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Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2010, 397 p.

 Pandaemonium cover

I’ve mentioned before that distinct similarity in the set-up of most of Brookmyre’s non-Jack Parlabane or Angelique Di Xavia stories (and even in some of them) wherein a group of more-or-less innocents come to a confined place – usually in a remote part of Scotland – and are brought into confrontation with others intent on criminality or mayhem, who are overcome in the end. Pandaemonium conforms to these parameters precisely, except in one respect.

The innocents here are a cohort of schoolmates on an Outward Bound type expedition to help them come to terms with the violent deaths of two of their contemporaries. The danger they meet is of an extraordinary kind though, as it is not human. Scientists funded by the US military have been conducting experiments to find the graviton but instead broke the boundaries between the different worlds of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics whereby each decision ever made spawns an alternative universe and less than a molecule’s width separates us from universes not our own. In this case daemons – horns and tails and all – have been brought through the portal between the worlds and kept in captivity under the former Fort Trochart. On the basis that the Church knows most about the potential threat from such creatures a Catholic Cardinal has been brought in to help investigate them. It turns out that demons have been “coming through into our world for centuries, most probably for millennia” and the Vatican knows all about it.

At the outset the disconnect between the two story strands is jarring. After a prologue set in the laboratory where the scenes are par for that sort of course, but with the usual conflicts between scientist and soldier exacerbated by the presence of Cardinal Tullian and his acolytes calling the shots Brookmyre’s tone alters considerably as he illustrates the pupils’ attitudes to the other sex and the prospect of the act itself; or, more pertinently, the lack of it. The peculiar mixture of bravado and innocence of the teenage boy is portrayed well enough as is the girls’ cliquishness and stoking of ammunition for point-scoring against each other but there are too many characters and they are insufficiently distinguished. Throw in among the adults in the party a martinet of an older teacher, a youngish Priest unsure of his faith and an unmarried woman of his age and parts of the story could write themselves. The balance between the two strands is also off-kilter.

Brookmyre illuminates the pressures of a Scottish Catholic upbringing and schooling. His clearly left scars. To his three dedicatees he says, “Be glad you went to PGS.” PGS is of course not a Catholic school. The baddies in his scenario are not the daemons – they are merely innocent victims of the project to find the graviton and only cause the destruction and bloodshed that they do because they have been starved of their soul food and in any case see us as the daemons, bent on their destruction. The real villain is the man who lets the daemons out of their confinement.

His later novel Bedlam was presented as Brookmyre’s first foray into SF. In fact, in its serious consideration of the many worlds theory, higher-dimensional space and expounding thereof, this has a greater claim to the title: even if the treatment more belongs to the coming of age and, perhaps, horror genres.

Pedant’s corner:- sat (placed,) crenulated (crenellated,) “none … are” (none is,) rarified (rarefied,) Rocks’ (Rocks’s,) “epicentre of this beam-quake” (not off-centre; so hypocentre,) “gas at peep” (at a peep,) gotten (got,) “an acid and an alkali, these last two of corresponding pH” (an acid and an alkali can not have corresponding pH; one must have pH lower than seven, the other greater than seven,) “a record altitude below sea level” (altitude is a descriptor of height; not depth,) “a strong alkaline solution” (a concentrated alkaline solution: chemically ‘strong solution’ means ‘fully ionised solution’ – it is possible to have a dilute solution that is nevertheless strong, and similarly to have a concentrated solution of a weak [only partly ionised] alkali or acid,) “close enough to the centre” [of the galaxy] “to allow the higher elements to form” (the higher elements form in supernovae, I’m not aware proximity to the galactic centre is pertinent,) Jimmy Hendrix (Jimi,) adrenalin (adrenaline,) Copernicus’ (Copernicus’s,) “when the situation behove it” (behoved,) “‘the most binding non-disclosure agreement outside of Cose Nostre’” (Cosa Nostra,) “‘Our sun isn’t actually hot enough to fuse hydrogen to helium’” (it is and it does,) epicentre (centre,) “and show up all the pooks on their clothes” (???) Miss Ross’ hand (Miss Ross’s.)

The Corporation Wars: Dissidence by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2016, 333 p

 The Corporation Wars: Dissidence cover

Most of the “characters” in this novel are dead, their consciousnesses (or what remains of them) uploaded into a simulation. Others are robots whose “minds” have gained awareness. The first of these presents a problem; one which I have written about before here and here. I know that fiction isn’t a description of the real, it’s all made-up – thinly disguised real lives of the roman à clef aside – but it aspires to that verisimilitude; the people we are reading about ought to feel real, or at the very least plausible, their perils and dilemmas actual to the reader even if at one remove. Breaking the necessary suspension of disbelief is a dangerous activity for an author, with the potential fatally to undermine what is the delicate process of interacting with a fictional text. But if the characters in a novel are themselves dead the distancing goes too far. Put simply, if these people are dead already why should the reader care? There is no real jeopardy; they can be resurrected at the touch of a button. Yes, there is the argument that our “real life” might itself be a simulation so what does it matter if the characters in a novel also are but that falls down on the grounds that we can only suspect it, we do not know it for sure.

The action, and there is a lot of it, takes place on or near an exo-planet long after the Final War on Earth between the more-or-less progressive Acceleration and the counter-revolutionary Reaction. A government known as “The Direction” is nominally in charge but as a result of the development of robot consciousness various companies are now at war either with the robots or each other. Human consciousnesses from the time of the Final War have been preserved, training to fight the Corporations’ wars after being decanted into a virtual reality of the way the exo-planet will be after its terraformation. The story-telling details here are elegant enough, the “bus journey” from the “spaceport” every time they are resurrected from an abortive mission is a nice touch. The shadow of the Final War still hangs over these remnants though. The extension of their consciousnesses beyond their bodies when they are in their (tiny) battle arrays is also neatly handled, instantaneous connectivity feeling akin to telepathy, being able to “smell” the sun etc.

Curiously (or perhaps not, as they may be the most “real” characters in the book as opposed to mere ghosts of electrons fizzing about in a server) it is the robots who seem the most human entities in Dissidence even if their dialogue, rendered in chevron brackets as opposed to normal quote marks, can be a little reminiscent of Dalek in its terseness and detached vocabulary (though admittedly, “Shut up,” is never an injunction I have heard issued by a Dalek.)

As usual with MacLeod there is a degree of philosophical discourse, especially among the robots, and of political discussion. There is also an allusion to please all SF buffs, “I have no mouth and I must gape.” If you can get over any nagging doubts about the “reality” of the dilemmas and situation of the entities here it’s a fine read.

Pedant’s corner: when in their “battle” arrays the “humans” also spoke in chevrons apart from one instance at the close of a section where the quote marks were normal. I didn’t gain the impression they had yet dropped out of battle mode. There was also medieval (long time devotees know I prefer mediaeval or even mediæval,) plus “upside the head” (a USianism, what’s wrong with “on the head”?)

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre

Little, Brown 2007, 343 p.

 Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks cover

The fifth in Brookmyre’s series of novels featuring journalist Jack Parlabane and it’s the mixture as usual, flashes of mordant humour in amongst investigation of nefarious goings on. In this one though, Brookmyre’s target is a rather easy one, spiritualists/mediums/psychics – whom Brookmyre characterises, no doubt wholly justifiably, as interested only in the money their activities bring in. The set-up is that Parlabane, as a newly installed Rector of Kelvin University, has been called in as an observer of a trial of psychic phenomena at the University (a fiction which is a very thinly disguised version of my alma mater, The University, Glasgow.) The catch is that in order to receive the money to fund a Chair of Spiritual Sciences the University has to accept that it be set up under the Science faculty, as is the trial.

The level of mayhem here, and the body count, is lower than in the typical Brookmyre novel. Most of the murders occur offstage. It’s all good readable stuff; though the early musings of rival journalist Jillian Noble are a bit tedious.

Along the way we learn about the history of psychic faking and the various ruses its practitioners employ to gull the suggestible. Appropriately given this subject matter there is a certain amount of authorial misdirection going on. But we are warned by the text that nothing here is what it seems.

We are also treated to Parlabane’s observation apropos the Scottish male psyche, “Anything that gets us off discussing our emotions can only be applauded; it drives us forward, away from petty distractions, in our never-ending quest to understand everything except ourselves.”

I did notice the occurrence of phrases which Brookmyre would later use as book titles – when the devil drives; where the bodies are buried.

This isn’t pretending to be great literature but once past the Jillian Noble bits it is entertaining enough.

And the unsinkable rubber ducks? This is the term used for those who cling stubbornly to belief in psychic phenomena no matter how often or completely they are debunked or shown to be fraudulent.

Pedant’s corner:- At one point reference is made to a Kelvin Avenue. Its counterpart in the real world could be Kelvin Way (unlikely) or, more realistically, University Avenue. It is unfortunate then that, later, Brookmyre refers to University Avenue. The trial is named Project Lamda: the Greek letter is spelled lambda. Some of these following irritations may charitably be attributed to being in the narrating character’s voice. Homeopathy (whatever happened to œ or even oe?) medieval (ditto æ or ae,) “served to maximise the crescendo,” (a crescendo is a steady build-up, can you maximise a build-up?) the mean time (meantime,) a “he said” for a “she said,” off of, snuck (sneaked,) “pan breid” the usual phrase is “brown breid.”

Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2009, 388p.

Not the most profound book with which to start my Read Scotland Challenge; not typical Brookmyre either as it’s set in California. First published in 1998, it imagines a millenarian run up to the end of the century.

LAPD cop Larry Freeman has a strange disappearance or four to investigate, photographer – and Motherwell supporter – Stephen Kennedy is in town to cover the American Feature Film Marketing Board meeting and take the pics for an interview with erstwhile porn actress Madeleine Witherson (the daughter of a US Senator,) failed US Presidential candidate and evangelical preacher Luther St John is whipping up the faithful for the new millennium.

St John has dubbed Witherson “The Whore of Babylon,” a symbol of the moral degradation into which he regards the US to have fallen, stirred up by the film and television industry. He has also predicted God will send a tidal wave to inundate greater Los Angeles in early 1999 as a signal of His wrath.

As to the plot, the Gazes Also, a boat belonging to the California Oceanic Research Institute, has been found crewless, a latter day Mary Celeste. Four scientists are missing. Another, Sandra Biscayne, was murdered several months before. St John sponsored both their projects. It’s not difficult to join the dots…. In the meantime religious nut-job Daniel Corby has plans of his own to sway the godless from their wicked ways. Plans which involve murder and human (self)-sacrifice. It’s a Brookmyre novel, there’s bound to be mayhem in it somewhere.

It’s well enough constructed, if not difficult to second guess, and Brookmyre carries us along admirably. He does feel the need to fill in characters’ back stories at considerable length, though, providing psychological reasons for them being the way they are, which is a little at odds with the overall thriller nature. He also manages to insert into the narrative a description of the eruption of Thera, the volcano whose explosion and subsequent tsunami destroyed the Minoan civilisation.

Religious fundamentalists (of whatever stripe) are easy targets, but none the less deserving of censure. None of them seem willing to live and let live. All of them are in the business of justifying their desire to control the behaviour – and thoughts – of others. Brookmyre doesn’t spare them.

There aren’t quite as many jokes as in a more typical Brookmyre novel and there isn’t a great deal of his usual Scots vernacular, though Kennedy has some good lines.

A mildly diverting, relatively undemanding read, even if I did spot two continuity errors. If you’re a fundamentalist it isn’t for you though.

Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

Natural Causes by James Oswald

Penguin, 2013, 448 p

So what am I doing reading a piece of straight crime fiction?

Well, one of the good lady’s blog correspondents (far away in the USA) discovered Oswald’s writing on the internet (Natural Causes was self-published and getting good sales before Penguin took it up.) When she told us Oswald (who is a Fife farmer) would be signing copies at Kirkcaldy’s Waterstone’s the good lady offered to get her an autographed copy. We duly went along to do that and so I’ve met him. He seems a nice guy. The good lady had first dibs on the book – she reads a lot of vintage crime, not so much of the modern stuff – and when she put it down I thought I’d pick it up.

Newly promoted Detective Inspector Anthony McLean has the sort of problems with his bosses and colleagues you might expect from viewing TV detective series. His back story involves the death of his parents when he was four (and, much later, of his wife.) He is assigned to the investigation of a young girl found ritually murdered in a basement. The trouble is she was killed around sixty years ago and the trail is cold. Meanwhile several high profile Edinburgh citizens are being murdered in a strange way, their killers then committing suicide. As a result McLean spends a lot of time attending autopsies.

Oswald brings all this stuff together impressively well for a first novelist. If plot is the main attraction of detective stories then this one does it admirably. At times I was reminded of Christopher Brookmyre but it is less cartoonish and there are fewer jokes (for which Natural Causes is the better.) What I always find difficult about this sort of thing, though, is the high body count. Edinburgh, while a Gothic novelist’s paradise, truly isn’t that dangerous a city to live in – at least since Burke and Hare were apprehended.

Oswald has a good way with description and his characters aren’t wooden. Having McLean say, “Oh no you don’t!” twice is twice too many, though. There were also a couple of times when the connections were too apparent a bit too early and at least two continuity errors which a good proof read ought to have picked up.

The hinge of the novel is the ritual killing and any connection it might have to the present day. The hint of supernatural involvement in the ongoing deaths was for me the least convincing aspect of the whole tale. But I’m even less into that sort of stuff than I am to crime novels.

While, as you may expect from a first novel, there was the odd infelicity, Oswald clearly has talent, can hold the attention and make you turn the pages. Crime readers will certainly appreciate him. I did; and I’m not his target audience.

Things that irritate pedants section:-
Sunk:sprung count, 2:1 respectively, plus the common misuse of epicentre and a “who’s” for a “whose.” Not many considering it’s a debut novel.

Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

Orbit, 2013, 378p.

Brookmyre’s oeuvre has up to now been the crime/thriller novel, albeit tinged with humour. Bedlam is his first foray into Science Fiction. I came across an as yet unlent copy in my local library so thought, why not?

Medical technology company Neurosphere’s employee Ross Baker, shortly after discovering by chance his girl-friend is pregnant and without talking to her about it, has a new type of brain-scan and wakes up inside a computer game which he quickly recognises as he was an avid gamer in his past. Not long after this he is killed there but immediately “respawns” to start all over again. He soon finds a way out into a series of virtual worlds which are in the process of takeover by an organisation dubbed the Integrity which is citing a phenomenon known as “corruption” to seek by force to keep these worlds forever separate one from another. In these digital adventures Baker adopts his former multiple game-player name of Bedlam. There are, though, occasional chapters set in the “real” world where Baker is/was in conflict with his boss over the rights of digital consciousnesses.

My reservations about stories set within virtual worlds were set out in the third paragraph of my comments on Iain Banks’s Surface Detail. Briefly, if there is no real jeopardy, if there is no danger of death, what threat is there? Beyond tedium of course.

Unfortunately most of Bedlam is set within the virtual worlds and as such is seriously unbalanced. I could not suspend my disbelief and found myself longing for the “real” world. In this regard the pregnancy element is a rather transparent way to try to enlist our sympathies with the digitally trapped Baker. Moreover Brookmyre’s style at times jars badly with the scenario. SF and humour are notoriously ill-matched bedfellows. A successful amalgam of the two is very difficult to achieve. Brookmyre has made little or no concession to the peculiar demands of writing SF and has adopted a similar tone to that in his thrillers. There were also signs of the book being pitched towards the US market (tic-tac-toe, medieval, asshole.)

Brookmyre’s typical readers may enjoy the virtual scenes – or not – but as SF Bedlam is perfunctory at best. Perhaps gamers will take to it.

A Snowball in Hell by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2009, 393p.

 A Snowball in Hell cover

A Snowball in Hell revisits the main characters from Brookmyre’s previous two books featuring Angelique de Xavia. As well as the detective herself we have Simon Darcourt, the Rank Bajin from A Big Boy Did it and Ran Away and Zal Innez from The Sacred Art of Stealing.

Darcourt has come back from the dead and commits mayhem on various minor celebrities. A De Xavia disillusioned with her job in France is enticed back to the UK to take him on but realises she needs the help of Innez, now making legal rather than criminal use of his talents for misdirection, to do this. By way of illustration Brookmyre gives us glimpses into the uses and history of the magician’s art.

In the novel he also excoriates rent-a-quote anti-pc newspaper columnists, the vacuousness of early Saturday evening entertainment programmes, their contestants and “reality” TV shows. Easy targets perhaps, but arguably necessary ones. In this regard the sarcastic plea for Take That to re-form sits oddly four years after the novel was published, as does a mention of Jade Goody.

There are twists and turns aplenty as the plot rattles along but much less humour than in other Brookmyre books.

Be My Enemy by Christopher Brookmyre

Or: Fuck This For A Game Of Soldiers. Orbit, 2005, 391p.

 Be My Enemy cover

Being the continuing adventures of Jack Parlabane, investigative journalist and gobshite.

After The Road To Berlin I needed some light relief. Brookmyre’€™s comedic touch is still here though less so than in others of his I have read. The plot – as in most Brookmyre novels – doesn’t really bear much scrutiny being merely an excuse to let the mayhem begin. Parlabane is sent by his newspaper to review the experience provided by a new provider of those team bonding outward bound courses. The paintball sessions soon grow more sinister and the participants discover what has brought them all there.

File under: diverting entertainment.

Sadly there were two “shoe-in‘€s plus two examples of that mishearing, “off his own back.” (My dictionary gives it as “€œoff his own bat”. Maybe Brookmyre never played cricket at school.)

I did also notice an, “€œAin’€™t I?”€ Was this perhaps Brookmyre’s way of avoiding that grammatical idiocy, “€œAren’€™t I?”€

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