Tag: conspiracy theories

Review: Our Tragic Universe

Sometimes – rarely – I read a book, and all I want to say about it is “This was a good book,” because the book itself has already said everything.

That, as you may have gathered, is how I felt about Our Tragic Universe. I loved it.

Partly that’s because it’s the kind of book I’m predisposed to love. It’s centred on Meg, a writer living in Dartmouth who’s trapped in a hopeless relationship with the feckless and selfish Christopher. She reviews popular science books; churns out formulaic, ghostwritten science fiction novels; and wrestles with writing her second “proper” novel, which she’s been working on for years. In short: a bookish female protagonist who thinks a lot about stuff and has this general sense of aimlessness and isolation, a sense that something’s just a little off with life. It reminds me quite a lot of Marisha Pessl’s work, especially Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as well as of Thomas’ first novel, The End of Mr Y.

Like those books, it plays with some hefty concepts – the final ingredient in the formula for My Perfect Book. A central event in the novel is when Meg receives, apparently from the newspaper she reviews for, a book called The Science of Living Forever, by a Kelsey Newman. It postulates an “Omega Point” at which computing power becomes infinite, and at which, therefore, an infinitely long simulation will be run of an infinite number of universes. (Astonishingly, this is a real-world theory by a real-world physicist, although opinion seems to differ on whether it’s worth anything.) Newman thinks we’re vastly more likely to be living in that simulation than not; and his upcoming book Second World, he says, will provide a guide as to how to live in this simulation. Broadly:

…you can learn everything you need to know about what it means to be a true hero from classic myths, stories and fairy tales.

Meg’s disturbed by this idea, that life is given meaning by how story-shaped it is, all through the novel. Because Our Tragic Universe is really about the trap of story, the way that making ourselves into stories – and particularly into singular, formulaic stories like those SF novels Meg writes – closes down the complexity of lived experience. Stories proliferate in Our Tragic Universe: I’ve dipped into it a couple times in the course of writing this, and I’ve found a new connection to make on almost every page. There’s the pub owner who’s writing a book about the ghosts he thinks he’s heard on nearby beaches. (Are the ghosts real? Are they “real” in a metaphorical sense? Is the pub owner delusional? None of these possibilities seem quite right.) There’s the ship in a bottle that appears at Meg’s feet from the ocean one day, apparently straight out of a formative scene from her past. Where did it come from? Why? Is it coincidence, or the universe trying to tell her something? There’s the Beast of Dartmoor, which may or may not attack a key character at one point. And none of these stories come to any real conclusion. The point being that not only does life offer neat closure – which is not, after all, a particularly revolutionary concept – but also that its lack of closure offers so much more potential for meaning and variety. Something can be both rationally true and personally true, so to speak. The ship in a bottle can be both astonishing coincidence and a sign from the universe. And a third thing, too.

Of course, Our Tragic Universe is a novel, so it remains trapped by narrative. In particular, Meg’s um-ing and ah-ing between Christopher and Rowan, an older professor she’s half-fallen for, feels quite – well, “soapy” is how Adam Roberts puts it, which seems right. But I also think the novel’s sitting with an awareness of its own narrative constraints. After all, there’s no explosive conclusion to this love triangle (line, really. And “love” is perhaps not quite accurate): Meg’s relationship ends with them both moving out of their shared house, more or less unbeknownst to each other, and there’s no real closure to her relationship with Rowan. She ends the book with her own life, with prospects, with friends, with a new home: that’s enough.

Our Tragic Universe is clever; but it’s also warm, and full of heart (as literary fiction can fail to be), and nice. It’s a place I wanted to inhabit for ever and ever. I loved it.

Review: Slade House

This review contains spoilers.

slade-houseSlade House, David Mitchell’s latest novel, has been marketed reasonably extensively as a Gothic haunted-house novel, which made me quite excited to read it. Having done so, I don’t think this is quite right; it’s too precise, too structurally perfect, to read as proper haunted-house Gothic, which is all about excess.

There is a parallel world in which it could have been Gothic, though. The titular Slade House is an ancestral mansion in an anonymous commuter town that can only be accessed through a black door on Slade Alley. Within dwell the Grayer twins, ominous, shape-shifting creatures who lure unsuspecting victims to the house once every nine years in order to feast on their souls.

As with many novels of its type, it’s much better in the execution than in the description. The novel – or novella, really – contains five sections, each one narrated by one of the Grayer twins’ victims. The first four sections are excellent – Mitchell has a real gift for characterisation, for capturing voices and pinpointing the exact minutiae which evoke a person, with all their hopes and dreams and nightmares. Each one of their stories ends the same way – but they are rendered so vibrantly that this is not repetitive but increasingly, inevitably tragic. And each tragedy is leavened by an achingly tiny bit of hope, as each soul leaves something behind to help the next one get a little closer to escape.

This elegant, poised cascade of story, though, is brought to a thuddingly prosaic halt by the final section, which is narrated by one Iris Marinus-Fenby. Those familiar with Mitchell’s novels will recognise the figure of the Horologist Marinus, one of the rare souls who are reincarnated automatically at death, rather than needing to steal more life from the living. As soon as we hear Marinus’ names we know the Grayers are doomed; which in plot terms is something of a relief, but which squanders the painstaking humanity of the earlier chapters. The fifth section is essentially one long and contrived infodump tying Slade House into the overarching continuity of Mitchell’s other novels.

I don’t have an issue with the fact that the novel’s so explicitly an entry in a series; when he did something similar in The Bone Clocks it was actually quite cool, in an Easter-egg sort of way. But I think there were better ways to do it here, and that this would have been a much more interesting novel if we had had only the Grayer twins sitting at the heart of it like malevolent spiders, with no kindly Horologist riding in to save the day.

Film Review: Now You See Me

This review contains spoilers.

Now You See Me is the kind of film you can really only watch once.

It’s a film about magicians; not the fantasy Harry Potter kind levitating broomsticks and fighting dragons, but the real-world illusionists pulling rabbits out of hats and cold-reading, the Derren Browns and the David Blaines.

Four street magicians, calling themselves the Four Horsemen and following Mysterious Instructions issued by a Mysterious Hooded Figure™, steal three million Euros in paper money from a Parisian bank, live on stage in Las Vegas. The film alternates between their trajectory as they promise two more shows of similar audacity, and the story of the FBI team assigned to investigate them for, um, stealing three million Euros, which definitely did happen, even if they can’t prove the Horsemen did it.

There are some things the film does very well. It’s good, for instance, at articulating the anarchic appeal of magicians, the idea that in a world increasingly governed by institutions and entities most of us cannot hope to understand, there are still those who can game the system, exist in the space between the rules, break the laws and not be held accountable. After the Paris heist, the Horsemen escape arrest because, as one of them observes to the FBI, arresting them would involve admitting the existence of magic, which would render the organisation a laughing-stock; the Horsemen are ghosts in a machine that cannot acknowledge them because to do so would undermine its own legitimacy.

It’s a film steeped in modernity, and problems of modernity, with its fast-paced jump cuts, its palette of techno-blues and blacks, and Jesse Eisenberg, who thanks to The Social Network is essentially synonymous with swift-talking, showy contemporaneity. The chemistry between the Horsemen (Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson) is great, their onstage camaraderie nicely contrasted with offstage tensions; it’s a good way of getting at both the appeal of illusion and its inherent falseness.

Unfortunately, the film fails (for me, anyway) because it’s basically a metafilmic gimmick. One of its central mantras is “the closer you look, the less you see”; another is the idea that the place where the magic seems to be happening is exactly not the place where the important part of the trick is happening. So the film’s final revelation, the one designed to “solve” the entire story, Illusionist-style, is that, unbeknownst to everyone involved, the FBI detective assigned to investigate the Horsemen is actually the Mysterious Hooded Figure™ who’s giving them their instructions, having engineered the whole situation since he was about fourteen years old in order to take murky revenge on a magician-debunker called Thaddeus who’s also been tailing the Horsemen.

D’you see? D’you see? The Horsemen and their Amazing Stage Magic are a distraction from the real story, the distraction that allows the trick to happen in the shadows. Just as the Horsemen trick their audiences, the film tricks you. Do you see how clever the writer is? All fiction is a trick designed to delight you and dazzle you and distract you from the horribleness of the world!

Yes, film, I see.

The problem with this is that, although there are some ways in which fiction can be compared to a magic trick, there are some important ways in which fiction is not like a magic trick. The most important of these is that, while magic tricks can get away with a surprise ending because this is the real world and if something happens it must be possible, in fiction you have to show your workings because otherwise your audience will lose interest and wander off.

By which I mean that saying that someone is a master manipulator is very different from convincing us that they are. The fact is that the FBI agent character (Dylan) does a very good impression of not being able to manipulate his way out of a paper bag, and no big reveal is actually going to change that.

By the film’s own logic, I should be able to rewatch the film and see the trick happening, now I know where to look. I just get the feeling that it doesn’t have this kind of rewatchability; that there are no clues telling me that Dylan is running the whole show. I’m not even 100% sure on his motives for revenge on Thaddeus; my parents were talking over a bit of dialogue that may have given me a clue, but to be honest if I managed to miss such an important bit of plot in such a small space of time that’s not much of an excuse for the film.

As a result, the ending leaves Now You See Me feeling curiously disappointing and unsatisfying, an irritating bit of show-offery that doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It’s not by any means unwatchable (although if you’ve read this review it probably is now), and in fact it’s quite entertaining; it’s just that, like most magic, it could have been something more.

Review: Radiance

radianceRadiance is, I think, my new favourite book of the year.

Its premise is fairly complex, although not in a way that manages to bog the book down. It’s set in an alternative version of the early twentieth century, say 1920-1960 (the novel’s timelines are fairly difficult to figure out, for reasons that should become clear later on). In this timeline, we left the Earth for space in 1858. In this timeline, the outer planets aren’t barren and lifeless but lush, strange places: Pluto and its moon-twin Charon are covered in flowers that induce hallucinations; the Moon is occupied by green-skinned things which humans call kangaroos but aren’t; and Venus, where the winter is as long as a year and vast and gentle seas caress mysterious shores, plays host to the most mysterious beings in this mysterious solar system: the callowhales, whose milk is strictly necessary for humans to live in non-Earth gravity but who no-one really knows anything about. Their touch is deadly but they are not actively hostile; are they animal or vegetable? Nobody knows.

Against this dreamy backdrop, the plot. Severin Unck is a documentary maker, the daughter of legendary director Percival Unck, who specialises in Gothic melodrama. She disappears while investigating the destruction of a colony on Venus for one of her films; and thus Radiance is an attempt to reconstruct a story of her ending, from the few bits of film left of the unfinished documentary, from the recollections of the film crew around her, from films that her father starts and cannot finish to try and tell a story of her. It’s a collection of documents, a kind of found-footage tale; a novel about storytelling, and endings, and the fact that every story, every biography, is only ever interpretation: the undefeatable gap between the signifier and the signified. Hence the alternative-universe setting: an interpretation of the world which isn’t factually true but can access an emotional truth. Hence the House of Leaves-y choice to tell a story which is essentially filmic in prose: we can’t ever access the film, the original text; we are separated from Severin Unck’s story by at least two degrees; but perhaps we can access emotional truths about her and those she had relationships with. And hence another gap: Valente’s prose pays a lot of attention to colour, but patents held by an alternative Edison mean that almost all the filmic evidence presented to us is ostensibly in black-and-white; we’re experiencing an interpretation, not the original, of the brilliant strangeness of Radiance‘s world.

It’s gimmicky, of course; albeit the kind of gimmick for which I’m an absolute sucker. But what elevates it for me above thought-experiment-hood is Valente’s gorgeous prose, the hypnotism with which she evokes a universe that is rich and strange and yet utterly familiar, and the fierceness with which she writes about the downtrodden and the exploited of this world. I’ve seen the aesthetic of Radiance called decopunk, which seems an excellent description to me: luxurious and fabulous and glamorous, with a core of steel and rebellion and revenge lurking at its core.

At this point, I’m fairly sure I’d be happy to read Valente’s shopping lists.

Review: The Dark Side of the Sun

“The ultimate barrier is one’s viewpoint.”

Terry Pratchett

the-dark-side-of-the-sun-1The Dark Side of the Sun is very early Pratchett indeed: pre-Colour of Magic and pre-pretty much everything, in fact, save The Carpet People. It takes a slightly skew-whiff look at several SF classics; the one I’m most familiar with is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, so I’m going to focus on that.

Pratchett’s novel, then, is set in a far-future universe in which the ability to predict the future has been honed through the scientific discipline of p-math. Our Protagonist is Dom Sabalos IV, newly Chairman of his home planet of Widdershins, which is run by a Board. Using p-math, Dom’s father predicted that Dom would be assassinated on the day of his investiture; inevitably, Dom survives against all the odds (as we know from Discworld, the million-to-one chance comes true nine times out of ten) and swiftly becomes the subject of another prediction (a Prophecy, one might say): that he will discover the identity of the Jokers.

The Jokers are, or were, a mysterious race of beings who left tantalising clues of their preternatural engineering ability scattered around the universe (two stars linked to each other like chain-rings; a really really tall tower on a deserted ice planet). Nobody knows who they were or where they’ve gone; all that remains is a cryptic riddle-poem saying that the Jokers have gone to their new home “at the dark side of the sun”. (Geddit?)

This being Pratchett, the result is a chaotic and rather absurd romp, as Dom careers through the universe meeting characters including but not limited to a sentient planet who operates as a bank, a race of non-gendered, octopoidal, sentient extremophiles and a species of space-faring dog that propels itself by, um, farting. Also, people keep trying to murder him.

Zany as this all is, it doesn’t feel very Pratchett, and I think perhaps this comes down to how it deploys its chaotic elements.

Let’s draw out that comparison with Asimov.

In both this novel and the Foundation series, scientific near-certainties are disrupted by events literally so random that they are impossible to predict (this is the role the genetic mutant called the Mule plays in Foundation and Empire). In Asimov’s series, this sustained disruption opens out the universe the human characters inhabit: people from Foundation discover the planet of Gaia, an entire ecosystem existing as one super-being; the Solarians, genetically engineered humans who hate the sight of each other; and, finally, a robot who turns the entire trajectory of the series inside out. Uncertainty reigns – not because science is wrong but because it is limited by our human perspective; because there are things human science is unable to encompass and predict.

On the other hand, The Dark Side of the Sun posits that the universe is solvable, in the way that a riddle or a joke is solvable. In fact, it puts its finger up at Science (p-math) in favour of Art (the Jokers’ poem). The thing is, the Jokers’ riddle turns on a very human play on words; so, while there is a long expository section at the end explaining the importance exactly of finding ways to expand your viewpoint, the structural effect of the book is to shrink the possibilities of the universe, to make it small and human and humane. All the novel’s chaos only goes to reinforce the narrative – human – logic of the story. Which is very Pratchettian, but not quite right for an SF novel of this type; and, actually, in Pratchett’s later novels we’ll see the absurdity of his plots used not to shrink a universe but to grow it, to show us how utterly ridiculous human perspectives can be.

I think there are things here to delight Pratchett completists – the novel sees the first outing of Klatch, of Hogswatchnight, of the Jokers in The Long Earth – but in no way is it a good introduction to his work. The wit and invention of the Discworld series is still in the future, and these are the first, minor gropings towards that behemoth.

Review: Codex

“He imagined another life for himself as one of these silent scholars, buried in his research like a guinea pig in its wood shavings.”

Lev Grossman

CodexCodex is a little way out of my usual reading fare: I bought it in a second-hand bookshop in Blandford, Dorset, partly because Grossman’s The Magicians had already been recommended to me, and partly because it mentioned a library on the back and despite the depredations of The Da Vinci Code I am, still, a sucker for a good fictional library.

Published a year after Dan Brown’s slightly mendacious mega-ultra-bestseller, it’s obviously quite heavily indebted to it. Edward Wozny, a hotshot New York banker, is on his first vacation ever, about to move to England for a more prestigious job with his firm. He’s approached by the mysterious and not unsinister Went family (also, coincidentally, from England) who ask him to catalogue their mysterious and not unsinister private library. They are looking for a codex (Academic for “book” – I’m 95% sure Grossman only uses this technical term for effect, which irks me more than it should) which may not even exist, a bizarre Arthurian romance which encodes a Terrible Secret somehow connected to the Wents. Things get twisty when it appears that the Duke and Duchess Went are actually working against each other: the Duke wants to destroy the book, and the Duchess wants Edward to save it.

What’s mildly interesting about Codex (but only mildly) is the way it seems deliberately to deflate the Brownian cliches it sets up from the beginning. Edward is, like countless protagonists since the dawn of time, made to see that There Is More to Life than Capitalism, and that there is more mystery and promise in the world than is dreamt of in his workaholic philosophy: the hunt for meaning among the dusty relics of bygone ages leads him not only to greater satisfaction in his day-to-day life but also to True Love in the form of Margaret, a researcher he hires to help him in his search. Having located the codex, Edward travels at the end of the book to England, to pass it over to the romantically flighty Duchess in confident hope of a reward and a comfortable life working for the Wents.

That’s what the story should look like. Instead, Edward reaches England only to discover that his True Love has betrayed him for considerably more than a handful of silver, and the Duchess casts him off, leaving him jobless and prospectless in a strange country. The twisty narrative has thrown up nothing more mysterious and interesting than a power play in an old aristocratic family that remains distant from the action; the great secret of the codex is that the Duke may or may not be illegitimate and therefore not actually a Duke at all. The narrative is depowered; the book becomes a kind of exercise in futility, the myths that capitalist entertainment peddles – if you are lucky enough and hardworking enough you too may be favoured, you too may find fulfilling work – revealed as sleights of hand the aristocracy use to control and manipulate the less fortunate.

But, for me, Codex still fails, mostly because none of the characters have any kind of personality, and partly because it’s actually a very sexist story. Consider: Edward is betrayed by two women, the flighty and romantically unknowable Duchess Went, and the prickly and also unknowable Margaret. They have confused him and ruined his life through their treacherous feminine wiles; they are fundamentally Other, and you can’t trust them.

Also, Edward does that male-gaze thing where the first thing he notices about women is their breasts, which, fine, breasts are not a problem, except that what this strategy encodes is the fact that this book is not for women.

Because white, wealthy men are the great losers in capitalist society. Yep.

My advice? Avoid.

Top Ten Deceptive Books

“Humans like nothing more than to pigeonhole the events & phenomena that punctuate their lives.”

China Mieville

These are all novels which lie to their readers, whose narrative strategies are based fundamentally upon untruth, novels which will lead you into obscurity and just dump you there, wailing. If you are, as I am, entranced by the shadows of what we can know, the uncrossable gap between the signifier and the signified, these novels are for you.

(This list, for me, essentially defines the Gothic.)

  1. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski.
  2. Night Film – Marisha Pessl.
  3. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon.
  4. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov.
  5. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl.
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe.
  7. Railsea – China Mieville.
  8. The Scar – China Mieville.
  9. Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon.
  10. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)