Tag: conspiracy theories

Review: The Familiar Volume 1 – One Rainy Day in May

Mark Z. Danielewski’s One Rainy Day in May is the first of a projected 27 (!) volumes about a 12-year-old girl who rescues a kitten.

I wish I was joking.

I love Danielewski’s seminal House of Leaves; I honestly think it’s the best Gothic haunted house novel out there, and what’s more it’s supremely aware of itself as haunted text, and I’d better stop there because otherwise I’ll fall down the critical-theoretical rabbit hole that is Thinking About House of Leaves. The point is: the postmodernism in House of Leaves is fascinating and thought-provoking and scary; whereas just reading a review of One Rainy Day in May makes me feel exhausted.

There are a handful of frame narratives to the book, including some Youtube mock-ups that remind me more of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film than anything else. The meat of it, though, is made up of the points of view of nine different people – I’m going to quote from the Strange Horizons review here, because writing them all out is just too tedious:

Xanther…a 12(ish)-year-old girl who has epilepsy. Her parents, a game designer and a psych-in-training, have a surprise for her one rainy day in May…Meanwhile: a gang pretends to initiate a new member only to kill him; an older couple is on the run from someone for the possession of an Orb which seems to have some connection to a possible alien intelligence; someone in Singapore steals a bunch of chocolate coins and takes a bunch of molly while working as a translator; a cop investigates a case; a man goes to court against a cop and helps a professor move some boxes; and someone practices superstitions and helps deliver some crates.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Danielewski uses typographical and stylistic tricks to represent the unique and digressive nature of thought as opposed to narrative: so, for example, Xanther’s mother Astair’s narrative is full of nested parentheses; her father Anwar, a game designer, thinks in square brackets and >>s and {}s; Singaporean Jingjing’s thoughts are rendered in Singlish; a different font is used for each character’s sections. What’s interesting about this is that the typographical choices aren’t just used to reflect who each of the characters are, as might be the case in a lesser author’s work; they also reflect how the characters think of themselves – their Second Thoughts, as Pratchett might have put it. It’s that level of self-reflexiveness that saves Danielewski from the rather uncomfortable fact that an Armenian character’s thoughts are rendered in broken English – it’s not because he can’t think fluently in Armenian, but because he chooses to see himself as someone who speaks English.

As we might expect from the author of House of Leaves, a novel ultimately about meaninglessness, Danielewski’s well aware of the irony of the fact that he’s using language to try and represent thought, the unrepresentable. Language, and, more specifically, text, is tricksy in One Rainy Day in May; unreliable and threatening, as when the question “How many raindrops?”, repeated tens of times, falls rain-shaped across the page, the onset of one of Xanther’s seizures – an overload of text that brings not meaning but meaninglessness, because the question can’t be answered; or when the thoughts of Cas arrange themselves on the page to outline the shape of the Orb she’s deliberately not thinking about. In other words, by formally innovating to better imitate the patterns of thought in text, Danielewski’s also revealing the exact inadequacy of text to do just that; a (Post)Modernist paradox if ever there was one.

There’s also the over-arching SFnal “plot”, for want of a better word, which further underlines the artificiality of narrative: it becomes clear as we read that the nine characters are actually being narrated by what seems to be a storytelling artificial intelligence, TF-Narcon9. This device serves to defamiliarise the act of reading; to highlight the alienness of having apparently omniscient access to another person’s mind, the point of view we as readers are so used to.

It’s clever. I’m not going to argue with the fact that Danielewski is probably a genius, and that he’s doing work that will probably be studied in universities in two hundred years. (His work actually reminds me quite a lot of William Blake’s: their texts have a similarly deliberate visual quality, an interest in how a book looks as well as what it says.) But it’s also a bit – sterile?

I’ve never been a fan of Modernist novels. Ulysses annoys me with its meandering, unreadable pretentiousness. Virginia Woolf bores me. Don’t talk to me about D.H. Lawrence. Formal innovation is important, of course, but it seems to come so often at the expense of any reason to care about what we’re reading. As with One Rainy Day in May, there doesn’t seem to be a point to showing up the falsenesses of narrative, beyond revealing that it’s all a lie. And that particular point’s been made before, over and over again (I mean, Chaucer did six hundred years ago in his Parliament of Fowles, did you really think there was anything new under the sun?).

This is definitely a personal thing, and it may be that I just prefer the consolations of traditional narrative to the excitement of formal innovation. But, to me, One Rainy Day in May, though not a slog by any means, feels more than a little like sound and fury signifying nothing much.

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Review: 2312

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 surprised me. At first glance, I expected it to be the hardest of hard SF – which it is, sort of. Only it’s actually decently written.

Set 300 years in the future (surprisingly enough), it’s Solar System space opera – see also Stephen Baxter’s Proxima and novels of that ilk. It’s broad and ambitious enough in scope that describing its plot in a way that represents the novel fairly is somewhat difficult. It begins with a death: that of Alex, a woman enmeshed in the political life of the city of Terminator, which travels ceaselessly along metal tracks on the surface of Mercury, constantly outrunning the deadly sun.

Shortly after the death, Alex’s stepdaughter, Swan Er Hong, finds out that her stepmother was involved with a secret, select group of people with shared concerns about qubes – quantum computers which have reached an advanced stage of development, bordering perhaps on artificial intelligence. And then Terminator’s all-important tracks are hit by a meteor, halting the city and condemning it to melting in Mercury’s burning sunlight. How could the tracks’ defence systems have missed such a large body from space?

The novel is a loose, leisurely exploration of these mysteries, taking its protagonists – Swan herself as well as a diplomat called Wahram – on a tour of the populated Solar System. It takes in the fraught politics of this expanded human sphere, looking at attitudes to the terraforming of Venus, the rewilding of an ecologically devastated Earth, the adaptations spacefaring humans have made to their bodies in the pursuit of longevity or just excitement (more on this later), different kinds of artistic expression in this future world. The Solar System of 2312 feels just as complex and politically charged as our own Earth does today; it feels, in other words, utterly human, its rough edges unsmoothed by artistic conveniences. If nothing else, it’s a virtuoso piece of worldbuilding.

It’s a lot of other things, of course. I feel it’s important to say this before I launch into full-on Analysis Mode: 2312 is technically a very good book! Robinson’s prose isn’t particularly memorable, but it’s a cut (or even two) above the workmanlike prose of, say, Stephen Baxter. He has moments of real insight:

She often felt a nostalgia for the present, aware that her life was passing by faster than she could properly take it in. She lived it, she felt it; she had given nothing to age, she still wanted everything; but she could not make it whole or coherent.

There’s even a romance – and it’s that rare thing in genre fiction, a romance that feels sane and healthy and actually like the complicated, ambiguous romances real people have. Robinson’s characters feel real, contradictory and yet essential. This is good writing!

You know there’s going to be a “but”, don’t you.

I want to talk about some of Robinson’s structural choices – not necessarily because I think they were the wrong choices, but because I think discussing them potentially gives us an awareness of the boundaries of this kind of story.
Specifically: there’s something a little deflating about the common space opera trope used here that says that the only way to take drastic, species-saving action is to do it in secret; for need-to-know circles of shadowy semi-officials (such as Alex’s qube working group) to hoard up information and then act on it suddenly and unilaterally, without telling anyone beforehand. It’s a trope that reveals deep pessimism about the power of democracy, transparency, diplomacy.

It’s also, as a trope, connected to a deeper structural flaw in the novel, which is probably unavoidable given the kind of story it’s trying to tell: it’s a narrative that centres power. Spacefarers like Swan and Wahram, we’re told, are affluent and privileged, resented back on Earth for precisely that reason. The result of centring their stories is that Robinson’s imagined human future looks, if not exactly utopian, certainly not hopeless. And yet, we’re told that things are very different for those left behind on Earth, working to provide food for those above. It’s a heavily exploitative relationship; I think Robinson does, partially, acknowledge that, but he also has his privileged spacefarers ignore the actual opinions of Earth’s working class in favour of a notional greater good. Which, as Abigail Nussbaum implies, has certain similarities with how Western nations today provide aid to developing countries.

I also feel a bit iffy about the gender politics here. Generally, these are more OK than in most SF: a certain amount of gender fluidity is very much the norm, certainly among the spacefarers, as hormonal treatments in the womb are used to make babies hermaphroditic and therefore longer-lived (I think this is actually based on real science, too). So gender identity is fluid and not particularly associated with what genitalia the characters happen to have. There’s at least one character whose pronoun changes according to who they’re speaking to.

I’m ambivalent, though, about Robinson’s use of the term “bisexual” to describe sexual characteristics – i.e., having both breasts and a penis – instead of a sexual orientation; bisexual people in the real world are already invisible enough without our identity being co-opted for something else.

I want to say this again (as if I haven’t said it enough!): I enjoyed 2312 much more thoroughly than I expected to, and I’ll definitely be reading more of Robinson’s work. Flawed as it is, it’s the kind of book that opens up much-needed questions about our place in this vast and strange universe, and much-needed critical approaches to the genre.

Review: The Islanders

It should not come as a surprise when I say that I enjoyed Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. It’s a book that could have been written with me in mind: a gazetteer of a fictional, fantastical and fundamentally unmappable archipelago that’s also the elliptical story of a murder? Yes please!

And so: the Dream Archipelago, we’re told by the mysterious Chaster Kammerton, who writes the novel’s foreword, consists of an unspecified number of islands – at least twenty thousand, and almost certainly a lot more, each of which has its own customs, its own laws, its own currency. It cannot be mapped, and travel is haphazard and slow, because of “temporal distortion”. It is caught between the warring nations of the north and south continents – despite its Covenant of Neutrality, the effects of those wars frequently spill over into the islands themselves. It is, in sum, a liminal place, a borderland, never one thing or the other.

The Islanders, meanwhile, takes the form of a gazetteer of these islands, as I’ve said; that is, it purports to describe each island rationally, objectively, even scientifically, looking at the geography of each island, the tourist attractions, the currency, the laws. Some of the entries, however, have very little to do with the particular qualities of the island they purport to describe; instead, there’s a short story about someone living on the island, or otherwise connected to it. These apparently unrelated short stories – whose very presence serves to disturb the self-avowed objective rationality of the text – move slowly into place as you read, building up the story of a murder.

The tension the novel generates, or rather makes visible, between the scientific impulse to categorise and describe and the essentially uncategorisable, unknowable nature of everyday human experience reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I also love and which is long overdue a re-read. It’s a novel that asks its readers to work for meaning – to make implicit connections to work out the “truth” behind the surface. It’s also – necessarily – beautifully structured: each piece of information you get, however irrelevant or incidental it seems at first, becomes vital to building the whole picture.

I find it particularly suggestive that both novels – Nabokov’s and Priest’s – prominently feature artists. In The Islanders, most of the named characters, who crop up across many of the short stories and the more straightforwardly “factual” ones, are artists of one sort or another: novelists, writers on social reform, landscape artists, magicians. And many of them operate on the wrong side of the law – for repressive laws, shadowy government agencies, official secrets crop up again and again throughout the novel, again generating an uneasy tension between the official, “scientific” version of the truth and whatever it is that might actually be going on. An admittedly reductive analysis of The Islanders might posit that the artists are seeking to represent the actual lived experience of the islanders, while those in authority are protecting an “official” version of a multifarious “truth”.

That’s a lot of quotation marks for one post; but that’s also the kind of novel The Islanders is. It disturbs notions of textual authority in a way that’s deeply satisfying, emotionally as well as intellectually. It isn’t, strictly speaking, doing anything that’s particularly new (Pale Fire does pretty much everything The Islanders does), but it does do it well. And, c’mon. A fictional gazetteer? Be still my ever-geeky heart.

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.