Pillow Talk

The Cool Part of His Pillow by Rodney Ross is one of those novels that transcend their subject matter to become a universal statement, in this case about death and loss. But it is about so much more: regret, the inexorable march of age, the power of memory.

There is a wonderful scene towards the end where Barry Grooms undresses before a mirror for a merciless (re)appraisal of his mid-forties physiognomy. At this stage he is involved in a rather torrid but sexually satisfying (and, needless to say, short-lived) affair with a 24-year-old. “I stare at the beauty that comes automatically bundled and unappreciated with youth. I can’t be this anymore.”

What a brave and beautiful thing to say. It is probably a revelation as fraught with self-discovery as coming-out is in the first place. Sadly, it is also an epiphany that a lot of older gay men fail to experience.

There is another evocative scene towards the end when Barry discovers that his older friend Shorty is gay, from a generation where “men couldn’t always live openly together”. By the time the gay 90s arrives to sprinkle everyone liberally with fairy dust, people like Barry are already in their 60s. “An old man who likes other old men just makes people nervous.”

The book begins with Barry’s long-term partner being crushed to death in his parked car when a crane collapses at a nearby construction site. At the time he has their two pugs with him in the car. It is a macabre touch that allows Rodney Ross to explore the random, often baroque ordinariness of lived experience.

It is also the lead-in to a key scene at the end – just why was his partner parked there at that particular time? The (older gay) reader automatically thinks he was there for some kind of lurid pet-friendly assignation, and Ross certainly plays on this stereotypical perception. The truth, however, is far more prosaic and shattering. It is a delicate, pitch-perfect scene that had me crying like a baby.

You have to be careful when you write about sadness and loss: too much, and it quickly becomes maudlin; if the author is too flippant, it can become equally grating. Ross strikes a perfect balance, detailing Barry’s painful journey towards acceptance of his irrevocably altered life. There is one particular event that shapes this journey: when his mother becomes ill, and Barry realises she was already sick when he himself was grieving, but had wanted to spare him this additional worry.

Tender and painful at times, but always heartfelt and brimming over with the sheer unalloyed joy of being alive, this is a truly special book.

Witchery Popery

The Daylight GateThe Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jeanette Winterson notes in her introduction that the 1612 Trial of the Lancashire Witches was the first witch trial to be documented, with lawyer Thomas Potts entitling his account ‘The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire’.

This was the time of the fervently Protestant James I, whose tome Daemonology set the fever-pitched tone of this anti-witchcraft era. Of course, James I used witchcraft as a cover to stamp out the remaining embers of Catholicism.

It is in this cauldron of violence, suspicion, misogyny, fear and political machination that Winterson sets her blood-soaked love story, the triangle of Alice Nutter, Elizabeth Southern and Christopher Southworth.

At first I was a bit hesitant at Winterson’s tactic of incorporating supernatural events in her narrative, but it is a strategy that works remarkably well, adding poignancy (and a lot of grisly detail; despite its brevity, this is unflinchingly violent. One of the most effective scenes though is a simple half-page-long description of all the implements of torture in a cell).

Another supremely effective tactic is to introduce historical characters like William Shakespeare and John Dee, which are thrillingly well-written and totally in context. Shakespeare, in particular, comes alive in the reader’s mind with such immediacy, not to mention attendant glamour, in his brief role as a political activist.

What happens is inevitable, of course, as per the historical record, but Winterson creates such a vivid setting, and her characters are so immensely and hungrily alive, that the reader soaks up this short novel, and emerges transformed at the end. Magnificent, and life-affirming.

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A Darkling Sea

A Darkling SeaA Darkling Sea by James Cambias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow, what a fantastic SF novel this is: some of the best world-building and credible aliens I have encountered in ages, all wrapped up in an an intense thriller-type plot that will hook you until the last page.

The set-up is ingenious: humanity has established an exploratory base on the ice-world Ilmatar, to explore the lobster-like aliens who live in its ocean depths. However, when a member of the team is killed by the aliens (dissected, actually), it sets off an interstellar alarm bell, and the Sholen arrive on the scene to investigate whether or not the humans have violated First-Contact protocol.

The Sholen are quite unlike the benevolent wise old caretaker aliens that writers like Clifford D. Simak are so fond of though. These are inward-looking and timid, due to having survived previous extinction events, and yet riven by factions who contend that they should not let upstart species like humanity run rampant all over the galaxy.

The Ilmatarans use a numbers-based form of communication, and are excellent scientists and engineers, while the Sholen are highly sociable and use sex and pheromones as a main form of bonding and communication. Throw a bunch of crazy humans into the equation, and the possibility for conflict and misunderstanding is quite funny and tragic at turns.

Yep, here you get two alien species for the price of one novel … both are ingeniously differentiated however. The story takes a lot of unexpected turns, and is quite action-packed and detailed, with tons of fascinating speculation, intrigue and humour.

This is modern SF at its very best. It reminded me of Vernor Vinge and Iain M. Banks, especially the carefully delineated alien societies and the running commentary on the ethics of First Contact.

My only caveat is a slightly puzzling ending, the significance of which is not open-ended enough to indicate if Cambias has a sequel up his sleeve. I sincerely hope he has.

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Plastic Jesus

Plastic JesusPlastic Jesus by Wayne Simmons
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The problem with this novel is that all the SF exposition is in the first couple of pages: Ms Liberty, the hooker-type parody of the Statue of Liberty, presiding over Maalside or the New Republic. Beckoning tart-like in her high heels and star-spangled tits, this is a striking and emblematic image … but she makes no further appearance.

Similarly, all we learn about the New Republic is in these opening pages: that, along with its capital New Lark, this is all that is left of the US colonies after the Holy War (a global conflagration that has [conveniently] turned the entire Middle East into the Barrenlands).

Collateral damage from the Holy War (apart from a gaping tear in the planet’s crust) is the death of organised religion, with New Republic representing a den of vice that makes Sodom and Gomorrah seem like a little Olde Worlde country hamlet.

This fallen world is presided over by druglords, gangsters, hookers and an assortment of shady and despicable creatures passing for human beings. The biggest entertainment is a VR show called Deathstar, in which real victims vie against terrible odds in the Barrenlands to be turned into reality-television cannon fodder.

Users have to deploy ‘wiretaps’ in order to access Deathstar; the result is rather not what Timothy Leary had in mind when he instructed the unwashed masses to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” What is interesting is the gamut of cyber-crime this gives birth to: “It was an amoral haven for tech freak and yahoo alike; credit cards hacking, cells syncing, APPS firing, data bleeding.”

Enter our eponymous hero, Johnny Lyon, a VR coder whose boss tasks him to create a VR construct based on the historical Jesus Christ, in order to pacify the masses and make them easier to subjugate and coerce. Here VR becomes a potent symbol of tapping into people’s deepest desires and fears.

It is an interesting idea, but one is never quite convinced if Simmons is being satirical or allegorical. It reminded me of Valis by the incomparable PKD; certainly Plastic Jesus would have worked much better as social commentary if Simmons had adopted a more Dick-like tone rather than lean too heavily on the Gibson tropes.

This is a high-concept SF novel where, unfortunately, the concept is given short shrift. Much of the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of SF is obtained from world-building: too much, and you have gratuitous info-dumping. Too little, and you may as well not have an SF premise or context at all.

The writing here is pedestrian at best, and the characters are all easily recognisable stock tropes from the sort of hard-boiled Chandleresque pastiche perfected by the likes of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Similarly, there is not much subtlety, with Simmons’ attempts at being provocative coming across as heavy-handed and not nearly nuanced enough. Disappointing.

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The Penetrated Male

The Penetrated MaleThe Penetrated Male by Jonathan Kemp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, the wonderful cover image is half of the 1998 oil-on-canvas painting by Matthew Stradling entitled All Fours, which Jonathan Kemp refers to in his Acknowledgements (the other half, actually the front of the painting, is on the back cover, which is an ironic inversion).

The painting is a perfect summation of this elegant and provocative non-fiction book by Jonathan Kemp, author of the novel London Triptych, in which he examines the gender and power relation issues associated with penetrative gay male sex, particularly how this impacts on the concept of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.

That is, to be ‘penetrated’ means to be reduced to a submissive and feminine categorisation associated with powerlessness and social disenfranchisement.

Why this continues to be so, particularly in this day and age of concerted LGBT and gender activism, is a very complex and intertwined story, which Kemp unravels with fierce skill and insight, starting with Michel Foucault’s work on the history of sex in Greece and Rome, where “male-male eroticism was governed by a strict understanding that the penetrated partner was a non-citizen: that is, a slave, a woman, or a young boy”.

Although based on a PhD thesis, this is no dry or formidable academic treatise. Instead it is impassioned and beautifully written, wearing an incredible amount of qualitative research lightly on its sleeve.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Queer Theory, and the work of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuzes, Sigmund Freud, Leo Bersani, Guy Hocquenghem and a veritable panoply of related theorists and writers, will find much that is familiar here, but also a lot to reflect upon.

What I found most interesting is Kemp’s attempt to reclaim the anus as an instrument, as well as an arena, of eroticism, and why the anus and excrement are such loaded terms, associated with a range of negative connotations, from death to uncleanliness. Kemp quotes Freud:

Where the anus is concerned it becomes still clearer that it is disgust which stamps that sexual aim as a perversion. I hope I shall not be accused of partisanship when I assert that people who try to account for this disgust by saying that the organ in question serves the function of excretion and comes in contact with excrement … are not much more to the point than hysterical girls who account for their disgust at the male genital by saying that it serves to void urine.

While perusing this I was simultaneously reading The Cool Part of His Pillow by Rodney Ross, where Barry wakes up to find his pugs Noel and Gertie sticking their asses in his face. His partner Andy comments:

“But wouldn’t mankind be better off if we all did the Presentation of the Anus? Summit meetings of world leaders should be perceived by a Presentation of the Anus.”

To which Barry replies: “It would give new meaning to dirty politics.”

Non-gay people always tend to get a little green around the gills when contemplating the mechanics of gay (male) anal sex, a natural squeamishness that John Irving picks on mercilessly in In One Person when he ponders the line “the stink of love” from James Baldwin’s In Giovanni’s Room:

… it made me feel so awfully naïve. What had I thought making love to a boy or a man might smell like? Did Baldwin actually mean the smell of shit, because wouldn’t that be the smell on your cock if you fucked a man or boy?

That, in turn, reminds me of the immortal lines by Yeats, quoted by Samuel R. Delany in The Mad Man:

Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

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Wit and Wisdom

Vanity publishing is something that Tyrion Lannister would have approved of. So even though this blatantly commercial and exorbitantly priced little tome is clearly meant to cash in on the GRRM phenomenon, I grudgingly quite liked it …

There is something very satisfying about having the Imp’s best utterances on love, war and the human condition to hand in such an elegant fashion (which is superb as an ebook). The illustrations by Jonty Clarke are inspired.

Though I wonder whose hand that is supposed to be in Clarke’s interpretation of ‘The Creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo: Martin himself as the author? Or maybe it symbolises HBO, which has breathed such life into this fantasy series with its superlative adaptation (which has wisely remained true to the intent, rather than the letter, of the text).

Curiously though, Tyrion here appears much more what I imagined him to look like when I first read A Game Of Thrones, long before the HBO television series and Peter Dinklage’s interpretation.

The quotes are divided into about 14 brief sections, ranging from ‘On The Power of Words’ to ‘The Art of Saving Your Skin’, which subjects are both dear to Tyrion’s black heart.

Most of the quotes seem to have been culled from A Dance With Dragons, which could be an alarming indication that GRRM has no intention of completing the next tome anytime soon.

Anyway, I think the main aim of this is as a nice gift for any fan (I am in two minds as to whether or not the sheer brevity of it is a very pithy comment on GRRM’s general tendency to overwrite things).

My favourite quote is from ‘On The Power of Words’: “… a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.”

Approximation

I was really excited when I heard that Stephen Baxter was returning to the kind of hard SF that established him originally in the genre. His prehistoric Northland trilogy was entertaining and conceptually audacious, but one couldn’t help feeling it was but a detour for the pre-eminent genre master, with novels like Ring and Timelike Infinity setting the benchmark for hard SF.

Ironically, Proxima is a perfect starting point if you are new to Baxter, because it reads like a checklist of great ideas he has visited before, from mysterious and enigmatic alien artifacts to strange worlds, bloodthirsty tribal societies, and timey-wimey inter-weaving of history and destiny, to borrow a phrase from Doctor Who (Baxter, of course, has penned a very credible Doctor Who novel himself).

There is nothing original in Proxima for the long-term Baxter fan. It reads like a limp rehash of the Manifold and Long Earth sequences, which are both superior in scientific rigour, and written with a fierce and unceasing sense of wonder and awe at the mysteries (and inanities) of the universe. Really disappointing.

Part of the problem here, I think, is that Proxima is in itself simply a set-up for its sequel, Ultima. This is possibly why the novel feels so bizarrely truncated and disjointed. I found it very difficult to connect to the imperatives of the story, or the predicament of the characters.

The entire starship journey to Prox c, for example, is dispensed with in a few chapters. There is little sense of scale or consequence here, which is particularly damning in that Baxter is at his sensational best when he writes like Olaf Stapledon combined with the social aesthetic of D.H. Lawrence.

(Yes, I have always thought that Baxter is that good; certainly he is one of the most consistently original and experimental SF writers at work today. Even though I disliked it, Proxima is still light years ahead of a lot of the turgid mush that passes for SF these days).

There are three inter-cut narrative strands, but they all kind of peter out towards the end, as Baxter is obviously saving the Grand Climax for the final instalment. Granted, he is very, very good at multi-volume narratives, and it is possible that the flaws of this initial outing could be overshadowed by the brilliance of the conclusion. Here’s fervently hoping this is the case…