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.

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