Saturday, 10 May 2008

Mortal Engines

Another genre is fantasy and science fiction. For some reason, the intelligentsia aren't terribly interested in this genre, and you don't see critics weighing in to sanctify some practitioner. This can lead to some pretty weird results at times.

Take Booker prize type novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It's "daring" and "experimental" inasmuch as it has six or seven narratives nested in it, starting with a character all at sea in the 1800s and going all the way to the distant future where ignorant savages eke out a miserable existence in Hawaii before realising that they're being studied by a remnant of modernity that somehow survived the cataclysm which brought civilisation to an end. Each narrative gets a chunk, then breaks to be replaced by a later narrative, and then after the middle of the book the cycle reverses, so that it begins and ends with the ship.

David Mitchell doesn't need my approval, what with being successful and published and critically feted, and that's probably just as well. Because what he's written in Cloud Atlas is insanely derivative. The worst bit is the second last narrative, which is all about a fast food worker in a terrible dystopian future Korea. Who discovers that the utopian life promised for retired fast food workers is all a lie, and that instead of being carried away in a ship to happy island, they wind up being killed and minced and turned into happy meals for the fast food chain. Somehow, nobody reviewing this book noticed that this is pretty much the big reveal in a Harry Harrison short story (Make Room, Make Room) and a Charlton Heston movie (Soylent Green). That's probably the biggest steal in the book, but most of the rest of the SF elements are wearisomely familiar to anyone who reads decent SF. Of which there is such a thing. Anyhow, I always felt kind of let down that someone could do that and not get called on it anywhere, but there you go.

While critics have pretty much ignored fantasy and SF except to make passing swipes at the kind of people who read it instead of immersing themselves in accounts of the career and marital disasters of university lecturers, there are two great recent exceptions. The first is Harry Potter, which gets noticed because the cultural arbiters pretty much can't ignore books which make their writer as rich as the Queen of England no matter how bad they are in practice. The second is Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials trilogy actually made critics sit up and take notice of a fantasy/SF hybrid series of kids' books because, well, he takes on God with malice aforethought. His Dark Materials is actually a very good piece of work, right up to the point where the author loses the plot in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the phrase in the final act of the last book. It's all been very good up to there; there's a relentless heartlessness to the plot which makes a welcome change from the mawkishness of the children's books of my youth. Sadly, there's something about attacking God that turns you into a hectoring humourless jerk (yes, I'm looking at you Dawkins and Hitchens) no matter how good your underlying work is.

Still, Pullman kicked down some doors, and let interesting people walk through them in his wake. One is Philip Reeve. Now it's perfectly plain from the presentation of Reeve's books that his publishers hoped he'd be the next Pullman - the type faces and presentation echo the early printings of Pullman (from before he got famous) far more than is strictly necessary. And Reeve can't be unaware of the parallel; there's a little shout-out to "Philip Bellman with his series of atheistic pop-up books for the underfives" which I can't make my mind up about; is it a sly reference to someone he actually likes, or a bitchy comment about someone who got a better film deal? I'd be able to decide if I knew how Irish he was.

Reeve is no Pullman. Pullman's a stronger stylist by far, and his principal work - despite my crabbing about the final act - holds together as a single vision in a way that Mortal Engines doesn't. Mortal Engines reads like one book which spawned three good sequels; His Dark Materials reads like one big book which got published in three volumes.

Reeve is still a damn fine writer. Mortal Engines is set in a future where thousands of years of squabbling over the ruins of a war shattered earth has culminated in a stand off between mobile cities and stationary communities. Now the physics and logistics of such a vision don't bear serious examination for a second, but Reeve is able to write fast enough that a reader doesn't quibble. He's also able to write characters with enough appeal that you're far busier wondering what's going to happen to them than you are picking away at the sustainability of "Municipal Darwinism", the bonkers post-thatcherite philosophy which drives the traction cities in their quest to scavenge smaller cities and fight with bigger ones. A few weeks after I've finished reading the books, I'm coming around to the notion that once you dig into the logic of his books, he's essentially marketing the same dumb notion of sustainable pastoral nirvana as Tolkien did, but that doesn't stop me from admiring the books he's written while smoking that weed.

The engagingly mad and carefully maintained vision of the future is one of Reeve's key strengths in the books - he has his future mapped out and he doesn't cheat. The second, and far more important, strength in the work is that his characters are as fallible, conflicted and vulnerable as anyone you can meet in real literature. We're introduced to one of the central characters, Tom Natsworthy early on, and he's a classic children's story hero, well-meaning, lacking in self confidence, lacking in any self-awareness. In most books, he'd meet a kindly mentor and discover himself before saving the world. In Reeve's books, Tom never really gets his act together, never really develops any self confidence and most importantly of all, never gets himself a kindly mentor. There's very little kindness in Tom's world, and most of it he's having to provide himself. Reeve pairs him off with Hester, a murderous orphan with a hideously scarred face.

In conventional fiction, Hester would die early, delivering a plot lesson along the way and be replaced by someone cute. In Reeve's world, Hester lasts all the way through four books, and gets meaner and unhappier the further she goes. Her one saving grace is her love for Tom. Meanwhile the cute girl who he's been lined up with in conventional narrative terms gets shot to bits in the first book. Reeve is cavalier with characters. If they get in harm's way, they get killed. If Reeve has spent huge energy bringing them to life, that's just too bad. The third book begins with a perfect case in point. A character who's been painstakingly nursed through the second book returns in the third as a key mover and shaker. Just when you've decided that he's going to be the villain of the piece, he takes a bullet through the head in the course of a theft turned hostage taking which is so elegantly set up as a plausible bungle that I was rapt with admiration as a focal character is dragged off in a submarine with nothing to be done about it. Snatching her was the last thing anyone wanted to do, and by a simple set of bad calls (the most important of which was Hester's entirely in-character decision to kill everyone in sight) becomes the only possible outcome. Marvellous stuff.

This anyone can die at any time dynamic is at its most intense in the first book, which sees all kinds of sympathetic secondary characters and villains polished off at unexpected moments. Reeve eases off on the body count in the later books, but he's established his rules and will still happily whack people from time to time to keep the readers on their toes. Amazingly he also gets away with bringing back two characters from the dead without in any way derailing your sense of fair play. He's carefully set up a mechanism of bringing back the dead long before there's any prospect of it being used, and so when it happens there's no sense of "hang on, you can't do that."

The thing which struck me as most notable about the series, however, was the character of Hester. By the beginning of the third book, she's settled down, but tellingly, she's not really liked. She's the dirty harry of the whole series, an implacable enemy and bad tempered friend. Usually, by the time any writer has had a character like that around for a few hundred pages, the character has softened a little, and the spear carriers like the character despite all the flaws we've been shown as readers (read any long running detective series, starting with the Morse novels, to see what I mean). Reeve doesn't bother. Hester's a killer, and the people in her community are deeply uncomfortable around her. They put up with her, but they don't even have that only-in-fiction thing of "Yeah, she's a killer, but the community needs someone dangerous just in case." They flat out don't trust her, and she's uncomfortably aware of it without knowing what to do. That's tellingly perceptive and completely out of the run of conventional narrative in children's - or anyone's - books.

The overall narrative arc unfolds over twenty years or so, and so many people die that it would have been almost a perversion of the narrative for the main characters to make it out in one piece. But I have to confess that when Tom and Hester reach the end of their track it broke my heart more than a little. I've never fought free of my bad habit of looking at the last few pages of a book before I get there the honest way, and so I started into A Darkling Plain, the last - and longest - volume, knowing the worst that was coming. It was still very affecting, perhaps the more so because Reeve is not given to over-writing things. There is a short epilog which unlike most epilogs really does work; I could have lived without the wrap-ups for the other characters, but the bookend for Mr Shrike is ingenious, telling and allows the book to taper to a close on just the right note of loss and redemption.

Friday, 9 May 2008

The Stark Stark Truth

There are annoying rules to being hip. Which is why I usually don't devote much of my time to hipness.

For example, people with pretensions to culture don't read books unless they're literature. From what I can figure out, literature is books about people who are either a) exactly like book critics or b) having a really crap time in an impoverished setting. I'm not basing this on a lot of exposure to literature, because every time I try reading literature I get fed up. So I could be missing something. If so, good, because as nearly as I can tell, the real driving force in literature and culture in general is that it should be the mental equivalent of cod liver oil or cross country running - something which is defined as being good for you precisely because it's no damn fun, and therefore must be improving.

I've said it countless times, and maybe even in this blog; if you want to get an improving perspective on the suffering of the world, all you have to do is pay attention to the world around you. You don't need to buy a novel; in fact, if the world's problems are that interesting to you, you should be spending the money on charities and putting the reading time into running a soup kitchen. If, on the other hand, you're reading a book to get away from all that crap for a couple of hours, why on earth would you want to read a story about middle class angst or third world misery? You've got enough angst as it is. Which is why Harry Potter outsells Booker prize novels, and proper order. I hate both, but at least Harry Potter is openly aimed at taking your mind off things. Booker Prize winning books let you think you're doing something to make the world a better place while in reality you're just taking up space and trying not to move your lips while you do it.

Having established that I'd rather be stuck in a firefight than a reading group, I am now going to pour further scorn on educated people and their weird engagement with popular culture. Most books (and all TV and all movies) are crap. Which is fine. Most crap falls into a genre; detective stories, science fiction, horror, historical romance and so on. There are two special genres which are gender specific crap; thrillers (crap for men) and chick-lit (crap for women). Even as a escapism, thrillers and chick-lit are kind of hard to root for. Thrillers are pointless violence and chick-lit is pointless emotion. Whenever I read thrillers, I do it guiltily and in the clear knowledge that they're going in the recycle bucket as soon as I finish with them.

In genre proper, you opt into a ghetto. In the minds of the intelligentsia, a certain kind of person reads any given genre and they don't read anything else. And within each genre, the intelligentsia bless certain authors as being somehow above their genre, and thus OK, as long as they're read in a suitably detached, ironic and superior way.

This infuriating crap is nowhere more apparent than in crime fiction, where the intelligentsia are forever buffing up their guilty pleasures by anointing some writer as the exemplar of all that is cool in the slum they inhabit.

I've been colliding with this crap on and off since I was old enough to realise that Biggles wasn't a very realistic depiction of anything. So a few years ago I found myself reading Jim Thompson, because the pulpmeister of the 50s was consecrated a while back as a pioneer of noir. The intelligentsia like noir, which it turns out is anything where the good guys don't win. Here we are back at the miserablist tendencies of our cultural superiors. I suspect it comes down to the fact that these opinion setters have rather pleasant lives and value anything which contrasts with that. Anyhow, Jim Thompson is depressing. Really depressing. He's so incredibly good at being depressing that I expect I'm never going to forget the end of The Getaway. For those of you who've only seen either of the movies, the book continues on past our antiheroes getting clear of the posse and devotes its last third to describing the utter hell they consign themselves to instead. Jail would have been a MUCH better plan. And that's one of Jim Thompson's more upbeat books. No wonder he died cruelly young. It probably came as a relief. This was not a man who appeared to think the best of people.

Anyhow, that steered me away from noir for a while. Then last week I thought I'd give it another try and I bought four Richard Stark books. Now, full disclosure is required here. Richard Stark is also known as Donald Westlake, and I really enjoy Westlake's Dortmunder books, which are wry explorations of how a life of crime can go wrong. Dortmunder is a much put upon criminal mastermind, who in book after book has assembled his crew, put the master plan into action (increasingly against victims so unsympathetic that robbing them is less a crime and more a form of public service), and then watched it fall apart for simple yet completely unforeseeable reasons. Each book ends with Dortmunder and his cohorts no better off than they were at the beginning. Like much crime fiction they can be read in any order - Dortmunder never learns, ages or develops, and because he never makes more out of crime than he would out of working in Walmart, he never retires either. Written down like this, it sounds awful. Actually it's great fun. While none of the characterisation in these books is going to keep Tolstoy awake at nights, the cast are deftly sketched in as comic types. They're given the little quirks and foibles that echo the way you'd describe the people you work with to your in-laws; there's no depth to it, but oddly they've got just as much personality as the average acquaintance you don't really know. So it matters to you that they're at hazard, but it doesn't break your heart that they never get out of trouble. In short, they're just lifelike enough to root for and not so life-like as to make it horrible when they sleepwalk into disaster. In a very minor way, this is artistry.

Richard Stark is like Westlake's evil twin. His principal character, Parker, is a man so austere that an actual first name would give him too much personality. He moves from one heist to another, killing his confederates when they let him down, which they pretty much always do. He's the anti-Dortmunder. Dortmunder always uses the same bunch of affable schlubs and goes out of his way not to hurt people. Parker never runs with the same crew twice (not least because it's a rare crew that gets out of a book alive) and holds back from killing people only because the cops pay too much attention when civilians get killed. Mind you, like Dortmunder, Parker has a way of leaving the book no better off than he went in, so he's got that same hamster on a treadmill character.

I bought four books because the critics have been pouring praise on them from a height and because they were slightly discounted. I carefully sorted them out in copyright order, which turned out to be a complete waste of time, because there's no continuity or progression from one book to another.

There's a lot that's good about the books. Stark starts his narrative as late as he can; no time is wasted on set up, and even less on epilogue and resolution. The writing's clean and crisp and no more clever than it needs to be. I read all four in a matter of days. The plotting's clever, and there's an offhandedness to the way things go wrong which rings true. Because the books are all plot, you start to appreciate how much cleverness is needed to keep coming up with plausible incidents enough to fill a couple of hundred pages. Breakout is particularly good - Parker gets caught robbing a warehouse, gets thrown into jail, breaks out, finds himself walked into breaking INTO a jewelry wholesaler as part of the price for the assistance he needed to break out of jail, and then rather beautifully finds himself having to break out out of the wholesaler's when the robbery goes wrong and the getaway is compromised. All of these things unfold with a deceptive inevitability which is completely unforced. It's a fun read, as is Ask the Parrot, when Parker's once more running away from a robbery gone wrong only to walk into something much odder.

The thing is, having read them once I can't see myself reading them again, or buying any more. The cleverness isn't enough. Parker's so austere and shut in that you don't really feel any connection to him. You don't want to know what's going to happen to him next. The supporting cast in any given book either die or wind up in jail or disappear on their own errands. So there's nothing going on there that invites you to come back. It's the reading equivalent of eating crisps. Tasty, but kind of empty.

What's bananas is that the critics praise these books to the skies and they're regularly reissued in the UK in editions plainly aimed at people who don't think of themselves as genre readers, but literature readers. Meanwhile the more genial and enjoyable and involving Dortmunder books are pretty much ignored - the only ones I've got are American printings. They're better books, but the cold and uninvolving Parker is the one which the critics prefer. And I think this comes down to the notion that misery is somehow more improving than fun. Parker's world is horrible and bleak and deadly - and in the minds of critics that somehow makes it more authentic and worthy. But Parker's world is no more realistic than Dortmunder's. In a lot of ways it's less realistic; the likeable schlubs of Dortmunder's gang are ineffectual and loyal to each other out of a sort of confused sentimentality. They're guys who break the law. They're not made out of evil, and they're not particularly good at the evil they do. Their unremarkable greyness rings much more true to me than the bleach-bypass black and white of Parker's world, where everyone is on the verge of selling out everyone else at any moment. The realism and darkness of the Parker books is fatally undercut by the fact that all the characters - and particularly the protagonist - are so empty that it's hard to understand why they bother getting out of bed in the morning let alone plotting their lives of crime.

So that's me off the noir for a while. It's all right as far as it goes, but I'm as baffled as ever about why people think it's an incisive commentary on the real world.