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But, in a sense, they all already had a fever just as murderous and treacherous: emigration fever. It was burning them up and driving them on.

Ok folks, here is a quick update on the status of your friendly neighbourhood blogger. This afternoon Stephanie and I moved into our new home – for four weeks that is. We’re house-sitting for a lovely couple and keeping two very affectionate cats company.

The most exciting news (for me) is this house has an incredible collection of books! I am very happy. So I will expect I will be sourcing many of my reviews from the books here for the next few weeks.

Moving along, this book is yet another addition to the American dystopia canon. This time the culprit for the devastation of the world is a highly contagious disease. The title is derived from the practice to isolate infected members of communities in a lonely house outside the inhabited area.

Franklin Lopez, left to his own devices by his hardier brother Jackson, finds just such a structure and takes shelter during a violent storm. Together the two brothers, like many others become emigrants in the wake of the disaster in America, are travelling eastward to a mythical port that will lead to safer climes. Jackson is tempted to leave his younger brother behind though. Already their family was broken up when the two boys left their mother behind at their home when they struck out. One more separation would not cost him much.

Franklin is ignorant of his brother’s desire to abandon him. He has discovered within the pesthouse a young, beautiful woman, whose shaved head and deliriousness testifies to her infection with the flux. At first compelled to flee from the obvious signs of infection, Franklin finds himself returning to the young woman Margaret, his attraction to her outweighing the danger she poses. She tells him she comes from the settlement of Ferrytown, where he had his brother had been travelling to, as many others had before them, to cross the treacherous river to the next stretch of road leading to the coast. The inhabitants of the town charge those travelling eastwards almost everything they own for the right to cross. When the flux passes thanks to Franklin’s ministrations, the two travel down to the settlement, only to discover every soul dead.

Everyone they know is gone. Franklin and Margaret decide to make the rest of the trek to the East alone, braving the highways haunted by people rustlers and the prospect of further outbreaks of disease.

The comparison will be made, so obviously I have to get it out of the way first. This is not The Road. For one Jim Crace’s writing is far more lyrical than McCarthy’s spare prose. Furthermore there is a far greater leeway for hope, with Franklin and Margaret’s growing love granting them a brighter future than an aging father and his young son.

Surprisingly Crace is not writing about the apocalypse. He is inverting the format of American manifest destiny, with the huddled masses that have survived the plague travelling east instead of west, seeking safety overseas as America itself and all it represents has been lost to them. His conclusion, given the misery of this book’s setting, is an optimistic one, reflecting Franklin’s youthful enthusiasm for life.

Poetically written, without shying for the darkness at this novel’s heart, this is a wonderful book. A dystopia that does not give up on the future.

 

In the System – at least the parts of it that I lived in – all that mattered, all you really had, was your reputation. Two men went into a box, and one got killed and one climbed out, it doesn’t matter if you were bloodied and beaten. It doesn’t matter if you begged and bribed, wept and cursed inside that box – all that matters is that you lived and he died. That’s all anyone ever remembered.

I like swearing. There’s nothing like an inventive outburst of expletives. I pepper my everyday conversations with ‘colourful language’, usually without even thinking about it. Curse-words are wonderful fun and were generally the only reasons for my fellow pupils in primary school cracking open a dictionary.

“What’s a bastard miss?”

If you enjoy an amusing line in abusive language I would recommend Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, which features a character named Malcolm Tucker, the most foul-mouthed, gloriously filthy ‘swearer’, in fiction.

Unfortunately some writers simply cannot capture that level of dizzying scatology.

Avery Cates is known as the ‘king’, of New York. A professional killer, who survived an assault on the legendary ‘Electric Church’, in London, he cannot be touched by the city’s cops as for some reason his name has been included on a protection list.  He cannot be harmed by any law officer in New York, despite a well-known reputation as a cop-killer.

Nevertheless, Cates is a marked man. Kidnapped and blindfolded, he is taunted with information about his past that only someone who knows him could be aware of. Then his unseen assailants insert something into his throat and he is abandoned on the street. Consumed by rage, Cates sets out to discover who attacked him, but he has bigger problems to deal with.

One by one everyone he meets falls sick from a debilitating disease, suffering a gruesome death within two days. Cates, it is revealed, has been injected with a virus designed to emanate from him, killing everyone in New York, but leaving him unharmed. That list of deaths he is responsible for keeps growing and growing. Cates sets off on a race against time to discover who is responsible, before he can wipe out the whole of humanity.

Ok, everyone in this book curses. Every line of dialogue slumps on the page, stuffed with expletives. It is not even funny, just tiresome posturing and insults. It irritated the hell out of me, almost as much as Somers’ references to the first book featuring his callous killer, The Electric Church. Unfortunately I had not realized this was a sequel before I took it out from the library. There was this Church you see, and it was electric. Lots of people were killed in this Church, the electric one you see, but Cates survived. Over and over again we hear about the events of this previous book. I feel like this novel needed a ‘Previously On…’ opening chapter, much like in a prime time thriller.

In an unusual move many of the surviving cast of The Electric Church die, signifying that Somers at least is not interested in writing a formulaic franchise revolving around Mr Avery Cates. Yet the multitude of deaths soon renders the tragedy of this plague excessively logistical. We no longer feel any sense of despair in Cates’ friends being picked off, because death itself becomes repetitive. Much like the cursing! The descriptions of people coughing up bloody phlegm lose their shock value quickly. Honestly Jeff Noon’s Pollen dealt with the idea of a surreal disease in a far-future setting much better.

Poor fare and pretty ho-hum as a work of science fiction.

Something, something has got to happen soon, Milena thought. I need something new to do. I’m tired of the plays, I’m tired of the Child Gardens, I’m tired of being me. I’m tired of sitting bolt upright on the edge of my bed all night, alone. I need someone. I need a woman, and there isn’t going to be one. They’ve all been cured. The viruses cure them. Bad Grammar. I love you is Bad Grammer?

Some years ago I bought Geoff Ryman’s book Was, a unique take on BaumsThe Wizard of Oz , in a sale. I never got a chance to read it and eventually sold my copy, along with most of my possessions, the first time I moved to Australia. Now I feel like running to the largest book store I can find in Sydney and hunting it down. I have not been this excited by a writer since I first discovered Samuel R. Delany.

In a brisk introduction titled Advances in Medicine (A Culture of Viruses), Ryman establishes his vision of this future London and the principal character a Czech orphan named Milena Shibush. Cancer was cured via a contagious benevolent virus that rewrote DNA to allow the human body to photosynthesize sugar internally, preventing the triggering of tumour cells metastasizing due to genetic damage. The viruses continued to mutate, becoming intelligent and coding information into each new host, until a hive-mind developed called the Consensus, which directed and guided humanity. Culture and history became transferrable diseases, with newborn infants suddenly becoming infested with the collected works of Shakespeare, annals of past events and languages. Utterly transformed, the skin tone of the human race is now a universal russet purple. Also, the curing of cancer had an unexpected after-effect – no one lives beyond thirty-five.

Got all that? Good. Milena is not like the other children. Her parents are deceased. The virus payload never took as an infant, so she was forced to actually read as she was unable to keep up with the other children. At the age of ten children undergo a process called being ‘Read’, where all their experiences are distilled by Consensus in order to determine what their future professions should be. Milena has never been Read. When she finally received a payload of viruses that took it caused her to become so ill she was deemed unsuitable for the process. After she recovered, it seemed to her as if Consensus had forgotten to harvest her. She was placed as an actress in London. She is different, estranged from the other adolescents and children, more impulsive, imaginative, distrusting of the viruses and due to ‘Bad Grammar’ is attracted only to women.

Milena’s loneliness and lack of interest in the robotic performances of Shakespeare she has to take part in as part of her ‘career’ – every actor recites their lines and paces the stage exactly as Consensus tells them the original performers did, in a perfect recreation of the Elizabethan era – leave her feeling increasingly isolated, until one day she meets the love of her life. One day she hears a voice sing with a richness and understanding superior to any recording. The singer in question is a genetically engineered polar-woman named Rolfa, descended from humans who chose not to join Consensus, but become intelligent polar-bears instead. Unlike the socialist Utopia of the purple-skinned humans, the ‘G.E.’ polar bears mine for ore in the Antarctic and sell it for profit. They are the last capitalists. Rolfa, like Milena, is a freak who enjoys opera and poetry instead of business. Where the ‘squidgy’ girl is paranoid and reserved, the woman who looks like a bear is raucous and inspiring. Their love is not permitted by either Consensus or Rolfa’s Family, forcing them to make a tragic choice. Milena dedicates her short life to orchestrating her lover’s opera based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

I have not even scratched the surface of this amazing book. Ryman’s characters are fascinating creations – the dangerously deluded Thrawn McCartney, Cilla an actress colleague of Milena’s so good she cannot actually tell whether she is self-conscious or acting – contained within an elliptical and time-jumping plot. The intelligent viruses resemble Richard Dawkin’s theory of memes, which he wrote about in The Selfish Gene ten years before The Child Garden was published. This is an exhilarating mixture of science and culture, a novel set in the future that revolves around Dante’s epic poem.

Outstanding.

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