Tag: conspiracy theories

Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is a Thomas Pynchon novel. That…pretty much sums up what I have to say about it.

In what the publisher is billing as a sort of hard left on Pynchon’s part, it’s a murder mystery. It’s also set in 1970s California, among permanently stoned hippies. So, you know, we’re right back in Pynchon territory again.

Our Hero is Doc, a private investigator who also happens to be one of those permanently stoned hippies. (Think Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, only with prettier sentences.) He’s asked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta to find her new lover, Mickey, a real-estate mogul who’s gone missing. Then someone frames Doc for the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and, oh, the plot from there on out is best described as “labyrinthine”. Or, indeed, “Pynchonian”, which is much the same thing.

I liked it. There are things that threw me out momentarily – the male gaze is strong with this one – but, overall, I liked it. That’s, I think, because I’m a sucker for gnarly books, books with long winding sentences like this one:

Uphill and invisible, traffic out on the boulevard to and from the freeway uttered tuneful exhaust phrases which went echoing out to sea, where the crews of oil tankers sliding along, hearing them, could have figured it for wildlife taking care of nighttime business on some exotic coast.

Dreamy, elegiac, cluttered, full of stuff that never quite comes into focus, Pynchon’s prose is a microcosm of the world his novels evoke – a world teetering on the edge of comprehensibility. Murder mysteries are supposed to bring order out of chaos; what Inherent Vice does is bring something that could be order, in a certain light, just to the point where it’s not quiiite in focus yet. It’s like listening to someone with a heavy accent: true clarity remains tantalisingly unachievable.

Anyway. That’s what I liked about Inherent Vice. It’s not Pynchon’s best novel. It’s not particularly memorable as Pynchon goes. But…it was pretty cool to live in for a little while.

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Review: The Seed Collectors

Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors is sprawling, like the roots of a tree. That’s appropriate, since it begins with a family tree: that of the Gardeners, many of whom are named after plants – Bryony, Clematis, Ash, Holly. Some years ago, the previous generation of Gardeners disappeared into the rainforest, in search of a plant whose seed pods, it’s said, are the source of true enlightenment – at the cost of an excruciatingly painful death.

The novel opens with the death of Oleander, great aunt to the current generation of Gardeners. She’s left all her surviving descendants a seed pod each, as well as leaving behind a mansion, Namaste House, which has been converted into a retreat for celebrities and very rich people, and a large fortune.

And it wanders forward from there, dipping into the lives of various Gardeners, Namaste House staff, starlets, and at one point a robin, these diverging perspectives bound loosely together by the mystery of the seed pods and the question of what will happen to Namaste House.

At heart, I think, The Seed Collectors is a novel about enlightenment, which Thomas sees as interchangeable with transcendence: according to Oleander, the novel’s wellspring of spiritual wisdom, the seed pods have the power to free souls from the cycle of reincarnation and individuality to become, er, one with the universe, the World Soul. (Yes, this is cheesy; more on that later.) So many of the Gardeners lead variously self-destructive and ultimately selfish lives: Bryony, the ultimate consumer, drinks and eats and shops to excess, to distract herself from her marital problems; the odious botanist Charlie insists on a paleo diet and has a shopping list of attributes he wants in his girlfriends; creepy academic Oliver bumps up the grades of a pretty girl in his class and utterly fails to understand the point of a team-building exercise that requires people to be unselfish so everyone can win. Interspersed with these stories we have bits of Oleander’s wisdom, as the characters begin to unravel the mysteries of the seed pods, and thought experiments that ask us to reframe the world (“If you discovered that you were the only person in the world, and everything you see around you was in fact a part of you, dramatised, how would that change what you are doing right now, right this very instant?”), and intertwined through all of this are the roots and leaves and seeds of plants, familiar as breathing and yet also unfathomably alien.

Like the two other Thomas novels I’ve read, The End of Mr Y and Our Tragic Universe, The Seed Collectors looks at how we codify and curdle reality – in Lacanian terms, how we freeze the terrifying incomprehensibility of the Real into the safety of the Symbolic – and at how, despite everything, reality still leaks out, calling all our cultural values, and so our very subjectivities, into question. In the earlier novels, that codification takes place mainly through narrative: we kill reality into art, limiting the shapes our lives can take as we do so. In The Seed Collectors, individual identity itself is what obstructs and conceals the Real: the things we use to mark ourselves as different from other people, whether that’s a special diet, nice clothes, tennis prowess, being the best at team-building, or sitting in first class on a train. To Thomas, these are all artificial (Symbolic) constructs. And the seed pods, symbols (perhaps ironically) of an alien Nature which can’t be codified into the Symbolic (though botanists like Charlie try), are how the Real erupts into the world – by taking souls out of the cycle of reincarnation, they take them back into the Real, back into nature, and planthood.

I should stress that The Seed Collectors is a good deal less hokey than all this is making it sound. Thomas’ voice throughout the novel is chatty and relaxed, and she has great empathy for most of her characters (well, apart from bloody Charlie). It’s a novel you want to spend time in.

But. (You know there’s a but, don’t you.) There’s a catch with representing the Real in fiction, which is that it’s very hard to do – because fiction is part of the Symbolic, so it can’t actually represent the Real, not directly. I bounced hard off Oleander’s wisdom, her explanations about reincarnation and transcendence – to me, these sections of the book felt trite and too easy. Because, when you get down to it, reincarnation is just another schema in which to confine the Real. It’s just another human way of looking at the world; another order of the Symbolic.

Incidentally, this is where I think speculative fiction has the edge over realistic fiction. When we read SFF, we know it’s not meant to be taken literally; it’s always working metaphorically, or ironically. So it’s much better placed to think about the Real, and about elements of human experience that we can’t put properly into words without diminishing them. SFF can gesture at things realistic fiction can’t say, because SFF is always already gesturing indirectly at the world. That’s how it works.

So my issue with The Seed Collectors is that it isn’t quite SFnal enough. It doesn’t work symbolically enough: it wants us to take reincarnation as literally, as matter-of-factly, as we take the realist sections of the novel. Which, of course, we can’t: it’s a different order of thing. It can only ever be taken metaphorically; but Thomas doesn’t give us the right protocols to read it that way.

The Seed Collectors was a disappointment after Our Tragic Universe (but then, almost anything would be). I get what Thomas was trying to do (well, sort of), and shifting our fundamental notions of reality is not work that every novelist is having a go at, so props for that. It just – didn’t work for me. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

Film Review: Super 8

So I’d heard good things about Super 8 (and, no, I can’t remember where), which is why I invested the time and attention to watch all of it on television – something I rarely do for films or even television programmes since the internet became my primary medium for TV viewing.

It wasn’t worth it.

The film starts promisingly enough: a bunch of film-obsessed teenagers are making their own amateur film out in the sticks when they witness an enormous train crash. The military is crawling all over the crash site, and one of their cameras catches something huge and monstrous prowling around the wreckage. Meanwhile, in the small town where Our Heroes live, cars stall, the electricity goes out, dogs go missing.

So the first half of the film builds tension nicely: in a particularly inspired touch, the camera never allows us to see the alien menace stalking the town properly – all we have to go on is the occasional glimpse, and its strange effects on electrical items. The film’s palette is dark, midnight blues leavened by rare bursts of CGI colour. This is a film about seeing, and, more importantly, unseeing: the flickers at the corner of the camera’s eye.

But then it all falls apart; resolves into a thoroughly conventional narrative, if quite competently handled. The alien is of course the subject of secret government experiments – and though this classic conspiracy theory is an apt choice given the film’s mood of half-glimpsed secrets, the government is too straightforwardly evil, the alien too straightforwardly sympathetic, to make it properly compelling here. The emotional arc which accompanies the SFnal plot, in which the fathers of two of the teenagers resolve their differences in favour of rescuing their children (who have of course entangled themselves right in the heart of things), is nicely done, stressing the importance of communication and empathy, but as an arc it feels derivative. And the film’s central romance is simply irritating: two of the boys fall out over the single girl in their group of budding film-makers – and, indeed, the single named female character in the entire film; she’s then captured by the alien so that Our Plucky Protagonist has to go and rescue her and thereby win her heart.

Super 8 is supposed to be heavily inspired by Alien Films that Have Come Before, and I suspect that if I were more of a film buff I might have appreciated it more. But, at the end of the day, this is a film meant as blockbuster entertainment. If it’s only worth watching for the references, I’d argue that makes it a failure.

Review: Europe in Autumn

The unofficial tagline for Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn currently seems to be “the Brexit novel written before Brexit!”* Which, yes, you can see why that would be an apposite description, but it’s also one that plumps for the easy and over-egged narrative of “SF predicts the future!” as opposed to a more nuanced one in which Hutchinson’s picked up on a continental sociopolitical trend.

What’s more, Europe in Autumn isn’t even set in Britain. Or, actually, since a large chunk of the book does, in fact, take place in London, what I mean is: it doesn’t centre Britain, which is rare enough for a genre novel published in the UK to be worth commenting on. Our Protagonist is Rudi, an Estonian chef working in a restaurant in Krakow. The near-future Europe he lives in has become balkanised, fractured into hundreds of small nations and polities:

The Continent was alive with Romanov heirs and Habsburg heirs and Grimaldi heirs and Saxe-Coburg heirs and heirs of families nobody had ever heard of who had been dispossessed sometime back in the fifteenth century, all of them seeking to set up their own pocket nations. They found they had to compete with thousands of microethnic groups who suddenly wanted European homelands as well, and religious groups, and Communists, and Fascists, and U2 fans.

The EU has become an irrelevance, its main activity being (apparently) throwing tantrums in the UN. Instead, what unites the fractured continent – if “unites” is the right word – are the Coureurs: a shadowy organisation which transports contraband, secrets and people over unfriendly borders. Basically, the novel is the story of how Rudi gets drawn further and further into this organisation, finding out more and more about Europe’s secrets as he does so.

Formally, the novel’s really a thriller: there are some SFnal elements, and the ending suggests that the sequels, Europe in Winter and Europe at Midnight, are significantly more so, but the only speculative elements in Autumn are the near-future setting and some slightly more advanced technology. But, for a thriller, there’s also surprisingly little going on. There’s no particular mystery Rudi’s trying to solve. He’s in the dark about pretty much all of the odd (but not necessarily especially violent or threatening) things that are happening to him for most of the time. (To take an example from the beginning of the book: Rudi meets a man in a neighbouring polity, has a coded conversation which lasts about five minutes, and goes home the next day none the wiser as to what the encounter actually meant. “Nobody else approached him. Nobody tried to arrest him. Nobody tried to mug him.”)

In fact, Hutchinson seems most interested in the mundanities of life as a Coureur. He pays a lot of attention to the work of “stringers”: non-Coureurs, or sometimes junior Coureurs, who are occasionally paid to leave paper trails and other traces to back up a Coureur’s cover story, by taking a lease on an apartment in a certain name, for example, or complaining about bins to a specific person. Like Rudi, we’re mostly not given any idea of how these little actions will come to be important. We see the granular detail, not the wider picture.

So what’s the point of this novelistic myopia? (I realise none of this sounds terribly complimentary; perhaps I should point out here that I liked Europe in Autumn!) Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think Hutchinson is making a political point. Because the effect of this granularity is to evoke a kind of constant, low-grade paranoia; an ever-present sense that the mundane things that make up a life are concealing something more sinister, or perhaps simply more meaningful. And, crucially, that something, that meaning behind mundanity, is inaccessible to almost everyone – including the reader, who’s so used (by the conventions of Western narrative) to being in a privileged position in relation to fictional characters.

The Europe Hutchinson conjures up is a grey and often tedious one, filled with borders and barbed wire and concrete. It’s not a dystopia, exactly, but nor is it a particularly fun place to be. It is, in fact, a continent that has slipped backwards, into Cold War paranoia. The near-future tech – which includes paper TV screens and purses that read thieves’ DNA – only points up how this world hasn’t progressed in any meaningful sense.

Despite its apparent lack of traditional SFnal furniture, then, Europe in Autumn is doing that most SFnal of work: using speculative elements to ironise, and thus to cast light on, our own historical moment – which is one of growing paranoia and distrust and cultural (if not yet national) balkanisation. And the danger of that historical moment; which is that, as we assert our differences, protect our own particular identities and ideologies to the exclusion of all else, we also give up our ability to access a wider kind of significance, our access to a shared European culture.

*At least, that’s how the person on Solaris’ stall at Nine Worlds described it to me and everyone else who happened to be walking past at the time.

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.

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.