Scattered story shards make one satisfyingly stain glassed window *contain spoilersss*

Sibilance is always great, isn’t it? Jack Glass is Adam Roberts’ venture once more into the Uplands and beyond for the setting to this triptych of whodunit murders, but with a twist – we know who’s done them. The clue’s in the title (not the post, the book).Classic SF and classic crime fiction are wedded together with a rather thrilling honeymoon as we explore three scenes – an asteroid, a country house and a sealed “locked room” mystery. These angles create the landscape of a universe redolent of his past work Gradisil. In similar fashion, Roberts weaves the carpet under our feet with his dry, amusing commentary. It happens from the first line in: “The prison ship was called Marooner. The name had nothing to do with its colour.”

The first third is effective by the sheer claustrophobic nature of the setting and the results on the character dynamics – seven prisoners have been, well, marooned on an asteroid, sentenced to make it safe for habitation. If they can attempt this, they will be picked up and returned safely. There is a catch, of course. You have to survive the sentence of 11 years. Your tools are limited, you’re sharing a space with hardened criminals and yes, you’re on an asteroid – hardly the Ritz, is it? The battery that provides them with heat runs low, the food (a punnet of biscuits, believe it or not) and water runs thin when it comes to dousing their tongues under the scraps of ice that crop up – all the best conditions for tensions to break out. Sexual strands are strained as well as the peaks and troughs of will and hope. Through the cacophony of panic, terror and strained laughter is our eponymous character – the calm and astute observer. He is called Jac and we keep our eye on him, and rightly so, even though he is depicted as quite a charming person and a good listener. Because of course, someone who weaves a tapestry Penelope style at a time like this does seem rather suspicious:

He tucked the piece of glass away under his tunic. If they didn’t find ice soon, it wouldn’t matter, and none of it would matter, and nothing would matter ever again. That thought was almost restful. The thought hardly disaffected him at all;although it did disaffect him a tiny bit, in the Will at the heart of his being.And he wanted at least to have finished his window. His miniature little window. Tiny little window. (Roberts, p75)

Such tautologies of the focus of this window, as fragile as the orbit of shanty bubbles can only mean Danger! Danger! in both my presight and hindsight state of affairs.

I’ve been considering the difference between absurdism and SF for a thesis chapter – and the dialogue between Jac and Marit can blanket the tension just a little with back story, a sense of rationality of why they are here, a trail of back story. Mo sets the tone for the whole picture – what is scarce is expensive, and what is abundant is easily disposable. Supply and demand, that old ABC of economics. In this case, it’s unfortunately the human race, who we find out exist in billions – with the class chasm so vast that the disenfranchised live in shanty bubbles in the earth’s atmosphere – environments packed to the brim full of people and, as the name suggests, is fragile and delicate and requires either replacement or constant repair, or else be hurtled into the merciless empty space beyond. A chilling prospect. Jac constantly reassures the cry of panic until finally the time comes – and as his name sake suggests, the glass is his tool of choice, in a rather chilling way of putting his money where his mouth is. In a truly terrifying way, he carries out Mo’s premise, intricately using their bodies in order to make their escape (I won’t spoil too much – just read it!)

This first third is an amazing insight into the world just through word of mouth of the characters, their ideals, their society and virtues. I’ve noticed as well that the “eye for an eye” theme is used here in a somewhat similar fashion to Land of the Headless, but that’s something I need to revisit in time (this is in fact an eye stalk or one of the convicted’s ordinators, I *think*).

So, onto the second and third segments of the story. We’re not done with this universe yet. However, we now see it from the Earth itself with the genetically created superhumans (they did remind me of powerpuff girls, which I do love) – Diana and Eva, created to solve puzzles and mystery to the highest degree of accuracy (that should be on their business cards if they had them). We are given a delightful dramatis personae of the two Argents and their tutor, Iago *hmmm* and assorted servants, doped with CRFs to ensure their loyalty and prolonged servitude. That is, until one of the house servants is murdered. A similar weapon used in the first segment as a bit of a knock up is used here – a metal cudgel of some sort. Of course, this will be anything but clear cut (glass? geddit?) but we have a crack team of crime investigators – or in this case, Diana. Even though the MOHsisters are close, their differences lie in their priorities – Diana being one involved with human affairs and emotions, whereas Eva can see things more objectively, in a more detached way. This is reflected in their dream like excursions – redolent of Stapledon’s Starmaker, where through the dreams of Diana in particular, we are given several little hints as to what might be going on.

Like in all good crime fiction, we are left to absorb like a thirsty plant all of the clues that are scattered, only to find out which ones to discard in order to have at the truth. We need to find out how the murderer entered the house in the first place, with the novums of the House AI, the servants drugged up to the nines, as well as the concept of altering gravities from the uplands to the Earth, as well as FTL (Faster than Light travel) to throw into the mix. Now we know, thanks to Einstein, that this is not possible – but of course, the potential of SF is its reaction, its bite-back, not necessarily the dental print of its attacker and the evolution of its choppers. In this way, look at how well the two genres get on. Of course, this requires some rather masterful prose writing to mesh the two – AND give it bang for its buck as opposed to existing as simply crime fiction, and I believe Roberts has done this justice. The dream sequences add to the mystery – it can be a little convoluted at times, but I love working out puzzles. Give me one of those puzzle blocks and I won’t read that manual – I just won’t put the damn toy down.

But what I find is so clever about this is the actual outcome, despite all of these novae (novi?) thrown at us. Iago, like a servant doing his Positronic Man sketch down a treat, especially when he holds Diana’s clothes as she swims and the perpetual calling of Miss, rightfully earns his moniker, shall we say. He’s one of my favourite characters in the Shakespeare canon and rightfully so. The dialogue here is artfully done, which is in my opinion the true human disguise.

I’m not going to spoil everything, so I won’t go into that in too much detail!

What I do want to go into, though, is the complex character of Mr Glass himself. This is the portion that rendered me breathless. He protects Diana (OK, fine, I’ll spoil it! I’ll change May contain to Will contain) to the very end, with a contract that endangers the billions of lives in the universe. He/Jack/Jac/Iago has the FTL weapon – the invisible gun – with the explosive potential to wipe out everything as we know it. He protects her despite everything. I was thinking of some potential reasons for this – Diana is the FTL weapon, she is one half and Eva is the other, *anything* but this. Of course, as we know he is the killer, we think of him as ruthless, calculating and cold. We see him under many guises – automaton like, a Jeeves like companion to the boisterous Diana, a Phoenix Wright to a hapless Maya, intent on finding the culprit of the crime. But this… I was not prepared for this:

“Why was that worth giving yourself up for?” She pressed. “Are you saying that stupid contract was worth putting the entire System at risk? The lives of trillions?”

He made as if to speak, but swallowed the words. Then he ran the palm of his hand over his bristly hair, and closed his eyes. Finally he said “yes.”

“Have you lost your mind? The entire population of humanity – the whole System? Trillions of lives, in exchange for my safety?”

Iago said: “because I love you.” (Roberts, p361)

You know that scene, where the cat’s organs get eaten in Kafka by the Shore? Smacked me in the chest, just like that – but this time it was of a positive reaction. Amazing – and it felt totally left field for me, which maybe it shouldn’t. This character that we have seen, a sheepdog leading lambs to the slaughter, seeing people as mere units of currency to be bartered about, comes out with that!? In true crime novel style and in SF style are we exposed to estrangement on so many different levels here. There’s a quote from Flaubert that sums up this kind of love – it’s a subject that I can  never write about without some sort of cover up, some snideness, some cynicism, but here’s a secret. I am actually quite soppy inside (Urgh! That hurt! Owch!). Anyway, it’s this:

Love is a springtime plant that perfumes everything with its hopeeven the ruins to which it clings.

Yes, I do love that particular quote, it’s one that I hold to my heart quite dearly. But hey, it’s a weird frame for it. We’re not supposed to feel sorry for Jack, we’re supposed to boo him and tar him with feathers in true pantomime fashion (well, probably a bit more than that). What Roberts excels in is seeing the whole story – how the topias in his worlds can be flipped, characters can change their facets like a Rubix cube, and the carpet that he so intricately weaves is simply whipped away. These of course are elements of the perfect crime story and so it’s not such a surprise that he carries off the formula well. I’ve also noticed in the way he writes about love – about the male desire in a myriad of ways, from platonic to sexual to worship and adoration. Gradisil and her husband (and later on, her children)’s dynamics are amazing to watch, as is the protagonist in Land of the Headless for Siuzan to the lassez-faire attitude of George to his wife in By Light Alone. I admit that I haven’t read New Model Army yet, but it’s been one I’ve wanted to get my hands on for a while – which I also can’t wait to review.

Jack Glass has been nominated for two awards I believe this year so far: the BFSA and the Kitschies. A very worthwhile candidate indeed – it’s light and accessible, but with many sweet layers – a delightful pastry of a novel.

The First Men in the Moon – classic review *spoilers!*

It’s pretty safe to say that H.G. Wells (Herbert George in first name terms) was one of the essential pillars of the Scientific Romance, which went on to become more commonly known Science Fiction during the height of the pulps in the 1920s. I always find the genre to be very reactionary and therefore self aware and self reflexive, and he lived through a great many scientific discoveries by Rutherford, the Curies, Einstein, Darwin et al. Because of this, we can see a multitude of his works dedicated to predictions such as his serial works Anticipations and his other fictional thought experiments.

Following on from the Island of Dr Moreau and the Time Machine, FMITM is another one of those post-Darwinian thought experiments – the Selenites (the moon people to you and I) actually dwell below the Moon’s surface (thus answering any queries about whether the title was supposed to be “on”) and have the whole living space arrangements run to an amazing efficiency. In rather stunning contrast, here come the “representatives” of our planet – Bedford, an ex clerk wishing to make the odd buck from writing a play, whose only drive to visit the moon was for the chance of commercial gain and Cavor, a rather eccentric scientist but without human empathy – totally driven by the thought of knowledge and discovery. At first glance, Cavor seems to be the buffer here, the Dorothy in the monomaniac Wizard of Oz crew, but alas, they both seem single tracked in their own objectives. Rather well known as a Fabian, Wells believed that science alone, without it being attached to social conscience, was extremely dangerous, as of course the materialistic and capitalist intentions of Bedford (Fabianism being a branch of socialism, don-cha-know.)

For a rather potted history of the story, two unlikely acquaintances lock horns as Bedford pens his play in what he believes to be a secluded place, encountering an odd breeze of hums at exactly the same time. Bedford is portrayed as one of those “pie in the sky” writers, who, when he feels under pressure as a clerk, thinks “why not, I think I’m creative so I’ll write a play”, finding it rather harder than anticipated. Who knows, the interruptions might be the tip of the iceberg. When confronting the source, he finds Cavor, the ubiquitous quirky scientist running experiments to create cavorite – a substance, when painted on certain objects, allows them to be free from the restraints of gravity and float. Remember that helium had been formally discovered in 1895, that was from the uranium ore cleveite (sounds similar to cavorite, right? Am I right?). After all, it is mentioned as a “fancy new element” (Wells, p16). I know that scientific accuracy is secondary to the genre in general, but with Luckhurst’s conditions of emergence usually at the back of my mind – as in the terms that he describes to be the catalyst to start a reactionary period of SF (such as a new era of scientific discovery/attitude etc.), and it makes sense for me with this particular time. Anyway – OK, now for the potted part.

So with this novum under our belts, we find ourselves on the trip to the moon, after Bedford’s to-ing and fro-ing of decision making. Wells makes the distinction between the men very clear in the chapter Mr Bedford meets Mr Cavor – “the understanding of a Cavorite monopoly grew up between us. He was to make the stuff and I was to make the boom.” (Wells, p18). Then they make it to the Moon, not without a little side jab at Verne:

“That’s perfectly easy. An air-tight manhole is all that is needed. That of course will have to be a little complicated;there will have to be a valve, so that things may be thrown out if neccessary without much loss of air.”

“Like Jules Verne’s apparatus in A Trip to the Moon?”

But Cavor was not a reader of fiction. (Wells, p28)

We find out that there is air on the moon (!), thin but manageable to get by. There is edible material, but has a rather intoxicated effect upon consumption (remember, students – this isn’t real… or IS IT!?). They come across life, of course, in the form of ant-like creatures the Selenites. Their communications are limited as they try to overcome the rather obvious barriers of interspecies intercourse. Again, the hints at the post Darwinian sentiment are very clear in Chapter 13 as Bedford says:

“The things are outside us… they’re different from us from the strangest animals on earth. They are a different clay. What is the good of talking like this?”

Cavor thought. “I don’t see that. Where there are minds, they will have something similar – even though they have been evolved on different planets. Of course, it was a question of instincts – if we or they were no more than animals – ”

“Well, are they? They’re much more like ants on their hind legs than human beings, and who ever got to any sort of understanding with ants?”

“But these machines and clothing! No, I don’t hold with you, Bedford. The difference is wide – ”

“It’s insurmountable.” (Wells, p.89)

It’s amazing to see how humankind felt as a reaction to this when it was first postulated – and of course, is a highly contentious point today. To feel that we may not be as insignificant as we at first appeared, that we share space with such creatures must have resonated so strongly amongst people of that period while these ideas were starting to stir.

As I’ve been describing a split between two things that Wells despised – materialism and a lack of social responsibility, it only seems fair for me to throw a materialist reference in there. Again, Bedford leads the charges. In Chapter 16, Points of View, as they beat off the Selenites to make their ecape, Bedford finds that his chains are made of gold! He pauses, his train of thought running back to the profit making idea, his hesitation despite the fact that he is bound by them (these ain’t all mind forged, they can also be physical manifestations!).

They become split from their journey, and as Bedford arrives back to Earth, we hear transmissions from Cavor, who has finally unlocked some information on the fascinating race. Like the ants that they bear resemblance to, they each contain similar aspects in terms of their different roles. As Cavor mentions, “Every citizen knows his place. He is born to that place, and the elaborate discipline of training and education and surgery he undergoes fits him at last so completely to it that he has neither ideas nor organs for any purpose beyond it.” (Wells, p181) There are bearers, workers, porters, ushers, scholars members of the neuter sex –  replacements are available so that the ants always have parentage, with the backdrop of hexagonal honeycomb hive – which would be seen in future literary offerings such as Hellstrom’s Hive. It’s all very Brave New World-esque before the event.

Talking of Brave New World, there is a very interesting moment that’s mentioned in the rearing of children. The use of the mechanical arm/hand as shorthand for the industrial and the era of the machine as seen in some science fiction (i.e. Dune and even SW), there is the idea that some of the insects have machine hands: “…replaced by huge single or paired bunches of three, or five, or seven digits for clawing, lifting guiding…that wretched-looking hand sticking out of its jar seemed to have a sort of limp appeal for lost possibilities; it haunts me still, although, of course, it is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.” (Wells, p184). Of course, we see the many angles of these arguments in many SF novels and assorted screen media to come!

Then comes erm, the thought piece from our representative, a Mr Cavor, in interview with the Grand Lunar – the leader of the Selenites. In these little soundbites of information, we can see how Wells viewed the dangers of science and knowledge without social responsibility and the ability to share, as Cavor says:

I explained to him how our science was growing by the united labours of innumerable little men, and on that he made no comment save that it was evident we had mastered much in spite of our social savagery, or we could have not come to the moon. Yet the constrast was very marked. With knowledge the Selenites grew and changed; mankind stored their knowledge about them and remained brutes – equipped. (Wells, p.198)

He then goes on to describe the nature of human war, as the Selenites watch on, incredulous. I wouldn’t rate him on diplomatic skills, that’s for sure, but that’s the way things go. He even egoes as far as saying ” I assured them men of my race considered battle the most glorious experience of life, at which the whole assembly was stricken with amazement.

“But what good is this war?” asked the Grand Lunar, sticking to his theme.

“Oh! as for good”, said I” (Wells, p.200)

Utter facepalm! Anyway, communications break down after that, and I think Cavor wasn’t welcomed well after that little outburst. He wouldn’t get my vote. In a nutshell, the book is obviously has some pulpy moments in it – you could even go as far as to say it’s proto-pulp, with the bug eyed aliens, the edible intoxicating food, the fight and the “take me to your leader” mentality, but there are so many layers in it. It is extremely informative as to attitudes of the time and is worth a read/re-read.

Review of How Plays Work

How odd – when I said that I was feeling my age, I wasn’t wrong! I tend to be reading a lot of non-fiction, more so than fiction (although both concepts are rather vague as they are!), and recently I’ve come across a lot of Playwriting books. Now, those of you who believe that writing is a craft – it most definitely is – the difference is that we’ve usually had relatively more exposure to it than say photography or web design. A lot of forethought, structuring and depth is required for any piece of writing (even this one!), and I’m sure I’m not alone in being lost for words on occasion or placed the punchline before the buildup to a joke!

So, on to the book itself! How Plays Work, by David Edgar – pretty self explanatory, I have to say!

It’s a great comprehensive guide into each of the building blocks required to construct a coherent and meaningful performance piece. The sections are: Actions, Character, Genre, Structure, Scenes, Devices and my greatest nemesis – Endings!

Now, I purposefully left out the first chapter, which really sparked my interest in this book in the first place. It’s called Audiences, which really put my writing head on back into perspective. If I had a penny for every time someone called me out for “writing for myself” and “don’t assume the reader will understand what the author is saying” to the plain “what the hell is this text I see before me!?”, then I wouldn’t need funding at all! I tend to be as cryptic as well… me, I guess. The fact that David Edgar put the Audience first and foremost struck a chord with me, because, well, the audience is always right.

I have never seen so many references being used to so many different plays in one publication before. David Edgar, who founded the Playwriting Studies course at Birmingham 2 years after I was born, clearly knows his stuff. He skips across concepts like Emplotment, Axis and Currency, Contractual and Performative plot forms whilst casually dropping in some masterpieces of Ibsen, Shakespeare (of course), Brecht, Noel Coward, Beckett, Ayckbourn, Miller, Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill just to name a few.

I got this book from Ebay, and it really gives you bang for your buck – especially revising it to go through some steps and ideas when structuring what essentially is “people talking”, and seeing what methods you can go through to get to your characters and extract all their needs and little quirks to make it believable and well, most importantly, to mean something. It’s like a very comprehensive manual, although with so many references, you can go off the beaten track a little and just stare bewilderingly at the wildlife.

I’d say it’s definitely a good read if you’re looking into Play writing or even another form of fiction. Give it a shot!