Looking for Jake – China Mieville

From Amazon, Fair Use.

From Amazon, Fair Use.

China Mieville is an ace writer. With his collection Look For Jake, he’s claimed a place on my list of Authors To Watch Out For.

I’m placing Mieville somewhere between Clive Barker and Jorge Luis Borges. With Barker he shares a British nationality and an instinct imaginative horror, and with Borges he shares a fascination for uncanny ideas that are difficult to slot into any one genre. The last story in the collection, The Tain, seems directly inspired by a quote from Borges about mirror people. And as a story from his New Crobuzon setting, Jack, is definitely fantasy. I didn’t enjoy this one so much as I’m not familiar with this Crobuzon place, but it’ll probably make more sense in hindsight after I’ve read the relevant books.

The Tain was my favourite story, a seventy-page novella with birds made from flapping hands and otherworldly beings who narrate in the reversed text. There was also a great story about a haunted ball pit at an Ikea whose spookiness bought to mind the brilliant old time radio show Quiet Please. Mieville can also do great comedy, hinting at his political inclinations when he describes mass protests against a privatised Christmas.

Looking For Jake is the literary highlight of the last two months of my literary life. I’m definitely going to check out more of Mieville’s materials, and I suggest you consider doing the same.

Viriconium Nights – M. John Harrison

Fair Use. From Amazon

Short stories set in Viriconium, a city so decadently Gothic that nobody quite seems to know where or how old it really is. I imagine it as Ankh-Morpork on absinthe, or some nineteenth-century metropolis riddled with dodgy architecture and obscure conspiracies. Although there are some reoccurring characters, like tigeur-Cromis and a melancholy dwarven jester, there is no overarching plot to tie these stories together. This combined with my ignorance of this series to confuse me, making me feel as though I was reading the footnotes without the main text.

Harrison’s prose is fantastic, effortlessly summoning a palette of black, brown and tan into my mind. The dank settings he conjures up reminded me of D. M. Cornish’s brilliant Monster Blood Tattoo, as an atmosphere of civilization decay is essential to both worlds. His dialogue feels emotionally authentic while describing completely absurd situations. Characters are subtly fleshed out, such as a hitman in love with a beautiful ballerina who cannot adjust to her social scene.

My main problem was that there was no sense that any event was important. I’d have appreciated a timeline of Viriconium events, or at least a map or something. But I suspect that would be to miss the point of the whole business. (I’ve also been hard at work this week, so that probably accounts for my lack of focus.)

My favourite story was the last, “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, about two Englishmen who try to journey to the great city. Bathroom mirrors are essential to the process. The combination of magic and urban misery made the tale seem like something out of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. If I were editing this book, I’d have placed the story at the start to acquaint the reader with the whole Viriconium thing.

I think it would be best to read Viriconium Nights after checking out Harrison’s earlier Viriconium novels. That way you’ll get the context – tiguer-Cromis has to be the protagonist of at least one book. This is exactly what I intend to do. If this book is representative of what fantasy has to offer, I’ll be paying a lot more attention to the genre.

My Uncle Oswald – Roald Dahl

From Amazon

I know that Roald Dahl is most famous for his children’s books, but this book really isn’t for anyone under eighteen. So if you want to read about some relatively NSFW stuff, read on.

When Oscar Cornelius, a wealthy schoolboy, acquires a powder that causes an overwhelming arousal in whoever ingests it, his scheme to sell the substance in tiny little pills is an overnight success. Years later, he collaborates with an underpaid Oxford don and a beautiful woman called Yasmin to collect the sperm of famous men to sell to rich women. What follows is a series of vignettes consisting of Yasmin feeding celebrities the powder in the form of dainty little chocolates, and absconding with the results of their excitement.

I’m fairly certain that Dahl is among the top hundred writers in the English language, of the last century, anyway. His main strength is his great humour, with his characters consistently saying or doing funny things. My Uncle Oswald is set before the Second World War, so some of the Oscar’s victims might not be familiar to readers. There’s also an element of Prince Philip-style racism, particularly when Dahl specifies the love-making habits of each nation. Oh, and there’s a fair bit of homophobia when they meet Proust. Dahl probably set his book so far in the past to avoid getting sued for defamation.

And then there’s the sex itself. In my experience most sex-scenes are guaranteed groan-getters. I suspect that they are no longer worth having in conventional fiction – there’s always the Internet for unnervingly specific erotic prose. So Dahl’s strategy of having Yasmin rely the highlights of her bedroom escapes comes as a relief, since she focuses on the comedic (and occasionally slapstick) parts of her adventures.

If you can ignore racism and homophobia, can recognise some influential figures from the twentieth century, and if you’re not particularly squeamish about reading fictional people get it on, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Hypothetical Tarzan

Here’s my thought for the day:

What would happen if Tarzan never made contact with another human being?

The best case scenario is that he’d just be some old white guy swinging around on vines, imagining himself to be unique in his hairlessness. This version of Tarzan would be like one of those hundred-year-old people mentioned occasionally on the news, who always credit their longevity to either eating healthily or smoking a lot. Can’t you just see his smug little wrinkley face, leaping around the trees like a geriatric tree frog?

Or maybe he dies at a younger age, of a preventable illness or a treatable injury. Apparently gorillas mourn, so he’d be guaranteed something like a funeral. That’d make a poignant short story – Jane and the rest of the human cast stumbling upon depressed gorillas and being spooked by the corpse they surround.

And what would a human in a gorilla community do with their life? Would they be praised for their talents or shunned as a freak? I could see the gorilla community sucking up to Tarzan as soon as they need his considerable intellect to deal with a novel predator and ignoring him entirely as soon as the problem is resolved.

What impact would total isolation from humanity have on his sexuality? All the Tarzan media I’ve seen presents the great man as explicitly heterosexual. How would he understand his own sexuality if he never met a human female? There’s also the disturbing implication that Tarzan may have gone into bestiality.

I reckon there’s a novel in this “Tarzan Isolated” scenario. It would be very difficult to monetize, given how protective Edgar Burroughs Inc is of their properties. Ideal author for such a project would be someone on the kookier side of the Literary genre, maybe Borges or David Eggers. Eggers could be great writing such a book.

The Long Utopia – Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

51WPkAKo1HL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

This is the fourth book in Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett’s Long Earth series, so I’m warning you, if you want to get into it, read The Long Earth and that book’s other sequels before getting into this one. The essential premise of the series is that mankind has figured out how to ‘step’ into parallel Earths, which leads into all sorts of trouble.

Imagine what would happen to civilization if people figured out how to pop around the multiverse, and forget whatever you imagined because what Pratchett and Baxter worked out makes sense. A person can step into one universe at a time, the universes being organised into linear sequences that are frequently compared to pearls on necklaces. However, stepping is exhausting, it makes some people vomit and is completely impossible for an unlucky minority. Large segments of Earth’s population run off to live as interdimensional hunter-gatherers, leaving the rest struggling to run a depleted planet. The authors invent several evolutionary cousins for humanity, who got into stepping long before homo sapiens. They’re called trolls and elves, neatly evoking fantasy in science fiction.

The Long Utopia has two main plot threads. The first concerns the ambiguously sinister activities of The Next, typically patronising posthumans who are almost certainly up to no good. The second involves a parallel Earth whose days are getting shorter, and there are these silver beetle aliens pottering about. It also deals with stepping in the nineteenth century, a subplot I found enjoyable even though it didn’t really contribute to the climax. I’m assuming it’ll become more relevant in later books.

What I liked about The Long Utopia was that it was Lobsang’s book. His backstory is complicated, basically he’s a global AI who as soon as he was activated pleaded for human rights by claiming to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan mechanic. Lobsang begun the series as a Pratchett-y twist on Hal from 2001: Space Odyssey, as well as some of the other AIs in Baxter books like the ones with Greek names in the Time Odyssey series, but in The Long Utopia he gets some lovely character development. Taking the form of a robot indistinguishable from a human, he goes to live as a pioneer on the beautiful Earth with the shrinking days.

I recommend this book, but only on the condition that the three other books in Long Earth series are read first. More broadly, it’s enjoyable for fans of both authors, as well as people who like Douglas Adams and the more speculative, optimistic brand of sci-fi.