Book Review: ‘End of the World Blues’ by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

'End of the World Blues' by J C Grimwood

‘End of the World Blues’ by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (UK HBK 057507616X, Gollancz, Aug 2006)

Let us be frank from the outset – End of the World Blues is not a science fiction novel.

That’s perhaps a bold (and maybe even controversial) statement, but it can be tested and seen to stand. Granted, it’s not been marketed as an sf novel, but then neither has it been effectively marketed as not being one. Regular readers often trust publishers the same way music fans trust record labels – and this is a book from Gollancz. Make your own assumptions. But to be fair, Grimwood has been drifting steadily away from the trademark amphetamine-fueled cyber-splatter that was his early output, and there’s nothing to say that is a bad or wrong thing to do – a writer’s output is his own prerogative after all, and not the reader’s.

So, what is End Of the World Blues, if not sf? It comes across as more of a literary crime thriller, albeit one with a sf-nal motif running through it. Set in the very near future, and hopping primarily between London and Tokyo for its backdrop, it could possibly be compared to Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. The fundamental difference being that in Pattern Recognition, the technology, the science, is the core of the plot. That’s not the case here.

Kit Nouveau runs a seedy biker bar in the rough Roppongi region of Tokyo. He’s married (largely for convenience) to a famous Japanese ceramic artist, and busy smacking his past into submission with a regular intake of cheap heroin. Then, in rapid succession: his affair with the wife of a prominent local ‘businessman’ is discovered; he is rescued from a mugging by a teenaged goth cosplay named Neku, by way of her preternatural street-combat skills; he narrowly avoids being killed when his bar is destroyed by a fire that kills his wife and his livelihood; and finally discovers that not only has an ex-girlfriend (who he has spent the last decade or so running from the memory of) committed suicide, but that her London gang-boss mother believes she’s still alive and wants him to find out what is going on.

Not so science fictional, really.

From here, we follow Kit back to the UK and London, with Neku in tow. Added to the mix are police, spies, anti-terrorism units, large consignments of misappropriated drugs, intrigue, brief bursts of violence, and a hefty helping of yakusa politics toward the end.

Now, what about that sf motif? That comes from Neku, the Japanese street-girl. Interspersed with the main narrative are scenes from her life in the bizarre and relentlessly dystopian ‘nawa-no-ukiyo‘, or ‘floating rope world’. This is a far-future Earth, where the majority of the human race has decamped via time travel, leaving the planet populated by political prisoners, refugees and the otherwise dispossessed – plus the decadent remnants of ruling families (of one of which Neku is the younger daughter and heir apparent), acting out their final throes in orbital habitats which were designed to control and maintain a web of sails to trap solar radiation and prevent it from finishing the nearly complete destruction of the world …

… which probably sounds great to an sf reader. But it is a mere marbling through the meat of a far more mundane narrative, and is eventually revealed to be a metaphor; a kind of Jungian dream-fiction that the real-world Neku is writing to explain her own unpleasant past to herself as the story progresses. It’s a shame, in a way – one gets the feeling it would have made (and maybe even started life as) a fascinating and mysterious short genre story.

So, it befalls the reader to treat End of the World Blues as a piece of ‘proper’ literature. And as such, it may well be an excellent, even groundbreaking piece of work – but that would be hard for this reader to judge, not being based in the demographic that it appears to be pitched at. As much as it may seem an ironic criticism from an sf reviewer, the characters seem astonishingly wooden and un-engaging – especially the hero, Kit, who largely comes across as an emotionless automaton who simply reacts in the most dramatically interesting way to the increasingly unpleasant circumstances that envelop him; a state that isn’t fully explained or justified by the occasional flash-back to some nasty experiences in the (contemporary) Iraq conflict, or his guilt at the mishandling of his relationship with his ex-girlfriend.

These gripes aside, the plot twists like an angry snake, and the denouement is a genuine surprise in a story already riddled with knotted deceits and subterfuge, and a side-serving of well-realised and pacey ultra-violence. But it bears repeating that a reader picking up End of the World Blues and expecting a science fiction novel will be unlikely to make it all the way through to find that out.

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