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We were flying in a strange part of the sky,’ said Handsome, ‘and we thought we’d hit a meteorite shower, ship spinning like a windsock in a gale. I took a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree shot of the ship, and I saw that what we were flying through was a bookstorm – encyclopedias, dictionaries, a Uniform Edition of the Romantic poets, the complete works of Shakespeare.’

‘Yeah, I heard of him,’ said Pink, nodding.

It has been a number of years and I am still fuming about Margaret Atwood‘s little rant: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Yes it was years ago. Yes she has been backpedalling ever since and why should I even care?

Really though it comes down to marketability. Science fiction is a publishing ghetto. Literature that dabbles in ‘speculative’ fancies is far more respectable and ensures the authors still get invited to the important parties.

To my mind this is the definition of pretentiousness. A rather literal kind of pretension, but it asserts the dominance of one genre of literature over another.

The Stone Gods opens in a immoral far-future dystopia. Humanity has exhausted their home planet, known as Orbus. The atmosphere is filled with deadly dust-storms. Civilization is completely broken down, with different ideological enclaves controlling their own territories across the globe. The Eastern Caliphate is consumed by religious fundamentalism; the SinoMosco Pact is an extrapolation of the most corrupt form of communism; and finally the Central Power has realized the deepest desires of free market capitalism, with state government replaced by a hierarchy of corporate institutes.

Billie Crusoe is a scientist trapped in a thankless and soul-destroying media job, covering the discovery of a new planet that represents a possible hopeful future for the human race. Completely disenchanted with humanity, Billie can see that if the wealthy elite transfer themselves to this ‘Planet Blue’, history will simply repeat itself. Once the native species of dinosaurs are artificially wiped out, conversion will begin. Injustice against the lower classes will be repeated; the wealthy will sink into even more immoral depravity; and when the planet itself is stripped of all vegetation, humans will simply find another planetary body to infect.

While covering the story Billie meets the robo-sapiens Spike, an emotionless gynoid who is more than capable of reading human emotion. After Billie is forced to return to Planet Blue with a new crew, composed of scientists and a lucky celebrity, she falls in love with Spike.

However, as Captain Handsome reminds them, history has a habit of repeating itself. The book is split into four sections that reveal that these events are being recycled through a form of eternal recurrence. At times Billie becomes Billy, a sailor on Easter island, or a near-future scientist who encounters an account of the destruction of Orbus, titled The Stone Gods.

I mentioned Margaret Atwood above, because like her work, this book treats of a ‘speculative fiction’, scenario that smacks of science fiction tropes, but evidently wishes to be counted among more refined literary fellows. References to Samuel Beckett, including his ‘begin again‘, absurdist nihilism abound. Spike is threatened with being recycled to avoid her falling into the hands of rebel forces. Her knowledge and experience of the Planet Blue is intended to be extracted from her, but as the overall story hints, minds undergo a form of evolution ensuring that they are not simply limited stacks of data. Spike ultimately survives, even as Billie will be reborn, or simply return to life over and over again.

Yet this book apes science fiction, while at the same time pretending to philosophical profundity. A swing and a miss I am afraid, one that leaves the text perilously suspended between two stools. In fact at times it resembles bad sf!

Where the book excels, however, is its shocking description of a futuristic dystopia obsessed with sexual depravity. Genuinely unsettling and disturbing, these early passages of The Stone Gods vibrate with anger towards the sexual domination of women by men. There are also moments of surreal humour, such as Spike’s disembodied head performing cunnilingus. The book swings between extremes of righteous anger, attempted profundities and comical humour.

I could not help but be reminded of David Mitchell’s superior novel, Cloud Atlas, which introduces similar themes to greater effect. A disappointment.

Freedom! Jane thought. She rocked back on her heels and imagined Stilt flapping off clumsily into a bronze-green autumn sky. Her thoughts soared with him, over the walls and razor-wire and into the air, the factory buildings and marshalling yards dwindling below, as he flew higher than the billowing exhaust from the smokestacks, into the deepening sky, higher than Dame Moon herself. And never, oh never, to return!

I have had the good fortune to experience that age-old cliché of ‘escaping into a good book’. It is a rare occurence, but it does happen. To be completely transported away into a world conjured up by an author’s imagination is a delicate and wondrous thing.

Over the course of this challenge I have experienced this only two or three times. Geoff Ryman provided one such diversion, as did David Mitchell. As I write each entry for this blog, I become more eager to feel the sensation of sinking into another imaginary world once more.

The opening pages of Michael Swanwick‘s novel promised just that. Jane Alderberry has been raised in a factory that supplies the Elven kingdom with dragons. She is human, but just as much a slave as the other workers, elves, shapeshifters and other examples of fey kind, owned and controlled by the factory itself. Jane is persuaded to help the roguish Rooster sabotage the factory in an attempt to murder their overseer the disgusting Blugg. The assassination plot fails and its mastermind loses an eye for his troubles, but Jane returns to her bunk with the means to her own escape. A grimoire detailing the making of dragons.

As her knowledge of the workings of these incredible metal sky-destriers grows, she becomes aware of a voice compelling her to the factory yard. There she meets the dragon No. 7332, who enmeshes her with promises of freedom from the suffering of the factory. However, she soon realizes she has exchanged one master for another and the indiscriminate havoc he wrecks on the factory claims the lives of both her enemies and those few friends she had.

What follows is a broadly Dickensian narrative of Jane’s rise through Elven society, a cruel and callous pagan universe that nonetheless is fuelled by industry. The various races of the ‘fey and the weird‘, share in a society based on domination and exploitation. Jane begins her schooling disguised as an ordinary wood-nymph in order to learn how to repair No. 7332, discovers a love of theft and through her scheming wrangles a scholarship to university studying alchemical sciences. With each elevation through society she finds herself trapped in the same narratives, love triangles and bitter emnities. Faces and names reoccur with such frequency that she comes to doubt the reality of her existence. Beneath it all, she knows the dragon is controlling her, moving her forward in a game of cosmic strategy that she cannot comprehend.

Swanwick serves up a delicious gumbo of fantasy and steampunk tropes that revolves around two poles of cosmic nihilism and alchemical transformation. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a perversely mischievous book, unrestrained in scope and possessing a wicked sense of humour. There are touches of Dickens strewn throughout, including a reference to the breaking of a barrel of wine as a sign of the building foment in Paris during A Tale of Two Cities. The naming conventions also resemble Dickens’ whimsical malapropisms, but Swanwick also includes allusions to Welsh mythology to remind us that this is ostensibly a fantasy novel. The scenes of ritualistic sex magic, the mating habits of gargoyles, elves snorting lines of coke and Jane consulting a witch on methods of birth control do add to the categorical confusion.

For it has to be said this is a profoundly twisted vision of fantasy, a weird psychodrama that far outstrips the likes of China Miéville, cleaving perhaps closer to the likes of Samuel R. Delany and M. John Harrison.

To say more would, I fear, only spoil the experience of reading this book for yourselves. Writing this review has been as much a pleasure for me as reading the book that informs it. A revelation, whimsically profound and delightfully twisted. Another roaring success for Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series.

How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.

&

I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?

Ladies and gents, after a hundred and eight reviews I think I may have stumbled upon my favourite book for this year. Ambitious, yet without pretension, with a vast storyline stretching across centuries, though revolving around a single theme, Cloud Atlas is something special.

Usually at this point I discuss the plot of the books I review. The problem here is that this book concerns several plots. In fact it concerns several texts, scattered throughout history and each story is discovered by the protagonist of the following tale. It begins with the diary of an American notary sailing across the Pacific during the colonisation of the Antipodes, then skips forward in time to an English composer fleeing to a villa near Bruges, appointing himself as a musical amanuensis to avoid his debts shortly before the Second World War. A tale of industrial espionage in the disenchanted seventies  is followed by a Keseyian yarn involving skulduggery in the publishing industry.  Finally a future utopia founded upon a horrific secret gives way to an even more distant future where language itself has become dissipated by time.

Essentially this is everything Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain wanted to be, but just could not quite capture. In fact I heard a rumour the Wachowski brothers plan to film this next. I can see how it might work and if they pull it off, we could be looking at a cinematic treat to rival this marvellous book.

Above all this is a story that hints at greater narratives and meanings, but does not trouble itself with having to explain all of them. The central protagonists in each section may be reincarnations of one another, as suggested by the repeated motif of a tell-tale birth-mark (as well as the repetition of the phrase ‘cloud atlas’). However, they may also be fictional characters in books, films and anti-government propaganda, which capture the interest of their future selves, only for us to discover that they too are not ‘real’.

The tone of these stories within stories switches from the macabre, to rich comedy. The heroine of the section within the seventies, Luisa Rey, is a journalist who would not be out of place in a novel by Stieg Larsson. The following chapter titled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, feels like a rewrite of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Will Self. An Orison of Sonmi-451, concerning a clone-slave, referred to by the dominant human caste as a fabricant, and her journey of self-discovery, name-checks Huxley and Orwell, just so we know for sure that we are in the realm of allegorical dystopia. Even the Yankee notary remarks in his diary how his voyage compares to Melville’s writing.

While this is a book rich in intertextual references, it is in no way obscure, or pretentious. The far-future sections described in broken English are tough, but if you can weather Beat-poetry you should be fine. As this is a book principally concerned with storytelling, Mitchell is considerate to his audience and has fashioned above all an enriching and entertaining collection of tales, telescoping through history and then returning to its starting point. Each of the sections during the first half of the novel end abruptly and we share the succeeding character’s frustrating in not knowing what happens next. The composer Robert Frobisher’s reaction to only having half of the notary Adam Ewing’s diary is especially amusing.

On the rebound, returning back from the future, each of the stories is brought to a fitting conclusion. This assurance that everything will be explained makes the book more similar to serialised fiction and its reliance on cliff-hangers. Thankfully, David Mitchell does not punish us with any loose story threads signifying a sequel.

I have gushed enough. Rarely have I had this much fun with a contemporary author’s writing. I can think of no higher praise really.

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