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This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2013, 312 p, with iv p introduction by Justina Robson.
(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 This is the Way the World Ends  cover

Framed as a tale told by Doctor Michel de Nostradame in Salon-de-Provence, 1554, (that’ll be Nostradamus to you and me) this is the story of George Paxton, a monumental mason, in the late(ish) twentieth century US.

George is approached by a glib salesman to buy a scopas suit (Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival) for his daughter to protect against nuclear attack. It is too expensive and his wife makes him return it. However, soon such suits are commonplace, people wearing them in the course of everyday life. Then George is offered a free suit provided he accepts the condition that he sign a confession of his complicity in the nuclear arms race. He does so, to give the suit as a Christmas present to his daughter. On his way back home his town is obliterated in a Soviet nuclear strike, a response to the US attack which followed the detection of Soviet Spitball missiles heading for Washington. As he heads towards the blast area to try to rescue his family the last thing he sees before losing consciousness is a giant vulture as big as a pterodactyl heading for him.

As it turns out he was taken from the ruins by the crew of a submarine, the City of New York, now headed for Antarctica. The crew are “unadmitted”, humans – with black blood – whose existences were pre-empted when their hypothetical progenitors were annihilated by the war. The survivors they have gathered were all architects of the war in one way or other. After giving them medical treatment – ‘If one had to say something good about acute radiation sickness, it would be this: either it kills you or it doesn’t,’ – the unadmitted put them on trial, Nuremberg-style. This allows Morrow to skewer the through the looking-glass idiocies and contradictions of deterrence theory. The submarine’s captain, dismissing a particular riddle as having no answer, poses one that does, “When is a first strike not a first strike?” is then asked, “When,” and replies, “When it is an anticipatory retaliation.” (Sounds like 1970s Rugby Union doctrine.)

In the course of all this we encounter a MAD Hatter (Mutually Assured Destruction,) a March Hare (Modulated Attacks in Response to Counterforce Hostilities) and Stable talks (Strategic, Tactical, and Anti-Ballistic Limitation and Equalization,) the likelihood that scopas suits contributed to a willingness to accept the possibility of nuclear war, and the thought that, “When you turn the human race into garbage, you also turn history into garbage.”

At the time of writing (1986) the prospect of nuclear annihilation was never far away, in 2015 it has, perhaps, much less resonance. Whether it is this that contributes to the sense of distance throughout the book is difficult to decipher. Whatever the reason, the tone feels somehow off-kilter. Moreover, rather than being rounded characters most of Paxton’s fellow defendants are ciphers there solely to represent points of view and the unadmitted seem like actors inhabiting parts only shallowly instead of true agents. The role the giant vultures had in precipitating the war is a nice touch though.

The blurb mentions Kurt Vonnegut as a comparison but – repetitions of epitaphs “they were better than they knew” and “they never found out what they were doing here” apart – I was more reminded of R A Lafferty, except without his level of utter bonkersness (giant vultures excepted of course.) Despite Vonnegut’s lighter touches the seriousness with which he treated his subjects was always apparent. Morrow approaches this but doesn’t quite get there.

Pedant’s corner:- Paxton is named as Paxman on the back cover! Then an other (another,) as if a rain were felling on its streets (falling,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) videocassertes (videocassettes,) liquifying (liquefying.)
In the introduction:- whimsys (whimsies,) the reasoning of the accused make them (reasoning is singular so “makes”.)

Living Next Door To The God Of Love by Justina Robson

Macmillan, 2005

This book begins with a rather startling Herman’s Hermits (or, if you’re younger, a Carpenters) reference, which was promising, as was the zeroth chapter – and I will say that Robson’s descriptive writing is a joy – but I found as time went on I just couldn’t get to grips with it. As with Robson’s Mappa Mundi there is a deal of info-dumping and the subject matter is also complex but the major problem was the multiplicity of viewpoint characters, each of whom got a shot at narration for a short while before another took over. This is not necessarily a severe drawback, it works very well for George R R Martin in his Song Of Ice And Fire volumes, but each character there gets an extended chapter; here it entailed too much disruption to the flow.

The nearest I can summarise the plot is that Earth is no longer alone, entry to other worlds/existences is possible via portals/bridges through which we are taken at different times into these various places. There is also much mention of different dimensional universes, our own familiar one of four and those with seven and eleven. The main character is Jalaeka, a kind of shapeshifter with a colourful past, who seems to be a detached fragment of a higher dimensional entity called Unity which wants him/her/it back. Jalaeka is attractive to humans – especially Francine, the main female lead – and is described, and describes him/her/itself as a kind of God.

I don’t like to give up on a book so I persevered and, yes, it does have things to say about redemption – even if we have to endure some graphic scenes before that becomes apparent – and about the permanence of love, but in the end I found it a chore to read.

The fault is likely mine. After all, Living Next Door To The God Of Love was nominated for several awards. However, for various reasons at time of reading I wasn’t able to give it quite the attention it obviously demands.

In the spirit of fairness here’s a link to a reviewer who made more of it than I did.

“Mappa Mundi” by Justina Robson

Macmillan, 2001

Mappa Mundi cover

Another doorstopper, 465 pages this time. Just as well I was on holiday.

I’m not quite sure about this book. The characters are not so distinctive as they were in Robson‘s earlier novel Silver Screen. This may be because the plot is rattling along, a factor which unfortunately involves a lot of info dumping, and Robson may have invested more of her efforts in those directions. Also back stories are filled in on occasion, a habit which I dislike, but, hey, she’s up there with Mailer on that one.

The science-fictional element is two-fold; a kind of nanotech virus software (MappaWare) which can affect the brain (“stir its contents with a spoon” – effectively resetting people, then) and a 100% replication delivery system. The possibilities for bad uses of such a technology are obvious but some of the characters see also the good which could result.

Premature testing of all this stuff is the engine which sets the plot off but there are no fewer than seven “false starts” – establishing motivation for some of the characters – where earlier incidents in their lives are recounted, before we get down to the nitty-gritty.

There is plenty of spy story type skullduggery and betrayal (is this a Robson trait? – see my infinity plus review of Keeping It Real) an obligatory bit of sex but, surprisingly, not much violence; in the course of all of which two of the characters transcend humanity in a way which stretches credulity a touch.

It’s not an easy read, the ideas are too dense for that – but they are nevertheless followable. However, the major flaw, in a novel where questions of identity are central, is that the two characters most changed by MappaWare did not behave/read much differently after the change than they did before it.

Still, if you like near future techno-thriller type stuff with reasonable characterisation you won’t be disappointed.

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