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What’s real, Danny? Is reality TV real? Are confessions you read on the Internet real? The words are real, someone wrote them, but beyond that the question doesn’t even make sense. Who are you talking to on your cell phone? In the end you have no fucking idea. We’re living in a supernatural world, Danny. We’re surrounded by ghosts.

I love ghost stories and the more I think about it – I think all of you do too. Look at the success of Stephen King? Does that not demonstrate that the modern world, far from deleting the need for supernatural fiction, still yearns for tales of things going bump in the night. Unfortunately there is this perception that ghost stories are historical anachronisms, fragile and quite absurd when exposed to contemporary sensibilities. Exceptions to this rule are Mark Z. Danielewski and Koji Suzuki, who both have managed to introduce fear of the unknown in between the cracks of our scientifically defined modern world.

Readers of ghost stories not only enjoy being scared – they like to acknowledge just how scared they already are.

I was exasperated by the beginning of Jennifer Egan‘s novel. Here was yet another street-wise New Yorker, lost in the middle of Europe somewhere, travelling up to a castle that he could not even find on a map. The language spoken by the locals is alien to him and he has already been told that the location is one of those fluid  georgraphical points that could fall under German or Czech rule.

Danny has been invited out to this decrepid castle by his cousin Howard, whom he has not seen since they were children together. His far more successful relation has bought the property to mount an ambitious project, recreating a pre-technological space within the centre of Europe, where guests will be invited to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet that has been lost. To give themselves over to the sense of the imagination that can be atrophied by media overstimulation and virtual experiences.

As far as Danny is concerned his cousin is nuts. He can’t live without mobile phone coverage, or internet access. Those points of contact matter to him, networking online having almost as much importance as his need to attach himself to powerful people in the real world. Unfortunately for Danny his keen interest in power, and in those who possess it, has brought him to the attention of some very dangerous men in New York. This one-way ticket to Europe has given him a means to escape a very nasty situation back home.

He has another, deeper, motivation for coming though. A secret he and Howard share, over what happened between them when they were kids, an event that may well have shaped both their futures from that point onwards. Now Howard is a wealthy businessman with a wife and two children, whereas Danny has nothing to his name except the scars on his body that tell many a story about scams gone wrong. When he begins to see unusual things around the old castle grounds, hints of troubled phantoms and glimpses of an eccentric Baroness who lives in the keep and refuses to leave, he begins to suspect his cousin had ulterior motives for inviting him to the site. Perhaps even a desire for revenge for what he did to Howard years ago.

Of course none of this is real. It’s all the invention of a prisoner named Ray who is taking part in a creative writing class with other convicts and trying to gain the sympathy of the teacher, Holly, by writing about ghosts, conspiracies and dark family secrets. A neo-gothic fable about a clueless yank lost in a land where no one speaks English.

Then again, maybe all of this has happened. Maybe it is all real and Ray was witness to the tragedy from beginning to end.

This story is a delightful mish-mash of genres, psychological thriller, prison confessional and existential nightmare. The Baroness seems to have emigrated from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. When Danny tries to escape the castle it feels like a parody of Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner, complete with a village populated by eerily polite inhabitants. Ray’s prison writing class is captured brilliantly, setting up yet another protagonist to cast a different light of the events already described.

I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the inventive narrative leaps and bounds. Riveting stuff.

People loved having time machines – but hated the government-imposed restrictions on what they could do at certain key events in history, and the Crucifixion was perhaps the most controversial. Yes, you could go there, but only in ghost mode.

‘Yeah the number of people who complain to me because they can’t save the Lord, or take His place, or who want to give Mary a hug or a biscuit. How do you stand it?’ Malaria has only recently started working at the shop.

‘Maintain a sense of humour, Malaria. It’s your best defence.’

Have you ever seen the 1960’s film version of The Time Machine? Here have a look at the trailer. I principally remember this film for its terrible attempt at showing the passage of time. The Time Machine is parked opposite a shop front window and as the Traveller goes forward in time, he notes how the fashions worn by the mannequins change with each year. It is such a cheesy way to show the abilities of a machine that can skip through history, but it perfectly illustrates the problem with time travel as a story device. As The Doctor has observed, time travel stories tend to result in ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff’, the very non-linearity of the protagonist’s adventures leading to extreme headaches for the reader in plot progression.

K.A. Bedford’s principal character, Aloysius ‘Spider’ Webb shares these frustrations. He hates time machines. Unfortunately for him, time machine repair man is the only job available to him. Drummed out of the police force despite a promising career, due to making enemies of the wrong people, Spider was broke before meeting the very charismatic ‘Dickhead’ McMahon, who offered him a job as an engineer at his business. He makes enough money to get by, has some good staff working with him and receptionist Malaria makes a mean cup of coffee.

One afternoon during what seems to be a routine repair job, Spider and his assistant Charlie discover that the second-hand time machine they’ve been called out to have a look at is exhibiting very unusual power fluctuations. Almost as if it is present in current space-time and yet also elsewhere. When they return it to shop, they manage to contain it inside a miniature pocket universe before accidentally detonating it. Amid the destroyed shell of the original unit, they see another time machine, sitting in the very same hermetically sealed space. Inside Spider finds a dead body of a woman.

As a former cop, he finds himself compelled to investigate the mystery, but knows that anything involving time travel means trouble. After all that was how he lost his job with the police force in the first place. He has a decent job that pays enough that he can tolerate Dickhead’s weird rants about angels. His personal life is a mess. His wife Molly has insisted on a trial seperation and the officer in charge of the investigation into the mysterious dead body, Iris Stone, was a former lover of his. He just wants to keep his customers happy, enjoy a nice cup of coffee and leave time well enough alone.

Then his future self shows up one evening and starts babbling about him being framed for murder, conspiracies involving a group named Zeropoint and a civil war at the end of time itself. Seems no matter what Spider does, he can’t live the life he chooses.

According to this novel’s cover jacket, it was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2009. I actually found a number of similarities to the master of bluecollar sf. Not only is the very fantastical notion of time travel itself reduced to a 9 – 5 job, Spider’s relationships also bear a strong resemblance to the complicated lovelives of protagonists in Dick’s fiction.

Sadly the book is just too long. Philip K. Dick would often introduce a scenario within a seemingly ordinary world, only to throw all sense and reason out the window within a hundred pages. Bedford has Spider meet different versions of himself from wildly divering timelines and get swept up into a chronal war spanning millenia. There’s simply too much going on.

I did like the offhand humour of the story though, the frequent references to cult shows like Twin Peaks and The Prisoner, as well as the hints that Africa is the industrial capital of the world in the future.

A mixed bag for me then, but it kept me entertained throughout, despite the frequent head-scratching.

Recently Stephanie and I have become fans of Escape to the Country. Produced by the BBC it is aired in Australia on the 7 Network. Why have we become addicted to this daytime television show about that most clichéd of yuppie dreams? Because it is incredibly frustrating! The couples never seem to buy a house. Either they are outbid, or they decide not to move after all, whatever the result in many cases beautiful homes nestled in picturesque bucolic towns are left for another buyer and viewer gratification goes unsatisfied once again.

There is something instinctively appealing about buying a home in the countryside though. I find it ironic that I am now on the other side of the world and all of a sudden have discovered a love for country living. Especially given that it is the English countryside (although Stephanie is partial to a move to France), and here we are living outside Sydney with a veritable panoply of exotic wildlife just hanging out in the back garden.

Partly this is due to the sense of accumulated history that is associated with rural towns and villages in England. My dream would be to find a nice cottage, turn one of the rooms into a study and just stuff it with weird and wonderful books. Head down to the local pub for a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen and buy my groceries from the local farmer.

Alex Hunter unwittingly finds himself in just such a town, a place not even on the map named Strangehaven. After  crashing into a tree while travelling out to Cornwall, Alex wakes up in the local B&B being tended to by Doctor Charles and Jane his receptionist, who quickly befriends the injured stranger. He reports to them that he saw a girl in a black dress standing in the middle of the road moments before he crashed, but they assure him no one else was found at the scene of the accident. As soon as he recovers, Jane takes him around the town and introduces him to the casually odd inhabitants of Strangehaven.

There’s Albert Bonneti an Italian mechanic who speaks in pidgin English and an exaggerated accent; Adam who claims to be an alien who insists on wearing shades the entire time for fear of Earth’s ultraviolet rays; Maggie McCreadie the B&B owner who spends her evenings searching for something in the graveyard after midnight; and Meg, an Amazonian shaman who through the course of the series begins to instruct Jane’s brother Jeremy in shamanic initiation rites. Unbeknownst to Alex many of the town worthies including the school head-master, the doctor and the police constable are all members of a Masonic Order known as The Knights of the Golden Light.

Strangehaven is also host to normal village excitements such as romantic affairs and family conflicts. Jeremy’s father John takes exception to Meg’s relationship with his son. The green grocer Peter is sneaking around behind his wife Beverly’s back with Suzie Tang. Even the sweet friendship between Alex and Jane, which she tragically misconstrues, is well-drawn.

The town, however, is not simply inhabited by a collection of eccentrics, but under the influence of eerie supernatural forces.  Alex discovers he is unable to leave Strangehaven, finding himself turned around when he tries to drive on to Cornwall (with a series of crop circles visible in the background). Jeremy and Meg successful manage to inhabit the bodies of two birds courtesy of a magical ritual. Also Alex seems to have forgotten that the woman he saw suddenly transform into a tree looked just like Jane. There are frequent cutaways to a naked painting of her, depicting her body floating in a fish tank, being stared at by a mysterious stranger in Strangehaven.

Creator Gary Spencer Millidge has many strings to his bow. Writer and artist of the wonderful Strangehaven, he also self-publishes the series, has written a biography of Alan Moore and despite the irregular release of issues, still insists that number #24 will complete the story. The influence of Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Avengers is clear, with innocent seeming English towns revealed to be sites of global importance. Alex’s car accident resembles the opening of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a favourite of mine that has the protagonist encounter a woman outside the city of Bellona who transforms into a tree. The art is impressively photorealistic, with creased smiles and angry outbursts perfectly captured.

An excellent series, strongly recommended.

He passes it and I rapidly read what he’s looking at. Domestic duties: the people of the dark ages, when living together, apparently divided up work depending on gender. Males held paid vocations; females were expected to clean and maintain the household, buy and prepare food, buy clothing, clean the clothing, and operate domestic machinery while their male worked. ‘This is crap! ‘ I say.

Robin is a warrior-historian in a post-human civilisation. Our planet is a dimly remembered historical footnote referred to as ‘Urth’. All time is measured in seconds. Key periods of human history have been erased due to censorship wars and a disease known as Curious Yellow. Humans have evolved beyond physical mortality itself, replicating themselves with multiple back-up bodies, and even customizing their own alien forms.

Robin has just been downloaded into a new body and has been warned by his former self that his life is in danger. Yet he flirts with death by engaging in duels and refusing to ‘back-up’ into a new body. His lover, Kay, has four arms, suffers from body dismorphia and enjoys having very public sex with him.

Got all that? Okay, now forget it.

Robin is Reeve, a petite housewife trapped in a loveless marriage to the monosyllabic Sam. Her friends are insufferably happy with their home lives while she is slowly going mad from the boredom of staying in the house all day waiting for her husband to return. Every Sunday the couples in the neighbourhood flock to their local church and are lectured on morality by the unctuous priest, Fiore.

Reeve begins to suspect that everyone is plotting against her. She suffers memory lapses and nightmares in which she is a man dueling with assassins in narrow streets, or is an armoured warrior slaughtering innocent civilians during a civil war. Is she Reeve, or is she Robin? What is real?

With Glasshouse, Stross mixes satire, simultaneously riffing on Ira Levin‘s classic The Stepford Wives and Patrick McGoohan‘s cult television series The Prisoner, with cutting edge futurism. The opening section of the novel can seem like obtuse technobabble, but once the nature of this future society becomes clear the book is transformed into a fascinating outsider perspective on contemporary morality and gender roles.

The futuristic society resembles a contemporary online video game, with humans able to heal themselves of any injury instantly, or live out a personal fantasy. The recreation of 20th century life is to Reeve, and the others trapped within the glasshouse, a dark age fantasy with confusing gender role-play, religious fanaticism and physical frailty. In the glasshouse Reeve is the ultimate inversion of the overly confident male Robin. Having to rely on her husband Sam to provide for and support her is frustrating. She is trapped in a body she didn’t choose, and forced through a combination of peer pressure and constant surveillance to live a life that disgusts her.

Stross’ take on post-human technology is fascinating, with the outsider perspective on contemporary life at times chilling but other times humourous. Brave the technobabble and you’ll discover a biting satire where a church service begins to the tune of Brecht’s Mack the Knife and participants in the dark ages experiment are rewarded with points for bearing children. The plot twists and turns, Stross exploiting the possibilities with identity crises and rampant paranoia making for a dizzying, dense read. I almost felt bad submitting it for this challenge.

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