Leviathan – Matthew Trevannion

The first question I had about Matthew Trevannion’s brilliant new play Leviathan was one of paratext, namely: why does a drama so seemingly parochial in its subject matter have such an epic, myth-invoking title?

The invocation, it turns out, is figurative, as beneath the familiar waters of this family drama lurks a metaphorical monster: the ‘Leviathan’ of the title simultaneously representing depression, secrecy and failed escape.

The one-act play is set entirely in the back garden of a Welsh council house, in which three women from the same family (grandmother, mother, daughter) argue, bicker, laugh and wrestle with their pasts, presents and, by proxy, their futures. I say “three women”, but in fact it’s only two, as the mother, Karen (Claire Cage), has suffered some kind of mental breakdown, and become a catatonic mute. Above the house runs a train line, and it’s tempting to interpret the occasional tape-loops of trains travelling back and forth as an economic allegory: the world passing by as the lives of the council house tenants remain static.

Lev 1

As grandmother and granddaughter argue and parley, various truths and conflicts rise to the surface. They both have different ideas about how best to treat Karen (who spends the play slouched in a sofa-chair that’s been dragged into the sun), grandmother Mavis is disapproving of granddaughter Hannah’s lifestyle (especially her much older boyfriend), and behind her no-nonsense, blunt facade is an obvious disappointment that she hasn’t become quite the matriarch that she’d perhaps once imagined.

Hannah (Gwawr Loader) herself is more fragile; the most complex but almost the most subtle of the three performances. Hannah variously reveals pregnancy and cancers, which may-or-may-not be fantasies devised to shock her mother from her catatonia, or even to inject some manner of drama, imagined or otherwise, into her own life. The ambiguity is key.

What I’ve just described might sound unrelentingly bleak, but in terms of its genre, Leviathan predominantly functions as a black comedy. There aren’t jokes, per se, rather, the humour manifests as a kind of character comedy, mostly emerging from Siw Hughes’ show-stealing performance as the outrageously un-PC Mavis. The language chiefly adheres to a kind of colloquial naturalism: everything is rendered in strong South Wales accents, with local idioms and slang adding flavour to the wonderfully frenetic tumble of the dialogue.

***

Everything I’ve said above, though, is only one half of a more complex whole. Juxtaposed against the colloquial, micro-cosmic portrayal of familial pain is a much stranger use of language and imagery; and it’s out of this contrast between the everyday and the weird that the play’s most fascinating tensions are created. The catatonic mother Karen, for example, will often address the audience in a sort of outlandish hybrid of soliloquy and monologue. At such junctures the play’s language becomes increasingly more perfomative and abstract. Supplementing this are multiple gothic images, from a modern-gothic, almost apocalyptic description of sex “in a derelict house”, to the more traditional gothic staple of a grave-digging scene.

Leviathan’s greatest challenge, then, is in trying to parse the deeper meaning behind the contrasting images, lexicons and symbolism. Sometimes, as with the title, this is a relatively straight-forward task, at other times, however, the play can be tricky to decode. The exact significance of the three dead or nearly-dead birds (one for each of the three women) that feature in the beginning, middle, and end of the drama was a topic of heated debate after the final curtain. I’m also convinced that there’s some kind of Judeo-Christian imagery at play (the textual source of the Leviathan is the Old Testament, and the three women themselves definitely evoke, at times, a gender-swapped religious trinity), but others would, I’m sure, disagree.

lev 2

Leviathan is a strange, short stab of a play. I don’t think I laughed as hard as other audience members, but this isn’t because the play isn’t funny (it is, very), but because my own viewerly inclinations tend to gravitate towards the bleaker, more gothic interpretations of what’s happening. Either way, there’s an unnerving sense of cognitive dissonance at play between the black comedy of  Leviathan’s surface, and the emotional turmoil of its subtexts. It’s really, really good.

As a final note, it would be remiss of me not to mention the format of the production, which is the debut in Wales of the much-lauded (and hopefully self-explanatory) ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’ theatre scheme, which aims to make theatre less of a big deal, and more something that you might visit in a lunch hour, or immediately after work. The overall opinion is that this was a resounding success at the Sherman Theatre last night; the food and drink augmented the drama with a social element that encouraged both pre- and post-performance discussion amongst audience members. I very much hope that this is future of theatre, and I hope it’s not too hyperbolic to suggest that the recent take-over of the Sherman by artistic director Rachel O’Riordan signifies a coming renaissance of stage drama in Wales.

Leviathan is currently being performed at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. March 24th – 28th. Go see it!

The Violent Century – Lavie Tidhar

The Violent CI was wary going in to this, mostly because my experience with superheroes is primarily visual (comics, films, TV etc. maybe videogames), and I couldn’t quite imagine how they would work in a medium sans the ocular spectacle that perhaps defines the whole genre. Happily, however, Lavie Tidhar focuses on the emotional and philosophical implications of superhero-ness, using an idiosyncratic prose style to do the jobs usually covered by comics’ bright colours, or cinema’s loud noises and flashy flashes.

The Violent Century has two narrative focus points: the first is a grounded-in-reality presentation of 20th-century history, with the novel roughly covering the whole thing up until 9/11. The second focus is a fantastical superhero element: Dr Vomacht invents something (what he’s invented is never quite explained), turns it on, and in doing so creates hundreds of superheroes (“Ubermenschen” in the vernacular of the novel (with all the Nietzschean stuff that name evokes)), all with various – though on the whole familiar – powers: super speed, super strength, control over the elements etc. Using the conceit that the newly-created Ubermenschen don’t age, the novel tracks the entire century through the eyes of the same characters, chiefly the British heroes Fogg (who can make fog, duh), and Oblivion (who can vanish things within a few feet of his body).

And it’s really, really brilliant.

It’s not technically an alternate-history, as the presence of the Ubermenschen doesn’t change the course of the 20th Century as we know it. This is explained with the slick (if somewhat eye-brow-raising) rationale that the presence of British and German and Russian and American (etc.) superheroes all kinda cancel each other out, historically speaking. There are minor differences played for darkly comedic effect (Stan Lee, who in a world populated by superheroes never becomes a comics writer, is present at the Adolf Eichmann trials, for example), but otherwise this is history as we know it. In this regard the novel reminds me of Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (not sure if Tidhar would thank me for that comparison, though), which also uses a fantastical narrative framework as a means of writing about horrific historical events.

The Second World War takes up most of the novel’s non-linear narrative, and even after the war is over, its long shadow dominates the lives of our protagonists (if you want to be really twee about it, you could argue for a corollary between the effect the War had on history, and the effect it has on the characters. Meh, maybe.).

Fogg and Oblivion begin with relative wide-eyed optimism, a sense of moral duty and a willingness to serve king and country. As the novel, and time, progress, however, the distinctions between good and evil begin to blur (a critique of the unrealism of the black-and-white morality espoused by traditional superhero narratives, perhaps?); once solid relationships become unstable: endless, endless wars take their toll, and depression, drug addiction, loss and a sense of not-belonging and no-place begins to dominate the lives of the Ubermenschen. In this regard the inner lives of the characters tracks nicely with the philosophical development of the 20th Century, from certain-of-itself formalism, through to an anxious and lost postmodernism.

So rather than being about how history might by changed by superheroes, The Violent Century ponders how superheroes might be changed by history. Perhaps this is a wry dig at the subjectively ahistorical nature of comic books (let’s face it, Captain America would be utterly fucked-up after everything he’s been through). It’s profoundly moving, and Tidhar’s major achievement is to simultaneously discuss violent, shocking historical realities and the fantastical nature of superpowers, without ever letting the superhero element undermine the seriousness of the book’s historical subject, and, for the nerds amongst you, I guess, vice versa.

Indeed, as the notion of the superhero seems to be the major pop-cultural zeitgeist force of the 21st Century, I guess it’s only to be expected that such narratives would eventually yield-up a lens through which we can understand real-world events. Events so horrific (the Holocaust) as to be unspeakable in the literary-realist medium?

Okay so I’m totally not sure about that last paragraph. I just kinda splatted it out. So maybe, if I can risk a cliché, I should just say that it seems apropos of superheroes’ developing maturity that books such as this are now being written. Not that the youthz of today can’t understand history unless it’s filtered through the lens of comics or anything.

Stylistically the book is influenced by hardboiled noir. Short, often verb-less sentences are the grammatical standard, which cleverly functions as both a call-back to the pulp literature that dominated genre writing for most of the century, and the punchy scene-setting text boxes used by comics writers for exposition. Augmenting this parallel is the fact that the whole book is written in the present tense (unusual for historical fic), and with frequent parenthetic asides in the second person “we”. It’s stunning how Tidhar has contrived a narrative style that echoes his book’s thematic convergence of 20th-century history with superhero genre fiction. Proof, if proof were needed, of the old literary-critical maxim that the story a book tells is inseparable from the way it is told.

***

My friend Thom and I often have this discussion about how difficult it is to invent a new superpower that hasn’t already been done in comics. This discussion usually involves me suggesting stuff, and Thom (who has a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of comics) responding with “nope, that was done in x” and “nope, y already thought of that”.  Well, I defy anybody to find a pre-existing version of the character Sommertag’s super power, which I won’t spoil because it’s an incredible idea, equal parts wonderful and heart-rending, and really should be encountered for first time when you actually read the book.

Sommertag’s plot is probably the most divisive aspect of the novel, tbh. Her introduction hails the beginning of a love story which, for me, really works, and is genuinely moving. But I’m aware that for readers of a different caprice, this part of the plot veers dangerously close to the saccharine, with the potential to bathetically undermine the seriousness of the novel’s historical focus.

Either way, you should all read The Violent Century because it’s imaginative and dark and controversial and tragic and beautiful all at once.

The Martian – Andy Weir

The MartianContext:

The Martian was self-published by Andy Weir back in 2011, and after gaining momentum on his website and, later, Amazon, it was picked up by a mainstream publisher and became the breakout Science Fiction mega success of 2014 (Ridley Scott’s movie adaptation starring Matt Damon is being filmed this very moment!).

This all happened to the bafflement of the SFF community, as, by almost any measure, The Martian is a terrible novel. It comprises all of the negative traits that non-SF readers stereotypically associate with the genre: it’s badly written, technical to the point of tedium, offers no psychological or emotional insight into its characters or the ways in which their situation changes them, and just generally has nothing to say about anything.

It would seem easy to accuse the Science Fiction blogosphere of a kind of literary hipsterism at this point: an SF novel finally breaks into the mainstream, and it’s charged with being the “wrong kind” of Science Fiction. There’s more than a little having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too about this objection to The Martian’s success, but to be honest it’s a position I kinda sympathise with: The Martian is a long way from the being the sort of novel I’d like to see “representing” the state of early 21st-century Science Fiction, a genre significantly more diverse, creative and human-centric than The Martian would lead you to believe. This jacket quote in particular seems like it was specifically deployed to troll hardcore fans of literary SF:

Don’t be put off thinking this is a sci-fi book – it’s so much more than that.

 *shudders*

The Martian

The premise is a good one: Mark Wahlberg… I mean “Watney”… is stranded on Mars after his crew have blasted back to Earth following a mission-aborting dust storm. Now he’s awaiting rescue, surviving on potatoes, disco music, his absurdly encyclopaedic knowledge of all of science, and more potatoes.

It’s an epistolary novel, made up of Watney’s daily mission logs (unfortunately my hopes that The Martian would develop into some kind of Clarissa in Space were soon dashed by the novel’s utter lack of self-awareness and irony. Darn shame). And while this epistolary structure carries all of the usual benefits of that form (short chapters that can generate a nice momentum, and an excuse to skip the action forwards over the boring bits), The Martian is bafflingly impersonal. The greater part of the novel consists of straight-forward physical descriptions of Watney fixing stuff “I moved here. I put this there. I screwed-in that” etc. There’s a bit towards the middle when it looks as though Watney is about to skirt the issue of his loneliness, but just like his trusty Martian rover, the novel deftly avoids any such difficult terrain in favour of the flatter, easier narrative landscape of scientific technocratic blah. It’s frustrating that the epistolary form, tailor-made to expose a character’s innermost thoughts and fears, is used in such a cold, soul-less manner.

Watney’s voice is the major problem with the novel. The a-to-b-to-c mechanisations of the plot are perfectly serviceable, and I’m confident that this will be a much better film than it is book, purely because cinema can get away with presenting a depthless sequence of improbable crises in a way that novels really can’t (that and The Martian belongs to a particular sub-genre of Hard Science Fiction that’s cinematically en vogue right now (think Moon, Gravity, Interstellar etc.), and which can probably get by on its visual spectacle sans any genuine emotional content).

The narration just did it for me. Watney’s voice is part physics textbook, part sarcastic teenage blogger. Ugly words like “really” and “got” are repeated ad nauseum:

So Houston got understandably nervous when we got whacked with 175kph winds. We all got in our flight suits and huddled

And very un-astronaut-like internet-speak peppers the narrative. Most irritating is the parenthetic “Yay me”, which is used so often as to become a refrain (and soon begins to feel like the writer congratulating himself on having regurgitated some especially technical piece of research).

Many reviewers have commented that it’s Watney’s wit and “personality” that make the novel, but I don’t see it. To me the ill-fitting interjections of teen-speak are just shallow; too-obvious attempts to create the illusion of personality.

There’s no examination of Watney’s emotional situation: fear, regret, wonder, loneliness are barely mentioned. The emotion that’s described in most detail is boredom which, I think, says a lot about Andy Weir’s imagination. I was hoping for some wilderness writing, for a sympathetic fallacy that described the surrounding Mars-scape in emotional terms and used the empty backdrop as a mirror for Watney’s lonliness, but nope: nada. Unless, of course, you consider the barrenness of the prose to be a stylistic reflection of the arid Martian sand dunes…er..

Things hit rock bottom when Watney starts explaining his own jokes:

‘Over the past few days, I’ve been happily making water. It’s been going swimmingly (see what I did there? “swimmingly”?)

Which juxtaposes awkwardly with all of the high-level science in the book. There are pages and pages and pages of this:

Every twenty hours, I’ll have 10 litres of CO2 thanks to the MAV fuel plant. I’ll vent it into the Hab via the highly scientific method of detaching the tank from the MAV landing struts, bringing it into the Hab, then opening the valve until its empty. The oxygenator will turn it into oxygen in its own time. Then I’ll release hydrazine very slowly over the iridium catalyst, to turn it into N2 and H2 […]

Which while impressive in a “look how much research I’ve done” kinda way, is only bearable in small doses. I have no objection whatsoever to Hard Science Fiction, but I prefer it when the aesthetic modus operandi isn’t to achieve a narrative style identical with that of undergraduate physics textbooks.

After 10, 20, 30 pages of the stuff, it all becomes so much white noise. If you want to be generous, you could probably argue that the enormous swathes of physics is a meta-narrative attempt to instil in the reader the same sensations of zen-like boredom being experienced by our stranded protagonist. If that was Andy Weir’s intention, then, bravo, I guess.

But is it even Science Fiction though?

One thing The Martian has encouraged me to do, though, is to start thinking, once again, about that age-old literary problematic of how to define Science Fiction. Because the niggling thought I kept having while reading it was that, whatever The Martian is; it isn’t Science Fiction.

I guess this comes full-circle to my earlier comments about literary hipsterism, and I hope the following doesn’t sound like a hand-wringing attempt to rescue Science Fiction’s critical reputation by claiming that the most scrutinized SF novel in years isn’t actually SF at all, because these are genuine thoughts I had while reading…

Like many SF fans on the critical left, I’ve always been enamoured of Darko Suvin’s definition of Science Fiction, which, while imperfect, remains incredibly fruitful:

A literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

Key to genre fiction, for me, is this idea of estrangement and alterity. Yet despite being set almost entirely on Mars, The Martian manages to be one of the least estranging novels I’ve ever read. The language is prosaic, the narrator is aloof and the text never engages with the otherness of its setting. The rigorous devotion to realism, present-day technology and scientific verisimilitude cloys up the narrative: there’s no attempt at extrapolation, imagination or wonder, or to find meaning through the other.

Realist fiction attempts to echo the world by representing it as faithfully as possible (to monumental hubris, in my opinion), whereas SF speaks about the world by making it strange, and in doing so reveals and highlights deeper truths; Science Fiction is a literature of metaphor. The Martian makes no effort at metaphor, attempting to recreate experience as mundanely and accurately as possible, and in this regard has more in common with mimetic literary realism than Science Fiction. Nothing about the book is unfamiliar, and the constant internet speak, the paratextual assertions that all the technology is real, and the occasional chapters that feature CNN news reports about how Watney has become a celebrity back home make the whole thing so inescapably familiar. How can a book set on Mars feel so parochial?

The Martian fails as Science Fiction because rather than estranging the reader from their everyday context, all the book gives us is… the recognisable. Potatoes and disco music.

The Best British Fantasy 2014

BBF2014Don’t let the name fool you, The Best British Fantasy 2014 (ed. Steve Haynes) plays it both fast and loose with its definition of “Fantasy”. Which I like. I would actually categorize the majority of these stories as Science Fiction, but by using the moniker “Fantasy”, Salt Publishing enable themselves to include stories that are less easily defined, and this anthology contains a multitude of fantasy types, from supernaturalisms, to horror, to mythology. Editor Steve Haynes addresses the ever-shifting nature of genre borders in his short introduction, and in this regard the book feels bang up to date; the collection as a whole, as well as the stories individually, functions as a snap-shot of the current state of literary genre writing and its recent penchant for blurring traditional genre distinctions and mashing-up literary styles. Similarly, the list of contributors is nicely diverse, especially with regard to the number of women writers represented. At the end of a year which has seen greater-than-ever debate about gender in SF writing, this is to be applauded, and is, hopefully, finally, a sign of a paradigm shift within the genre community.

As with any anthology, there are hits and misses. But I’m pleased to report that the former outnumber the latter. Here’s what I thought about some of them:

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Triolet – Jess Hyslop

The first paragraph of Triolet begins with the prosaic “An elderly lady lives at the end of our street”, and ends with the estrangingly odd “She grows poems”.  This dissonance between the everyday and the weird is a kind of microcosm for the entire story, which uses a supernatural conceit (plants that speak poetry) to both trigger and examine the breakdown of a seemingly ideal, if actually mundane, suburban marriage. I liked this for lots of reasons, but mostly because Hyslop has managed to write a genre story about poetic form, wherein the form of the poetry itself is the fantastical element (there’s also some very clever punctuation stuff going on – the plant-poem’s meaning changes when it drops its commas like so many dead leaves). I’m not sure if casting poetry as something fantastical and estranging is a wry dig at the genre community’s lack of engagement with the medium, but that kind of subtextual joke definitely presented itself to me.

Stylistically, Triolet reminds me of M. John Harrison: there’s a convergence of psychological and literary realism with the supernatural, occasionally interrupted by moments of imagist beauty. It’s great.

I don’t go to work that day. I don’t go home either. I just get in the car a drive. I take the A-road out of town, and then I take every back road I come across until I’m way out in the countryside. There are no clouds in sight, and the air is a pale winter blue.

***

Build Guide – Helen Jackson

Bit nit-picky, but my problem with this story is that there’s no point in it actually being science-fictional. I like my SF to be inexorably so, by which I mean, the story should be impossible to tell without the parts that make it science fiction. The narrative should be inseparable from, to quote Darko Suvin, its “novum of estrangement”. This tale about a construction worker embezzling company funds on a moon hotel is perfectly serviceable… but it could have been set on any building site. The Moon stuff is just window dressing, which feels a bit like a wasted opportunity. The prose is good and the characters do what they need to, but the ending let me down by not exploding into the volta that I’d anticipated. It’s kinda refreshing to find an SF story focusing on menial labour, though. So there’s that.

moon

***

Zero Hours – Tom Maughan

This is post-recession SF satire, in which desperate workers must bid, e-bay-style, for shift work in shops, coffee houses, factories etc. Whoever bids lowest, that is to say – whoever will accept the lowest pay for the shift – gets the work. Zero Hours is notable for being equal parts funny and downright terrifying. The satire is biting: the image of people trying to screw each other out of work by under-cutting their colleagues is an obvious exaggeration of current neo-liberal business ideals. The deployment of present-day technology (bidding websites, tablet computers, the gamification of work etc) makes the whole thing alarmingly plausible-seeming. This is the story’s greatest achievement but also, of course, its point.

***

Aspects of Aries – David Turnbull

Another satirical one, set in a future in which society is divided along astrological lines, with Earth signs waging war against Water signs, Taureans murdering Pisceans etc. The ever-shifting allegiances and comical swapping of accidentally-born-under-the-wrong-sign babies between star sign nations highlights the arbitrariness of war, as well as the bullshit that is astrology “astrologers on both sides were keen to insist that the portents of the stars were on their side”. The juxtaposition of comedy with utterly horrific depictions of war is deftly handled. But the ending makes it feel as if the entire story is nothing more than ground work for a particularly over-laboured and borderline-offensive pun. Would’ve been better without its final paragraph, maybe. Not sure. Kinda fun.

***

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone

Incredible Science Fiction Horror story (and why is this such a rare sub-genre?) that takes a modern theory about prolonged space travel (that missions to Mars(/wherever) might be best undertaken by married couples whose relationship can weather the months of claustrophobic close-quarters living) and really runs with it. A husband and wife are travelling through space in a small capsule that may-or-may-not have some horrible alien living in its walls. As the narrative progresses, paranoia and distrust being to permeate, until not even the reader can be certain of what’s going on, of who is mad and who is just lying. The story is impressively crammed: there’s Hard SF discussions of zero gravity, intense psychological realism, sex, violence, mind-games: the busy and jam-packed form of the narrative mirrors the claustrophobic, cluttered, cramped nature of its setting. Ad Astra is both genuinely frightening in its un-spoken suggestions of alien horror and conspiracy, and genuinely sad in its examination of marital distrust.

***

iRobot – Guy Haley

Nice title. This is more of a vignette than an actual story. A short description of a far-future desert Earth after some non-disclosed apocalypse has wiped out all life on the planet. The writing is highly stylised, replete with repetitions, internal-rhymes, non-sequiturs and imagism, it’s a rare example of Science Fiction prose poetry. A domestic robot, uncovered by a storm and temporarily brought to life when the sun touches its solar panels, begins to ask questions to a leathery human corpse. The story is dripping with pathos and manages to highlight both the transience of human endeavour and our potential for self-destruction. The ornate nature of the writing is nicely contrasted to the emptiness of its landscapes and the lack of any human characters. Atmospheric and weirdly moving:

‘You are quiet’ it says. ‘Are you sad?’

Again the machine falls silent as its worn brain searches for something to cheer this last master.

***

Cat World – Georgina Bruce

Cat World is a deeply sad story about two homeless sisters, both children, living in some future metropolis. The elder sister, Oh, engages in sex work in order to provide her and her younger sister (the narrator) with small amounts of food and “gum”, a kind of hallucinogenic drug that lets them temporarily travel to a shared dream-world of suburban comforts and safety. The emotional gut-punch of the story is the younger sister’s inability to comprehend the disappearance of Oh, who has most-likely been murdered or kidnapped by one of her customers. The narrator worries that Oh has abandoned her, or has been adopted alone by some benevolent (and imaginary) mother figure. The pathos of the story is found in its corollaries with real-world child sex trafficking, and the realisation that ‘Cat World’, the girls’ escapist fantasy, is really nothing more than a simple desire for a safe home and loving family. Bruce manages to construct all of this in a gritty, dark and blunt and unflinching way: the story’s strong emotions develop from the well-realised voice of its narrator, rather than any overly-sentimental use of manipulative language. Utterly brilliant, and very timely in using genre fiction to highlight prevalent modern-day concerns.

The Day the Call Came – Thomas Hinde

The Day the Call CameThe Day the Call Came (1964) occupies a kind of genre superposition by simultaneously functioning as both a spy thriller and a tale of suburban paranoia. The difficulty is that, rationally, the story the book tells cannot be both of these things at once; our protagonist is either a sleeper agent for a shady organisation, or he’s suffering from severe paranoid delusions. Unlike the superpositions of quantum physics, however, observation doesn’t collapse the ambiguity to reveal a definite identity; the either/or problematic remains intact right until the end. Indeed, you may exit the novel more confused about its character than you were when you entered it. It’s down to the caprice of the individual reader, therefore, to decide exactly what kind of book this is. But I would argue that even attempting to pin it down and nail it with  definite narrative explanations and genre signifiers is to wilfully miss the point.

The novel is narrated in the first-person past by Harry Bale, a married father of two living the suburban dream: walks in the country, dinner parties with the neighbours, tennis on the weekend etc. etc. One day a letter arrives instructing Harry to “Stand by”, activating him as an agent for some non-disclosed secret organisation. What his orders will be, when he was recruited and what kind of organisation this is are never explained. The crux of the narrative is that all of this spy stuff might be a delusion; maybe he wrote the letter to himself, maybe it’s all just in his head. Harry will occasionally ask these questions of himself, but for the most part he is firm in his conviction that the spy thing is real.

The more natural reading, it seems to me, is the one that interprets Harry as raving batshit insane, rather than a genuine sleeper agent awaiting orders. And indeed this appears to be the critical consensus, with the majority of reviews discussing Harry’s “obvious” paranoia. Spies don’t live like this, suburban lives aren’t this exciting, there are no conspiracies; Harry must be paranoid. But other than a postmodern distrust of narrators and our knowledge that twentieth-century suburbia wasn’t a hotbed of espionage, what reason do we have to doubt him? After all, we accept without question much wilder claims from our fiction on an almost daily basis. Maybe the book’s style, which has more in common with literary realism than traditional genre writing, is what sways critics to the paranoia interpretation? After all, it certainly doesn’t *read* like a spy novel.

And Hinde manipulates style to admittedly convincing paranoid effect. This is mostly achieved by a constant deployment of intransitive verbs. Harry “suspects” and “witnesses” and “sees”, but the referents are always missing, generating a vagueness that definitely reinforces the sensation of paranoia.

Despite this, though, the text always feels balanced, never giving the reader the advantage of its protagonist, and never, in my opinion, favouring one interpretation over the other. For example, when Harry receives a call from his superiors, he simultaneously hears both a dial tone (suggesting he’s delusional) and his employer’s voice (suggesting he really is in communication with someone). The gender-neutral pronoun in the following quote nicely reinforces the ambiguity of the scene:

What was clever was that the dialling tone wasn’t interrupted by their voice.

I was tempted to be anti-establishment and review this entire book as if it *were* a straight-up, unambiguous spy thriller, just to be contrary and screw with the apparent consensus of the paranoia interpretation. Perhaps it’s my reading history that inclines me to give greater credence to the fantastical spy aspects than is really justified by the text? But ultimately I decided not to let the spy interpretation dominate the paranoia one, and vice versa. This is because holding these two contradictory ideas about the novel in your head at once creates a cognitive dissonance out of which emerges the book’s most interesting tonal duality: that of comedy mixed with horror.

The comedic elements are the more obvious; scenes of Harry – who may or may not be a spy – breaking into his neighbours’ houses and fixating on their mundane private lives are undeniably funny, but such is Hinde’s skill that these scenes are never over-played or heavy handed:

Either I was mistaken and Charlie’s early-morning golf was the genuine health-obsession of a retired man; or more sinister and complicated things were happening around me than I’d imagined.

The horror manifests itself in different ways: if Harry is working for a shady organisation, then we must accept that our lives are subject to the whims of powers beyond our immediate perception or understanding. If, however, he is paranoid, another kind of horror presents itself. Firstly there’s the surface-level stuff; the horror that’s explicit in mental unwell-ness. But there’s also something else going on; a suggestion that the spy thing is an escapist fantasy that enables Harry to cope with the meaninglessness of modern suburban life. His neighbours are impossibly boring, he’s distant from his wife, he worries that people are attempting to undermine him in unfair and unreasonably small ways, he’s getting older. This is suburbia as a place of abject panic and despair, without sense or future or love: a life-horror.

The most striking visualisation of this, of the unnatural, wasteful meaninglessness of modern life, is the oft-repeated image of “fruit rotting on our trees”.

In this regard The Day the Call Came reminds me of more modern philosophical horror writers like Thomas Ligotti, whose “corporate horror” sub-genre extracts horror from microscopic examinations of day-to-day life and the panic-inducing quest for value in an indifferent, meaningless world. Dinner with the dull neighbours and their stories about golf is not what life was supposed to be. The spy fantasy, if that’s what it is, gives Harry meaning, and elevates him beyond the horrific mundane of the suburban:

And now I didn’t care whether or not I should let myself hunt. I didn’t care that I was making my memories real when they might not be. To me they were real because they were the only reality I had.

The spy narrative becomes a metaphor for the modernist search for genuine, non-contrived experience. In order to feel real among the salvo of suburban bullshit, Harry has to inhabit a fantasy life of his own devising: this is the novel’s most potent horror.

The balancing of comedy (Harry on spy “missions” crawling through his neighbours’ bushes etc), with paranoid horror is the novel’s greatest achievement; these seemingly contradictory genre elements, when deployed in unison, is what makes the book so original, and each aspect enriches the other. The comedy imbues the horror with a sense of pathos that, if anything, makes the suburban even more tragic, whereas Harry’s paranoia, if that’s what it is, augments the blackness of the comedy: the laughs are bigger and darker when you know that Harry really, really believes in all of the stupid stuff he’s doing. This a great little book, but it discourages over-zealous interpretation. Holding two contradictory ideas about something in your head is a difficult thing, but Thomas Hinde’s prose almost forces you to do this, and, as I hope I’ve shown, with good reason, and to excellent effect.

Romeo and Juliet at the Sherman Theatre (2014)

The most striking aspect of the Sherman Theatre’s frenzied new modern-setting production of Rom and Jules (dir Rachel O’Riordan) is Sophie Melville’s original and stunningly complex interpretation of Juliet; a performance that functions in a space between traditional tragic ingénue on the one hand, and something more sassy, worldly and modern on the other.

Rather than contradict each other, however, these two elements converge to create a performative depth that presents Juliet as simultaneously child and adult, naive yet passionately self-determined. It’s Juliet as a 21st-Century teenager. There’s Bambi-eyed innocence when the text most demands it, but there’s also sass: some of Melville’s deliveries are pure innuendo (which sounds weird, I know, but trust me it really, really works), and it’s a testament to the actor’s skill and theatrical balance that neither one of these aspects ever comes to dominate the other.

It’s a sort of hinterland performance, one that rejects the standard interpretations of Juliet as either wholly innocent or entirely hubristic in favour of a more nuanced, if more difficult, presentation. Sophie Melville’s speech is likewise varied: in dialogue this often involves charging through line breaks and ignoring rhymes in an excited and frenetic tumble that mirrors the rhythms of teenage slang, while in soliloquy things are slowed down in such a way as to reveal a startling fragility. It’s brilliant.

Rom and Ju

This dualistic performance in fact works as a microcosm for the entire production, which is characterised by a keen awareness and exuberant exaggeration of the play’s inherent contradictions. Rachel O’Riordan directs a first half which is unadulterated Shakespearean Comedy (feuding families, gate-crashing teens and sneaking lovers), and a second half that’s fully Tragedy, a genre switch signified by the pre-interval volta of Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths.

The staging is likewise bipartite, with a set that’s divided into two levels, an impoverished, slum-esque estate at the bottom, and a more opulent set of windows and balconies on the top, designed in such a way as to subtly suggest the shapes of classical Verona architecture in a nice nod to the play’s original setting. Initially I was wary of this “Romeo and Juliet on the estates” rendering of the drama, but I soon came round to the idea. Re-casting the uber-rich Montagues and Capulets as warring working-class gangs is particularly effective as a commentary on post-financial crisis Britain, and, let’s face it, in light of the recession, sticking to the standard presentation of the families as  wealthy elite, and then expecting the audience to sympathise with them, would have been somewhat of a faux pas. The concrete greys, the graffiti and substitution of swords for knives brings additional pathos to the drama, made all the more disconcerting by quite how modern the story seems when it’s told in this way (I hate the word “relevant”, but it’s probably apt). It would be overly simplistic to claim that O’Riordan has turned Romeo and Juliet into a play about street kids stabbing each other, and I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you must: the imagery of street crime making this a controversial rendering of Shakespeare.

RandJ

Also of note is Scott Reid‘s Mercutio, a tempestuous performance that’s equal parts volatile trickster and philosophical malcontent, it’s real fire-in-the-belly stuff. Chris Gordon is solid as Romeo, and it’s noteworthy that this is his professional theatre debut, but I would have liked to have seen some of his idiosyncrasies pushed even further; there’s a suggestion of cockiness that needn’t have been so restrained, I feel.

Anita Reynolds gets the biggest laugh as the Nurse, making her strutting entrance in a hot pink tracksuit, arms flailing and full of attitude. It’s definitely the most out-there performance, but it’s perfectly controlled, and Reynolds manages to rein in the exuberance in such a way that maintains her character’s identity without undermining the seriousness of later scenes.

So, yeah, it’s a really great production. It’s about the borders between child- and adulthood, poverty and excess, love and hate etc. This interest in dualism is reflected in everything from the set design to the performances to the music. Rachel O’Riordan doesn’t so much blur the boundaries of these things as she does violently smash them together. The resulting explosion is fierce and sexual and loud and sad and controversial and everything theatre should be. Go and see it.

Tom.

Physics of the Future – Michio Kaku

Physics-of-the-FutureWowza, Michio Kaku really phoned this one in. He spends a good chunk of the introduction explaining how, unlike other books that aim to predict the technologies of the future, this one derives its ideas from “proper” research, interviews with specialists and yadda yadda yadda. We should, apparently, pay special heed to this book because Kaku isn’t some nonsense-spewing charlatan, but an actual scientist OMGZ. This egoism soon develops into an all-pervasive tonal smugness;  Physics of the Future is stuffed with constant references to Kaku’s achievements, the places he’s been and the things he’s seen, as well as all of the conferences he has “Keynoted” (note: “Keynoted” IS NOT A VERB!)

Unfortunately, and despite the opening’s protestations to the contrary, the book goes on to peddle the same kinds of utopian futurist bullshit we’ve seen over and over again. Kaku demonstrates an almost baffling lack of knowledge of even the most basic social and economic realities, and makes statements about the world so sweepingly general, Western-centric and atheist-normative that I began to wonder if he’s even aware that places and cultures outside of American laboratories actually exist.

On a stylistic level the book is a complete train wreck; equal parts convoluted and condescending, it reads like a waffly first draft of what should evolve into a much tighter, learner work. It’s full-to-bursting with clichés, and it’s mind-numbingly repetitive, with entire paragraphs of itself copy-pasted across several chapters, with only the most meagre attempts at hiding the fact that copy-pasting is the editorial modus operendi. Maybe he had a word count to fill or something I dunno.

One of Kaku’s more irritating stylistic ticks is his habit of repeating little refrain-type statements over and over again, but without any sense of self-awareness or irony, as if whenever he makes such a statement he’s doing so for the first time. The most grating of these is his assertion that advances in modern technology will grant us the powers of the “Gods of mythology”, “the ancients of mythology” and the “Greek Gods of mythology”. This last one is especially irksome, firstly because it’s tautological as all hell, and secondly because it doesn’t really mean anything. It seems to me that if you mention the powers of the Greek Gods, that you’re referencing a very specific set of established fantastics. I’m pretty sure Michio Kaku doesn’t mean that future technology will enable us to shapeshift into bulls so that we can rape beautiful maidens. But who knows? I’m sure NASA has all kinds of weird non-disclosed research projects going on.

Europe and the Bull

The technologies he describes are all fairly run-of-the-mill futurist things, familiar to anyone with even the most cursory interest in popular science: quantum computing, life extension, 3D printing that enables mass customisation of consumer goods etc. Despite its title, the book has almost nothing at all to do with physics other than in the very cosmically broad sense that everything is, technically, to do with physics. The thing is, I have no doubt that many of Kaku’s technology-based predictions will in fact come about. What I disagree with are his declarations that relatively near-future tech (the next 20-30 years or so) will unite all of humanity into a kind of affluent global super community. Seriously: internet contact lenses and wall-to-wall holographic projectors and asteroid mines aren’t going to wash away political and religious strife in the Middle East or mass starvation in African countries crippled by debt to their former colonial occupiers. As for genetic manipulations, life extension and nano-surgery: we all know who’re going to be the primary beneficiaries of that sort of tech: rich, rich white people, that’s who.

Physics of the Future doesn’t address the most striking social reality of technological advancement: that such things are never evenly distributed. Rather than producing a utopian global community on its way to becoming a type 1 civilization, the obvious concern is that super technologies like life extension, nano-surgical cancer cures and designer supermodel babies will create societal divisions between rich and poor of an unprecedented kind. I don’t want to fall into the trap of going too much in the opposite direction to Kaku, but it’s strikingly easy to imagine the end result of all this not as an utopian ideal, but a dystopian nightmare of split humanity, where the rich have access to near immortalising medical advances, and the poor remain as wretched and hopeless as ever. It’s a common supposition of the Left that we have to finally admit the revolution isn’t coming, but putting some of this future tech stuff into a sociological context makes me wonder if a major catalyst for mass action against social divisions isn’t just around the corner. At the very least it would have been nice if Kaku had addressed these commonplace concerns.

In short, Physics of the Future just isn’t very good. It’s a vision of the near future characterised by hysterical technocratic optimism on the one hand, and dull science fictional blah on the other. Occasionally Michio Kaku will hint at socio, political or psychological problematics (“holodeck”-addiction stuff), but such things are largely pushed into the margins of the work, and are swiftly dismissed. The book should have been so much more. Instead it’s just… drivel.