a British army camp in 1915? Was it an army camp? Was it British?

I try to ask all this: but I have to sit back and swallow my frustration as my father fights to recapture his train of thought, but loses it anyway. He mutters something, but lack of teeth, and the slurring left by four separate strokes, conspire to make him unintelligible. It is all locked inside, behind misaligned teeth that a dentist should fix (if any dentist in the area was taking on NHS patients). And if he will not rage against the dying of the light, I shall do it on his behalf.

If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness
Take the A road, the OK road, that's the best

This assemblage of Shoebury-lore was seeded by a short story, 'Settling the World', in Mike Harrison's anthology The Ice Monkey. He mentions the Shoebury Road, which runs east from Southend to the faded grandeur of what the Sunday papers (being alarmist about the use of old Polaris missiles at the DERA range) are pleased to call a 'popular seaside resort'. (Popular with Martians, at any rate). In need of a venture beyond the M25, and reminded of the existence of a place I'd visited as a child, I took the train to Shoebury: at least, that was my intention, but on a whim I got out at Thorpe Bay instead.

My family were creatures of habit, and we visited the same section of beach almost every summer weekend for over a decade. The beach at Thorpe Bay is pebble, with patches of sand. Driftglass emeralds and sapphires sparkle exotically as the waves break over them. Because estuarine tides are strong, a series of wooden breakwaters was constructed to prevent the sand washing away. Some of the wood is new, and not yet weathered grey. I’ve read that the sea level on this part of the coast is rising by 10 centimetres a year: am I imagining that the high-water mark is further up the beach?

At the back of the beach there's a row of beach huts, some of them Edwardian, painted in faded weather-proof paint. We used to sit in front of a particularly pink one, 'Clif's Own': in windy weather, or when it was raining, we sheltered (or scrambled out of wet costumes) in its porch. It terrifies me that I remember the names of the ten or so huts on either side. If you'd asked me a week ago to describe ‘Cygnets’ I would have stared at you blankly. Now I can say: narrower than the huts on either side; white weathered to grey; a steeply-pitched tar-papered roof; an open porch at the front, with three steps leading in, and a shiny new padlock – this year’s – on the door.

This particular spot on the beach is probably the place where I have been happiest in my life. The sound of these gentle waves, on this mixture of shingle and sand, is like coming home: the silhouette of the broken Mulberry Harbour barge, uncovered minute by minute as the tide goes out, is too familiar for me to wonder even for a moment what it is. The chimney on Sheerness rises out of the haze, almost in line with the pole that marks the end of the breakwater. As the tide recedes, there is a distinct line of still water marking the submerged part of the breakwater. I haven't been here for at least fifteen years, yet it is all instantly eternal; as though I have never been anywhere else. This (with apologies to Douglas Adams) is the furniture of my mind.

Dawn in the Afternoon

The light here is unlike anywhere else. It's difficult to photograph the exact effect, but sea and sky - while quite distinct - seem far more closely allied than usual. To the east of here lies the shallow, relatively calm North Sea, like a huge mirror. The land is pancake-flat and marshy, and goes on for miles, held in by a sea wall which is constantly being raised. (The Dutch came to this bit of Essex in the seventeenth century, felt right at home, and drained some of it, though malaria was rife until the nineteenth century.)

There's a definite glow on the eastern horizon in the late afternoon: a cool, pale blue light that seems to have nothing in common with the warm, hazy, smog-pinkened sunshine (refracted in London air) to the west. I grew up not ten miles north of here. That light, more than anything else, is a Proustian madeleine for me.

I remember asking my parents, one summer Sunday afternoon at home, if the light in the east was the dawn. Naturally, they found this incredibly amusing, and it's to their credit that they took the time to explain to me that 'dawn' meant the sun rising, and how could the sun be rising in the east if it was still in the sky to the west? I remember finding this rather confusing for a while: I must have been very young.

But it's the light, I tell you: it promises vast celestial things to the east. It brings back memories. (What is blue and is like amber?) I walked from Thorpe Bay eastwards along the empty promenade, past retired couples packing up their Thermos flasks and tartan blankets (we had one, with tar marks on it). My eyes were fixed on the east: I wanted to be able to drink up the light like water. A limitless blue, reflected in water a shade darker and on silvery mud flats strewn with grounded pleasure-boats, with the horizon a simple, distinct line of light.

In Memoriam for the Living

Sitting on that beach, I felt at first as though I was creating a memorial weekend to my parents: gradually, that feeling mellowed into a sense of visiting instead. My mother's long dead: my father is still alive, though now he lives far from that beach and will never visit it again. I 'phoned him, sitting there on the breakwater, and told him that the light was just the same and there were trains again along the pier. He was having a good day: he remembered enough to remind me to look out for the masts of the Richard Montgomery, a bomb-laden wreck over in the mouth of the Medway. I couldn't see it. My eyes aren't as good as they were.

My father walks slowly these days, with difficulty, as though he is walking in the mud out past the breakwaters. It takes him fifteen minutes to walk from my sister's house to her car. He tells me it is safer if he doesn't hurry.

I could wax poetic – or pathetic - and say that the metaphoric tide is coming in, ready to lap at his ankles. I don't say anything. I have to remind myself that the golden afternoons I remember are a quarter of a century away. He looks back, on lucid days, so much further: to a sand dune he ran up one summer's afternoon, outpacing the steam train that carried the rest of his family. Where was that? He can't say.

It's too late now for me to write down everything he has done, the tales told over, and I curse myself for not concentrating. The light at Shoebury brings tears to my eyes, too: but it remains, and is always there when I visit it, and will be there when I am dead.

Sunday, July 01, 2001

Lust -- Geoff Ryman

Geoff Ryman’s latest novel, though not strictly science fiction, is based on a simple scientific hypothesis: what if you could sleep with anyone? And, in the best scientific tradition, this is no mere thought experiment ...

Michael Blasco has a more-or-less comfortable life. He’s a government-funded scientist investigating neural pathways in chicks, and his partner, Phil, is a successful artist. True, Michael has more than a few unresolved problems, but they don’t intrude into his daily life - until one evening when his gym instructor performs an impromptu strip on the platform at Waterloo, apparently as a direct result of Michael’s unspoken wish.

Experimenting with his new-found gift, Michael discovers that he can call up an avatar, or Angel, of anyone - man or woman, alive or dead, real or imaginary, gay or straight. Other people can see the Angels, but forget them instantly once Michael’s banished them. If this were a pornographic novel, the plot development would end there, with Michael dealing with his assorted sexual problems in a remarkably pragmatic fashion. (This is a man who’s got himself a Viagra prescription to enable him to enjoy the Angels properly). Michael has great fun summoning up cartoon siren Taffy Duck (‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way’), Alexander of Macedon (a filthy, drunken barbarian), and Lawrence of Arabia (barking mad). The cameo appearances of cultural icons - occasionally pseudonymous, as with the thuggish Castro brothers from popular soap Down Our Way - are keenly observed and richly comic.

Because Lust is a novel by Geoff Ryman, applauded for his unflinching examinations of the horrors (as well as the humour) of the human situation, it is not only a sexual comedy, but also an experiment concerning morality and maturity. Gradually, instead of playing, Michael becomes more critical of the miracle and begins to use it to ask questions that ultimately lead him to know and accept himself. The darker aspects of his past are brought into the light, and - with the help of the Angels and the changes they’ve inspired him to make in his real-world life - he is at last in a position to live life to the full, unhampered by past mistakes and pain.

Lust is a light-hearted novel with an unexpectedly happy ending, but it has its own heart of darkness. Many readers, unfamiliar with Geoff Ryman’s previous work and enticed by the glossy, Man and Boy-style cover, will abandon the story when Michael confronts the worst spectres of his past. It’s not fun: it’s not supposed to be fun. Only by coming through that experience, though, can Michael achieve his full potential: this is an exemplary as well as an entertaining novel. Few authors have the skill to weld the nastier aspects of human life so delicately into a larger story: that Ryman achieves this with compassion and poignancy is even rarer.

The Witches of Karres -- James H Schmitz

The late James H. Schmitz's delightful space opera, optioned several times for film but never yet making it to the screen, has - after years of unavailability - been reissued as a Gollancz yellowback Collector's. Originally published in 1966, it's aged well. There's a tinge of E. E. 'Doc' Smith about Schmitz's Galactic Empire, but his heroine (the redoubtable ten-year-old witch Goth) and her initially reluctant rescuer, Captain Pausert, have enough wit and energy to charm the jaded palates of today's readers.

Captain Pausert visits Porlumma to trade. After a business failure on his home planet of Nikkeldepain, his luck's turned. He's sold nearly all his cargo for a handsome profit, and he's won wagers and races enough to keep him - and bride-to-be Illyla, daughter of Counsellor Onswud - in considerable style.

But has his luck turned enough? By the time he leaves Porlumma - rather hastily - he's rescued three little slavegirls from their oppressive masters. Pausert, innocent and pure of heart, perhaps doesn't give proper weight to the obvious distress of those masters, who seem willing to sell their slaves for a pittance. How could three small girls be a threat to grown men?

And what is the Sheewash Drive which catapults his ship halfway across the Empire? "The one you have to do it with yourself," explains The Leewit (an adorable six-year-old blonde) helpfully. The captain's rather slow. It takes him a while to work out that his passengers are witches from the prohibited - and nomadic - planet of Karres. In fact, this realisation comes too late for him to avoid bankruptcy, betrayal and banishment.
The Captain and Goth go on the run, pursued by a glamorous interstellar spy, space pirates, and some trans-dimensional aliens. The Sheewash Drive may get them out of some tight corners, but everyone wants it for themselves. Captain Pausert's also haunted by a magical entity called a vatch, which believes the Captain is something it's dreamt up, and is terribly amused by the whole affair. Can things get any worse? Can his luck change again? The answer to both questions, of course, is 'yes'. After a series of incredible escapades, and some entirely unexpected revelations about his Great-Uncle Threbus, the Captain finds himself once more in fortune's favour. There are happy endings for those who deserve them, and just desserts for most of the villains. It's that sort of a book.

The Witches of Karres is an enjoyable, episodic romp. Schmitz, who believed in ESP, created a klatha magic that is both practical and consistent, and doesn't detract from the SFnal elements of the tale. Goth is a convincing pre-adolescent heroine, and the Captain is as clean-cut as any Golden Age hero. Fun, funny, and intelligent: an exemplary space opera.