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

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

#67: The End of Mr. Y -- Scarlett Thomas

Real life is physical. Give me books instead: give me the invisibility of the contents of books, the thoughts, the ideas, the images. Let me become part of a book: I'd give anything for that. Being cursed by The End of Mr Y must mean becoming part of the book; an intertextual being: a book-cyborg, or considering that books aren't cybernetic, perhaps a bibliorg. Things in books can't get dirty, and real life is, well, eventually it's dust. Even books become dust ... but thoughts are clean. (p.147)

The End of Mr Y seems at first to be another of those novels about ancient mysteries and modern conspiracies: luckily, it's much smarter, wittier and thought-provoking.

Ariel Manto is a damaged, self-destructive drifter who's ended up as a post-grad student studying the works of little-known nineteenth-century author and nutcase Thomas Lumas, author of the eponymous book The End of Mr Y. Lumas presented his work as fiction, though Ariel's sure it was based on fact: a method for transferring one's consciousness into that of others, and a way of entering the Troposphere (a 'world-of-minds' where he finds peace). Ariel, having acquired a copy of the book via an improbable set of coincidences, sets about recreating Lumas's experiments: she finds herself searching for her missing supervisor, Saul Burlem, and questioning history, causality and the nature of the world(s) around her.

It's hard to know where to start discussing this novel. It's intelligent and provocative -- plenty of big ideas, from Lamarck to quantum physics to Schrodinger and Heisenberg and their gang -- but Thomas doesn't try to blind the reader with science or philosophy: she has a knack for apt metaphor and parable, and each Big Idea is explained clearly without infodumping. (I admire her more mundane metaphors, too: for instance, a collapsing building like one of those toys with a wooden model of an animal, where you press the button and the animal -- elasticated -- collapses to its knees.)

There's a lot in this book about philosophy and the discipline of intellectual work: Ariel is fond of thought experiments, which are all stories (if they're not stories then they're hard science, and not actually thought experiments at all. (432)) and her work on Lumas gives her a plethora of opportunities for these experiments. (I can't help wondering if she's familiar with Thomas Nagel's What is it like to be a bat?: there's a marvellous passage about a cat, and a distressingly vivid chapter about mice.)

I find Ariel a compelling character, though I'm not sure she's always honest with or about herself. Self-destructive habits, pushing her own limits -- I wonder if the reason I tend to say yes to everything is because I deeply believe that I can survive anything, but that I'm still looking for the definitive proof. (111) -- an unpleasant childhood (but did she abandon her family, or did they abandon her?), a tendency to sleep with unsuitable men, a sense that she's only incidentally anchored in the real world.

There is a conspiracy theory (or two) and The End of Mr Y (Lumas's book, not the meta-book that Thomas has written) has its own fansites and internet discussion. (Actually, Thomas's book has a couple of really nice sites, too: here (unfinished?) and here.) Ariel is not afraid to use the internet, though she prefers books for research: the internet would tell me quickly, but it might not tell me accurately .. I also need to know what a nineteenth century writer would have meant by [a homeopathic term] (124).

I'm not wholly convinced by the ending, but it does make sense in terms of the metaphors Ariel's accustomed to, and some aspects of the Troposphere and its interaction with the world. If the last page is taken literally, I'm with Ian Stewart (whose objection is reported in the author's afterword): however, I don't think it's a literal objective truth, just Ariel's perception.

This is a novel about ideas, about story-telling, about how consciousness and matter mesh together. There's plenty of darkness, but there's also joy: Ariel's joy in the world of the mind, the author's joy in philosophy and the history of science. I liked it very much and will be reading more by Thomas.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

#66: Halting State -- Charles Stross

You can see it coming, slamming towards you out of the future, like the empty white static that is all anyone has ever heard from beyond the stars, a Final Solution to the human condition, an answer to the Fermi paradox, lights on at home and all the windows tightly shuttered. Because it's a thing of beauty, the ability to spin the cloth of reality, and you're a sucker for it: isn't story-telling what being human is all about? (p.111)

Halting State is the story of a bank heist with a difference, a heist where nothing (physical) is stolen and there's no (physical) crime scene, though there's a fine recording of the actual theft being carried out by a band of Orcs and a dragon ... Sergeant Sue Smith, called in by Hayek Associates (who 'stablise the economies of seventeen imaginary worlds' and have recently made their IPO) to investigate the crime, is flummoxed: forensic accountant Elaine Barnaby (a keen fencer) is beginning to suspect that her bosses have an agenda they haven't mentioned: and Jack Reed, unemployed programmer with two embarrassing secrets, has to wonder how a job opportunity like this dropped into his lap at just the right time ...

The novel is told from three viewpoints, all second-person present-tense, with distinctive voices: a technique which fixes the reader in the moment, in the characters, though it can occasionally feel claustrophobic. Despite being partly set in gamespace -- the virtual environments of Avalon Four, Zone, Spooks and others -- It's also very firmly rooted in post-independence Edinburgh, 2018. And it's rooted in the genre, with nods to Discworld, to Forgotten Futures, to Neuromancer ('the colour of the night sky above a Japanese city', 208)

Stross has found the perfect way to insert high fantasy into a hard Sf setting -- and to have space marines with BFGs taking out Oberon the Warlock. The plot focusses on the borderlands between reality and virtuality: characters hiding behind avatars, individuals whose real-world skills and knowledge map in unexpected ways, people whose interactions with the virtual are more meaningful, more real than anything they do when they're not logged in. The virtual is not the real world, but it's most definitely real.

There's some sharp observation here too, not least about the ongoing conflict and mutual misapprehension between geeks and businessmen:
after seventy years of data processing, they still think that coders can be hired and fired; that the engineers who ripped out the muscles and nerves of the modern world and replaced it with something entirely alien under the skin are still little artisans who will put their tools down and go home if you tell them to leave the job half-done. (p. 335)
And there are some extremely funny scenes -- not least when Jack's contemplating 'the information transfer going on ... via some kind of sub-verbal mammalian protocol layer' (203). I liked this a lot: it's fun, funny, thought-provoking and multi-layered, and it's a future that I find familiar and comfortable, in the broad sense if not in the detail.

Friday, September 04, 2009

#65: The Time-Traveller's Wife -- Audrey Niffenegger

Reread after seeing the film (link goes to my review) which I liked: suspect I am in a minority again.

- they're both trapped, helpless, incapable of free will. Henry's timetravel makes him uniquely vulnerable. The story of his life with Clare is basically "This woman came up to me in the library, said we were meant to be together, seduced me and told me all this stuff I haven't yet done. So now I've got to do it because I can't change anything."

- much darker than I remembered, with Henry being an animal that does what it must to survive.

- the prose is gorgeous, lush and poetic but also edgily brittle -- fits Henry and Clare's alternative/punk lifestyle, social circle etc.

- it's a book about growing up.

- Clare is the woman, waiting -- patient Griselda -- Marianna in the moated grange -- and pretty much her entire life is spent waiting for Henry. (At least in the book her art is important too.)

- most devastating line on reread: "If anything ever happens to my feet you might as well shoot me." (p.163)

Intriguingly, only after I'd written this post did I realise I had a previous review on here: from January 2005. And this is why rereading is worthwhile, because I feel quite differently about the last few chapters now. Though I stick with my assertion that 'at least one scene' (9/11) feels like an afterthought.

#64: White is for Witching -- Helen Oyeyemi

I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home, I'm the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read -- I tell you where you are. Don't turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don't look. (p.68)

A powerful and disturbing novel of pica, twins, race, malevolence and myth. Amongst other things ...

Miranda Silver and her twin brother Eliot live with their father in their dead mother's old house in Dover, now an upmarket B&B. They are white, privileged, middle-class teenagers. Miranda spends a long time off school, ill: suffers from pica, and eats strange things, chalk, dirt, plastic. Her brother tries helplessly to connect with her. Then Miranda goes to university (Cambridge) and meets Ore, a Nigerian girl who falls in love with Miranda -- or thinks she does.

Miri is the older twin. Maybe she has seen things that craned their necks to look at her and then withdrew before I was born, thinking that to consider one of us is to consider both. (p.7)

Miranda's father Luc is a keen cook, trying to tempt his daughter to eat real food. Eliot starts trying to make some distance between himself and his twin. MIranda is attacked by a group of Kosovan girls who hold her responsible for attacks on boys in their community. There's a woman in the garden covering her face, a black couple staying in the house who never go out, and some indication that Sade, their housekeeper, is not just a housekeeper. Also, the house has a narrative voice.

Oyeyemi's language is powerful and poetic: she writes Miranda as an often-unlikeable but oddly sympathetic character, and the other voices in the book (Eliot, Ore, Luc, the house) are distinctive without pastiche.

There is a strong undercurrent concerning the relationships between members of a family -- between twins, and especially between mothers and daughters. I wholly sympathise with Miranda's urge not to be 'herself plus all her mothers'.

I was (from various comments and reviews) expecting a difficult, meandering novel about race: this is not it. Race (specifically race in Britain, with the subtleties of class and immigration and first-, second-, third-generation) is a major theme but not in obvious or apparent ways, at least for the first half of the book. (Later, when Ore's narrative, and her cultural heritage, take centre stage, it's more explicit.) And I found the plot, the events of the novel, straightforward though not simplistic.

white is for witching, a colour to be worn so that all other colours can enter you, so that you may use them. At a pinch, cream will do. (p.108)

There is a great deal of whiteness in this book, from Dover's cliffs to the chalk that Miranda eats to her surname (Silver) to the bleach ... There is also a great deal of darkness, and darkness holds some of the answers.

Having borrowed this novel, I can't go back and attempt to find a pattern to the idiosyncratic paragraph indentation: I noticed that some first lines were indented, others not, but I don't know what (if anything) this signifies.

Will definitely look out for more by Oyeyemi.

#63: Doors Open -- Ian Rankin

"You're telling me you think Chib Calloway is a man to be trusted?"
"He's got more to lose than any of us. With a record like his, the law would come down on him like Carl Andre's bricks." (p. 103)

Self-made man Mike Mackenzie is bored: when a friend suggests the 'perfect crime', the 'repatriation of some of those poor imprisoned works of art' -- paintings by Scottish artists, locked away as investments or in gallery storage -- Mike leaps at the chance to inject a bit of excitement into his life. Everything revolves around 'Doors Open Day', when corporations, galleries and banks open the doors of interesting buildings to the public.

Whilst plotting the crime, Mike renews his acquaintance with an old schoolmate, 'Chib' Calloway, now a major player in Edinburgh's murky underworld. Chib (who is uncannily like Mike himself) has fallen foul of a gang of Norwegian drug-dealers, whose representative comes to pay a visit. Chib could do with some ready money -- or something more negotiable -- and Mike finds himself backed into a corner by a series of coincidences and improbable connections, all avidly watched by Detective Inspector Ransome, who's keen to see Chib where he belongs.

Mike and his friends are ... well, not very proficient at this 'crime' stuff. They print out maps from the Internet (apparently unaware that search history can be traced); employ a dope-smoking art student with a bolshy girlfriend and a taste for transformative work; don't think of listening in to police radio ... There is a perfect crime in this novel, or at least a better-constructed one than the plot Mike thinks he's part of: seeing how that secondary crime is constructed and played out is part of the fun, and the shift in focus between the two crimes is the pivot-point of the novel.

There is one excessively annoying thing about this book -- Rankin seems to've got hold of one of those 'said-books' that offers a plethora of synonyms for the word 'said'. (Ref: Turkey City Lexicon.) I really hope this is some perverse stylistic experiment. There are whole pages where the word 'said' is omitted in favour of 'asked', 'intoned', 'queried', 'noted' etc etc ad nauseum. (Illustrated at right: click for larger version, potential spoilers blurred out.)

And frankly, it was hard to immerse myself in the plot when the prose was so annoying. If an experiment, moderation is key: if a trait, please to be stopping now.