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Interzone 251 (16 page)

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THE BLACK DOG EATS THE CITY
CHRIS KELSO

Omnium Gatherum pb, 156pp, $12.99

reviewed by Jim Steel

Happy birthday, Interzone. One hundred years old, eh? You’re looking good.

Of course, lonesome cowboy Bill Burroughs didn’t get around to publishing much until he hit middle age, which puts Chris Kelso way ahead of him in that respect at least. Kelso’s Ersatz is a city that uses the same architects as Interzone. The exact location is unclear but it has a mid-Atlantic twang that will be familiar to those of us who grew up with Mega City 3. Other antecedents include Disch’s
334
and some of the darker alleyways of John Shirley. We are not looking at Utopia.

Kelso is an exponent of Bizarro fiction, a sub-genre that behaves exactly as you would expect from its name. He’s more restrained than some of its practitioners and is a finer writer than most of them, although this will tell you little if you are new to it. It’s a zestful, taboo-baiting genre, with a swagger that hasn’t been seen since the high noon of cyberpunk, and one suspects that any commercial appreciation it acquires will be the ruin of it. However, the better writers will survive it and many will move beyond it.

The Black Dog of the title is a crushing contagion that goes far beyond the usual forms of depression. It is so bleak that it drives the sufferers mad. This also means that the Black Dog can become a real demon in this non-subjective world. Some characters, Kricfalusi and the rapist-dentist Baby Guts for example, flee, while others, such as Lester Proctor, search for a cure. Still others try and quarantine themselves in the spaceship-like Hollow Earth. Most, as people do, carry on their lives as best they can. They search for sex, confusing it with love, and put up with unspeakable degradations in the office. However, a dark humour is never far from the surface, deflecting any thoughts of torture porn which is an accusation that can be thrown fairly at several practitioners of Bizarro. A droid/clone goes in search of an identical clone with little more in the way of expectation than the hope of avoiding rejection this time. He finds his clone. They are not physically compatible. Perhaps power tools can help.

Characters find time to discuss the short stories of Philip K. Dick and feminist readings of the
Alien
trilogy. It’s a strange setting for Socratic dialogue, but there is validity in some of the arguments. Some of the characters, such as Fairfax the writer, are fully-rounded creations and reveal much more of the human condition than some of the one-dimension monsters that the reader also meets in the course of the book. As you are probably starting to gather, Kelso covers a lot of ground in this short novel. He also experiments with style. Modernism, poetry, script writing, graphic novelty, different column layouts; they all get a shot on the page. To Kelso’s credit, it generally works; although some of the dialogue is clunky, he rarely overwrites. However, there is no textual need for this. Form and content remain disconnected. It’s a bit like being handed a silver spoon with your glass of wine: very pretty, but why?

As the novel progresses, the passages start to stretch and this allows the reader to catch his breath. This also suggests an approach to outlining a novel that, if one is being generous, one might say leaned towards spontaneity. But it is certainly structured and plotted – by way of contrast, Burroughs, much of the time, relied merely on pyrotechnics to push us through the pages. Postmodernism also appears when the Mainstream enters as a villain – much more dangerous than the demon Black Dog, of course. Welcome back, Po-Mo – we’ve missed you!

The Black Dog Eats The City
is a fast and easy read, despite any impression to the contrary that I may have given. There are certainly some rough edges, but not too many. It’s great fun. Kelso is committed to his craft and has already had several books published. Stylistically he resembles, at times, a rawer Hal Duncan (the pair of them have already collaborated on an anthology, although Kelso is showing signs of being the more prolific of the two). He will keep on getting better and someday soon people are going to be naming him as one of their own influences. He’s worth checking out.

THE ARROWS OF TIME
GREG EGAN

Gollancz tpb, 432pp, £12.99

reviewed by John Howard

The Arrows of Time
is the third book of
Orthogonal
, following on from
The Clockwork Rocket
and
The Eternal Flame
.
Orthogonal
is a three-volume novel rather than a trilogy. Egan created a radically different sort of universe, going out of his way not to anthropomorphise these particular inhabitants beyond the demands of authorial communication with readers: the demands of fiction written by a human for other humans having to use their words to express and describe what would go on in any universe. Egan takes his creations for granted, and gives matter-of-fact aids and hooks upon which to hang what has to be. For example, they hum and chirp and buzz, have ‘rear vision’, and can rearrange their bodies to a considerable extent. Reproduction and family life, too, are suitably ‘alien’ (to us) yet of course natural (for them). They are not unalterable. Part of the ongoing conflict is over whether the advances really are advances or, instead, are causing the removal of another chunk from the foundations of institutions that have served society well, even if at a great cost to individuals.

In the beginning the home world was coming under increasing threat from Hurtlers – meteors that would probably, in due course, destroy the planet before science had advanced far enough for a solution to be discovered. Rather than merely wait, it was decided to construct a generation spaceship,
Peerless
(actually a whole mountain, tunnelled-out and adapted). This spaceship would be sent on a voyage of development, thus creating enough time for a solution to be found and brought back home – all within the lifetimes of the population at home, and hopefully long before any catastrophe.

This is possible because Egan’s universe plays to different rules. The
Orthogonal
universe follows laws based on the work of Georg Bernhard Riemann (1826–66). Egan invaluably explains the setup and implications on his website (gregegan.net). In a Riemannian universe “all the dimensions are treated as fundamentally the same. In contrast, in the Lorentzian
space-time
of our own universe, one of the dimensions,
time
, is singled out for special treatment.” This means light has no constant speed (so stars are seen as streaks rather than points). The properties of ordinary matter can be traumatic. Time need not only run in one direction: its arrows can fly in from the future as well as out of the past. And for a generation starship travelling at sufficient speed, time will pass at a much faster rate on board than outside (put that copy of
Tau Zero
back on the shelf: it’s not wanted on this voyage).

When
The Arrows of Time
opens, several generations have come and gone on
Peerless
. Numerous problems have been solved – not only technological ones, but biological as well. What amounts to a new society has grown up in space, separated from the home planet. Now, with
Peerless
about to return home laden with advances in technology and knowledge – wisdom too? – it turns out that its problems are far from over.

It is said that science fiction isn’t really about the future, but its contextual present. So…
Orthogonal
seeks to portray a race developing science and social structures as it seeks solutions to new challenges, and as it continually attempts to comprehend the universe and its place in it. Paradigms are discovered, superseded, reconstructed. Whatever rules the universe follows, the ways to grow in understanding and maturity – everything for a race becoming, in the lo-o-o-o-o-ng view, what Olaf Stapledon described as “awakened” – there are always setbacks to face from the established ways of thinking and of living, from older societal mores and biological impulses, from the considerations and compromises of power and those wielding it. Here they are.

Egan weaves a rich fabric out of true (science) fiction’s strong threads, rolling it out with deceptive ease and with a weight to it that this reader strained with but wouldn’t have any other way. Gold is like that. What Egan has done is to indulge in a thought experiment that seeks to out-think the thought experiment, bursting out of the idea, letting us see and feel. All right, not
fully
possible: different, different! Why, then, go even that far and spend the time, and make the effort, with these beings, these situations, indeed whole cosmos? Perhaps the reason is simply because Egan can, that it’s part of the desire and enthusiasm for moving towards maturity, seeing in Others some amount of Us. Greg Egan has written about people (word intended) worthy of our respect. It is all something to reach out for.

SHOVEL READY
ADAM STERNBERGH

Headline tpb, 256pp, £13.99

reviewed by Barbara Melville

Set in a near-future New York,
Shovel Ready
follows the gruff monologue of a garbage man turned killer for hire. Spademan – we need not concern ourselves with his real name – makes his policies on his profession clear from the get go: “I don’t want to know your reasons. […] I don’t care. Think of me as a bullet. Just point.” Of course, it isn’t that simple. When hired to kill Persephone, the daughter of a powerful evangelist, Spademan finds a grey area in his rulebook, switching his role from assailant to protector. With Persephone in tow, Spademan unravels a disturbing mystery spanning two worlds: a withering post-terrorist New York, and a fake, but tempting, simulation.

This is a story rich in dark ideas and themes. The real New York, the result of several bombings, offers a poor and bedraggled existence. The simulation offers wish fulfilment but at a cost: only the richest of the rich can indulge. The story switches between wasteland and fantasy, exploring the economic dichotomy alongside themes of temptation, religion, and greed. In fact, pretty much all of the seven deadly sins are in this story (and probably a dozen more). Spademan, who suffered a great loss in the terrorist attacks, is the perfect person to narrate. His job as an assassin allows him an intimate knowledge of New York: those nooks, crannies and underworlds only well-worn and wise observers get to see.

I liked Spademan and his story immediately. His language is acerbic, funny and believable, with fragmented sentences mimicking real speech. Dialogue is heavy throughout, which would usually annoy me, but every word of it shows character – the fact it also moves the plot along is a bonus. The dialogue is reported without the distraction of speech marks – a great way of showing unreliable narration, and something I wish more authors would consider. There’re also very few speech verbs, i.e. he saids and she saids, but it is always clear who is speaking. Each character has their nuances, ticks and ways with words, even when seen through Spademan’s eyes.

Another high point is the book’s ability to bend genre, something which is deeply ingrained in the narrative. I spotted the echoes of likely influences: William Gibson, Warren Ellis, Cormac McCarthy and Philip K. Dick, to name but a few. Fortunately this makes for an interesting study rather than an ongoing distraction.
Shovel Ready
could drive bookshop owners spare with its many categories: it is science fiction, it is dystopian fiction, it is a thriller, it is detective fiction and it is noir. Given the simulation theme, it also bumps shoulders with cyberpunk. Now usually my encounters with cyberpunk – or anything in the cyberpunk family – make me want to bludgeon myself unconscious and give up on reading forever. But here it’s light and accessible – so if you hate cyberpunk too, fear not! It’s safe to proceed.

Despite the book’s strong dialogue and perfect dusting of cyberpunk, I still went looking for trouble. When I finished the book, something was niggling: character. This is a plot-driven story – and that works. Books don’t
have
to be character driven, and dare I say it, characters don’t even have to change. But I felt Spademan was built up to develop early on, and this didn’t quite pay off. He isn’t a straightforward psychopath and does explore difficult emotional setbacks, but when I got to the end I wasn’t sure where he stood with them. This needn’t have been mawkish or layered on thick, but I feel leaving too many open doors belittles the story somewhat. His reason for narrating becomes more about spinning a grisly yarn and less about sharing something both intimate
and
compelling.

Anyway, rumour has it Sternbergh is working on a second Spademan novel. I’m not sure how this could work, but I’m looking forward to finding out. Perhaps the next story will develop Spademan’s character, or clarify why this shouldn’t happen. Either way, for a book that mentions garbage so much,
Shovel Ready
is a breath of fresh air. It’s great to see writers and publishers taking risks and challenging the typical shelf marks of genre. But perhaps the most impressive thing about this story is how it combines old and new ideas about reality, blending them to make something seamless and original. For a tale about good and evil, this is quite a feat.

BOOK: Interzone 251
5.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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