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The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald, Pyr, 2010, $26.
The Library, by Zoran Zivković, Kurdohan Press, 2010, $7.50.
Amarcord, by Zoran Zivković, Kurdohan Press, 2007, $7.
Version 43, by Philip Palmer, Orbit, 2010, $14.99.
Yarn, by Jon Armstrong, Nightshade Books, 2010, $14.99.
Moxyland, by Lauren Beukes, Angry Robot, 2010, $7.99.
Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon, Harper Perennial, 2010, $14.99.
That said, there has been an unusually intense onslaught of high quality sf this year. All the books I'm about to mention below are well worth reading—and then some. So let's set The Dervish House aside for a while and give them their proper due.
For years I've been hearing rumors about The Library by Zoran Zivković. And now I've got my hands on two of his books, both newly translated into English.
Any writer who has the temerity to write a book of short stories called The Library is going to have to suffer comparisons to Borges. And there's no doubt that Zivković owes a significant debt to Borges—not to mention the two giants of Italian twentieth-century speculative fiction, Italo Calvino and Primo Levi. But calling Zivković the next Borges is just silly. And snidely pointing out that he's not exactly Primo Levi is even sillier...unless someone passed a rule while I wasn't looking that says you have to win the Nobel Prize before you can get your books reviewed. So let's leave the twentieth-century ghosts behind and stick to what's actually between the covers of Zivković's books.
Both Amarcord and The Library are concept-driven sf, written in the classic spare yet graceful Eastern European style, and structured as cycles of linked short stories that focus on a single theme. Both books also have a very specific emotional density—for me almost the defining characteristic of Zivković's work. They are less focused on speculative wizardry than Borges and more focused on the human element. There is a whimsical quality to the writing—Calvino's influence? Yet violence or the potential for violence always hovers just beyond the edge of the page. Zivković's characters are exiles in their own country, looking over their shoulders and trying to fly beneath the radar of an invisible yet subtly coercive state.
The Library is the more talked-about of the two books, and it is indeed excellent. But personally I preferred Amarcord. Amarcord takes place in a delicately evoked Eastern European city where someone has discovered a process to distill memories from physical remains and allow others to relive them. Memory collectors pay for the "lives" of famous artists and writers. Memory extractors haunt graveyards. A genocidal leader has his memories extracted as part of his rehabilitation. And by the end of the book, the interconnections between these stories paint a satisfyingly rich picture of the undercurrents of power and desire in Zivković's imagined world.
Zivković is an important figure in the contemporary sf scene—and one who's less known than he should be because he doesn't write in English. This has nothing to do with Zivković himself, and everything to do with the conventional publishing wisdom that American sf readers won't buy foreign books. This prejudice makes it extremely difficult to sell foreign language sf, let alone get publishers to pay translation costs. And the only way to get past it is for us to vote with our wallets and buy translated sf whenever we find it.1 Okay, end of speech. But do buy Zivković's books if you get the chance. Buy them as a community service to your fellow sf readers. More important, buy them because they are intellectually subtle, beautifully written, thought-provoking science fiction in any language.
I don't have a great deal to say about Philip Palmer's Version 43 except that it was a really fun read. In its broad outlines there's nothing terribly original about it. Hard-boiled prose is part of the stylistic background radiation of modern sf. And the premise of a duplicated, disposable detective is familiar to anyone who's read David Brin's Kiln People. However, Palmer pushes a premise that might be humdrum in less able hands to a surprising and original conclusion. And, frankly, even if he didn't...Version 43 would still be good clean fun and well worth the cover price.
Given how solidly in the hard-boiled sf tradition Palmer's work is, I've never understood the animosity he evokes among some readers. I've finally come to believe that they just don't get his sense of humor. Palmer has a Monty Pythonesque gift for delivering slapstick and hyperbole with a perfect British poker face. But of course the risk of a good poker face is that people may not realize you're joking. So let me go on the record here and now as a Philip Palmer defender. In my opinion, the people who complain about his work suffer from a chronic sense of humor deficit. And if you aren't afflicted by that peculiar disease, you could be a future Philip Palmer fan.
The first thing that stands out about Yarn is Jon Armstrong's superb writing. Like his debut novel, Grey, Yarn sometimes comes across as the work of a literary writer temporarily slumming in sf-land. But that characterization isn't fair. Yarn isn't hard sf—it's more of a fashionista riff on cyberpunk—but Armstrong shows none of the cliché-ridden hamfistedness that mars most literary writers' attempts to commit science fiction.
Grey was a brilliantly quirky page-turner that put a startling new twist on classic cyberpunk themes. However, it was marred (for me at least) by a terminally tepid rich-boy main character, and I distinctly remember thinking that I'd much rather read a book about the protagonist's enigmatic celebrity tailor, Mr. Cedar. I'm happy to say that Armstrong has now written exactly that book. Yarn is a more subtle, more disciplined, and ultimately more rewarding book than Grey. It goes beyond surface phenomena to delve into the underlying structures of Armstrong's imagined future. It also digs deeper emotionally. There is a maturity and a tenderness to the characters that wasn't there in the first book. It comes through in the scenes with Cedar's father and his dying ex-lover—and also in the clear-sightedness with which he acknowledges his own limitations even as he tries to overcome them.
Yarn is a true second novel in the best sense of the word. There will be some readers who prefer the blazingly original überpunk pyrotechnics of Grey and perceive this quieter, more disciplined book as a sophomore slump. Personally I welcomed Yarn's greater intellectual coherence and emotional depth. Whichever of the two books you prefer, one thing is clear: Jon Armstrong is on the short list of young sf writers who bear close watching.
Like Yarn, Lauren Beukes's Moxyland clearly situates itself in the cyberpunk tradition, reveling in flashy techno-surfaces rather than in-depth exploration of scientific concepts or social issues.
Moxyland is a closely linked set of first person narratives that take place in a nebulously defined near-future South Africa still suffering from the ongoing legacies of apartheid and the AIDS epidemic. The point of view is extremely tight first person, and the staccato language closely echoes the idiom of the twitter generation. The four main characters include two twenty-something hipster dropouts, a manipulative corporate climber, and an impoverished gay black social activist who is being dragged into a shadowy conspiracy by an anonymous donor he meets only in a future version of Second Life. All the characters except for the activist are immature, ethically challenged, and myopically self-involved—and even the activist was so pissed off all the time that he wasn't much fun to be around.
None of that is bad—actually it's a great setup for what I hoped would be a fantastic book. But in the end I felt that Moxyland never quite got off the ground as a novel of ideas. This feeling was most acute in the sections of the book told from the point of view of the two youngest characters. Their stories felt thinner than the other books on this month's roster. They read less like science fiction and more like actual twitters from actual teens. At times this created the kind of voyeuristic thrill that skilled reality TV can deliver. But most of the time I just felt like I'd gotten suckered into watching the latest Twilight movie. Even the South African setting, which should have been fascinating, never quite materialized; except for the occasional jarring mention of some African place name, the story felt like it could just as easily have been happening in London or Amsterdam.
Arguably, this was Beukes's point. And it's a good point. But she put so much narrative energy into hammering it home that she fell into the Jonathan Franzen trap: If you write about aimless characters adrift in a bland, post-local consumer culture, and never give yourself the freedom to step back and offer a larger view of things, then you inevitably end up replicating the syndrome you set out to criticize. And while this replication can be entertaining—particularly to the kind of "sophisticated" readers who get off on feeling smarter than their neighbors—it doesn't really get you anywhere. In Moxyland, it reduced what could have been a book of great substance to a quick, stylish read with an uncontroversial message about the dangers of unfettered corporate power and twitter-style pop culture.
That said, Moxyland is an intriguing debut novel from an impressively talented writer. I believe there will be two different reactions to this book. On one side, you'll find the style monkeys, who revel in its twitteresque prose and celebrate it as an unflinching look at the moral emptiness of modern pop culture. On the other side, you'll find readers like me who wanted
...well...more. Oddly, Beukes delivers that more in an afterword where she launches a passionately articulate condemnation of contemporary South African politics. I just would have liked to see Beukes step out from behind the curtain and show more of that passion and clarity in the book itself.
For me, Moxyland illustrates the inherent riskiness of cyberpunk as a genre. Cyberpunk walks a razor's edge between the profound and the trivial. At its best, it's a surreal riff on popular culture that exposes the tectonic movements of power and money beneath the glossy surface. At its worst, it just replicates the mindless celebrity culture it claims to critique. This is the risk cyberpunk writers have shouldered ever since James Tiptree, Jr. penned the proto-cyberpunk masterpiece, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." Moxyland definitely takes on a cyberpunk's challenges without shirking. As for how successfully it navigates them...well, you'll have to read the book and decide for yourself. I was impressed enough (despite my quibbles) that I'll be eagerly looking out for Beukes's upcoming urban fantasy, Zoo City, and hoping that she gives herself characters and a narrative structure that let her spread her wings a little wider.
So...The Dervish House. How do I even begin to write about this book? This is what science fiction should be. I've been reveling in it all fall, sipping it like the honey of wild bees, one hauntingly sweet drop at a time.
I can't sell you The Dervish House by comparing it to anyone else's work, because there is no comparison. There's no "Quentin Tarantino meets William Gibson" tag line I can hang on it. You will not find "X meets Y" between the covers of this book. All you will find is Ian McDonald meets the Universe. In a grand, dusty, chaotic, quasi-mystical explosion that does full justice to the legendary city in which he has chosen to set his tale.
By setting The Dervish House in Istanbul, McDonald plunges us into the creative chaos of mid-twenty-first century Turkey in the aftermath of EU integration. Yet his focus is not on the predictable exotic, but on a topic that few other sf writers have the guts or gray matter to tackle: international high finance. McDonald has done the seemingly impossible. He has written a compelling, action-packed sf novel about the future of AI-based quantitative trading. This makes him the only sf writer I know of who seems to have noticed one of the most striking trends in contemporary artificial intelligence research: that much of the hottest new work in massively parallel computing isn't being funded by the military (that easy villain), but by Wall Street.
In the larger scope of McDonald's work, The Dervish House continues the track he laid down in River of Gods and Cyberabad Days. As in those books, he offers a startlingly original vision of today's emerging economies as tomorrow's technological powerhouses. He inhabits the same near-future ripped-from-the-headlines world that we've seen in William Gibson's most recent books. Still, at no point in the reading did I feel particularly tempted to compare him with Gibson. McDonald is just as astute an observer of the contemporary scene. But instead of focusing on pop culture, he dives deep into the underpinnings of international politics, transnational finance, and deep-rooted cultural conflict.
The only real parallel I can draw between McDonald and Gibson—and I think it's a meaningful one—is that both writers have managed (albeit in different ways and different eras) to break out of the limited Western framework of much English-language sf. Gibson gave us Japan—not as quaint local color, but as the beachhead of a multi-dimensional future that transcended the usual tired dichotomy of utopia/dystopia. McDonald gives us today's developing world, from India to Turkey: a world of leapfrogging technology where ambitious young programmers and investment bankers are out-programming Silicon Valley and out-Wall Streeting Wall Street. It may not be a comfortable vision for some First World readers. But it's no fantasy: it's the reality that's breathing down the backs of our necks every workday. And McDonald extrapolates from it with dizzying virtuosity.
McDonald mines the seam between hard sf and cyberpunk in a way that doesn't lend itself to easy characterization. He can match the dazzling prose style of the best cyberpunk. But cyberpunk —especially the line that runs from Tiptree through Gibson (and ultimately to writers like Armstrong and Beukes)—is all about fan dancing on the socio-technological surface. Whereas McDonald dives the deep currents—from Deep State and Deep Finance to the fundamental human drives of love, greed, and revenge—that boil far beneath that surface.
More than any other sf writer I can think of, McDonald has a complex, nuanced, fundamentally real vision of the way power works in the world. We live in an age of anxiety, and there are an awful lot of people walking around in grownup bodies who are still too small or too frightened to see the world as it really is. McDonald is different. By the time you've read a chapter or two of The Dervish House, you will be pretty certain that if you sat down for a beer with him, you'd find an honest-to-God grownup on the other side of the table.
I don't normally review nonfiction here, but this month I'm going to make an exception for Michael Chabon's most recent book, Manhood for Amateurs. It's not fiction, or even science fiction, and if you're anything like me you probably have to be roped into reading books of literary essays with barbed wire. Still, check this one out.
A lot of the book is Chabon's account of becoming a man in modern America; and those parts you'll either like or roll your eyes at, depending on...well, what kind of man or woman you are. On the other hand, Chabon is not only a brilliant novelist and a keen observer of the American scene—he's also a dyed-in-the-wool sf fan. And many of these essays describe growing up as an sf fan between the 1970s and the 2000s. There are homages to Carl Sagan, various and sundry comic classics, Star Trek, and even Planet of the Apes. And in a more serious vein, his essay on the Clock of the Long Now is profound and poetic in ways that will resonate with any readers who happen to be both sf fans and parents.
So next time you're in your local bookstore, detour into the lit section and take a look at Manhood for Amateurs. You may decide to read the whole thing, or you may only dip into the sf-related essays. Either way, you'll surely find something in there to warm a true sf fan's heart.
1 One excellent place to find translated sf—and a good point of entry into European sf in general—is the 2007 anthology,The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent, edited by James and Kathryn Morrow.
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