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The Smoke by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2018, 300 p

 The Smoke cover

We start on a space vehicle on which the brother of protagonist Stuart Lanyon is about to take off from Woomera – powered by successive explosions of atom bombs underneath it blasting it into space. This is something of a distraction however, though a signifier of an altered history where Yellowstone erupted in 1874, immolating North America, and a Great War was ended in 1916 after the atomic bombing of Berlin.

The main meat of the story is the ramifications of the discovery of the Gurwitsch ray – biophotonic weak ultraviolet pulses passing from cell to cell in living things, each creature with its own characteristic emissions, orchestrating development, leading to the ability of humanity to sculpt organic forms at will. Hence we are in the age of speciation of mankind. The dead of the Great War battlefields were subjected to Gurwitsch’s ray, producing strange organisms known as chickies which are able to exert sexual allure among other abilities, a technocratic intellectually superior elite called the Bund has arisen in Eastern Europe and dominates world affairs.

The weird aspects of all this are underlined by Ings’s story-telling, part of the novel being narrated in the second person, though the down to Earth sections are more traditional first person and some interludes are in third. Though the background details seem to sit oddly with one another – a thoroughly industrial Yorkshire can feel more like the 1930s, a television series more signifies the early 1960s, parts of London are dominated by ultra-modern architecture – Ings manages to hold them together. The setting is occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia with the merest hint of Ballard thrown in for extra alienation.

At the novel’s heart is the love story between Stuart and Bund citizen Fel, aka Felicine Chernoy, daughter of Georgy, inventor of the Chernoy Process which utilises Gurwitsch’s ray to enable rebirth. Stuart’s mother, dying of cancer, undergoes this treatment and is reconstituted as an infant. A curious phenomenon to behold, this, a child with an adult’s memories, behaving in unchild-like ways – and subject to unthinking prejudice. Stuart and Fel’s different backgrounds lend their affair the attributes of all star-crossed lover stories.

The characters are well drawn but despite their supposedly greater intellects the two members of the Bund shown here – Fel and her father – do not seem significantly different from humans as we know them. Stuart does though in his narration refer to his father as Bob and mother as Betty, which is a touch unusual.

Ings’s vision here is a particular one, at once curiously fantastic and yet also recognisable, a flight of fancy (several flights if you like) but utterly grounded.in human emotions. The Smoke goes to show that Science Fiction continues to produce work of which those detractors who dismiss it without ever sampling it assume it to be incapable.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Bund” is treated as plural throughout, but ought to be singular, “And since no one wants to meet each other’s eye, it makes logical sense that the entire audience repair en masse to the bar” (others’ I think, plus make that no-one, and, the entire audience repairs,) Lutyens’ (Lutyens’s,) potshard (potsherd, please,) Picasso is referred to as a Parisian artist (he was Spanish, but this is an altered history,) “the family were meant to cheer Jim off to Woomera” (the family was meant to,) “it would be the most natural thing in the world for me to stove this thing’s head in” (the verb is to stave in, stove is the past tense form.) “The odds against there being no set now increases” (the odds …. increase.) “‘According your friend’” (According to your friend,) “till it run out of” (runs out,) a parenthetical sentence not started with a capital letter as it ought to have been, “for goodness’ sake” (this ought to be written “goodness’s” even if it’s pronounced “goodness”.)

PfITZ by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 1995, 164p

 PfITZ cover

This novel begins somewhat like a fairy tale, “Two centuries ago a Prince” is pretty close to, “Once upon a time.” However, the characters here do not “live happily ever after” and the philosophical musings the book contains are more elevated than the admonitory morals of the usual fairy tale.

The Prince concerned is keen on designing fantasy cities, so much so that whole armies of people are employed to create on paper the perfect city, Rreinstadt – not just the infrastructure but also the doings of its inhabitants and visitors. (This being in the nature of a fairy tale, where the money for this endeavour comes from is not explained.) The first two chapters, which set the novel up, contain no dialogue but manage to intrigue nonetheless.

Our hero is Schenk, a Cartographer, poring over maps of Rreinstadt, who on an errand one day is smitten by a pretty young Biographer, Estrella. He is also curious about the partly erased entries on one of his maps, that of the hotel room of a visitor to Rreinstadt, one Count Zelneck. He interprets the names concerned as Pfitz and Spontini. To impress Estrella and give him a reason for continuing to visit the Biography section he invents a story for Pfitz and Count Zelneck and writes it for her. His Pfitz – and therefore ours as we can read Pfitz’s adventures in occasional chapters – is an inveterate story teller in a magic realist kind of way. Spontini turns out to be one of the “authors” of books in Rreinstadt’s library (no detail is too small for the chroniclers of the Prince’s city) whose oeuvre is created by a team of writers. Spontini is apparently destined for madness.

So we have tales within tales and characters coming to wonder if they themselves are creations in someone else’s fiction. All very self-referential and post-modern. And, of course, begging a very Science Fictional question as to whether our world is itself a fictional creation or not.

Where the treatment began to unravel for me was that events in the “real” world – that of the Prince’s city planners – its jealousies and murder attempts, started to mirror the “invented” one (which being cause and which effect, a moot point.) This seemed to me to labour the parallels too much.

Had I not previously read Crumey’s Mobius Dick, Sputnik Caledonia and Music, in a Foreign Language I might have been more taken with PƒITZ. It is still a worthwhile novel; it just doesn’t reach the heights those books did.

Music, in a Foreign Language by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 2004, 243p

 Music, in a Foreign Language cover

Not being a straightforward narrative, this is a difficult novel to describe. Tenses shift within sections, there are stories within stories, false starts, rewritten chapters, repetitions of scenarios and the narrator is at pains to point out the fictionality of it all, indeed at times it reads more as a disquisition on literary efforts than an attempt at one. Yet, for all these strictures, it was immensely readable.

The tricksiness begins early as the novel starts with Chapter 0, where the narrator is thinking post coital thoughts about two characters who meet on a train and about whom he intends to write a novel. The bulk of Music, in a Foreign Language deals with the back story of one of these, a young man called Duncan, and the events leading up to the death of his father, Robert Waters. Waters and his friend Charles King had at the time been involved in slightly subversive activity in a Soviet style post-war Britain. This was the first appearance of that altered history in which Crumey also set parts of Mobius Dick and Sputnik Caledonia. The compromises such a society demands, the paranoia it engenders – and the betrayals it necessitates – are allowed to emerge organically from the story. Despite the title, music as a motif appears sparingly.

My one minor caveat is that the female characters are not as fully rounded as they might be, but the book’s main focus is on the friendship between Waters and King, so perhaps that is understandable.

I was equally as impressed by this, Crumey’s debut novel, as I was by both others of his I have read. If you like well written, thoughtful – even playful – novels you could do worse than give Crumey a try.

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