Ultima

UltimaUltima by Stephen Baxter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I remember in my review of Proxima being wrong-footed by the first instalment, which I thought was a generation starship story. Instead Baxter dealt rather perfunctorily with the journey to Per Adua around Poxima Centauri, where the hapless travellers find a mysterious hatch. So much for the rigours of inter-galactic travel, made mockingly redundant by a blunt deus ex machina.

Ultima picks up at the exact moment when the aptly-named Yuri Eden steps through the aforesaid hatch. Exactly where (perhaps more importantly, when) he ends up is the chief subject matter, and delight, of the second volume. I hesitate to call it the concluding instalment, given the anticipated cliff-hanger ending.

Baxter is most adept at a rather old-fashioned kind of ‘what if?’ SF, which has a distinguished lineage from Olaf Stapledon to Arthur C. Clarke. However, he leavens his sense-of-wonder with cutting-edge scientific speculation and a kind of existentialist philosophy that ponders such vast questions as the end of space and time.

One of the chief criticisms of this kind of intellectual SF has always been that it pays short shrift to characterisation. Stock characters are often clumsily deployed as opposing spectrums of various dialectic positions, given to info-dumping a lot of arcane terminology as opposed to advancing any sense of plot or narrative.

What Baxter achieves with Ultima is a perfect synthesis of sense-of-wonder and a range of believable characters that grow in unexpected ways (and which astonish the reader with their selflessness, endurance and curiosity towards the end, which here is the End Time, when our universe bumps against the wall of another structure in the Multiverse, resulting in an ambiguous ‘wall of light’).

‘Big Concept’ Baxter is unique in the genre in the breadth and depth of his scientific speculation, always linked to or extrapolated from current theory and thinking, as testified to by generous Afterwords to his books, which are detailed enough to include citations of current academic papers.

There are truly jaw-dropping moments in Ultima. Rather than overwhelm the reader, however, Baxter carefully ratchets up the sense-of-wonder to what one suspects will be a kind of 2001 ending …

That the true ending focuses on a disparate bunch of characters – displaced people from Roman and Incan interstellar empires, a couple of AIs and stragglers from Earth – huddling together at the end of the universe on the alien planet of Ultima, is fitting and bittersweet, giving a very human face to some highly daunting astrophysical speculation.

This is one of the best books that Baxter has written to date, cleverly conflating some of his most beloved ideas, from deep time to alternate histories. Not to mention the immutability of the human spirit.

Bold, brave and exciting, this is world-building that is intellectually vigorous and supple, without forgetting to be deeply humane. A magnificent, thrilling achievement that is testament to Baxter’s reputation as one of the best SF writers in this world. Or any other.

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Our Deep Gossip

Our Deep Gossip: Conversations with Gay Writers on Poetry and DesireOur Deep Gossip: Conversations with Gay Writers on Poetry and Desire by Christopher Hennessy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to read more non-fiction, short stories and poetry (especially poetry by so-called ‘gay’ poets). I am an avid reader of gay literary fiction, so was curious to see how poets would tackle the same subject matter.

Dipping a toe into the unknown is quite daunting, so I was especially grateful to discover Christopher Hennessy’s collection of interviews with an array of contemporary gay poets (the notion of gay identity and how this impacts on a ‘queer poetics’ is one of the many fascinating interrogations here).

I bought Hennessy’s book quite a while ago, and only began reading it now after venturing with a colleague to a poetry-and-jazz evening in downtown Johannesburg. This reminded me of my resolution (rather guiltily as, with so many of its kind, unacted on) and the fact that I had Hennessy’s book on my Kindle.

The book begins with an especially penetrating introduction by the charming and erudite Christopher Bram, who contends that “sex is a special poetry of the body”. Indeed, a lot of the poets here ponder the mysteries of desire and the difficulties of writing about it, without reducing the ineffable to cliché or sentimentality.

Dennis Cooper waxes lyrical on the asshole as a sex organ, and how rimming is one of the most personally disarming sexual acts. As Edward Field says: “God created shit and shinola – everything is sacred.”

It is also Field who remarks that “a lot of gay men view the body as a minefield, because of what AIDS has meant.” How to reflect the extent of this devastation in the form of poetry, and the thin line between eulogy and voyeurism, is also explored here.

Of course, one cannot ignore gender or identity politics. Field again: “Being gay in our puritan culture makes our sexuality a political struggle.” Key to this is the question of what it means to be gay, or queer, or any other politically-correct (or convenient handle. As Aaron Shurin notes: “Gay is gay. It’s not queer, or it’s a subset of subset, but it’s very different. It’s not just about ‘otherness’, it has sex and love in it.”

It is remarkable how Hennessy manages to bring these disparate writers to life in his interviews. I was a bit dubious when I began reading the introduction, where he portentously tries to give intellectual heft to what are essentially a series of long-chat transcripts, claiming that the form is more organic and intuitive than more structured or formal textual criticism, in it being able to evoke (or provoke) unexpected ideas or insights from the subjects.

But as you begin reading the interviews themselves, the reader begins to comprehend the complex, and often beguiling, interplay at work here. This ranges from the polymorphous perversity of Wayne Koestenbaum (“Yes to fingerfucking the dialectic! Or to using the dialectic as a method of fingerfucking the binary!”) to the lyrical grace of Kazim Ali: “The whole world, as we’re coming to understand, is quivering in its place.”

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The Cold Commands

The Cold CommandsThe Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stunning sequel to The Steel Remains throws a swaggering ‘fuck you’ to all those who have not read the initial instalment … or those who have forgotten its plot intricacies. Richard Morgan throws the reader back viscerally into his grimdark world – one of the chief strengths here is the glorious world-building.

I am unsure if this is because Morgan is best known as an SF writer: he brings the same attention to detail and consequence to this ostensible fantasy realm. Though the sequel does show the SF elements bleeding through, in the best way possible, reminding me strongly of the great Gene Wolfe.

From disquisitions on everything from bathing routines in a war campaign, to the necessity of skilled blacksmiths to victory, to the ramifications of court politics, this is a big, ballsy book to wallow in. Central to this is the incisive characterisation, with Ringil Eskiath, “faggot dragonslayer”, being remarkably unlikeable, particularly in such brutal scenes where he presides over the prolonged gang rape of a female captive.

Such inhumanity is balanced carefully against Ringil’s own marginal status as a homosexual, despite the fucking great big sword, forged of alien metal, he carries on his back (like Sisyphus’s Rock). There is a stunning scene, erotic and evocative, where Ringil sleeps with the ragtag leader of a band of thieves and misfits:

Nobody cared. They were too full of their own lives to pass judgement on others. It was an otherness, a magic as staggering as the ikinri’ska.

There is also a wonderfully melancholy strain to the narrative, an elegiac reflection on age, loss and regret:

Is this how it ends, then? Faded glories and memories of a youth growing dim. The cold creep of time as it eats you. Weaker and weary, less and less triumph in your stride, less and less to warm you outside of those recollections of another, brighter, harder, younger man…

Morgan’s contribution to grimdark fantasy is equally as pivotal as his Kovacs novels have been to cyberpunk SF. Perhaps most importantly of all, he breathes new life and vision into both genres, upholding all the old genre clichés, while at the same time making them uniquely his own, in a fantastic fusion of blood and magic. Extraordinary.

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Eustace Chisholm and the Works

Eustace Chisholm and the WorksEustace Chisholm and the Works by James Purdy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another literary dervish from the foetid imagination of James Purdy. This is only the second Purdy I have read, and is markedly different from Cabot Wright Begins. Whereas the latter is an excoriating satire, Eustace Chisholm is quite different.

Exactly what it is, I am unsure: a paean to the sanctity of love, a gothic tale of obsession and its horrific consequences, a sly homage to the muse of creativity and the toll it exacts on those enthralled to its servitude.

There is a passage early on that, to the modern reader, seems like a haunting foreshadowing of the ravages of the HIV/Aids epidemic:

“I have to say it all over again,” Carla said to Clayton, but her voice easily carried to the front room. “Never saw such a beautiful boy outside of pictures.”
“It won’t last,” Clayton said in a whisper that did not carry.
“Why not?” Carla wondered.
“Why, he’ll die,” Clayton replied sleepily.

The ethereal beauty of Amos, which seems like an angelic manifestation of gay perfection, has all sorts of repercussions throughout this grim novel, the most devastating being the sado-masochistic relationship between Daniel Haws and Captain Stadger.

What transpires is so brutal, and ultimately so self-destructive, tainted as much with the blood that is spilt as with the love that empowers these acts, that the reader is hard pressed to keep on reading until the end. (The closest comparison with Purdy is the New Queer Cinema of Gregg Araki, I think).

Purdy implicates the reader himself in the gory goings-on when Eustace comments near the end that “he was as anxious to know the end of the Daniel-Amos story as a depraved inveterate novel reader.”

The edition I read has a curious cover featuring a prominent picture of a moth. I was quite puzzled by this, until the shattering ending:

The thick body of a moth on his lips awakened Daniel, and opening an eye – half of his face was pressed tight to the ground – he saw the ‘fair-browed Moon’ about which Amos had once written in a poem addressed to him.

It is perhaps no surprise that both Cabot Wright and Eustace Chisholm were attacked on ‘moral grounds’ upon publication. Infinitely more damaging to Purdy’s critical bastion though was that, in the period during which both of these novels were published, “all his immediate family, his friends and his supporters had died.”

What a devastating fate to befall such a remarkable writer, who wrote so eloquently about the marginalised, and ended up falling through the cracks of history itself.

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The Last Word

The Last WordThe Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this book. It is the first Hanif Kureishi novel I have read; I had no idea he was so prolific, including short stories and screenplays. The ‘writer writing about writing’ genre is a well-trodden area, but Kureishi deftly delivers a very funny and ultimately highly affirming account of the profession.

I think to some extent The Last Word was a victim of its own publicity when it was published initially, due to the perceived wisdom that Kureishi’s book would be a thinly veiled skewering of the relationship between V.S. Naipaul and Patrick French. While the allusion is always there in the background, it is nothing more than a mirror to reflect Kureishi’s own ideas about writers and writing.

Thus many people were equally disappointed and puzzled by The Last Word, which is a real pity, as it is an incisive and engrossing book. The plot, as it were, is about writer-for-hire Harry Johnson’s assignment to research a warts-and-all biography of the famous Mamoon Azam.

Both writers are dependent on the project for various reasons: Harry for a steady job, while the Azam family hopes that its timely publication will resurrect the dying embers of the patriarch’s reputation (not to mention rekindling his book sales).

Much of the humour, and indeed the sadness, derives from the sparring between these two men: Harry is monumentally frustrated by Mamoon’s reluctance to divulge the kind of dirt he is dependent on, while Mamoon resists both the intrusion and the crude attempts to recast his life as the elements of a tabloid bestseller.

Both men are extremely unlikable characters, whose behaviour has had lifelong repercussions for their families and friends. It is testament to Kureishi’s craft that he allows the reader to empathise with these total shitheels.

Indeed, both Harry and Mamoon do not realise they are on a kind of journey of discovery together: exactly what this journey is, and its final outcome, is both poignant and ironic (and explains, with solemn majesty, the true meaning of the book’s title, The Last Word).

One of the most important points raised by this book is the extent to which the reading public has a ‘right’ to know everything about a writer, versus that writer’s own need for respect and privacy (and the right to be a total shitheel if he or she wishes to be).

So much of popular culture is celebrity-driven, and writing is no exception: one only has to look at the cult of personality around writers as diverse as Harper Lee and J.K. Rowling. Even if writers choose to opt out of the celebrity circuit, like Salinger and Pynchon, this does not stop the relentless mythologising and gossip-mongering.

We also tend to lose focus on the true role of an author, Kureishi argues, “as an artist, a writer, a maker of worlds, a teller of important truths, and that this was a way of changing things, of living well, and of creating freedom.”

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All Talk

SpeakSpeak by Louisa Hall

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Here there be dragons. Or, as in this instance, the perils of the multi-narrative novel. David Mitchell made it seem so effortless in Cloud Atlas, where he flung together disparate voices from the distant past and the deep future. However, the effect can be quite jarring and disjointed where it does not work, as in the case of Speak.

Here we have Stephen R. Chinn, a computer programmer writing his memoirs in a Texas jail in 2040. Chinn is the inventor of the so-called ‘babybot’ robot companions, which are eventually outlawed when behavioural problems are detected in children. (We have a transcript of a young girl’s conversation with one of the early iterations of the ‘babybot’ program.)

The story is kind of book-ended with an account of a babybot being conveyed to a dump site, who recalls all the disparate voices she remembers as constituting her history. Through the enactment of memory, she gives voice to this history, and ‘speaks’ the truth of it. Or, rather, Hall’s version of the truth.

This is where the dragons lurk: Hall also throws in fictional letters from Alan Turing to the mother of a close friend. The author’s conceit here is that Turing was secretly in love with this person while at university; the friend’s early death haunts him to the extent that all his experimentation with coding is an attempt to resurrect his memory.

The Turing thread simply does not work, both from an historical and a psychological point of view (the final image we have of Turing after his chemical castration is an unintentionally funny one of a fat man with pendulous breasts unable to stop eating; there is no mention of his eventual suicide.)

We also have excerpts from the 17th century diary of a 13-year-old girl, the editor of which recounts her own marital difficulties in the 1960s in the most tedious of the narrative strands here. The diary itself is the best written part of the book, representing an authentic voice of the character in question. Again, though, we have dodgy psychology, here in the form of an over-elaborated fixation on the dog Ralph.

What is missing from Speak is any clear indication of the type of world that gave rise to the ‘babybots’. The account at the beginning of robots being conveyed to a secret dump site is meant to remind one of Mexican immigrants being ferried illegally in the US, but this is the only connection we have to a larger socio-political reality. And that is an inference at best.

I have managed not to mention the dreaded genre term ‘SF’ yet; I think people who read this will be those unlikely to turn to a book labelled as such, and who will be equally surprised that what they had just read was, indeed, SF. With a few dragons or caveats, of course.

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Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland: Our Staggering Journey from Science Fiction to Science FactTomorrowland: Our Staggering Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact by Steven Kotler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The main problem with this book is summed up in the introduction, where Steven Kotler waxes lyrical about the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in the south of France. “How far has hope taken us?” he muses. “From the very first time one of our primate progenitors sharpened a stick to a star. A freaking star. In a lab. Created by us. Let there be light.”

What Kotler does not mention is that the world’s largest nuclear fusion machine has already cost three times as much as budgeted ($20bn and counting), with the completion date now being shifted from 2016 to 2019. The production of ‘burning plasma’ is unlikely before the 2030s.

Being a long-time SF reader, I have an ambivalent attitude towards technology, an attitude I believe is shared by much of the genre’s writers and readers. It might come as a surprise to outsiders that SF stalwarts do not believe that technology is the be-all and end-all of humanity’s growing list of intractable hurdles.

The problem is that technology can never be neutral, as it is always enmeshed in an intricate weave of social and political issues, from government control, such as weaponisation, to moral and religious complexities, such as with cloning and gene splicing.

It is a pity that Kotler did not take his own maxim into account that “journalists tend to be cynical by nature and disbelieving by necessity.” He explains that this book is essentially a collection of articles he wrote between 2000 and 2014 for major publications such as the New York Times, Wired and Atlantic Monthly, which he subsequently updated for this book.

Such an approach shows, for there is little narrative continuity here, and only a tenuous exploration of the most interesting aspect: the impact of technology on what it means to be human. Granted this is not a technical or academic treatise, but rather a popular account for the layman who wishes to be updated on (some) of the latest scientific progress. Still, it is a pity that Kotler does not explore his ideas a bit further … which might have tempered some of the dewy-eyed optimism.

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