Review: PopCo

Scarlett Thomas’ sixth novel, PopCo follows Alice Butler, a cryptographer and erstwhile crossword-setter who’s now working for PopCo, the third-largest toy company in the world, as a Person Who Has Ideas. Once upon a time, PopCo asks Alice and a group of her colleagues to stay in a remote country house on Dartmoor to come up with a product that will help them break into the teenage market and thereby dominate the toy industry. Or something.

Despite her protestations otherwise, Alice is pretty cynical about the function of a toy company under late capitalism:

The words ‘toy company’ usually make people think of fluffy things and wooden blocks…In fact, these days, toys are more likely to involve fast food promotions, film tie-ins, interactivity, ‘added value’, super-branding and, of course, focus groups observed through one-way mirrors.

This, on page 5. (A couple of pages later: “That’s not to say I’m cynical”, she says, dubiously.) And therein lies the rub: the novel is clearly meant to chart Alice’s descent into disaffection with the industry she works in, and by extension the system of shallow consumerism it serves. But she’s already pretty disaffected at the start of the novel, and her clear-eyed understanding of what she and her colleagues are actually doing at work, behind the wacky idea-generating activities (when the novel begins, Alice has just returned from two weeks’ paid leave doing research for her toy brands), never really changes.

Sure: she becomes vegetarian, learns about ethical fashion and has some thoughts about how big corporations monetise identity. But, when it comes down to it, Thomas’ discussion of consumerist culture is a little…sophomoric – more introductory article than sustained critique. An example, from the very first page:

I know people who would make all sorts of assumptions about the clothes I am wearing. They would assume I had chosen a ‘look’…Even if I wore – as I have done in the past – a truly random selection of weird clothes, this would simply be labelled my ‘Jumble Sale’ or ‘Homeless’ look. I hate this so much.

This idea that consumerist culture co-opts all the choices you can make into its own system of signification is one that crops up throughout the novel. And…I can kiiind of see what Alice is getting at: consumerism’s inescapability, its ubiquitousness. But, also: this is what fashion does? This is what clothes have always been for? In every culture clothes are used to signify and perform status. It is not a feature unique to late capitalism. What Alice is actually talking about is the ubiquitousness of culture, which is another thing altogether. On a purely aesthetic level, her educated but shallow take on fashion makes her come across as kind of a whiny hipster.

This shallowness characterises the novel in more ways than one. Intertwined with Alice’s work for PopCo and her gradual enlightenment as to the Evils of Consumerism are chapters about her childhood living with her grandfather, a well-known cryptographer who left her a mysterious necklace with a code she’s never been able to crack. These threads sort of get tied together narratively at the end of the novel, but I’m not quite sure what Thomas is doing thematically. I’m not very interested in thinking about it, either, because many of these chapters are basically indigestible infodumps about codes and cryptography and look, if I wanted a detailed description of prime factorisation I would have read a reference book, not a novel. (The Voynich Manuscript is super interesting, though. I want a whole novel about the Voynich Manuscript.)

My reading of PopCo has definitely suffered from my knowledge of Thomas’ writing methods, as outlined in her (nevertheless quite useful) writing guide Monkeys with Typewriters. Thomas suggests using bits and pieces of experience from your own life to generate characters with believable quirks. Alas, knowing this meant that, for me, it was difficult to see Alice as a “real person” rather than what she actually is, a random collection of traits lumped together on the page. She was just Too Hipster, too Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to be entirely convincing and/or satisfying.

I’ve also lost a lot of goodwill for Thomas’ work since I learned that she puts a lot of stock in homeopathy. I have nothing against homeopathy per se, as a traditional remedy for occasional headaches, mild anxiety, light colds and so on; but when I read a scene in which a doctor prescribes a million billion different drugs for Our Heroine so that she can then forswear actual clinically tested medicine as unnecessary and dangerous and suspect, in favour of homeopathy, well, that makes me more than a little annoyed.

When I was about seventeen I was going through a very rough patch and they tried to give me Prozac. I didn’t need pills, I just needed to get hold of my life.

Because “pills” are Bad and doctors are Always Wrong and giving teenagers possibly life-saving drugs is a symptom of a diseased society.

Also, unrelatedly, I just found this in my copy of PopCo and it’s made me angry all over again. Alice is musing on the fact that a male-coded doll sold with a nurse uniform was made in China:

How nice that in this country we are on to messing around with gender roles while in so many foreign-owned factories it’s still impossible to form a union and get fair pay, whether you are a man, woman or child.

Fuck off? It’s not a zero sum game? Re-imagining gender roles and making sure workers get paid are not mutually exclusive aims? (In fact I’m inclined to think of them as two sides of the same coin, but it’s late, let’s not get into that now.)

I’m probably grossly misrepresenting my actual experience of reading PopCo, which was largely pleasant. Thomas’ characters are engaging if not entirely believable, her satire on corporate culture is fun, and it’s always satisfying to read a takedown of late capitalism. It’s just that the whole thing has this pious, holier-than-thou undertone which is really quite unpleasant when you stop and think about it – especially given how underbaked Thomas’ critique of consumerism actually is. It’s a novel that, more than anything, wants to make you feel guilty – about what you eat, what you wear, what form your self-care takes, how you identify. It’s an ugly impulse, and it makes ultimately for an ugly book.

Review: Snow Crash

The world of Snow Crash is a cyberpunk dystopia: not one created by any single crisis or political upheaval, but a sort of logical endpoint of the current neoliberal system. What used to be the USA has been carved up into countless small territories and fiefdoms owned by corporations with names like Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong or CosaNostra Pizza (which is run by the mafia, no less). The federal government has become just one of these franchises, retreated into a narrow land which it guards jealously while carrying out bureaucratic tasks of obscure purpose. Abroad, there is a refugee crisis of epic proportions: much of middle-class America is haunted by the thought of the Raft, a massive floating city which periodically swings near the coast, shedding thousands of refugees swimming for shore.

It’s hard, at least at first, to make out the shape of all this, and I think this is key to the novel’s project.

Our hero is, hah, Hiro Protagonist, a half-Korean, half-African American hacker and one of the founders of the novel’s virtual reality world, the Metaverse. Hiro’s day job involves collecting reams of information for the Library of Congress (well, actually, at the beginning of the novel he’s a pizza deliverer, but more on that later). Once upon a time, he comes across a new drug/virus, Snow Crash, which effectively turns the minds of hackers and programmers into mush. In tracking down the source of this virus, he stumbles into a vast conspiracy involving the Raft, a gazillionaire preacher and the nature of language itself…

And if that all sounds quite random, well, you’re not far off the mark. Snow Crash has the feel of a Thomas Pynchon novel, only more so, packing ideas and theories and motifs in until you can’t really tell what’s important and what isn’t. It’s an approach that keeps you constantly unsettled and prone to conspiracy theories: something isn’t adding up, but the sheer weight of stuff keeps you from picking out the signal from the noise.

And yet, the novel also has this extraordinary sense of momentum. Stephenson is fascinated by people who can navigate complex systems at speed and with skill. So the novel opens with Hiro delivering a pizza – a mundane act that takes on almost cosmic significance:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory.

He has thirty minutes to deliver the pizza, or face some unspecified but presumably awful punishment. So begins an absurd, breathless race:

The Deliverator knows that yard. He has delivered pizzas there. He has looked at it, scoped it out, memorized the location of the shed and the picnic table, can find them even in the dark — knows that if it ever came to this, a twenty-three-minute pizza, miles to go, and a slowdown at CSV-5 and Oahu — he could enter The Mews at Windsor Heights (his electronic delivery-man’s visa would raise the gate automatically), scream down Heritage Boulevard, rip the turn onto Strawbridge Place (ignoring the DEAD END sign and the speed limit and the CHILDREN PLAYING ideograms that are strung so liberally throughout TMAWH), thrash the speed bumps with his mighty radials, blast up the driveway of Number 15 Strawbridge Circle, cut a hard left around the backyard shed, careen into the backyard of Number 84 Mayapple Place, avoid its picnic table (tricky), get into their driveway and out onto Mayapple, which takes him to Bellewoode Valley Road, which runs straight to the exit of the Burbclave.

Similarly, the novel’s female lead, 15-year-old Y.T., is a Kourier: a deliverer of mail who windsurfs traffic using her superpowered skateboard and a superstrong hawser. And, later on, there’s a scene in which a character navigates the Raft, its countless ladders and boats and jetties and streets of water.

These are people who’ve learned to exploit the system, who take pride in exploiting it, and yet their facility with it only serves to prop it up. Hiro and Y.T. are, after all, just finding ways to make their labour more efficient, to make more money for their corporate overlords. This is one of the big things Snow Crash is doing: even as Hiro follows the threads of conspiracy theory, navigating an endlessly confusing system, he’s not actually changing anything. Maybe he stops one corporate overlord from brainwashing a generation of tech workers, but in doing so he is, by default, shoring up, protecting, this shitty dystopian system. (Hence the joke of his name: Hiro is no hero, he brings about no significant change, his effect on the course of the world he inhabits is small at best.) It’s difficult to see the system in Snow Crash because we only ever see it from the inside: the focus is on the personal, the granular, the worm’s-eye-view, this overwhelming flood of stuff (brand names, objects, people, futuristic slang, out-there theories, endless information). It’s a novel that reproduces the experience of living in capitalism: we cannot see the wood for the trees. We are bombarded with so much information (advertising, fake news, real news, internet hot takes, journalistic opinions, Twitter trolls, wikis, blogs…) that we’ve stopped even trying to gauge its truth-value.

I feel like there’s a lot more to say about Snow Crash, if I had the time and energy to think about it properly. It is not without its flaws. In particular, Y.T. is uncomfortably sexualised given that she is 15 years old. The novel also tends to get a bit infodumpy around its middle section, when Hiro is discovering things about the virus and how it works. I’d hesitate to recommend this (in fact, it’s taken me this long to start reading Stephenson because of a similarly equivocal recommendation), but, I would definitely read more.

Review: Sleeping Giants

Sylvain Neuvel’s novel Sleeping Giants was quite a big deal back in the heady days of 2016: for a brief time it was surrounded by publishing hype and was a finalist for several awards. Today, it has a Goodreads rating of 3.9/5 (okay but not great) and a wiki and that’s about it. Ah, the ephemerality of publishing fame. (It does also have two sequels, but, details.)

Our story begins when a young girl, Rose, falls into a pit. Her rescuers see what she cannot: that she’s landed in the palm of a giant metal hand.

We pick up with Rose a couple of decades later: research has proved that the hand is attached to an equally ginormous arm, and that the entire limb is apparently older than human civilisation. Rose herself is now a physicist working on a top-secret government project to figure out where this arm came from, who made it and why.

The story is told in a series of interviews conducted by a mysterious person whose identity we never learn but who has access to the US president and a range of powers that are almost certainly unconstitutional. These interviews with members of the project team are interspersed with journal entries, incident reports and other official-looking government files.

Epistolary is a delicate and difficult form. In the right hands it can have subtle, interesting effects. It can be used to suggest that our protagonist is unreliable; that there is more going on than we can see in the foreground; that there is no one version of objective truth.

Here, it is used to excuse a novel-length infodump. The intended effect is, I think, to place the novel in a “scientific” register: this is the objective truth of what happened on this particular science project. Look, it’s all laid out in transcripts and reports and things. That so much of the info Neuvel dumps is deliberately hidden from the public by the shadowy interviewer heightens the implied difference between this “objective” truth and the information that the fictional public has access to.

Ooh, the government does shady conspiracy theory stuff! Edgy. We’ve never heard that before.

The thing is, the “objective” framing of the novel actually does violence to the conceit of the conspiracy theory: because the government’s various clandestine crimes (which include coercing a doctor to perform life-changing, untested surgery without a patient’s consent, covering up the destruction of half a small town and general emotional manipulation and disregard for personal autonomy) are laid out in such minute detail, there is none of the frisson of the conspiracy theory, the unsettling sense that, for reasons you can’t exactly pin down, the world doesn’t quite add up. Instead, it all feels irredeemably mundane. And it’s irritating that, in a novel that places such emphasis on rational investigation and research, we find out the backstory of the giant arm basically from a guy in a pub. It feels like cheating somehow, a failure of the novel to respect even its own narrow artistic goals. An epistolary novel about a conspiracy theory should challenge our understanding of objective truth, not reinforce it: objective truth does not exist, even in the scientific process. It’s boring and shortsighted to pretend that it does.

Review: S

S belongs to that trickiest of genres, the experimental novel. It is a lavishly faithful reproduction of a library book called Ship of Theseus, purportedly written by (fictional) reclusive novelist V.M. Straka. The book is annotated in various colours of ink by two academics, undergraduate Jen and disgraced graduate student Eric, who pass the book between them via a drop point in a library.

So there are two stories going on here: the one in Ship of Theseus, in which a man who’s lost his memory becomes embroiled in a bitter feud between an arms dealer and the resistance movement that opposes him; and the story of Eric and Jen’s relationship, unfolding in the margins before us. Between them the two texts create a third one, the story of Straka, his translator and admirer F.X. Caldeira, and an organisation called S that may have been an artists’ collective or a resistance movement of something else entirely. Eric and Jen are trying to figure out Straka’s identity and the truth behind S, using various clues and codes that Caldeira has embedded in her translation of Ship of Theseus. As they pass the book between them, they leave other things in its pages: long handwritten letters, greetings cards, photocopies, newspaper clippings.

So the principal effect of this dizzying sprawl of texts is to draw our attention to the book as a form, to the way we experience books. There’s a moment when Jen’s upset and we read a note from Eric that says, “I’m here” – a statement that is literally and precisely true. Eric is there, on the page, and he is only there. Jen is there, on the page, and she is only there. That is, their relationship exists only on paper, and yet as readers we hypothesise a reality beyond the page, we fill in the blanks between the annotations, between the words.

Which is an interesting process, and I really enjoyed having my attention drawn to it. I relished the experience of reading S and the ways it forced me to consider how we read, and how I in particular read. For instance: a reader of S has to choose when they’ll read the annotations in relation to the main text of Ship of Theseus. Go back at the end of each chapter? At the end of each page? Read the annotations in “real time”, alongside SoT? How do we deal with this intrusion into The Book, which in Western mass-market society is usually a single authoritative text, unplagued by dissenting voices?

Okay, but. I hankered for more. There were things about S that didn’t ring true for me. For instance, its attempt to convince us of the deadly importance of Straka’s identity and S. Someone is setting fires to frighten Jen, and it’s implied that it has to do with her and Eric’s work on Ship of Theseus. Which is ridiculous. And their hunt through the text for clues as to Straka’s identity and the details of his life is hardly advanced scholarship; in fact, it’s the kind of biographical criticism that’s so old-fashioned even the most wizened Oxbridge English scholar doesn’t do it any more. For people who are apparently university literature students, both Jen and Eric seem to find it incredibly hard to grasp that Ship of Theseus is fiction, not an autobiography in elaborate code. (Actually, it’s probably the novel’s creators, J.J. “Star Trek” Abrams and Doug Dorst, who find this hard to grasp.) Basically, they’re both terrible academics who deserve their poor marks/career-destroying disgrace.

And it’s all too…chronological. The comments in newer, brighter inks are overwhelmingly towards the back of the book; those in older, more sombre inks are towards the front. When you read real marginalia in real library books, you’re witnessing a sort of temporal collapse, everyone’s comments made at once, a chorus of babbling voices. When you read Ship of Theseus, you watch Jen and Eric’s relationship unfold more or less linearly. Perhaps to do it any other way would have made S unreadable. But, this way, it feels unsatisfying and a little dishonest, given its commitment to physical verisimilitude. It wants to look and feel like a real library book. But it doesn’t want to do the conceptual work of one.

Oh, also, Ship of Theseus is a terrible novel: ponderous, deliberately obfuscatory and less profound than it thinks it is. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not; I’m not even sure that being deliberately bad is a valid thing for a novel to be.

Review: The Adjacent

This review contains spoilers.

The Adjacent is the second Christopher Priest novel I’ve read; the first was The Islanders, a gazetteer of the fictional Dream Archipelago which hides a murder mystery and a love story. The Islanders was a story about liminality, isolation, art and the constriction of landscape; it was fun in a geeky way, but also possessed of a delicious and somehow melancholy menace.

The Adjacent is…some of these things, but none so successfully. The novel opens in the IRGB, the Islamic Republic of Great Britain. Our Hero is Tibor Tarent, a photographer recently returned from an Eastern Anatolia ravaged by climate change-induced drought and terrorism. His wife Melanie has been killed by a weapon that leaves a perfect triangular crater of blackened earth; nothing else. Back in the IRGB, much of north-west London has been ravaged by a similar weapon. Tibor is directed around the country by unnamed officials, for nebulous debriefings, through a landscape afflicted by violent storms and unspecified oppression.

Then the narrative shifts to WW1: a stage magician is summoned to the front to help the Allied forces disguise their planes so the Germans won’t shoot at them any more.

Then, again: WW2, a young RAF man meets a Polish female pilot who he quickly becomes besotted with. He looks her up much later in life, and finds that her family history doesn’t quite check out.

Then: Tibor again, in a kinder England, meeting a scientist who’s devised what he thinks is the end to all wars.

Then: a man crossing a strange desert with an enigmatic woman. He can’t remember how he got there.

Then: a woman searching one of the islands of the Dream Archipelago for her lost love…

…you get the idea. It’s a sort of sub-Cloud Atlas thing: a set of stories nebulously connected, with eerie echoes and half-connections that you clutch at but never exactly grasp. We intuit that the stage magician and the RAF man and the man in the desert are all versions of Tibor. There are also several versions of an enigmatic woman who won’t reveal anything of herself but really wants hot no-strings sex with Tibor and his sub-versions. There are lots of mentions of triangles. Several definitions of “adjacent”. An abiding interest in utilitarian vehicles and how they move through the landscape.

Which is undoubtedly all very interesting. But what is it for?

Adam Roberts suggests that it’s all a big stage trick: Priest distracts us with these tantalising connections, these various versions of history and the future, in order to return Tibor’s dead wife to him without us raising an eyebrow.

This is a convincing reading. It’s certainly more convincing than anything I’ve come up with. But it kind of depends on how invested we are in Tibor as a character, and in his relationship with Melanie. It’s also structurally problematic, in that it constructs Melanie as a thing, a plot device, a cipher: she has no existence in the novel except through Tibor’s memories, and so bringing her back can only be about him, not about her.

And I didn’t find Tibor a compelling enough character to overlook this. I think this is partly deliberate: some play is made with the idea that Tibor, as a photographer, is a passive observer, unable to intervene in the situations he records. And that’s similar to how we experience the novel: we chase down a nebulous concept of truth by observing, by reading, but we can’t intervene. The truth always recedes away from us, into the interstices between each narrative, the missing Polish woman, the memories of the man in the desert, NW6, a tower at a military facility in the IRGB that flickers in and out of existence. There’s always that indefinable, unresolved something missing, unexplained; the nebulous Real which cannot be found or recorded or pinned down in its entirety.

I enjoy this sort of thing in a novel, usually; I love art that records the numinous, the things that lie beyond explanation and rationalisation, what Todorov would call the Fantastic. The adjacent, you might say. But…I also don’t have much patience for Priest’s unexamined Islamophobia (Islamic Britian as Orwellian dystopia) or his insidious sexism, the way the women in his narratives are reduced to ciphers for the men to chase. (An exception is the narrative set in the Dream Archipelago, which is written from the point of view of a woman; not coincidentally, this is the best part of the novel.) The world(s) of The Adjacent is (are) too thinly imagined; there are far more absences than the ones Priest actually wants us to look at. That’s why, I think, I can deal with sexism in things like M. John Harrison’s Viriconium or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, both of which channel ideas of the Fantastic that are similar to those in The Adjacent: these worlds are rich and lush with fecund, rotting detail, the better to point up the glaring absences at their hearts. I want to be hypnotised by the Fantastic; I want it to draw me down into the depths of its unknowns. The Adjacent just didn’t do that for me.

Review: Parasite

This review contains spoilers.

I’d heard of Parasite a few years ago, floating round the book blogosphere when I was at university. I didn’t think that much of it till I found out recently that the book’s author, Mira Grant, is none other than Seanan McGuire, author of the Toby Daye urban fantasy series – whose first novel, you will remember, I finally got around to reading recently.

I liked it, obviously. That’s why we’re here.

So: the conceit of Parasite is both straightforward and hard to convey without what I’d consider major spoilers. Unfortunately, the spoilers are also on the book’s blurb.

What’s a girl to do?

(put a spoiler tag at the top, obviously. okay. bear with. bear with. back.)

So, here we go: San Francisco, near future. Big Pharma corporation SymboGen has developed a genetically modified tapeworm that lives in human intestines and keeps people’s immune systems healthy – a panacea for everything from diabetes to diarrhoea. It’s been an astronomical success around the world, supporting the immune systems of the hyper-sanitised West and providing cheap medical care for people in developing countries who can’t easily access more intensive treatments. SymboGen’s made a bunch of money. Everyone’s happy.

Except…then people start turning into zombies.

Our heroine is Sal (not Sally). She survived a car accident six years ago that left her with complete amnesia: she cannot remember anything of her life before the accident, and by all accounts she’s a completely different person now than she was then. And not in the “people change with time” way. SymboGen has been studying her since the accident, because her tapeworm helped her recover from her injuries and they want to know why. So when things start to go wrong with the tapeworms, she and her boyfriend Nathan are drawn in pretty quickly.

SO. It’s a critical commonplace nowadays that zombies are to be read as manifestations of anxiety about late capitalism and how it brainwashes us into consumerism; how neoliberalism as a system is dead but refuses to die. That’s a reading that works pretty well here, I think: we can read Parasite as a novel about how capitalism colonises even our bodies. (Content warning for some quite graphic body horror – it was probably right on the edge of what I can read without metaphorically looking away.) That works both at the level of the individual and the system: Sal’s body is fair game to SymboGen, who are paying all her ongoing medical costs in exchange for the rights to study her. And each section of the novel begins with excerpts from interviews, lab records and letters documenting SymboGen’s development of the tapeworms, in which it’s revealed that they trampled all over all kinds of regulations in the knowledge that the public would overlook these trespasses in exchange for the convenience of SymboGen’s cure. SymboGen exploits bodies and it exploits societies.

I’m wondering, though, what becomes of this reading when we bring the tapeworms into play. Because the tapeworms are, at least in a few cases, intelligent, rational agents who crave the bodies of their human hosts. Grant explicitly calls them slaves: slaves to SymboGen, we’re supposed to conclude; part of the horror here is the idea that virtually all of humanity has become unwillingly complicit in enslaving thinking beings.

But, and this I think is at the heart of my problem with Parasite, that’s only a small part of the horror – partly because the relevant reveal comes very late in the novel, which ends, irritatingly, on a cliffhanger. The body horror is much more potent, much more visceral. The effect of this, whether Grant intended it or not, is that we-the-reader are intrinsically on the side of humanity; we’re biased against the tapeworms. Which is a problem, when you’re coding parasites as slaves, especially in an American context. It’s a problem because the best solution Grant suggests is to send the tapeworms back into dormancy so their hosts can survive; in other words, to continue their slavery and thus consolidate the power of SymboGen.

It might be that this issue gets worked out in more detail in the second novel; I’m not yet sure if I’m going to read it. (Maybe if I’m desperate at the library.) But it’s a troubling moral wrinkle all the same; especially given all the things that Parasite gets right.

It’s particularly good on representation, in a low-key way that’s surprisingly rare now I think about it. There are people of colour, a lesbian couple, a wheelchair user. They’re all secondary characters, but they all feel like they have lives and purposes beyond their minority identities. The novel doesn’t draw attention to those identities; they just exist. They’re just allowed to exist. I think that’s surprising because of the kind of novel Parasite is: a thriller, a piece of entertainment rather than a thinky novel. It would have been so easy for everyone in the background to be white and straight. And they’re not. It’s great.

Then we have Sal herself: a woman with amnesia and PTSD. Again, the novel isn’t about these things. It just allows her to have them, to do what she needs to do to cope with them, and then to go and do badass stuff anyway. Her relationship with Nathan is also surprisingly healthy given the standards of relationships in SFF: they actually talk about stuff and worry about each other and do practical things to help each other and they have their own priorities too and this, too, is great.

I just don’t know how to square this with the larger moral problem the novel has; and also the emphasis it places on hiding information. As Sal and Nathan discover more and more about the mysterious zombie disease it becomes less and less easy to root for their strategy of not telling anyone anything – including the US military, who are for once not doing anything particularly nefarious and actually just want to develop a cure. Our heroes are hiding information that could save lives. And that’s a trick that’s repeated structurally: the novel hides information from us that’s been painfully obvious since page one. Nobody realises that the tapeworms are turning their hosts into zombies until about halfway through, apart from every single reader of the novel, who have all been spoiled by marketing. This makes a lot of Parasite quite tedious. Although we could read it, I suppose, as a meta-commentary on the capitalist colonisation and commodification of art and information. I think that might be stretching it a little, though. It’s a muddled book. I don’t particularly recommend it.

Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is a Thomas Pynchon novel. That…pretty much sums up what I have to say about it.

In what the publisher is billing as a sort of hard left on Pynchon’s part, it’s a murder mystery. It’s also set in 1970s California, among permanently stoned hippies. So, you know, we’re right back in Pynchon territory again.

Our Hero is Doc, a private investigator who also happens to be one of those permanently stoned hippies. (Think Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, only with prettier sentences.) He’s asked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta to find her new lover, Mickey, a real-estate mogul who’s gone missing. Then someone frames Doc for the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and, oh, the plot from there on out is best described as “labyrinthine”. Or, indeed, “Pynchonian”, which is much the same thing.

I liked it. There are things that threw me out momentarily – the male gaze is strong with this one – but, overall, I liked it. That’s, I think, because I’m a sucker for gnarly books, books with long winding sentences like this one:

Uphill and invisible, traffic out on the boulevard to and from the freeway uttered tuneful exhaust phrases which went echoing out to sea, where the crews of oil tankers sliding along, hearing them, could have figured it for wildlife taking care of nighttime business on some exotic coast.

Dreamy, elegiac, cluttered, full of stuff that never quite comes into focus, Pynchon’s prose is a microcosm of the world his novels evoke – a world teetering on the edge of comprehensibility. Murder mysteries are supposed to bring order out of chaos; what Inherent Vice does is bring something that could be order, in a certain light, just to the point where it’s not quiiite in focus yet. It’s like listening to someone with a heavy accent: true clarity remains tantalisingly unachievable.

Anyway. That’s what I liked about Inherent Vice. It’s not Pynchon’s best novel. It’s not particularly memorable as Pynchon goes. But…it was pretty cool to live in for a little while.

Review: The Seed Collectors

Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors is sprawling, like the roots of a tree. That’s appropriate, since it begins with a family tree: that of the Gardeners, many of whom are named after plants – Bryony, Clematis, Ash, Holly. Some years ago, the previous generation of Gardeners disappeared into the rainforest, in search of a plant whose seed pods, it’s said, are the source of true enlightenment – at the cost of an excruciatingly painful death.

The novel opens with the death of Oleander, great aunt to the current generation of Gardeners. She’s left all her surviving descendants a seed pod each, as well as leaving behind a mansion, Namaste House, which has been converted into a retreat for celebrities and very rich people, and a large fortune.

And it wanders forward from there, dipping into the lives of various Gardeners, Namaste House staff, starlets, and at one point a robin, these diverging perspectives bound loosely together by the mystery of the seed pods and the question of what will happen to Namaste House.

At heart, I think, The Seed Collectors is a novel about enlightenment, which Thomas sees as interchangeable with transcendence: according to Oleander, the novel’s wellspring of spiritual wisdom, the seed pods have the power to free souls from the cycle of reincarnation and individuality to become, er, one with the universe, the World Soul. (Yes, this is cheesy; more on that later.) So many of the Gardeners lead variously self-destructive and ultimately selfish lives: Bryony, the ultimate consumer, drinks and eats and shops to excess, to distract herself from her marital problems; the odious botanist Charlie insists on a paleo diet and has a shopping list of attributes he wants in his girlfriends; creepy academic Oliver bumps up the grades of a pretty girl in his class and utterly fails to understand the point of a team-building exercise that requires people to be unselfish so everyone can win. Interspersed with these stories we have bits of Oleander’s wisdom, as the characters begin to unravel the mysteries of the seed pods, and thought experiments that ask us to reframe the world (“If you discovered that you were the only person in the world, and everything you see around you was in fact a part of you, dramatised, how would that change what you are doing right now, right this very instant?”), and intertwined through all of this are the roots and leaves and seeds of plants, familiar as breathing and yet also unfathomably alien.

Like the two other Thomas novels I’ve read, The End of Mr Y and Our Tragic Universe, The Seed Collectors looks at how we codify and curdle reality – in Lacanian terms, how we freeze the terrifying incomprehensibility of the Real into the safety of the Symbolic – and at how, despite everything, reality still leaks out, calling all our cultural values, and so our very subjectivities, into question. In the earlier novels, that codification takes place mainly through narrative: we kill reality into art, limiting the shapes our lives can take as we do so. In The Seed Collectors, individual identity itself is what obstructs and conceals the Real: the things we use to mark ourselves as different from other people, whether that’s a special diet, nice clothes, tennis prowess, being the best at team-building, or sitting in first class on a train. To Thomas, these are all artificial (Symbolic) constructs. And the seed pods, symbols (perhaps ironically) of an alien Nature which can’t be codified into the Symbolic (though botanists like Charlie try), are how the Real erupts into the world – by taking souls out of the cycle of reincarnation, they take them back into the Real, back into nature, and planthood.

I should stress that The Seed Collectors is a good deal less hokey than all this is making it sound. Thomas’ voice throughout the novel is chatty and relaxed, and she has great empathy for most of her characters (well, apart from bloody Charlie). It’s a novel you want to spend time in.

But. (You know there’s a but, don’t you.) There’s a catch with representing the Real in fiction, which is that it’s very hard to do – because fiction is part of the Symbolic, so it can’t actually represent the Real, not directly. I bounced hard off Oleander’s wisdom, her explanations about reincarnation and transcendence – to me, these sections of the book felt trite and too easy. Because, when you get down to it, reincarnation is just another schema in which to confine the Real. It’s just another human way of looking at the world; another order of the Symbolic.

Incidentally, this is where I think speculative fiction has the edge over realistic fiction. When we read SFF, we know it’s not meant to be taken literally; it’s always working metaphorically, or ironically. So it’s much better placed to think about the Real, and about elements of human experience that we can’t put properly into words without diminishing them. SFF can gesture at things realistic fiction can’t say, because SFF is always already gesturing indirectly at the world. That’s how it works.

So my issue with The Seed Collectors is that it isn’t quite SFnal enough. It doesn’t work symbolically enough: it wants us to take reincarnation as literally, as matter-of-factly, as we take the realist sections of the novel. Which, of course, we can’t: it’s a different order of thing. It can only ever be taken metaphorically; but Thomas doesn’t give us the right protocols to read it that way.

The Seed Collectors was a disappointment after Our Tragic Universe (but then, almost anything would be). I get what Thomas was trying to do (well, sort of), and shifting our fundamental notions of reality is not work that every novelist is having a go at, so props for that. It just – didn’t work for me. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

Film Review: Super 8

So I’d heard good things about Super 8 (and, no, I can’t remember where), which is why I invested the time and attention to watch all of it on television – something I rarely do for films or even television programmes since the internet became my primary medium for TV viewing.

It wasn’t worth it.

The film starts promisingly enough: a bunch of film-obsessed teenagers are making their own amateur film out in the sticks when they witness an enormous train crash. The military is crawling all over the crash site, and one of their cameras catches something huge and monstrous prowling around the wreckage. Meanwhile, in the small town where Our Heroes live, cars stall, the electricity goes out, dogs go missing.

So the first half of the film builds tension nicely: in a particularly inspired touch, the camera never allows us to see the alien menace stalking the town properly – all we have to go on is the occasional glimpse, and its strange effects on electrical items. The film’s palette is dark, midnight blues leavened by rare bursts of CGI colour. This is a film about seeing, and, more importantly, unseeing: the flickers at the corner of the camera’s eye.

But then it all falls apart; resolves into a thoroughly conventional narrative, if quite competently handled. The alien is of course the subject of secret government experiments – and though this classic conspiracy theory is an apt choice given the film’s mood of half-glimpsed secrets, the government is too straightforwardly evil, the alien too straightforwardly sympathetic, to make it properly compelling here. The emotional arc which accompanies the SFnal plot, in which the fathers of two of the teenagers resolve their differences in favour of rescuing their children (who have of course entangled themselves right in the heart of things), is nicely done, stressing the importance of communication and empathy, but as an arc it feels derivative. And the film’s central romance is simply irritating: two of the boys fall out over the single girl in their group of budding film-makers – and, indeed, the single named female character in the entire film; she’s then captured by the alien so that Our Plucky Protagonist has to go and rescue her and thereby win her heart.

Super 8 is supposed to be heavily inspired by Alien Films that Have Come Before, and I suspect that if I were more of a film buff I might have appreciated it more. But, at the end of the day, this is a film meant as blockbuster entertainment. If it’s only worth watching for the references, I’d argue that makes it a failure.

Review: Europe in Autumn

The unofficial tagline for Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn currently seems to be “the Brexit novel written before Brexit!”* Which, yes, you can see why that would be an apposite description, but it’s also one that plumps for the easy and over-egged narrative of “SF predicts the future!” as opposed to a more nuanced one in which Hutchinson’s picked up on a continental sociopolitical trend.

What’s more, Europe in Autumn isn’t even set in Britain. Or, actually, since a large chunk of the book does, in fact, take place in London, what I mean is: it doesn’t centre Britain, which is rare enough for a genre novel published in the UK to be worth commenting on. Our Protagonist is Rudi, an Estonian chef working in a restaurant in Krakow. The near-future Europe he lives in has become balkanised, fractured into hundreds of small nations and polities:

The Continent was alive with Romanov heirs and Habsburg heirs and Grimaldi heirs and Saxe-Coburg heirs and heirs of families nobody had ever heard of who had been dispossessed sometime back in the fifteenth century, all of them seeking to set up their own pocket nations. They found they had to compete with thousands of microethnic groups who suddenly wanted European homelands as well, and religious groups, and Communists, and Fascists, and U2 fans.

The EU has become an irrelevance, its main activity being (apparently) throwing tantrums in the UN. Instead, what unites the fractured continent – if “unites” is the right word – are the Coureurs: a shadowy organisation which transports contraband, secrets and people over unfriendly borders. Basically, the novel is the story of how Rudi gets drawn further and further into this organisation, finding out more and more about Europe’s secrets as he does so.

Formally, the novel’s really a thriller: there are some SFnal elements, and the ending suggests that the sequels, Europe in Winter and Europe at Midnight, are significantly more so, but the only speculative elements in Autumn are the near-future setting and some slightly more advanced technology. But, for a thriller, there’s also surprisingly little going on. There’s no particular mystery Rudi’s trying to solve. He’s in the dark about pretty much all of the odd (but not necessarily especially violent or threatening) things that are happening to him for most of the time. (To take an example from the beginning of the book: Rudi meets a man in a neighbouring polity, has a coded conversation which lasts about five minutes, and goes home the next day none the wiser as to what the encounter actually meant. “Nobody else approached him. Nobody tried to arrest him. Nobody tried to mug him.”)

In fact, Hutchinson seems most interested in the mundanities of life as a Coureur. He pays a lot of attention to the work of “stringers”: non-Coureurs, or sometimes junior Coureurs, who are occasionally paid to leave paper trails and other traces to back up a Coureur’s cover story, by taking a lease on an apartment in a certain name, for example, or complaining about bins to a specific person. Like Rudi, we’re mostly not given any idea of how these little actions will come to be important. We see the granular detail, not the wider picture.

So what’s the point of this novelistic myopia? (I realise none of this sounds terribly complimentary; perhaps I should point out here that I liked Europe in Autumn!) Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think Hutchinson is making a political point. Because the effect of this granularity is to evoke a kind of constant, low-grade paranoia; an ever-present sense that the mundane things that make up a life are concealing something more sinister, or perhaps simply more meaningful. And, crucially, that something, that meaning behind mundanity, is inaccessible to almost everyone – including the reader, who’s so used (by the conventions of Western narrative) to being in a privileged position in relation to fictional characters.

The Europe Hutchinson conjures up is a grey and often tedious one, filled with borders and barbed wire and concrete. It’s not a dystopia, exactly, but nor is it a particularly fun place to be. It is, in fact, a continent that has slipped backwards, into Cold War paranoia. The near-future tech – which includes paper TV screens and purses that read thieves’ DNA – only points up how this world hasn’t progressed in any meaningful sense.

Despite its apparent lack of traditional SFnal furniture, then, Europe in Autumn is doing that most SFnal of work: using speculative elements to ironise, and thus to cast light on, our own historical moment – which is one of growing paranoia and distrust and cultural (if not yet national) balkanisation. And the danger of that historical moment; which is that, as we assert our differences, protect our own particular identities and ideologies to the exclusion of all else, we also give up our ability to access a wider kind of significance, our access to a shared European culture.

*At least, that’s how the person on Solaris’ stall at Nine Worlds described it to me and everyone else who happened to be walking past at the time.