Saturday, 22 November 2008

V For Vendetta - Alan Moore & David Lloyd

This is the first time I have had the opportunity to sit down with the whole thing and read it straight through. I caught a fair bit of it when it first appeared, but had to rely on a friend bringing it to work. Consequently, the impact was lessened and I was a bit hazy about the continuity of the tale.

Dark, disturbing, morally ambiguous, this is a tale of the near future (well, the near past, now, but it has that same status as 1984 – the actual date is not important). In a world shattered by war, Britain slides into fascism, repeating the horrors of Nazi Germany with an ease that is both disturbing and highly believable.

Against this grim background rises the masked figure of a new Guido Fawkes, preaching anarchy (in its proper sense – not the version spun by our politicians). But this is no straightforward tale of good versus evil. For the good must be destructive in order to sweep away the bad; it must unleash forces over which it can have no direct control in the hope that sense will prevail and that a new, gentler and truly anarchic system will prevail. It is, perhaps, the third Luther Arkwright that should have been written.

But this is not just a complex political polemic. It is a well told tale with all the complexities of a novel. The characters have depth and behave in believable ways. The story develops along credible lines. And we are left to make up our own minds.

And on top of this we have a dynamic graphic element that works in perfect partnership with the story. There are no sound effects and no thought bubbles. The whole is achieved through speech and through action; and it is achieved with clarity and power (an achievement that I doubt could be matched in a straight novel). Much of the storytelling is carried by the pictures. They are not intricate, but they do carry detailed information.

If there is anyone who has doubts about the validity of the graphic novel as a serious literary form, they should read this.

How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff

This is not a book I would have picked off the shelf whilst browsing, or if I had, it would have gone straight back. The blurb doesn’t do the story justice and the cover of the edition I have… well, there is a whole discussion to be had about cover design, but not here.

This is a work that lies on the borderlands of dystopian fiction. A teenage girl, staying with cousins in the UK, lives through a period of war and we follow how their relationships develop. The background details are deliberately vague, although I suspect most young teenagers would take a bit more interest than this unworldly bunch – especially as their mother is involved in peacekeeping efforts.

Rosoff has a pleasingly spare style, one that suits her narrator’s voice. And her narrator, thankfully, develops. I prefer my dystopias to be darker than this (although this is far from light). Plus, there seemed to be more here than was strictly necessary. The basic premiss of a group of children surviving the break down of society during war is enough to make a good story. I’m not sure the extra layers added anything to the story, but they are handled without fuss.

Where this book did excel is in the honest way it handles the relationships between the characters. It is hard enough and confusing enough experiencing love and loss, but conveying these emotions simply and without false sentimentality is much more difficult. The key, I believe is in the simplicity. There is no need to dress these up. Rosoff shows us what is happening and uses the device of a first person narrator to best effect.

Now, about that cover…

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Adventures Of Alyx - Joanna Russ

This volume collects Russ’s first novel Picnic on Paradise together with the short stories she also wrote about the central character. In her own time, Alyx makes her way as a thief and an adventurer. Pulled from the distant past accidentally and with no hope of return, she is stranded in a world she does not understand amongst people who do not know what to do with her. Although that world is in our future, it casts a keen eye on the absurdities of our own time.

These are beautifully crafted stories. Russ handles words like a magician, creating characters, scenes, and stories with a seeming effortless use of language. The flow of language and the flow of story complement one another to perfection. The stories are powerful in themselves, but they also tap into an elemental power that comes with all good storytelling – the feeling that you are in the presence of a gifted bard who talks to you directly.

There is a natural talent at work here, some writers do have this. But it is a talent that has been nurtured with great care and which serves a bright, intelligent, compassionate, and fun loving mind.

One can only assume that such an accomplished writer is mostly out of print because of her chosen genre – science fiction. It annoys me (as anyone who reads these posts will know) that there are so many pioneering works of this nature that languish unseen, whilst the darlings of today’s literati plunder the genre and present the shiny baubles they have stolen from their excavations as something they have invented themselves, never quite daring to call it sf, never daring to acknowledge they are neither the first nor the best.

Joanna Russ was one of the first and she is still one of the best.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Guérillères – Monique Wittig

This book tells of a future war between the sexes and celebrates the women who took part and the society they subsequently create. It was far from being the first novel to examine such a subject. It was the first to lift it from the misogynistic realms of lurid pulp fiction. This, in itself, is sufficient to mark it out as a landmark piece of fiction.

But Monique Wittig has gone way beyond this, for she has written in a manner in keeping with the new society she depicts. Early in the novel, we are told of a book that women carry known as a feminary. Essentially, it is a notebook containing printed inscriptions in which women write down thoughts, descriptions, and the like. The novel is exactly that.

Set out like an epic prose poem, like a Vedic collection of hymns, the book is a series of short, intense passages. Seemingly disjointed, these weave slowly together to create a rich tapestry that relates the story of the war and the lives of women after hostilities are over. The whole piece is mythical in quality, sometimes dreamlike, always a celebration. Certainly the descriptions of women in their new society are powerful, passionate, loving depictions of a people finally free of the slavery to which they have so long been subjected.

For me, this is writing at its best – passion, art, and exacting technique working together to produce a beautifully flowing text. It is a transcendent piece of fiction. There is, after all, a strong feminist message here, but we are never lectured. There is a vibrant sense of a new society about which we are told nothing and shown everything. There is poetry. There is a sense of otherness. It is a shame that Monique Wittig published so little. It a cause for celebration that she gave us this remarkable book.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The Müller-Fokker Effect – John Sladek

This was John Sladek’s second and his most experimental novel. Whilst it was rightly hailed by critics as being in the same league as Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (although I think it is far better than anything Vonnegut ever produced), it is not such an easy read as his other work.

The usual cast of characters is to be found, and the targets of Sladek’s satire are ripe. I know some have criticised him in the past for trying to hit too many in a book, but for me it is a strength of his work. He knows that his readers are intelligent and that if he takes a few well-aimed shots, they are quite capable of seeing all the other absurdities for themselves.

But hidden beneath the satire and the slapstick (the riot at the end is… well… a riot) there is a strong work that focuses on the way in which so much of what goes on in the world is smoke and mirrors. Facades to fool others and, very often, facades to fool ourselves.

Like all his work, this is well written. The prose is concise; he has a great ear for speech, and is one of the few writers I know who can write a convincing party scene with all the comings and goings and snatches of conversation. The story, too, is beautifully structured and pays re-reading as he interlaces scenes and events in such a way that the full picture (and the significance of events early in the book) only becomes apparent toward the end.

Given that the structure and some of the content is ‘experimental’, some people might consider giving this a miss. It would be a shame if they did as it is a truly great book.