Tag: conspiracy theories

Review: City on Fire

I don’t really know what to say about Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire except that it’s massive and ridiculous and I loved it.

It’s the book that achieved the highest advance ever for a debut novel: Alfred A. Knopf paid $2m for it in what must have been a publicity stunt (clearly one that worked, at least on me!).

Because there’s nothing unusual or innovative about City on Fire. I got into the habit of describing it as “Dickens except in the 1970s”: it’s almost a thousand pages long and features a sprawling cast of characters intersect meet in unlikely ways. And everything turns out basically OK in the end. For most people. If you don’t look too closely.

Set in 1970s New York, it’s centred on the fabulously rich Hamilton-Sweeney family and two of its scions – disaffected prodigal son William, living in an artist’s garret, and not-yet-divorced Regan. Along the way it takes in William’s actually-impoverished Black lover Mercer, a group of punk kids that’s slowly but surely becoming a cult, a disabled detective, a firework-maker slowly going out of business and a Carker-esque banker.

“Generous” is the word that comes to mind: City on Fire is a generous novel. It has space for everyone and everything in its expansive heart: from the mundane (hangovers, teenage angst) to the dramatic (looting, missing explosives); from the very richest to those who have nothing; it takes everyone’s concerns seriously and it recognises everyone’s humanity.

It’s several hundred pages too long, its climax alone takes about 100 exhausting pages, I don’t have a clue what it’s about, but I loved inhabiting it. I love long books, and City on Fire is no exception.


Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 1

Narbonic was a webcomic that ran daily between 2000 and 2006. I only know this because the Bandersnatch supported a Kickstarter to publish the entire run in two physical volumes, which thus currently reside on our bookshelves. (You can also find Narbonics here, for free, with notes by author Shaenon K. Garrity. This will prove to be a source of distraction and procrastination for me for at least the next week or so. Although I am told it is also a source of spoilers for the second volume, so.)

The strip revolves around the exploits of Helen B. Narbon, mad scientist, and her henchfolk: Dave the computer guy, Mell the evil intern and Artie the genetically engineered superintelligent gerbil.

Actually analysing something like this feels a bit like missing the point. It’s not really…for that? Most of what it’s doing is mashing up our cultural expectations of what mad scientists are and do with Western cultural codes around the workplace. For Humorous Effect, obviously. And it’s a webcomic: I’m not sure how far Garrity planned in advance, but certainly the early strips are an explosive mish-mash of cultural references and themes and general light-hearted internetty fooling around. It’s fun, and it’s possible to enjoy things that are fun, but I’m not sure there’s that much more to say about it.

Review: Watchmen

Here’s another classic: Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen was published in 1986, and it’s probably my favourite piece of superhero media. (I’m not usually a fan of superhero stories. They bore me.) It’s about a group of masked vigilantes, the Minutemen, almost all of whom are perfectly ordinary human beings with gadgets and/or extreme psychological quirks – more Batman than Superman, apart from Doctor Manhattan, a former nuclear physicist who gained power over time and space when he was caught in a nuclear accident.

So, yeah. Its key question is: what would late Cold War-era America really look like if a bunch of randomers started doling out vigilante justice? Especially if each of those randomers has a different idea of what justice is and what the world should look like? And if those randomers are granted the support and blessing of the government?

As I’ve said, my understanding of the superhero genre is limited at best – and my reasons for disliking it generally might have more to do with my own greater tolerance for books than films than any actual deficiency in the subject matter. The only superhero film I’ve seen that addresses the same kind of questions as Watchmen does (apart from the film adaptation of Watchmen itself, which I mostly found interminable, running as it does to about two and a half hours) is The Dark Knight, whose focus on just two characters, Batman and the Joker, makes its engagement with those themes more limited than what Watchmen’s wider scope allows it to do. Moore’s expanded cast of vigilantes allows him to explore conflicts within the group around what “good” and “evil” look like, and what they should be fighting for. Is simple superheroing enough? Or should the Minutemen be doing more sustained work towards achieving the greater good?

I did like how the ending dramatises these conflicts to produce something very bleak indeed – it asks us as readers to examine our moral priorities and our expectations for how superhero narratives are “meant” to turn out. It’s a complex novel that gives these vigilantes psychological reality against the backdrop of a world that is itself complex – it allows us none of the black and white moralities of traditional, patriotic American superhero stories.

Something for readers to be aware of is the relationship between vigilante Dan (known as Nite Owl) and his compatriot Sally – a relationship that begins when Sally is sixteen and Dan is definitely Older. Generally, the novel is not kind to its women – there’s only really two of them, for one thing, and one of them exists primarily in order to be sexually assaulted by one of the Minutemen. The other, Laurie, is similarly defined by her relationship dramas, which few of the male Minutemen seem to share.

If that’s something you can overlook, though, it’s certainly worth doing so. Watchmen is a genre-defining novel, one that’s satisfyingly complex even for readers like me who have only a passing knowledge of Marvel, DC and their ilk. Superhero narratives are so prevalent now that their core assumptions and tropes are easily accessible to everyone – and, given their dominance in our mass media today, it’s important to be aware of their history, and of works like this one that have informed their development and their reception.

Review: Gods Without Men

Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men is one of those books that it’s always hard to start writing about: I haven’t figured out a way into the text, I’m not sure what Kunzru’s trying to achieve. I have no impetus to write.

I think it’s an interesting novel, but one that’s not quite successful. Its multiple storylines, each a bead on a necklace strung through time, all have at their heart a single rock formation in the Californian Mojave desert: three spires of sandstone called the Pinnacles. The Pinnacles feature as a sacred site for Native Americans in the area, who believe that Yucca Woman lives there, weaving the worlds of the living and the dead together; as the base for a UFO cult that springs up in the 60s, thriving for a few years before turning toxic as waves of outsiders descend upon it; and, in the novel’s most contemporary timeline, as the place where a severely autistic three-year-old named Raj disappears from under the noses of his struggling parents, and reappears a few weeks later miraculously changed for the better…

…which is one of the places where I think the novel seriously fails. Kunzru isn’t interested in Raj as a neurodivergent human being; he’s interested in him as a plot driver. The narrative centres his parents, Lisa and Jaz, and asks us to sympathise primarily with how hard their lives have become as they strive to manage Raj’s unpredictable behaviour and his inability to communicate verbally: Lisa, who’s given up her publishing job to become Raj’s full-time carer, desperately researches hokey New Age “cures”, while Jaz fends off the suggestions of his Sikh family. Nowhere in all of this is an appreciation of Raj as a person with his own experience of the world. By the end of the novel, he’s started to communicate verbally and show physical affection; but, again, these developments, which come about after his exposure to the Pinnacles, are presented in terms of his parents’ reactions, their relief and hope, rather than his own reality.

And then there’s the Pinnacles themselves, the motif that ties the whole novel together. For me, they’re simultaneously the book’s biggest failing and the source of its power. They’re neither obviously SFnal nor obviously metaphorical, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what exactly Kunzru is doing with them. Maureen Kincaid Speller suggests that it is something to do with human connection (Raj returns from the Pinnacles better able to connect with other people; the UFO cult is a close-knit, if dysfunctional, community living out in the desert) and though I think that’s a good way to approach the novel as a whole it doesn’t quite work as a reading of how the Pinnacles themselves function. For instance, I like her example of the white anthropologist failing to connect meaningfully with the Native Americans whose myths he is trying to study, but as an example of how the Pinnacles promote or reward connection it’s thin. And even if the Pinnacles are about connection…what then? What do we do with that reading, why is it there, how does the metaphor function?

(It’s interesting that Speller’s review is largely an attempt to come to terms with what the Pinnacles are doing – much like mine.)

For my part, I wonder if there’s something about cultural appropriation/co-option going on. There’s a cycle in the novel going on in which the Pinnacles are seen as a religious site or one of particular cultural/supernatural significance, which significance is then misunderstood by those who come after. The white anthropologist (whose name currently escapes me) studies Yucca Woman and the myths around it in order to preserve what he sees as a rapidly declining culture, but his failure fully to enter into that culture causes the death of a man, and he ends up dying out in the rocks. The UFO cult starts as a tight-knit community but is destroyed by an influx of strangers committing mundane, sordid evils like drug dealing and pimping. Jaz’s concern about the transformation Raj experiences is treated as a potentially dangerous mental illness by his psychologist. Is this a novel concerned with faith – more specifically, with how one person’s faith is another’s mundanity? In this reading, the deeply personal nature of faith and belief and our experience of the numinous clashes with the ever-increasing interconnectedness of the world in which we live. In his highly-paid day job as a stockbroker, Jaz works with a new programme called Walter, which looks for, and finds, patterns in things that seem utterly unconnected: say, ice-cream sales in Ohio and ocean currents in the Pacific. Walter turns out to be incredibly powerful and incredibly good at making money – but as well as just taking advantage of the data it processes, it actually seems to be affecting world affairs. By the time Jaz raises his concerns with his manager, he suspects that Walter has crashed the economy of a small South American country. The impersonal power of big data couldn’t be further from the transformative personal experiences people have at the Pinnacles.

It’s a bit of a mess of a novel, really, and I can’t say that it’s particularly stuck in my mind. I do like its ambiguity and its refusal to give easy answers; it’s a thinky kind of novel, with plenty of readings to offer. Kunzru’s White Tears is markedly more effective, though – read that instead.

50-Word Review: The Lives of Tao

Wesley Chu’s debut is a pedestrian SF thriller about centuries-old aliens fighting a war through human bodies. Not only is it utterly uninterested in engaging with the philosophical ramifications of its premise, it’s got weird gender politics, a creepy romance and aliens claiming all of humanity’s greatest achievements. Avoid.

(Content warning for loss of personal autonomy.)

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.

Review: PopCo

Scarlett Thomas’ sixth novel, PopCo follows Alice Butler, a cryptographer and erstwhile crossword-setter who’s now working for PopCo, the third-largest toy company in the world, as a Person Who Has Ideas. Once upon a time, PopCo asks Alice and a group of her colleagues to stay in a remote country house on Dartmoor to come up with a product that will help them break into the teenage market and thereby dominate the toy industry. Or something.

Despite her protestations otherwise, Alice is pretty cynical about the function of a toy company under late capitalism:

The words ‘toy company’ usually make people think of fluffy things and wooden blocks…In fact, these days, toys are more likely to involve fast food promotions, film tie-ins, interactivity, ‘added value’, super-branding and, of course, focus groups observed through one-way mirrors.

This, on page 5. (A couple of pages later: “That’s not to say I’m cynical”, she says, dubiously.) And therein lies the rub: the novel is clearly meant to chart Alice’s descent into disaffection with the industry she works in, and by extension the system of shallow consumerism it serves. But she’s already pretty disaffected at the start of the novel, and her clear-eyed understanding of what she and her colleagues are actually doing at work, behind the wacky idea-generating activities (when the novel begins, Alice has just returned from two weeks’ paid leave doing research for her toy brands), never really changes.

Sure: she becomes vegetarian, learns about ethical fashion and has some thoughts about how big corporations monetise identity. But, when it comes down to it, Thomas’ discussion of consumerist culture is a little…sophomoric – more introductory article than sustained critique. An example, from the very first page:

I know people who would make all sorts of assumptions about the clothes I am wearing. They would assume I had chosen a ‘look’…Even if I wore – as I have done in the past – a truly random selection of weird clothes, this would simply be labelled my ‘Jumble Sale’ or ‘Homeless’ look. I hate this so much.

This idea that consumerist culture co-opts all the choices you can make into its own system of signification is one that crops up throughout the novel. And…I can kiiind of see what Alice is getting at: consumerism’s inescapability, its ubiquitousness. But, also: this is what fashion does? This is what clothes have always been for? In every culture clothes are used to signify and perform status. It is not a feature unique to late capitalism. What Alice is actually talking about is the ubiquitousness of culture, which is another thing altogether. On a purely aesthetic level, her educated but shallow take on fashion makes her come across as kind of a whiny hipster.

This shallowness characterises the novel in more ways than one. Intertwined with Alice’s work for PopCo and her gradual enlightenment as to the Evils of Consumerism are chapters about her childhood living with her grandfather, a well-known cryptographer who left her a mysterious necklace with a code she’s never been able to crack. These threads sort of get tied together narratively at the end of the novel, but I’m not quite sure what Thomas is doing thematically. I’m not very interested in thinking about it, either, because many of these chapters are basically indigestible infodumps about codes and cryptography and look, if I wanted a detailed description of prime factorisation I would have read a reference book, not a novel. (The Voynich Manuscript is super interesting, though. I want a whole novel about the Voynich Manuscript.)

My reading of PopCo has definitely suffered from my knowledge of Thomas’ writing methods, as outlined in her (nevertheless quite useful) writing guide Monkeys with Typewriters. Thomas suggests using bits and pieces of experience from your own life to generate characters with believable quirks. Alas, knowing this meant that, for me, it was difficult to see Alice as a “real person” rather than what she actually is, a random collection of traits lumped together on the page. She was just Too Hipster, too Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to be entirely convincing and/or satisfying.

I’ve also lost a lot of goodwill for Thomas’ work since I learned that she puts a lot of stock in homeopathy. I have nothing against homeopathy per se, as a traditional remedy for occasional headaches, mild anxiety, light colds and so on; but when I read a scene in which a doctor prescribes a million billion different drugs for Our Heroine so that she can then forswear actual clinically tested medicine as unnecessary and dangerous and suspect, in favour of homeopathy, well, that makes me more than a little annoyed.

When I was about seventeen I was going through a very rough patch and they tried to give me Prozac. I didn’t need pills, I just needed to get hold of my life.

Because “pills” are Bad and doctors are Always Wrong and giving teenagers possibly life-saving drugs is a symptom of a diseased society.

Also, unrelatedly, I just found this in my copy of PopCo and it’s made me angry all over again. Alice is musing on the fact that a male-coded doll sold with a nurse uniform was made in China:

How nice that in this country we are on to messing around with gender roles while in so many foreign-owned factories it’s still impossible to form a union and get fair pay, whether you are a man, woman or child.

Fuck off? It’s not a zero sum game? Re-imagining gender roles and making sure workers get paid are not mutually exclusive aims? (In fact I’m inclined to think of them as two sides of the same coin, but it’s late, let’s not get into that now.)

I’m probably grossly misrepresenting my actual experience of reading PopCo, which was largely pleasant. Thomas’ characters are engaging if not entirely believable, her satire on corporate culture is fun, and it’s always satisfying to read a takedown of late capitalism. It’s just that the whole thing has this pious, holier-than-thou undertone which is really quite unpleasant when you stop and think about it – especially given how underbaked Thomas’ critique of consumerism actually is. It’s a novel that, more than anything, wants to make you feel guilty – about what you eat, what you wear, what form your self-care takes, how you identify. It’s an ugly impulse, and it makes ultimately for an ugly book.