The Girl With All The Gifts – M. R. Carey

TGWATG

The major problem for The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) is that the video game The Last of Us (2013) had the same idea, but did it much, much better.

Here’s the premise for TGWATG:

A strain of mutated cordyceps fungus infects humans. Those infected become zombie-like, and transmit the infection to others through bites. As the infection progresses, fungal growths protrude from the victims until, after many years, their bodies are completely over-taken and they become immobile clumps of gross mushroom stuff. The initial outbreak spreads very quickly, society collapses, small pockets of survivors yadda yadda yadda.

Twenty years later, a young girl is discovered to be infected-but-kinda-immune. A group of adults must escort her across the UK on a long, treacherous journey to a lab where a scientist wants to remove her brain in the hopes of synthesising a cure.

And here is the premise for The Last of Us:

A strain of mutated cordyceps fungus infects humans. Those infected become zombie-like, and transmit the infection to others through bites. As the infection progresses, fungal growths protrude from the victims until, after many years, their bodies are completely over-taken and they become immobile clumps of gross mushroom stuff. The initial outbreak spreads very quickly, society collapses, small pockets of survivors yadda yadda yadda.

 Twenty years later, a young girl is discovered to be bitten-but -immune. A gruff dude must escort her across America on a long, treacherous journey to a lab where some scientists want to remove her brain in the hopes of synthesising a cure.

 (Both my words)

The novel and the game were released too closely for any accusations of plagiarism to be seriously considered. Indeed, The Girl with All the Gifts even mentions the same David Attenborough “cordyceps” documentary that The Last of Us writer Neil Druckmann cites as being the inspiration behind his own story.

 TLOU

The fact that two writers had the same idea at the same time is boring. What is interesting, however, is the stylistic and qualitative difference between these two similar narratives. The Girl with All the Gifts is good, but compared with TLOU its characters are flat stereotypes (with the exception of the girl Melanie), its dialogue is stilted and exposition-heavy, its plotting is bloated with unnecessary events, and its subtextual examination of the parent-child relationship is disappointingly shallow.

I’m not going to write a long, list-like, compare-and-contrast review, (this is meant to be part of a review series on the 2015 Clarke Award, for a start), so I won’t say much more about TLOU. But the similarities are such that I felt I should mention it. The difficulty for The Girl with all the Gifts is that, to anyone who’s played The Last of Us (and the crossover of people who read Science Fiction, and people who game is a big one), it can’t be anything but second best. A lesser version of deeply-loved original.

(As an aside, I’d like to add how surprised I am that so many fellow SF critics (famous ones, good ones, too), have described this book’s fungus-zombie concept as amazingly original, with no mention whatsoever of The Last of Us and its place as a highly-praised, complex and important part of the genre zeitgeist. If anything, this reinforces my idea that genre critics who refuse to engage with video games are increasingly finding themselves with ever-widening gaps in their knowledge of the field. They might even be at risk of finding themselves left behind entirely. And here I was hoping that “video games are art” was becoming a truism.)

 ***

Taken on its own terms, The Girl with All the Gifts is perfectly fine; an action-heavy piece of commercial genre work which dabbles in some mild social and philosophical issues. The titular protagonist, Melanie, is a marvel; a super-intelligent child whose perspectives on adulthood, responsibility and love are very well done indeed. She has a voice truly her own. Melanie’s struggle between desperately wanting to stay close to those she loves, and at the same time wanting to distance herself from them (lest she infect them with the fungus-virus) result in some striking moments; the interplay of physical and emotional closeness is very good.

The other characters, however, are nowhere near as well-developed. The Girl with All the Gifts does this weird sort of flip-reverse thing, where for most of its story the major players seem to be shallow stereotypes (the brusque sergeant, the scientist who thinks of people as “specimens”, the cowardly army grunt etc.), but who by the end are revealed to have more emotional depth than you’ve been led to believe. I’m not quite sure what the point of this actually is, other than to, perhaps, generate some tensions by playing with the reader’s expectations. I’d much prefer the characters to be fully-rounded from the off.

The writing is mostly good, and especially note-worthy are the action sequences, which are fluid, well-paced and never confusing. It’s possible to race through its 460 pages very quickly. It’s ultra readable. But I wasn’t too taken by the use of the word “Hungry” for “zombie”, which I found irritatingly juvenile (this is yet another zombie story set in a universe which never seems to have had its own zombie fiction). And there are occasional discrepancies in the worldbuilding; for example, at one point we are told that:

The hungries mostly stay close to where they were first turned, or infected, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not a homing instinct

But just eleven pages later, the text decides:

Instead of just freezing in place […] some hungries have a homing instinct for a particular place.

So it’s a hit-and-miss sort of book. The ending is absolutely brilliant: shocking, complex, morally ambiguous and by far the strongest, most original part of the book. But elsewhere, too much is familiar. There are gangs of scavenging, violent survivors roaming the wastes because genre convention dictates that all post-apocalypses must be so populated. And the fact that sneaking past the zombies depends on not being smelled by them is something we’ve all seen over and over again.

Outside of its one strong character and its good ending, The Girl with All the Gifts is just a fun romp, nothing more.

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Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenWhere Station Eleven is most successful is in its emotional intricacies; it “gets” people in a way that Science Fiction sadly rarely does. It cuts deep in its examinations of how relationships can change over a lifetime, softening and hardening, swinging from one extreme of feeling to another and back again. It’s moving, elegantly written if not particularly stylised, and deftly handles the inconsistent and complex nature of human emotions. I was also struck by the way it uses its post-apocalyptic setting to question and challenge where our own (pre-apocalyptic?) society finds value.

Where Station Eleven is least successful, however, is in its surface elements and the way it performs its genre. The novel falls short in its descriptions and its worldbuilding, failing to evoke that sense of wonder-at-emptiness that’s characteristic of the best post-apocalyptic fiction. The second half of the novel hinges on some clichéd and predictable drivel about a self-styled “Prophet” of the wastes: a man obsessed with the Book of Revelations who interprets the end of society as a Biblical cleansing of the sinful, akin to Noah’s flood or whatever. There’s a lot to recommend about Station Eleven, and I enjoyed it immensely, it’s just a shame that the strength of its subtexts and characterisation isn’t reflected in its setting or plot.

The principal narrative follows the ‘Travelling Symphony’, an itinerant theatre troupe that specialises in performances of Shakespeare, and which travels from settlement to settlement in the decades following the “Georgian Flu”, a bird-flu-esque pandemic that’s killed 99.9% of the world’s population. The book has a non-linear narrative and tracks multiple characters through both pre- and post-apocalyptic North America. In fact, Station Eleven is a structural marvel, simultaneously juggling several timelines and character arcs but never becoming confusing or pretentious. The reasons for this back-and-forth between past and present are, supposedly, many fold: from the standard post-apoc fare of hammering home what’s been lost, to the stylistic function of building tension. There’s also a lot of satisfying and impressive imagery to be found in the dissonance that comes from the manic, workaday, pre-apocalyptic world rubbing against the empty, slow, quiet and timeless post-crisis America. This dissonance is expressed most keenly in the novel’s preoccupation with aeronautical imagery: the presence-then-absence of planes from the sky.  Alastair Reynolds has written about this more eloquently than I ever could, so I direct you to his own review.

The nominal main character is Katniss…er… I mean Kirsten, a knife-wielding actress of the ‘Travelling Symphony’ who was just a child when society collapsed. She’s also the least interesting character, whose arc involves being separated from the Symphony and trying to find it again, while occasionally stopping to wonder what the world was like “before”, which is a fairly run-of-the-mill genre trapping, and pretty dull.

Most fascinating are Arthur and his ex-wife Miranda, whose heart-rending story occurs before the onset of the world-ending super plague. What shines through is the complexity of their relationship, not just the youthful affair and eventual separation, but the fact that, years after their divorce, they’re unable to extricate themselves from one another’s lives. Their struggle for happiness – with and without each other – is made all the more poignant by the novel’s dramatic irony and sense of impending doom: if only they knew, as the reader does, how little time they have left.

It’s frustrating, however, that the novel doesn’t capitalize on its interest in Shakespeare. In recent years the post-apocalyptic novel has developed a concern for what I call ‘textual salvage’, whereby the trendy salvagepunk aspects of the genre (scrap fetish and bric-a-brac technology etc) are replaced with salvage of a different kind: that of literary history and intertextuality. Station Eleven does this in a very basic way (its characters want to preserve Shakespeare), but for me this doesn’t go far enough. The best examples of what I’m talking about use textual salvage to completely reconfigure society, affecting their texts both on the level of world building *and* on the level of subtext (by engaging with the post-modern problem that everything has been done already, and all we’re left with now is endless reproduction and reconfiguration). My interest was piqued when I read the book’s blurb: the apocalypse combined with Shakespeare, but I’ve just seen this sort of thing done much, much better elsewhere; notably China Miéville’s Railsea in which the post-apoc society is reordered as a collective performance of Moby Dick, and in Marly Youman’s Thaliad, which tells it’s tale through the filter of salvaged Classical poetry, thus making-strange both the post-apocalyptic world of the novel and our own pre-crisis society.

Station Eleven, then, is at its best when it’s not being a Science Fiction novel. The pre-plague chapters outshine the others by orders of magnitude. They’re so good, so intricate and delicate and downright human as to make the whole experience worthwhile anyway. I mean, the apocalypse stuff isn’t a complete waste (c.f. the aforementioned aeroplane imagery and wonderful use of dramatic irony), but it’s not original in any way. As a nominee for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award, it’s troubling that the Science Fictional elements are this novel’s weakest aspects, but nevertheless, this remains a beautiful, well-observed, well-written novel about what it is to be human. If, however, you’re looking for a great after-the-plague Science Fiction novel, read Earth Abides instead.

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 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.

Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes

broken-monsters-saBroken Monsters (2014) combines a stylistic predisposition towards social realism with a geeky love of supernatural horror in a convergence that’s becoming an aesthetic commonplace of the New Weird SF/H sub-genre. If the supernatural stuff is particularly offensive to your readerly sensitivities, then Lauren Beukes offers you a way-out in the form of a potentially realist-materialist explanation of the book’s more trippy events, but you’d have to be pretty bloody-minded in your approach to make such an exegesis fit, I feel. For the purposes of this review, therefore, we’re gonna take the supernatural at face value.

Unfortunately, I expect Broken Monsters will attract the same kinds of gloriously point-missing reviews that dogged The Shining Girls; reviews characterised by a sense of disappointment that Beukes didn’t explain the origins of the time travelling house, as if an infinitely-retreating sequence of whys and wherefores is a prerequisite for fantastical narratives to have any value. This is the unfortunate legacy of worldbuilding, and perhaps speaks to the more conservative literary tastes of many genre fans. Like the House in The Shining Girls, the “dream” that possesses the serial killer of Broken Monsters is given little to no biography, but also like the House, therein lies its merit. It’s not in their convoluted histories that Lauren Beukes’ supernaturalisms become interesting, but in their weird unknowableness, their horrifying effects upon the reader, and their worth as metaphors and subtexts for whatever real-world issues the writer is addressing, that is: misogyny and problematic cultural representations of women in The Shining Girls, and poverty, production and the quest for originality in this book, Broken Monsters.

Similar to The Shining Girls, this is a serial-killer crime novel with supernatural elements. This time the action transpires in present-day Detroit, American’s most notoriously depressed, semi-ruined and semi-abandoned city (just look at the declining population stats). The book is uncompromising in its gritty (gritty gritty gritty) portrayal of violence, poverty, misogyny etc, and, also like The Shining Girls, it’s a real emotional gut punch, with Beukes again demonstrating her amazing aptitude for big-picture social commentary conveyed through intimate portrayals of individual emotional lives.

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The primary narrative takes the form of a police procedural; there’s a very large cast, with short chapters alternately flitting between several groups of characters. It takes quite a while to settle into the book’s rhythm, but even when you’ve got a handle on all of the peeps involved, Beukes has a tendency to upset the reader’s comfort with micro cliff-hangers and chapter-long deviations; it’s a standard structuralism of the thriller genre, but hey, it works: the book’s pretty pacy.

Things hit the ground running with the discovery of the mutilated body of a teenager (he’s been cut in half and his torso glued to the similarly-severed hind legs of a deer. Eww gross. Lauren Beukes must have been gutted that True Detective (with its comparable deer-parts-stuck-on-a-dead-body opening scene) aired just a few months before BM was published. Deer hybrids must be zeitgeisty, or something). The investigating detective, Gabi Versado, is the main protagonist; a well-realised single mum, equally as adept at investigative policing as she is at batting away the sexist machismo bullshit she faces as a female police officer. To be honest, though, I found Gabi to be the least interesting of the players, partly because the cop-struggling-with-personal-problems is a tad cliché (though the fact that it’s a female police officer occupying this role is amazingly refreshing), but partly because, as readers, we already know who the killer is, and so we’re permanently at the advantage of Gabi, whose investigation is always playing catch up. Not that the ‘whodunnit’ is the only viable form for a thriller to take, of course, but in a book with so much going on, scenes in which the characters struggle to work out what the reader already knows can be a bit dry.

The murderer is lonely, struggling artist Clayton Broom, who’s been possessed by a “dream” – some supernatural evil that more-or-less controls his actions – and who attempts to make works of art out of the various people he kills. Whether or not the dead-bodies-as-art is a goal of the “dream” itself, or whether the art thing is a side-effect of the dream having possessed an artist whose conscious is kinda bleeding into its own, is left deliberately ambiguous; muddled in a way that mirrors the hybrid nature of the bodies-art themselves.

Art in general, in fact, is a major theme. Broken Monsters is partly an attempt to show the real life suffering behind the hipster “ruin porn” photography that’s oh-so-trendily emerging from post-industrial Detroit, “the number one Death-of-America pilgrimage destination”. Tied up with all of this is the phenomenon of art flourishing in times of social crisis, and one of Beukes’ most striking achievements is portraying the production of art as social catharsis in a time of disaster (while simultaneously satirising the crappiness and effectual impotence of bad installations, cliché photographs of abandoned factories, and lame Instagram filters etc).

With the collapse of the motor industry, Detroit’s most iconic mode of manufacturing production, it’s tempting to interpret the “dream” as a nightmare manifestation of Detroit’s own subconscious: the desire to produce combined with the expressive opportunities of art all mixed with the sheer rage of being the victims of a crisis the people of the city didn’t make. For the “dream”, which presents as simultaneously sinister and childlike, murder is a means of production, a process by which it can increase its own capital in the world and put itself out there.  This is recession America as horror, then. Stuff has gone wrong, things are overlapping and becoming confused.

“There are places that are borders. Where something was but isn’t anymore, and other things can surface.”

***

detroit

The novel’s most striking character is Layla, the teenage daughter of detective Gabi. Layla is a sharp-tongued, sassy super wit who, as a young teen, could almost be a proto- version of Kirby from The Shining Girls. Lauren Beukes is freakishly gifted at ventriloquising the brought-up-by-the-internet, meme-dominated tech slang dialogue of twenty-first century teenagers, and to this end large chunks of the action transpires as YouTube comments, Skype IMs, Facebook messages, Tweets, Reddit threads etc. etc.

Now, this kind of stuff is a double-edge sword for me. Firstly, modern advances in communications technology present particular problems for writers of thriller fiction. How much of fiction’s tensions depend upon characters being separated, being out of touch, being at a literal distance from one another? (answer: a lot). Something of mystery and apprehension has been lost now that everyone is just a text or phone call away. Writerly responses to this are varied; some writers concoct shit reasons why a character has no signal, or has lost their phone or whatever. Others go as far as to set their dramas in a pre-mobile phone period purely to avoid having to contrive such bullshit no-cell-reception-at-the-moment-of-crisis scenarios. Both of these solutions are terrible. Lauren Beukes, then, should be praised for diving in at the deep end and swimming with, rather than against, the tide of modern comms tech, and creating a narrative whose tensions exist because of the ubiquity of modern communications, rather than in spite of. Indeedy, Layla’s involvement in a paedophile-baiting scheme is one of the most tense yet socially relevant thriller plot lines I’ve ever come across.

Secondly, I love anything that looks weird on the page, and YouTube-style comment threads definitely disrupt the standard novelistic textual layout. Lauren Beukes, being brilliant, manages this in a way that transcends gimmickry to become something genuinely insightful. It’s a critical truism to point out how much of our lives are now lived online, but here we go: The manner in which the layout of such passages differs from the rest of the novel reflects the internet’s simultaneous identity as something part of, but also other to and essentially separate from, our day-to-day lives. Lauren Beukes is doing more than just saying “these things exist!!”

But, but but but but but. But. All of these things (YouTube and Twitter and Instagram oh my!) aren’t mediums of communication in the way that television and letter writing are mediums: they’re also brands. And there’s something uncomfortable about reading a book that’s so utterly in-your-face with real world brands. All. The. Time. It’s like advertising but also not.

To be honest I don’t know what the solution is. Inventing some fictional but obvious equivalences to real-world social networking sites is just naff, but ignoring the stuff completely is, as I’ve argued, just burying your head in the sand. I mean, even the BBC struggle: as an organisation they’re (rightly) brand-averse, as expressed in the oft-repeated phrase “other ____s are available” (often uttered when some guest or other has made the gaff of name-dropping a corporation), but even the BBC has to name-check Twitter and the like, as if Twitter isn’t a money-making business with competition, as if this isn’t advertising, or as if social media are somehow outside of normal business culture (maybe they are…).

***

If you’ve read The Shining Girls you’ll more-or-less know what to expect from Broken Monsters. It feels a bit looser than the former; an unfortunate side-effect of a significantly larger cast and a more sprawling plot (indeed, some of the book’s tangential meanderings could be lost to no ill effect); but this is a minor niggle against a novel that, for its length, maintains an impressive sense of tension and ever-impending crisis that’s perfectly balanced against a steady stream of revelations. The book’s most prominent achievement is the way it rocks the genre boat by converging horror fictional tropes with a more lit fic-style interest in psychological and social realism; using the supernatural as metaphor to express the social in a way that makes the two impossible to disentangle. It’s fucking brilliant and very much, I hope, the future of genre writing.

The Traitor – Michael Cisco

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Apologies for the blogging hiatus. My confidence in this thing goes up and down like a sine wave, and with that same kind of regularity.

The Traitor (2007) is an early novel by avant-garde horror fiction maestro Michael Cisco. I’m confident in calling it “early” because, although it’s his fourth published book out of nine so far, it pre-dates The Narrator (2010), which, it seems, is generally considered to be the point at which Cisco’s work adopted the strikingly more challenging and abstract tone for which it is best known. That’s not to say that The Narrator was an abrupt volte face for Cisco stylistically, and this book – The Traitor – contains many of the narrative qualities commonly associated with his oeuvre as a whole (societal rejection, moral ambiguity, emotional darkness, repetitive idiosyncratic prose, long philosophical asides, etc.), but the book’s small cast of characters, its consistency of setting and relatively easy-to-comprehend plot perhaps make The Traitor a good way-in for new readers intimidated by the abject confusion-fests of his more recent novels like The Great Lover (2011), Celebrant (2012) and Member (2013)

The Traitor takes the form of the autobiography of the tongue-contortingly named Nophtha, who’s writing his first-person confessional while incarcerated for treason at the end of his life. Nophtha is a ‘spirit eater’, that is to say, a guy who consumes pesky spirits that harass the public and who uses their energy to heal people. He’s imprisoned because of his actions relating to Wite, a one-time spirit eater who’s gone rogue and become a ‘soul burner’ (essentially the same thing, but a ‘soul burner’ uses the spirit energy he consumes to increase his own, self-serving powers, rather than to heal others).  Nophtha and Wite have a tempestuous, deeply unhealthy relationship, with the former becoming more and more disciple-like as the latter’s power grows to godly proportions. Indeed, the second half of The Traitor smacks more of a dark Gospel than the end-of-life confessional that the narrator initially claims the text to be. Characteristically, Cisco refuses to satisfy the reader with any real information about the book’s setting, but we do know that it takes place in a country under the occupations of the “Alaks”, a force who remain kinda mysterious, except for a suggestive one-time description of their troops as “goose stepping”, which I guess tells you all you need to know about them, really.

The plot, such that it is, is a relatively simple one: the narrator, Nophtha, is tasked with tracking down the rogue spirit eater Wite. After a brief period as Wite’s captive, however, he becomes his disciple, tasked with spreading the word while Wite grows ever more terrifyingly powerful (like, reducing an entire army to mulchy red goo using only his thoughts powerful). There’s a definite suggestion that by the end of the novel Wite can do, literally, anything he wants to.

Ostensibly, then, The Traitor is a Gospel to Wite’s transformation, from a healer-gone-rogue, to a God-like being on the verge of bringing about some terrible species-ending apocalypse from which only wretched social outcasts will be saved. But it’s his disciple-narrator Nophtha who really piqued my interest. The novel opens with a sort of coming of age montage that depicts the child Nophtha as, variously, a victim of familial abuse, perennial romantic reject (and obsessive), and pretty much constantly ill. This history of persecution (as he sees it) forms the subtext for Nophtha’s eventual rejection of humanity and his siding with the elementally destructive Wite. As a justification for his later actions, however, I found Nophtha’s traumas to be a little on the nose, which is perhaps indicative of the fact that Cisco hadn’t quite reached the peak of his abilities w/regards to narrative subtlety.

But despite this seemingly clear dichotomy between, on the one hand, Nophtha as a persecuted victim and, on the other, society as pitiless persecuting force, our narrator remains nonetheless confused about his own identity and moral standing. Stylistically this comes across in the brilliantly stilted, repetitive and self-obsessed narration that doesn’t really develop its pure philosophy of annihilation until the novel’s final pages, when Nophtha’s rejection of the world is most keenly expressed. It makes for hypnotically addictive reading; page-long paragraphs swirl and tangent, with a strange rhythm and a sense of dark poetry that’s unlike anything outside of Cisco’s own highly idiosyncratic method.

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The crux of the story is that Nophtha wants so much not to care about the world, about other people, about himself. He wants so much to be like Wite, the man-turned-God entity he idealises; not because he desires Wite’s phenomenal powers, but because Wite has transcended beyond humanity, beyond that mortal state of human vulnerability that has made such a victim out of Nophtha. Nowhere is this more keenly demonstrated than when Wite, besieged in a country house, melts the approaching army with his thoughts while locked away in a hermetically sealed room: a metaphor for his uncaring distance from the rest of humanity. Wite is idealised by Nophtha because he is beyond those who would persecute him. Wite is the ultimate expression of the Nietzschean Ubermensch and the Will to Power: whatever Wite wills to happen, happens.

Wite has already lost all resemblance to his former state, he’s become something else entirely, he’s as blind and relentless as a hurricane – do you imagine there’s something you could say that would “change his mind”?

So in part The Traitor is about Nophtha’s struggle against his own humanity as he endeavours to achieve the sort of ultimate aloofness manifested in Wite, and which would liberate him (in his mind) from his abusers. This struggle is evident by degrees; firstly Nophtha falls in love with Wite’s cousin, the unpronounceable Tzdze (seriously… “Tuz-duh-zeh”? “Tuh-zee-duh-zee”? “Tuzzed-zee”? I literally have no idea), but later betrays her to further aid Wite. By the end of the novel, Nophtha protests that he doesn’t care about anything human whatsoever, while, somewhat paradoxically, also claiming that his “pity is reserved only for those you’ve pushed out of your commonsensical way”.

What makes The Traitor so great is that it’s full with these kinds of contradictions. That in attempting to go beyond what’s human, Nophtha unintentionally expresses the most human trait of all: that we’re all inconsistent thralls to the moment, and not the unified and consistent psychological constructs of certainty that we’d all like to believe. Nophtha rejects humanity, but still finds himself subject to the whims of love. He welcomes Wite’s coming apocalypse with a maniac glee as he anticipates the downfall of the human race, but while longing for the destruction of everything, he still finds people (the wretched) that he wants to save.

Paradoxically, he allies himself with Wite because he delights in the idea of extinction, but also because he thinks that by doing so, he may be able to save himself. His rhetoric of annihilation, then, isn’t total; it’s not humanity he despises, but a certain view of it: he would save his lover and those like him. Nophtha’s final vision of the world is of cities, those great symbols of civilization, now ruined, sparsely inhabited and lorded-over by the one-time wretched, those underdogs who society rejects; from the weak, to the sick, to the criminal to the romantically incompetent.

Those future ruins of your city now shall have vanished under a blank expanse of trees and grass stones hills rivers lakes oceans swamps sun and weather, and shall have been blanked out of the ghostly minds or our silent solitary successors. Once and always alone they are going on, they will go on and you will drive them on, and they will betray you to what isn’t human, I was part of them once and I betrayed and betrayed, I betrayed you all and I could never betray you enough.

The language is suitably Biblical, and the more I consider my earlier description of the book as a “dark gospel”, the more apposite I think the label. Nophtha’s compassion for the rejected and his desire to wipeout everybody else is definitely a twisted and over-literal version of the Sermon on the Mount’s Beatitudes (“Blessed are the ____”). Similarly, biblical analogues can be found in the Judas-like behaviour of our narrator; at one point, overcome with anxiety and love for Tzdze, he attempts to kill Wite – one of the many instances of treachery alluded to by the title. Placing Wite in a cave, he returns later to discover that Wite, still alive, has become even more powerful – a resurrection analogue if ever I’ve read one. This is also, though, one of the novel’s few character missteps: Nophtha’s an intelligent guy who’s just witnessed Wite make protein shakes out of his enemies using only his thoughts; does he really think that taking a knife to him would bring the guy down? Maybe you could generously argue that it’s an act of desperation or whatever. Either way, Wite’s “resurrection” is genesis of Nophtha’s annihilation fantasies, so it’s an important narrative event, albeit reached in a kinda weird fashion.

***

In a way The Traitor reminds me of that modern phenomenon we might call the “revenge of the persecuted geek”. I’m sure we can all bring to mind some story or other about a bullied and romantically rejected college loner who pens some hate-filled invective about “I’ll show you all” before going on to commit a horrific act of innocents-killing reprisal. Here we have much the same thing, only transposed to a Dark Fantasy setting where the “I’ll show you all” threats actually carry the possibility of apocalypse. Nophtha definitely fits into this type, rejected for his unusual abilities/interests (here manifesting as ‘spirit eating’, but you could paste whatever geek niche you like over the top of this), and developing a bitterness that goes way beyond what could reasonably be expected.

Maybe Cisco had this idea of the Geek Revenge Fantasy in his mind when he wrote The Traitor, maybe not. And I don’t want to claim that the book is any kind of satire on this pathetic notion of persecution; rather, the whole idea actually makes fantastic fodder for horror fiction. The end-of-the-world manifesto, while rational in its writer’s head, is of course a thing of abject horror and a disturbed mind. There’s a satisfying tension between the reader’s desire to pity our downtrodden yet fascinating narrator, then, and the desire to utterly condemn his philosophy. There’s also a third conflict too, whereby those of us who don’t feel the world is quite set up how we’d like it to be may knowingly smile in recognition at the fantasy of wiping it all out and starting again from scratch. (Does the human race deserve to end is one of the subtextual questions raised by the book) Michael Cisco’s most resounding achievement with The Traitor is in perfectly balancing all of these contradictory elements, the end result of which is, as we’ve come to expect, something genuinely disturbing in its revelation of the human spirit’s propensity for darkness.

Earth Abides – George R. Stewart

Earth_Abides_1949_smallEarth Abides (1949) is an early post-apocalyptic SF novel notable for its rigorous attention to ecological and sociological verisimilitude. The book opens when reclusive Geography student Ish – having been bitten by a rattlesnake while conducting fieldwork in the wilderness – returns to his native San Francisco to discover that a plague of unknown origin has killed 99.999…% of the world’s population. Here he unintentionally becomes the de facto leader of a small group of ragtag survivors, and together they try to make a life for themselves in the ruins of the world while simultaneously attempting (and failing) to maintain such tenets of civilization as democracy, education, justice etc.

Ironically the novel feels somewhat refreshing by today’s standards, purely because it pre-dates the establishment of many of the genre’s more tiresome clichés; there are no mutants roaming the wastes, no militaristic tribes or would-be warlords, no irradiated “zones” and no visual fetish for gasmasks, makeshift weaponry and all other such over-familiar genre paraphernalia. The most recognisable intact trope is an obsession with the idea of salvage, but rather than scrap metal, guns and trains, Ish is concerned with the salvage of learning: his primary site of plunder being the city library. Perhaps the novelty of this approach to salvage speaks to the current state of the genre: a kind of retrospective proof of how post-apocalyptic fiction has dumbed down in recent years, from mostly scientific thought experiment, to mostly hyper-violent glamourisation of neo-con survivalism. (Not that the so-called salvagepunk variety doesn’t occasionally throw up interesting stuff). It’s notable that modern apocalyptic settings are often used as a narrative device to legitimise character behaviour that, under normal circumstances, is hard to justify: particularly violence.

The apocalypse of Earth Abides undoubtedly fits Brian Aldiss’ much-quoted notion of the “cosy catastrophe”. Almost everybody has died, but the world, in fact, doesn’t seem at all that bad. Characters are liberated from the post-industrial emasculation of the nine-to-five office routine, and, unchained from the shackles of societal responsibility, are free to live where they want, to take what they want, and to behave how they want. The big draw of so much apocalypse stuff seems to be that, in a post-apoc world, nobody would need to get a job. Surely it’s a damning indictment of society that apocalypse has become a kind of fantastical or idealist escapism? There’s no radiation or zombies here; indeed, the only concern is the procurement of clean water (and in this regard the catastrophe is uniquely First-World: scarce access to drinking water is a situation so alien to our experience that apparently we need to invent some extraordinary apocalypse in order to appreciate such a thing, when, as we know, a lack of clean water is a real-world lived reality for millions if not billions of people).

There’s definitely something of a male power fantasy about not just Earth Abides, but (post)-apocalypses in general, too: the way in which they welcome an atavistic return to a time of more “empowered” or “natural” manliness: hunting, butchering and providing; it’s a vision of building the world, rather than just living in it. In Earth Abides, this brings an uncomfortable utopian tone to the book, with the frequent suggestion that humanity has fucked-up so badly that hitting the apocalyptic reset button is probably the best thing for the species. The plague, then, is a happy accident that brings with it a sort of fortuitous social cleansing: a chance for liberal scientist Ish to restart society as he sees fit. Ish protests that his apparent enjoyment of the empty world is merely a scientific interest, but such claims are thrown into question by the novel’s commonplace assertions that he is living a life “of greater freedom than anyone could possibly have lived in the Old Times”.  The bare world is painted as a kind of post-deluvian paradise, washed free of all the bad stuff, enabling Ish to (attempt to) create the kind of society he’s always wanted. Apocalypse is societal palimpsest. A catastrophe for the rest of world, the plague is the making of Ish: transforming him from a nobody into a great leader of men. (He claims to be a reluctant chief, but I don’t believe this for a second. He loves it). It’s apocalypse as a personal utopia, then; though little space is given over to the billions who’ve died to make this possible.  (And as a note: 99% of the global population had been killed; surely there should be a lot more bodies lying around than, like, the two or whatever that Ish encounters?)

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In fact, I’m not sure what’s more bleak: the assessment of humanity as a species so far down the road to failure that a 99% killing-off is the only chance we have of regaining the true path… or the novel’s problematic and inconsistent treatment of race and gender. The former is dour in an obviously nihilistic way, and can perhaps be accounted for today as post-war anxiety(/scaremongering), but the latter issue raises some difficult questions for modern readers concerning the novel’s moral identity. The text will frequently take snipes at women (such as a description of mothers as “bovine”), which seem part tongue-in-cheek, and part downright offensive. But things get even worse when Ish encounters a group of black people basically scraping around in the dirt because, apparently, without civilization to guide them, they’ve reverted to their more natural behaviour. Or something.

At this point it would seem easy to categorise the book as appallingly racist, but such an exegesis is complicated by later narrative developments, such as when Ish marries a black woman – Emma – whom the text portrays as a complex, sympathetic and strong-willed character, dubbed the “mother of nations”. It’s difficult to overstate quite how progressive the wilful presentation of an interracial marriage was in 1940s America. Biblical analogues are easily drawn against many of the book’s ideas, and as the starting point for a second replenishing of the Earth, if you will, what could be more liberal-idealist than an interracial union? But comparing this with the aforementioned bigoted presentation of black people (and the potential damp-squib-making comment that Ish only marries Emma because, in a post-apocalyptic landscape, one can’t afford to be picky…) makes for a pretty inconsistent treatment of race. Indeed, trying to reconcile the book’s progressive handling of Ish’s marriage with its occasional racist asides is a tricky business, and perhaps the novel’s major difficulty.

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Much of the book is given over to meticulously thought-out descriptions of the survivors’ day-to-day lives; how they make new tools, build shelters, try to farm etc. There’s very little dialogue, and stylistically the prose (at least for the first two thirds) smacks more of ecology textbook than novel; but I guess this is in-keeping with its realist agenda and Ish’s identity as a man of science. The writing isn’t especially florid, except for occasional (though unnecessary) interjections from Ish’s diaries. The descriptions of plant life slowly encroaching on urban areas, of rusting industry and crumbling metropolises have become standard fare for the genre, but any sense of familiarity is mitigated by the knowledge that Earth Abides’ imagery was the progenitor of this now commonplace SF aesthetic.

And so the book would seem to be a straightforward story of survival coupled with a scientific thought experiment, and in some ways it has that classic SF feel of Vernelarge or Wells about it. The novel’s final third, however, is a far stranger thing, elevating the book from something kinda interesting if forgettable, to something that’s actually very good indeed. A temporal jump shifts the narrative into the future to show us Ish’s old age; the style changes from one of cold objective description to a highly sympathetic third person, and the imagery becomes more and more hallucinatory, dreamlike and uncharacteristically vague. Ish spends his old age in a kind of fog (the cause of which is not disclosed, though dementia is most likely), with only fleeting moments of clarity. Years pass in a matter of pages as Ish, mostly living in his own head and unaware of the world, ruminates on the possible futures of humanity. When the fog occasionally lifts, we’re given glimpses of Ish’s band of survivors and the generations coming up behind them: the people who were born after the plague and who have no experience of the world before. Without Ish to lead them, the tribe becomes increasingly primitive, both in action and language. In one of Ish’s final moments of clarity, he finds himself on the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge with some men dressed in animal skins and carrying spears, and realises that all trace of the pre-apocalyptic civilization has now vanished.

It’s a profoundly moving passage, made all the more affecting by the sudden and jarring way it contrasts stylistically with the novel’s first two acts. It also adds a subtextual depth to the novel, too; with the playing-out of the apocalypse functioning as a metaphor for the slow degeneration of old age, both bodily and, in Ish’s case, mentally. You can almost track the progress of the apocalypse in time with the aging of our protagonist. Just as Ish’s consciousness and body are decaying around him, so too is the world until, as epitomised in the spear-carrying, superstitious primitives of the final pages, things have changed so much that Ish no longer has a place. This parallel between the decay of society and the decay of Ish as a person further strengthens the aforementioned argument that Earth Abides is a deeply personal apocalypse; the world of the novel behaves in sympathetic tandem with Ish, from the limitless opportunities it offers him in his youth, through its creeping deterioration, to something finally, utterly broken and changed.

It’s almost tempting to argue, therefore, that the apocalypse of Earth Abides isn’t a literal narrative event, but a metaphor for Ish’s slow decay; an externalisation of how Ish psychologically conceives of the world around him, rather than a factual representation of the world as it is. I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much (and it would, of course, be more convincing if the novel were written in the first person), but the fact that such an interpretation even suggests itself speaks to the highly personal and human nature of Earth Abides. Ultimately the book isn’t without its flaws (flat prose, rambling explanations of day-to-day-life, racism, sexism), but its concern for psychological realism initiated an engagement with human emotion that wasn’t really seen again in “realistic” post-apocalypse fiction until Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2006, and this, if nothing else, is what makes the book worth reading.