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If Then by Matthew De Abaitua

If you don't want to buy it from
Amazon (link below)
go directly to Angry Robot Books.
In making sense of this rather incredible novel, bought on a whim because the lovely people at Angry Robot offered to discount any e-book the Twitterati proposed to only 50p for a few minutes, and me being a fringe-Twitterer managed to get in on the act, I am deeply indebted to an article from Strange Horizons. It also reminded me to read more Olaf Stapledon. For the forensic work they do in tracing the references and highlighting the influences and inspiration behind the characters, please do read their review (after you read this, click on all the advertising and leave me glowing comments, of course).

In retrospect, I should have suspected that a sci-fi novel written by the amanuensis of Will Self would be challenging, upsetting, entertaining and thought-provoking. Harrowing in places too. Because it is most certainly all of these things. In a near post-digital-apocalyptic future, a small community is given over to The Process, an AI algorithm, which receives data from biotech implants in the heads of the inhabitants to provide the population with all that they need to survive and thrive, to the mutual benefit of all. The community has regressed, technologically, but only because The Process had identified the need for it.
The metrics of happiness required old rituals, old ways of doing things, and so time was set aside within the work schedule for the townspeople to make their own trades.
But thrown into the mix are seemingly random and unfathomable evictions, engendering not only fear of being unwanted but more terrifyingly the fear that thinking negatively makes you surplus to the requirements of mutual happiness. And James is the town's bailiff, a volunteer whose implants take away his control over his actions whilst he clambers into his mechanical armour and performs the evictions, something for which he is feared and reviled. The only eviction scene we witness is an amazing piece of writing, part Wicker Man (Edward Woodward, not Nicholas Cage) with its strange pageantry, part Rebecca Riots with insurgents vainly trying to defend the evictees, part Pacific Rim with James' motorised battle suit.

At the opening, James is walking without his armour outside the town and discovers an automaton dressed in the garb of a British soldier, with dog tags that read J Hector, caught in barbed wire, whom he takes home and then to the mysterious Institute where the reader is introduced to Omega John, disturbing leader of the eponymous... what, cabal? Secret laboratory? That's not to be known yet. 

So far so weird, but then here comes the harrowing part.

James stops receiving his rations from The Process, and his replacement is chosen, leading him to fear his own eviction, so he follows John Hector, his simulacrum, out of the town and into a staged recreation of the Gallipoli landings in The Great War, where they both become stretcher bearers on the beaches and dunes. The incredible, torturous hell of their existence is exhaustively detailed, and it is hard to read, although undoubtedly drawn from diaries and the experiences of people like Stapledon and Lewis Fry Richardson, suggested by avatars who appear in the novel. The purpose of war, it seems, is to re-create the 'real-life' historical John Hector that The Process has identified is needed for the benefit of the town of Lewes.

It's befuddling in parts, but erudite throughout, and as a happy pseudo-Luddite, I was pleased to note a number of pointed observations on the purposeless that is the plague of modern society. For example, James...
...tried to remember what it used to be like here but he had almost no specific memories of shopping, just so many dreams of unthinking gliding automation.
But it also presages the growing fears about AI, explored recently by Stephen Hawking, and taken on in De Abaitua's next book, The Destructives, where newly sentient AIs 'emerge' and immediately withdraw to the far side of the galaxy, away from the humans who were their creators.

If you like a challenging read, worry about the human mind and our cognitively dissonant yearnings for self-destruction and self-preservation, or you're interested in the horrors of war or the Gallipoli landings of 1915, or you have a yen for dystopian near-futures, or are a fan of Brian Aldiss, Aldous Huxley (whose brother makes an indirect appearance) or, indeed, Olaf Stapledon, then you should pick up a copy as soon as you can. 


How's about that then?

Metaliterature - what meaning to have is this for meaning?

Not a review this time, more of a curiosity. It seems I'm receiving lots of hits from Russia (Здравствуйте России!) from people searching for the definition of "metaliterature". As such, it is something of a bespoke word, created to fit a need and probably not yet recognized outside literary theory / criticism circles (Merriam-Webster Online certainly don't like it). I was wondering what they typed in to end up here, so, for fun (it's not fun, sorry) I thought I'd bung it in Google Translate and see what came out. As it turns out, one needs a little hyphen for the rather ponderous machine to understand it, and even then only does half the job (meta seems to be meta in any language). 
Incidentally, below is, ironically, a Google Chrome Thesaurus definition* of "meta":

met·a Adjective/ˈmetə/
(of a creative work) Referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referentialInterestingly (not interesting, sorry) it says this for the full term, t…

Under The Dust by Jordi Coca

So, wheel of fortune, count to 29, pin the tail, freebies off of peeps on Twitter etc. etc. Whatever the methods sometimes employed to pick the next book in my intertextual experience, the one that brought me to Jordi Coca brought me to a whopping great slice of nostalgia. Before I'd even opened it, it brought to mind Richard Gwyn, himself a published poet, author, biographer, translator and course director of the MA Creative Writing course at Cardiff University, who I recall for some odd reason gently encouraging me to read this novel, and by whose own work I was quietly impressed at the time. He was also an advocate of Roberto Bolaño, another writer in whose work I can immerse myself but from which I emerge drained, as mentioned previously. Before that, though, there is this sticker on the front, declaring 'Signed by the Author at Waterstone's'. It is indeed signed by Jordi Coca, not adding any particular intrinsic value to the book, not for me anyway, but more impor…

Hereward: The Last Englishman by Peter Rex

By all accounts, Hereward was the guerrilla scourge of the invading Norman armies in eleventh century Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, famous for isolating and dismembering members of the Norman nobility who strayed too far from home, and also for trashing Peterborough and hiding on an island. Called variously (and often erroneously) The Wake, The Exile or The Outlaw, his infamy was such that families in search of noble English lineage have usurped his "heroism" for their own glory even until this very day. Rex delights in highlighting one author's particular folly, entitled Hereward, The Saxon Patriot, in which Lieutenant-General Harward attempts to run his antecedents right back to the loins of the eponymous gentleman-rogue. 

Having only read the introduction to Peter Rex's myth-busting (and often ill-edited) work, I was already struck by an initial thought which ran thus: if as Rex asserts Hereward was the son of Asketil Tokison, a descendant of a wealthy Danish family …

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 
Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).
First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin&#…