The Wolf Gift

The Wolf GiftThe Wolf Gift by Anne Rice

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There are many problems with The Wolf Gift – the dreary exposition, the sophomoric philosophising, the lack of any real bite in terms of horror or eroticism, the purple prose – but perhaps the biggest problem, which gives rise to all the others, is that Anne Rice attempts to transfer the template of Interview with the Vampire onto a new mythology.

Werewolves are not the same as vampires, and simply to treat them as interchangeable supernatural creatures, both with great insight and wisdom, refined taste and impeccable Old Word credentials, immortality and insatiable carnal and venal appetites, inflicts as grave an injustice on these tropes as Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight sequence has done.

In fact, I would say the damage is greater, because Rice at least should know what she is doing. This, of course, is the writer who modernised vampires for a new generation, paving the way for everything from Meyer (the Gods help us all) to True Blood.

However, the big mistake here is that, instead of reinventing the werewolf story, she cranks out all the beats of Interview with the Vampire (we even have an older werewolf accidentally creating a young protégé, who in this version is a gay boy wolf – this is so laughable as to be completely unbelievable).

It has been years since I have read Rice – I gave up round about the Egyptian phase, and was quite oblivious to the Roman Catholic phase – but I do remember being quite enamoured with Interview with the Vampire. I think the great secret of that book was that we all wanted to be that young reporter interviewing Lestat in that room, gaining access to a world of unimaginable terror and beauty.

There is no comparable narrative hook in The Wolf Gift. At 23 years’ old, Reuben is an even bigger stuffed shirt than Little Lord Fauntleroy. His acceptance of the said ‘gift’ of werewolfhood – in the initial attack at Nideck House – is preceded by such a bungled attempt at writing about an older woman seducing a much younger man that the subsequent violence makes no impression whatsoever.

Just when the reader thinks he is dreaming, that no modern writer can possibly write with the prudishness or squeamishness of a Victorian school teacher, that Man Wolf Reuben stumbles upon the conveniently separated, and accepting, Laura in the big bad forest, and promptly deflowers her.

You would think that Rice has never seen an erect cock in her life before, the way she writes:

Something had happened to his entire body that was very much like what happens to the erectile tissue of his organ when a man is sexually aroused. It increases marvellously in size, no matter what the man wants to happen. It goes from something flaccid and secret to becoming a kind of weapon.

Rice’s take on the werewolf mythos is that it represents an evolutionary offshoot of prehistoric man in response to predation by more powerful species. Thus the ‘wolf gift’ evolved as a kind of defense mechanism. Not content to leave it there in the realm of pseudo-speculation, she then posits that her werewolves can ‘smell’ evil, and are driven to destroy it wherever it appears.

Rice hints heavily that this compulsion reveals the hand of God in nature. Reuben even visits his priest brother to receive absolution; Rice queasily conflates theology and morality by signposting the ‘superhero’ aspects of her werewolves.

Surprisingly little happens in this quite long novel. Much of it seems to take place in the drawing rooms of Nideck House and its surrounding forest. Indeed, the novel even ends with the kind of mega info dump that made The Witching Hour such torture to read.

As a horror novel, this scores absolute zero. The plotting and pacing are non-existent; Rice commits such obvious technical blunders as having Man Wolf Reuben being able to take selfies with his iPhone during his transformation.

Said transformation scenes are punctuated with endless exclamation marks (!), with Rice struggling to convey anything other than Man Wolf Reuben being covered by a giant mullet. There are lots of descriptions of hairstyles in the book, and lots of mirror gazing and hair flicking, which makes you wonder if Rice is interested solely in lycanthropy for its man-grooming possibilities.

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The Peripheral

The PeripheralThe Peripheral by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The ‘what the fuck?’ quotient tends to wobble right off the scale when you start a William Gibson novel. The neologisms come thick and fast as you try to parse the texture of Gibson’s particular future this time round (it is hard to think it has been four years since Zero History, let alone any meaning (or, dare one say, plot).

The beginning of The Peripheral is particularly abstruse and obscure, even by Gibson’s standards: I only started to understand what was going on at about 20% of the ebook. Reading Gibson, of course, is very much an immersive learning experience. Unfortunately, once the reader becomes acclimatised to the initial sense of wonder, the book disappointingly and very quickly becomes a rather repetitive police procedural (with a rather uncharacteristically upbeat ending).

This is despite the fact that The Peripheral is probably Gibson’s most obviously SF novel since Neuromancer. Here he tackles that hoary old genre chestnut, time travel, but puts a fantastic spin on it: there is not one future here, but two. In the one, we meet Flynne Fisher, whose part-time occupations include beta testing video games. She happens to witness a murder in one game, which brings her to the attention of a future 70 years ahead of her timeline.

Gibson has great fun contrasting and comparing the two futures, one set in small-town America and the other in a London ravaged by the fallout of an ‘androgenic’ apocalypse. Science has delivered such miracles as pervasive nanotechnology, but not in time to save humanity or the planet.

One of the crazier ideas of the novel is that Flynne is able to participate in the future timeline by means of a robot proxy called a Peripheral. I almost thought Gibson was attempting a screwball comedy, as at one point we have various characters jumping backwards and forwards into variously gendered Peripherals and even objects.

The description of this process, and the implications for both gender and identity, are thought-provoking and convincing. Gibson has always been fascinated with the marginal and the bleeding edge of things, and the Peripheral is a truly inspired McGuffin to allow him to explore these ideas on a much larger canvas.

Gibson also has some mind-bending fun with the idea of time travel, and how past/present can interact with and transform each other, like a Möbius strip of causality:

“You from the future, Mr. Netherton?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “I’m in the future that would result from my not being there. But since I am, it isn’t your future. Here.”

I had forgotten how droll Gibson can be – he is often portrayed as this grim futurist – but there are some very funny moments here, as with Flynne’s sudden desire to have a breakfast burrito while being transported in a security convoy (said burrito is delivered by remote drone).

Gibson is also a master of dialogue, and delights in laconic exchanges that often reveal far more than what the protagonists intended. This often makes for rapid-fire chapters – there are 124 in total – that belie the considerable length of this novel (490 pages).

Unfortunately, the usual problem of a Gibson novel is manifest here as well. This is the perfunctory characterisation, with characters largely differentiated in terms of what they wear and the fashionable backdrops they are paraded against. These range from a vintage Airstream RV (in the past) to a fantastically bio-engineered Oxford Street in London (in the future).

The Peripheral cannot be dismissed out of hand, however. It does represent a refinement of the particular flavour that is a Gibson novel. Like Murakami, Gibson is in danger of becoming a literary commodity. But there is enough strangeness and intellectual frisson here to make The Peripheral one of the more interesting SF novels of recent times.

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The Bone Clocks

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I love about David Mitchell is his fearlessness as a writer, his willingness to experiment, and his boundless enthusiasm for pushing the envelope of language and, indeed, the very form of the novel itself. Also, he does not pander to his readers, and expects you to follow where he leads. No molly coddling here; no easily digestible plots and stereotypical characters.

Well, that is what one would have thought after Cloud Atlas. Imagine my surprise then when The Bone Clocks turned out to be one of Mitchell’s most enjoyable, easily digestible and, yes, linear books to date. It is structurally akin to Cloud Atlas in being a series of inter-linked novellas. But there any resemblance ends, for this is equally unlike anything Mitchell has written to date.

Mitchell is not only at the top of his game, but is having a huge amount of fun. So much so that you wonder if he is not parodying himself, especially in the Crispin Hershey section, where his character not only dismisses genre fiction, but meta fiction as well (especially lazy writers who have ‘writers’ as characters).

Mitchell then follows this post-modern nudge-wink with a bravura ‘high concept’ SF / fantasy section that is as over-the-top as anything in a Hollywood ‘sci-fi’ blockbuster. Think Harry Potter / Star Wars / Twilight combined – that is how ‘purple’ this section is, replete with psycho-duels and dramatically collapsing masonry.

The difference here is that the reader believes every single word, because we have invested so much in these characters up to this point, and also because the Anchorite / Horologist battle is so well grounded in the very fabric of the story.

Rather than end the novel on such an impossibly high note, Mitchell then opts for a quiet, bittersweet coda that is one of the best ‘end of the world’ scenarios I have ever read. This elegiac and graceful section really showcases Mitchell’s talent as a writer, and brings Holly’s story full circle, as it were.

Of course, in order to buy into this novel, I think you have to fall madly in love with Holly Sykes, which I did from the very first page. If nothing else, Mitchell is an absolute master of characterisation, especially in terms of regional dialogue – what I found remarkable is how quickly I began to ‘hear’ Holly’s voice in my head. He then introduces the rather odious Hugo Lamb – who is anything but … and then brings Hugo and Holly together.

As an end note: There have been a lot of comments on the ‘cohesiveness’ of this novel. I think Mitchell’s overarching strategy here is to take disparate elements and knock them together, like balls on a pool table. He does not simply write separate novellas and slap them together.

While reading the IMAX Show Me The Money section on the Anchorite / Horologist psycho-duel, I kept on thinking of the Iraq war section – which has its own jargon and geopolitical context, and which would make for equally bizarre reading if one knew nothing about it.

Does this ‘fantasy’ section trivialise the Iraq war and ‘end of the world’ sections? I am unsure; the success of Mitchell’s mythopoesis is definitely up to the reader ‘buying into’ the fantasy elements. For me, the novel’s disparate parts function seamlessly, and the novel is much more powerful as a result. Have faith in Mitchell, in other words, and he will show you wonders and terrors.

As a final end note: a lot has also been made of the ‘fantasy’ elements of this novel. Is it science fiction? Well, yes and no – if I can think of anything to compare it with, I would point to a novel like Transition by Iain M. Banks.

Mitchell is a restless auteur, and likes to prowl the shadowy edges of genre boundaries. He takes a real risk by injecting some high-concept fantasy into the mix here, but manages to strike a careful balance with the real heart of the story, which of course is the wondrously alive Holly Sykes, whom we follow fearlessly, and with love, into the darkness.

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The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things: A NovelThe Book of Strange New Things: A Novel by Michel Faber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Michel Faber ends his First Contact/end of the world/star-crossed lovers novel at such a critical juncture that it left me quite flummoxed. The only reason I could think of is that Faber plans a sequel or continuation. Then again, perhaps the ending forms part of his larger project here of deconstructing SF tropes.

Thus the novel ends as if it were Part One of a trilogy (or diptych) only because that is the (SF) reader’s general expectation (it kind of reminded me of how Samuel R. Delany leaves the reader hanging at the end of Stars in My Pocket Like grains of Sand.)

I must admit that when I first heard about this novel, which also marks my first time reading Faber, I had no idea that it was SF. All the marketing portrays it as a ‘literary’ novel and either downplays the SF elements or does not mention them at all.

However, the SF reader’s response to this novel is likely to be different to a non-genre reader (here I am also perhaps thinking of the potential difficulty a reader could have with The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell if he or she has not read any SF, let alone any meta fiction or post modern writing.)

For example, the SF reader will immediately be able to place The Book of Strange of New Things in a larger genre dialectic it shares with A Case of Conscience by James Blish and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller.

This is not to suggest that your appreciation of Faber’s book will in any way be diminished without having read these classic texts. Rather what Faber has done here, I think, is to write a distinct SF novel for non SF readers … but which genre aficionados will be able to appreciate as well (Faber signposts his geek side by stating in the Acknowledgements that all the surnames he uses are based on Marvel Comics characters.)

Faber, however, plays a strange genre game here: He gives almost no details of the trip to Oasis (we have no idea where it is located even; Bea and Peter’s email correspondence is also instantaneous, which any SF reader knows is highly unlikely).

On the other hand, Faber’s description of the Oasans and their culture is almost hallucinatory in its vividness and attention to detail. There are also some lovely haunting touches in his descriptions of Oasis, such as the ‘dancing rain’.

My reaction to and perception of this novel was changed irrevocably by the revelation in The New York Times that Faber’s wife Eva succumbed to terminal cancer when he was making last changes to the final draft. This adds almost unbearable poignancy to the story of Bea and Peter.

The two central characters are separated by a gulf of space and time, each faced with their own harrowing version of hell (Earth succumbs to climate change and geopolitical instability, while on Oasis Peter goes irrevocably native in attempting to communicate with the Oasans).

There is a moment of such godforsaken bleakness towards the end of this novel that it left me feeling quite shattered. It is a testament to the skill of Faber as a writer that he manages to conclude on a note of transcendence, ambiguous as it may seem. Another superlative achievement is that Faber never seems to proselytise, given that the book is so steeped in Christianity and the Bible.

My only caveat is that the book could have been much shorter. It seems weighed down by its quiet middle section where Peter first encounters the Oasans. This makes bits like Tartaglione’s Kurtz-like oration towards the end and the final revelation about the Oasans seem rather abrupt and rushed. Stylistic note: I loved the way that each chapter title is, in fact, its last sentence.

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