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, 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.

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

On Security at Stansted

To Glasgow, then, and a weekend visit to my Mum. The kids and I caught the train to Stansted on Friday afternoon, to find the security theatre in full force. Although we made EasyJet’s last checkin time with a good ten minutes to spare, I really thought we would miss our flight when we joined the back of one of two or three giant, slow-moving queues. Especially so when, after a few minutes, we realised that we were in fact at the back of a queue for another checkin desk. We weren’t alone in this error, though: the queues mingled, and quite a few others had made the same mistake.

But in the end it wasn’t that bad. The queue began moving fairly quickly — or smoothly, at least — and while it was frustrating, it was bearable, as long as you didn’t let yourself get frustrated. The passport/boarding-pass-control desk looked a right mess, though, covered as it was by abandoned bottles, cosmetics containers and what have you.

To be honest, I’m not actually sure why the queues were so long. The only things that have changed in security terms compared with a few months ago are the prohibited items in hand baggage, and the enforcement of the “only one item” rule (I’m sure this has been the rule for decades, but it just wasn’t strictly enforced). Both of those issues should be dealt with at checkin, so when you get to the security gates you should be ready. Every bag and coat is x-rayed, as before: but there should be fewer bags; everyone goes through a metal detector, just as they always did. There was a “please take off your shoes” section after the metal detectors, but as we paused at it, one security guy called, “Not everybody, not everybody,” and waved us on. I suppose people were randomly chosen, and incidentally, everyone I saw taking their shoes off was white. This may, of course, just mean that people who look like terrorists (whatever that may mean) are not travelling, from fear of being hassled.

I conclude that the only reason for the giant queues must be stupidity: there must be people who, even though they are asked about prohibited items at checkin, and even though this stuff has been in the news for weeks, still have drinks in their hand luggage, and then have to stop to abandon them at security. Or who try to take more than one item on, even though they’ve been told not to. And yet, I didn’t see much of that happening. I really don’t understand why the queues got so big. There were plenty of security staff on duty, too.

Coming back, things were much less fraught at Glasgow Airport, as they generally are at smaller airports, in my experience.

Throughout, I have to say, all the security staff we encountered were cheerful, polite, and helpful, while doing a largely thankless, probably quite dull, job, filled with seemingly-arbitrary rule changes handed down from above. I can’t really fault them, no matter how daft some of the things they have to enforce may be.

A last thought: we are being conditioned to accept travelling with photo ID, even within the country. It was strange to see everyone queuing up to get onto a flight to Scotland, with their passports ready. Now I’d be quite happy to see EU passports issued by the Republic of Scotland (as long as it was a republic), but for now, it was still a journey within the UK.

And the strange thing is, it seems to be the airlines that are driving this, not the authorities. I have had to show photo ID on RyanAir and EasyJet, but a few months ago — this year, certainly — I flew to Scotland with BMI Baby, and not only did they not ask for ID, but I didn’t even have to see a human to check in: hand baggage, a credit card, and a self-checkin machine, and there I was. That was before all the recent fuss, true, but RyanAir (and possibly EasyJet) have been asking for ID for years. Are they secretly being used by the government to get us used to carrying ID cards? And if so, why is it only some airlines?

Or am I being unreasonably paranoid? ‘Cos I only want to be reasonably paranoid, you know.

On Security at Stansted