A comedy of misunderstanding?

I’ve just been reading an interview with an author talking about Shakespeare and Romantic comedies.

I do wonder if there is a misunderstanding about what Shakespeare is doing with comedy. It is, in my mind, more about balance than jokes: the world is only whole once both parties are in agreement. It does have other issues but it is about eventual balance.

Perhaps an overreach, but does this balance then echo Lovecraft’s idea of horror in places or architectures that are off-true. The subtle (or not so) change affects our understanding of the world and balance does so as well.

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Hall Speaks the world

Louisa Hall‘s novel,  Speak, is a wonderful thing. Lyrical and understated, the book uses many types of language and effect to carry the reader through the story.

Using five different voices in various media and registers, the robot relays its stories as it heads to storage. Hall creates a set of subtle links between the narrators as they develop, whilst world building and collapsing.

There is a touch of Flowers for Algernon” reflected. In the Daniel Keyes’ story (it exists as short story and novel), the reader is shown the brilliance of Algernon’s world as it is developed and built before being trapped in the increasingly depressing collapse. The diary format is intimate, sharing the innermost secrets with the world and Keyes uses it to devastating affect. It is one of those moments where Sf tends to horror.

I think that there is another linked precursor, John Crowley’s Engine Summer. Using the motif of the story telling intelligence, the Crowley novel has the same effects as the Algernon, with a moment of realisation that I still find affecting. Hall is subtle in her way of providing this information. All of the above provide worlds that allows the reader to interact with them in a lisible way.

Hall brings out the human in the technology and forces the reader to think about the interaction between the two states. As MARY is created, the creators seem less concerned with the ethical implications but with their own lives. The panacea fails to cure anything but instead provides a new set of ills. The author allows the reader to make their own minds up about the issues.

Sometimes the language is jarring but overall the world is layered and beautiful. I should read the earlier novel now.

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Dreams of a Failing Europe

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight continues the timely inspection of Europe as the near future crumbles into our own.

Borders having crumbled, a unstable, flue-ravaged continent has new nations springing up. Jim, an intelligence agent, has to deal with the new nations but is unprepared for what is coming up next. Discovering a new nation is somewhat older than he thinks and has appeared and disappeared on maps, Jim finds himself lost in a larger spy game than he had originally planned for.

Hutchinson muses on the politics of maps and geography with a nod to early twentieth century pulp literature gleeful play with lands and parallel universes makes way for the politics of madness and conquest. The incompatible dreams of conquest, the dreams of a bygone empire that abound today, fuel the dystopia.

The mix and play of genres hints at a deeper sense of unease and lack of identity. Without going into extrapolation, the novel muses on the political and more street level worlds that acts as their own parallel universes.

With a consummate set of characters, flawed as they need be, are fully fleshed out and a set of hooks that cross this and the early Europe in Autumn. There is a Gibsonian sense of the street using not only technology but the world in its own way, where it is somewhat unevenly distributed.

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Failing dreams

Jo Walton’s The Philosopher Kings (Corsair, £8.99) is the sequel to the Just City (Corsair, £8.99).

After the Last Debate and Simmea’s murder in an art theft, we see the beginning of the dream of Plato’s Republic failing with some deft nods into history, neo-Platonism, and the fantastic. To err and interpret, it would appear, is very human.

Over the course of the books, one wonders if Walton reflecting on the notion of the Fall in the fantastic. The inhabitants enter the dream of Plato’s republic as an experiment and see it falter. Apart from being a thought experiment with “what if”, the couplet of books reflect on the Fall. Given an Eden, the world fails with the human actions and interpretations of the dream.

Instead of remaining as a world in stasis, it changes and moves on. Rather than being a post-lapsarian desire to return back through the gates and forget about the apple, the world meditates on  how it can move on. It is more exciting and dangerous than one might like but the way in which we think about the dreams. It reminds me of the issues that I has with China Miéville’s Iron Council. An accomplished novel, and I get the reasoning, but the ending has always disappointed me. Although he avoids the revolution for political reasons, Walton sees the world revolt and revolve.

I suspect that I’d get more out of the books if I had read Plato’s Republic. It is to Walton’s credit as a writer that a very basic knowledge can allow one into the world.

Walton’s world forces the characters to change. Ruminating on the way in which the worlds build and characters bring in their own views and how these must change. It taps into the challenges to the fantastic from Mary Gentle and Tad Williams to China Miéville, providing a necessary mirror to the genre.

I loved she her earlier book on what she had re-read and on this showing, will be looking for her other novels in due course.

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Chasing machines across galaxies with Michael Cobley

Michael Cobley’s Ancestral Machines (Orbit, £18.99) is a solid Space Opera that is highly enjoyable. Set in the Humanity’s Fire world, this is a large scale story.

After being double crossed in a deal then a rescue, Captain Pyke has to travel to the Warcage. A large scale stellar construct designed for peace, it has become a war machine, capable of burning up planets.As Pyke races to save his crew, he delves into the history of the cage and characters who built the machine.

With a mixture of biotechnology, planetary engineering and galaxies, Cobley is not afraid of the large scale without spreading into the multiple volumes. This is a good “old fashioned” space opera that does not delve into the politics, especially pertinent in the Sad Puppies age, but delivers on narrative.

There is a strong sense of Firefly and the JJ Abrams rebooting of Star Trek in it; that sense of the action, core Space Opera. I do wonder if this in part the rediscovery of the sense of wonder from a set of Sf fans brought up on Star Wars. It was an enjoyable read.

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Mend the gap: Winterson’s take on the Winter’s Tale

Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap in Time (Hogarth Shakespeare) is her “cover version” of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It is a notorious play that challenges the reader but has been a touchstone of Winterson’s work.

Given the nature of the play, Winterson pulls of the retelling with aplomb and highlights the role of the twins. There is a potentially a whole segue into Clute’s printed theory of twins (which might not be accurate any more as he shifts like an iguana across the literary landscape) but not for this post.

I fell in love her novel, The Passion, in my final year of my English degree. For me, the novel drew from Sf and the Gothic, a Venetian Tombs of Atuan which probably had other meanings. For me, it was a sign of an author who respected writing and drew from all kinds of sources. She does that here with the story about growing up mixed with gaming, Sf and fantasy and music.

I am unsure that she really gets into the argument of forgiveness: the characters do not forgive themselves and cannot forgive others fully.

This is, however, a book that respects itself and its source, developing its tale for the new author.

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More than one way to cover a book – Alice Thompson’s The Book Collector

I came across  a notice of The Book Collector by Alice Thompson (Salt, £8.99) in the Observer. I think it had a review in the Guardian as well but not having read the book, I avoided the review. However, I was suitably intrigued.

The idea of the retelling of Bluebeard was a delight as I love Angela Carter’s retelling but the Thompson was ever so unexpected. Having just been on a fairy tale jag, this book was like cat nip and definitely an author whom I am going to have read more of now.

Violet meets, and marries quickly, Archie, a book collector. After having a child, she finds herself increasingly isolated. Leafing through her husband’s library, she comes across a safe with a book of fairy tales inside. She is interned in an asylum to “help” her overcome her illness and learns of the disappearance of young women, some of whom she has met. Her return to the house is not a fortunate one as the icy Clara has moved in as a governess and their lives unravel in startling ways.

In just under 160 pages, Thompson delights us with a feminist retelling of Bluebeard and other tales whilst mixing in the notion of women’s mental health, echoing Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Mrs Rochester. Violet’s plight deftly makes us consider the insanity that drives her husband in counter point to her own perceived issues.

She manages to be gleeful and to bring her own voice into the Gothic rather than go through the motions with the machinery. The ghost story was temporarily back in vogue this year as several writers published new ghost stories (though Susan Hill has been doing this for a few years anyhow…) and this was hailed as come back for the Gothic. Arguably the Gothic never really goes away as it is rarely in full fashion but nips the heels and merrily guides in its maddening ways.

The unravelling updates the novel and reminded me a little of Michelle Lovric.

This is my first Alice Thompson book and I am really looking forward to reading more next year.



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The ghosts of Slade House

David Mitchell’s Slade House is a ghost novella, at first glance. Every 9 years, the owner of Slade House appear to capture another victim to continue their reign.

Mitchell develops a sense of claustrophobia through his use of grammar and Alice in Wonderland sizing. He skews the characters’ perspectives through descriptions of doors and land, starting with Wonderland but perhaps ending up with Lovecraft’s thoughts on the idea of the world just being altered enough to be horrific.

Using the time breaks as chapter or sections, the sense of linear time is created but then distorted in between paragraphs. As one might expect from Mitchell, there is a slippage between genres and styles, mixing science fiction and horror neatly with realism and the ghost story.

Readers of Mitchell’s work know that there are often links to his other work  and this book is no exception as he considers, in a very brief overview, uses of time in fiction. I am sure that there other links that I have not recognised yet but knowing these is not a barrier to enjoying the novella.

Given the normal time in between his books coming out, this is a little out of the ordinary. It fits into the ghost stories that appear during this period, though I do think that the revival aspect is premature  as they have never really gone away. This is not one of his major works but it is a fun read all the same.

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Occasional Readings until Halloween

I’ve been reading fairy tales as a response to some reviews in the Guardian of two new collections.

I started with Jamila Gavin’s collection, Blackberry Blue and Other Tales (Tamarind, £9.99). In her preface, she writes that she to write tales that ‘extended the European image’ so that more diverse children might enjoy them. She does this successfully with tales of transformation. A core to these stories is the notion of knowing and accepting oneself to become. This book came out a while ago but I’m ashamed to say that it has taken this long to read.

The next collection is Marina Warner’s Fly Away Home (Salt, £8.99) which mixes both the fairy tales and the short stories in this world. As coming from a historian f fairy tales, Warner dives into the deeper and more abstract meanings. It reminds me slightly of Helen Oyeyemi’s work.

I’ve got the new Salman Rushdie which is a retelling of the 1001 Nights and updates it to this world but linked deeply to the original world. It reminds me of Ian MacDonald’s Cyberabad Days and Rover of Gods in its mix of stories.

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Into the heart of the original with Aylett

If you have ever wandered the streets of Beerlight or enjoyed the works of Jeff Lint (books or documentary on AylettVision on YouTube) or Dinner with Argle on YouTube, then you may be aware of the originality of Steve Aylett.

In the Heart of the Original, Steve Aylett writes his first official non-fiction on the subject. As one might expect, it is written with vim and vigour with more than a soupcon of experimentation and humour. The core is the argument that art, in particular, needs more originality to be pushed.

As Aylett argues, there is a large amount of recycling that happens of ideas which is claimed as original. Truly original in some cases. In a slightly haphazard fashion, the author skips across many authors and books, showing how they were original before becoming accepted.

The part I do have an issue with is that mining the past might not be original. If this didn’t happen we might not have Eliot’s Wasteland or Chaucer, both of which are original in execution and style but rely upon knowledge of the past.

Perhaps what he is getting at is the amount of similar novels and works of art available. Some are touted as original when they are retreads. I do question whether this is due to a  lack of understanding or knowledge of theirs and related genres. Without stating it, he attacks the “wannabe” culture that has been increasingly engendered, looking for clones and variations of successful ventures, rather than creating other successes.

It builds on the arguments in Lint and the accompanying And Your Point Is? (Yatterings blog post). Companies such as Unbound or the small presses are revitalising older publishing models. Out of this arises the opportunity for interesting and original authors. What worries me, and perhaps Aylett, is that the underlying culture is in deep trouble, but is this cyclical? Are we just in the dark before we get the next punk movement (which will be subsumed, this is the way things go)? I hope so.

Yet this is a book that should be read and enjoyed. Then read his other books.

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