Robert Holdstock, 1948-2009

Very sad news: as reported by David Langford, Robert Holdstock, author of the World Fantasy Award-winning Mythago Wood, has died at the age of 61. I’ve read only a couple of his books, but enjoyed them venry much; and, when I met him briefly at one Fantasycon, he was as friendly a person as he was good a writer. This is a sad day for literature in general, and the fantasy field in particular.

Links: 25th November

Okay, this is my first attempt at doing a links post. Hopefully, over time, these will become more frequent, and the links more numerous; but, for now, you may find these pages of interest:

  • Adam Roberts reviews Transition by Iain Banks, and doesn’t think much of it.
  • Niall Harrison reviews three books, and reminds me that I really need to get around to reading The Ask and the Answer.
  • Lija from The Writer’s Pet interviews David Vann.
  • A few months old, but well worth reading: John Grant champions the good stuff.
  • Gav from NextRead asks what reviews are good for.
  • And, finally,  just because: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as you’ve never heard it before.

Two Stories: Nightjar Press

‘What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night’ (2009) by Michael Marshall Smith
‘The Safe Children’ (2009) by Tom Fletcher

Nightjar Press is a new venture by the writer Nicholas Royle, specialising in individually-bound short stories. They’ve launched with two titles, one by a well-known writer, the other by a newcomer. Very handsome volumes they are — and, more importantly, the stories are also very good.

The well-known writer is Michael Marshall Smith, whose name is pretty much a guarantee of a good read, and ‘What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night’ is no exception. It’s narrated by a little girl named Maddy who hates the dark, so (she tells us) made a deal with her mummy that she could keep the light on all night, as long as she didn’t disturb her parents. But tonight, Maddy has woken up in darkness; what’s happened to her light?

The first thing to say about this story is that Smith gets Maddy’s voice pitch-perfect: with all the breathless sentences and repetitive structures, it feels as though this is a small child addressing us. And it’s the naiveté of Maddy’s viewpoint which is key to the success of the story. It becomes clear as the tale progresses that something strange is happening — and, all credit to Smith, it was something I didn’t see coming.  But we get some idea of what’s going on, even though Maddy doesn’t; the gap between her knowledge and ours generates great poignancy. It was with something of a wry smile that I closed the book, having read Maddy’s final words: ‘Mummy and Daddy do not talk much any more, and this is why, if you wake up in the night, you should never ever get up out of bed.’ There’s a lot going on behind that sentence which I can’t reveal without spoiling the story — and I’d hate to deprive anyone of the superb reading experience I had with Smith’s tale.

Nightjar’s second launch title is the beautifully harsh ‘The Safe Children’ by a young new writer named Tom Fletcher. Set in western Cumbria, it follows James Thwaite as he travels to his new job as overnight security guard at a factory which makes… well, that’s a secret. The plot leads towards the revelation of the factory’s purposde, which is appropriately nasty — but that revelation isn’t enough, by itself, to make the story stand out.

What does make this tale stand out for me is Fletcher’s prose, the way he captures the fundamental bleakness of his setting. The story is set in the near future, and perhaps its main theme  is that of the promise of a shiny new tomorrow versus the failure of reality to deliver. Here, for example, is how James describes his train to work:

All of the seats are ripped; all of the tables are black with cigarette burns. Somebody is playing music on some portable device and it sounds like an insect trapped behind glass. The train moves slowly. I just stare out at the sea. Some things haven’t changed at all.

There are flashy, hi-tech trains and suchlike in this future world, but only in rich areas; where James lives, a couple are lucky if they can afford for both to eat at the same time — and the only hint of that shiny tomorrow is the shimmer of wet sand on the beach. The real horror of ‘The Safe Children’ is not the factory itself, but the socio-economic conditions that allowed it to come into being, and made people desperate enough to take jobs there.

Fletcher’s story is not without its flaws: the background details aren’t always integrated as naturally as perhaps they ought to be; they end up feeling ‘crammed in’, as though the story doesn’t give them enough space. Overall, however, ‘The Safe Children’ is an effective piece that marks Fletcher out as a writer for whom it’s worth keeping an eye out; he has a novel due to be published next year, which is now on my to-read list.

Also on my to-read list is anything that comes from Nightjar Press; if all its publications are going to be as good as these, they’ll need reading.

Pump Six and Other Stories (2008) by Paolo Bacigalupi

I have heard a lot about Paolo Bacigalupi, much of it good; and I thought it was about time I got acquainted with his work. I’ve started with what built his reputation – his short fiction. Pump Six is a collection of ten stories, presented in chronological order of publication, and dating as far back as 1999. From reading it, I’ve discovered that (with a few reservations), Bacigalupi’s work deserves to be spoken of so highly.

Right from the start, Bacigalupi shows himself to be a writer of great texture; he knows just how to bring his worlds to life. Here, for example, is an extract from the book’s very first page, describing the construction of a new ‘biologic city’, which is being grown as much as built:

It grew on lattices of minerals, laying its own skeleton and following with cellulose skin. Infrastructure strong and broad, growing and branching, it settled roots deep into the green fertile soil of the Sichuan basin. It drew nutrients and minerals frmo the soil and sun, and the water of the rancid Bing Jiang; sucking at pollutants as willingly as it ate the sunlight which filtered through twining sooty mist.

(‘Pocketful of Dharma’)

Time and again, Bacigalupi captures this disorientating sense of the future’s being alien-and-yet-not. And the futures he creates are typically under stress: a problem from now stretched into a crisis and beyond, until it shapes the world. So, in ‘The Tamarisk Hunter’, water shortages mean there’s a bounty on the stuff, and good money to be made by anyone willing to seek out the plants that store large amounts of it. In ‘The Calorie Man’, the problem is energy: with traditional sources (presumably) depleted, we have turned entirely to biofuels. In this world, crops have effectively replaced money, so even the smallest amount of energy is expended with caution – and the scale and structure of society have naturally been affected by this.

A particularly harrowing example of Bacigalupi’s futures is the world of ‘Pop Squad’, whose key problem was one of population. The solution was ‘rejoo’, a technique which halts the ageing process – with the side-effect of infertility. But who’d want to reproduce, when they could be immortal? Some still do, apparently, even though it’s illegal and (effectively) a death sentence – but there are ‘pop squads’ for dealing with the results of that.

This piece is a very effective portrait of a pop squad member questioning his assumptions. Bacigalupi’s control is superb, as the tale progresses from the initial shocking moment, through the growth of the protagonist’s doubt (though the ending doesn’t have quite the same impact). I also appreciate Bacigalupi’s refusal (as I see it) to reduce the issue of rejoo to a simple choice between good or bad (though I think the story is more of the opinion that it’s a bad thing). Leaving aside the issue that the utterly reprehensible pop squads were created because of it, there are both advantages and disadvantages to accepting or rejecting rejoo; and ‘Pop Squad’ is a stronger story because of that.

Another characteristic common to a good number of the stories in Pump Six is that they show how people have become distorted by what’s happened to the world, and often in ways that are deeply troubling to us. We see this in the protagonist of ‘Pop Squad’, and also in the altered humans of ‘The People of Sand and Slag’.  In this tale, environmental change has precipitated the development of ‘weeviltech’, which enables people to heal from even extreme injury (severed limbs can just grow back), and  to eat rocks and mud – but their mentality and ethics have become so far removed from ours that reading about them is a highly discomforting (though powerful) experience. It’s not really necessary for Bacigalupi to have one of his characters ask ‘If someone came from the past, to meet us here and now, what do you think they’d say about us? Would they even call us human?’ and another reply, ‘No, they’d call us gods,’  because the narrative itself makes the same ironic point forcefully enough. But it’s an arresting point all the same.

Bacigalupi’s characters with alien mentalities don’t all reside in the future. ‘Softer’, the one non-sf story in the collection, is narrated by a man who has just killed his wife – they were in bed, she nudged and chided him for not doing  the dishes, he retaliated with a pillow, and… well, there you go. What’s so chilling about this story is that the narrator is so casual about what he’s done; and that he convinces as a character, even though his thought processes are unfathomable.

And it’s not just minds which are transformed in these stories – so are bodies. ‘The People of Sand and Slag’ is one example, of course; but the physical transformation is perhaps even more dramatic in ‘The Fluted Girl’. Here, we find a society which has organised itself into fiefdoms, one of which is ruled by Madame Belari, an actress with ambitions to become an entertainment mogul, as it were.

Her star attractions are Lidia and Nia, twins whom Belari enslaved as children, and forced to undergo treatments that arrested their physical growth, sculpted their bodies, and left them with brittle bones. It’s the slow, elegant unveiling of the situation that makes this story work, along with the subtextual examination of the desire for ‘fame at any price’, and the effect it may have on others.

‘The Fluted Girl’ is hardly a rosy vision; but there’s a kind of cautious optimism towards the end, with the possibility that Lidia might be on the way to breaking out of her present circumstances. And this is an example of something else that features in several of Bacigalupi’s stories: characters and lives on the cusp of change.

Take, for instance, ‘Pump Six’, a somewhat uneasy but interesting fusion of two different kinds of sf story. It starts off reading something like a spoof of old-school sf, wherein our narrator has a few casual digs at the women in his life, then tries to work out why one of his city’s sewage pumps isn’t working – then the tale mutates into something rather more solemn, and we discover that this world is not as we thought it was. I don’t think ‘Pump Six’ is entirely successful – for example, the protagonist’s dismissive attitude towards women doesn’t get the comeuppance it warrants, which makes its inclusion more problematic – but I was certainly surprised where (I assume) I was meant to be surprised; and, in that sense, the story does its job just fine.

What can I say about the stories of Pump Six as a whole, then? They don’t make for easy or light reading; yet they’re not unwelcoming, either. They are snapshots of worlds and people in the midst of difficult times – one might even say at times that difficulty has become a way of life – but not without a sense of resilience. Life (or at least the world) goes on. I’m glad I discovered the work of Paolo Bacigalupi; if you haven’t yet, I’d recommend you do the same.

Three of the stories from Pump Six are available to read on Paolo Bacigalupi’s website:

‘The Tamarisk Hunter’

‘The People of Sand and Slag’

‘The Fluted Girl’

The Little Stranger (2009) by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is my first Sarah Waters book, and one about which I’ve heard mixed opinions. But the proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating (or, in this case, the reading) – and, wouldn’t you know, I’ve ended up with a mixed opinion myself. Thinking about it, though, that’s quite appropriate; because this is, in a quite literal sense, a mixed book.

Our narrator is one Dr Faraday, a GP in rural 1940s Warwickshire, who becomes involved with the affairs of the Ayreses, a family struggling to keep the estate of Hundreds Hall, going; just as they’re struggling to find a place in the modern world. A series of strange events — the family dog biting a young girl, a mysterious fire, and yet others — puts the household under further strain. The occurrences become stranger still: is there a rational explanation for it all, or could Hundreds Hall be haunted?

The Little Stranger is, then, at once two things: a ghost story, and a portrait of the decline of the landed gentry in post-war Britain. Its problem, I think, is that these two aspects sit awkwardly together — and, at times, may even work against each other. As an evocation of a point in history, I find the novel to be very good: Faraday’s rather stiff narrative voice places the reader effectively in the period — I, for one, never caught a whiff of anachronism — and Waters lays bare some of the pressures (social, economic, and otherwise) at work; be they pressure on the Ayreses to sell off land for property development, of the awkwardness and difficulty of moving between social strata, as Faraday did when he became a doctor.

No, it’s the ghost story which is problematic. Waters keeps things ambiguous — which would be fine, except I can’t quite believe in the ambiguity. For it to work, both the rational and supernatural explanations must be plausible and implausible at the same time. The rational explanations put forward by Faraday and others achieve this: they’re plausible enough to account for what’s reported (Faraday never witnesses anything unequivocally supernatural himself); yet they also seem increasingly strained attempts to explain unusual events away.

The supernatural explanations, however, don’t have the same duality. I can believe, from the evidence in the text, that Hundreds Hall isn’t haunted supernaturally; but I can’ t quite believe that it could be. The house is described as decaying, but it never feels (to me) to be as though it’s more than just a decrepit old house — it never feels truly malevolent. And that makes it hard for me to believe that we’re (possibly) dealing with a haunted house.

But there’s more to this than ‘the ghost story doesn’t quite work’, because the issue cuts to the very metaphoric heart of The Little Stranger. I think Waters is trying to set up a structure where the ‘haunting’ of Hundreds Hall is a reflection of the way that the house has become a millstone around the necks of the Ayres family — in other words, the ghost-story aspect of the novel and its decline-portait aspect should intertwine, should work in harmony. However, since the ghost story isn’t as strong, statements like, ‘This house has sucked the life out of [us]…It wants to destroy us, all of us’ (spoken by Roderick Ayres, the son of the household) come across as heavy-handed attempts to drive the metaphor home (I suspect this statement might seem heavy-handed anyway, but it’s particularly so given the circumstances).

I’m not sure how well the ‘haunting’ fits in general as a metaphor for the family’s misfortune, actually. Hauntings perhaps best represent acute problems — exorcise the ghost, and healing can begin. Yet the Ayreses’ troubles are fundamentally chronic: they’re caused by social changes, for which there can be no ‘exorcism’. So, instead of going hand-in-hand with the tale of decline, too often the ghost story seems like a distraction from it. All of which is to say that The Little Stranger doesn’t work for me as an aesthetic whole.

Yet there are still ways in which the novel does succeed. To give one example, I’ve mentioned its historical portrait; to give another, Faraday is an interesting creation, by turns both a rounded individual and an empty vessel. Sometimes he’s barely there, just a window through which we can view the events at Hundreds Hall; yet the halting growth of his attraction to Caroline Ayres (the daughter of the household) takes a convincing course. In some respects, Faraday mirrors the Ayres family, as his life too is threatened by changes in society (he fears that the coming National Health Service spells the end for private practice); and, in the end, he becomes so bound up with Hundreds Hall that Faraday can be seen as ‘haunting’ the place himself, in a way.

That was my first Sarah Waters book, then: how did it go? I don’t think she achieves everything she set out to in The Little Stranger; but what she does achieve suggests to me that Waters is a very good writer when at her best — so I’ll be reading more of her work in the future.

In This Way I Was Saved (2009) by Brian DeLeeuw

In his début novel, Brian DeLeeuw brings us a story about two boys. One of the boys is real, while the other isn’t – but you may have a hard time deciding which is which. Our narrator is Daniel, who met Luke in the playground, when the latter was six. Luke is the only person who can see him; yet Daniel seems no common-or-garden ‘imaginary friend’, having apparently attained consciousness. Daniel returns home with Luke, to find a household under strain: Luke’s mother, Claire, is fragile, still affected by her own mother’s suicide; when an incident brings matters to a head, she leaves, taking Luke with her.

One day, Claire has a surprise for Luke – she’s bought him a pet dog. This new friend starts to take Daniel’s place in Luke’s life, so much so that Daniel finds his very self disintegrating. In a bid for survival, Daniel tricks Luke into poisoning the dog with some of Claire’s medication. She, of course, doesn’t believe her son when he says that Daniel told him to do it, and takes Luke to see a psychiatrist. Soon after, Luke is able to restrain Daniel, eventually locking him away inside his head, for twelve whole years. But, when Luke is eighteen, Daniel re-emerges – with his own ideas of what Luke should do, who Luke should be.

In This Way I Was Saved is quite a difficult book to evaluate. How do you judge characterisation, for example, when you can’t even trust that the narrator is – well, is, full stop? Well, let’s see: DeLeeuw has created a chilling presence in Daniel, a narrator who’s just that bit too knowing, whose voice is that bit too articulate. Not to mention that his opinions are also pretty vile; Daniel has little patience for humans and their messy emotions: when Luke finds a girl in whose company he can relax and forget his cares, Daniel just takes the view that Luke is being insincere – and the situation Daniel then engineers is not a pleasant one. As a portrait of such a cold individual, the book is a great success.

Yet there’s ambiguity here, too, as it’s possible to read Daniel as being entirely a product of Luke’s delusion. This is a more difficult reading to make, because the narration naturally invites us to view Daniel as a separate entity; and I’m not sure that the novel sustains its ambiguity through to the end. But it’s fascinating to read a scene and see it happening in two different ways simultaneously; DeLeeuw interweaves the possibilities well. The reading of Daniel-as-delusion also deepens the book’s portrait of people and lives unravelling; it’s harrowing for characters and readers alike.

In This Way I Was Saved is not without its flaws. I feel a sense of distance in the progression of the plot – as though it’s happening rather than being made to happen – which I think arises because neither Luke nor Daniel is able to truly drive the story directly. Nevertheless, I am impressed with what DeLeeuw has done in his novel. It’s easy to assume, from the first few pages, that you know who Daniel is and what has happened. I read most of the book thinking, it can’t be that simple – and, happily, it’s not.

No more of that, though, for it’s the road to spoilers. To conclude: In This Way I Was Saved is an intriguing puzzle of a book which takes you into a mind that’s not a comfortable place to visit, but that visit is compelling all the same. Whose mind is it, though? There’s a question to ponder…