Friday, June 21, 2002

Title: Bigot Hall
Author: Steve Aylett
Publisher: Indigo

Bigot Hall is a big house built on the outskirts of a small village, designed and built by the head of the strange family that live there. Hints are made that there is more to the house than a design, which hasn't been approved - built on land that was bought with forged money and with some kind of purpose. Part of the house is given over to a foundry run by nuns, who are referred to but never encountered. The rest of the house is taken up by the one family and a couple of lodgers. With this the book follows the son of the man who built the house, never named but mainly referred to as "laughing boy". Each chapter being his experiences/encounters with the various members of his family or things in general which have shaped him.

The family ranges from his Uncle Snapper who is homicidally incompetent or Nanny Jack who gets buried on a regular basis but keeps coming back and then there is his incestuous relationship with his sister Adrienne. In terms of events we get accounts of the time he ran away to the circus only to find it a horrifying experience or when the neighbours came round for a visit unannounced and wouldn't take the hint that they weren't welcome. Secrets and spectres stalk the rest of the book, punctuated by Aylett's regular witticisms that keep the book rolling along in an amusing fashion.

Bigot Hall on the whole is less out there than the likes of Aylett's Beerlight books or the Inflatable Volunteer, but definitely displays his style from beginning to end.

June 2002

Title: Atom
Author: Steve Aylett
Publisher: Phoenix

I wonder how many Steve Aylett books you need to read before you go barking mad? I mean this is my fifth and I've got another two lined up for reading. Though at just over 100 pages Atom is a pretty quick read, as is Bigot Hall which I followed Atom with and am already half way through.

Anyway for those that haven't read Aylett or one of my reviews of Aylett's work it should be pointed out that he is a potent writer - free flowing stream of conscious simulated dialogues, walking a fine line between absurdist humour and semi-complete nonsense.

Maintaining certain benchmarks of what mode Aylett is in can be useful - taking The Inflatable Volunteer as a constant of absurd and Shamanspace as the most coherent of his work to date. On that scale Atom is towards TIV but isn't quite as extreme, a manageable plot and flow being possible to summarise after reading the book. Though plot is a tangible idea, one which on the whole Aylett has a tendency to neglect, wandering off on diversions and desperately padding out.

The plot in Atom's case is that a brain has been stolen from Beerlight's brain factory - labelled as that of Tony Curtis but actually formerly residing in the skull of Franz Kafka. Beerlight is a crime city, crime is art and a way of life it seems. With which it isn't a surprise that there would be several groups interested in the brain in question - so one group turns up at the offices of Atom & Drowner to secure the services of Taffy Atom private defective. Hoping that his PI modal will help retrieve the brain for them; even though he turns them down another group believes he must be involved so they also start asking Atom questions. Quickly this progresses to the point where so many people believe that Atom is involved that he might as well be.

With that set up firmly set up Aylett works with the PI noir, adding a mutant fish for partnership and a smoky dame. Filling out the picture are the gangsters, with their whacked nicks that define or contradict their characters. Somewhere several steps behind everyone else are the police who work out their own mode, where everything is a crime with only the evidence to be creatively invented for charges to be brought about. With all parties armed and spontaneous with the art of the state of the art weapons anything can happen and in Aylett's hands it does.

June 2002

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Title: Vurt
Author: Jeff Noon

I guess with the name Vurt it is likely that Vurt is the first of Jeff Noon's Vurt novels. Though there are a number of stories in Pixel Juice, which refer to the vurt feathers, some of which may have led to the expansion that is Vurt, while some no doubt flesh out the idea further. The idea of vurt that is, the idea that vurtual reality is an interactive entertainment system which can be accessed by the use of feathers.

There are 5 types of feathers - each indicated by their colour. The first is blue, the legal type which most folk will use, filled with all sorts of nice fun and games. The next type is pink, pornovurt, filled with sexual fantasies, strictly adult vurt only. Then there is black which is like blue, only illegal, jail time if you get caught with black vurt. Which leaves silver feathers - the engineering feather, a tool used by the makers of vurt. Rarest of all feathers and the most risky is the yellow - while other colours come with an out, and exit if things get too much, yellows don't. If you are in a yellow its win or lose, life or death - win the game and you can exit, lose and you could end up dead.

Vurt is the story of Scribble and his friends, but mostly Scribble and how he lost his sister to vurt. Its a different world, between the hybrids and vurt - people can get lost in vurt, exchanged for vurt creatures. While in a yellow Scribble lost Desdemona for a vurt creature, since which he has been driven to find a copy of the feather and get his sister back.

With that Vurt is a the story of the breakdown of friendships causes by one event and how the characters deal with that. The whole vurt and hybrid thing is a backdrop; another idea used extensively is that there are five pure states - human, robo, dog, shadow and vurt - which can interbreed to provide hybrids. By being background it doesn't interfere with the plot, but gives a rich environment. It also means it is already all in place for when it does actually become important to the plot.

June 2002

Title: Altered Carbon
Author: Richard Morgan
Publisher: Gollancz

Altered Carbon is the first book by Richard Morgan, equal parts thiller to science fiction. Which is just as well given that the main character gets killed in the first few pages - altered carbon allows him to be given a new body, a technology which has changed the way that people live. But as always these things come with a price, theory is you can live forever if you are rich enough and the man that wants to hire Kovacs to find his killer is certainly rich enough, giving him 3 centuries of life so far. So Kovacs, fresh plucked from his death on the Japanese/Polish colony of Harlan's World finds himself on Earth with a deal that leaves him little choice but to find out who was responsible for blowing the head off his client.

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-Envoy, the UN special forces created to deal with the spreading influence of the human race, intended to keep things under the control of earth. Specially trained so that they can deal with any new situation on any planet in any sleeve of altered carbon in which they might find themselves. This makes him a unique investigator, and one used to the levels of violence he quickly encounters as he is plunged in at the deep end of the games of the unnaturally old, conspiracies and general mistaken identities. Fast and hard as clues are laid out for the attentive reader at the same rate as the characters past is pieced together.

In a lot of ways Altered Carbon could almost be said to be more heavily in the crime genre. The lead character taking on the role of private investigator for a rich client. The client's wife playing the femme fatale to perfection, especially when she is as many centures old as her husband. Add a conflicted relationship with the local police and a selection of bad guys that ranges from modified street tough to the smart edged black-corporate criminal. All the elements are there and transposed against a satisfyingly hard SF back drop. Exotic planets and extended life spans fleshed out by the technologies which make it all possible as well as the differences in culture which are likely to crop up. The whole sleeve culture that has cropped up is particularly effective - the idea of disposable or regenerative bodies isn't a first, but the way in which it has been integrated and developed here is different and interesting, especially in the way it seems to have been so casually accepted as way of life - except for those religious objectors of course.

An enjoyable first work which hopefully the author will be able to build upon to make his future work even more impressive.

June 2002

Title: Desolation Road
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Bantam

Apparently Desolation Road is the first novel by Ian McDonald where he explores his vision of Mars. Trying to avoid the typical clichés in many ways Desolation Road almost comes across as more of a Western, with the pioneer spirit and the way in which progress on the colonised planet is related to the spread of the rail lines. But with that McDonald is keen to maintain a multi-cultural approach, while also mixing a whole range of strange ideas into his hectic melting pot.

Covering a period of 30 Martian years Desolation Road is the story of an accidental community that rises from one man to world wide prominence back to red dust again. A scientist is wandering and comes across an oasis in the middle of the desert where one of the terraforming machines has come to die prematurely. With this he ends up staying in this place, one night drunkenly misnaming it Desolation Road. From this starting point McDonald leads us through a number of short chapters which introduce a colourful and disparate cast of characters who all end up living in Desolation Road by one accident of fate or another. The community established he then follows the fates of this cast and how they and their children are linked to this place.

Over the course of this place's history we experience time travel, war, cyborgs and corporate domination, along with all manner of travelling shows. We meet glorious prophets, cyborg dreamers, the greatest snooker player in the universe (and via him we witness a game against the devil for his soul and a man who can tell your future by the way the balls break on the table), and the human scorn who can make a man bleed with the power of his sarcasm!

Familiar with other works by this Irish writer we are used to the amount of ideas he crams into a book. With Desolation Road McDonald has adopted a clear style for his narrative, which had its pros and cons. In many ways the style is easy going and has a certain lightheartedness - which is complimented by some of the ideas that are more out there. On the other hand, the whole set up of the scenario seems to take a long time, the numerous short chapters becoming a little predictable and while heavy on detail at times actually light on character. While this works itself out so that once we are fully immersed Desolation Road does become quite compelling it can feel like it took too long to get to that stage.

June 2002

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Title: Happiness TM
Author: Will Ferguson
Publisher: Canongate

Edwin works in a publishers, just another editor in a cubicle environment - under paid, living beyond his means, unhappily married, hating the hell that is the city. Spending a morning going through the mountain of unsolicited submissions, he is a little distracted when he is called to a meeting. Which leads to him being caught out when the company's owner asks him for a book to fill a place in the season's catalogue. Panicking he comes up with the last book he binned that morning - a book that claims to be the ultimate self-help book, and the way that Edwin talks it up he thinks it had better be something. Feeling the pressure he slaves away at pulling this book together, though in the end it turns out the book is intended just as a token gesture - minimum print run and zero advertising.

The book is called What I Learned On The Mountain and is by the mysterious Tupak Sharee. As the token run is sent out Eddie starts to have a bad feeling about it, a feeling which turns out to be justified. The book sells, it sells well, and keeps on selling with repeated print runs. A self-help book that works - improves people's health, sex life, helps make them money. What would happen if this was the case - well first the cigarette industry collapses, then the alcohol, then the gyms and rehab centres and it goes from there. What I Learned On The Mountain is a monster, Tupak a cult of merchandising and appearances on Oprah. Which sets up the question - what can Edwin do stop the end of the world as we know it?

Happiness TM is the first novel by Will Ferguson and comes from an interesting idea. On the whole Happiness TM is a reasonably enjoyable read, though I tended to feel that Ferguson could have spent more time getting into the spread of "happiness" and its cultural effect. Instead we spend too much time on the life of our hapless (hopeless?) hero and the setting up of the farce that is the publication of the What I Learned On The Mountain.

June 2002

Title:Body Mortgage
Author: Richard Engling

I picked up Body Mortgage second hand, a book published in 1989 and set in the future of 1999 and I guess in many ways it shows. Certainly there are problems with setting a novel in the near future, especially when it gets to the point when as far as the reader is concerned it is the past. From the predictions of millennial riots, TV phones rejected and the use of electric cars to the omission of mobile phones and the internet. Along with the technological issues of setting a book in the future that has become the past too soon are the cultural aspects - an under current of racism seeming to come through - whether that is a sign of the time (ie 1989), a deliberate affectation to get a more urban/gritty feel or something else all together isn't entirely clear - though it is something which I am particularly conscious of as I read the book.

In some ways Body Mortgage is a really bad book, pandering to clichés and barely surviving its own awkwardness. My reasons for picking it up are mixed, as I've mentioned it was second hand, therefore it was cheap, but also it sounded like it could be a curious mixture of odd ideas and cheese - which I admit I sometimes find amusing. The idea of the body mortgage comes from the market for body parts - there is always a demand for transplants, so someone came up with the idea of lending money based on the reclamation of the body. You get a loan of money from the bank and pay it back fine, but if you don't you then forfeit your body to the bank and you are chopped up for spares. An extreme idea to be sure, but as the main character points out only a fool would get involved in that. Gregory Blake is a private detective and against his better judgement finds himself taking on the job of protecting one of these fools - an inventor with a "wonderful new machine" which he has R&D'd with a body mortgage which is now due. Of course for this sort of book to work there needs to be more than one thing going on at once, so we have a mysterious someone having broken into the detectives office, someone telling folk that it was the detective who informed on a local agitator as being responsible for a bombing, and the contamination of a chemical supply at a regular client's works. Soon Blake is swamped by all the strands, but gradually starts to pull them all together.

In so many ways Body Mortgage conforms to all the rules of a private detective novel while seemingly oddly dated for something which should feel more contemporary. Engling apparently has an MA in creative writing, which sets me to thinking about training versus talent went it comes to something creative. There are ways to adhere to rules while bringing your work past those and ways to barely pull it off. Here Engling comes out with some things which just seem too much - the blossoming relationship between Blake and his secretary Mona seems too forced, too much of a narrative gambit in an attempt to play to the genre rules. In general the writing is something I am particularly conscious of, which is unusual and I don't think a good thing. Repeated phrases like "he recognised the guy instantly" being one aspect of the unnaturalness that comes through.

While the suggestion that Body Mortgage is "Chandler meets Blade Runner in a terrifying thriller set in a nightmare future" is unfortunate, on the whole it is an easy, undemanding read, which while not really good is okay enough.

June 2002

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