Friday, 27 March 2015

Europe in Autumn - Dave Hutchinson

Maureen Kincaid Speller has already written THE review of Hutchinson’s brilliant novel. This is more a set of random, inconsequential (babbling) thoughts!

I tried to read Europe in Autumn at the start of the year, after a barren autumn of reading, and it didn’t click. Returning to it after two months of solid, day in, day out reading was a very different experience. I felt rewarded for my concentration. It’s not exactly the most propulsive narrative – I had no urge to read it quickly in a day. Rather there is an accumulation of detail and the very pleasant feeling throughout that the text is never telling you what to think – instead there is much for the reader to question, ponder and work out for themselves. The backdrop of a slightly future, slightly alternative Europe, splitting into ever smaller states, with its citizens condemned to a world of borders and bureaucracy, corruption and criminality – but surviving, and sometimes thriving nonetheless - is brilliantly realised.  AND, may I say, about 200 pages in I suddenly sat up and realized what a WEIRD book it is and how much it was making me smile. How good is that? Answer – VERY good!

The novel does several things particularly well. First of all it doesn’t tell us too much. This might sound like a useless compliment but trust me, it ain’t! We get dropped into the story. Rudi is a hard-working chef living in Krakow who is approached by a local Mafioso to travel to a nearby state to deliver a message. Rudi is successful and is then trained up to become a Coureur – a courier and spy in order to cross borders and dodge intelligence agents.  Why does he choose to work for the coureurs?  Are they the good guys or just more bad guys? Is that even the right question? The text is intriguingly contradictory. There is the sense that Hutchinson is figuring them as anarchistic democrats and freedom fighters, overcoming the stupidity of borders and bureaucracy to deliver information that would otherwise be clocked by governments and corporations. Yet Rudi sees murder, mayhem and intrigue on his adventures. On one he retrieves a suitcase that is metaphorically, and literally, hot. Does it contain something dangerous? Presumably, but Rudi delivers it anyway. On one level it’s the logic of what I don’t know can’t hurt me but Rudi’s doggedness and, increasingly, we hope, his idealism, is very appealing.

Rudi has very little control over the events that take over his life. His main characteristics seem to be his obstinacy and his easy-going nature. In his youth Rudi seems powered by his enthusiasm and passion for food – a chance discovery that he follows up with determination and commitment. Yet in the main body of the text, to begin with at least, he goes with the flow, seemingly without much thought or direction. I’m not sure there are any easy answers to the question of ‘character’ in Hutchinson’s novel or even whether it is one of the main preoccupations of the text. It worries at me though, is there a critique of common sense beliefs about identity here or a more general comment about what the life of a spy would do to one’s sense of self. Throughout people get trapped in their worlds and in their (real life) contradictions, wear masks or keep rigidly to their idea of themselves. Not sure!

Other reviewers have mentioned Kafka, something I’m loathed to do as he is invoked too regularly, but I can see why. There is a disorientating complexity to Hutchinson’s Europe and a sly humour deftly secreted throughout. You can see it too in a quiet sense of the absurd, of farce even, which surfaces from time to time.  There is a moment halfway through when Rudi is abducted by the SAS that gave me a brief but very pleasant Gilliamesque rush. It’s even more surreal when he wakes up! Otherwise I was reminded of Orhan Pamuk rather than Le Carre or Furst – something to do with the mystery and history of cities and a playfulness too. Europe in Autumn then is one part sci-fi, two parts espionage thriller, one part surrealist puzzle….and one part something I can’t really describe. Good quality pulp? Unpretentious intellectualism? Understated sophistication? Lolz, I’ve been puzzling over it for days and I still can’t find the right words. It’s a good thing though whatever it is – I felt myself thinking of comics, especially the old 2000AD of my youth – something to do with that amazing accretion of detail, an abundance of ideas and a desire to be a good witness to the world’s shenanigans.

Europe in Autumn is also really good at posing questions around nationalism.  For many of us nation and nationalism are just there, a huge part of our identity - history, memory and common sense - but of course they are constructions, used ideologically to divide and rule and to create bonds that don’t exist naturally. Historically there is another trend too – the nationalist movements that fought, often heroically, against against colonial and imperialist oppressors. For those of us deeply suspicious of any nationalist sentiments the recent Scottish referendum was a lesson in remaining open-minded  and guarding against conservatism – such movements can obviously still be a useful tool for activists organizing against the excesses of neo-liberalism and imperialism, whatever its limits and whatever the illusions those activists still hold on to.

Hutchinson taps into this brilliantly. Rudi’s father, enraged by the greed of the Estonian state is planning to set up his own small polity. When Rudi confronts him all the contradictions come out – the ingrained stereotypes about one’s own country, the anger at foreign investors and the loss of the land to privatisation and ‘progress’, the political machinations to undo and undermine a movement and the disregard for the violence that might follow when people have decided on “No compromise. No surrender”.  Throughout, characters use racial and national stereotypes to describe others, and think of themselves in those terms too. Maybe that’s the way of the world anyway and I’m just too idealistic to want to believe it’s true.

Which brings me to my last point, Europe in Autumn feels somehow a warning against idealism – we must live in the world in all its grisly, mundane entirety – because of course it holds out compensations too.  Yet, the novel also gives us the slightest possibility of a better world. Whether it will turn out to be a poor kind of escape, we might find out in the novels to come. Europe at Midnight is out in the autumn: can’t wait.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

A Clarke 2015 shortlist and a few thoughts on Bête.

The Clarke Award 2015

Some rich, vital novels are definitely going to miss out on any shortlist action this year. I’m still working my way through all the contenders but, aware that the shortlist may be out anytime soon, mine would be:

  • Bête – Adam Roberts
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar
  • The Race - Nina Allan
  • Station Eleven – Emily Mandel
  • Europe in Autumn – Dave Hutchinson
  • The Girl in the Road – Monica Byrne

These are the books I most want to read again. I loved the first three A LOT and admire the others a great deal. I’m curious to see how they’ll all hold up to a second reading.  Choosing between Hutchinson,  Jeff Vandermeer and Claire North was the hardest bit.

I can’t help worrying that my list is a bit conservative? I tend to read more ‘literary fiction’ throughout the rest of the year so one of the targets I’m setting myself is to read more sci-fi and fantasy from around the world.
Bȇte cover
A few thoughts on Bête

Reading The Buried Giant and Bête in quick succession was fascinating. I found The Buried Giant very moving but , well, problematic. There’s the sense throughout that Ishiguro is writing about something ELSE – that it falls away from metaphor and symbolism into allegory. I also get the sense that he’s much better at tapping into emotion and morality than he is the bigger analysis of history and politics.  Yet how then is it so moving? What subtle mastery of technique turned me into a jabbering wreck at the end? And I’m not at all sure my criticisms are valid anyway.

Conversely, a Robert’s novel – in spite of all the references and the layers of intertextuality, it’s debates with matters philosophical, political and all things science-fictiony, AND it’s all round smarts – feels completely about itself. Thus Ishiguro’s subtlety has an obviousness about it that verges on annoying yet is, nevertheless, powerful, whilst Roberts' obviousness (ness?) is far more subtle, rich and pleasurably difficult.

Does that even make sense? Maybe not.

Bête is full to bursting with ideas and fantastic writing. I wanted to read bits aloud to people – not just the puns, the funny bits or the philosophical bits but the descriptions of landscape too. And Graham is a fantastic creation. It felt throughout that the text wanted to draw me into conversations and debates, engage with Graham’s ideas and assertions. As always I can’t begin to grasp the complexity of the text – to make a coherent sense of everything that is going on - but that is what makes rereading Roberts so pleasurable.  The other great quality of Bête is its depth of feeling and generous humanity. That might seem like a weird thing to say for a novel that is often so dark and perhaps suspicious of humankind’s future prospects but yes, Bête is profound and moving too.
Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont have both addressed the difficulties of getting to grips with Adam Roberts’ novels (here and here) and I’m hoping Glyphi’s collection of Critical Essays (ed. Christos Callow Jr. and Anna McFarlane) is released soon.  Andy Sawyer’s Strange Horizons review of Bête is the best I’ve read.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Get your geek on and goodbye Spock

The death of Leonard Nimoy has had me remembering all kinds of stuff - mostly good. I'm not the geek I used to be - I fall asleep during Star Wars, I hate J J Abrams with a passion, blockbusters bore me and I can't be arsed to watch TV. Even Game of Thrones with its appeal to my Sword and Sorcery roots is irritatingly facile. Our school however is full of geeks - the love for Doctor Who, Merlin, Manga, Iron Man, Supernatural and ALL KINDS of stuff is omnipresent and it's always lovely to get caught up in their enthusiasm. I'm fully aware too, that my love for geeky stuff is a huge part of who I am, still. So in our next Bookworm the girls will be choosing their Geek Top 5. I've separated it out into 5 categories (see below) but you can mess around with that (if you must!). This is my 'old man' version:

Leonard Nimoy

 Over the years it becomes harder to separate out nostalgia, and the comfort it can bring, from things that have continuing relevance, meaning and quality. A bit of nostalgia is fine but too much is just another prolonged and very dull, escape from reality. I’ve tried to choose things that retain their bite. What’s that you’re saying?  Yes, yes, of course I know I’m pompous! Lol!

Favourite TV Series - The first episode of Blakes 7 was on BBC 1 on Monday 2nd January, 1978 at 6:00pm. I was 7. I was still very cute at 7 it has to be said. I’d go as far as to say I was adorable. Blakes 7 however was neither cute or adorable - it was dark and scary, seductive and serious. It is undoubtedly a central factor in making me the person I am - FAR more important than my parents, school or my friends. [I’m just gonna throw this kind of stuff in for a reaction—but sometimes I kinda believe my own nonsense too].  In the first episode a man called Blake is invited to a meeting for those discontented with the government. All the people at the meeting are massacred and Blake is set up, accused of molesting children, convicted, and sent to a penal colony. Bleak, huh? Yes, but it also has a dry, laconic humour and great, razor-sharp dialogue. And obviously it gets (a bit) cheerier. Blake escapes, along with a handful of other prisoners and they take the fight to the nefarious Federation. It also has the best baddie in ALL TV - Servalan.

Favourite Episode or scene - The Buffy musical episode? Any number of episodes from Northern Exposure, Farscape, Angel or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? A scene from one of the Star Trek films or any scene from The Princess Bride. I could but I'm not gonna. Instead let’s return to 1977 and my joint-favourite Doctor, Tom Baker (along with David Tennant). It is an episode called The Sun Makers. The Doctor and Leela land on a planet where THE company exploits all the workforce, paying them little and taxing them a lot. There’s the usual toing and froing and running around but eventually the doctor helps the people to rise up and overthrow their corrupt leaders. Marvellous - but it gets better. The final scenes show the workers throwing the boss off the roof to his death. Not that I’m suggesting violent revolutionary insurrection is a good thing of course! Oh no! I will say, however, that you just don’t get that kind of thing on Doctor Who nowadays. Hmmmmm!

Favourite film - hard this. If I were in a serious frame of mind I’d go with Blade Runner, but this is about being a GEEK. So I’m gonna cheat and have two fun films instead. This time I shall return to the summer of 1983. I was staying at my aunt’s for the summer and watched Flash Gordon (1980) almost every day. It’s camp, silly and utterly glorious. I can watch it any day and still get the same pleasure levels as my 12 year old self. If I need cheering up these days I watch Serenity, the film of the TV show Firefly, creation of Joss Wheedon. It’s full of brilliant characters and dialogue; bursting with action and romance; funny and serious. It is, I would suggest, virtually perfect.

Favourite character - people shouldn’t really get me started when it comes to strong female characters. It’s a weird concept. Strong for me means rounded and believable; without being a cliché or a stereotype - it shouldn’t necessarily mean someone who just kicks the proverbial butt. Luckily there are a few characters who are brilliantly realised AND can dish out the violence too! Best of all is Aeryn Sun in Farscape. To watch her character arc play out over four glorious seasons is to glimpse the sublime. Hyperbole? Maybe a little. Also I was quite a bit in love with Claudia Black. Still am. This is normal for geeks. I’m not going to apologise! Oh, so I’M the cliché, huh? Maybe.


Favourite thingI’m leaving this category a bit vague. I could choose my sonic screwdriver, my life-size cut-out of Amy Pond, my copy of Baldur’s Gate or my first edition Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that I got for my 11th birthday. All beautiful things. However, I will choose my 2000AD graphic novel collection. If I had lots of money and lots of time I would buy more comics these days, but I haven’t.  In truth this is my most nostalgic choice. It reminds of me waking up excitedly on a Saturday morning waiting for my copy of 2000AD to be delivered by the papergirl. That said, large sections of it - Nemesis, Judge Dredd, Slaine and The Ballad of Halo Jones - are still brilliant. If you want to get into graphic novels try the work of Chris Ware.