Alternate Routes by Tim Powers and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – two reviews

alternate-routes-9781481483407_hrAlternate Routes by Tim Powers

Tim Powers has been writing about the ghosts of Los Angeles since his 1990s Fault Lines series, which started with Last Call in 1992, and finished with Earthquake Weather in 1997. Back then, people were huffing ghosts like drugs, absorbing them, being possessed by them. 

With his LA-set novels, Powers likes to pick a location with some weird history and weave his urban fantasy ideas into it. In the case of Earthquake Weather, he chose the Winchester Mystery House, which was built by the widow of the firearms company founder, and constructed over decades without building plans. In his more recent Medusa’s Web, he took us into Old Hollywood and Bunker Hill, and places that aren’t places populated by people who aren’t who they appear to be. To these locations, Powers links mythology and literature: the Fisher King, Troilus and Cressida, the cult of Dionysus.

The setting for Alternate Routes is the LA 405 freeway, with a side order of Mulholland Drive. This time, the fantasy elements are woven into the eddies and currents created by traffic patterns, and the ghosts are those who died on or near the freeway, and the mysteries concern what happens when you take an exit that isn’t there, or catch a voice from a car radio that you weren’t supposed to hear. The mythology is the labyrinth and the minotaur: Daedalus and Icarus.

Los Angeles is a fascinating sprawl of a city, and Powers clearly finds endless inspiration in its no-place weirdness. But this book, like Medusa’s Web (2016), feels somewhat peremptory and by-the-numbers. As if, one hopes, he’s just getting all these ideas out of his system. As a fan, I still bought this on the day of publication and read it quickly, but this novel does not reach the heights of his best work, Declare, The Stress of Her Regard, and Hide Me Among the Graves, The Drawing of the Dark – all of which have a historical setting away from the West Coast of the USA.

Terrible cover, too. I’ll doubtless come back to it to reassess, but for now I’m disappointed.

32802595Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

This third novel by Becky Chambers, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, takes place in the same universe, at more or less the same time as the other novels. This time, the focus is on the human crew of the Exodus Fleet, the refugees from Old Earth, who have been living on the generation ships built to flee the environmental disaster we’re currently creating. To the other alien races they’re a curiosity, sometimes viewed as a charity case, with very little to offer in terms of technological innovation.

There are several focus characters, and the chapters flip between them in a regular rhythm. One is an ethnographer from a different species, who visits one of the ships in order to learn more about the humans who have not left the fleet. Others live and work aboard ship, experiencing day to day life or going through personal crises. There’s a Caretaker, who looks after the dead as their bodies are recycled; an archivist, who is there to record the important events on board; a teenager who is disillusioned with life in the Fleet; and an engineer who faces potential unemployment due to the introduction of outside technology. All of these people lead separate lives, and have individual narratives, which gradually intertwine to become one.

And this is the genius of Becky Chambers. For a while, I was thinking that, like Tim Powers, she was producing work that wasn’t up to her best, not quite as engaging as her debut or its brilliant sequel. But then, towards, the end, I found myself reading through tears as the emotional impact of this story hit home. While A Close and Common Orbit weaves two narratives into one powerful whole, this novel takes thinner threads and delicately entwines them until you are caught in the middle of the quietly devastating web, wiping tears from your eyes.

 

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Altered Carbon

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Is it time to talk about preposterously unrealistic punching? Because there’s an awful lot of it in Altered Carbon, a show that seems to revel in fight set pieces to the point of tedium. In each of these fight scenes, it appears to me that every single punch and body blow would be enough to kill, or render unconscious, the punchee, and break several metacarpals in the puncher.

This Netflix show has been trumpeted as a possible multi-year juggernaut ratings winner, Game of Thrones style, not that Netflix ever talk about viewing figures. If they make another series, and another, I guess we’ll know. It’s been well-reviewed: by Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter, for example, and it’s one of a string of high profile genre shows that seem to be taking the TV world by storm. We’ve moved on from Cops and Docs and Lawyers to time travellers, space pirates, and cyberpunks.

I should be pleased. And I am, to an extent. Travelers is a great little show, full of human warmth and twisty plot lines; Star Trek Disco is a fairly triumphant return for Trek, give or take the last two episodes of the season; and Stranger Things is interdimensional MK Ultra-tastic fun. On the other hand, The Expanse, while glossy, is beset by plot pacing issues and dreadful dialogue; and the returning X-Files is mostly pathetic and confused.

So what of Altered Carbon? The premise is straight out of 90s cyberpunk: people are more or less immortal, if they can afford to keep growing new bodies, and their memories and personality are stored in “stacks”, solid state drives essentially, that live in a strangely vulnerable position in the back of their heads. The series is based on a 2002 novel by Richard Morgan, which I haven’t knowingly read, but the premise is familiar enough to someone who’s been reading SF for as many decades as I have.

It’s a dystopian, Blade Runner-alike world, and the series production design is a straight rip-off of Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic film. Furthermore, the jargon bandied about by the characters is similar enough to sound familiar: stacks and sleeves vs. replicants and skinjobs. But whereas the extreme fights in Blade Runner were a result of the replicants’ exceptional strength, the bodies fighting in Altered Carbon are supposed to be human (though one of them gets a bionic arm).

Anyway, super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs is woken from a 200-year hibernation by a rich immortal in order to investigate the murder of one of his skinjobs sleeves. Turns out, he’s been dropped into a cop’s body, and this cop’s partner Kristin Ortega wants him back. There’s your set up, and there are other interesting elements: a hotel run by an AI that thinks it’s Edgar Allen Poe; interrogations taking place in virtual space; naked clone fights like something out of an 18-rated Matrix movie.

But the parts are greater than the sum, and I did not ever warm to this show. For a start, I find it hard to understand who benefits from this dystopia. I mean, it’s a horrible fucking world, and the rich people live in the sky above the weather and all, but they don’t really seem to be enjoying themselves. Yes, a minor point, but the main thing I couldn’t get past was all the fighting. It seemed as if there were about three set pieces per episode, and though lots of minor assailants get their stacks blown out, and our main characters seem to get horribly beaten up on a regular basis, their powers of recovery are so remarkable that it seems they can bounce back from anything without any ill effects in a day or so.

Sure, it’s ridiculous to get uptight about unrealistic recovery times in a show about people who live in floating houses with their personalities stored in hard drives, but it just felt like there was nothing at stake.

So, my request to Netflix is as follows: if you want a Game of Thrones style fantasy drama to hook and enthrall people, consider throwing some money at some Tim Powers properties. Something about romantic poets beset by vampires, perhaps?

Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers – Review

Rudolph_Valentino_and_Natacha_Rambova

Valentino and Rambova

My favourite author* Tim Powers has released a new novel just four years after the last one (has it been so long, Tim?), which is very exciting. A new Powers is an event to savour, and you want to force yourself to read slowly so as not to use it all up.

My copy is a hard back with deckle edges (uncut pages), which is a design choice you come to understand when you reach about halfway through the novel.

Like the Fault Lines series (1992-1996) and Three Days to Never (2006), Medusa’s Web is largely set in contemporary Los Angeles, and like Three Days to Never it features spooky links to Old Hollywood.

Three Days to Never featured the handprints of Charlie Chaplin, whereas Medusa’s Web visits silent heartthrob Rudolph Valentino; set- and costume-designer Natacha Rambova (aka Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy from Utah); and star of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé Alla Nazimova (which was co-written by Rambova, who was also married to Valentino and rumoured to have had an affair with Nazimova).

Your grasp of Old Hollywood may stretch to Valentino, but Rambova and Nazimova call for more rarified  knowledge – or, like me, you go scurrying to Wikipedia to find out how much of this is true. In Hollywood, of course, everybody was somebody else, and every building (as Raymond Chandler so often noted) was a simulacrum. Rambova was Shaughnessy (a surname that makes me think of The Maltese Falcon); Valentino was  Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla; Nazimova was actually Russian, but was born Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon. The Garden of Allah was a mansion, was a hotel, was levelled and paved over along with all the rest of ‘the Hollywood village’ and the orange groves and Bunker Hill.

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The Garden of Allah site, then and now-ish

So it goes with Tim Powers. His stock-in-trade is history with a twist of mystery. He clearly buries himself in the lore until he finds something odd, and then weaves a novel around it. This has worked successfully for romantic poets, pirates, cold war spies and Vegas mobsters.

While this novel pales in comparison with my all-time-favourite Declare (his 2001 masterpiece), it’s still entertaining and fascinating, if not as disturbing and/or gripping as some of his best work. If you have an interest, Declare is essential, The Stress of Her Regard should probably next in line – and then you’ll want to read the sort-of sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves. By which time you’ll be hooked, or not.

Right now, after the first reading, Medusa’s Web ranks quite low for me, but then I’d have said that about Three Days To Never until I read it for the second time a while ago. There’s usually enough here to require more than one reading. Even sitting here, writing this review and perusing images of Old Hollywood, I’m starting to like it better.

Rambova, the exotic pseudonym of a woman from Salt Lake City, is intriguing. The Wikipedia article includes this nugget about her later life:

She published articles on healing and astrology, and helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions, which led her to edit a series titled Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations. She also conducted classes in her apartment about myths, symbolism and comparative religion.

Nuggets like this are surely a magnet for an author like Powers. What if…?

In this case, we have some kind of multi-dimensional beings whose manifestation in this world takes a peculiar form, which becomes a fad among the Hollywood élite, and a dangerous addiction for some.

Returning home after the death of the aunt who raised them, Scott and his sister Madeleine reconnect with their estranged and odd cousins Claimayne and Ariel, who live together in a falling-apart Hollywood mansion and bear no little hostility towards them. Claimayne is nasty and Ariel is angry, and both of them have been addicted to the ‘spiders’ that allow them to travel in time – sort of. Scott and Madeleine are pulled back into the family psychodrama and find themselves caught up in events they barely understand.

Scott is your typical Powers hero, even down to the hand injury he sustains partway through (a trope Powers has used repeatedly since his first two novels); and his sister is also a familiar female character. There are no talking heads in boxes, another common Powers trope, but there is a clattering keyboard and a telephone that rings even though it’s not there.

My main criticism I think is that these characters do seem like shorthand by now: if you’ve read this author before you don’t need them fleshed out, but they are on the thin side and I can’t escape the feeling that this novel has had 150 pages or so edited out of it.

The greatest pleasures here are the glimpses of Old Hollywood, and the feeling that those black and white days of glamour and debauchery are almost tangible. Of course, almost none of it survives today, mainly because it was built of chipboard and stucco, like a movie set.

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*Give or take Robert Charles Wilson.

On re-reading Tim Powers’ Declare – again

Mild spoiler alert.Declare

I know the novel inside out and back to front by now, but every time I pull it off the shelf, I am soon lost in the pleasure of its familiarity. Declare is my desert island, indeed my dessert island book, and my love for it is as deep as my love for desserts.

It’s only because of Declare that I have read, and enjoyed, John Le Carré, David Downing’s Station series, countless other espionage thrillers, and devoured numerous books about Kim Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Spies. By now, I’m guilty of Cold War nostalgia, but there’s something about the era, and the Great Game, and the dead drops and signals and wilderness of mirrors that speaks to me.

This time, I only started reading it again because my daughter brought it on holiday with us, and I’m fed up of reading off screens. The other daughter brought Tim Powers’ other classic, The Drawing of the Dark, and I read that before even realising we’d packed Declare, too. My daughter had just started it when I spotted it. She left it lying around and I, er, annexed it.

Apart from all the spy stuff, of course, there’s Powers’ usual mix of almost-credible supernatural explanation for real-world events, and you’re always sent scurrying to look things up. Was that really…? And did they actually…? Otherwise irrational acts, unexplainable events, come sharply into focus. Philby and his pet fox, the head injury he received just before his defection, Stalin’s purges and executions of his illegal spy networks. I was in Broadway, near St James’ Park, not long ago, and I got a frisson just thinking about the spy game. One of the reasons the novel spoke so strongly to me was that it came out shortly after I finished my PhD, and it includes reference to parasites in radio communications, which was a big part of both my PhD thesis and my MA dissertation.

All of this is wonderful, but I think the thing that has its hooks deepest into me is the romance that is central to the novel between the protagonist, the hapless but courageous Andrew Hale, and his partner in weirdness and spying, the dedicated and equally courageous Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga. 

Elena is probably my favourite character in all of fiction, and I probably subconsciously named the woman in my novel French Blood after her. Recruited by the communists as a young teenager during the Spanish Civil War, she first meets Hale in wartime Paris, where she acts as his controller, his liaison with the illegal networks and generally bosses him around, knowing just that little bit more than he does about what’s going on. He’s barely out of boyhood and she’s a slip of a girl, a little bit younger, who has seen and suffered so much more than him. Early in their relationship, she declares that she’s married to the cause and will brook no romantic attachments. It happens anyway, as they flit around Paris avoiding the Gestapo. He, swept up in events that he knows little about, cares more for her than he does for any cause, and everything he does is to some extent designed to impress her – or keep her alive. One of my favourite lines comes from a scene in which she gets stern and exasperated with him for continually expressing romantic thoughts.

‘“I really should report you for spontaneity,” she sighed.’

They are separated, over and over – theirs seems a doomed relationship – and at the very beginning of the novel (which takes place in 1963, before several flashbacks and a flash-forward), Hale, called back into the Game, is informed of a cover story which he knows will cause her to believe he has betrayed her and everything they have worked for since 1941. 

I won’t spoil it any more. I’ve recommended this book over and over again, and I guess I will keep doing so. Elena 4Ever.

Ship of Fools / Unto Leviathan by Richard Paul Russo

Ship_of_Fools,_Richard_Paul_Russo_(book_cover)I don’t know why exactly, but this book always haunts me. It’s one of the few novels I like to re-read, and I’m currently on my fourth go at it. Here be spoilers, by the way. So read no further if you want to read the book in innocence.

Russo is not as well-known (nor as prolific) as the likes of Stephen Baxter and Charles Stross, writers I also admire, and he hasn’t produced excellence as consistently as Tim Powers or Robert Charles Wilson, but there’s something about this particular book.

It won the Philip K Dick award in 2001, which is a good pedigree. Tim Powers won the same award for his Dinner at Deviant’s Palace and The Anubis GatesConfusingly, Russo’s book is published under two titles: my copy says Ship of Fools on the cover. Others you might see have Unto Leviathan.

It’s a First Contact story, and it’s a deep space opera story, and it’s a derelict ship story. I particularly like derelict ship stories. The crew of a generation star ship, centuries into a voyage, come across a planet which once had a colony but now has ruins and bones. The Argonos is a huge ship which has been in space so long that nobody knows what its original mission was, due to a past event which saw ship’s records destroyed. Another event follows the discovery of the planet of bones: an attempted mass breakout by the ship’s underclass, the workers who do all the drudge work. This fails, and the ringleaders are jailed, including the captain’s right hand man, and our narrator: Bartolomeo.

Some time later, Bartolomeo is released from jail because another crisis is brewing: the Argonos has followed a signal from the dead planet and discovered an apparently derelict (and even bigger) ship. Several crew exploring the ship have met with unusual “accidents” and rumours are circulating that the ship is evil.

Bartolomeo is awarded the poisoned chalice of taking over the exploration. Meanwhile, power struggles on the Argonos make everyone unstable and jumpy. The too-powerful religious leader of the Argonos, the Bishop, is making power plays and insisting they abandon the evil ship. But is he up to something, or is he actually right?

After months of finding nothing, they stumble across a survivor. An old woman in rags, living in a pressurised corner of the ship, living off paste from a wall dispenser. She’s incoherent, but human, on a ship clearly not built by humans. They take her back to the Argonos for medical care.

After a while, she wakes up and says a few words about being rescued from the planet of bones by aliens.

But the name she gives for the planet is that coined by the Bishop himself. Too late, Bartolomeo realises that she’s not human and that they have stumbled into a trap.

It’s a tremendous read, full of danger and tension, power struggles, and a strong sense of mysterium tremendum and awefulness.

Worth reading again and again!