Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Spares by Michael Marshall Smith

Terror, and relief; relief and terror,
so intermingled that they feel like
the same thought.
I'm having a great time reassembling my lost library, re-reading books I once thought I'd consumed and therefore to which I might justifiably never return. It's great! Next up, in case you're wondering, will be Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (not that I'd lost it, just that I reallyreallyreally want to read it again, having been a whole 10 years since his untimely death). 

Michael Marshall Smith (or Michael Marshall when he writes out-and-out horror/thriller titles) is a British writer who brings to mind the work of his contemporary sci-fi & etc. novelist Jeff Noon. His first book was Only Forward (on my To Re-Read list for sure) which with the talking appliances originally made me think of Rogue Trooper in 2000AD comics, and got me into slick, quick, character and plot-driven sci-fi back in the late 1990s. Wait, or was that One Of Us? Bah, who cares.

Spares is set in a dystopian American future (one assumes) where the rich can grow spare bodies for harvesting in the event of tragedy and trauma to their own, where MegaMalls fly through the sky and where we find Jack Randall, a retired detective and former Bright Eyes soldier, in charge of one of the spares farms, who after an accidental overdose becomes acutely aware of the horror of his existence and vows to not only save the spares but eventually to avenge the death of his wife and child. That's a lot of back story to drip feed throughout a book that also races forward to a violent end via a parallel dimension known as The Gap (no relation to the clothing store I would hope). The Gap itself made me think of William Gibson's Neuromancer and his virtual environment, but in this it's more of an in-between place, somewhere the lost things of this dimension slipped into, and where in the narrative history of Spares Jack Randall had been sent to fight the inhabitants, wraiths, ghosts, trees and leaves, empty villages and deadly miasmata, and where he first becomes addicted to the drugs that nearly kill him later but kept him alive in-country. Anyway, it never intrudes, only adding to the deepening mystery and it remains unresolved throughout until the surprising denouement which ties it all together, skillfully if a little too happily for those of us expecting a tragic ending. And it's a damned fine example of story telling.

I watched for a decade or so for the optioned film version of Spares to hit the cinemas, but Dreamworks' rights lapsed. They then turned out The Island which bears some suspicious similarities and which was wholly underwhelming IMHO. But it never reaches the moral horror and casual brutality of the novel on which they presumably based their watered-down (and not in a good, understated Kazuo-Ishiguro Never Let Me Go way) version. It's a hard read in places, presaging his future horror/thriller work, but eminently worthwhile.

   

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Jim Giraffe by Daren King

It's a good shag, Spec, but
I wouldn't want to marry it
.
Like all good ghost stories, at least those written by Charles Dickens, this one starts off with a spectral appearance and a triple-threat warning, via the medium of VHS cassette, that if Scott Spectrum, successful scriptwriter for the Science Fiction Channel's biggest hit, to date, Space Man In Space, doesn't slip the yoke of self-repression, he is going to die. Unlike Dickens, Jacob Marley here is a dead giraffe, who lives in the wardrobe, and is called Jim. 

But Scott Spectrum is no Ebeneezer Scrooge. He learns absolutely nothing about himself and, at its finalé, is left a cuckold, unaware that his frustrated wife Continence can't be impregnated by acts of fellatio, his baby suspiciously long of neck and skin mottled with giraffe-ish patterns, forced out of his house, his marriage and his life and left to live with Barry the ghost rhinoceros who until then kipped under Scott's sink.

Cock jokes abound, there is foul language and sledgehammer satire, and if you're going in expecting a grimly believable tale like King's debut novel, then you can take a hike. Jim Giraffe is comic surrealism with a dark and nasty bent, but it balances its nastiness with a strange sense of innocence, both Jim and Scott teetering on the edge of understanding but naively trapped in lives and loops from which there is no escape. And in essence, that's the scariest part of this ghost story; for all the surrealism, Scott's terminal parabolic arc doesn't end with a pot of gold, but with loneliness and despair - we all die alone. Although not all with a ghost rhino for company.

Monday, 13 March 2017

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. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard

What does a three-time
loser have to lose?
It’s truly staggering how many of Elmore Leonard’s simply written and spare novels and novellas have been turned into films. If you don’t believe me, here’s a link to an out-of-date hierarchical listing of best-to-worst adaptations from Indiewire. See, there’s lots of them.

But as the chap who lent me this one (he’s been on an Elmore Leonard bender of late, including all of the early westerns he wrote, and is trying to force me to read them all) says, once you’ve seen the film, and heard those movie idols speak Leonard’s wonderful prose lines, it’s really damned hard to imagine anyone else saying them, even in the case of Alan Alda.

So it’s no surprise then that the dialogue of Rum Punch, committed to celluloid by the esteemed Mr Tarantino, seems to spring from the mouths of Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert de Niro, Bridget Fonda et al. And after that, well, it’s hard to think of anything else. 

For those yet to see the film of the book, altered to reflect Tarantino’s contemporaneous penchant for Blacksploitation movies to have an African-American leading lady by the name of Jackie Brown (as opposed to the forty-something, trim, sexy blond Jackie Burke of the novel), then read this first. Jackie is a flight attendant, smuggling small sums of cash across the country for small-time arms dealer and hoodlum Ordell Robbie. Of course, she gets caught in a sting by local and federal law enforcement and hatches her own plan to extricate herself and a large portion of the money, with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry. Things go remarkably well for her, naturally, despite hiccups along the way. But the star here of course is Leonard’s prose which, arriving pure and un-stepped-upon by those dealers of cultural references, sparkles and vivifies the action, necessarily sparse, allowing the action to develop quickly and never bothering to mention the weather or use any other verb than ‘to say’ when someone says something, adverbs be damned. It’s great, it really is.