Archives » Altered History

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Fleet, 2016, 373 p (plus an additional 16 pages extract of Colson’s first novel, none of which I read.)

 The Underground Railroad cover

Even if this was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2017 I might not have got round to it for some while had it not also won this year’s Clarke Award (- not to mention the shadow Clarke Award.).

The main viewpoint character, Cora, is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, whose grandmother bequeathed (informally of course) to her descendants a small patch of ground in the slave quarters on which she grew scrubby vegetables. Cora’s mother ran away when she was small – the only runaway from the plantation not to be recaptured – and Cora tries to defend the patch as best she can, before she is pushed out to the Hob (a kind of depository for the less fortunate slaves.) This demonstration of the hierarchy that existed within the slave community is one of the features of Whitehead’s book. While Cora lives on the relatively benign half of the plantation this benignity is still only relative. Whitehead does not go overboard on the indignities and horrors but nevertheless portrays slave life in all its wretchedness, yet he doesn’t skirt over the harshnesses they endure nor can themselves inflict. Cora is female: no more need be said. Things change when the Randall brother in charge of her half of the estate dies and the whole plantation becomes subject to the whims of Terrance Randall. When she steps in to absorb his blows on a slave boy he becomes her implacable enemy and so she accepts the offer of male slave Caesar, who has been in contact with the Underground Railroad, to escape with him. They do not make it to the Station without mishap and in a confrontation with a group of whites Cora, in order to evade capture has to kill one of them by striking his head with a stone. This makes her even more of a target for tracking down.

At the Station they descend below the cellar and come to a tunnel along the floor of which run two parallel steel lines. Thus is the metaphor of the organisation which helped runaway slaves, and gave Whitehead his title, made literal. This literalisation is the sort of thing Science Fiction does and I suppose is what allows the book to be classified as such (or, indeed, an Altered History) and thus eligible for the Clarke. In other respects though the story the book tells does not rely on this speculative element – could have been written without this device – and so would lie outside the boundaries of the genre. The book might not have received as much attention without this presence of steel and steam, though.

The main sections are titled for the various States in which Cora finds herself, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and “The North” while shorter chapters relate aspects of the lives of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, captured and enslaved in Africa; slave-catcher Ridgeway; an anatomist and “resurrectionist” called Stevens; Ethel, the wife of one of the Railroad’s agents; Cora’s escape companion Caesar; and the ironical fate of Cora’s mother.

Cora ponders the US Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident truth” that, “All men are created equal,” with the thought “unless we decide you are not a man.”

Set in the time and place it is there are of course frequent uses of the “n” word, which therefore appears in full in some later quotes here.

It is not just slave-catchers – and Ridgeway in particular – that Cora has to be wary of. In South Carolina she and Caesar find the authorities are collecting data about and performing medical procedures on the “coloured” – controlled sterilisation, research into communicable diseases by pretending to give treatment but really allowing the disease to run rampant, perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit – to protect “our women and daughters from their (the coloureds’) violent jungle urges” which was understood “to be a particular fear of southern white men.”

Whitehead tells us, “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. More slaves led to more cotton.” But more slaves represented a problem. “Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable: all those niggers.” North Carolina’s response was to advertise for Europeans to be indentured for a while to pick the cotton. “In effect they abolished slavery. On the contrary, Oney Garrison said in response. We abolished niggers.” Coloured men and women were banned from North Carolina soil on pain of death. Bodies of those unable to flee lined the so-called Freedom Trail for mile upon mile.

The resurrectionist anatomist reflects on the irony that, “when his classmates put their blades to a coloured cadaver, they did more for the cause of coloured advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

About the excesses of his fellow slave patrollers Ridgeway ruminates, “In another country they would have been criminals. But this was America.” And later, that justification of acquisition, “If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property. slave, or continent. The American imperative.” Later he tells Cora about the country they are travelling through after she is captured, “Settlers needed the land, and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless, Ridgeway said, they deserved what they got.” Ridgeway describes the American spirit, “to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”

Cora is freed from Ridgeway’s clutches and finds a temporary refuge in Indiana where a black speaker orates, “‘Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are. And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

On her first journey underground Cora was told, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” But, “It was a joke then from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”

All nations have their darker shadows. Slavery is the USA’s original (and in the form to which it evolved, racism, its besetting) sin. Whitehead shows how the patterns it produced were engrained, embedded by the “Peculiar Institution”. The Underground Railroad is extremely well-written, its characters far more than ciphers or types – and Whitehead gives due consideration to the views of the slave-holders – but the tale it tells seems, sadly, to be as relevant today as the organisation it was named for was all those years ago.

Pedant’s corner: a pile of ball and chains (balls and chains,) “The doctors were stealing her babies from her, not her former masters” (is ambiguous. “The doctors, and not her former masters, were stealing her babies from her,” would make it clearer,) forbid (forbade, x 3,) “Every town … held their Friday Festival” (its Friday Festival,) hung (hanged,) “the fire had eliminated the differences in their skin” (in their skins,) laying (lying,) “The two rifles turned to him” (on the previous page it had been “his pistol” and “A second man held a rifle,” so not two rifles then.)

Clarke Award Winner

This year’s winner is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I’ve not read but from what I’ve read about it seems to be an Altered History.

This verdict coincides with that of the Shadow Clarke jury over at the Anglian Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

One for the “to look out for” list.

Time Travel, Reviews, Hame and Rebellions

In an article in Saturday’s Guardian review, James Gleick examined the history of the time travel story since H G Wells more or less invented the form in The Time Machine. It was a skate over the subject really and veered into the territory of so-called Alternative History which of course I prefer to name Altered History but worth reading all the same.

In the same section of the paper was a review of Annalena McAfee’s new novel Hame. Many reviews are interesting, some make you think “definitely not”. Very few inspire you to go out and read the book concerned. Stuart Kelly’s did just that, as indeed did his review of Kevin MacNeil’s The Brilliant and Forever which I read a few months ago after also reading the same author’s A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde due to the same review. McAfee’s Hame sounds intriguing and possibly funny. Definitely one I’ll look for.

I recalled McAfee’s name. She had an article in the Guardian Review some weeks ago which I wished to post about then but at the time could not find on the Guardian website but which now pops up fourth when you search her name there. The article was about the relative importance of Robert Burns and the possible balefulness of his mythologising (Aside. Why does no-one ever question this about Shakespeare?) and the continuing battle over whether Scots is a suitable medium of expression for literature.

My take is if the author wishes to use Scots it is entirely up to her or him. It may reduce the psossible readership but that is a question for author and publisher, not reader. Myself, though not very well versed in it, my mother being the daughter of two English parents, thus hardly a native speaker and unable to expose me to its richness, I do not consider Scots – as some do – as necessarily inferior form to English. It is at times much more pithy.

I have a quibble with McAfee over a detail in that piece, though. She stated that Burns was born “two decades after the failed rebellion against the Union.” While Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Rebellion of 1745-6 was many things, not least the last flailing gasp of a failed dynasty, and the Battle of Culloden can even be considered as in some way (if you ignore its continuation into Ireland even into the twentieth century and possibly beyond,) the last of the Thirty Years War – though admittedly that was mostly fought out in German territories – it was not primarily against the Union. It was less general then that, more personal.

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

Hodder, 2014, 268 p, plus 5 p Historical Notes, 9 p Endnotes and 1p Acknowledgements

 A Man Lies Dreaming cover

Before we plunge into the first chapter there is a framing device, “In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.” Then we enter the diary, from November 1939, of a private investigator who calls himself Wolf, a refugee to London from Germany after an event he describes as the Fall, before a passage in the third person relating ongoing events not described in Wolf’s diary. It very soon is apparent Wolf is a Nazi. “I don’t work for Jews,” he tells the woman who wishes to be his client. Moreover he once had an affair with his neice, Geli (who killed herself with his gun,) and then took up with “sweet, good-natured” Eva. This, in other words is Adolf Hitler, fallen on hard times. (That name though, does not appear on the page till very late in the book.) The woman is Isabella Rubenstein who wants to know the whereabouts of her sister Judith, supposedly smuggled out of a Germany led by the Communist Ernst Thälmann after the 1933 elections, but since disappeared. Altered history territory, then.

Except, it isn’t. The chapter ends with the framing device and the dreaming man is named as Shomer. The book continues with the noir thriller elements alternating Wolf’s diary entries with third person elements and every so often the framing device being reasserted. In this we learn Shomer was a writer of shund (a kind of pulp fiction) and the place he is dreaming in is Auschwitz, the real Auschwitz. So it appears it is Shomer who is telling Wolf’s tale, an exquisite revenge presumably since he inflicts pain on Wolf through the various beatings he receives throughout the thriller. Shomer also hallucinates a companion, Yenkl, partly, it seems, to give him some comfort.

It can also be considered a kind of revenge by Tidhar, who is an Israeli, and whose maternal grandparents were both Auschwitz survivors. (The rest of their families were not so fortunate.) This is the sort of subject matter which a non-Jew would have to treat with circumspection, if not avoid altogether. Tidhar has more licence in that regard.

Hitler has been treated before in SF of course, but not usually so directly – except perhaps for Fritz Leiber’s short story Catch That Zeppelin! and Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream part of which purports to be a novel written by a Hitler who emigrated to the US in 1919. The crazed nature of that narrative is not quite emulated here. If anything Wolf is relatively restrained in his ravings. That may be due to the necessity for a viewpoint character to be, at least, coherent.

An altered history would not be worthy of the name did we not meet the famous within and here – as well as Hitler – we duly encounter Oswald Mosley – soon to be a British Union of Fascists Prime Minister in Wolf’s world – his wife, Diana (Mitford,) and her sister Unity, whom Wolf knows as Valkyrie and has the hots for him. Various other Nazis pepper the plot, Rudolf Hess, Josef Kramer, Ilse Koch, Joseph and Magda Goebbels. Literary Brits pop up including Ian Fleming, Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh. Tidhar’s tendency to gild the lily was exemplified here at a publisher’s party (the publisher concerned had, of course, turned down My Struggle,) when Wolf re-encounters Leni Riefenstahl, now working in the US, and she relates to him a plot – to be written by F Scott Fitzgerald as a sequel to The Great Gatsby – for a projected film starring Humphrey Bogart as Gatsby, owner of a bar in North Africa when Daisy Buchanan walks back into his life. The film is to be called Tangier, though, not Casablanca.

There is, too, a Constable Keech. I wondered mildly if Tidhar was aware of what this word signifies for Scots. For myself, I could not avoid the inference.

A Wilfred Owen reference occurs in Wolf’s Great War reminiscences of being blinded and I must confess I liked the conflation, “It is a truth universally acknowledged , that once a detective acquires two concurrent cases , the two must be in some way related,” but I’m not sure about the odd scene where Wolf dreams he is in what is obviously, to us, Auschwitz. Then again, he tells the Chief Inspector who had interrogated him about the murders of prostitutes outside his office, “‘You Jews spend far too much time in your own imagination.’”

This could have been powerful stuff but there is something unbalanced about it all. The scenes in Auschwitz are compelling (but did they still require Sonderkommando to dig graves after the ovens came into operation?) and moving. However, they occupy far too few pages. It is Wolf’s tale which dominates. And that is too trifling to carry the weight thrust upon it by the overall concept.

Pedant’s corner:- USianisms abound. For a story mainly set in late 1930s London that is an added barrier to suspension of disbelief. We had purse for handbag, down-at-the-heels for down at heel, nightstand for bedside table, inside of for inside, ruckus for racket, nightstick – in the 1930s British policemen had truncheons, whiskey (whisky,) airplanes (aeroplanes,) bums used by an Englishwoman as a term for a ne’erdowell (not a chance,) beat-up (beaten-up,) the car’s hood (the car’s bonnet.)

Otherwise there was maw (it’s a stomach not a mouth,) “‘What are you looking at,’ he said’” (ought to have a question mark after at,) Mosleys’s (x2, the correct Mosleys’ was used once,) “the past was …. threatening to catch up to him” (to catch up with him,) tenements (does London have tenements?) sunk (sank,) “none … were” (none was,) “one table was covered in vegetarian dishes from an Indian-style curry to Italian lasagne and British shepherd’s pie” (lasagne and shepherd’s pie would never be vegetarian in the 1930s,) “and sat two tables away from Goodman. He tried to listen to their conversation” (his conversation surely?) ears perked (ears pricked is more usual.) “Her bosoms were immense” (no-one has more than one bosom.) “They put me in a cell again.” (They’d,) “‘Are you,’ I said,” (question mark, not comma, after “you”, “and he gives him with a cursory glance and his diagnosis,” (and he gives him with a cursory glance his diagnosis,) “before immigration out of Germany became impossible” (you cannot immigrate out of a country,) Goebbels misspelled once as Goebbles, “the back of my hands” (technically that would be backs, then,) detached of space and time (detached from,) a red phone box (what other colour would it be? He wasn’t in Hull,) fireworks (on 22nd November? (They were apparently to celebrate the General Election. Not in Britain.) Mosley declares victory on the stroke of midnight of election day. The votes would not all have been counted by then; probably not till the next day back then. He uses the phrase nineteen hundred hours, a military one, not one a politician would employ when addressing a crowd. His first act as the new Prime Minister is to declare war – because Germany has invaded Poland – then martial law (I doubt that last could have been done so readily.) Imposter (impostor.) Wolf describes Charlie Chaplin as “that vile man,” (his lampooning of Hitler did not come till 1940 in our world and would perhaps not have been necessary in Wolf’s.) “The sound the drawer had made … sounded very loud to him” (“the sound sounded” is inelegant, use a different noun; rattle? scrape? noise?) the limelight (of a spotlight, which could be moved? Limelights were fixed in position,) “he always had much respect for the German soldiers,” (lots of respect,) a row work (a row works,) exodii (used in the context of people making an exodus. Is this an invention by Tidhar?)

The Great Game by Lavie Tidhar

In “The Bookman Histories”, Angry Robot, 2012, 303 p. Originally published 2012.

 The Great Game cover
 The Bookman Histories cover

This is the third in Tidhar’s Bookman Histories wherein Les Lézards were roused from their Caribbean island by Vespucci’s trip to the New World and subsequently became monarchs of Great Britain. See my reviews here and here. It is again to Tidhar’s credit that familiarity with either of the two previous books is not necessary to follow events in this one as it stands alone quite easily.

It’s all a very readable romp, a steampunk/altered history mash-up but Tidhar again goes over the top with his references. One of the joys of altered history is seeing familiar names in situations for which they are not best known but he really does take it too far with this one – among the characters from literature we have Mycroft Holmes (and his brother, retired to the village of St Mary Mead [where a busybody twitches her curtains] not to mention Irene Adler) we have a hunchback named Q who lives in Notre Dame cathedral, a scientist called Moreau exiled to a Pacific island, Van Helsing, a Miss Havisham, a thiefmaster called Fagin and his pickpocket protégé Oliver Twist, a Doctor Victor Frankenstein, Harry Flashman. And at the novel’s climax tripods begin to devastate – okay it wasn’t London – Paris. Real life intruders into the story include the Mechanical Turk, Karl May, Harry Houdini, Bram Stoker, Jack London, Charles Babbage and Friedrich Alfred Krupp.. Of a Dickens’ book in three volumes an unnamed character observes, “You should never write a third volume.” Perhaps Tidhar was commenting on his own situation as in his afterword he says publisher Angry Robot asked him for two more novels after accepting The Bookman.

Hokum, but entertaining, a plot summary would be fatuous, as well as sounding mad.

A quibble. The first lizard-king was Henry VII, followed by another Henry, an Edward, and later the great Gloriana. How come then they ended up in the timeline of the novel with a lizard Queen Victoria? Our Queen Victoria was descended primarily from Hanoverians, not Tudors. Why would the naming of lizard-monarchs follow that of the real world?

Pedant’s corner:- In Tidhar’s introduction to the omnibus volume; “I wanted to tribute the wuxia tropes” (pay tribute to.) Elsewhere; “eThe last one” (typo; The,) Market Blandings’ (Market Blandings’s,) “who often said a ‘Honesty is a gun’” (said a ‘Honesty’? surely “said ‘Honesty is a gun.’”) “There are a number” (There is a number,) not to be found on the British Isles (“in the British Isles” is the more usual formulation,) “that only now he was beginning to identify” (that only now was he beginning to identify is more common syntax,) automatons (many occurrences – it’s an acceptable spelling but stick to it; there were also at least four instances of automata,) snuck (a London street boy of the time would have said sneaked,) her team were outnumbered (her team was outnumbered,) mortician (USian, we British say undertaker,) “Something to scare children by” (“to scare children with” makes more sense.) “They sat and sipped their drink,” (drinks, I think. They weren’t sharing the one cup,) then the one in Europe (than the one in Europe,) “one… being…. who had made it their life’s ambition” (a singular being; so, its life’s ambition,) Paris’ (Paris’s,) had showed up (shown up,) “undistinguished from his cover story” (indistinguishable from his cover story,) “like that persistent feel that she was being followed” (okay, the author uses feeling two lines later and maybe wanted to avoid complete repetition but it’s still awkward.) “But no one was going to act until the airship had landed, safely. Weren’t they?” (should be “Were they?”) as for the recipe (as to,) “in a rather quite threatening manner” (choose from ‘in rather a’, ‘in quite a’ or ’in a quite’ not ‘a rather quite’,) sat (sitting, or seated,) “running down a narrow mountain pass that led upwards” (???) “the sound of motors sounded” (use another verb?) Vlad epe ? (remove gap before the question mark,) “moving, now that he knew to look for it, moving in a single direction” (second “moving” not necessary,) a vast antennae (antenna,) taking no mind (taking no heed; or, paying no mind,) “Van Helsing, rode shotgun” (no comma required,) all manners of (all manner of,) had indeed deducted the observer’s arrival (deduced,) Mr Spoons’ (Mr Spoons’s,) no full stop at the end of chapter forty-six, a simulacra (a simulacrum,) “he’d brought his own people in” (he’s brought.) “There was a string of miniature model cars strung together” (use a different verb, coupled?) “paid her no mind” (“no heed” sounds more natural,) there is much work to do (lots of work,) Victoria Rex (Victoria Regina.)

Sherlock Holmes The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove

Titan Books, 2015, 304 p. Reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2015.

 Sherlock Holmes The Thinking Engine  cover

After The Stuff of Nightmares and Gods of War this is the third of Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes novels for Titan Books. (By other hands there are four more with two forthcoming.) The foreword here, supposedly written in 1927 by a retired Dr Watson, places The Thinking Engine in the interstices between the Holmes stories published in The Strand.

Books which extend a franchise, as it were, potentially have to satisfy more than one constituency; devotees of the originals, those of passing acquaintance, the possibility of attracting new adherents – even the odd reviewer unfamiliar with the oeuvre save, perhaps, as part of the general cultural background. Adherents are catered for here by frequent mentions of previous Holmes cases, a couple of diversions on how often Holmes ever used the word “elementary”, sly references to inconsistencies in the canon, several citings of the Reichenbach Falls and an evocation of the Great Grimpen Mire.

The premise of The Thinking Engine promises a foray into Alternative History, a speculative slant to the proceedings, a steampunk ambience. A certain Balliol Professor, Malcolm Quantock, has constructed the Engine of the title, said to be able to solve crimes merely by providing it with all the data required, and newspaper proprietor Lord Knaresfield has offered a prize to anyone who can disprove its accuracy. How can this fail to interest the Great Detective?

The Engine’s first case is that of the murder of a mother and her two daughters for which the prime suspect, the husband and father, has an apparently cast-iron alibi (involving a dog which did not bark.) Holmes, given access to the crime scene by an unusually helpful policeman, Inspector Tomlinson, solves it in short order. So too does the Thinking Engine, a device of whirring rotors and tickertape print-outs (though it later gains a voice based on phonographic disc recordings.) We have to wait a while for this encounter, though, as in the early chapters we are introduced to a pre-fame Harry Houdini, animating the mummy of an Egyptian pharaoh in the midst of night in order to drum up business for an exhibition of antiquities. Such unlikely meetings with the famous in perhaps unfamiliar roles are one of the small pleasures of Alternative History; but here there are few other instances. We are told Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) consults the Thinking Engine on a mathematics problem (and appears crushed by its, evidently correct, solution). Later, Home Secretary H H Asquith and the London Police Commissioner visit to assess the Engine’s suitability to aid in the wider aspects of law enforcement.

The Engine’s second case at first seems more trivial. Student Aubrey Bancroft sends poison pen letters to his tutor but is easily unmasked. This affair takes on more sinister attributes when Bancroft is himself poisoned by strychnine contained in a celebratory bottle of champagne. Another apparent piece of nonsense about the crew kidnapping and replacing the arrogant stroke of a rowing VIII ends in the murder of ringleader Hugh Llewellyn. In both of these Watson is conscience-struck by being unable to save the lives of the victims despite being in attendance.

Holmes’s repeated failures to rebut the Engine delight reporter Archie Slater, who takes great pleasure in lambasting him in print. Yet all the cases bear the hallmarks of the perpetrators being manipulated into their acts. A greater intelligence is at work.
Unlike SF, it is the duty of the detective story, of the detective, to restore order to an errant world. Holmes, naturally, does so, but not before exposing himself to danger and humiliation.

Despite occasional USianisms such as, “it’s down to me,” “So you’ve shown up,” “ruckus,” “fit” used as a past tense and instances of possibly unWatsonian usage like, “Oh pish! Think nothing of it,” plus the surely modern, “You reckon you’ve cracked it?” and, “It fair broke my heart,” it’s all very cleverly done and devotees will (I assume) be pleased enough; but lovers of speculative fiction may be less enthralled. The story sticks closely to the Holmesian template, remains firmly down to earth. Far from being an advance on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the workings of the Thinking Engine are foreshadowed by the business with the mummy, and resolutely quotidian. Its closest comparator (Spoiler!) is a historical machine known as the Mechanical Turk, which Lovegrove himself acknowledges in the text. After this the revelation of the villain of the piece does not come as too great a surprise.

There are neat authorial touches such as Quantock’s allusion to, “paths laid out before me, following the lead of others,” and Watson’s statement that, “It is possible to have refined tastes and peddle dross,” but this book is one mainly for Holmes aficionados.

These comments did not appear in the published review (but “Americanisms” for “USianisms” did):-
Pedant’s corner:- the book is set in 1895 yet Holmes suggests a criminal would be transported to the colonies. Penal transportation had ended by 1868. There are references to Slater’s bookmaker (but off-course betting wasn’t legalised in Britain till 1960.)
Opuses (the plural of opus is actually opera – though I agree that could be confused with a type of musical entertainment,) medieval (mediaeval.) “Whet my whistle” (a confusion with “whet my appetite”? “Whet” means “sharpen”. The correct phrase is “wet my whistle”.) The chemists (it may be plural I suppose but the context suggests otherwise, so chemist’s,) between him and Quantock (“himself” would be less awkward than “him”,) font of all wisdom (I prefer fount,) “when you have quite so clearly lost” (“quite clearly” or “so clearly” but not “quite so clearly”,) one less villain (fewer,) mostly likely (most likely.)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2015, 620 p, plus 4 p notes on reappearing characters and 4 p author interview.

 The Bone Clocks cover

In The Bone Clocks Mitchell is essaying something similar to his earlier novel Cloud Atlas which also had episodes spanning over time into the future but the six first-person-narrated-in present-tense novellas here are not enleaved within one another nor returned to later as they were in that earlier book but rather follow in chronological sequence; 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015-2020, 2025, 2043. The narratives of Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Dr Marinus (in the guise of Dr Iris Fenby) are bookended by two from Holly Sykes, who appears in every novella and whose overall life story the book therefore chronicles.

We meet Holly at fifteen years old when she is in the throes of her first love affair, besotted with car salesman Vincent Costello, and at odds with her mother. In her childhood, until treated by Dr Marinus, Holly had heard voices, whom she called the Radio People. Her much younger brother Jacko is also touched by strangeness, old beyond his years. The crisis of this first section is precipitated by Holly’s discovery of Vince’s faithlessness and subsequent running away from home. Classmate Ed Brubeck brings her back with the news that Jacko has disappeared too. Mitchell’s delineation of the teenage Holly and her character is so immersive that the fantastical elements of Holly’s existence feel like intrusions, as if coming from some altogether different story.

Jump to 1991 where “posh boy” Hugo Lamb is holidaying in a Swiss ski resort with his even posher mates. He boasts to them he has never fallen in love (despite having had many lovers) but his meeting with an equally commitment-shy Holly after an accident on a ski-slope changes all that. A happy ending is precluded, though, when Lamb is recruited by the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass, practitioners of the psychosoterica of the Shaded Way. These fantastical aspects appear almost shoe-horned in so at odds are they with Lamb’s (again brilliantly rendered) persona.

By 2004 Holly has a child, Aoife, fathered by third narrator Ed Brubeck, by now a lauded war journalist. When Aoife disappears from their hotel room at a wedding bash, Holly has a fit of sorts and channels a voice, which resolves the situation. The dynamics of Ed and Holly’s relationship are superbly depicted as are the chaos and exigencies of war-torn Baghdad.

The fourth narrator is Crispin Hershey, once the Wild Man of British Letters but struggling to make a living. He comes across the now single Holly (Ed Brubeck’s luck in bomb-dodging having run out) at writers’ events after she has written a book of memoirs titled The Radio People. Deeply sceptical about her experiences Hershey also witnesses one of Holly’s channelling episodes.

The fifth segment contains the book’s climax as narrated by Dr Iris Fenby Marinus, the latest incarnation of Dr Marinus. She/he is an atemporal, or horologist. When she/he dies he/she will wake up in a new body forty-nine days later, usually with a sex-change. Among horologist’s attributes are telepathy, suasion, hiatusing others, scanning minds and everlasting life (with terms and conditions.) The atemporals are in conflict with the Anchorites of the Blind Cathar who can only achieve immortality by draining the psychosoteric energy of adepts and drinking the Black Wine so produced. Holly aids in the final conflict with the help of a labyrinth in a pendant left to her by Jacko. This is the most fantastical of the six novellas and stands in contrast to the others as its focus lies mainly on action.

The last, 2043, section adds nothing much to the overall story but finds Holly retired to Ireland and looking after her two orphaned grandchildren. It does, though, succeed in portraying a very believable post-oil, globally-warmed, electricity deprived world fallen apart (unless blessed with geothermal power plants as in Iceland.)

The Bone Clocks manages to contain its own critique: at one point Lamb thinks, “‘The Mind-walking Theory, plausible if you live in a fantasy novel.’” Then there is the quote from a review of Crispin Hershey’s come-back novel where Richard Cheeseman says, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look,” and “what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” – which is precisely what one could say of Mitchell here except that Mitchell’s writing is superb, mellifluous and engaging – each narrative drags you along – but the gradually uncovered fantastical elements are too in conflict with the realistic treatment, seem too tagged on to be credible. By the time we get to the meat of Marinus’s section disbelief is all but impossible to suspend and the whole begins to seem a bit pointless. I began to wonder if Mitchell was somehow playing a joke on all his mainstream readers who would not knowingly read a fantasy novel. Mitchell’s touch also deserted him with his use of “device” as a verb for texting somebody (or texting’s future equivalent.) Then too there were the intertextual meta-fictional games in the mentions of Black Swan Green and de Zoet and Mitchell’s laying out in a Crispin Hershey lecture of, “The perennial tricks of the writers’ trade dating back to the Icelandic sagas. Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and flashback, artful misdirection.” Hershey also observes, “What Cupid gives, Cupid takes away. Men marry women hoping they’ll never change. Women marry men hoping they will. Both parties are disappointed.”

The 2015 narrative mentions ex-President Bashar-al-Azad of Syria and in the 2043 one the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point has been updated by the Chinese but recently suffered a meltdown. The first (and perhaps now both) of these would turn the book into an altered history.

Mitchell can certainly write and creates compelling characters. The Bone Clocks however does not reach the heights that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did.

Pedant’s corner:- must of (must have. OK it was in a character’s voice but even so; authors owe a duty to their readers not to mangle the language unnecessarily,) heat-seeker missile (the term is heat-seeking missile; but again it was in voice,) and and (only one “and” required,) a plethora pass through (passes, but it was in dialogue,) medieval (mediaeval,) Saint Agnès’ (Saint Agnès’s,) “I’ve find I’ve forgotten” (I find,) the the (only one the necessary,) anciliary (ancillary – or was it a confusion with auxiliary?) homeopathy (homoeopathy,) tying ropes around painted steel cleats, “a T-shirt emblazoned with Beckett’s fail better quote I was given in Santa Fe” (reads as if the narrator was given a quote in Santa Fe,) ‘I consider jerking off again’ (the British term is “wanking”,) a Taser (does that need to be capitalised any more?) Hershey narrates his meeting with Hugo Lamb and then Lamb’s redaction of his memory of it; so how could he relate it to us? “A leaf loop-the-loops” (loops-the-loop,) St James’ church (St James’s,) superceded (superseded,) modii (is meant as a plural of modus, so “modi”,) maw (used for mouth, [sigh….]) in the the pram (remove a “the”,) embarass (embarrass,) sailboat (sailing boat.) In the author interview:- “set in Iceland” (it was actually Ireland.)

The Highway Men by Ken MacLeod

Sandstone, 2006, 74 p. (Sandstone vista 8.)

 The Highway Men cover

This novella is one I missed when it first came out and so have only just caught up with. It is set in a near future after a Chinese guy gasping for a cigarette lost his rag on an aeroplane coming in to Edinburgh, the resulting fracas and panicked phone calls interfering with the plane’s controls so that it crashed into an aircraft-carrier in Rosyth, hence precipitating war with China. The highway men of the title, deemed not tech-savvy enough for the army have instead been drafted to work on the roads. When this was written Osama Bin Laden had not been killed and so appears in this future. Consequently the novella now has to be read as an altered history.

The action takes place in Scotland’s Western Highlands. En route to a job our highway men come across an abandoned village where all the glass has been removed from the windows. At their destination of Strathcarron narrator Jase (Jason Mason) realises a group of people estranged from society is living up in the hills. His going to see them there has unfortunate consequences.

An interesting scenario with believable well-drawn characters – even at such short length.

Pedant’s corner:- smoothes (smooths,) gulley (gully.)

God’s Dog by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2014, 153 p. Translated from the Italian Il Cane di Deo by Judith Landry

 God’s Dog cover

Well. This is an odd concoction. Perhaps as far removed from Marani’s New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs as it is possible to get.

The dog of the title is Domingo Salazar, an orphan of the 2010 Haiti earthquake brought to Italy by the fathers of the Holy Cross, a graduate of the Papal Police Academy whose duties are to see to it that the laws of Holy Mother Church are respected and to work for the Church’s worldwide spread. The world he works in is not our own. It is an altered history. Perhaps that should read as an altered future. In it the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger promulgated a new Catholic Catechism and Italy has become a theocracy. (The book was written before, in our world, Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, resigned as Pope. Here he obviously didn’t do so and was not succeeded by Francis.)

As might be expected this Church takes a hard line. “The chief sins against chastity are adultery, masturbation, fornication, pornography, rape and homosexual acts.” The most unsavoury part of this new dispensation however is that the dying are given only so much palliative care in hospital before it is withdrawn; so that they may experience some of Christ’s suffering.

Salazar has been working to sabotage the secular state, spread distrust in science, and intercept the anti-papist refugees from Italy, but he has been recalled to Rome to track down an abortionist doctor named Ivan Zago and uncover euthanasiasts who would deny the dying their pain. The events of the story occur in the lead-up to the ceremony of canonisation of Benedict XVI in which the final scene is set.

Some of the necessary information dumping is provided by extracts from Salazar’s diary (not quite a clunky decision by Marani as the diary is read partway through the book by Salazar’s vicar.) He has such thoughts as, ‘No religion is better than Islam at cloaking faith in reason. Muslims use reason to reveal the intelligent order which pervades creation, and that is the way to disarm science,’ and, ‘The world lived in peace until it rediscovered Greek thought and, with it, the mania for experiment. To experiment means ceasing to put one’s trust in the created world, but wanting to take it apart. …… Now our task must be to bury knowledge. To forget it … to lead people down the wrong track.’ He writes, ‘Our fight, therefore, must be to demolish science. In Africa, we intercept anti-AIDS vaccines and replace them with ampoules containing water. The illness is spreading, and man is losing his faith in science.’ The attitude of Arnold of Citeaux pervades the theology. (This is perhaps not a novel that could have been written by someone not from a nominally Catholic country.)

Salazar’s bizarre longing for a merger of the three faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism leads to him being accused of the sins of polytheism and idolatry. He tells his inquisitor that as he was endeavouring to convert unbelievers the word, rather, is proselytism. An odd flavour of the 1930s somehow pervades the sections set in the convent hospital of San Filippo Neri. There is also a minor strand about the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ which prove men and animals have much in common in terms of feelings and a chimpanzee which has been shown capable of speech – in Swahili as it happens.

It’s certainly all interesting but marred rather by a multiplicity of viewpoint characters and a tendency for each new section to begin with the reader not knowing who that character is.

Once again Judith Landry’s translation is excellent even if in the “thriller” moments it tends to cliché (‘hot pursuit,’ ‘right on his heels’) but it must be difficult to render such passages in a more inventive manner. Whether or not euthanasiast is a direct reflection of Marani’s Italian I don’t know but it is certainly a better term than the more straightforward euthanist would be since it carries the overtone of enthusiasm.

Pedant’s corner:- a cleaning women (woman,) Hippocrates’ (Hippocrates’s,) “he sat down as the table” (at the table,) “‘he can hardly breath’” (breathe,) Mercedes’ (Mercedes’s,) “the group had been virtually decimated” (the sense is not “reduced by a tenth”,) “which from which it was separated” (from which it was separated,) Kibale (on first two mentions: it’s afterwards spelled Kibele,) a missing full stop, “The crowd were holding their breath” (was holding its breath.)
In the “Praise for Diego Marani” section at the end:- ignornace ( ignorance,) plus three [or arguably four] in one quote – it’s (its,) ones (one’s,) “the means by which an individual identifies themselves and how they identify with others” (an individual: so him -or her- self; plus, how he or she identifies with others.)

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

In “The Bookman Histories”, Angry Robot, 2012, 303 p. Originally published in 2010.

 The Bookman cover
 The Bookman Histories cover

This is the first of Tidhar’s “Bookman” trilogy (original book cover left) and constitutes steampunk at its flashiest. Amerigo Vespucci’s trip to the New World – here known as Vespuccia – has aroused a set of marooned extraterrestrial lizards, Les Lézards, who have since taken over the throne of Great Britain but been thrown out of France.

Our hero is Orphan (he knows no other name) and the plot is kicked off with a pair of exploding books, one of which kills Orphan’s girl-friend, Lucy, to whom he was newly engaged. He is drawn into a web of intrigue laid by the enigmatic Bookman by the implication that she is not dead – or at least he can be reunited with a version of her. The action ranges from a Victorian London to the Caribbean – where Caliban’s island of Les Lézards is located (and where he discovers his true lineage) – back again to London and finally to Oxford.

Now, one of the joys of altered history is the chance to encounter well-known names – real or otherwise – in unfamiliar settings but, really, Tidhar throws the kitchen sink at it. Apart from frequent sly allusions, we meet not only newspaper reports from Rudyard Kipling but Persons from Porlock; and Henry Irving, Beerbohm Tree, Mrs Beeton, Jules Verne – plus his ship (and submarine Nautilus, what else?) Not to mention, among others, body snatchers, the Mechanical Turk, Karl Marx, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft and Moriarty – who is Prime Minister no less. We also encounter various simulacra, pirates (with keel-hauling, plank-walking and all) that mysterious island, an interplanetary probe (which is actually potentially more sinister) and a vast hidden library. Breathless isn’t the word.

Had I not already read the second book in the series, the much better Camera Obscura, I would perhaps not have bothered doing so on this evidence. But I have the third in this volume, The Great Game, still to go, so I will get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- In Tidhar’s introduction to the three collected books “it was the obvious end for the arc began by Orphan’s choice” (begun.)
Otherwise:- to go see her (to go to see her – or just “to see her”,) “no sooner had Maskelyne departed that the door chimed again” (than the door chimed,) overlaying the grief (overlying,) “his face were strangely peaceful” (was,) indistin-guishable not at a line break, “bound with Les Lézard” (Les Lézards,) whiskey (whisky,) “he left his drink on the table besides Jack’s glass” (beside,) automatons (automata,) “at the bottom off…” (of, surely?) Gibbons’ (Gibbons’s,) go see it (go to see it,) flamingos (flamingoes?) “from his momentary surprised” (surprise,) “us humans need to stick together” (“us need to”? That would be we humans,) outside of (outside; no “of” necessary, though “outside” appeared two more times in that same five line paragraph,) sail-ships (sailing ships,) the Nautilus’ deck (Nautilus’s, a page later Moses’s was fine but one more page on we had Aramis’,) “like the unmixed paint on an artist’s palate” (did the artist mix the paint by mouth, then? Palette that would be,) “not sure what he had let himself into” (not sure what he had got himself into; or, not sure what he had let himself in for,) the King of England (yes, but also the Empire,) the fungi (it was singular; so fungus,) “he felt exulted” (exultant, I think,) “you knew were you were with them” (where you were,) “Orphan was glad for that” (glad of that,) a group of men… were standing (a group was standing.)

free hit counter script