Books I Read In January 2012
Downriver – Iain Sinclair
The loose, meandering plot of this second novel by London’s leading psychogeographer1 supposedly revolves around the attempt of a film crew to make a documentary about the Thames towards the end of the Thatcher years. In practice it mostly consists of the usual elements of Sinclair’s work – (low)life on the blasted margins of society, a view of rare bookselling that makes the trade seem about as respectable as selling bent motors, a philistine media industry that destroys culture and history in favour of empty theme-park ‘heritage’, individuals who’ve crossed the line from eccentric into totally bloody mad. This is a book you read for all the little incidents and anecdotes, rather than to find out what happens at the end – and also for the writing itself, sometimes satirical, sometimes savage but always wonderful. You could probably read any of the twelve sections out of order without it mattering too much to your understanding of the plot. Like all his work, fiction and non-fiction, this is one of those things which you either love or find utterly incomprehensible. I loved it, though as you may have noticed I find it hard to explain why.
Mask of the Other – Greg Stolze
Excellent modern-day Cthulhu Mythos fiction from the man who brought us the magnificent Unknown Armies2. The story starts out switching between characters, places and times, before coalescing into a mostly chronological order by about half way. The main characters are a squad of US Army soldiers who stumbled into something very dangerous during the First Gulf War, and their subsequent involvement with the horrendous madness that lurks below normal human existence. The characterisation in particular is very good, the members of Third Squad seem like real people which is important in this kind of story – to properly portray the empty, monstrous insanity of the Cthulhu Mythos you need believable human characters to contrast it with. Too often in cosmic horror stories the lack of ordinary, identifiable people is noticeable, diluting the ‘wrongness’ that fuels the horror. Also features a conception of Deep One reproductive habits that manages to be even more disturbing than usual, and an excellent twist on the traditional ‘driven mad by monsters’ trope.
Death In Venice – Thomas Mann
Three novellas, all dealing in some way with the conflict between the ‘artistic temperament’ and bourgeois values. I suppose some people would call that pretentious; such people are best ignored. Anyway, Thomas Mann actually was a bloody genius, so there’s no pretence involved. The title story is easily the best, Mann’s classic tale of an artist who becomes obsessed with a teenage boy in a plague-stricken Venice. The sense of gloom and corruption enveloping both the city and the protagonist is beautifully observed, inescapable but not overwrought. The second story, Tristan, I was less taken with, possibly because I didn’t understand all the references. I’m pretty sure it’s intended to be commentary on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, but since I know nothing about opera it pretty much went right over my head, leaving a fairly simple story about some people in a sanatorium. Tonio Kroger, the third in the volume, follows a writer as journeys to his childhood home. Along the way he tries to reconcile the artistic leanings he inherited from his mother with the protestant middle-class values of his father, and to decide whether he is really an artist or a member of ‘respectable society’. In the end, Death in Venice is the only story that I’d put up there with Mann’s novels, the other two are good but don’t quite have the same spark to them.
Embedded – Dan Abnett
Fast-moving military sci-fi with an interesting premise; a burned out reporter travels to the backwater planet of Eighty-Six to cover an ongoing ‘police action’. Convinced that there’s more going on than a petty brushfire war and prevented from investigating by the military’s rigid media control, he takes drastic action. Using experimental technology his mind is projected into that of a soldier on the front lines, so that the two men ‘share’ the same body. As you’d expect, things quickly escalate out of control and he has to take more a hands-on approach. . . The concept is an interesting one, showing how the authorities don’t simply censor the press but rather subvert it, though it takes second place to the action towards the second half. As you’d expect from the man who brought us Gaunt’s Ghosts, the combat sequences are well realised and energetic. Once everyone opens up with the M32A HardBeams, Colt PDWs, PAP20s and Kobra Avtomats3 the pace doesn’t let up for a moment. At least until the ending, which is rather abrupt – the story just seems to arrive at the end and stop very quickly, and the final reveal is obvious to say the least. Not Abnett’s best work by any means, but it’s cleverer than it needed to be(always a good sign in pulp fiction) and certainly entertaining.
Johannes Cabal the Detective – Jonathan Howard
Fresh from having successfully gotten a refund of his soul from Lucifer in the first book(Johannes Cabal the Necromancer), in this book the worlds leading practitioner of the dark arts gets himself tangled up in some cloak and dagger business in a cluster of Ruritanian kingdoms. Most of the story revolves around an Agatha Christie style ‘series of murders in an enclosed location’ plot, in this case aboard a luxury aerocraft rather than a train or country house. Can Cabal survive to return to his peaceful laboratory, armed with only his piercing intellect and near-total amorality4? Of course he can, and as with the previous book most of the pleasure of the book comes from the character of Johannes Cabal. A sort of combined Victor Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes and Herbert West, in his determination to defeat death he leaves a swathe of madness, chaos and corpses(the irony!) in his wake which could all be avoided if people would just get out of his way and leave him alone. Importantly, the book doesn’t go too far with this; it’s always clear that Johannes is more human than he likes to admit, and for all his cleverness he still makes mistakes. A little lightweight maybe but always amusing and frequently funny.
The Drought – J G Ballard
Short, early work from the master of apocalyptic urbanism. Catastrophic pollution has destroyed the precipitation cycle, so that it never rains, rivers run dry whilst the sea recedes from the shores and the land turns to desert under the inescapable blazing sun. Ballard beautifully describes the way the landscape becomes hostile as the abandoned cities are buried under the sands, and there are some wonderful images – a a road jammed with a ‘steel glacier’ of cars, survivors ‘mining’ supplies by digging through sand to the supermarket buried beneath it. Of course, it’s not really the physical nature of the disaster that matters so much as it’s psychological side. Naturally, civilisation collapses almost immediately once drinkable water and food become incredible scarce. With the end of civilisation comes the end of time – the drought distils everyone’s lives down to the same bare minimum, carrying out the same backbreaking labour in lockstep every identical day so as to survive to do it again. Even the main character who goes on a journey across the hostile landscape ends up more or less back where he started from. Rip-roaring adventure it certainly isn’t, highly recommended to fans of apocalyptic fiction nonetheless.
Empire State – Adam Christopher
The Empire State is a weird, distorted version of Manhattan, where no-one remembers more than 20 years back or wonders why, in a permanent condition of ‘Wartime’ against the unknown and unseen ‘Enemy’ that surrounds them outside the impenetrable fogbanks that ring the island. The dictatorial City Commissioners periodically dispatch fleets of ironclads loaded with robot soldiers, who never return, and a superhero (or supervillain) has just been executed in prison. Combining noir detective stories, weird pulp fiction and the Golden Age of Superheroes, Empire State made me think of a version of Perdido Street Station based on New York rather than London, especially in the first half before the exact nature of the Empire State is revealed. Sadly this is only a superficial impression5, and there isn’t nearly the imaginative depth or richness of China Mieville’s work. Although there are a lot of cool ideas, none of them are really given enough attention to do them justice and they never really gel together satisfactorily. Would probably have been improved by being a little longer; brevity and pace are always important in pulp fiction of course, but in this case a little more space to breathe and explore the ideas wouldn’t be amiss. It isn’t a bad book, but I did find it a little disappointing – it feels like it doesn’t live up to it’s potential.
1 Well, joint first with Alan Moore maybe.
2 Or half of it anyway, he co-designed it with John Tynes.
3 It’s probably indicative of the book that I remember the names of more weapons than characters.
4 He loses his huge Webley revolver at the beginning.
5 Which is a shame, because that would be absolutely fantastic.