Monday, March 28, 2016

Fevre Dream - George R.R. Martin

Fevre Dream (1982) is Martin's third novel. It follows his début Dying of the Light (1977) and his fixup collaboration with Lisa Tuttle Windhaven (1981). All three are decidedly different beasts. Dying of the Light is a science fiction set in Martin's never officially named Thousand Worlds setting. Windhaven is nominally science fiction as well but much more to the fantasy side of the genre. Fevre Dream is a historical horror novel. For his fourth novel, The Armageddon Rag (1983), he would shoot off in another direction again. A choice that ended up almost wrecking his career as a novelist. Fevre Dream however, was a commercial and critical success. Written in a time when horror was on a high, it earned Martin Locus and World Fantasy Award nominations in 1983.

The Mississippi river system: 1857. Abner Marsh is a riverboat captain down on his luck. Where he once owned a profitable business, owning several steamboats, disaster has struck and he is down to one, severely outdated boat. His luck seems to be changing when he is approached by the peculiar but obviously wealthy Joshua York. Together they build the finest steamboat on the river, and Abner is dead set on proving it is the fastest as well. His partner has some strange conditions for bankrolling the new boat however. Conditions that seem to make little sense to Abner and get in the way of him running his company. Soon York's nocturnal habits and unexplained trips arouse suspicion. Joshua York is clearly not what he pretends to be.

There are a few things that usually don't attract me in fantasy and science fiction, and Martin has written all of them at some point in his career. Time travel (Under Siege, Unsound Variations), comic book style narratives (Wild Cards) and vampire stories tend to make me hesitate to pick up a book. Fevre Dream is a vampire novel. This type of novel has undergone quite a change in the years since Martin wrote this book. Martin wrote vampires in the tradition of Bram Stoker. Dangerous, powerful, charismatic, evil and very hard to kill. Powerful individuals they may be, the modern world is catching up to them. Their aversion to sunlight makes them vulnerable, and places to hide and feed on the population unnoticed are harder to find. The American frontier is still a wild place however, and a group of vampires is making use of that. What they do is horrific and Martin doesn't spare us the horrific details.

There is a bit of a contradiction in Martin's treatment of the vampire mythos. The human characters in the book seem to be aware of Stoker's ideas on what vampires are some forty years before Dracula was published. Joshua even mentions Vlad Țepeș to Abner and some of the characteristics and weaknesses of his race as described by Stoker  in one of their conversations. It's a peculiar lapse in what otherwise appears to be a well researched novel.

Most of the novel is set on the Mississippi river in 1857. Martin has done his research on the history of transport on the river and describes the atmosphere in the towns along the Mississippi very well. It is a highly dynamic place, still wild enough to be considered the frontier, but a place where the impact of modern technology and industrialization are beginning to be felt. Along the river the conflict that will explode into the American civil war is already brewing. Martin doesn't shy away from showing the appalling racism that was part of every day life along the river and still echoes through American society. Slavery and the practice of hunting escaped slaves feature in the novel and it contains a lot of language nobody in their right mind would consider using today. Martin uses this part of history as more than a backdrop. Historical developments shape the story and the main character. Martin has a knack for researching a period and then using it to create a great story. Which makes it all the more of a shame he never finished Black and White and Red All Over.

Martin's preference for morally ambiguous characters is well known and it shows up in this novel as well. Particularly over the issue of slavery. Although Abner, being from a northern state, doesn't own slaves himself, he doesn't really object to the practice either. He hires a mate who can keep 'the darkies' in line and doesn't seem to think they are good for anything but the hardest, lowest paid jobs. Not until his clash with the group of vampires, who see humans as cattle, sometimes useful but mostly food, does he begin to appreciate the injustice of their position. His attitude towards Native Americans, only very briefly discussed in the novel, is similarly racist and ignorant. Martin uses it to develop his character to an extent but you have to be able to stomach a whole lot of racism to appreciate this story.

The dynamic between two other main characters, Joshua and his nemesis Damon is another expression of Martin's preference for complex characters. Damon is what you'd expect of a vampire. Joshua on the other hand isn't. In his struggle with Damon he develops into a tragic character. Perhaps his pointless battering against Damon's power is a bit too dramatic for some but it does suit the southern gothic atmosphere of the book very well. He is pulled between two ways of life and even though we see the effect of that exclusively through Abner's eyes, it comes across very well.

A while back I reread Martin's career spanning collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. In the 1970s Martin produced a couple of stories that were inspired by poems. And Seven Times Never Kill Man (1975) takes the title from a poem by Kipling, in A Song for Lya (1974) a poem by Matthew Arnold is referenced. Joshua York, it would seem, is a fan of British  poetry as well. He references Percy Bysshe Shelley (in particular Ozymandias) and in more detail Lord Byron. Abner is not impressed by York's 'gimp Britisher' but later on in the book it grows on him. Martin must have had an inspirational English teacher to let it influence his work to such an extent. I don't think I've seen any traces of it in his post-Hollywood material though.

Martin may be a fine writer but he didn't convince me to try more vampire novels with Fevre Dream. In the end it is his handling of the characters and the historical backdrop that carry the novel for me. The vampire story itself is rather predictable for a novel published before the Urban Fantasy boom and the introduction of glittering vampires. It's entertaining but of the novels Martin produced in his pre-Hollywood period, this is not the one that stands out. Ironically perhaps, I vastly prefer The Armageddon Rag, the novel that almost wrecked Martin's career. Not everybody will agree with me though. If you like your vampires without glitter, in the hands of an author who can tell a good story, Fevre Dream is worth a try.

Book Details
Title: Fevre Dream
Author: G.R.R. Martin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 350
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1-85798-331-9
First published: 1982

Friday, March 25, 2016

The City & The City - China Miéville

Some years ago I read Miéville's Bas-Lag novels. They are challenging reads, especially to a second language reader. Miéville's vocabulary is impressive and he uses it all in those novels. The books centre on the fictional city of New Corbuzon, a place that is as much a character in the book as the people that live in it. Cities, especially strange ones, seem to attract Miéville. He displays a whole range of different genres in his novels but wether it is New Corbuson, Un-Lun-Dun or Besźel/Ul Qoma or Embassytown, strange urban environments seem to connect his work. The City and the City does strange very well. It was nominated for an unbelievable number of awards. After having read it, I'm not surprised it won as many of them as it did.

Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel police, is handed what will turn out to be the most complicated case of his career. The body of a young woman is found dumped in a shady part of town. Soon, the trail leads to the city of Ul Qoma, where Borlú has no jurisdiction. The cities have a long and complicated history together, both geographically and politically. To guard the status quo between them, an organisation called Breach can be invoked for crimes during which the border between the two has been illegally crossed. To Borlú's surprise, no such illegal crossing has taken place. Breach cannot be called upon. Instead, Borlú is sent to Ul Qoma to help the local authorities solve the case.

It took me a while to wrap my mind around the city Miéville is describing. They are two states, essentially sharing the same physical space, where by convention and law, the inhabitants of both cities choose not to see, or as Miéville puts it, to 'unsee' each other. Some streets are fully Besźel, some fully Ul Qoma, others shared or 'crosshatched' as Miéville puts it. It's a situation that constantly influences the inhabitants, and demands that they carefully choose what to see and what not. Miéville's point here is clearly that we all choose to see or unsee certain parts of our environment. That how we perceive our surroundings is partially a choice, to a point dictated by custom or what is specifically targeted at us. Miéville puts a lot of examples in the text of how this situation influences daily life and how it has shaped the cities. The first time you go out after finishing the book you'll probably look around and ask yourself what you  normally aren't seeing.

For some reason the situation in Miéville's fictional city - it is suggested that it is located somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps on the Black Sea coast - reminded me a bit of Jerusalem taken a different turn some time in the past. A city that is so layered in history, where several peoples and religions have a claim on the place, and where sharing the place is both unthinkable and the only way to a lasting peace, you can almost see something like what Miéville describes happening. Then again, and Miéville works this dark side of human nature into his novel as well, there are always those who want it all and do not mind shedding blood to get it.

The novel has a definite fantastical aspect to it, but for a large part it is a police procedural. The unique politics of the place gives Miéville plenty of opportunities to develop a good conspiracy. It may start out with a single murder but that proves to be only the tip of the iceberg. The plot itself is very convoluted. In the end it falls into place but I must admit that the final revelation was not quite as interesting to me as the way Miéville uses the plot to show the various ways of seeing the city. The author uses characters from both sides of the border as well as foreigners, and then has Borlú try to make sense of their perspective. It's very cleverly done but I'm not entirely sure it will convince fans of more conventional murder mysteries. You need to be able to enjoy the synthesis of the two genres to really appreciate  it.

I had a lot less difficulty with Miéville's English in this novel than with the language in Perdido Street Station for some reason. It's not that Miéville suddenly abandons his preference for long, complex sentences and matching vocabulary but it's not as extravagant as I remember from his earlier books. Or maybe my English has improved in the past few years. The first explanation is more likely, a darker, less extravagant style seems more fitting.

The City and the City is one of those novels that takes fantasy to a different level. It clearly fantastic yet impossible to categorize, it experiments with fusing genres, with language and with perspective. It nods to  some of the great writers in mystery, fantasy and science fiction, as well as a main stream literature. You could probably do a thesis on everything that went into this novel. In the end I guess it is the way in which Miéville balances the influences, themes and plot that makes this novel stand out. He is ambitious in what he attempts and he pulls it off. That is a rare feat indeed. If you are up for something different and something challenging, The City and the City is a good place to start.

Book Details
Title: The City & The City
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: PAN
Pages: 373
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-53419-2
First published: 2009

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Interview: Steph Swainston on The Wheel of Fortune

Earlier this year I read Steph Swainston's story Het Rad van Fortuin for the Dutch language book site Hebban. They asked me to do in interview with Steph as well. Het Rad van Fortuin, of The Wheel of Fortune as it is called in English, is the first work of hers to be translated into Dutch. The questions in the interview are meant to introduce her to this new audience. We didn't want to withhold the result from her English language readers however. Both Steph and Hebban kindly allowed me to run the interview on my blog as well. The review of Het Rad van Fortuin can be found here in Dutch and here in English.

Hi Steph, welcome to Hebban Random Comments. The Wheel of Fortune is the first of your stories to be translated into Dutch. How did your story end up with Quasis?

I was asked by the wonderful Jasper Polane to provide a story for his new Splinters Series.

The Dutch edition The Wheel of Fortune is an expansion of a short story published in 2013. I haven’t been able to find any English publications of this version of the story. Did we get a first?

Yes, you did.

Are there plans to publish it in English?

Eventually I’ll expand it into a full-length novel. I’ve shown flashes of Jant’s brutal past in Hacilith before, particularly in The Year of Our War. I’ve wanted to tell the full story for a long time and the day is getting nearer – maybe after my current novel is complete!

Although there are hints in the story that the wider world in The Wheel of Fortune is much more complex, the story is mainly set in an early industrial environment. It features exploitation of labourers, a lack of environmental standards and a range of social problems. What made you decide on such a grim setting?

The word ‘grim’ is over-used. I’m reflecting my reality and my own background. I come from Bradford in the north of England. It was a boomtown of the Industrial Revolution in the 1890s but is now very deprived. I grew up in the shadows of the huge, abandoned mills, where my ancestors used to work in what were often terrible conditions. At times life expectancy was as low as 12; people would migrate to the city where poverty and disease would kill them before long. The bleakness of industrial Hacilith is largely drawn from the actual circumstances in Bradford.

As a single example, the Galt Foundry in the story blasts soot out of the chimney, and it falls upon the surrounding houses. Lister’s Mill in Bradford used to do this regularly even as late as the 1950s and 1960s, when my father witnessed it. They sounded a siren before the fans started, which was followed by a thick smog of grit, soot and horrendous chemicals ‘like a pyroclastic flow’. The managers didn’t care that it fell on the workers’ houses all around. My father described having to hold onto the mill’s wall to navigate from school to home, the smog being so thick it was impossible to see your hand in front of your face.

Now, Jant lives in Hacilith in 1818, where its industrial revolution depends on water power rather than steam. Workers toil in factories, to clock time, with machinery driven by the flow of the Moren River turning huge waterwheels. Hacilith is also one of the centres of the Fourlands’ smelting industry, so even without steam power, there are still plenty of chimneys spewing out smog.

Hacilith is the capital of Morenzia, the human country. It has a north European climate, and the natural resources of Morenzia are somewhat basic compared to Awia. So Hacilith, which is on the Moren estuary, became a trading and merchant’s town much as Amsterdam did. It prospered and grew in population until, in the thirteenth century, the teeming city was much larger than the towns and villages of the rest of Morenzia. Then, from the 1600s to the 1800s, Awian refugees settled in the Old Town district, in the streets of ‘Little Awia’ and brought their silk weaving to Hacilith.
    The actions of the immortals have also shaped the city Jant knows. After Frost joined the Castle and became the immortal Architect, from 1740-1750 she built the enormous Awndyn-Moren canal which crosses the country and shapes its border. Ships no longer had to round Cape Brattice, and their cargos came to the city and fed it. Frost built an immense series of canal basins and docks in the Galt district, where Jant lives.
    The beautiful seventeenth-century merchants houses and warehouses along the East Bank were too small in scale, so they fell out of use and were incorporated into great factories built there instead, making arms, armour and military equipment for the war against the Insects.
    The people of Hacilith welcomed the canal as an extra line of protection against the Insects. The Governors of the city became more confident. They no longer built defences, they spent their money on luxuries, and on developing the rich central district of Fiennafor, where their palaces are.
    And they continued to build factories along East Bank, where the Moren River turns the waterwheels, and cools the furnaces and foundries. All the weaving – wool and cotton, and the Awians’ silk – were scaled-up and moved into the factories of Galt.
    One of them is a crossbow factory. That’s where the Bowyers’ gang is based. Peterglass, the gang leader, works there, and most of the members are factory boys – they’re very well-armed with crossbows!
    By 1818, the prosperous merchants had moved away from the smog and soot, to Fiennafor, or to Moren Wells. Moren Wells is a spa town in the east of the city, and urban sprawl linked it to Hacilith a hundred years before, when the city changed its official name to the City of Hacilith and Moren – Hacilith Moren – but still Hacilith for short.
    Galt is an area around the docks, a network of brick terraces built to house the millworkers and foundry smiths. It’s desperately poor. When Jant flew in from the mountains he spent a year on the streets, before Dotterel found him and rescued him. They live at 7 Cinder Street, in the apothecary’s shop.

The story is written in the first person.  Do you prefer to write in the first person or is it a demand of the story?

It’s a preference – resulting from how and why I write. I write to be immersed. It’s easier to be completely immersed if you see from the eyes of your characters.
    I’ve been writing Castle in various forms almost since I learned to hold a pen, so I’ve been visualising the characters and the surroundings for so long I can virtually ‘see’ and ‘hear’ them as if I’m watching a film.

I can write from the point of view of all my characters, and at the last count I had 106 characters. I always end up with a lot of extraneous material.

For a number of years, before I was published, I experimented with writing Castle in third person. It has some advantages, because then I could set up groups of characters in different parts of the country, and move the action between them more easily. On the other hand, it calls me to myself and I am more aware of myself as a storyteller, as an author writing a book. This makes writing much more a conscious act and then it becomes too easy to become over-concerned with who your audience is and whether they understand. You end up with over-explanation and the ponderous prose so characteristic of run-of-the-mill fantasy writing. I want readers to be swept along with my characters, not detachedly following a narrative.

The story is set in the same world as your novels. Can you tell us a bit about how this story fits in to the larger series?

Sure. This story is Jant before he joined the Castle and became Comet, the Messenger. It’s set during his last few days in Hacilith, where he lived for six years. Gang warfare, and his own ambition, destroy the Wheel gang which he is part of, and he is forced to flee the city with his girlfriend, Serin.
    The scenes mesh with Jant’s flashback to Hacilith in The Year of Our War. So it’s a sort of prequel.

Did the translator have many questions for you?

My translator was Eisso Post.  He didn’t need to check with me.  He’s an excellent translator and I trust him to do a good job.

You wrote full time at one point in your career and then made the decision to give that up and take a job as a chemistry teacher. Why that decision?

It was a very dark time for me. I was being overwhelmed by a number of problems; health, financial, personal, and the publishers weren’t very sympathetic. So it seemed like a way out, to change a shitty situation. It took years and a move to a new town to get on top of everything and begin writing full time again. Now I’m determined to finish the Castle sequence I had planned.

Do you feel part of a particular genre?

No. I think of it as Castle. It is all-encompassing within my life, so I don’t limit it.
I don’t like fantasy and SF’s obsession with categorising authors within neat subgenres. Most of these are invented as marketing tools. The ‘New Weird’ was conceived by China Miéville and M. John Harrison basically as a means to set fans talking.
    The obsession with genre often leads to the search for influences, usually within impossibly narrow frames of reference. Over the years I have been annoyed and amused in turn by reading what others consider my influences to be. I was sending the completed manuscript of The Year of Our War out before the publication of any of the so-called ‘New Weird’ novels, yet somehow I was apparently imitating them. I’ve not been a big reader of fantasy since my teens; you can perhaps find C.S. Lewis or Delaney in there if you really look but nobody notes the much stronger influences of Dumas, Dickens or William Burroughs. My writing has been part of my life for so long, it’s acquired influence from everything in my life, way beyond just reading. I’m not trying to shape it to fit any deterministic genre.

These subgenres are detrimental to the writer for another reason: they give readers a mental template against which works will be judged, works which may have nothing to do with the template whatsoever. Novels should be judged, and enjoyed, by their own merits. Perhaps some authors do write consciously – commercially – for a genre, but then as Quentin Crisp said, ‘Fashion’s what you adopt when you don’t know what you are.’ I have a very clear idea what I am and what the Castle mythos is, and it doesn’t follow current genre fashions.

Do you think boundaries will become even more fluid in the future?

Yes, but it won’t happen with the large publishers. Innovation is in the hands of the small publishers now.
    Large publishers have to turn a high and predictable profit, so they go for the safe market, which to them is largely the visible end of fandom, the convention-goers and bloggers. Or they’ll pursue books which are similar to movies, and commercial tie-ins, where there is guaranteed brand recognition. Small publishers are more willing to take chances and don’t have the same bloated cost structures to support.
    Thankfully there’s a number of small presses which are nimble, quick, intelligent and inventive. The web gives them publicity, and distribution to equal what a large press can do. So kudos to innovators like Jasper and Quasis, Salt, PS Publishing, Newcon Press, Snow, Unsung Stories.

One last question. Rumour has it you are working on a fifth novel. Is there anything you can say on that project yet?

It’s called Fair Rebel and it’s already available for pre-order on Amazon – go get it! It’s scheduled to be published in November but the manuscript is totally complete.

Following on from that, I’m already halfway through the next Castle book, so that’s book six. It carries straight on from Fair Rebel, but with new characters stepping to frontstage. Its working title is The Savant and the Snake. After that, there’s another planned in the sequence and The Wheel of Fortune expansion which I mentioned earlier. I’d better get back to work!

Steph's website can be found at Her new novel Fair Rebel is scheduled for release in November 2016 and can already be per-ordered at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and The Bookdepository among others. Het Rad van Fortuin is available though the publisher's website and wherever Dutch language books are sold.