Category Archives: Reading Journal

What kind of bomb

“For a long time I have suspected there is no way out. I can do nothing I am not. I have been living destructively towards the writer in me for some time, guiltily conscious of doing so all along, cf. the critical justification in terms of the objective death of a historical tradition: a decadent at a tremendous turning point in history, constitutionally incapable of turning with it as a writer, I am living my personal Dada. In all of this there is a terrible emotional smear. The steel of the logic has to be daily strengthened to contain the volcanic element within. It grows daily more hard to contain. I am a kind of bomb.”

— from Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi, 1960; quoted in Lipstick Traces by the staggeringly prolix but insightful Greil Marcus

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Gun Machine by Warren EllisIf Warren Ellis is to be believed – and why wouldn’t you believe a grumpy and grizzled man wielding a cane who looks like he eats dogs just for the fun of it, and whose legions of followers refer to him, at his command, as Internet Jesus? – the first three chapters of Crooked Little Vein were written with the intent of permanently scaring away the agent who kept hassling him to write his first prose novel.

It’s easier still to believe if you’ve actually read CLV, which is a gleefully disgusting narrative collage comprising the collected horrors of a decade spent trawling the internet’s seediest subcultural ghettoes, and introduced such delights as saline injection ballbag modification and the (hopefully at least partly fabricated) concept of godzilla bukkake to an audience who, had they done even the slightest bit of research, should have known exactly what they were in for. CLV is a short sharp slap of gross-out fun, but belongs more to a pulpy subgenre of its very own than any recognisable (or, for that matter, marketable) publishing category.

If Ellis really wanted to put off the publishers, either he or CLV‘s Bookscan figures failed spectacularly: New Year’s Day 2013 sees the release of Gun Machine, his second novel, and it’s a very different animal indeed. Oh, it’s pure Ellis, don’t worry about that – but it’s also much more recognisably a novel, and a pretty damned decent one as well. Talk of “that difficult second [album / book / cloned mutant love-servant]” all you want, but Gun Machine is a serious bit of game-raising, an order of magnitude deeper, wider and just plain better than what went before it.

I can’t really speak to Gun Machine‘s credentials as a ‘proper’ crime novel, because that’s a genre I only know at one or more removes. One could probably make an argument for Gun Machine as sf, as it’s set in one of those Gibsonian very-near-futures: recognisably not too far from the here-and-now, but with a few all too plausible technological extrapolations. But given sf’s ongoing generic toxicity to anyone who doesn’t already identify as an sf reader, I’d not bother; no one who keeps an eye on even just the topmost jags of the technology news-berg is going to get sunk by this novel. So let’s call it a psychogeographical psycho-thriller; there are so many damned genres around now, another one won’t hurt. (And I like psychogeography, so there.)

So, yeah: John Tallow is a detective with the NYPD, and in the opening chapters he sees the brain matter of his partner spattered across a tenement stairwell (and his suit jacket) courtesy of a naked man with a shotgun who’s working his way through a psychotic break. Pretty standard start for a crime novel, right? But in pretty short order – and in brief and highly visual chapters – Tallow discovers the tenement contains an apartment full of guns. Hundreds of the things, and not just stashed away in a cubby-hole, either; they’re laid out on the floor and walls in an intricate, cryptic and, worst of all, incomplete gunmetal mandala.

It’s the sort of clusterfuck case that no sane detective would ever want to be saddled with, let alone one trying to deal with having seen his partner zeroed right in front of him earlier that day… which is exactly why Tallow’s boss dumps it straight into his lap, hoping it’ll sink quickly into the ocean of unsolved Noo Yoik murder cases and take Tallow with it. And that’s before the forensics evidence starts flooding in, revealing that each of the guns is connected to an unsolved murder, a collection of cold cases stretching back decades.

This is no straight-forward serial killer caper, though, and technique is a part of that. Instead of sticking to Tallow as he – assisted by the two profoundly (and, quite often, amusingly) dysfunctional CSU sidekicks he acquires – collects plot tokens to trade in for the final revelation, Ellis gives us chapters from the killer’s POV as well. This takes deft handling; revealing the killer to the reader early on robs a crime writer of a major source of tension, but the plot here is far wider than one man and his very serious case of psychopathy, which lets Ellis pull us into both the deep and recent histories of New York as a city of trade, uncovering webs of deceit, greed and and corruption as contemporary as they are timeless. And somehow, despite Tallow being almost a textbook cipher of a detective, a man with no life beyond the job he’s been indifferent to for years and his apartment piled full of pre-digital media, Ellis makes you root for the guy; it started out as pity, but became something more than that, at least for me.

Perhaps it’s a matter of contrast: the hollow Tallow against the vision-filled and profoundly schizophrenic killer, against his madcap sidekicks, against the callow careerists of the NYPD. Character depth isn’t Gun Machine‘s strong point – it’s very much a novel of types – but Ellis has the knack of communicating what, for want of a better term, we might call the universality of fucked-upness. Despite the comic excess, Ellis’s white-hats are big-hearted behind their overamped peccadilloes; it’s the black-hats who wear the sharp suits, the veneers of respectability and conformity. Ellis knows his audience of freaks and outcasts. He’s always been proud to be one of them, after all.

And there are some genuinely funny moments in Gun Machine, a necessary and welcome counterbalance to the clinically gruesome descriptions of slaughter. It’s dark humour, of course, but delivered with a humanity that you might not expect after reading CLV… though if you’ve read Transmetropolitan, arguably the comic that made his rep, you’ll know that Ellis has a big heart hidden somewhere behind that scouring-pad beard, and that his spiky character is a sort of defence mechanism against a world that can stomp on hearts all too easily.

(Having written that publicly, of course, I fully suspect Ellis will now despatch a drug-crazed fan-minion to shit in my eyesockets while I sleep. Man’s gotta rep to protect, y’know.)

But enough detail. Gun Machine isn’t going to take any literary prizes, but it’ll take you on a blood-soaked ride around the scabrous underbelly of a world we still think of as modern, but which is really a whole lot older and simpler – and nastier – than we care to acknowledge. And while there’s no happy-ever-after – or even just desserts – in Ellis’s world, it is all the more human for that; it rings with the bittersweet chime of the truth, and that’s a sound I don’t hear enough, no matter the medium.

253 (Print Remix) by Geoff Ryman

253 by Geoff RymanI’ve known of 253 (a.k.a. Tube Theatre) for quite some time, but I’ve only just read it, after stumbling across the (Philip K Dick Award-winning) print remix in the dealer’s room at Eastercon. Its original incarnation was as a website – which still exists, seemingly untouched and untweaked since it was built in 1996. Wikipedia would have me believe that Robert Arellano’s Sunshine 69 was “the World Wide Web’s first interactive novel”, published in June 1996; I can’t find an accurate date for 253‘s launch, but it seems reasonable to say that even if it came out after Arellano’s work, it was still very much in the vanguard of web-native hypertext fictions. I used to read Wired in ’96 – dead-tree editions, of course, imported from the States – and remember the repeated pre-emptive obituaries for print media, and announcements of the imminence of the hypertext novel as the primary literary form of The Future. The former looks more likely now than it ever did, but still a long way off, while the latter – but for a small fringe scene – has remained resolutely below the radar, for reasons that are more obvious in hindsight. (I’m not going to waffle on about the paucity of viable business models for online fiction at this point; I’ve done enough of that at Futurismic over the years.) Continue reading 253 (Print Remix) by Geoff Ryman

A Glass of Shadow – Liz Williams

A Glass of Shadow - Liz WilliamsApart from a few chance encounters in mags and anthologies, this is my first condensed experience of Liz Williams in the short form, in a handsome (and rather genre-ambivalent) collection from NewCon Press. Nice font size and simple layout… though the fancy font for the story titles errs a little too far toward the unreadable for my taste. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.

Now, I’ve not actually read any of Williams’ sf novels, either. She holds the very rare and dubious honour of being the only writer of what you might term ‘urban fantasy’ whose output in that bracket has captured and sustained my interest: I was sent a copy of one of the Inspector Chen novels for review a few years back, dipped my nose into it out of curiosity, and have read almost all of them since. They’re a great balance of dry humour and dramatic plotting, and a real pleasure to read.

A few of the stories here are set in Singapore 3, but neither Chen or his supporting cast make an appearance in these stand-alone tales, and the city is largely a convenient backdrop against which to set some spooky goings-on that draw on the Chinese occult pantheon; the vibrancy and depth-of-field of the novels is absent, but that’s not really a surprise or a complaint; short stories is short stories, after all. My favourite of these was probably “Mr Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies”, because I’m a sucker for a rock’n’roll underdog story played with just the right balance of respect and snark…

Williams draws on other occult traditions, far and near: “Who Pays” drops in on the all-but-out-of-business gateway to the Egyptian afterlife (and reveals it to have had still older and stranger origins than those we think we know); “Voivodoi” mashes up a genetically-modified near-future with the folk tale monsters of Central Asia; an embittered undine bites off more than she can chew when she tries to harness the unusual power of a hapless Victorian gent in “The Water Cure”, and that notorious opium eater Thomas De Quincey reveals a dark and untold aspect to his well-known tale in “Mr De Quincy and the Daughters of Madness”; “Blackthorn and Nettles” goes back to druidic traditions of ancient Britain, and “On Windhover Down” takes place in an alternate branch of English history where the transition between the old gods and their imported supercedents is not yet complete.

There’s a variety of tone throughout, though Williams tends toward a verbose narration in the first person (which may be a function of the dominance of [alt]-historical settings in this collection); there’s also a scale of severity or seriousness that runs from its peak in the stories set on the Mars of Williams’ Winterstrike novels (“The Age Of Ice”, “La Malcontenta”) down to the whimsical Whitby-and-Goths spook-story “All Fish and Dracula” (which was a smidgen too cute for my palate). The Winterstrike setting feels like it’ll be very much to my taste, though, so I’ll have to look those up when the opportunity arises.

What really leapt out at me, though, was the regularity with which Williams has her characters transition across the borders between “reality” and other dimensions – Hell, Faerie, altered states, the afterlife – and back again, and the way in which she views those transitions and transactions in much the same terms that we understand the borders between nation-states; the Other Side is always political, sometimes sexual (though not overtly so). The transitions always change the person who makes them, too; it’s those who hang back or tremble undecided on the borders who tend to get hurt the worst. Don’t hesitate in the face of change, of the other… I’m put in mind of Chris Beckett’s fiction, which – while stylistically very different – contains this same fascination with the transgression of boundaries, though Chris tends to focus on the apprehension and temptation of transition (and the tension that temptation creates when strung against the need for borders to be maintained and policed) rather than the transgressions themselves. An opportunity for some sort of comparative paper there, maybe.

As a final aside, it struck me that “Ikiryoh” poses the same ethical question as Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”: is the deliberately engineered suffering of a single unfortunate justifiable if it brings peace and plenty to the entire state? The problem is approached from a very different angle to LeGuin’s; this story is more story than parable, for a start, and the answer is left for the reader to decide for themselves (though Williams’ protagonist – itself, perhaps tellingly, a member of an engineered servitor underclass – seems to make her own choice before the story’s end). Indeed, the literary similarities are very few, but it was the chime of recognition that made me think it worth noting down; it’s one of those themes that always reaches out of a story and slaps me into stillness, and I think there’s a lesson for me -both literary and personal – in that jerk of clarity.

As with all the most important lessons, though, what is to be learned is not immediately apparent. Selah. 🙂