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The Bone Clocks and Slade House, David Mitchell

Despite being shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize, David Mitchell’s novels are not like most other literary fiction novels for two reasons: first, characters from one book often appear in other books; and secondly, many of his novels feature genre tropes and situations. In his debut, Ghostwritten (1999), one of the narrators proves to be a disembodied spirit who can move from body. Cloud Atlas (2004), has two of its six sections set in the future: one a near-future dystopian Korea, the other a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. While it’s not unusual for literary fiction authors to visit genre shores, Mitchell has shown a greater appreciation of, and a better facility with, gene tropes than most of his peers. But then he is a fan and has publicly said as much. And in The Bone Clocks, and its pendant novel, Slade House, he has for the first time told an actual genre story, albeit in the language of literary fiction.

The Bone Clocks is structured as six novellas, most of which are told from the point of view of Holly Sykes. The novel opens in 1984, Holly is a teenager, grief-stricken at the recent death of her younger brother. She decides to run away from home, and makes it halfway across Kent before running afoul of the story’s villains. These villains harken back to earlier novels by Mitchell, particularly The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). That novel introduced the idea of secret immortals amongst us, and it is a war between two such groups which forms the backbone of The Bone Clocks. (You wait for a novel about secret immortals, and three come along at once: as well as The Bone Clocks, 2014 also saw the publication of Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, while Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life appeared in 2013.) The Horologists are body-hopping serial reincarnators. Their enemies, however, the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, “decant” souls in order to extend their lives. The process is fatal to the decanted souls. Over the course of The Bone Clocks Holly has a number of run-ins with the Anchorites, beginning with that trip across Kent as a fifteen-year-old, and finishing in a post-Crash Ireland in 2043.

Unlike Cloud Atlas, the six sections of The Bone Clocks are not nested, but follow on chronologically one from the other. Like that earlier novel, however, they also display an excellent control of voice. The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes’s story and she’s an engaging and convincing character. Having said that, the Anchorites are a bit pantomime, enfant terrible literateur Crispin Hershey initially reads too much like a pastiche of a well-known UK author but soon rounds out, and the immortal Marinus never quite convinces. But these are minor gripes. The Bone Clocks handles its settings with impressive assurance and, more than any other of Mitchell’s novels, this is an insightful book.

Mitchell has said he intended each section of the novel to be a different genre – such as, 1980s social realism, war reportage, fantasy and dystopia, among others. It’s a given most of the really interesting genre fiction is being written in the area where genres meet, and Mitchell makes good use of the interfaces – the sudden irruption of fantasy into Holly’s adventures in Thatcherite Britain creates a shockingly effective introduction of The Bone Clocks’ underlying fantastical plot. In fact, those sections featuring this violent introduction of genre into literary fiction actually work better than those sections which are pure genre. Perhaps it’s a consequence of expectation; perhaps it’s simply the stark contrast between the two modes.

Slade House, on the other hand, makes no secret of its melding of genre and non-genre, although it tries to wrongfoot the reader by presenting its genre elements as “dream-like”. If the novel were a film or television series, it would be called a “spin-off”. Less than half the size of The Bone Clocks, Slade House echoes that novel’s multi-part structure – each set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to 2015 – but takes place entirely in and around the eponymous residence. Each section is told from the point of view of a different person. The eponymous house is home to Norah and Jonah Grayer who, while not associated with The Bone Clocks’ Anchorites, have been using a similar method to extend their lives. Slade House’s narrators are the pairs’ victims.

In each section, the narrator investigates Slade Alley (for a variety of reasons), discovers a small iron door – an interdimensional “Aperture” – which gives entry to Slade House’s grounds, is initially taken in by the illusion woven by the Grayer twins… and is then consumed by them. This act is usually presaged by the sight of a portrait of the narrator at the end of a line of portraits on the main staircase – which is, to be honest, a somewhat cheesy horror film cliché. Slade House presents enough detail to invoke the year in which each section is set, but given that Slade House itself is timeless, this makes for an odd disconnect, often making the detail feel superfluous. Nor is it helped by the last but one section – 2006 – consisting chiefly of a history lesson of Norah and Jonah Grayer, and an explanation of the workings of the house and its grounds. It comes as no surprise to learn that the final section, set in 2015, is about the defeat of the Grayer twins – after the explanation, where else could the narrative go?

Fans of Mitchell’s fiction will have fun spotting characters from other of his novels, a number of which make an appearance in Slade House (as indeed do several in The Bone Clocks). I’ve yet to be convinced this actually adds value, given that the “shared universe” in which all of Mitchell’s novels are set is not a shared universe as the term is understood in genre fiction, but a much less rigorous use of the technique. In other words, they feel more like “Easter eggs” than a structural part of each book’s universe.

Unlike some genre fans, I have no problem with literary fiction authors “dabbling” (not my choice of word) in science fiction and fantasy. On the contrary, the more the merrier – and the lack of knowledge of genre traditions and history can actually prove an advantage to a writer. True, the results often feel a little old-fashioned to veteran readers of genre fiction, and a lack of confidence in deploying genre tropes can lead to unnecessary and clumsy exposition… David Mitchell, however, is a genre fan, he knows what he’s doing. And it shows.

Mitchell also knows what he’s doing when it comes to non-genre fiction. Genre writers make few concessions to their readers – they assume they know how to parse their stories and how genre tropes operate. They also trust their readers to understand the need for exposition. But there’s a limit. Up to this point, the writer needs to explain; and no further. Literary writers usually miscalculate this point and feel a need to explain those things which genre readers either already know about or are happy to take on trust. Likely this is because such writers are not entirely confident with how genre stories and tropes work, and they’re also unsure their readers will understand.

It’s clear Mitchell trusts his readers, both non-genre and genre – evident not only from his oeuvre, but also from his level of success. We need more writers like him. Both inside and outside the genre.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #261, November-December 2015.

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Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman

darkoribtInterstellar polities without Faster-Than-Light travel are not especially common in science fiction. Four examples spring to mind: Ursula K LeGuin’s Ekumen novels and stories, William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion, Chris Moriarty’s Spin State and sequels, and Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space series. And now Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Twenty Planets, in which people and materials are sent as beams of light from world to world and so experience time dilation from travelling at lightspeed. Scientists and explorers who regularly do this form “a strange sodality out of time”, and are known as “Wasters”.

Saraswati Callicot is one such Waster, an exoethnologist. Returning to Capella at the end of a five-year mission – but twenty-three years have passed on Capella – she is promptly recruited by an old mentor to join a team studying a newly-discovered planet fifty-eight light years away. The world is crystalline, so unlikely to be habitable; but it is also in a region of space containing “an odd concentration of dark matter”. Ostensibly a part of the team to research its new management techniques, Sara will actually be keeping an eye on a relative of her mentor, a woman called Thora who has only recently recovered from traumatic events on another world.

A handful of days after Sara’s arrival, one of the security guards aboard the scientists’ ship is murdered, and then Thora disappears during a trip to the planet’s surface. She has been taken by humans who live underground in lightless caves and are entirely blind. They also perceive their world – including the waves of dark matter which frequently pass through it – in a unique way. The natives speak a slightly archaic form of English, evidence they have been cut off from the mainstream of human history for a considerable time. Unfortunately, the presentation of this argot is not entirely successful, and makes it somewhat hard to take them seriously. However, life in the cave, and the solutions its inhabitants have put in place to in response to the absence of light, are ingenious and well-described. Gilman captures the claustrophobia of Thora’s stay there very effectively.

As Thora explores Torobe, the cavern village in which she is staying, she realises the villagers possess strange abilities which seem to contradict known science. The Torobians talk of visiting other settlements, yet their talk suggests they travel to other worlds and meet other races. It is through Thora’s friendship with Moth, a teenage girl from Torobe, that the central conceit of Dark Orbit is eventually revealed. In part, Thora’s ability to understand this premise is a consequence of the trauma she had experienced previously. This we learn from Thora’s journal, which forms a second narrative interwoven with Sara’s.

Thora’s discovery that the universe and its laws are a consequence of perception – albeit not a solipsistic universe per se – and that the Torobians’ blindness allows them to “manipulate” their reality, initially seems a bit wobbly for suspension of disbelief. But while attempting to duplicate the Torobians’ ability to “wend”, or travel instantaneously, even across interstellar distances, Thora realises, “Maybe it can’t be observed, because if you observe, you prevent it”. The Observer Effect, in other words. In quantum mechanics, the act of observation causes a wave function to collapse – so it seems plausible an absence of observation would suggest the laws of physics are a consequence of perception.

The scientists are obviously sceptical of Thora’s report on the Torobians’ abilities. She in turn is scared what use Capella’s corporations would make of the knowledge. But when a dark matter event damages a vital component in the lightbeam equipment aboard the scientists’ ship, Thora successfully wends to Capella to fetch a replacement.

One other aspect of Dark Orbit deserves mention: the Twenty Planets are multi-racial and multi-cultural, and relations between these are handled with sensitivity and nuance. There is none of the white monolithic universes of last century’s science fiction.

Dark Orbit is a fast read, but a substantial one. The central conceit may at times feel like borderline nonsense, but Gilman manages to keep suspension of disbelief in place for the length of the novel. This is a novel that would not look out of place on an award shortlist or two next this year.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #259, July-August 2015.


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Awards time again

This is not a post listing what 2015 works of mine are eligible for genre awards. I disagree with the practice, I think it badly distorts the award-space, and it’s bending the entire field out of shape thanks to the stupid wrangling over who and what each of the awards actually represent. I’ve refused to post lists of my eligible works in the past, and I see even less of a reason to start doing it now.

However, I do vote in awards – well, one of them: the British Science Fiction Association Award. And I’ve been doing so for over twenty years. This year, there’s been a change to the process. Voters have until 31 December to nominate four works in each of the categories – novel, short fiction, non-fiction and art – in order to make up a long list. During January, voters will get to nominate four works from that long list to generate the short lists. Which will be voted on, and awarded, at the Eastercon in Manchester on the weekend of 25 to 28 March 2016.

Eligible works must have been published during 2015. Novels must have been published in the UK – unless they’re ebook only, in which case country of publication is irrelevant. There are no geographical restrictions on short fiction, non-fiction or art.

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According to my records, I have read only nine genre novels published during 2015. One of them I would like to nominate – Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit – but it has yet to be published in the UK and so is ineligible. Of course, there’s no reason why I can’t nominate a book I’ve not read – I have until the end of January to read it, after all.

One novel I suspect will appear on a lot of ballots is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. It’s certainly been one of 2015’s high-profile releases. And Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the genre’s best authors. The book has received a great deal of praise. But. It didn’t work for me. For all the work he put into designing the ecology of his generation starship, the characters were completely flat and, despite the interesting commentary on narratology in the AI narrative, it all read to me like Californians in Spaaace. However, there was another generation starship novel published during 2015, by an author better known for writing epic fantasy: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. While the narrative set aboard the spaceship was a little too trad to me, the spider-based civilisation which forms the core of the novel’s story was fascinating and brilliantly done. Children of Time will be taking one of my slots.

Then there’s Ancillary Mercy, the final novel in the Imperial Radch trilogy. I found this disappointing. I liked the first book, Ancillary Justice, very much – but it seems that was pretty much a prologue to the actual plot. Which, as resolved in Ancillary Mercy, was unsatisfyingly small-scale. There was also far too much talking about each character’s emotional state, to the extent it often overwhelmed the narrative. I won’t be nominating it.

David Mitchell’s Slade House was Mitchell being clever, which he does well, but was pretty slight – not to mention deploying a few too many horror clichés, or indeed being structured such that one entire section was pure exposition. Ilka Tampke’s Skin had much to recommend it, particularly its depiction of Roman Britain, but although not marketed as YA it read like it had been put together following YA story patterns – to its detriment. The less said about Christopher Fowler’s The Sand Men, the better. Claire North’s Touch was based on an appealing premise – so appealing, in fact, it seems to have spontaneously appeared half a dozen times in the past couple of years; something in the water? – but its weak plot scuppered it. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was much, much better.

Among the 2015 books on my TBR are Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, the final book in Alastair Reynold’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy, Poseidon’s Wake, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight, and Chris Beckett’s Mother of Eden. I also plan to keep an eye on the recommendations of several other people, and if anything they mention takes my fancy then I’ll read it. For this first round of the BSFA Award at least, it’s worth putting in a speculative vote – ie, for a book you’ve not read but think might be award-worthy – rather than letting the vote go to waste.

As for short fiction… Every year, it gets to this time of year and I realise I’ve not been reading the short fiction published in various places, so I go and skim-read all the various magazines until I find something which takes my fancy. This year, however, I have at least one dead cert: A Day in Deep Freeze by Lisa Shapter, a novella published by Aqueduct Press. That will be getting one of my slots. There’s also a David Herter story on tor.com, ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978‘, and I’m a big fan of Herter’s fiction. But we’ll see what comes of my high-speed trawl through 2015’s genre fiction over the next week or so…

I have two candidates for non-fiction – My Fair Ladies by Julie Wosk, a study of “female androids, robots and other artificial Eves”; and Adam Roberts’s Rave and Let Die, if only because I don’t want him to give up his genre criticism. Jonathan McClamont has written some excellent ‘Future Interrupted’ columns in Interzone during the year. Likewise Nina Allan and her ‘Time Pieces’ column. And there was an extended conversation back in July across the blogosphere, about science fiction and criticism and the history of science fiction, prompted by an article by Renay published by Strange Horizons, ‘Communities: Weight of History‘… which then led to ‘The Weight of History‘ by Nina Allan… which then intersected with Jonathan McCalmont’s ‘What Price Your Critical Agency?‘ and resulted in Maureen Kincaid Speller’s ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews‘. In a genre space in which corporate marketing and support network advocacy is bending fandom out of shape, this is an important sequence of articles, and some, if not all, deserve nominations.

Finally, there’s art… another category I tend to look for suitable nominees at the last minute. One of my nominations will go to Kay Sales for the cover art to All That Outer Space Allows, not only because it’s a lovely piece of design but because I think the cover designs for all four books (the second editions of the first two, plus three and four) are striking and worthy of an award. Interzone has continued to publish some excellent interior illustrations for its stories. I particularly liked Richard Wagner’s illustration for ‘The Worshipful Company of Milliners’ by Tendai Huchu and Vincent Sammy’s illustration for ‘Songbird’ by Fadzlishah Johanabas, both in #257. I’ve had a quick look at my bookshelves, and online, for cover art from genre books published in 2015… and failed to find any which particularly stood out. Except, perhaps, the cover art to Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction, which is by Luis Lasahido. But I shall continue to look, in the hope I find enough candidates for my ballot before the end of the year.


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This has been going on

A few bits and pieces of news from these parts, just for a change. I keep on forgetting to do this sort of stuff. Bad me.

First up, Karen Burnham reviewed the entire Apollo Quartet in Strange Horizons here. SH do good, thorough reviews – and this is one of them.

I wrote a small piece on breaking the fourth wall in fiction for a guest post on Gillian Polack’s blog. You can find it here.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains is now available in Spanish! It’s the title story in the anthology, A la Deriva en el Mar de las Lluvias y Otros Relatos, which is now available from a variety of places, including Amazon.

A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War, is now available as an ebook (Amazon UK | Amazon US). The signed limited hardback will appear at the end of October.

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There’s a “story behind the story” piece on A Conflict of Orders on upcoming4.me here. Meanwhile, work on the third and final book of the trilogy, A Want of Reason, continues.

I sold a science fiction short story to Interzone. It’s called ‘Geologic’, is set on an exoplanet with high atmospheric pressure, and should be appearing in issue 262 in January 2016. I also contributed an editorial to issue 260, about the Sad/Rabid Puppy Hugo mess.

Oh, and I have a new cat, a ginger tom called Oscar. Say hello.

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Seoul Survivors, Naomi Foyle

seoul_survivorsSome time in the near-future, an asteroid is detected on a collision course with Earth. Its existence is denied by media and governments, but hackers find evidence of the “truth” in military and governmental computer systems. Damien is a slacker who believes in the asteroid. His plan is to find the safest place on the planet and then move there, but to do that he needs money. So he agrees to smuggle drugs into Korea for a friend; and then he stays on in Seoul to earn more cash by illegally teaching English to the kids of rich Koreans.

Sydney is a Canadian prostitute who has been taken to Korea by her boyfriend, Johnny Sandman, and is now working as a model. Johnny, an ex-gangbanger, works for ConGlam, which is some sort of shadowy transnational. One of the projects he is overseeing in Korea is VirtuWorld. This is the brainchild of genetics genius, Dr Kim Da Mi, who also plans to build a faux-European mediaeval theme-park village in the mountains north of Seoul, where her genetically-engineered “children” will survive the impending catastrophe.

Lee Mee Hee is a North Korean villager who has had herself smuggled out of the country. By ConGlam. She is taken to China, where she meets a number of other women from North Korea. After they have recovered from their ordeal, they are taken to the purpose-built village in South Korea, where they are to become surrogate mothers for Da Mi’s “children”. Sydney will be the egg donor and Johnny the father. But Johnny proves to have some genetic abnormalities which rule him out. Damien, who resembles Hugh Grant, is a much better candidate. When he learns of this, Johnny is not happy; he’s also losing Sydney, first to a Korean artist and then to Damien, and he’s not happy about that either.

Seoul Survivors is a readable pacey near-future thriller but it seems a little confused as to what it is actually about. Mee Hee’s narrative is wholly about the village of soon-to-be genetically-engineered children, but Sydney’s story chiefly concerns her love-life. Damien is living the life of an illegal immigrant, saving up for a false passport and an airline ticket to Canada. When Da Mi recruits Sydney to the VirtuWorld project and Sydney persuades Damien to donate sperm, he’s not told the true reason. And the objective of the Virtuworld technology is initially presented as the ProxyBod – real-life avatars put together from corpses and various electronic systems. (Only one ProxyBod appears in Seoul Survivors, and it is used by Da Mi.)

Despite having been published by a genre imprint, Seoul Survivors doesn’t read much like science fiction. The near-future it describes so closely resembles the present, it’s hard to determine exactly what are meant to be genre tropes and what are simply setting. There is a vague move in the direction of one or two science fiction ideas – Da Mi introduces Sydney to a therapeutic VR tool; there’s the ProxyBod; and then there’s the asteroid itself lurking somewhere in the background (or not). The world-building is almost wholly reliant on depictions of present-day Seoul, although there are one or two mentions of climate-crash elsewhere and there’s a terrorist attack offstage in London two-thirds of the way through the story.

Foyle has chosen to present many of her Korean characters as speaking pidgin English throughout – in fact, the first line of the novel is: “‘Ni-suh, Sy-duh-nee – Omhada – look at camera – thank you – better – pro-fesh-ional – Now, play with Hot-Cold, plea-suh!” Though this may give the narrative some verisimilitude, these days it’s a difficult trick to pull off without causing offence. And, annoyingly, Foyle refers to the mobile phone throughout as a MoPho rather than mobile or cell or the actual term the Koreans use (which translates “handy phone”, apparently).

None of this, in and of itself, prevents the book from being readable and entertaining, but the cast are something of an obstacle. Sandman is racist, sexist and violent, thoroughly unpleasant, and responsible for several incidents of sexual violence which leave a sour taste. Damien is passive and not very interesting. Sydney is none too bright, while Mee Hee Lee is unworldly and naive. Even Da Mi is self-centred and arrogant and far from likeable. It’s not a particularly edifying group of characters on which to hang a story.

There’s a feeling throughout Seoul Survivors that it’s a book whose whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. While there are some well-handled set-pieces, the story-arc is sign-posted far too blatantly, and the violent climax comes across as somewhat cartoonish because it tries to resolve all of the narratives at once. The advance publicity calls Seoul Survivors a “cyber thriller”, and it certainly feels more like a thriller than science fiction. Whether this is a strength or a weakness… is hard to say.

Seoul Survivors, Naomi Foyle (2013, Jo Fletcher Books, £16.99, 978-1780875989)

This review originally appeared in Interzone #247, July-August 2013.


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Wool, Hugh Howey

wool-by-hugh-howeyWool, Hugh Howey
(2013, Century, £9.99, 576 pp)

In the world of twenty-first century publishing, the story of the book is often more interesting than the story in the book. And so it is with best-selling science fiction novel, Wool. Originally self-published as a novelette on Amazon’s Kindle, its popularity prompted Howey to write further stories in the same setting. These were then fixed up into a novel. Which promptly sold in huge numbers. Howey earned enough money to quit his job. Publishers came knocking at his door and he sold the film rights to Ridley Scott. Hugh Howey has become the latest poster boy for self-publishing success.

Given all this, it seems churlish to complain that Wool doesn’t deserve the praise lavished upon it. Its quality is immaterial; it is a success. That is the narrative of Wool.

The narrative in the book, however, is not so happy. There is an underground silo of 144 storeys in a world that is toxic and uninhabitable. The silo’s only contact with outside is via screens, the view on which degrades over time as dirt gathers on the external lenses. At intervals, people are sent outside as punishment–and the chief crime deserving this sentence appears to be… wanting to go outside. Clad in protective gear which gives these “cleaners” around half an hour of life, they leave the silo and clean the lenses. Then they walk off into the ruined city, but fall and die before leaving sight of the lenses. Why do they always clean the lenses? Why not simply walk off and see how far they get before their suit degrades? It is this first section which formed the original novella, and the puzzle at its heart makes no sense as motivation for cleaning the lenses. It also requires the “cleaners” to be wilfully stupid and ignore what they know…

The remainder of Wool’s 576 pages build on this opening section. Since the last “cleaner” was the sheriff, a new one is required. The deputy recommends Juliette, a mechanic from the lowest levels of the silo. The mayor seconds the choice. Bernard, the head of IT, disagrees, and also seems to think he actually runs the silo. Which, it transpires, he does. Nevertheless, Juliette is made sheriff, but her appointment has set the mayor at odds with IT and Bernard soon gets his way. Juliette is arrested on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to “cleaning”. Her friends in Mechanical, however, secretly ensure she is a given a suit which will last more than thirty minutes. Juliette has also figured out the suit’s secret – this is the premise of the opening novella – and this allows her to find her way to… another silo.

The setting of Wool is science-fictional, the opening section is written in a science fiction mode; but once Juliette, who is not only a naturally-gifted mechanic and highly intelligent but also beautiful, is introduced, Wool turns into a small town soap opera. Unfortunately, this only emphasises the fact the novel’s setting does not stand up to scrutiny. The silo has a single metal spiral staircase to link its 144 levels, but such a design is impractical. The metal of the staircase would also collapse under its own weight. IT manages a server farm, but the servers do nothing. They don’t run the systems of the silo, because there are no such systems. The silos are sealed environments and possess hydroponic gardens, a mine and a well, but they could not be self-sufficient for the many generations the story implies. Wool also gives little indication of their size or population. They are deep – 144 levels must make the lowest level 450 to 500 metres below ground – but the area covered by each level is never mentioned.

Howey’s prose is readable, if very baggy, and his frequent flights of fancy fail more often than they succeed. His plotting, however, is driven by escalating jeopardy, but it is inconsistently applied, often implausible, and poorly paced. One character discovers something and is killed; another learns something different, and is arrested and sentenced to “cleaning”. Howey keeps his cast under constant pressure, and yet his writing is leisurely paced. His characterisation is typical of commercial fiction: Juliette is super-competent, and Bernard is a pantomime villain. He is, for example, the only fat person in the entire silo.

There’s an interesting story somewhere in Wool – now the first of a trilogy, to be followed next year by Shift, and then by Dust – but Howey’s writing is neither brisk, economic nor subtle enough to tell it, and his technique of applying constant jeopardy to his central cast annoys more often than it propels the reader forward.

Still, it is useless to complain. Wool is a self-publishing success story. The narrative of the book has already been written, and it says that Wool is good.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #246, May-June 2013.


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The Last Man Standing, Davide Longo

The-last-man-standingThe Last Man Standing, Davide Longo
MacLehose Press, 2012, 352 pp, £12.99

It seems close to certain that civilisation as we know it will not last for much longer. If Climate Change does not bring about a catastrophe, then the failures of nation-states, economies, or the entire capitalist system itself is sure to do so. And yet, despite ten thousand years of civilisation, the only post-catastrophe stories we can tell depict brutal worlds in which violent selfishness is the only mode of survival. Have we learnt nothing since we left the Rift Valley? Everything we have created since then has been the result of co-operation, and yet we cannot imagine using co-operation during a period when it’s most needed.

Of course, this is chiefly because popular entertainment as it now stands, driven by US market forces, is morally bankrupt, and because any such future fictions are in part based on American conceptions of a world without American society. When society goes, the American Dream is over and, we are supposed to believe, the American Dream is such a noble achievement that only animalistic behaviour can exist in the vacuum it leaves behind.

This is all rot, of course. Many US authors may subscribe to such a distorted view of human nature and society, but it’s disappointing when other nationalities follow suit. Davide Longo is Italian and The Last Man Standing was originally published in Italy in 2010; and it is an Italy after some unexplained catastrophe that it depicts.

The protagonist of The Last Man Standing, Leonardo, was a famous writer but took himself into self-imposed exile after a sex scandal. A female student had seduced him and then revealed all. Though it was clearly a set-up, he said nothing. This is because he is pathologically passive. For the first one hundred pages, he does nothing but witness some of the effects of the collapse of Italy: the village where he lives turns in on itself; outsiders are treated with suspicion and then violence.

Perhaps this is not entirely without reason. The villagers wish to keep what meagre supplies they have for themselves. Leonardo is not so cautious. Returning from a walk, he sees two men and a woman raid his house for food and clothing. Once they have left – he does nothing, he is too passive to confront them – he discovers they have defecated on his furniture. Is this what the fall of civilisation means? Shit on the sofa?

Leonardo’s ex-wife turns up with their daughter and her stepson in tow, she tells him she needs him to look after them until she returns from Switzerland with papers. She never returns. So Leonardo, daughter Lucia, ten-year-old Alberto and mute companion Sebastiano set out for the border hundreds of kilometres away.

En route, they meet with suspicion, violence, rape, murder and torture from a variety of people. Even when they find what appears to be a safe – if expensive – haven, it’s clear the safety is a careful illusion. Eventually, they are captured by a caravan of young people, ruled by an antichrist-like figure. Richard is so thinly characterised, he seems to inhabit a different book. He appears to exist only to put Leonardo through a baptism of fire, strengthening him sufficiently to win a contest of wills with Richard by cutting off his own hand. If Longo is trying to make a point here, it is wilfully opaque.

There’s nothing new in The Last Man Standing – indeed, the publishers have made a point of noting it, relying on the quality of Longo’s prose to sell the book. In recent years, the post-catastrophe world has become a somewhat crowded place in literary fiction, and the time has long since passed when stories set in it might say anything insightful. That Longo’s prose is generally good cannot save The Last Man Standing from being banal.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #242, September-October 2012.