Saturday 24 May 2008

China Miéville: Un Lun Dun (2007)

Published: Macmillan, (2008)

Billed as "the comfort blanket" for "devastated Potter fans", Un Lun Dun is a fantasy novel aimed at older children but with plenty to amuse adult readers. It tells of two normal London schoolgirls' discovery that animals seem to be obsessed with one of them. This leads them to find a way through to UnLondon, where the broken objects from London turn up endowed with a literal new life: broken umbrellas are like large birds, and one of the most endearing characters is a puppy-like milk carton. UnLondon is threatened by "the Smog", a cloud of pollution which has developed an evil mind of its own and which aims to take over the uncity. To the inhabitants of UnLondon, one of the girls, Zanna, is a prophesied champion, the Swazzy, who will lead them to victory over the Smog; but, in the most original touch in the book, Zanna is defeated in her first battle with it, and the UnLondoners turn to a man who can control the unbrellas (as the living, broken umbrellas are called). Zanna, made ill by inhaling Smog, and her companion Deeba return to our world. While Zanna forgets, as most Londoners do when not directly in contact with UnLondon, Deeba continues to be obsessed with the uncity, and when she discovers that things are not what they seem there she seeks to return to warn the inhabitants.

There are digs at Harry Potter here: the prophecies about the Swazzy talk about two companions, the Clever Sidekick and the Funny Sidekick, for example. Rowling has a tendency to use clichéd plot devices of the fantasy genre. For example, there is an element slavish following of accurate prophecy and the necessary tasks that seem like parts of computer game scenarios (you need to complete one to get an item that will enable you to complete the next) in some of the Harry Potter stories. Here, though, such conventions are ignored or satirised: Deeba short circuits this by deciding it makes more sense to go straight for the last one and save time). The idea of battling the Smog in a city of recycled rubbish picks up an environmental theme in fantasy that goes back to Tolkien, of course, but is obviously something likely to interest today's children. The puns and interest in language suggest Jasper Fforde or, perhaps more an influence, Norman Juster (whose book The Phantom Tollbooth may seem a bit dated now, but is one that many fantasy fans my age loved as children). Lewis Carroll is never far away, and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is a major influence, of which more later.

I recently listened to the Brakes 2005 album, Give Blood. It's pretty good, but at least part of the pleasure it gives is in recognising who influences which part: Roxy Music, the Clash, Talking Heads, Blur, or any one of the other influential rock musicians of the last thirty five years. Originality aside, this kind of collage needs to be done very well, or it won't come across to the listener as a unified whole. And of course part of the game is to see how close you can come to a copyright suit - copying a style may not be an infringement, but get too close and lawyers will be after you.

In book terms Un Lun Dun is a bit like Give Blood. It's very good, but indebted to a wide range of other writers, as Miéville indeed acknowledges in the afterword. The list is not precisely the same as I have given, but it is fitting that Neil Gaiman is singled out; indeed, his contribution is described not just as an influence present in the author's library but as an active helper. Un Lun Dun has taken the setting from Neverwhere, lightened the tone and added much more humour, to make a novel not just suitable for children but one which will be enjoyed by adults too. The wide ranging references, environmental message and digs at fantasy genre clichés provide interest for aficionados and the innumerable puns will produce laughs and groans from all readers.

Every other novel that I have read by Miéville, I have appreciated the quality without actually enjoying very much. Maybe because it is more accessible, less relentless and less nasty, I really liked Un Lun Dun, despite being well outside the target age range. (That range is about the same as the early Harry Potter novels, by the way.) It will inevitably be compared to Rowling's work (and I've mentioned the connections several times so far...): no new fantasy for children can escape that now. But at least Un Lun Dun seems to have escaped being compared to the dreadful His Dark Materials. One important thing about Miéville and Rowling is that in this book Miéville doesn't appear to have deliberately tried to be the new Rowling, which is probably a reason for the success of the story. The strengths of Miéville's writing are different, but like Rowling, he has produced an enjoyable, amusing fantasy story.

Thursday 15 May 2008

Douglas Adams: The Salmon of Doubt (2002)

Published: Pan, 2002
Edited: Peter Gazzardi

I remember when I heard about Douglas Adams' death, but I was surprised to realise that it was now seven years ago that it happened. I didn't want to pick up this book when it came out, less than a year later, for several reasons, and it is only now that I am finally reading and enjoying it.

The main reason for not wanting to acknowledge the existence of The Salmon of Doubt before is that I just didn't want Douglas Adams to be dead. I was just old enough to appreciate The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when the novel first appeared (I missed the original broadcast of the first radio series, but caught repeats). By the time I went to university, I could quote large chunks and still can, and own copies of the books, recordings of the radio and TV series and Neil Gaiman's guide. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy played a important role in my life, quite similar to Adams' own discovery of the Beatles which is described in one of the pieces included in The Salmon of Doubt.

The one exception to this is Mostly Harmless. As pretty much the last writing by Adams I read before The Salmon of Doubt, I found it very off putting and didn't want to read more of the same. (Mostly Harmless is now the only book by Douglas Adams which I do not possess.) It was so wilfully downbeat, not just ending unhappily, but seemingly revelling in undoing previous happy endings (notably the relationship between Arthur and Fenchurch). According to information in the Salmon of Doubt, it reflects a bleak time in Adams' own life, and I gathered when I listened to the radio version that he later wanted to change the ending, a wish that was carried out when it was dramatised. Relatively little of The Salmon of Doubt is fiction, so there is little chance that the book overall will give the same impression as Mostly Harmless, but even the fiction that is there clearly reflects a happier time.

The other reason that I didn't rush to read Salmon of Doubt is because some of what I heard about it suggested that it was scraping the barrel. Apart from the incomplete fiction, which always has the potential to be frustrating, the idea of resurrecting a letter sent by the twelve year old Adams to Eagle comic seemed bizarre. (In fact, it is probably the most amusing letter ever written to a comic by a twelve year old.) Fragmentary the pieces in The Salmon of Doubt may be, but they are all uniformly well written (with one exception), often thought provoking, and mostly pretty funny.

The book is divided into three sections: Life, containing autobiographical fragments, The Universe, about Adams' wide-ranging interests, and Everything, fiction. The first section is perhaps the most successful. The second includes a lot of Apple Mac related material, which had to be included because that computer system was one of Adams' best known obsessions, but which is now (and would have been five years ago) rather out of date; at least this means that the Douglas Adams fanatic doesn't need to hoard quite so many back copies of Mac User. His own favourite of his books was Last Chance to See, about endangered animals, and that is well worth reading in his memory, and there is more here from his interest in ecology for those who enjoyed that.

The first fictional piece, Young Zaphod Pulls it Off, was previously published in book form in a collected edition of the Hitchhiker's novels and is a poor piece of political satire, clichéd and obvious. However, the story which gives its title (or, more strictly speaking, one of its titles) to the whole collection is much better. It is one of the most confusing pieces in the whole book, however, as it was put together from three very different incomplete drafts of the story: although the main one used here is a Dirk Gently story, not even this was finalised. For me, the middle draft, which is definitely Dirk Gently, works best. I like the idea that Dirk's philosophy that all things are interconnected leads him to try to solve a case by tailing random people. It's the longest piece in the book, and because it is so incomplete, the most frustrating; Adams' drafts were obviously finely finished and perfectly readable (no notes to self, for example), but he obviously kept getting so far and then becoming stuck and the only indication of how the story would continue is a one paragraph fax to his agent which is not very illuminating.

While it was inevitable that there would be both the desire to produce a book containing Adams' odds and ends, and a desire from fans to read it, The Salmon of Doubt cannot be considered the true legacy of Douglas Adams. It raises the profile of important aspects of both his personality and his writing which were not accessible to most of his fans, particularly the computing articles, but there is nothing in the book to match the classic status of The Hitchhiker's Guide in its many forms.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

William Gibson: Pattern Recognition (2003)

Published: Viking, 2003

One of the oddest feelings when reading (or, even more, re-reading) science fiction from the past is when time has often caught up with it, and you are reading a novel of the future set at at date which is in your past. This is particularly the case with novels which were important to you personally, which were influential, and which contain much accurate prediction, as is the case for me with Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer. Almost thirty years after its publication, Gibson produced Pattern Recognition, his seventh novel and the first which is not really intended to be science fiction. (I would bet that most libraries, like the one from which I borrowed the copy I read, shelve it with that genre, however.) Five years later still, it is Neuromancer which seems to me the more contemporary of the two novels; much of the detail in Pattern Recognition seems to have dated quite quickly.

The novel is an Internet Age thriller, but unlike Neuromancer or most other novels that might be slotted into that subgenre (such as Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, or Jeffrey Deaver's The Blue Nowhere), it is not about hackers, programmers or geeks. Its central character, Cayce Pollard, works as a marketing consuultant, a guru on what is cool who has a phobia about logos. Her hobby is the study of a series of film clips, mysteriously appearing one by one on the Internet, which she discusses with fellow obsessives on the Fetish:Footage:Forum (F:F:F). Where do they come from? Are they meant to form part of a single narrative film? Do they have any particular order? what are the motives and influences which govern their production? Do they have any meaning and if so what? When Cayce realises that someone else has been in the flat where she is staying on a visit to London and used her computer, she begins to feel that there might be a bigger picture behind the film segments. The discussions on the F:F:F don't seem to be dominated by conspiracy theorists, but she finds it hard not to connect the films aand the break in with the disappearance of her father on September 11 2001.

Even though Pattern Recognition is not science fiction, it is still ahead of the pack: this must be one of the earliest treatments of what is now called viral marketing (a term I am pretty sure I hadn't heard myself in 2003). There are people being paid to go round bars and mention products approvingly to strangers: I don't know if this actually happens in the physical world, but there are certainly bloggers who are paid to give good press by marketing departments. However, other details seem behind the times: did people still rely so much on physical media for swapping data as recently as five years ago?

Cayce is quite a passive heroine, but her odd phobia makes her quirky and interesting. A reaction to logos does not seem to me to be a very believable problem, as the processing required to recognise the nature of an image is surely too high level for such a visceral reaction as an allergy. Its origins are left unexplained, which makes it seem more divorced from reality. Clearly it is a satirical element, pointing to the emptiness of modern life, where such banal symbols are held in high regard, whether or not the products they adorn are worthwhile. They are such a clever concept, making customers pay a premium to advertise for the producer. Such manipulation seems miles away from the quirkiness of the film footage: but is it?

The film clips themselves are slightly odd as the focus of a novel which doesn't exist in a multimedia format. Of course, the reader can imagine them, though Gibson leaves the exact content of the clips pretty vague other than to tell you things that they don't do - for example, the clothing and backgrounds are sufficiently generic for it to be impossible to work out when they are set. This vagueness is obviously part of the reason why people want to argue about the clips, but it does make them rather lacking as the central focus of a novel, being both timeless and plotless. The passiveness of the heroine together with this indirect focus means that despite the plot of the novel suggesting a thriller, it is not really in that genre - not necessarily a bad thing, but indicating that my initial assessment of Pattern Recognition was not quite right. Since other novels by Gibson succeed very wel lin this department, the diffuseness of this one must be deliberate. However, I still felt that though Pattern Recognition is interesting and worth reading, it is not classic Gibson by any means.