Phoenixine Seventy-Eight, March 1996
One of the nice things about the new year is that all the bookshops have sales where you can mooch around through the bargains and get very depressed at the number of books going cheap that you paid full price for when they first came out. Sometimes, though, you do find bargains and in Dymocks annual sale I found a hardback of Brian Aldiss' new novel Somewhere East of Life marked down from its full price of nearly $50 to only $22.95. It was too good to resist and so I bought it which turned out to be a massive mistake because then I went to Whitcoulls where the same book was on sale for $10. Bummer!
It isn't even a very good book. The unifying theme behind the story concerns the hero's search for his memories. Ten years of his life have been stolen and the salacious bits used in pornographic virtual realities. Aldiss uses this as an excuse to take his hero on a travelogue through a near future Eastern Europe in search of his missing years. The stolen memories are really just a McGuffin -- Aldiss doesn't use the concept for anything very interesting and concentrates instead on the social and political aspects of the countries through which the narrative wanders. The book is constructed as a fix-up from various novellas and the joins show. All in all I found it to be one of his least satisfactory works.
Closely related to the depression induced by examining cheap books that you bought expensively is the extreme anger caused by buying books that you already own. Recently I narrowly avoided this hazard in my hunt for Poppy Z. Brite. I had been reading a collection of her short stories called Wormwood, published in America by Dell and I enjoyed them so much that I went looking for more of her work. I found three of her books in British editions (Penguin) in a local bookshop and fell on them with glad cries of glee. Literally seconds before the nice lady behind the counter filled in my credit card slip I discovered that the book called Swamp Foetus that I was about to buy was a cunningly re-packaged and re-titled Wormwood. I only found out because the nice lady behind the counter was a Poppy Z. Brite fan herself and we were discussing the books while she rang them up on the till. What a narrow escape! So I only bought Lost Souls and Drawing Blood and as I haven't read them yet I'll tell you about them some other time.
But the short stories in Wormwood (or Swamp Foetus, if you prefer) are beautifully decadent, elegant and more than a little bit sick. I loved each and every one. They display all of Poe's morbid preoccupation with death, decay, graveyards and grue, translated through a twentieth century viewpoint. Poppy Z. Brite is a major talent.
Another emerging major talent is Harry Turtledove who has a silly name, but since he writes good books I am prepared to forgive him. His major forte is the alternative history (I never could get interested in his semi-classical-historical fantasy novels) and he is currently in the middle of a massive multi-volume project which assumes that the Earth is invaded by aliens in the middle of World War II, thus causing the belligerent nations to forget their squabbles and align to defend Earth from the aliens. Purportedly the story will be told in four volumes, but only three have so far been published and only the first two are available in paperback. I read the first several months ago (Worldwar: In the Balance) and have just finished reading volume two which is called Worldwar: Tilting the Balance. The irritating similarity in the titles and the cover art prevented me from buying the book for quite some time -- I was convinced that I already had it. Turtledove's publishers, unlike Poppy Z. Brite's publishers, obviously want to sell as few copies of the book as they possibly can. Eventually, however, the penny dropped and I bought it.
One of the more impressive things about it is that despite the fact that it starts the story in the middle by taking up exactly where the first book left off, I never felt confused by either the characters or the storyline. It is several months since I read the first volume and I was sure that many of the plot details had evaporated from my head. I was wrong. It all came flooding back as if there had been no time at all between my readings of the two books; and now I am eager for more. If you like aliens-invade-the-earth stories, you couldn't do better than this.
A book I have been consciously avoiding for many years is Stephen Levy's Hackers because I am sick of reading reports and seeing films about nerdy kids with a Commodore 64 and a 300 baud modem breaking into the Pentagon and starting World War III. Well I should have known better -- despite its unfortunate title the book has absolutely nothing to do with that sort of thing. Rather to my surprise it turned out to be a beautifully written book about the early days of computing history and it told the tale of the lives and personalities of the pioneers of the computer revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It evoked the atmosphere of the time brilliantly; its tone reminded me very much of Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine. I have no idea whether or not it is still in print (I got my rather battered copy from a second hand bookshop) but if it is you should search it out. As an examination of the social and technical history of a crucial era in the development of the modern computer I doubt if it can be beaten.
One of the joys of reading is the discovery of new words. Neal Stephenson's anfractuous new novel The Diamond Age taught me one, and I am grateful for the lesson. A major attraction of this superb story is its anfractuosity -- an anfractuosity which is exemplified by the machinations of John Percival Hackworth, a nanotechnologist who is employed by Lord Finkle-McGraw to help with the upbringing of his daughter. Hackworth creates A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, an anfractuous combination of book, computer and theatre which is designed to introduce some subversion into the young lady's life. But Hackworth is greedy -- he causes a second copy of the primer to be created for the sake of his own daughter. Unfortunately it is stolen and a young girl who is unknown to the other protagonists eventually receives it and it takes over her upbringing instead. The stories that the primer tells her (many of which are excerpted in the book) are delightful as well as instructional.
Other characters include the mysterious (and anfractuous) Orientals Doctor X and Judge Fang. Although the Judge has only a small role to play, he is drawn with such loving feeling (and with such loving parallels) that I am absolutely certain that Stephenson is a fan of Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee novels. I enjoyed this small ‘homage' very much.
The name of Hackworth is well chosen. He is a computer engineer and what he does is recognisably hacking (as we understand it today). Stephenson delights in this sort of thing -- in an earlier novel the protagonist was called Hiram Protagonist. It is a cute conceit. Don't let it put you off. The Diamond Age is a superb book by anyone's measure. And it is anfractuous.
Were you bullied at school? Of course you were; and you dreamed of revenge. Probably you lay awake at night imagining exquisite tortures that you would love to inflict on your tormentors. I think a writer called Christopher Fowler was just like you and me, and his new novel Psychoville is that childhood dream writ large. The first half of the story concerns young Billy March and his family moving into the new town of Invicta Cross. Billy watches as his family is destroyed by the petty vindictiveness of their neighbours. Surburban angst and active indifference (no that is not an oxymoron). The second half of the book, told from a different point of view, is set ten years later as another new family moves into Invicta Cross. Soon those old persecutors start to die in some singularly gruesome ways. There is a delightful twist in the tail of the story which I won't spoil things by revealing. The whole book is classic wish-fulfillment fantasy with lashings of gore. Great fun.
A couple of years ago Nancy Kress took the SF world by storm with the superb novel Beggars in Spain. Now she is back with a wonderful and subtle sequel Beggars and Choosers and it is even better than the first (most unusual for a sequel). There are three classes of people in the world of the novel. The ordinary people (you and me) are supported by the efforts of the intellectually superior gene-modified. But they themselves are running scared of the almost superhuman powers of the Sleepless. The novel tells a continuing story from all three points of view. The world is in crisis -- the nanotechnological industries are failing as genetically engineered organisms attack their mechanisms. A fanatical underground wreak terrorist havoc in the pursuit of vague political ambitions. Nothing changes, does it? But the book gripped me by the scruff of the neck and wouldn't let go. This is story telling of the highest order and the parallels with contemporary society add an extra frisson of delight. Beggars and Choosers has been nominated for a Hugo and I hope it wins. If I was eligible to vote, I would certainly vote for this one.
A most uninteresting book is Protektor by Charles Platt. Let's clear the air -- it has nothing whatsoever to do with the similarly named characters from the novels of Larry Niven. No -- a Protektor in the world of Charles Platt is a sort of high tech trouble shooter who keeps the technological world turning by searching out and nullifying saboteurs and hackers. Accompanied by his faithful auton (robot) he hunts out evil wherever it lurks. If I've made it sound a bit like a comic book that is not unintentional. The story is mainly gloss and glitter, cinematic perspectives and unsubtle (often arbitrary and coincidental) plot twists as the Protektor tracks down the systems hacker who is bringing breakdown and chaos to the systems of Agorima. The hero is lack lustre; a man to whom things happen rather than a man who makes things happen and the trustworthy robot is just too damned capable. The Lone Ranger and Tonto in the twenty first century. Platt has done much better than this in the past -- this is his weakest book and I cannot recommend it.
Walter Jon Williams is an annoyingly uneven writer. You read a book of his and rave about it and dash out and buy the next one and it's terrible and you wonder why you bothered. Then the next one tingles your spine again and enthusiasm is rekindled. Well I am pleased to say that Metropolitan is one of the good ones. The story is set in an indeterminate alternative future. Plasm is the fuel of magical power. It is regulated and distributed to the population by the equivalent of our electrical companies. Aiah is a clerk working for such a company. Through various circumstances she stumbles on a plasm well unknown to the distributing authorities. She manages to keep it secret and milk it for all it is worth. She sells the plasm clandestinely to Constantine, a failed revolutionary but a mage of great power. Not only does he provide her with money he also provides her with training in the use of plasm and soon they are constant companions. The revolution, powered by plasm, is just around the corner.
It is an absorbing, convincing and thoroughly exciting tale. This one belongs on your permanent Walter Jon Williams shelf and I've got all enthusiastic again and I am now actively looking for books missing from that area of my collection. Got any you don't want any more? As long as they're anfractuous, of course.
|Brian Aldiss||Somewhere East of Life||Flamingo|
|Poppy Z. Brite||Wormwood||Dell|
|Harry Turtledove||Worldwar: Tilting the Balance||New English Library|
|Neal Stephenson||The Diamond Age||Viking|
|Nancy Kress||Beggars and Choosers||Tor|
|Walter Jon Williams||Metropolitan||Voyager|