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May 2002
 
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Books
by James Sallis

The Crime Studio, by Steve Aylett, Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001, $14.95.

Landor's Tower, by Iain Sinclair, Granta, 2001, $24.95.

Futures, by Peter F. Hamilton, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald, ed. Peter Crowther, Warner Books, 2001, $6.99.

Dark Light, by Ken MacLeod, TOR, 2002, $24.95.

Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville, Del Rey Books, 2001, $18.00.

One sincerely hopes that, when the tally comes in, Maggie Thatcher won't be seen as the major influence on current British science fiction.

At least one commentator has wondered how much the glum home situation may have contributed to the flowering of what Gardner Dozois, speaking of writers like Peter Hamilton, Iain Banks, and Paul McAuley, calls wide-screen baroque space opera. There's a sense of escapism, this commentator notes, a sense of "Let's get out of this place!" in telling contrast to American work of a more ameliorative attitude such as Kim Stanley Robinson's.

In The British Way, the fifth volume of his ongoing history of science fiction, James Gunn winnows out differences between British and American science fiction. Until the Sixties, he holds, British science fiction was primarily a fiction of pessimism while the U.S., fueled in part by infusion of gee-whiz pulp values via Hugo Gernsback, in part by America's teddy-bear embrasure of manifest destiny, produced more optimistic work. In the immediate post-war period, all Europe had reeled from exhaustion, from that sense of the lack of meaning, the zero at the center, of which existentialism developed as the purest expression. With Britain's decline as a world power, the American star rising ever brighter, British creative work understandably became gloomier, more introspective.

Vietnam and the Sixties broke the back of American optimism, Gunn holds, at which point the influence of Moorcock's New Worlds, with its attack on moribund genre conventions, its alertness to contemporary culture and its dark vision of current events, became signal on both sides of the pond. "How could anyone, in clear conscience," Ken MacLeod asks, "write tales of colonial conquest in space when a real, dirty, colonial war was being fought by the very society which was being held up as a model for the whole human future?"

So the U.S. imported Moorcock & Co. Ballard, middle-period Aldiss, Tom Disch, early D. M. Thomas. And Thatcher's government in turn imported, as in some madcap fool's trade, the worst strains of U.S. society: the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor, the elevation of big business, centralized control of media. British society, where gradations of class (even as perceived in such marginalia as accent) seem infinite, found validation of its age-old heirarchy in an upstart society denying all class distinctions.

M. John Harrison's early stories captured the dark tenor of late-Labour Britain perhaps better than any others. Iain Sinclair's remarkable Lights Out for the Territory, a tour of Thatcher's London, shows us a city withdrawn behind economic, actual and symbolic walls, a city wholly taken over, invaded from within. With Landor's Tower Sinclair himself lights out, touching down in the territory of his native Wales, spinning a resolutely impure story of utopian dreams, bedraggled reality, and our ever-frail efforts to reconcile the two.

Science fiction, it seems to me, from the first has labored to keep two huge medicine balls in the air, pretending they are after all nothing more than an apple and an orange to be juggled, grunting with the effort. One ball is, of course, the genre's nascent escapism. The other is what John Clute terms "agenda science fiction," an ongoing screed of humanity's (read: the American way's, capitalism's) advance. It's this ball that fell with the Sixties, tearing holes in the floor, leaving emptinesses to be filled.

The socialist strain in science fiction, running counter to the great myth of American progress, is also constant, reaching back at least to Wells's Morlocks and Eloi. When Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell singled out a book such as Pohl's and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, he acknowledged the influence of New York Trotskyites on early modern science fiction. MacLeod's own novels confront the dialectic head-on. Prior to his, Iain Banks gave voice to communist/utopian ideals in his Culture novels, though recent work conveys a darker vision. More centralist writers like Peter K. Hamilton seem to look forward to a resurgent capitalist future beyond present crises, while others like Paul McAuley, initially seeking refuge of a kind in far-future tales, more recently have elected to face the present head-on.

Indeed, McAuley's near-future London in Whole Wide World, caught in the aftermath of the Infowars, gutted and monitored everywhere by security cameras, technology having overrun the very civilization it was meant to support, reads very much like the city Mrs. Thatcher has wrought remarkably similar to that of Mike Harrison's stories, or the London found by Sinclair in his walkabout.

Science fiction, like much of American fiction, descends not from the classic European novel, whose focus is the individual finding his place in society, but from the romance, dealing instead with the individual in opposition to society; for this reason, even at its most conventional, there is forever something of a revolutionary nature to it. The romancer deals with the very stuff of individuality, isolation and revery. "However conservative he may be," Northtrop Frye writes, "something nihilistic and untamable keeps breaking out of his pages."

* * *

Nihilistic and untamable is more or less where Steve Aylett begins. Like many of the UK's best new writers, his cross-genre work affects an extraordinary synthesis of popular and high art. Steeped in the postmodern broth, he's the stepchild of Borges and Beckett as much as Bester and Chandler not to mention music videos, the punk ethic, comic books and stand-up comedy, noir film.

The Crime Studio, a collection of stories about Beerlight, "a city where crime has been perfected to an art form," is Aylett's first book from 1994, just published here in the States. It's a kind of floor plan for the ultimate America, where individualism has been taken to the limits, bulletproof underwear is openly on sale, and paranoia is regarded not as mental aberration but as standard urban equipment, like toothpaste, shoes, and automatic weapons. Think of Don Westlake's crime capers on caffeine overdrive, the Marx Brothers filming Crime and Punishment in a single, drunken weekend.

One Beerlight denizen becomes "almost undergraduate with misery," another virtually English "through bad illumination and lack of exercise." A philosophical burglar on the Sartrean model believes that things exist only in the reality of being stolen. Then there's the denizen who plans to make his million with Stressworld, a theme park where drive-by killings occur on the half-hour, and which visitors will have to fight their way out of.

Aylett has also set two novels, Atom and Slaughtermatic, in Beerlight. In the former, Dead Barbie Dolls complete with casket, cadaver makeup and bugs are big sellers, as are "syndication bombs" which, set off, strip away all subtext, rendering everything flat and meaningless, "a living Updike novel," for up to three hours.

Lack of subtext is hardly a problem in Landor's Tower. No one writes like Iain Sinclair. There is, first, the idiosyncrasy of his preoccupations—obscure genre writers, the history and character of London, Jack the Ripper, viperous booksellers, leftist politics, all of society's refused, refuted and disenfranchised—then the fact that his sentences sweat and huff and fart with the meaning packed onto them. In Sinclair's hands, language simultaneously builds the world and consumes it. Here the story of poet Walter Savage Landor's return to Wales to establish a utopian community is interleaved with a Sinclair-like novelist's failure to write a book about Landor and with two booksellers' doomed pursuit of rare editions. As in all Sinclair's books, elements of the crime novel and of fantasy hit the floor tango-style with "high modern" literary filigree, filmlike dissolves and montage, supercharged language.

Futures, a collection of four novellas, brings us back towards the midline. "Watching Trees Grow" by Peter K. Hamilton is a splendid story of alternate history and near-immortality. Its gentleman detective begins his case in 1832 among battery-driven cars topping out at 25 mph, in an England directly descended from the Roman Empire, and resolves it in 2000 with space flight a common thing. That we never see the poor, the disadvantaged, even the common man, goes almost unnoticed. Stephen Baxter offers up the mystical tale of another sort of immortality, with its sorcerer's cloak of tribalism, transformation and the oneness of all, in "Reality Dust." Set largely in a recreation of Paris on a far world littered with relics of old Earth, Paul McAuley's "Making History" has its protagonist trying to uncover the truth behind history's lie of the Quiet War's final push to the barricades. Like McAuley's one of a series of stories set in the same universe, Ian McDonald's "Tendeleo's Story" tells more of the alien infestation Chaga, "the thing that is like a coral leaf and a rainforest that came out of the object from the sky" bringing with it change, transformation: a truly new, heretofore unimaginable world and life.

Dark Light, continuing a new series begun with Cosmonaut Keep, is Ken MacLeod's latest entry as a leading proponent of widescreen baroque space opera and full-out voice of leftist thought in contemporary SF. His earlier tetralogy (The Star Fraction, The Cassini Division, The Stone Canal, The Sky Road) has found both fans and critical acclaim. Typically MacLeod's plots are complex, choked with investigations of political systems and maneuvering and a wonderful irony at the tentativeness of it all. (In a sense, each of the previous novels subverts that just before it.) He loves to work with bipartite structures, telling two stories set far apart in time. Cosmonaut Keep, relating in alternate chapters the tale of a near-future software expert in a socialist Europe and that of far-future research scientists on the planet Mingled, set up a universe in which humans are the ground floor of intelligence, surmounted by lizardlike but essentially human Saurs, squidlike and far more alien Krakens, and "the gods," who may be acorporeal AI's.

Lots of lumps in the oatmeal this time out. There's good information about "the gods" here, who they are, their influence on other intelligences, but MacLeod doesn't always manage to subsume information into narrative, as he does so successfully the political discourses of earlier novels. The story shoots off, like a porcupine's quills, in many directions. For all that, it's well-told, filled with strong characters, serious discourse, offbeat ideas, interesting turns on such genre conventions as alien intervention, lost colonies, decadent civilizations recovering their pasts.

* * *

From time to time we forget, but we, as science fiction writers and readers, don't want to be accepted, to fit in, to join the mainstream. We like this sense of being outlaws. It's part of what attracted us initially and keeps us coming back. Nihilistic and untamable, c'est nous.

As writers one of our greatest struggles is against doing what we know how to do, to come each day to the page without preconceptions, learned responses, habits of mind: to make it all new again. Over the years of a career, the struggle gets harder, not easier. As readers, too, we can become jaded, scarcely able to read what's before us. The wheel sinks into a mire of cookie-cutter adventure novels, endless variations on familiar themes, grab bags of sorcery, starships, celestial civilizations.

All of which is to say that it's been a long time since I've lost myself in a book as I did in Perdido Street Station, a stone brilliant, brilliantly original novel.

No single element here is new, mind. It's the abundance and the meld that work: high fantasy jammed up against gritty realism, a tender love story (albeit with an insect-woman) elbow-to-elbow at the bar with gothic horror, odd stews of medieval and modern technology, tremendous social scope and fascination with the individual; not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, with fillips of horror, high adventure, intrigue. Mieville shows, too, a profound reverance for the past of fantastic fiction. The novel's as packed with ideas as early Bester, as simultaneously alien and familiar as anything by Phil Farmer or Mervyn Peake, given to social conscience and to its portrait of the city as virtually an independent entity in the manner of Moorcock, tearing us apart like Mike Harrison with its marriage of romantic longing, frustrated intelligence and despair.

Here is a description of one of the city's sections:

"Strange vapours wafted over the roofs. The converging rivers on either side ran sluggishly, and the water steamed here and there as its currents mixed nameless chymicals into potent compounds. The slop from failed experiments, from factories and laboratories and alchymists' dens, mixed randomly into bastard elixirs. In Brock Marsh, the water had unpredictable qualities. Young mudlarks searching the river quag for scrap had been known to step into some discoloured patch of mud and start speaking long-dead languages, or find locusts in their hair, or fade slowly to translucency and disappear."

And here, just as resounding, a description of one of the city's citizens:

"Isaac quietly greeted the old man by the door, Joshua, whose Remaking had been very small and very cruel. A failed burglar, he had refused to testify against his gang, and the magister had ordered his silence made permanent: he had had his mouth taken away, sealed with a seamless stretch of flesh. Rather than live on tubes of soup pushed through his nose, Joshua had sliced himself a new mouth, but the pain had made him tremble, and it was a ragged, torn, unfinished-looking thing, a flaccid wound."

Perdido Street Station does not (as they say) have something for everyone, it has lots for everyone. Reading it, I rediscovered my own fascination with stories, understood anew how vital and how often disappointed of late is the connection I made early on with the literature of the fantastic. I suspect that, confronted with Perdido Street Station, many others will do the same.

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