Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Chris Wooding: Ace of Skulls

And with this, it looks as though Chris Wooding has decided to ring down the curtain on the Ketty Jay. For those wondering if it’s closed out with the same gleeful ruthlessness as Serenity’s wrap-up of the Firefly saga; nope, Wooding choked on that one. The book is full of moments where it looks like he’s ganked another character, only to pull the camera back and show us that they’re just grazed and it will all be somewhat fine. This reaches the mild-irritation threshold when he stages a tearful funeral directly after yet another apparent death, only to pan out and show us that they’ve just solemnly buried the ship’s cat.

Foreboding turns out to be a limited resource, and after the first couple of times when it looks as if it’s all over for one or other of the reprobates we’ve come to know in the last three books, except that it’s not, you’re just flicking past the pathos to find out how he’s going to handwave them back into play.

So for all that the book ends with the band breaking up, I’m not ruling out an endless sequence of reunions in the future. Which would be fine, if Wooding can dial down the apocalypse level a bit. No genre writer ever seems to be able to write about mere local disaster; inevitably the heroes have to save the whole world. The first book in the sequence had me almost hoping that Wooding would keep things low key and scruffy and have a long running sequence of scrapes and idiocy for his crew to weather, but instead, each book has been a step on a path to the apocalypse, with the crew of the Ketty Jay stumbling up the food chain of a conspiracy which threatens the whole world and which only they can defeat. When I was talking about The Iron Jackal, I was feeling good about it, but I've got more misgivings now. It was nice when it was small time losers caught up in something they didn't understand, but somehow it's not quite so good when they're the only way to save the whole world.

In pondering why this is not just wrong, but unnecessary, I find I have to run all the way back to one of the first grown up books I ever read, the long out of print Desmond Bagley thriller High Citadel. It’s a fun little book which has a motley band of survivors of a botched hi-jacking holed up in the Andes trying to hold off a bunch of rebels who want to come and whack the President they’ve just deposed. The stakes are reasonably high for the survivors, but at the very most they’re worrying about who’s running a single banana republic. And that turns out to be plenty of motivation for everyone. In the 60s and 70s bookstores were full of books like that, genre trash which piled up just enough pressure to justify a bit of heroism. Somehow, SF and its wider ecosystem has never gone down that road; no matter how low key things might look at first, there’s always some cosmic Armageddon hovering over the climax.

Most SF actually needs to wind everything up to eleven for much the same reasons that Michael Bay needs to distract us from the shallowness of his movies by blowing everything up, but Wooding, as I've commented before, is capable of making a series of books about real characters changing and developing as they lurch from one disaster to the next. He's good enough to keep it small and real, and yet he had to go bigger and bigger. 

And to some extent this makes sense; he was so determined to develop his characters that he couldn't just keep them moving from one minor disaster to the other liking the unchanging puppets of network TV; as they wised up, inevitably they were going to break up, and so the sequence always had to have an endgame. I just wish he'd had enough confidence in his own ability to make that endgame about the people, not their world.

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