Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reading Matthew Hughes' "The Damned Busters"

Matthew Hughes has accomplished something unique: he has written a novel, without illustrations, that conveys the tone and feel of comics published during their Golden Age. The Golden Age of Comics lasted from the late 1930s until the early 1950s; and, it was during this period that some of its most iconic characters appeared: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Flash, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel. These comics were written for children(although many adults, especially men in the service, read them); they possessed a simplicity and naivety that modern comics no longer contain. However, in some marvelous way, Hughes has captured that earlier tone and transferred it to a novel that on a very fundamental level operates as a re-telling of the Faust myth. To accomplish this almost alchemical transformation--comic feel into novel form, he employs images and icons from the Jazz Age, the Golden Age of Comics, Milton and the Bible.

The novel unfolds from the third-person limited view of Chesney Arnstruther, a border-line autistic actuary, who accidentally conjures up a demon while constructing a five-sided poker table. The demon appears when Chesney bangs his finger, producing blood, and blathers in his made-up gobbledegook swear words an oath that summons it. When he attempts to dismiss the demon with protestations of a simple mistake made, the demon doesn't take no for an answer; instead, he does what any good bureaucrat does, he calls in his supervisor. The second one had "the head of a weasel that had been refitted to sport a pair of canine fangs of sabertooth caliber, and coal-black eyes the size of saucers"(p. 14). Xaphan, who has not appeared on earth since the 20s, comes on like Edward G. Robinson's Little Caesar: he wears "a pin-striped suit with wide lapels and a ridiculously small tie," "two-toned shoes of patent leather with the insteps covered by pieces of strapped-on cloth--spats." Xaphan quickly informs Chester that "they" do not make mistakes and starts bargaining with him, offering his services. But Chester is not tempted by the demon's gifts of wealth and power; he simply wishes to be left alone to play cards, read his beloved comics, and do math. However, Chesney's refusal of Satan's temptations causes a rift in Heaven and Hell, which ultimately discomfits the entire world, and becomes the exciting force of the novel. To right the world, Chesney must "bow down" to Satan. With a minister mediator's help, the parties might find a solution--Chesney wants to be a crime fighter like the heroes in his comics.

With just a cursory summary of the plot it becomes obvious that lurking in the humor and silliness of the situation is a serious story that relies not only on comics for its themes and structure but also narrative devices that borrow freely from philosophy, law, expressionist art, pulp fiction, theology, and psychology. For instance, many of the conflicts are resolved by lawyers, both secular and religious. When Chesney needs help his mother calls on the services of Reverend Hardacre--a lawyer and a minister. When a strike ensues in Hell, Hardacre mediates between the union faction--Infernal Brotherhood of Fiends, Demons and Tempters (the IBFDT), Satan and heaven's representative. When Chesney needs information on criminal activity he turns to his actuarial tables, computer, and the bell curve. When a character wonders what is the purpose of life, another quotes an English translation of Gauguin's epigram from his masterpiece asking the same question: D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous (Where do we come from, where are we going, where are we).

The Damned Busters feels like a comic of the Golden Age. Because of its allusions to and reliance on themes of pulp fiction and comics of that age it reminds me of both Chester Gould's Dick Tracy and Al Capp's pastiche Fearless Fosdick. There may be even conscious nods to Gould through Hughes use of quirky names, including the obvious use of the name "Chesney" for the protagonist and "Blowdell" ( maybe Ernst Stavro Blofeld from three of Fleming's 007 novels) for the antagonist, but also in the physical description of the characters; Xaphan described above and the wormed-nosed Melech are primary examples. But even though the tone captures an earlier time and genre, the novel itself is post-modern, utilizing various narrative devices to tell the story, even turning meta-fictional at the end by commenting on itself as a book: the demons have heard a rumor that life is simply a book written by some other entity and that they, as characters, are not trapped within their fates but can through their free will change their destiny.

In conclusion, The Damned Busters is a very clever book (and fast read), exactly the type of work that Angry Robot Books is noted for: it is a smooth melange of genres--comic, noir, humor, fantasy, and metaphysical; ultimately entertaining and damned smart.

As a postscript, be on the watch for a passel of allusions and unresolved plot threads which beg the question--what happens next?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Reading China Tom Miéville's "Embassytown"

Most writers carry around an ur-novel in their head; it's the one they play just before they fall asleep. Smart writers don't write the ur-novel first; instead, they let the ideas percolate for years and write it when they've matured. Miéville has said in various interviews that the idea of Embassytown has been with him since he was eleven and in some ways his youthful imagining is obvious in the construction of the novel. However, it's not really a child's book, although it starts with scenes from Avice's childhood, but a phantasmagoria of geo-political themes and images. And it is a violent book; a book about empire, colonization, exploitation, and rebellion. It is also a book about language and sexual politics, grounded in a science fiction construct. Nevertheless, it is not a space opera; instead, it seems more like the metaphysical romances of the sixties, when politics, rebellion, race and drugs were major themes; books like Delaney's Babel-17 or, on the other hand, a book of philosophical space romance like David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus or the cultural anthropological space sagas of Ursula K. LeGuin. Mostly, however, the book reminded me of Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Nostromo and the American romances of race and conquest, like Melville's Moby Dick or Cooper's Leather-stocking Tales. And like these novels the theme of good and evil played out in an innocent natural paradise is evident.

Additionally, the novel is replete with word play but I will deal with only a few examples. The novel begins with Avice, the protagonist and narrator, on the planet Arieka, in a colony established by Bremen, on the edge of the immer. From its beginning the novel draws our attention to language and perception. Miéville sprinkles German and French words through the text and uses names to convey larger associations. In our history, Bremen, a free imperial city on the Baltic, was a member of the Hanseatic League; an economic alliance of trading cities and merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe during the Late Middle Ages. By choosing Bremen, as the name of his colonial power, Miéville alerts us through allusion that he is dealing with a burgeoning imperial entity that views trade, exploitation, and expansion as its major goals. Avice's complete name is Avice Benda Cho. From her name, we see that she is multi-racial. There is also a possible allusion to the French political writer Julien Benda (La Trahison des Clercs). Additionally, the name of Avice is from the Germanic name Aveza, which was derived from the element avi, possibly meaning "desired". It was introduced to England by the Normans, and it became moderately common during the Middle Ages, at which time it was associated with Latin avis "bird". In regard to the word "immer," which means "always" in German, Miéville juxtaposes "manchmal," meaning sometimes. Avice, in her telling of the story, goes back and forth in time, heading chapters "Latter-day" and "Formerly." And he makes reference to Saussure's langue and parole, when discussing the language of the Ariekei and the Ambassadors.

The conflict of the novel arises from a failure of language. The Ariekei, called Hosts, and their human guests(or parasites)cannot communicate directly because the Hosts are polyvocal exots. They have two mouths. Overtime, the humans develop cloned doppels, Ambassadors, to communicate with the Hosts. Scile, Avice's husband explains the problem: "Their language is organized noise, like all of ours, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening." (p.55) Because of the nature of their language they cannot lie or write when the humans arrive but overtime and through interaction between the races change occurs; change that Scile chooses to see as a "fall" from innocence. Human language becomes a drug that intoxicates and almost destroys both the Hosts and the humans; leading finally to murder and mayhem.

Ultimately, the novel is about communication. Arieka at the far reaches of space is almost inaccessible. Only an ability to traverse the immer, a sort of deep structure of space allows humans access. The immer is to be understood in terms of language. "The immer's reaches don't correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on." (p.31) And at the end of this space is a city, lodged within a hostile climate, where only the bio-rigged technology of the Hosts allows the humans to live. It is the city, lodged like a cyst, containing a parasite in the Host, that situates itself within the imagination of the reader. This strange city disorients us through the almost hallucinatory images of the insect-like Hosts and flora and fauna of the planet that share their DNA. When EzRa speaks, drugging the Hosts, even the walls of the city respond to their voice.

Embassytown is a hard novel to describe. It is about colonization and exploitation, about freedom, and dialectical movement. The Host change but so, too, do the humans.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kafka Letters and Postcards Auctioned in Berlin

Below is the text of a letter I received from a close friend in Germany, Dr. Detlef Meyer-Ohlert. As a devoted reader of Kafka, I found it interesting.

Dear Keith:

Some time ago you had told me that you are reading Kafka. If my memory is correct I had responded to it and reported which books I had read and which are part of my library.

So I thought that some news may interest you about Kafka’s unpublished works. Since many years one can notice the excitement about his estate particularly with respect to the original drafts, manuscripts and letters although Kafka had determined in his will that all this material should be burned up after his death. But the heirs or curators didn’t follow his instructions as you probably know.

Recently 45 letters and 66 postcards, which Kafka had written to his sister Ottla between 1909 and 1924, were presented in an auction in Berlin. The lowest bid was determined at $ 500.000. But the German Archive for Literature in Marburg was unable to pay this amount. It was therefore most probable that a private collector would make the buy as happened with the letters of Kafka to Felice Bauer 25 years ago. But in this case two public archives prevented this. The German Archive for Literature and the Bodleian Library of Oxford cooperated and they bought the letters jointly. This deal was sponsored in Germany with money of the Federal Government, the State Baden-Württemberg and private donators, in Britain solely by private donators. The letters to Ottla are stored in Marburg but the Oxford Library has access to it at any time. The final price is unknown. Two thirds of
Kafka’s estate, of which the manuscripts of the “Schloss”, “Verwandlung”, and “Urteil” are owned by the Bodleian Library, the “Process”, “Letter to the Father” and the letters to Kafka’s love Milena Jesenská are owned by the German Archive. It is estimated that these two institutions are administering four fifth of Kafka’s autographs.

Attached is a facsimile of a postcard which Kafka wrote to Ottla from Riva del Garda. I cannot identify the date but it is certainly one prior to World War I, because the card carries an Austrian stamp. Kafka reports that he had visited Malesine (Italian territory) a few miles south of Riva where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had his affair and tells his sister that she would know about it if she had read Goethe’s “Italian Journey” and recommends that she should do it. He continues that the Castellan in Malesine had shown him the place where Goethe had worked on a drawing but that this place doesn’t correspond with (Goethe’s ?) diary, and that he (Kafka) had also difficulties to understand the Italian of the Castellan. I’m also attaching a picture of Kafka and his sister in their home quarter in Prague. DMO 05.09.2011

Monday, May 2, 2011

Dan Abnett's "Embedded"

Embedded is Dan Abnett's second book for Angry Robot Books (hereinafter referred to as ARB). ARB has stated from the outset that it is their mission to publish cross-genre texts and I posit that Embedded fits that mandate. Additionally, without blatantly stating it, some of the ARB's authors are actually resorting to the original purpose and impetus that made science fiction a genre of ideas--social commentary. Irrespective of its underlying motives, Embedded fits squarely within the science fiction tradition of ideas and is similar to Isaac Asimov's novel Fantastic Voyage and George Orwell's 1984. And, hopefully, without undermining its attraction as a rollicking good novel (because it is a fun read),Embedded cleverly and, I would also say, subtly, combines several genre elements to make a comment on rampant capitalism while employing certain popular trends or memes. More particularly, Embedded is a zombie novel disguised as a military thriller that (1) comments on current geo-political trends, (2)critiques what I will refer to as zombie capitalism, and (3) continues a trend in Abnett's work toward a more intimate science fiction (I will explain this by resorting to his Black Library novel Blood Pact).

Lex Falk, a reporter, is the protagonist of Embedded. The novel begins with his arrival on a colony planet, designated Eighty-Six. The name Eighty-Six is an implied joke. In restaurant terminology, eighty-six means take an item off the menu. In the eighties, the term entered the general populace and came to mean "to throw something away." Initially, Planet Eighty-Six was a throw-away but something secret changes that; suddenly the major powers, as well as several oligarchic corporations, are vying for the planet's assets. Falk thinks there is a story to be had on Planet Eighty-Six but everyone he meets deflects him and feeds him pablum.

Abnett has the ability to create unique worlds with a scratch of his pen; through the suggestion of a few creatures--bugs the size of birds--and a climate that is too hot and too humid, he creates a unique environment. Other writers would have spent hundreds of pages developing the situs; Abnett writes--a bug the size of a bird flutters around my light, great forests cover the hills and
vast supplies of minerals lie beneath the vegetation--and we're there. And he populates his planet with settlers who come from known space, controlled by two or three of the Geo-political powers (the Bloc, as in Eastern Bloc, who speak Russian, the United Status that speak English, and the oligarchic corporation, GEO), corporate agents, and soldiers and spies.

Soon after he arrives on the planet, Falk realizes there is a shooting war going on and he looks for a way in, a way around the bureaucracy that is designed to obfuscate the truth and deflect reporters like him. The way in is to be embedded within the brain of a soldier, a soldier who is paid to carry another consciousness in his mind into battle without his superiors knowing it. Here we are in Asimov country; an intimate space: a mind within a mind. And we are also in a military science fiction space, a space that Abnett has made his own through his Gaunt's Ghost series. But it also a new space, a more compact space in which to move his characters. I first noticed a change in Abnett's canvas in the short story "Iron Star" and the novel Blood Pact. The writing seemed more focused to me, with a greater concentration on character, and a tightening of space (canvas). Of course, it contains all the usual suspects; however, it is smaller in scope and scale. Blood Pact begins two years after the horrendous battles on Jago. The Ghosts are on Balhaut, an important location for Gaunt. This is where it all began, where things went bad for Gaunt. In fact, the people of Balhaut celebrate the bravery of the "dead" hero Gaunt. So, in effect, Gaunt is a ghost of sorts. Abnett is telling us that before Blood Pact Gaunt was a ghost, lost in the campaigns and blind to his greater role. Now, things are changing; Gaunt can see again; and, as is usually the case, in this most literary of tropes, Gaunt can see what other men cannot. He has a second sight. He sees the future and he sees into others. The action takes place in a small space and covers a short period of time. Embedded, like Blood Pact, is also tightly plotted and set within a compact space but unlike the Gaunt novel, Embedded utilizes a single point of view (sometimes we see through Nestor's point of view but it is really Falk/Nestor and I would argue the same point of view). This more disciplined approach narrows the scene, focuses the story, and provides an even more unified narrative. And in support of this focused narrative, the novel consists of a few long scenes transpiring over a short period of time. Long scenes transpiring over a short period of time make for a richer text and reading experience.

But don't become confused. Because, ultimately, Embedded is a clever zombie novel, rip-roaring military science fiction, and caustic speculative fiction. At its most basic level, Falk's inhabiting the body of Nestor Bloom is a mind manipulating a dead body. Abnett writes "He walked like a zombie, like some lumbering, spavined thing that retained only the most rudimentary brain-stem connection between impulse and action." (177) And on the other hand, Planet Eighty-Six is a world being devoured by a combination of military and corporate greed, or, in other words, zombie capitalism, arising from the joint efforts of military plus corporation. Abnett's future looks very much like the present. However, Hegel's Geist has compacted the earthly states into Geo-political blocks. Orwell predicted that three intercontinental states would emerge in the future: Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia. Abnett seems to follow Orwell's lead and extrapolate the continuation of the space race onto other planets through the machinations of several large inter-continental blocks. In his universe,however, there is an added ingredient, oligarchic corporations, equal to states, work hand-in-glove with the inter-continental states to form a type of virtual fascism, which relies on aggressive exploitation of minerals and labor. Freedom does not seem to have made much progress and mind control is possible through patches, i.e. software and medication, provided to the populace by corporations, who even copyright words (Orwell).

Embedded is a fun novel; more science fiction than military science fiction. It is also a jaundiced vision of the future where Western civilization, through its military/corporate institutions, continues to grow, manipulate, and expand.