Slow Money

Science fiction is much more about projecting the present than it is about predicting the future. A salutary example of the genre at its most invigorating and audacious is Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (a nominal sequel to Saturn’s Children), one of his most entertaining and even-handed novels to date, and also one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking space operas I have read in a long time.

Space pirates who look like giant bats! Metahuman mermaids who skulk in the depths of a water giant circling a distant star! Robots with mechanocytes instead of good old-fashioned human cells! A weird religious sect with a divine mission, and a flying church, to colonise distant worlds! Family intrigue, squabbles, sibling rivalry! And a good old-fashioned space war!

Neptune’s Brood ticks all the boxes for what SF readers enjoy in space opera, from exotic locales to future tech. What makes this novel so endlessly fascinating though is its extrapolation of current capitalism into an interstellar context.

That is, how the prevailing global economic system could be adapted to finance planetary colonisation, and what such funding mechanisms and institutions would look like and function. We forget about the instalment plan, let alone the insurance rates and depreciation value, on your typical starship (“Starships are all work and no fun,” Stross comments at one point.)

If this sounds as dry and boring as old toothpaste, fear not, for Neptune’s Brood is incredibly intriguing and entertaining, because wherever you have rampant capitalism, you invariably have rampant greed, Ponzi schemes, scams and general skulduggery, even if it is among the stars. “People behave very oddly when the ownership of large quantities of money is at stake.”

Stross’s stroke of genius in this novel is his evocation of ‘slow money’, billed as “a medium of exchange designed to outlast the rise and fall of civilisations.” Cash, on the other hand, is ‘fast money’, whereas ‘medium money’ “is the bony skeleton of a planetary economy.”

Krina Alizond-114, a “historian of accountancy practices”, is a hugely likeable character. “A historian who works for a bank: That’s not the most likely background for someone who capers around the cosmos having adventures, is it?” she remarks deprecatingly. We are assured that Krina-114 is not ‘mad’, only highly numerate. “I find the contemplation of figures soothing,” she confides to the reader. And we do, too…

So much contemporary SF is about socio-cultural issues, from gender to language and the bio-ethics of terraforming. Rarely have I seen an author take such a delight in interstellar economics as does Stross. Not to mention wishful thinking, with the citizens of Atlantis aiming “to establish a world completely free of money, a world populated by new teuthidian humanity, with a society based on consensus, not debt, and respect for collective autonomy, not competitive commerce. A world where the word ‘free’ will not be needed because nothing will cost anything and everything will be attainable!”

In the end, Stross lets us believe that this may even be possible.

Up in flames

That’s it. At 39%, I am putting Burning the Page by Jason Merkoski down in protest. Well, what I mean is going to my Kindle home page and choosing another one. Actually, it is this sort of book that makes me yearn for print editions, for the sheer satisfaction of being able to hurl it against a wall.

Firstly, I thought this would be an ‘insider’s’ account of the development of Amazon’s Kindle, with some speculation on the future direction of the technology and its social impact in general. (I recently read the Jeff Bezos bio One Click, which was disappointingly skimpy on this aspect of the business).

Intriguingly, Merkoski mentions quite early on (12% in the Kindle version) that eInk is actually based on quantum mechanics, and that he himself doesn’t really understand how it works. Oh, okay. That is it then for any kind of technical explanation whatsoever, or any explanation of the development process of the Kindle. And there is no mention of the Paperwhite at all, even in the discussion about how bad the resolution of ereaders is, and how it will never ever match the print quality of books blah blah blah.

Instead, what we get is a socio-philosophical treatise on the future of reading and books in general. Merkoski argues that the ‘book’ itself is an inferior evolutionary relic, partly improved upon, by ereaders, but that it still has a long way to go. “Books are being replaced by ebooks, and in turn, ebooks will be replaced by another seemingly science-fictional innovation…” (37%)

Huh? Why? What is wrong with ebooks? Many experts and users have commented that the Paperwhite is the pinnacle of ereader technology (if you want to watch a movie or play Angry Birds, you buy a tablet; you do not say that the ereader is therefore useless and relegate it to the trash heap of outmoded innovations.)

Merkoski continues his theme relentlessly: “I think ebooks will one day evolve into something like a movie and a video game combined with the authoritative intent of an astute storyteller.” (36%)

No! No! No! No! No! No!

He then continues to wax lyrical about The Future, arguing that “the firsthand experience of life itself will come through unmediated by the encoding and decoding that we currently use in books. Words are often the worst culprits in this. They are ornaments that often get in the way of the book.” (36%, my italics)

Oh, so the biggest problem about books is that they consist of words? Turning a book into a mind-movie is not a book anymore; it is a completely different medium. And it is not an improvement.

Merkoski: “I think the future might hold some sort of high-speed plug that goes into an author’s head, some way of taking an author’s imagination and converting it directly into a digital format.” (36%)

No! No! No! No! No! No!

The final straw for me was Merkoski’s authoritative assertion: “I know of at least two publishers that offer the ability for early readers of a book to directly contribute to the editorial process.” (39%)

No! No! No! No! No! No!

I think these comments show a complete lack of understanding of what a book is, firstly, and what the writing process is, secondly. A book is not a commodity that can be replicated by some science fictional plug-in into an author’s mind, and then allowing your potential readers to fuck around with the content.

So why should Hilary Mantel even bother writing the third instalment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy then, when some future gizmo will allow us to tap directly into her thoughts?

But perhaps the craziest aspect of this line of thinking is the frightening possibility that, one day, we will consider this to be normal. (It reminds me of a throwaway line in a recent novel by Adam Roberts, a real-life, bona fide, bursting-with-uncommodifiable-talent SF writer where a character ‘watched’ a novel.)

Thank you, Mr Merkoski. You have made me reassess my relationship with technology in general. I am going to place my Kindle on the floor, in a ring of salt, and use my laptop to Google spells for exorcism. Just to be on the safe side, I will also pray for forgiveness.

Mea culpa.

Dick Prayer

Only Trebor Healey in Sweet Son of Pan could come up with a poem entitled ‘The Star Spangled Boner’. Erotic gay poetry as social commentary? There are stranger things in the universe, darling …

I’ll fall to my knees
faster even than your economy
and beg like the auto industry
for you to pump me full of investment tax credits
retrain my workers
and do it with leather, Daddy
Fill my tank with your gasoline
crude and thick

Ahem. Given our ever-shortening attention spans, and the character-limits on social media such as Twitter, one would think that more people would be reading poetry than ever before.

However, the difference between poetry and your run-of-the-mill Tweets is the density of the information, and the decoding that is required. Sadly, many people seem to have forgotten how to read.

We also seem to have forgotten what sexiness is, if the success of Fifty Shades of Grey by the eponymous E.L. James is anything to go by. (Will this be adjudged in the distant future as the highpoint of the erotic temperament of our current age? I sure as fucking hell hope not.)

Two extracts give an indication of the extraordinary range and topicality of this eye-opening collection of (gay) erotic poetry by Healey, author of the Lambda-nominated A Horse Named Sorrow.

(I put ‘gay’ in parenthesis as a proviso for the squeamish reader; this should not deter the curious and the experimental from these deep semen-dappled waters.)

The first is from ‘Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., South Central LA’:

I have a dream that young Pakistani men
in London suburbs
Will pack knapsacks full of lube and condoms
Proceed to the nearest Tube station
Drop their drawers
And fuck young English boys
In subway cars –
Who needs paradise in the hereafter?
The boys are ready now

The deliberate conflation of suicide bombing and fucking seems provocative in a completely sensationalist fashion, but ultimately this is a sly, lubricious anthem to tolerance and universality. Healey is saying that sex and pleasure know no cultural, ethnic or religious differences; orgasm is, indeed, the opiate of the masses.

This leads to another general theme, invoked by the title, which is pan- or omnisexuality. Healey writes in ‘Dick Prayer’:

The earth is a dick
and you need to let it fuck you
You need to suck it:
Go thou and stroke the trees
enter the waters
Let the wind spread across the sky
and let its storms explode inside you
Treat the world like a beautiful cock

Gavin Geoffrey Dillard, in a brief but insightful introduction, comments that Healey is but the latest in a long line of Pan cultists, which stretches from William Blake to Walt Whitman, and Mirabai and Rumi.

“No great work is produced from the powers of mind – which is only capable of regurgitating and reproducing the ‘known’. It is solely through intercourse with Spirit that genius is unleashed…”

This is perhaps as provocative a statement as some of the poems collected here, which range from the libidinous to the numinous, not to mention the downright filthy.

Wonderful, heady stuff.

Crooked little vein, dank shuddering heart

Warren Ellis wears his heart on his sleeve, as well as various other organs and bodily fluids. He is an equal-opportunity sacred-cow humper, with Crooked Little Vein cheerfully giving offense to a slew of sensibilities, beliefs and orientations. However, one would be wrong to dismiss this novel as a deliberately tasteless and crass attempt to skewer public morals (despite the ‘Baby Jesus buttplug’).

Tellingly, early on Trix says to Mike that “pervert is a real perjorative, you know”. He replies: “Hey, I’m from Chicago. In Chicago, perverts are people who don’t finish their whiskey and actually sleep with their wives at night.” (This reminds me of the funniest lines in the book, that “straight people are so fucking weird.”)

Aboard a flight to Las Vegas, Mike happens to be sitting next to a bona fide serial killer, aged seventy-one and dubbed The Mad Virgin. The two engage in a philosophic discussion of Mike’s mission to “trawl through America’s sick underbelly” in search of an alternative draft of the American Constitution with inherently magical properties that will set the nation to rights and mend its evil ways.

The Mad Virgin tells Mike: “I am the mainstream. I am, in fact, the only true rock star of the modern age.” And this is Warren Ellis’s point: think of any perversion, crime or atrocity imaginable, and if you can find it on the Internet, then this means it has become the mainstream. What legislators and law enforcers have to be really concerned about are those acts and proclivities that have yet to be defined.

“What a crooked little vein you travel. All the way to the heart of America,” muses the serial killer. And what a journey it is, taking in everything from tantric bestiality to degloving, pumping parties, anus dentata, warm saline testicle/labia infusion fetishists and Godzilla bukkake.

(The faint-of-heart are warned; Ellis, however, elucidates all this weirdness with such boyish enthusiasm and charm that Crooked Little Vein is very, very funny, immensely entertaining and hugely endearing. Not to mention educational. I think I learned more about the Japanese porn industry than is good for my own health.)

And, in-between the ostriches and lizard wankers, this is an old-fashioned love story. Even if the woman in question is described as “a crazed omnisexual vaginalist with a string of lovers from genders they don’t even have names for yet. She’ll break your heart, Mike.” Aww, isn’t that just so romantic!

Predictably, Ellis contends that “crime and sex are inextricably linked.” Much more interesting is his contention that the porn industry is not responsible for the darker recesses of people’s hearts; it merely reflects what is there already. “I’m saying there’s more going on in the modern psyche than can be defined by some Puritan notion of the way life should be,” says Trix.

So beyond the muck-raking and perversion, this is quite a thoughtful take on what it means to be human (and in touch with, and in control of, one’s own sexuality).

Holmes at rest

I tracked down A Slight Trick of the Mind when I read that Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) was going to film it with Sir Ian McKellen in the lead role. There are startling similarities between the two projects: Again, we have a curmudgeonly old man in his dotage, presided over by an irascible housekeeper, with a pretty blue-eyed teenage boy flitting about.

This is one of the more intriguing aspects of Cullin’s book, as he paints a very delicate picture of the affection (love?) that Sherlock Holmes has for Roger, the housekeeper’s son, whom he introduces to the science and wonder of beekeeping – with tragic results.

In one of the narrative strands, Holmes pays a visit to Mr Umezaki and Mr Hensuiro in Kobe, a discreet gay Japanese couple. Mr Umezaki, in fact, comments on Holmes’s cohabitation with another bachelor – Watson, of course – to which Holmes drily replies: “It was purely platonic.” And then there is Holmes’s extraordinary chance meeting with the enigmatic Mrs Keller, while in disguise – a meeting that haunts him to the end of his days.

The cover of the version I read has a soft-focus portrait of the traditional profile of Holmes, with the hat and pipe. Cullin’s Holmes is quick to point out early on that these were merely marketing gimmicks, while his own detective prowess was much exaggerated (by Watson, no less). The book finds him alone in a cottage in Sussex, presiding over his apiary and a fading store of memories, contemplating the meaning of existence. If this sounds grim, fear not. This is an extraordinary book, elegiac and melancholic, but uplifting in its own way.

What I particularly liked is how Cullin places Holmes in a historical context, at the beginning of “this uncertain age of atomic alchemy”. His visit to Japan and the ruins of Hiroshima, in particular, exposes him to the full irrationality of man, and the barbarity of so-called civilisation. What role can reason and truth play in a world such as this? Holmes remarks: “I have dipped my toes into two centuries and now my race is run.”

There is so much bubbling beneath the surface of this short, delicate novel. It is understated and quietly mannered to the point where it could prove perplexing to many readers, especially as Cullin provides no irrefutable answers to the many issues he touches upon. As is to be expected, there is not really any sense of an ending either, just a genteel segue into the fading darkness of regret and memory. Hopefully when it does it get filmed, it will help to dispel the abominations that were the Richard Downey Jr. / Jude Law movie versions.

The Circle

The Circle by Dave Eggers is a bit of a disappointment after the wonderfully quirky A Hologram for the King. Ironically, I think that Kate Losse’s plagiarism charges are likely to spur interest in the novel rather than detract readers, while Eggers’ response to these charges seems to have galled critics. There are occasions when an author just simply cannot win, it seems.

Critics have taken Eggers’ almost throwaway comment that he did no research for the novel (let alone read Losse’s The Boy Kings) to mean that he knows nothing about the Internet. The idea that abolishing online anonymity will get rid of trolling, spamming and boorish behaviour in general has had particular scorn heaped upon it. This is one occasion where the critics seem to have a much dimmer view of humanity than the author in question.

So is this a dystopia or a utopia? It starts out like The Firm by John Grisham, with a bushy-tailed, idealistic and somewhat naïve young woman called Mae beginning her career at the Customer Experience division of the Circle, an internet service provider and R&D hub, much like Google, I suppose.

Mae enjoys kayaking on a lonely lake, with only a couple of seals for company – which gives Eggers the opportunity to indulge in some lovely nature writing, which are ironically the best bits of the book – and she has a father suffering from MS, with her mother struggling to look after him and make ends meet.

So Mae does not really have the time or the inclination to have much of an online presence. However, she quickly discovers that at the Circle, being online is not only mandatory, but self-defining …

This escalates to the point where she becomes both the guinea pig and spokesperson for a new kind of wearable camera technology that renders your entire life visible to everyone else (apart from bathroom breaks, which is when our darling Mae has some clandestine rough sex with one of the disillusioned founders of the Circle).

Eggers poses a simple question here: if online anonymity is abolished, rendering the Internet both civilised and accountable, and everyone in the world has an online presence, will this result in the ultimate expression of participative democracy?

Again, the answer seems to be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The Circle punts Demoxie (a combination of democracy and moxie) as the ultimate public forum, whereby everybody online can vote instantaneously on any issue, from increased vegetable portions in school lunches to drone strikes on the Taliban in Pakistan. However, put too many yobs together and you end up with mob rule.

Poor Eggers. This novel has been called the Muzak equivalent of 1984 by George Orwell. Both critics and readers alike have also harped on about the ‘simplistic’ writing style, forgetting that writing clearly and simply is perhaps the greatest writing skill of all. There are no chapter breaks in this: the story flows seamlessly and effortlessly (but any writer will realise how much work this must have entailed).

Eggers makes interesting points about the rapid evolution of social media in particular, and the impact of this on our own sense of humanity and self-worth. He draws a disturbing correlation between the omniscience that Christianity ascribes to God, and the ultimate ‘all-seeing and all-knowing’ trend of social media.

I did not particularly enjoy Mae as a protagonist, as she is intensely irritating and a bit bland. Also, I found some metaphors like the Three Wise Men at the helm of the Circle, and the all-devouring monster shark from the Marianas Trench, a bit too simplistic. I also got the feeling that Eggers was holding back: the satire here is neither as defined nor as biting as in A Hologram for the King.

Still, this is a fascinating, highly enjoyable and timely novel that seems to summarise all our current hopes and fears for social media. It will be interesting to look back on Eggers’ work in a few years’ time, and to see if this was really the 1984 of our times after all.

The Blind Man’s Garden

Any novel dealing with the human tragedy of Afghanistan is, by default, not going to be a joyous reading experience. At one point, after poor Mikal, captured and tortured by an Afghanistan warlord, is thereafter captured and tortured by the Americans, I simply put the book down, unable to read any further.

(Interestingly, Nina Martyris points out in the LA Review of Books that CIA interrogator David Town also appears in Nadeem Aslam’s previous novel, The Wasted Vigil, set a few years further into the glorious War on Terror).

The reason I started reading again was, yes, I had to find out what happens to Mikal: his torture begins a slow spiral of destruction and death, including such excruciating set pieces as Taliban radicals taking over a school and using the children as human shields when the Pakistani army storms the building … of course everyone dies horribly. What are a few more dead children in the greater Afghanistan tragedy?

It is precisely this view, this benumbing by statistics and horror, that Aslam tries to counter here. The writing is extraordinarily evocative and lyrical, with a lot of emphasis on nature and landscape, sight, touch and smell.

This might seem incongruous given the general depravity of some of the events described, but Aslam treads a delicate line in not overwhelming the reader with the tragedy of his tale of two foster brothers, Jeo and Mikal, from a small Pakistani city, who tell their father they are going to Afghanistan to help care for wounded civilians, but instead become ensnared with the Taliban.

Martyris notes: “In a recent Guernica interview Aslam emphasised that his writing is deeply political but he is on nobody’s side.” I think a lot of Americans, in particular, will consider this to be disingenuous, especially with such scenes where Tara agrees to stitch a giant American flag to be burnt at a protest rally in the bazaar, as she needs the money to buy medicine to treat Naheed’s fever (she refused when approached initially).

Are the white and red stripes rivers of milk and wine, flowing under a sky bursting with the splendour of stars?
Or are they paths soaked with blood, alternating with paths strewn with bleached white bones, leading out of a sea full of explosions?

And then towards the end:

…[I]t is no longer a case of American happiness, American freedom, American interests, the American way of life. Now it is about the survival of America itself.

Survival is at the heart of Aslam’s novel, which focuses on simple families and communities caught up in the vortex of inexorable events (the opening line is “History is the third parent”). Aslam does not shy away from the impact of fundamentalism on this way of life, and depicts the cruelty and intolerance of the Taliban with the same impassioned vigour as he writes about the impact of the War on Terror on these simple families and communities.

Given the current tenor of public and political debate in the US, where the Phil Robertson contretemps seems to have struck such a nerve, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, a writer like Aslam will have.

“Is there anything you’d like us to pray for at the shrine?”
Mikal shakes his head. “Just pray for the world.”