Lord Soho: A Time Opera
(Earthlight, £6.99, 378 pages, paperback, published 5 June 2002.)
Sometime in the last innings of the sixth millennium AD, the Spirit of the Perverse, which had so conclusively fucked (note: deliberate and highly appropriate use of obscenity) the previous few thousand years of human history, begins to ebb. The hordes of sexual deviants, human/animal chimeras and netherworld Orcs begins to retreat, leaving the world, and in particular, London, to begin building civilization anew.
The civilization that humanity builds in this breathing space between cosmic screw-ups, is a lush, decadent, aristocratic tyranny, mingling an ersatz eighteenth-century society, with the philosophy of the old Slave-Owning American South, and the odd sparkle of unnaccountable high-technology.
Onto this stage struts the rakish figure of Richard Pike the Third, Lord Soho. The descendant of a Human/Orc mesalliance a couple of generations back, Pike is a sterling debauchee, sexually compulsive, conscienceless and careless. Still, he's not all bad. Arrogant and spendthrift, yes, but also brave and, in the abstract at least, socially responsible. He cares about his society, his people, his city, and hopes to convince his fellow Lords to embrace the re-discovery of ancient pre-Perverse knowledge and technology...
No such luck. Pike ends up on the wrong side of the law (not that he hadn't richly earned such a position) and has to scarper into the Wastelands. And, at this point, comes one of the many sudden surges forward into the future that the book offers. For this is not the story of Richard Pike the Third, it is the story of all the Richard Pikes.
In six episodes, sometimes bewildering, often disgusting, frequently intriguing and occasionally very funny indeed, Calder leads us down the winding, looping family tree of the Pikes, from Richard Pike the Sixth's doldrums as the petty servant of a hinterland sheriff, through Richard Pike the Tenth's triumph as the mystery suitor of the Cathayan Princess Turandot, to Richard Pike the Eleventh's eventual return to London and the title his family has been obsessed with for so long.
There are, at least, three noteworthy things about the work of Richard Calder. Firstly, there's the panache of his stories. When he can dig himself up out of the poetic/philosophical ruminations to which he is terminally addicted, he does write some exceedingly brisk scenes. Secondly, there's all that philosophy. The message is mingled from various themes of sex, death, morality, attraction and repulsion, human frailty and futility, the rise and fall of civilizations and species, but it never fails to intrigue. Lastly, there's the prose. Dense, lush, voyeuristically intent on ever more intricate descriptions of a world writhing through simultaneous waves of revival and decay, it has a visceral intimacy that can be quite compelling.
You can read Lord Soho as a series of interconnected and engaging episodes, as a really quite profound morality play (the Pikes spend so long pursuing their lost title, and have to do so many tawdry and disgusting things along the way, is it finally really worth it?), or as a daring exploration of language and narrative. Taken on any of these levels it works, and if you can get your head around its inscrutable totality, you find a vivid, compelling piece of work that breaks the tired old rules of the genre to fine effect.
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© Simeon Shoul 9 November 2002