Thursday, October 30, 2014


Curt Clark

Ace Books, 1967

The narrator of this story, that is placed in the unidentified future, Rolf Malone, is released from the prison on the Earth and he is on his way to another planet called Anarchaos where the events of the novel will take place. There, on Anarchaos, the narrator’s brother Gar Malone worked, and before his death he has written to Rolf to come to Anarchaos. Now Gar has died under suspicious circumstances, and Rolf is eager for some answers, for instance, whom his brother worked for and how exectly his brother died.

Right after his arrival on Anarchaos, Rolf is warned that Anarchaos and its habitants are dangerous, and it will be better for his health if he goes back to Earth. These words only fuel the protagonist’s need for answers: he checks his luggage at the station and hails the taxi to get to the town where the corporation his brother worked for is situated. During the drive, feeling that the taxi man sooner or later will kill him, Rolf strikes first, killing the driver and makes his way to the corporation tower alone.

There representatives of the one of the largest corporations on the planet greet Rolf, tell him that his brother was killed during an ambush when Gar was on a survey, and while Gar was killed, his guard survived, and he’s the only one who can provide some answers to Rolf.

Rolf goes to the shack where this guard lives, and there someone ambushes them, killing the guard who hasn’t had time to tell anything about Gar and wounding Rolf. Malone starts his trip to hell.
I have read this novel not to remind myself what state SF had been in during 60s. Curt Clark is a pen name of Donald Westlake, and Anarchaos is his the only SF novel, and I am slowly grinding through Westlake’s entire catalogue.

First, let me say that I hugely enjoyed it. It’s a good novel, perhaps not as good as 361, with which they share more than a few similarities, still it’s quite powerful piece of writing.
That’s said, I wouldn’t say that Anarchaos is truly SF novel, it is a thriller dressed in science fiction clothes. But first things first.

Anarchaos is one of the future Earth colonies, where a few generations of colonists had already changed. On every colony there are embassys of the Union Comission, United Nations-like Earth organization, only unlike its earth counterpart not interfering with colonists activities. Every colony can choose any of the existing government systems and live under this system. Anarchaos colonists remenbered “an obscure Rus¬sian nihilist named Mikhail Bakunin” and his writings, and made his theoretic ideas real on Anarchaos. Therefore the colony dove deep into anarchy, smoothly flowing into chaos. The only anarchy-free places became embassys of the UC.

The planet itself has a few differences with the Earth: Anarchaos doesn’t spin, so there is not a change of day and night there, one part of the planet is Sahara-hot under the sun called Hell, another is dark and cold. The development level on the planet is primitive, early to mid XX century only with scyscrappers.

All that we learn from the first chapters, as part of that Malone tells himself, and another part is a lecture of one of the UC man. Westlake does his infodumping straight away, and not in a subtle way, so for the rest of the story we won’t be distracted from the main plot. Infodumping like this looks too inelegantly, and trick with a lecture is too straightforward.

But does the colony structure play an important role in the book? It does, though not important one. How inventive is Westlake SF writer? Nearly not as much as Westlake the writer per se. We see a distant colony, almost like the Earth, we see people populating this planet, and they are as human as we can be. We see cars, horses, guns, explosives, earth army titles – Westlake just describes Earth. What language do colonists speak? English? Not even without any dialects? Well, there is a bigger difference between accents and dialects between US states than between Earth and Anarchaos. What is that, laziness in the worldbuilding or Westlake’s ignorance? Possibly none of that. He just writes a crime story where a place plays little, very insignificant role.

What I want to say is we can easily imagine a Latin American or African country instead of Anarchaos, and almost nothing will change. An American arrives to Guatemala, to a mineral plant, where his brother died. An American is fed and clothed in the embassy and then goes to the plant. Some thugs from the jungle kidnaps him, he becomes a slave, then he escapes, then he’s soon captured by some General (there are plenty of generals in military states), then he kills a general from this plant, and then another General from another plant. It’ll be the same story. It is a very small bridge between Anarchaos and chaotic republic somewhere on Earth. Blow up a few embassys in African country and there will be chaos (as if there isn’t now).

It should be said, though, that for some plot turns it is important that the action takes place on another planet.

It is a good adventure story, where the premise borrowed from 361, and the middle probably straight from a Grofield novel, where Grofield is in his Lemons-Never-Lie-mode. As SF, the story lacks focus on otherworldliness and scientific details. The only thing from the future here is flights between planets. The rest come from the 60s: paper geographical maps, primitive calculating machines, guns, knives, food. The novel should have been called not Anarchaos, but Archaic-aos, the novel is dated.

As a novel of ideas Anarchaos is far from dated, and it reads as a novel of ideas just fine. Anarchaos could have been called an adventure story with ideas, if that hasn’t been an oxymoron, like Tarzan with brains.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Leftovers

Tom Perrotta
The Leftovers

St. Martin's Press, 2011

Three years before the events described in the novel, a mysterious phenomenon occurs that is similar to the Rapture, to use a biblical term. Millions of people in an instant just disappear from the face of the earth. Among them are not only faithful Christians, but people of all religions and of various moral behavior. Some take the disappearance for the real Rapture, meaning that those who remain on the earth are judged as unworthy of heavenly life, while others believe that the phenomenon only had common features with the predicted phenomenon from the Bible, but the real Rapture it is not.

After The Sudden Departure, as it is called by some, the government announces the state of emergency, shuts down schools and other institutions, the people mourn the missing, and those who had seen their loved ones disappear, are called The Witnesses.

Grief can last for years across the country, and gradually the United States return to normal. The consequences of a global phenomenon in a small town of Mapleton, New York, are described in the novel. In the center of the story is one family in which oddly enough no one has disappeared. The patriarch of the Garvey family, Kevin, was a successful businessman at the time of the Rapture-like phenomenon, his wife Laurie was a housewife, and two children were students - the eldest son Tom in college and daughter Jill in high school.

From chapter to chapter, we move from one family member to another. The global phenomenon has splot split the family, and every family member in their own way is trying to find his/her place in almost new world.

Tom Perrotta has used in his book sci-fi device, and, like many mainstream writers treated to a fantastic device and its properties with disrespect and disdain.

Placing in the base of the story a phenomenon of religious matter, Perrotta surprisingly spends very little time answering the proper questions of religion. Perrotta chose an interesting approach to a global phenomenon: not giving a full explanation of the departure, the author left his world and the characters in it to the freedom of interpretation. Characters had all prerequisites for a full discussion of the phenomenon, similar to that described in the Bible. Perrotta does not even take the side of the supporters of the biblical version, nor on the side of the rationalists, he generally rejects any discussion of the origin of the departure. The most important thing for Perotta was make something so erase as many people from the face of the Earth as possible, while the reason for this disappearance was of the minor importance. So, instead of the Rapture in the book it could have been any epidemic or meteor rain. Not a word was said about the research scientists, nor the statement of high rank religious people (Pope, Orthodox Patriarch etc), respectively, we do not know about the socio-economic implications of global disappearance of countless people. What impact it does on demography, economics, world politics - it seems like nothing has changed.

And even if you convince yourself that Perrotta was interested not in the phenomenon itself, but in what was after, the picture still looks fragile. After such religiocentric phenomenon we see three options for the development of the world in terms of religion. Among all the official representatives of the Catholic Church we see only one priest, highly pissed at the world and God, bringing risen to the path of revenge. The priest began to argue that God took the sinners and betrayed those who truly believed. Is this priest representative? Probably not, but we do not find others, and it is hard to say whether all priests were so bitter that have fallen to the level of gossipers and blackmailers, or just this one turned out rotten.

Two other religious paths are the religious groups, early on quite different with dissimilar structure, and by the finale, we see the corruption and lies within both these newly formed cults.
Church of Holy Wayne is a typical example of the American sects, they usually do not even need a reason for existence. They were there, and Perotta just uses the template of the structure and motives of the already existing sects. Other religious groups, The Guilty Remnant, at first seems like an original idea, with their spying and remaining silent. Perrotta does not develop the theme: the cult was created as if by itself, its structure remains opaque, it does not set any goals, and all that we see is the work of lower-level sectarian and their recruitment methods. By the final sectarian motives become clear: to gather the property and finances of sectarians, choose the most persistent, testing their strength on the ability to kill.
While staying at the dorm Laurie and Meg relate only to those down-to-earth conversations, completely ignoring the issues of religion and faith. Both women chose to stay withing the cult not as a possible way to salvation, but as an opportunity to fence from the world. You can put into question the motives of the two women as they both have not lost the loved ones during the departure. Their families remain on the Earth, and Laurie, if act by logic, should have by all means hold her family together, to support her husband and children, to consider herself lucky that an unknown cataclysm did not violate the integrity of their family.

Perrotta on the contrary is as if blaming Kevin that he hasn’t joined the Guilty Remnant, and sympathizes with and endorses the choice of Laurie.

Novels of ideas too are often elevated and distant from reality. It is a pity that Perrotta could not squeeze in «The Leftovers» any resonable ideas, focusing on daily life of the characters. With the same success, the book could have been written about 9/11: before us is a soap opera about a family where everyone is struggling with the pain and despair in his own way. I do not know whether Perrotta conceived the novel as the basis for the HBO series or rights have been sold after the book was published, but The Leftovers reads as a TV series on paper. It has quite diverse storylines to please everyone, here is enough melodrama and sex (heterosexual and lesbian), there is sufficient amount of details so that the novel had meat on the bones. The problem lies in the fact that Perrotta as if from the very beginning knows how it ends, and simply writes scenes, separate episodes for the show, and he does so without a flame in the heart. Worn style completely denies the story of some colours. Dialog is like a mix between the utterance of banal wisdoms and everyday chitchat. Simply put, the novel lacks some spark, not in the least a stylistic one. For the realist Perrotta is too boring and pat, as a writer with the ideas he lacks his own ideas.

The Leftovers justifies its title: the tastiest pieces have already been eaten, what’s left is the leftovers.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Chatto & Windus, 2014

In the center of the novel is an Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who during World War II was captured by the Japanese and among other prisoners of war built the Thai-Burma Railway, also known as the Road of Death.

The novel skips across continents and time layers, but the main events can be divided into three groups: the life of Evans before the war in Melbourne, Japanese camp and the post-war period, when Evans even received a certain notoriety.

Dorrigo was the youngest in a family of seven children. He soon lost touch with his brothers and sisters, every member of the family went on their path. He grew up in Tasmania, but later moved to the mainland, to Melbourne, where the six-foot tall Evans enters the university. Dorrigo shows no special abilities to medicine, but still graduates from the university. Since the beginning of the war he was a surgeon being moved to a military camp in Adelaide, where Evans goes through training. Evans marries, has a lover called Amy on the side and flies to Singapore to fight on the side of the Allies.

Evans in Singapore meets with other soldiers from his unit, and when Singapore surrenders to the Japanese army, the Australians are captured. Evans and his colleagues formes a special unit of prisoners, which includes only the Australians. His unit is sent to the construction work, namely for building of the Thai-Burma railway, which will run from Thailand to Burma.

In his novel Richard Flanagan is trying to lay on paper using artistic methods the story of Australians who were stationed at the Japanese POW camp. Perhaps the main problem of the novel is that it is too artistic. Flanagan has a lush style, he now and then inserts a quote from poetry, tends to bold descriptions and refuses to use quotation marks for dialogue. Such stylistic brightness, sometimes even with a touch of poetry, perfectly matches the life of the main character in the civilian world. Dorrigo Evans loves books and women more than anything else. Women like him, and he fascinates them. Evans is bursting with feelings. Despite his obvious sins (Evans does not even cheat on his wife, he acts as if he does not notice her, at least most of his life he did not notice her), Evans is a likeable hero. He is persistent, passionate, honest man of not too many words, and he is understood without words, by both men and women. He seems not to be blamed for his sins. He's like this by nature. Especially because in the novel his wife Ella is a pale shadow, not full-blooded person, and how we can sympathize with her that her husband is a womanizer?

The protagonist’s soul wanderings is the most intriguing part of the book. Whom he will choose and what happened to Evans after the war, these questions claws at us most of all. Colorful prose of Flanagan comes over already colorful with passion "civilian" part of the plot. But for the life in the camp are Flanagan’s colors are not so suitable. Too unnatural it looks, like a circus, not a camp for prisoners of war. Indeed, Flanagan doesn’t know a sense of proportion. Evans and his friends in the camp act like clowns, tirelessly repeat Britanisms «mate» and «rightio», Nakamura tells long tales about the wisdom of the emperor, as if sitting with friends and colleagues drinking tea, and in general it is not like a camp at all, but Chinese, or rather Japanese, circus. Flanagan goes over the top with paints: if everything is so colorful, it may be that all the prisoners do well in the camp? Maybe they were there on vacation and not with their bones the Road was built? The main hero has a horrible diarrhea, but the author depicts.

«He raised a crumbling canvas flap and Dorrigo Evans followed him through the flared nostril of the tent into a stench, redolent of anchovy paste and shit, so astringent it burnt in their mouths. The slimy red flame of a kerosene lantern seemed to Dorrigo Evans to make the blackness leap and twist in a strange, vaporous dance, as if the cholera bacillus was a creature within whose bowels they lived and moved. At the far end of the shelter, a particularly wretched-looking skeleton sat up and smiled.»

A friend of the protagonist is drowning in a pit of waste and Flanagan again uses colorful prose. Thus, this style fails to convey the monotony, the horror and darkness of life in captivity.
In general, Flanagan’s book entertains more than makes us to think. Among the interesting thoughts there is one that the author touches upon in the chapters written from the point of view of the Japanese officers and guards. One of the guards says that it turned out like that: the Japanese, who had committed crimes against the Allies, white people, were sentenced to death and declared war criminals. But at the same time, the Japanese, who bullied and killed other Asians, weren’t even touched. It turns out that the racial-class division was under any conditions and at all times, whether it was war or peacetime.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North stirs the heart, but only at the beginning and at the end. The middle part on life on POW camp is a failure.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Eimear McBride
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Galley Beggar Press, 2013

The nameless narrator of this convulsing story begins at age two when her brother went to the surgery to remove a brain tumor. The narrator wakes up in the hospital, he sees her bloodied older brother, tries to tell her mother not let her brother be touched.

A close relationship with her brother largely determines a way of life of the girl from the title, from age two to 20 years. The narrator and her brother were born in a Catholic family, about the father it’s known only from the words of the mother that he had died, their mother is pious and cruel as a Christian woman can be cruel, asking ffrom her children humility before God. As a result, there are the constant punishment, beatings, prayers, blind adherence to the precepts of religion.

The brother after surgery eventually becomes retarded, and with a limp. The surgery for the time being saves him from the consequences of the tumor.

The mother rears her daughter and her brother in the severity and the Catholic faith, even though they both do not know the prayers and do not believe in God at all. Children’s grandfather blames her for bad parenting. She did not even thanked her father for sending money when the boy was ill. Only sometimes the mother shows love for her daughter, for example, comforting the girl after she had a nightmare.

The brother, because of his illness, remains largely untouchable (part of the story is written with the frequent use of "you" as a way of addressing to her brother), the narrator gets all the beatings. Until school time girl remains as if in the shadow of her brother, and during school years the narrator is formed, gradually becoming a separate person and not an appendage of the ill brother.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is anything but convenient, comfortable reading. Moreover, this book is as far as possible from comfortable reading. Hard to imagine a person who in the evening, drinking a mug of tea, rushes to the chair, to enthusiastically read even 10 pages of this novel.

The reason of the caused discomfort lies in form and in content. Stylistically, McBride does not use commas in his novel, and sentences are written so chaotic and convulsive, it will take a long time to find the novel’s rhythm. Even after forty pages there is no adaptation. Each page literally you take by assault. Literally every paragraph requires slow rereading.

McBride uses a narrative technique called stream of consciousness. Streams can be different, coherent and not. This is far from the connectivity and directness. Thoughts of the heroine (and almost everything that happens, happens inside the head of the narrator, the external description is given a minimal amount of text) rush to and fro, stumble, catch up and overtake each other. The heroine seemed to stutter in her mind, sometimes swallowing sentences or pieces of sentences.

Keeping it in mind, the book though doesn’t read as a burden. It reads slowly, but if you really read it, then you catches every word in it. The novel forces the reader to work, with eyes, brain and heart, and if you try to get away from this job, you will not be able to read even a dozen pages. «A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing» is of those books, after which it actually can be said that reading is a hard work.

The story in this book is quite linear (one might even say conservative, as style is experimental). It’s an Irish story of growing up, amid domestic problems, strictly with Catholicism plus heightened sensuality. Again, the reader will not find solace in the story of the lonely girl with the terminally ill brother, a cruel mother and pervert uncle. Realism of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a sharp object penetrating the skin. Reading such prose hurts, not reading probably is even harder.

McBride’s talent lays in that her novel is not an experiment for the sake of the experiment, while reading you are gritting your teeth and congratulating yourself: I'm smart, if I’m reading such intricate prose, - and dreaming for the book to end quickly. This book is a fully formed, finished thing.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


Richard Powers

Norton, 2014

Powers's novel tells the story of an elderly avant-garde composer Peter Els, accused of bioterrorism and on the run. In the novel there are the two intertwined plot lines - present, actually where Els hides from the law, and past, which tells the whole story of the life of the composer and DIY-biologist.

The book events begin in 2011 in the noirish tones. Els, who is well over 70, finds his beloved dog dead, panics, dials 911, hangs up, but the police still checks his call. Patrolmen are puzzled by the cause of Els’call and advise to call Animal Control for the proper disposal of dog, noticing Els’ home office, in which the protagonist keeps his tools, flasks, jars with bacteria.

Police notifies the Joint Security Task Force, and two federal agents, who “looked like counterfeit Jehovah’s Witnesses” pay Else a visit, asking him how he set up his home laboratory, what he's doing, what bacteria he’s working on, and then illegally confiscate his incubator for tests. Els hopes that this will be the end to the inquiries, but the next day, returning from a run, he sees outside his home federal agencies vans, Feds searching his house, and a crowd of journalists. Els decides not to voluntarily give up but run, removing a small amount of cash from ATM machine to no longer use a credit card.

Musical title of the novel fortunately does not imply that the novel should be written in musical language, that is a melodic style, that gurgling and strumming, but leads somewhere to the void. Richard Powers’ Orfeo is not a beanbag, designed for public entertainment. Also true that you will not call this an avant-garde novel, despite the genre direction of the protagonist. Novel in this form is quite accessible to the unsophisticated reader. Each chapter has some kind of epigraph, very odd, but that is the end to the experiments with form.

Melody of the novel lies in a different layer. Powers finds a match of the rythmes between the two plotlines of the novel, the past and present. Like a real drummer, the author makes the elements of past and present equal. They may sound one after another, or simultaneously. These lines are of different timbre, but have the overall goal. The present line has alarming notes with noir overtones. Powers took a real case of a homegrown biochemist for adaptation, although if you do not know the whole story it may seem very much like science fiction. This line is not so deep, but it is the driving force of the story and gives you the opportunity to make the book even more full-bodied. Hysteria and obsession with terrorism are exposed in this novel as things dangerous and unpredictable. Intelligence agencies are engaged not in the search and filtering of real terrorists, but in fact they create their own home-grown criminals out of harmless "scientists" (the same applies to bombs makers) to improve their statistics.

The book raises not only relevant, but also the eternal questions. Els’ story is the story of a mad composer, and doomed genius, anda loner trying to remain in eternity. Man creates music, remains alone, and there is no one around to listen to his music. And if you believe the hero of this novel, the music is written not for someone, but for eternity. But eternity is not near enough, and time passes so long. (“The best music says: you’re immortal. But immortal means today, maybe tomorrow. A year from now, with crazy luck.”)

Everything Powers writes about is authentic, no false notes. Biochemistry and music, it would seem, are things that are not compatible, and it is still unlikely to meet a person who understands both. Powers brilliantly passes the test for the plausibility where the whole situation seems to be unplausible.

In Powers’ favor plays his stylistic choice when describing the music. It is basically a mechanical description, the actual technical descriptive process, without heaps of words around music, with a bunch of adjectives and a small share of sense. The main thing is that this choice works. Reading a novel, you feel the greatness of the music created by the protagonist, and the strangeness of his gift.

Orfeo is dear to mind and heart. And the ears, of course.