Adverbs, by Daniel Handler (Books 2008, 16)

Mr Handler operating under his own name, here, rather than his Snicket nom de plume. As such, this is a novel for adults, rather than children.

Though in fact, is it even a novel at all? It is in fact more of series of short stories, or even vignettes. They are linked, or at least related to each other, but it’s not always obvious how.

The same characters recur throughout, though in different combinations. Or at least, the same character names. It’s not at all clear that, where a name recurs, it is meant to be the same person. Indeed, the author says as much in his blurb.

The main link between them all is that they are all in some way or another about love. In fact, a better title might be something like, ‘A Series of Tales About Love’, or even, ‘A Series of Loving Events’. The title comes from Handler’s assertion that, essentially, “it’s not what we do, it’s how we do it”, and the fact that each of the stories (or chapters) has an adverbal title: ‘Particularly’, ‘Briefly’, ‘Not Particularly’, and so on.

It all gets a bit meta in the middle, where Handler breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly.

And it has a soundtrack album, in two sense: throughout the book, there are references to bands and songs, so you could construct a suitable playlist from that. But given Handler’s alternative career as a musician and member of The Magnetic Fields, the album to play while reading it is undoubtedly their 69 Love Songs. You’ll find many themes in common and overlap between book and album.

All in all it’s thoroughly enjoyable, but doesn’t really go anywhere – it doesn’t have a plot, after all – and is kind of inconclusive.

American Flagg episodes 1-30 (and special 1), by Howard Chaykin and others (Books 2008, 15)

I came upon these when I was digging out some old comics for my son. These are not for eleven-year-olds, but I realised I hadn’t read them in years, and I thought I’d see how they had aged (plus, I remembered next to nothing about the story).

The story is not bad, but not that great. In a post-collapse America, corruption and gang violence are rife, and the government (perhaps all the governments of the world) have left Earth, and are still ruling (or trying to) from Mars. On Earth the law – and to some extent, the peace – is kept by the Plexus Rangers. Or rather, as you eventually realise, the PlexUS Rangers, since there are also PlexUSSR Rangers. The Plex is the overall world government. Or something.

Reuben Flagg was a video star (ie TV or movie: there’s a lot about ‘video’ here, but it’s pretty much all broadcast stuff) on Mars. He played the eponymous ‘Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger’. But new technology has made actors unnecessary, and he has volunteered as a Plexus Ranger and been sent to Earth, to Chicago.

He is the one (relatively) good man in a corrupt environment, and with the help of a clumsy android, a talking cat, and various women in their underwear, he tries to keep things under control.

Oh yes, the underwear thing: Chaykin is unable, it seems to draw women wearing anything other than basques, stockings and suspenders. No matter what they’re doing, pretty much. There’s nothing like wearing your fetishes on your sleeve, I suppose. Or, you know, lower down.

Halting State, by Charles Stross (Books 2008, 13)

Posted out of sequence, for reasons unknown even to me.

Writing about this novel is kind of embarassing for me, because I had the chance to make it better than it is, and I, er, blew it because I read too slowly.

See, I was on quite a large list of people who saw a draft version of this, a year or two ago. I read most of it (or all of it, but it was incomplete, I can’t quite remember) and noted some mistakes and flaws.

But I didn’t get them all recorded properly and submitted to Charlie before the deadline. And now, when I read the published version, I find they’re all still there.

There’s nothing dramatic, nothing plot-shattering (although there are one or two places where things could be clearer, and where the cracks aren’t fully papered over: you can see where a section has been moved for dramatic purposes, but the knowledge of the protagonists hasn’t been adjusted to mark the events’ new location in the overall plot, for example). It’s mainly just niggles, misuses of terminology (school years called ‘primary third’, and ‘secondary two’, instead of ‘primary three’ and ‘second year’, respectively, for example). So, just some minor distractions. And the spelling of ‘dreich’ as ‘dreicht’ throughout is curious.

But no matter. Much more interesting are the questions of how well the multiple-viewpoint second person narration works; and is the story any good?

On the first point, I had no trouble with the second-person narrative at all, and it being multiple-person is effectively no different from any other book that does that. There is rarely any confusion, not least because each chapter includes the VP character’s name as part of its title.

The story is interesting, and it investigates an area – that of security in our increasingly-networked world – that is very important, and will only get more so in the near future. But I’m not, in all honesty, sure that it really works. The various parts don’t quite gel.

And yet, I enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed being on the trip, I just look back at it and think, “It wasn’t that great.”

Lazarus Churchyard: The Final Cut, by Warren Ellis and D’Israeli (Books 2008, 14)

Hmmm, once again I try a Warren Ellis, and find that it’s not as good as I expected, or hoped. ‘Good’, that is, in the sense of ‘exciting, dramatic, interesting’. I didn’t dislike it, and the story was OK; but it never really caught fire, you know?

Still, it was his debut, so maybe the thing is to try some of his later work (I should also add that, at the time of publishing, if not the time of reading or writing, I am regularly reading and enjoying “FreakAngels”:

I should probably mention the artwork, not least since I met the artist at Eastercon. It’s similar, actually, in that, while it’s perfectly fine, I kind of hoped it would be better. I couldn’t say that there’s anything wrong with it: you can always tell what’s going on, for example. I think maybe it’s that the style is a bit too cartoonish for the material.

The eponymous Lazarus is four hundred years old, and as far as he knows, immortal and indestructible, by virtue of some large percentage of his body having been replaced with smart plastics. He’s the only one in this condition, though, and he’s not happy about it. The main driver of the plot is his desire to die; or at least, we are led to understand that this will be the main driver. In fact it’s not, and each episode within the overall work has its own antagonism.

There’s a lot of extreme violence and brutality, some interesting ideas, but it’s sadly unmemorable.

Veniss Underground, by Jeff Vandermeer (Books 2008, 12)

I bought this in a second-hand bookshop, and tucked into the back there was a cutting from The Guardian of this review by Michael Moorcock. So go and look there if you want a plot summary: he does it much better then I could.

It’s an interesting, dark story, and I’m not totally sure how I feel about it. It straddles the SF/fantasy divide, at least in the sense that it is set in the far future, there are hints of spaceflight being common, and there is much genetic and somatic manipulation; but there are also talking animals.

Of course, the talking animals (mainly meerkats) are enabled by the genetic engineering, so really it’s unabashedly SF. However, Shadrach’s descent into the literal underworld of the levels below the city are straight out of mythology. And the description of the organ bank, while striking, are just fanciful to the point of unbelievability.

It’s the first thing I’ve read by Vandermeer, and while I enjoyed it, it doesn’t immediately make me want to go out and read more. That said, his City of Saints and Madmen does attract me, if only because it’s such a great title. I keep hearing (well, reading) people referring to him recently, so I don’t doubt that he’s got a lot to offer.

ThiGMOO, by Eugene Byrne (Books 2008, 11)

This is, in effect, a “Singularity”: story, though a rather gentle, slightly comic one.

The AIs that gain self-awareness and seek to achieve independence and change the world, start out as part of an educational project called the Museum of the Mind. In this construct there are a number of simulations of figures from history (mostly fictional, like the victorian prostitute). School pupils, students, researchers and others can interrogate them about life in their time.

It’s interesting that Byrne has them start to gain self-awareness after their systems get infected with a religious program: a virus that tries to ‘convert’ them to Mormonism. I don’t know whether Byrne is trying to tell us that religion is necessary for self-awareness, or if it just seems like a useful trigger to give the programs some extra input and start them asking questions.

Anyway, one of the erams, as they are called (eletronic recreation of a mindstate) is based on an early-20th-century socialist activist. Shocked with apparent absence of socialism in the world he sees outside the computer networks, he organises his fellow erams, and sets out to change the world (and protect their very existence along the way). The title stands for “This Great Movement Of Ours”, which was once a common phrase in speeches by Labour activists, apparently.

It’s good fun, if lightweight. It was published in 1999; I wonder what’s happened to Eugene Byrne since then?

A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket (Books, 2008, 10)

This is actually thirteen books, not just one. I’ve been reading it with my son over a period of several months. He, of course, had already read it, but we like reading together, and I was keen to know the rest of the story, after seeing the film (which is based on the events of the first three books).

Anyway, we finally got to the end, and, while I enjoyed it, I think that Mr Snicket has the not uncommon problem of difficulty with endings.

Or maybe not: he left lots (and lots, and lots) of loose ends flying. But that might be deliberate, and isn’t _necessarily_ a bad thing. But he seeds _so_ many clues and events throughout the first twelve books that, starting the thirteenth, you wonder how he’s going to bring them all together, and then – he just _doesn’t_.

Part of the narrative concerns the fact that stories don’t really have starts and finishes, and that a relatively inconsequential moment in your life could be the start or end of someone else’s story, and so on. All very well, but I get the sense that he rather tacked that on to excuse the lack of an ending.

That said, it’s a great story if you’re reading to kids who love language (or if you’re reading it yourself and do); though some, I’m sure, would get annoyed with his repeated “… which is a phrase which here means…” riff, or some of his other running gags. Me, I loved it.

Most importantly, the three Baudelaire orphans are engaging characters: smart, kind, wise (and noble _enough_) children, caught up in a world of sadness and madness, where almost all the adults who aren’t out to get them are too stupid to help them.

Adults don’t come out of ??A Series of Unfortunate Events?? at all well, in fact. Those that aren’t stupid are evil. Those that are neither tend to end up dead, or disappeared. And everyone gets betrayed, and their hearts broken.

Am I telling too much, here? Probably not: Lemony warns us, right from the blurb on ??The Bad Beginning??: if you’re looking for a happy tale, there are plenty of others on the shelves.

While Mr Snicket tries to discourage reading these terrible books at every turn, though, they come highly recommended by me.

A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest (Books 2008, 9)

This is the motherlode of all brains-in-jars/life-is-a-computer-simulation-type stories. Gibson’s and the Wachowski’s Matrixes can both trace their origins back to here – or at least, they should be able to. I’m not aware of anything older than this that quite deals with this idea.

At Maiden Castle in Dorchester in the near future (of the time the book was written; it’s now our near past) a scientific research project has been under way for several years. It involves ‘projection’, in which the particpants, their bodies unconscious, enter into a shared, simulated fantasy world. This consensus hallucination was intended to examine a possible future, with a view to suggesting answers to some of the problems of today.

But one of the participants has been stuck in the projection for two years (when the normal period is measured in weeks or a few months at the most); the trustees are getting worried about the costs; and a new participant is about to arrive and change everything.

It is _excellent_, and (of course) leaves you wondering how many levels of fantasy there are to reality – both the book’s, and ours.

Newton’s Wake: A Space Opera, by Ken Macleod (books 2008, 7)

A scorching, searing cyberpunk space opera. It has _everything_ in it: FTL starships, uploaded minds, nanotech, the Singularity, wormhole gateways… Absolutely stunning stuff.

Though on the downside, I did find it bit hard to follow some of the plot twists and turns. Specifically, it wasn’t always immediately obvious to me why some of the alliances and disputes between the various factions happened. I expect a more careful reading, or retracing of my steps, would have resolved those difficulties. But such was the pace of the plot that I didn’t want to.

I loved some of the terminology. Travelling faster than light, for example, is called ‘fittling’ (from FTL). The “technological singularity (what is this singularity thing, anyway?)”: is called the ‘hard rapture’. I especially like that Ken has grabbed the term ‘Rapture’ from the weirdo fundamentalists christians who believe Jesus is going to come back and sweep them all up to heaven. The “Googleplex (where Google live)”: (for example) becoming self-aware and sucking up everyone’s mindstate is far more likely, if you ask me. Which is not saying a lot about its likelihood…

One of the groupings of humanity that have survived through the hard rapture, and remain players on galactic stage, are called the Carlyles. They started out as a Glasgow gang, basically. They were based in something called ‘The Castle on the “Clyde (Glasgow’s river)”: ‘, which I’d like to hear more about. Then there’s AO: America Offline. They didn’t get uploaded because they weren’t connected to the net.

This means that the two main dialects of the language everyone speaks are called ‘American’ and ‘English’; but the ‘English’ is rendered partly in Scots. Good fun.

I haven’t read any of Ken’s stuff for a while (aside from “his blog (Ken MacLeod’s blog)”:, obviously). That’s a situation I need to put right forthwith. But first I think I should go back to the start, and dig ??The Star Fraction?? out of the attic.

Identity and letdown in The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall (books 2008, 6)

Eric Sanderson wakes without his memories. In short order he starts receiving messages apparently sent by his former self, is told by his psychiatrist not to read any such messages, and starts reading them – in the wrong order, which leaves him unready for the trouble that is about to assail him.

He is attacked by a ‘conceptual shark’: a living, sentient creature that is composed of ideas, of thoughts, of words; and that swims in the sea of information that surrounds us. This is the creature that took his memories. It eats such information, and fixates on a victim, and will keep coming back to attack them again and again.

So the messages from “the first Eric Sanderson” tell him. Fortunately they also give him some tools and techniques to protect himself, and information about someone who might be able to help him.

So eventually he sets out on a quest to find the mysterious Trey Fidorous. That’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot summary (it covers probably a quarter of the book).

It’s an interesting idea, that creatures composed of pure information, of ideas, can exist and can do us harm. We’re well into SF territory here, without wanting to hegemonise, and irrespective of the fact that it’s marketed as mainstream literary fiction (why, I’ve often wondered, don’t people talk about “li-fi”, or “cri-fi”, or even “hi-fi”? Why is SF so special that it gets its own disparaging abbreviation?) There was real justification for including this work in the Clarke Awards shortlist (sadly I haven’t read any of the others on the list). We are plunged into a world of infinite strangeness and difference (even though it stands alongside the world we are familiar with). We have to hang on for the ride and pick things up as we go along. These are standard, recognised characteristics of much SF.

Which may be neither here nor there, really; unless how we classify a work affects how we approach it, how we read it. And I think it’s true that it does: if you approach Iain Banks’s The Bridge, for example, as SF (it’s a ‘non-M’, so it was marketed as mainstream), then you’ll get quite a different effect from the scenes on the bridge, and with the barbarian; at least allowing for the possibility that those events actually happened in some sense, in some reality. As opposed to the assumption that they were ‘only’ the deranged fantasy of a mind in a coma, which is of course the only ‘mainstream’ reading.

We are in a similar situation here. Eric’s psychiatrist thinks that he might be going into a fugue state; and clearly something has happened to his mind. But Eric has experienced the attack of the Ludovician (the name of the particular type of conceptual fish that attacked him) and he believes throughout that what is happening is real. And all through the quest, and the love story and the fight scenes, he believes it. And so does the author, apparently.

And so do we.


Except, except.

Right on the second last page, Hall undermines it all. After the narrative has finished there are a couple of pages of extra material before the ‘undex’ (the point of which I’m not sure about).

The first of these pulls the rug out from under us, and dumps us more or less into “he woke up and it was all a dream” territory. Or didn’t wake up. It’s a bit like Sam Tyler at the end of Life on Mars, except there it was more or less clearly stated all the way through that he was in a coma: you just didn’t want it to be so.

The present work is less honest, in a way, since there really is no suggestion that what Eric is experiencing might not be ‘real’. Sure, it’s always there as a possibility, but I’d have to say,”What’s the point?”, really. Why would you bother to write a story that, in the internal logic of that story, all took place in the head of its protagonist, and didn’t do anything to help the protagonist, or illuminate his life, or help him to come to terms with something?

As such, this is ultimately disappointing: it’s a great ride, spoiled by the ending.

Although, a further twist occurs to me, a couple of months after reading it. If the rug-pulling element were not there, you could say, then we would have a fantasy-happy ending, like the fake ending in Brazil. That’s never a good thing, of course, but the difference remains this: in Brazil, the false ending was tacked on (or it would have been if the ‘real’ ending hadn’t superseded it). Here, the ending grows naturally out of all that has gone before. If everything was in his imagination, then fine, so was the ending. But if everything was ‘really’ happening to him, then the ending is legitimate in that context, and the additional material subverts it for no good reason.