An alphabetical ordering means, coincidentally, that we can begin with the best. Steve Baxter's Coalescent, a fine and powerful novel by a writer swiftly developing stylistic and formal talents to match the superb imagination, capacity for giant ideas and sense-of-wonder that have always characterised his writing.
Two narratives twine neatly around one another in Coalescent. One is near future: George Poole, who works in a London software development company, has to clear the Manchester house of his recently deceased father. He comes across prompts that lead him to go looking for a long-lost sister, a search that takes him to Rome and the very secretive, rather strange Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. The other is set in the Dark Ages. Regina is a spirited young romano-British girl growing up just as the Empire collapses. After the destruction of her family, she lives for a while by Hadrian's wall; scratches a living in England for a while, meets King Arthur (a properly Dark Age dux bellorum, not the kitsch medievalised version), and finally ups sticks for Rome.
There she establishes a sisterhood, establishing a set of rules that enables her community to grow into something no longer quite homo sapiens sapiens (homo sapiens soror, perhaps). By the time George encounters this community in the twenty-first century it is well on the way to becoming a sort of hive-form of humanity, living in a vast underground complex in the very heart of Rome.
Coalescent is one of the best things Baxter has written. Partly this is because his prose style and sense of character (neither of which, a detractor might say, were the strongest aspects of his early work) has matured and strengthened to a remarkable degree. The passages where George goes through his dead father's house are beautifully written: controlled, poetic in a low-key way, and with a wonderful command of detail.
Ostensibly, then, Coalescent is an SF fable about the possible evolutionary divergence of a homo superior from the stock of homo sapiens; a female-dominated human hive that maximises a particular familial genetic line. But the book works so very well because this thoughtful fictional exploration of evolutionary logics also generates a symbolic text -- a book precisely about the truth as buried, hidden, underground. It is an articulation of the subconscious underpinnings of the conscious-rationalist superstructure of science-driven 'hard'-sf. Baxter, as the master of this latter form, is in an ideal position to write his account.
Formally, Coalescent expresses this inter-relationship of surface 'rational' truth and buried 'symbolic' truth in a number of ways. So, for example, the hive live in a secret underground community located, somewhat implausibly, bang in the middle of Rome: wouldn't, we ask ourselves, the authorities notice? Wouldn't subway tunnels, utility lines, gas pipes etc., be excavated through the city-sized subterranean space? Wouldn't the impact of 100,000 people stick out like a sore thumb: hundreds of food deliveries every week and so on? But this is to read the novel literally, where the book actually functions symbolically. It is not that there literally is, or (this is fiction of course) literally could be this manner of community in the heart of Rome. It is that, symbolically, this is how the Church figures; or more particularly, this is how 'the female', the maternal genetic line, operates in patriarchal organisational structures.
Another formal strategy Baxter uses (brilliantly) to highlight this trope of 'surface/depth' is his interweaving of present-day and past-times narrative lines. The present exists, he is saying, as a surface layer on top of enormous depths of history. Baxter actualises this by interleaving his present-day narrative with stories from the 5th-Century AD, through the 8th-Century, the 13th, 18th/19th and so on. The novel demonstrates a consistent fascination with genealogy, with archaeology, cities built on the ruins of earlier cities. 'We went through the Tower Hill underpass,' says George, 'by the tube station entrance, peered at the ruin of a robust-looking medieval gate, and then walked back through the subway to where a sunken garden at the north-east corner of the underpass contained the statue of an emperor' [174-5]. It is the reality of genetics that each of us contains the genetic remnants of millions of generations of our ancestors; and this simple, profound fact is one that haunts Baxter -- as in last-year's Evolution, or his first collaboration with Arthur Clarke The Light of Other Days, where wormhole technology enables a character to ride back through time on his own mitochondrial DNA, rewinding the image of tens of thousands of his own maternal ancestors. It's a power scene, and it's particularly relevant to Coalescent that it is a portion of our mother's (not our father's) DNA that we pass on unaltered.
The novel dramatises history in the genuine sense that history is part of the present. It is this that determines Baxter's historical narrative, with its rather Time-Tunnelish cast of famous names (King Arthur, Genghis Khan, Mussolini and so on). This works because it is less literal than symbolic.
Why, we might ask, Rome? Wouldn't it make more sense for Regina to start her emergent hive in Britain where she was born and grew to adulthood? But Baxter has to move his protagonist, rather awkwardly, to Rome, because one of the things the novel is 'about' is precisely Catholicism. Raised a Catholic himself, Baxter is unusual in his chosen path as a writer of Hard SF -- it might be thought that Fantasy is the more 'Catholic' mode of literature (Tolkien, Gene Wolfe and so on). But by bringing the mysticism of Catholic myth back to a rationalist, scientific possibility Baxter is doing something very interesting indeed.
The book excavates a particular surface-depth to the entire history and edifice of the Catholic Church. Above ground, we might say, the Church of Rome has been governed by a series of male Popes; but under the ground (says Baxter's fantasy) it is the female Regina, her community of mothers and sisters, Mater rather than Pater. The above-ground 'official' church is memorialised by various grandiose architectural designs; the unofficial 'buried' church exists in a series of womb-like spaces. Life above ground over a millennium and a half has been violent, changeable, perishable -- all the famous historical individuals Baxter touches on are male, and the predominance is for a violent, raping, destructive impetuousness. But underneath the ground this historical span is characterised by a form of life that is peaceful, eternal, conservative (with its correlative values: cow-like, stagnant, reactionary).
That this 'maternal' logic, though appealing, even Siren-like, is also unsettling (unheimlich, spooky) is wonderfully captured by Baxter in those chapters that deal with the community: a weird tone pervades the writing, balanced between fascination and unsettled disquiet.
As a symbolic account of the Catholic church the book raises some very interesting questions. In the hive only a very few women get to breed, and pass on their genes. Most of the 'sisters' remain sterile, and selflessly serve the community. Why? What do they get out of the deal? In evolutionary terms the urge to pass on one's own genes (or from the more appropriate perspective: the urge of the genes to replicate themselves using us as their tool) should prompt the 'drones' to leave the community, get themselves impregnated. It's the same dilemma an evolutionary scientist faces with any hive being.
This is an interesting theory, although there are problems with it (genes present, after all, not 'in the long term' or 'en masse' but in lots of specific individuals on specific occasions, from which they strive to pass themselves on; it makes no difference to the genes in my testicles if my sister has lots of kids -- should I die childless then they're stuck in a dead end, and they don't want that; they want to propagate themselves). But Baxter's answer to the problem is a fascinating one.
(Apologies, by the way, for bringing my testicles into an otherwise clean and decent review of Baxter's book.)
Baxter's fiction also explains, in part, the strange fact of a powerful Catholic church that insists upon celibacy for its priesthood. My vulgar Marxist reading of religion tells me the actual reason priests become priests is the power and influence they accrue (and Catholic priests, from the Pope down, have accrued plenty of that). But what is the point in becoming powerful and influential if you can't pass on your genes? Indeed, isn't the reason people strive to become powerful exactly to be in a better position to pass on their genes? Accordingly, a celibate priesthood is an anomaly. The vulgar Marxist reading would be that priests have traditionally continued, surreptitiously, to pass on their genes (spawning illegitimate children, passing them off as 'nephews' which the priests can then help to positions of power to continue the genetic passage: from whence, of course, the word 'nepotism'). Baxter's take on the genetic logic of the community is radically different: if we take the Catholic Church as a quasi-hive, then the fact that some members are drones doesn't matter, so long as the hive as a whole maximises its reproduction (therefore Catholic teaching on the evils of contraception and abortion).
I scratch my chin: does this really explain the otherwise anomalous celibacy of the Catholic priest? I can imagine a woman giving up her own fertility to care for her numerous nieces, who share so many of her genes; but it's harder to see the evolutionary payoff in a priest giving up his celibacy in favour of a mother in a Brazilian slum. But the fact that Coalescent has provoked this lengthy chain of thought in my head points to its power as a fiction of ideas. That this one excellence is married to a series of other excellences -- aesthetic, narrative, symbolic -- mark out Coalescent as a superb achievement.
Greg Bear's Darwin's Children is also about the evolution of a homo superior from the normal stock of homo sapiens; although Bear treats the topic in a more fastidiously scientific, and I think less effective, manner. Like Baxter, Bear dramatises Evolution as a process of punctuated-equilibrium, long periods of relative stability with interludes of rapid change. Baxter's punctus (a little over a thousand years between homo sapiens and homo soror) is ridiculously short on the timescales of evolution, but we forgive him his telescoping for the sake of the glorious imaginative possibilities the premise allows him. Bear's punctus is even more abrupt: nine months, just long enough for a virus-infected mother to carry and bear a child. But he does less with the concept, and is more hamstrung by the rubrics of scientific correctness, to succeed as fully as Baxter does.
Darwin's Children is not a stand-alone, being as it is the sequel to Bear's 1999 book Darwin's Radio. For the reviewer who has not read the half-a-thousand pages of that novel before plunging into the half-a-thousand more of this continuation Darwin's Children starts off as a fairly taxing read. It takes up in medias of some rather complicated res that tend to bog down the first fifty pages of the novel with retrospective summary (although the narrative does loosens up after that). The premise is that a human retrovirus called SHEVA infected pregnant women, altered them physiologically and resulted in the birth of a new kind of human child. Or, as Bear infodumps in chapter two:
Largely we follow the trials of one family: Kaye Rafelson, the research scientist (who discovered the virus in the previous vol.) and her archaeologist husband Mitch, together with their virus-daughter Stella. Persecuted by ignorant civilians and evil Big Government, they go on the run to save their child; they get arrested; Stella gets sent to a concentration camp along with all the other virus children whilst the US Govt flaps and panics.
The 'virus children' can be distinguished from regular children by their freckles (which shimmer and shift on their faces to express mood) and by a sophisticated awareness of and facility with smells, or more particularly pheromones. Not only can they intuit huge amounts about people from the way they smell, they can influence ordinary people by 'fever scenting' -- compelling us to run away, or drive them to California, or whatever they'd like us to do. Regular human defences against this latter ability are not high-tech: rubber bungs up the nostrils.
In other words, Bear in this novel is retreading some of the most thoroughly explored territory in science fiction, the myth of the hyperevolving children. It is Slan, it is Childhood's End, it is The Chrysalids or the Midwich Cuckoos (except that it doesn't reach the heights of those sf classics). It is X-Men with science instead of mumbo-jumbo (Bear drops in a reference to the comic on p.256 to show he's aware of this). Unfortunately, where X-Men is a thrilling text, exciting and in its way eloquent, Darwin's Children has purged itself of excitement and replaced it with a series of dry lecturettes on the role of viral RNA in genetic recombination.
Bear's acknowledgments list no fewer than seven PhDs and two MDs who helped him get the science just-so. He gives us what he calls (I assume ironically) 'a brief reading list', detailing fourteen books of contemporary scientific writing, websites, articles and so on. He appends a 9-page glossary of scientific and technical terms, and a 'Short Biological Primer'. He also appends something he calls 'Caveats' in which he stresses that his speculations 'are supported, to one degree or another, by research published in texts and in respected scientific journals' and adds 'I have gone to great pains to solicit scientific criticism'. He seems, all in all, rather embarrassed even to be writing the fictive part of the 'science fiction' thing at all.
He does have an interesting scientific thesis, although it is not a wholly original one: it is, after all, the same idea behind Darwin's Radio, and it's been aired by several of the scientists he lists in his acknowledgments. In a nutshell it is that viruses may be more than annoying disease-causing critters; that they may play a crucial part in normal health and normal pregnancy, and indeed may have been the triggers for all the sudden leaps of evolutionary change that punctuate the otherwise stable balance of life on this planet.
But what he does not have, in this case, is an especially well-handled fictional or aesthetic piece of work. The novel is in three parts. The first, where Stella and her parents are chased, makes fairly gripping reading. The second, in which Stella stagnates in a concentration camp and her parents get up to a bit of this and a bit of that, loses its way rather. Narrative tension slackens, exposition congeals, it all goes on too long. The final short section does what I was expecting the novel to do all along (give us a glimpse of what the children are like as a community, and what happens when they have children). That, then, is that.
With one or two exceptions, Bear's characters are flat and his mis-en-scene sketchy. National hysteria about the virus children is too largely in the background: telling, not showing, Bear gives us only a couple of rather obvious actual instances. Too often characters start lengthy infodumps with phrases like 'let me describe our facilities' and 'I've looked over the team reports ... ' Too many characters are pigeonholed with bookmark descriptions ('Marian Freedman was a devout feminist and had never married'  -- I scratch my head over what that might mean). And much too often the narrative is interrupted by indigestible prose-lumps of the order of:
Sorry, I nodded off there for a moment. I have no doubt that Bear's nine PhD friends and his two MD friends gave this passage the thumbs up; but it is seaweed and barnacles on the bottom of the yacht of narrative.
But the major failing of Darwin's Children, for all its interesting speculations on the role of viruses, is the representation of the children themselves. They are simply too nice, too likeable and wonderful. The people who fear them are caricatured as ignorant bigots; the people who love them are straightforwardly heroized. It's fair enough to say, in effect 'we must not fear genetic diversity, we should embrace evolutionary change'; but it robs a novel of dramatic punch when the ethical positions are so straightforwardly laid out.
One of the reasons Slan and Childhood's End, and the Midwich Cuckoos work so very well is that they are aware of the way children are simultaneously alluring and wonderful and spookily unsettling. This works, I think, because we as parents relate to our children this way. Of course we love them, but at the same time an almost-buried apprehension will sometimes manifest itself in our thoughts: the comprehension that the child with whom you are playing right now will be laughing, loving and drinking wine in the sunshine when you yourself are cold and dead in the ground. That, indeed, in a deep sense this is the point of children (of course no parent wants to die after their own children); but it is also gives one's children an uncanny aspect, in the fullest Freudian sense of the word. In its cartoony way even X-Men realises this uncanniness. But Bear's children are just not spooky enough; he is too in love with them, too moved by the nastiness of the adult world (the wicked people, like the wicked people in Pullman's Northern Lights, who lock up kiddies in camps and do experiments upon them). It is difficult for the reader to decide how s/he feels about the notion of being superseded by homo superior (homo odorem, perhaps) when Bear's thumb is so heavily in the scale. Hate and fear these kids? Nah -- they're just too cute.
It may be that the other major strand in the novel vitiates the evolutionary anxiety of evolutionary supercession: Kaye has a vision of God. This is a well-handled and atmospheric episode, and Kaye's refusal to take this vision in conventional religious terms, her attempts to understand it scientifically (is it a hallucination? is it a stroke?), even to the point of getting her brain scanned to see what it looks like, is very commendable. But although the book avoids easy answers, the visions of Whatever-It-Is plays the Love and Forgiveness cards very heavily. It flavours the whole book with a queasily Providential tang.
The front cover of the British paperback carries the shout-line 'More Evolved, More Dangerous', which seems to me wrong on both counts. First, because it's meaningless to talk of any creature as being 'more' evolved than any other (the evolutionary criterion is 'fit to environment', not 'complexity'; as the late Stephen Jay Gould argued so convincingly, bacteria are still the best fitted organisms to most of the environments on earth, and make up the bulk of organisms reproducing today; so in a sense we're still living in the age of bacteria). Second because the kids in this book exude no sense of being dangerous at all, and certainly not 'more' dangerous than the nasty Federal enforcement officers and Government hard-asses. Of course we can't blame Bear for his blurbs; except to say that it does touch on the flaw of Darwin's Children: too much deadening precision of science, too little danger. Baxter's book shows how this sort of thing should be done; if Bear is planning Darwin's Grandchild (or, indeed, Darwin's God-Emperor or Chapter-House Darwin), then he'd do well to take note.
William Gibson's Pattern Recognition has been widely praised as a return to form by the daddy of cyberpunk. It's certainly a very densely worked novel; I'd call the prose 'polished' if that didn't give the sense of something smoothly harmonious and 18th-century about his style, which isn't it at all. His writing is as weird and ormolu as is necessary to capture the oddity of our postmodern world. But I finished the book with (whisper it) a horrible sense of so what? -- a feeling that all that writing had been marshalled to tell a rather inconsequential tale.
It sets up very nicely. Here, filtered through Gibson's distinctive prose, is Cayce Pollard in Camden town, soaking up the multicultural vibe. Her skill is a mysterious supersensitivity as to whether logos work or not. Accordingly various designer companies employ her as a sort of logo consultant, which is why she's in London. Indeed, her supersensitivity is so pronounced that a trip to Harvey Nichols, amongst the rubbish logos and bad goods, makes her physically sick (although she's ok in Starbucks, oddly enough). This is a neat idea, and Gibson plays with it nicely for several score pages. But (doubts creeping in) it doesn't really go anywhere. It is a intriguing way of dramatising a particular sort of cultural disorientation, that sense of postmodern overload so prevalent today, living as so many of us do in a world in which all that is solid melts into air and so on and so forth. But Gibson doesn't develop the notion; it plays no part in the latter portion of the book.
The main narrative concerns a mysterious, anonymous filmmaker known as the Garage Kubrick, who is releasing an oblique cinematic masterpiece onto the web in tiny pieces. These snippets are not released in sequence, and have acquired a dedicated following amongst web-heads, of whom Cayce is one. These fans divide into 'Progressives' 'who assume that the footage consists of fragments of a work in progress, something unfinished and still being generated by its maker', and the 'Completists', who think the film is 'a finished work, one whose maker chooses to expose it piecemeal and in nonsequential order' [46-7]. Cayce gets involved in an attempt to track the Garage Kubrick down, and goes buzzing off about the globe, visiting strange new cities, seeking out new low-life and new cyberizations, boldly going where many Gibson protagonists have gone before.
But when the mystery of the Garage Kubrick is finally revealed it is painfully anticlimactic (I can't be more specific without conceding spoilers). Worse, because the actual narrative arc of the book has this straightforward 'looks for filmmaker, finds filmmaker' shape, Gibson is compelled artificially to inject tension in order to hold on to the reader's attention. Somebody is accessing Cayce's computer when she is out of the flat (oo-er!); somebody tries to grab Cayce in an alley, but she headbutts the assailant and escapes (ah!); something sinister is going on somewhere, and so on. What does this paranoia amount to? Nothing very much. This might be the point, of course; that Cayce's 'pattern recognition' consciousness sees patterns even when they aren't there. But her paranoia is justified; just not in any earth-shattering way. It amounts to novelistic plastic surgery, and I found it neither ramped up the tension, nor provided for a particularly satisfying payoff.
But perhaps this is to look for the wrong things in Gibson's novel. Perhaps the achievement is primarily one of style, mood, of cool ('I don't know,' says one character with reference to that latter word, 'why that archaic usage has stuck', 86). Maybe the book is, obliquely, saying a series of really cool things about identity, consciousness, excavating the metaphor of human intelligence as a superevolved form of 'pattern recognition', and what happens to that in an environment cancerous with more patterns than ever before. Maybe so; but I don't think so. Although there are many local moments of vividness and insight, the book as a whole does not believe in the ragged, overwhelming maelstrom of images that it professes from page to page: it ties-up with a facile neatness that paints the whole as banal rather than profound.
The more I looked, the less there seemed to be in the novel. Writing that struck me at first as hip became fuzzy and frangible when I thought further about it. 'A black man with a shaven head is zipped like a sausage into something shiny, black, and only approximately leatherlike' . Ah yes, those sausages with zippers along their sides; they're very popular in Camden I understand. Or this description of jet lag on the very first page:
But this isn't Damien's theory, and it isn't even William Gibson's theory: it's Douglas Adams' theory from the second tranche of Hitchhiker's Guide, where he expresses it more eloquently and more wittily than Gibson does here.
Isn't this a pretty second-hand observation about airport arrivals lounges? (and is 'scrum' really the right word here? Apart from its distracting rhyme with 'glum' are these chauffeurs really locking bodies in a tight formation?). Attempts at humour misfire ('I am negotiating to buy Stephen King's Wang', says one character: a dealer, of course, in antique computers).
More often than was comfortable I had that sense of déjà vu, that 'we've-been-here-before' feeling, as if I were reading a Gibson homage (a, we might say, Gibson copy) that happens to have been written by Gibson himself: nowadays technology treated as antique as if to say 'look how quickly the present dates!'; noirish trappings; exclusive clubs and bars; super-wealthy villains; narrative development by email quotation, dropped into the text in a different font. There are scenes in Japan, because we all know how weird Japanese society is. There are scenes in Russia, because that's a pretty weird county too, you know. The character of Cayce is in large part a female retread of the character Laney from Gibson's Idoru. It all left me with the thought of a book with something of the soufflé about it.
I even worry, a little bit, about my reaction. So many people have praised this book so lavishly that I wonder if I've missed some crucial point somewhere. But I don't think so: it is, in the end, a fatally underpowered story dressed up in some occasionally sparky prose. But I doubt if it's anything more than that. Gibson is a writer of vast talent, but it has been many novels (perhaps we even need to go all the way back to Neuromancer) since he's been able to match story, style and insight fully. Pattern Recognition provoked me only so far as a shrug of the shoulders.
Midnight Lamp is the third instalment in Gwyneth Jones's ongoing series of near-future rockstar Arthurian fantasy: the first volume of which, Bold As Love, won the Clarke two years ago. So here, once again, is the triumvirate of central characters: Ax Preston, rock-god and quondam King of future England; Sage Pender, no longer thetechno-wizard of Aoxomoxoa, but still technologically clued up; and their lover Fiorinda, a singer-songwriter who we are told repeatedly is extraordinarily beautiful, although the evidence from the text points to a woman both ginger and starvation-skinny, neither of which especially lights my candle. But it takes all sorts.
In Bold as Love (2001) these three end up, after various kafuffles, ruling England. In Castles Made of Sand (2002) the Green Nazis reared their ugly heads. Ax got kidnapped and foully used. Fiorinda in turn got foully used by her deceased child-abusing father, who (though dead) was able, magically, to make use of the corpse of an Irish musician called Feargal Kearney to torture his daughter. Sage got killed by this same dead father, but somehow returned to life (from a slightly-mystic Zen Self consciousness-zone) into a rejuvenated body -- his missing fingers restored to him, his new liver unprepared for rockstar indulgence.
Midnight Lamp begins with the three of them reunited and living low-profile lives on the Pacific coast of Baja in Mexico, trying to come to terms with the shattering events of the second vol. Fiorinda seems to have some form of mild schizophrenia, only partially tuned in to reality, liable to slip back to a perception that 'the world was made of paper', the happy end of vol. 2 'a fake ... one day I will wake up from this, in bed with your carrion disease, dear Father, and only seconds will have passed' . Her two boyfriends know that 'her brain chemistry is fucked' and that 'she can't distinguish internal and external stimuli' , but this doesn't affect their feelings for her and they have vowed to protect her from the beastliness of things. They have turned their back on the mess of England, abandoned political power, and seem content to devote their lives to caring for one another. For Ax and Sage, their love for the bony redhead surpasses normal attachments, as well as mediating their not-gay (it says here) but fully sexual love for one another.
Into this Mexican idyll comes Harry Lopez, a film producer and gofer for the USA government. He offers them the chance to star in a virtual movie, and hints that the President himself, Fred Eiffrich, has important work for the three of them, averting a global Magical catastrophe. Lopez gives them an AI-controlled offroad four-by-four. They drive to Hollywood and hang out with Hollywood types in various parties.
The movie never materialises. Instead the novel shifts gear into a mystery story centred on a series of horrible torture-murders, with the bodies of young people found pegged out and flayed all over California.
This sort of thing will either make you go yeuch, or conceivably (if you are at all Hannibal Lecterish) will make you suck your breath through your teeth in a series of rapid staccato ff-ff-ffs. Either way we have to agree it's not nice.
What's going on? Well, it seems that some shadowy organisation, possibly the government itself, is trying to produce a magic ultra-weapon, known as Fat Boy, by thuswise torturing the bright young things of America to death. Or to be precise, the characters know that the American government is indeed trying to create Fat Boy ('out in the Anza-Borrego desert ... volunteer military neuronauts were having their brains rewired by something like the same method that had taken Sage to the Zen Self'). The question is whether these government types are also committing these ritual murders, or whether some other marginal cult is up to no good.
And what happens if Fat Boy comes online? As one character puts it, laconically: 'meltdown, hell dimension.'
Clearly, a Bad Thing. And so the novel turns into a quest to track down the culprits (cultprits, indeed), with various red herrings, more grisly goings-on, mixed in with the usual music, rockscene partying and emotional supersensitiveness.
Midnight Lamp is a tricky book to review. On the one hand, it is extremely well written. Jones is one of the most gifted and accomplished stylists writing today, and this book amply displays her gifts for description, scene and character. But nevertheless I thought this book less successful than either Bold as Love or Castles Made of Sand.
Boiled down, what we're given here is an unusually blood-soaked episode of the X-Files, with a similar sexual-chemistry-without-sex emotional dynamic at the heart of it (3-way rather than 2, but still) and a nebulously Fortean premise that flirts, sometimes, with silliness. At times the narrative veered into Buffy rather than X-Files territory, although without the saving grace of the snappy-smart Josh Weedon dialogue. And it ends (necessarily, because there are many more volumes to follow) in a rather unfinished way.
Perhaps the problem is that this volume, set as it is wholly in North America, is simply too removed from the Englishness that made Bold As Love (in particular) so powerful. It's not that Jones lacks the skill to evoke a California milieu: on the contrary, the locale is very vividly evoked. It just seems to have only an oblique relevance to the mythic-symbolic underpinning of the Arthurian raw material.
This whole series depends so absolutely on the reader falling at least a little in love with the A-S-F triumvirate that the reader (like me) who finds them resistible (or indeed, often irritating, unappealingly self-regarding), is going to struggle with the book. This is probably the deal-maker, or deal-breaker, for readers: if you find the whole rock-god life alluring and marvellous, and if you fall for A-S-F as hook-line-sinkerly as their creator clearly has, then the book will thrum with wonderfulness. But without that emotional locus the book tends to pull apart. Magic-primed bears attack at the beginning (one of them even says 'kill me') only to disappear from the narrative wholly. A whole bunch of minor characters come and go, only one or two of them distinguishable from the press. Fiorinda is kidnapped and what seems to be her dead body is recovered, but somehow the episode lacks punch.
Then there is the Magic. Jones works hard to separate her novel from the tribe-of-Dennis-Wheatley nonsense peddlers, but the evil gravitational pull of that malign genre keeps tugging on the book. Partly the magic is explained in terms of neurotechnical babble, 'information-space equations' and so on. Partly it seems to be the same thing that those people who run shops in Glastonbury selling crystals and dream-catchers believe in. Partly (and here it is most successfully treated by Jones) it is metaphorical. Fiorinda, despite, or indeed because of, her great magical powers, has sworn off magic; but she begins cursing people, quietly and to herself, just that and nothing else -- because 'it makes me feel better. It's my medicine. I need this.' Sage is unimpressed: 'there's a word for what you're doing, Fiorinda ... the word is methadone.' Fi knows this is true ('of course he knew she was hungry for the drug she swore she hated, and that she must never, never touch', 125).
The point of the metaphor 'magic is like a drug' is that it folds itself about to 'drugs are like magic', and brings the whole improbable superstructure of the novel back to actual relevance to real life. Similarly, Jones is suggesting, magic is like fame, and therefore vice versa. 'Magicians get their power from other peoples' arousal,' Fiorinda observes.
This may explain the overarching metaphoric structure of the series: the reason why rockstars, sex, drugs, fame, New Age magic and environmental collapse are constellated in Jones' imagination. It makes symbolic sense, but it doesn't make sense fully on the page. I plain did not believe the assertion of a minor character that 'this isn't magic, it's science. There isn't any difference any more.'
I take Midnight Lamp to be the 'holy grail' episode of Jones's extended Arthurian sequence; in an interesting twist, Fiorinda herself becomes the grail, embodying both its purifying power and its unattainable dangers. Sage and Ax, questing for her, battling to find her, are trying to reconnect with something very important. Perhaps that reconnection will bear fruit in the subsequent volumes; as it is Midnight Lamp tarries too long in the wasted land.
What to make of Neal Stephenson's huge-bellied Quicksilver? Near-enough a thousand pages of Restoration flapdoodle that adds up to only a third of a projected 'Baroque' trilogy, it's an exhausting if intermittently sparky read that arrives nowhere very much having struck all manner of fanciful look-how-much-I've-read attitudes on the way.
We get a great wodge of story about Daniel Waterhouse, son of a Puritan who survives the Restoration of Charles II to become the friend and lab-partner of the most famous scientists of the day: Isaac Newton, John Wilkins, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whilst also chumming about with James Duke of York (James II as he was to become), Samuel Pepys, Spinoza and so on. Wilkins dies, painfully, of bladder-stones. Pepys has an enormous bladder-stone removed by a (brings tears to my eyes to think of it) pre-anaesthesia surgical procedure involving slicing through the perineum and up into the bladder. The novel ends with Waterhouse facing this painful and possibly fatal operation himself in 1689, although since the novel has also included a good chunk of an elderly Waterhouse in America and on the high seas in the 17-teens we know that he survives.
We also get a great wodge of story about 'half-cocked' Jack Shaftoe, London urchin turned soldier-of-fortune con-man, whose soubriquet refers a literal truncation of his male member rather than his proficiency with firearms. Shaftoe rescues the beautiful Eliza from a Turkish harem during one of the many continental wars of the period, and together they have a roller-coaster series of rumbustious, swashbuckling, prostate-squeezing adventures across the continent. Eliza is originally from the imaginary but apparently northern land of Qwghlm (the OED has 'quilicom' from 1644: 'an idle fancy, conceit or quibble') but is a pretty cosmopolitan kind of gal, and she and Shaftoe soon develop a special bond.
Why is this book on the Clarke shortlist? It is not science fiction in any of the usually accepted senses of the term. It is, rather, a quaintly old-fashioned historical bodice-ripper. To say so is not necessarily to knock it: many people find such things entertaining reading, and Stephenson, a better writer than most of the authors of such works, does his historical shtick with huge energy, managing some nice touches. But I can't shake the sense that in a few years time Quicksilver will be as forgotten as any of these sorts of books.
It made me think of Kathleen Windsor: an author whose name will probably not strike a chord with many people today, but who back in the 1940s perched high in the bestseller lists. I know her Restoration bodice-ripper Forever Amber (1945) not from reading the book itself, but from reading Anthony Lane's needle-sharp account of it [in Nobody's Perfect, Picador 2002, p.393]:
The shudder of recognition goes along my spine. Substitute 'coelestial' for 'Odsfish' and Fermat's last theorems for Dryden (and phrases like 'he was gobsmacked' and 'Comstock was pushing sixty' for 'thanks a million') and you have Quicksilver, the very book.
It's a novel horribly overstuffed with specific historical reference. It sweats superfluous detail like fat man bustling upstairs: characters spending page after page engaging in conversations whose main point seems to be keeping the readers up to speed with the complexities of late seventeenth-century politics.
(Thanks Fatio, for filling us in there, in case we didn't know that the Prince of Orange was a famously Protestant monarch.) Or here, several decades later but many pages earlier, Daniel and Enoch talk about the future George I, 'an obscure German Duke' who
Got all that? Good. Another question: who talks like that? I mean, really.
This quotation also raises the ungainly matter of anachronism, for this is a book that positively flaunts its anachronism. On the one hand characters, and narrator, drop in words like 'coelestial', 'mathematicks', 'phanatique' (instead of fanatic, although the latter spelling was much the commoner in seventeenth-century England), 'Mobb' instead of mob, 'poetickal' and the like, to let us know we are reading A Historical Novel. On the other hand, characters talk all the time in ways that no 17th or 18th person ever did ('House of Hanover packing up its pointed helmets and illustrated beer mugs ... ').
In interviews Stephenson has defended his use of anachronism on the grounds that he is writing in the 21st century, not the 17th, and that people should read his books as 21st-century books not 17th-century ones. But this is a flimsy defence. On the one hand there is the passable, if rather creaky, use of narratorial anachronism. When Stephenson's narrator describes old London Bridge, for instance, by saying 'the buildings that stood atop the Bridge to either side of the Square [in the middle] constituted location! location! location! to the better sort of retailers and publicans' [p.261] we accept that a modern perspective is inflecting the historical data. But when characters speak anachronistically it jars in the same way it would if they were described as wearing jeans, riding tandems or flipping open their mobile phones.
To be more precise, if characters talked consistently in this way then we could at least read the book, I suppose, as a sort of Shakespeare-in-modern-dress experiment. But in Stephenson's world characters slip from cod-oldspeak ('the way I remember such things is most disorderly', 'What do you phant'sy would be a good way to make that journey?') to bland now-chat ('the Civil War did not wind-up for another couple of years. Cromwell smashed the royalists for the umpteenth and final time at Worcester' -- umpteenth? The OED lists the first usage of this word as 1918) from line to line (all these examples are from page 20). Not just the narrator but all the characters talk in this horrible mix of cod-archaic and contemporary all the way through. Despite its egregious displays of Stephenson's historical knowledge, Quicksilver is about as historically convincing as Pirates of the Caribbean.
It is also the nature of this sort of historical pot-boiler that it cannot be bothered with non-famous people. If our hero bumps into lens grinder at a market, said lens grinder cannot under any circumstances be just an ordinary lens grinder. He must be Spinoza. Jack, wandering about what will later become a battlefield, sees a soldier planting his broadsword in the turf and praying before the cross of blade and handle. This can't be any old soldier, no of course not. 'As Jack was leaving he recognized the man with the broadsword as King John Sobieski'. Of course he did. The tenor of Stephenson's history is that famous people mingle with famous people; the surface density of detail, of glory and misery, of finery and squalor, masks a miserably attenuated sense of history into which no non-famous people intrude. This is an absolute sine qua non of the Forever Amber School of historical fiction, for why would the Reader be interested in nobodies?
Of course this is badly ahistorical (most of history is non-famous people doing ordinary things, after all). The book becomes a distorting mirror, monstrous in a sense, like Stephenson's Leibniz -- 'the Parisians who frequented the Salon at the Hotel Montmor -- the closest French equivalent to the Royal Society of London -- had begun using the Latin word monstro to denote Leibniz' . (Er, that would be the Italian word monstro: the Latin would be monstrum). A world in which every London stroll by the Tower of London takes us past beefeaters and ravens, in which every half-hour in a coffee shop sees ridiculously dressed Restoration dandies forcing commoners to lick shit from their shoes, is a world of historical cliché.
Stephenson tries to compensate for this by showering period trivia upon the reader. On many occasions Quicksilver reminded me of nothing so much as the Talking Astrolabe that Homer purchases from the 'Useless Things Shop' in a recent episode of the Simpsons, and which regales him with boggleworthy minor factoids all hours of the day and night. Did you know that Zog, the Dutch for 'wake' (as in the wake of a ship) is derived from zuigen which means 'to suck'? No. Now you do. Did you know that 'dollar' is a variant of 'thaler' itself short for Joachimsthaler? Did you know that Leibniz toyed with the building of a mechanical computational device? That bodies in an inverse square field move on conic sections? That Monmouth's rebellion in 1685 caused the Dutch stock market to drop from 570 to 250? You might learn all these things and many others if you can work your way through this novel. You might learn, in addition, that Stephenson is as drunk on his own cleverness and wide knowledge-base as ever; that he is just as fascinated with codes and ciphers; and that he is plunging deeper into the thicket of the large-scale Pynchonesque or DeLillo-like American literary blockbuster. But talented though Stephenson is, he is no Pynchon (whose Mason and Dixon is not only scrupulously researched but profound and thought-provoking).
The in-jokes, the desperate over-padding, the look-ma-no-hands shifts from prose to drama, epistle, verse, diagram, journal, are ultimately more exhausting than anything else. The book is wearisome, from the sonnet on its first page to the wince-inducing author bio on the back flap ('Neal Stephenson issueth from a Clan of yeomen, itinerant Parsons, ingeniers and Natural Philosophers that hath long dwelt in the bucolick marches ... at a young age, finding himself in a pretty Humour for the writing of Romances, and discourses of Natural Philosophy and the Technologick Arts, he took up the pen ... ' Dear God No Please JUST STOP).
I asked why this book has been chosen for a science-fiction prize shortlist. It may be because Stephenson has written straight SF in the past (and done so very well indeed), such that his name is in good odour with the SF community. I can only speculate how the committee actually justified the choice to itself. Perhaps they told themselves that Stephenson has written not Science Fiction, but Science History-Fiction; that his novel explores in fictional form the origins of western science, the technological movement that leads up to his previously shortlisted Cryptonomicon (with which book Quicksilver has at least one character in common). If that were the case then it might, barely, justify the book's place on the list. But it isn't the case. This book isn't history. It is lengthy, detail-crammed Hollywood-ersatz. Stephenson expends amazing energy to try and compensate for his basically dodgy sense of period. In one sense the novel is worse than Forever Amber because at least Forever Amber had no pretensions beyond providing a bodice-ripping thrill or two.
There already is a masterpiece that interrogates the rise of western science in fictional form: John Banville's extraordinary Revolutions trilogy (Doctor Copernicus, 1976; Kepler, 1981; The Newton Letter, 1982). To read Banville is to see a great writer advance the form of the historical novel by way of recreating what it is like to live through a paradigm shift, to have the realm of religion break apart and the realm of science come to supremacy. Banville's work is extraordinarily beautiful, engaging and illuminating. Stephenson's is a hectic attempt to cram elephants into a mini cooper: shapeless, show-offy, distracted by its own trivia, profoundly old-fashioned: a fizzy but ultimately clichéd piece of work.
Maybe 21st-century SF does need a masterpiece that fictionalises the rise of science. But this isn't it. I closed Quicksilver thinking it not merely flapdoodle but flimflam: very wide and detailed, but also very shallow. Its massive expenditure of energy and time demonstrates, in the end, only that even a very talented author can write a Very Bad Book. As one of his seventeenth-century characters might put it, 'prithee my lord, two thumbs way, waaay down ... '
Finally we have Tricia Sullivan's Maul, the third punctuated-equilibrium-evolution fable on the shortlist. Clearly punctuated-equilibrium-evolution is this Season's black. Thankfully Sullivan abandons the Bear-ish pretence to actual science ('the science in this book,' she admits gaily in her acknowledgements, 'is pure fudge') to concentrate on the drama and the metaphorical possibilities of her circumstance. Indeed, great screeds of Bearish science talk about the interrelation between humans and viruses gets efficiently boiled down by Sullivan to a few sentences ('Human sexuality is dependent on the intricate immune-lock-switching that the bugs' incessant attacks make necessary. Without the bugs, we wouldn't be here, wouldn't be what we are. They define us', 150).
Two narratives interconnect. In one, two gangs of teenage girls armed to the hilt, interrupt their orgy of shopping in the Mall of the novel's title to indulge in an orgy of gunplay, destruction, killing and so forth. This portion of the novel is narrated by a half-Jewish half-Korean girl called Sun, and is something of a stylistic tour de force. Like the stroppy teenager in Catherine Tate's new BBC comedy show ('you disrespecting me? You disrespecting me?') Sullivan's Sun speaks a buzzy and txt-mssg abbreviated slang, liberally sprinkled with pop-culture reference and swear words and reeking of what I understand the homies describe as 'Attitude'. It could easily have become tiresome, or obvious, but to Sullivan's credit as a stylist it is neither of those things.
The second of the narratives is set in a future world where most men have died as a result of a male-specific disease, known as the Y-plague. The few males to survive live in Castellations where they compete in 'Running Man'-style games, showing off to the world's female population who compete to purchase their sperm and have 'real' children. The narrative is mostly concerned with one non-Castellation male, called 'Meniscus': an autistic chap who is confined in a laboratory whilst scientists perform certain experiments upon him. Specifically they are infecting him with various designer bugs to provoke his body to produce certain results (spoiler-aversion prevents me from going into too much detail on this).
Apart from turning his skin blue, and his pee black, these bugs are very painful for poor old Meniscus, and to alleviate his sufferings (since analgesics would mess with the experiment in some unspecified manner) the experimenters have provided him with a virtual-reality arena for his consciousness. This is none other than the Mall of the first narrative line: 'NoSystemsMall,' says the advertising blurb, 'is the first VR system to permit the direct expression of unconscious material in a tangible form that is essentially invented by the game-user' . We understand, as we read, that the girl-gangs fighting with the security guards in the Mall of narrative 1 is actually straightforwardly metaphorical expression of the physical battleground between infectious agents and immune system inside Meniscus's body in narrative 2.
Sullivan's book is well-told and punchy, very readable, with some nicely ingenious ideas; it is a better book than any on the list except perhaps Baxter's. Nevertheless, its central trope carries with it certain dangers that Sullivan only partially defuses. One is the difficulty of empathising with the characters in narration 1 when we realise that they are purely metaphorical aspects of narration 2. Another is the danger of so obviously schematic a binary becoming overly abstract in the design of the novel as a whole. Sullivan goes to some lengths to obviate this danger by packing both narratives with Action and Excitement and Sex and Adventure, but as the book goes on the parallels between the two do sometimes become too neat.
Maul, in fact, reads rather like a High Feminist masterpiece from the 1970s, a Joanna Russ or Marge Piercy book out of its time; which is pretty high praise. It works best, in fact, as a meditation on the way a certain sort of 'manliness' can be strangely appealing to women who really ought to know better. Sullivan is far too canny to paint her gynosociety as utopia; women left to themselves are just as competitive and mean as men, although their competitiveness and meanness are inflected in interestingly different ways. Her premise allows her to give us a raw and unillusioned version of female interaction: but it also allows her to paint an unsettlingly vivid picture of female lust for the more brutal sort of male object-of-desire. One (male) character observes that 'nowadays, no matter how skinny, a really good hacker is worth ten guys who can impale a mammoth with a spear, but you chicks would rather have a hacker with muscles, wouldn't you. You're stuck in primeval times' . The way the book evokes this sweaty, pheromonal, sub-brain sort of female desire, the desire for a Russell Crowe rather than an Adrien Brody, is brilliantly drawn: and in particular Sullivan is excellent on the way desire (for children, or for men, to two things eliding in Sullivan's version of reality) can short-circuit otherwise intelligent and even calculating women
The novel is certainly uninhibited about sex: it opens, for instance, with a character masturbating herself to orgasm with the barrel of her pistol, said orgasm represented as follows:
Hand-in-hand with this is a great deal of adrenalinised shooting, beating, running-around and similar staples of Thrillerdom. In the early stages of the book this does indeed make exciting reading, although the book is a little too long at 350 pages to maintain the necessary thrill-pitch. Events in the Mall, in particular, seem stretched out beyond implausibility, a difficulty not alleviated by the understanding that 'it's all a metaphor'; and narrative 2 gets a top-heavy burst of Stuff-happening in its final 50-pages which unbalances the whole.
This is an excellent novel that, somehow, doesn't quite deliver all it might. Perhaps it is too one-note a conceit. The idea of a Mall as metaphor for life, though wittily handled, is derivative (it reminded me of James Lovegrove's Days, a previous Clarke shortlisted title); and the idea of a plague wiping out anybody with a Y-chromosome has similarly cropped up once or twice in SF already. It may also be a difficulty for a British reviewer really to connect properly with that Happiness-is-a-warm-gun culture which is more properly an American business ('I guess it doesn't matter why people listen to you when you have a pistol in your hand,' Sun opines, 'the point is, they do', 107).
But having said all that, there are myriad lovely touches in the novel. The writing is marvellously handled, poetic without becoming overheated, particularly in that part of the story filtered through Sun's consciousness: I loved the way she noticed, in a shop in half-light, the way 'the mannequins threw anorexic shadows' ; or clocks, in an arcade, 'the fish-tank luminosity of the pinball machines' . Sullivan is a very major contemporary novelist; despite its occasional shortcomings intelligence and power shine on every page of Maul: a book highly to be recommended.
Who do I think should win? Baxter's portrait of his homo soror is, I think, the best thing on offer here; with Sullivan's homo femina avida a near-second. But I still think it a shame that Macleod, Simmons and Atwood are not in the mix, to make the contest genuinely interesting.
This year's winner was Quicksilver, which means that my predictions, and tastes, were as far off the Clarke-panel button as it was possible to be. It would be churlish to a degree unusual even for me to snipe at Stephenson's triumph; he's a very talented writer, and a great many people enjoy his novels, this year's judges (obviously) amongst them. But it does, perhaps, send out a rather curious message about the state of SF as a genre, especially here, in the middle of the UK SF-Renaissance, that a non-SF title from an American author could carry the laurels at an award such as the Clarkes.
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© Adam Roberts 20 March 2004; updated 17 May 2004