Category: Reviews

I’ve always found Greg Bear’s output a bit hit and miss but the hits really nail it. In the realm of post-Arthur Clarke hard SF, few authors can do it like Bear does. The Forge of God is a masterpiece of a first contact story, one of my favourite ever along with Clarke’s Rendezous with Rama, Will Eisner’s great Life on Another Planet and Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Novels like Blood Music, Eon and Eternity (and even Hegira) should go without saying.

As a result, I didn’t really have any specific expectations about Hull Zero Three. I knew I wanted to read it but didn’t feel a lot of pressure. Turns out I should have had. I was blown away. The novel starts off with familiar SF tropes, the generation ship and colonisation etc, and then develops into a taut SF thriller. For most authors that might be enough but not for Bear. The cheesy, hopeful tone of the opening gives way to distinctly vague and unreliable first person narration as the protagonist, Teacher, one of the colonists, finds himself awakened in the ship, bound for a new planet, and slowly realises that things are wrong. The novel, then, slowly transforms itself into a discourse on authorship, identity, consciousness and theology that, at the same time, manages to maintain its momentum as a thriller.

Bear employs all the advantages afforded him by the conventions of first person narration remarkably and subtly. There are minute and easily unnoticeable references that give clues to the plot, amidst an ongoing meditation on the ways we perceive language, identity and consciousness and the primeval religious impulse. The suspense is almost unbearable, as is the sense of unease and the palpable existential frustration of an advanced intellect faced with ignorance, enforced amnesia and lack of information. Hull Zero Three reads, in parts, like a meditation on Platonic thought, a combination of The Cloud of Unknowing and Augustine’s Confessions, Clarke’s Childhood’s End and films like Pandorum and Event Horizon with the timeless quality of a morality play. We are given an inkling of the wonderful mix of theological speculation and hard SF themes that will be Hull Zero Three in the division of the novel into three parts, entitled The World, The Flesh and The Devil. Long-time SF readers and enthusiasts might recognise those as the title of the amazing book by the scientist J.D. Bernal, in which he postulates a space habitat similar to the one Bear describes in the novel. Bear, however, while still alluding to Bernal, also harks back to the Christian background of the phrase, the distractions and temptations posed to the soul (to the rational soul, according to Bernal, who also knowingly reflects along those lines) by its three main enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil.

Bear dramatises the process of anamnesis in a very interesting way, having made it an integral part of the plot itself. Throughout the novel, Teacher struggles with seemingly randomly triggered recollections of both facts and language itself. He keeps remembering words that, to him, are without referent. In a very Platonic sense, he intuits that there is a sense of purpose to his creation, which becomes remembered gradually. Since those that have been awakened do not have any recollection and therefore knowledge of those responsible for planning and controlling the mission, the result is pure theological speculation. Teacher actually engages in a literal act of exegesis with the texts left by other characters that have been through the same experience, once he realises that he is one of a long line of Teachers who have attempted to find out what has gone wrong with the mission and the ship itself. The Platonic/Gnostic preoccupations of the novel (the seeming creation of the colonists by a fallible god, the process of return to perfection) are well thematised and pursued within the action-packed plot.

So, yes, I really enjoyed Hull Zero Three, and all the more so because it was so unexpected (and I don’t mean that we can’t expect novels of this calibre from Greg Bear). It was far more economical, solid and convincing than something like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which shares some of its themes, but which I found verbose and incontinent and ultimately anticlimactic…Oh, well. Definitely a candidate for one of my novels of the year, Hull Zero Three is a must-read for serious readers of speculative fiction.


Since I finished reading Zero History a few days ago, I’ve been trying to come up with a relatively coherent account of my impressions and I’d decided to give it some time, when I came across Adam Greenfield’s post on cyberpunk. It reminded me of something I wrote about Charlie Huston’s Sleepless a while back:

Not only is it particularly relevant and timely, it also created the sort of frisson I felt when I first read Gibson’s short stories or Womack’s novels, this sense of entering a fully realised near-future world, almost tactile in its feasibility and terrifying in its immediacy.

I have been thinking lately, like Greenfield apparently, that my discovery of cyberpunk at a very young age constituted not only a sort of personal watershed, a formative intellectual landmark, but also a very specific emotional impression that I may have been trying to recreate, consciously or unconsciously, ever since. Huston’s novel came pretty close as did McDonald’s River of Gods and more recently Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. It’s probably due to the fact, as Jon Courtenay Grimwood notes in his comment to Greenfield’s post, that I was exposed to the radical newness of cyberpunk at a very young age, like most people then. At the same time, one of the reasons for the lasting appeal of Neuromancer and other works of fiction, cinema or music from the same period, would be that, pre-internet, cultural artefacts had more impact, carried more cultural weight because the immediacy and saturation brought about by the web was not there yet.

Before the web made everything so easy, we had to make more effort to find those books, records, comics or films that we were told would change our lives, and when we did find it was SO fucking worth it. We would lend or borrow books and VHS tapes, copy friends’ vinyl records, make long trips to obscure little stores in the off chance that they had copies of novels by P. K. Dick, Harlan Ellison or Vonnegut and Burroughs, or of films like Liquid Sky, Eraserhead and Repo Man. If they didn’t, you had to wait for weeks until they got them in. You’d go for weeks listening to the same record over and over, reading the same novel, mercilessly dissecting the same issue of some crappy fanzine, until you had the opportunity to find something else, usually courtesy of some better connected or more well off friend (i.e. someone with a job).

Now consider Neuromancer. We had been hearing amazing things about it, a lot of us were at that particularly receptive age, and it still managed to be so much more than what it promised. Not only was it incredibly timely, it also seemed frighteningly prescient, the language sounded disturbingly right and it described a dystopian society that managed to be oddly attractive! Everybody wanted to be the equivalent of a Panther Modern, to jack in and creep around Bladerunneresque cityscapes (probably listening to Throbbing Gristle and Sonic Youth, not Vangelis, even if we still loved his music).

Compare the exhilaration of finally receiving a record after weeks of waiting and the immersion of listening to that same record continuously for days and weeks even, with the instant gratification afforded by the web in the form of downloads and on-line shopping. Products are immediately available and easily accessible. I don’t even know how many records I get each month but I definitely don’t have the time to listen to all of them properly. That special frisson that I used to get by listening to a great record has dissipated with age and overexposure. How fair can it be to compare the deepness of the affect produced by a book or a record or film then and now? How can anyone think that Zero History or any novel could provide that same experience to a teenager now that Neuromancer did twenty five years ago? Of course it won’t.

To get back to our apparent topic, it appeared as if, after the late 80s works of the cyberpunks, that political edge and perspicacity that formed such a big part of the attraction almost disappeared. (I tend to consider much of the rest of American fiction in the same way, especially since the publication of novels like DeLillo’s White Noise, Pynchon’s Vineland) and Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All, all of which appeared from the late 80s to the early 90s.) The seeming political clairvoyance of the cyberpunks, their observations and caveats had been long foretold by William Burroughs and James Ballard, but the impact was stronger because of their sheer concentrated fury and the already tactile and perceivable impact of the “future” they were describing. Because they weren’t really prescient, only more observant than most. The various expressions of late capitalism, the political economy of the media and the pervasive influence of corporations, not to mention the rapid descent into what is increasingly becoming a highly intrusive surveillance culture, had already starting to become our reality. The “future” seemed to overtake us but that does not mean that cyberpunk is somehow obsolete. It’s more current and timely than ever. The thing is that any work of fiction is of its time only, a reaction to the political/social/cultural milieu at the time of its creation. SF itself has never been predictive, has never been about the future so much as about the writer’s perception of the present and what he can extrapolate from that. In that sense, Gibson’s novel remains a very astute depiction of our fears for the way things were going.

Over the past few years, cyberpunk appears to have mutated in the near future techno-thrillers of writers such as Charlie Stross, Ken McLeod, McDonald and Bacigalupi, or even Cory Doctorow and Laura Beukes, not to mention Sterling and Gibson’s own later work. I have to admit that I loved Pattern Recognition and that it made me realise how raw Gibson’s early work really was. His style has matured, the urgency has perhaps evaporated but his eye for emerging trends and their economical and political ramifications, the varied manifestations of the information age, is still there. And that’s one of the things about SF that more and more readers and mainstream authors are coming to realise: technological trends and developments proliferate seemingly uncontrollably. The speed with which ideas, images and news propagate on the web is uncanny. Information has never been more dispersed, readily available or overwhelming. Technology changes our lives rapidly and in very profound ways, without us even realising it. In the last fifteen years or so, our interface with the world has completely changed. We’re tele-experiencing much of what used to be everyday first-hand experience. Our sense of the historical process has been eroded by the undifferentiated plateau of information that is the web.

(By the way, as far as I am concerned, this is the only basis that can support Bruce Sterling’s concept of atemporality. In more ways than one, it’s nothing more than what used to be called post-modernism, another term I’ve never been okay with. It is only when I see it in relation to the unhistorical, levelling effect of the web and the network culture it has enabled that the concept becomes something else, more relevant and fitting to our experience. At the same time, the notion of atemporality is starting to seem to me increasingly relevant to the way readers can approach novels now. In a recent interview, he claimed that he doesn’t bother with infodumps and extraneous explanations any more, since everything is “googlable”. Words become virtual hyper-links, immediately searchable on our iphones. I’m sure that a lot of us have spent some time on PR-Otaku and Node Magazine, the websites dedicated to Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, where such searches are aggregated to form annotations to the novels. Narratives are transformed into an atemporal web of myriad hyper-linked connections, the act of reading becomes a non-linear process of constant contextualisation.)

Even if I recall Pattern Recognition as being more dense in a narrative sense, I’ve found Zero History to be equally vivid and captivating. Gibson’s references to cultural and technological minutiae are topical and he manages to construct a spectacular web of connections among them. His writing is razor-sharp and super-precise, conveying the essentials of every scene with minimum effort. As always, style and form is more relevant than actual plot. However, the novel is a very effectively sparse and streamlined techno-thriller, which maintains its thematic weight throughout.

Reading Gibson is as much about references as it is about plot or characterisation and Zero History is definitely the prime example of the novel-as-hyper-link, something about which Gibson has been increasingly vocal in interviews lately. The amount of googlable details is actually staggering. It creates a vertiginous impression that the novel, in a more heightened sense than traditional realism, acquires and maintains a truly reciprocal relationship to the world as it is filtered through the web, in a Borgesian continuum of mediation. Zero History springs from and redirects to myriad cultural minutiae that Gibson has been assembling and which will take on their arbitrarily imposed narrative significance once again, when the reader looks them up.

Leaving all the references and knowingness aside, it can be read, like the rest of Gibson’s work and certainly much of the rest of the cyberpunks, as a lament for a certain counter-cultural ethos. It evinces a nostalgia for something that existed or might still exist in potentia perhaps, not fully achieved, but definitely a romantic idea of some sort of subcultural autonomy. It is a theme that can be traced from Burroughs straight down to Gibson, Sterling, Shirley and Stephenson, via Pynchon of course, and more famously theorised by Hakim Bey. In the past, subcultures were visible and exposed. They became monolithic. The web has provided ways in which subcultures can circumscribe “temporary autonomous zones” for themselves and become more diffuse on certain levels, but they still remain searchable and cannot avoid the inevitability of commodification and co-optation. Zero History describes an even more cryptic form of that, however. Gabriel Hounds is a truly secret brand. It has withdrawn into actual off-the-grid circulation. It looks like Gibson is alluding to an ideal that can be tentatively realised on those terms only.

If there ever has been potential for any sort of authenticity or purity, be it cultural or political, in a subculture or even a brand it can be readily dispelled by commodifying and commercialising it, which is exactly what Bigend has been doing and what Hollis ultimately reacts to, after protracted soul-searching. Her search eventually leads her to a meeting with the designer of Gabriel Hounds herself (a cool little revelation here), where Hollis decides to protect her privacy. The scene is wonderfully resonant and subtly emotional, sketching out Hollis’ thought process very economically. For me this is the thematic crux of the novel and the culmination of Hollis’ travails since Spook Country. I can’t say anything other than that this is vintage Gibson. Like the best of his novels it makes you re-evaluate a lot of things you’ve taken for granted or look at things with a fresh eye. There is never going to be another Neuromancer but this is as close as it’s bound to get.

Francis Spufford has had a long-standing interest in technology and its social significance. Among other things, he has edited (with Jenny Uglow) the really cool anthology Cultural Babbage, a selection of essays on old technologies and their intersection with culture, politics and society, and has written Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, an affectionate look at past British technological achievements.

Red Plenty is a different animal though. It’s not really history and not really fiction. It reads like a hybrid of both and it really works. Following a number of historical and fictitious characters, Red Plenty reads much like an episodic novel, with loosely linked chapters providing a worm’s-eye view of the implementation of scientific principles in everyday life in the Soviet Union, from the 50s to the late 70s. In that sense it is more a work of social rather than intellectual history, which succeeds in showing very econonomicaly why state-initiated and ran programmes of social reform and improvement fail. Yes, Spufford takes as his subject Soviet Russia, a very prominently intrusive regime, but parallels are effortlessly drawn with western, capitalist, societies.

Inasmuch as initial impetus for the project stemmed from a very real ideological antagonism, its end is one of energy and innovation that exhausted itself in the futility of that antagonism. At the height of the Cold War, one-upmanship, particularly military and industrial, was the name of the game (Sputnik etc). In the race for cultural and ideological sovereignity there’s no scope for the improvement of everyday life. Sound familiar?

Where Norbert Wiener believed that a cybernetic social theory would benefit from and would lead towards a more liberal, less rigid system, where feedback would freely bounce among different social strata, both the Soviet government and industrial management opposed such a loose framework and emphasised, for different reasons, the need for a controlled top-down structure. For Khrushchev, communism could only work as a tightly ran machine. The apparatus had to be centrally controlled, not allowing for the possibility that input could be generated by other levels. Many of the advantages of cybernetics therefore crumbled on ideological grounds. There can be no room for accomodation in a goal-oriented, top-down system, where everything connects and reflects on anything else, in an infinite regression. Factory managers would not be able to hide their inneficiency, while bureaucrats would have to work more in order to cover for failures and bad planning.

Spufford discusses the tension between the necessity for state control and the idealism of cyberneticians by focussing on what are essentialy vignettes, scenes from the lives of people (both fictional and historical), scientists, appparatchiks, politicians etc, interspersed with factual historical introductions that provide the necessary political, social and historical background for each of the book’s several units. Some of the chapters give the sense of descritions inspired by photographs, static and detailed. Village squares, landscapes, factories, offices, all become the canvas on which the futility of the endeavour becomes painfully clear, where everyday life intersects with the seeming abstractions of science, with the weight of political struggle.

I’m not going to discuss whether fictional representation is more or less ligitimate or biased than a strictly traditional historical study in this context. Red Plenty is not an accusatory, judgemental rant; rather, it gives off a sense of disappointment that an experiment such as this had to fail, while it provides a framework for considering the very possibility that such a bold move could ever succeed.

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since Sleepless was published, but hey, I just got around to reading it so…

First of all, I have to say straight away that I haven’t enjoyed a new novel this much in ages. At least since Banks’ Matter and probably even before that. As cool as Huston stuff has been in the past, I somehow connected to this novel in a very unique, for me, way. Not only is it particularly relevant and timely, it also created the sort of frisson I felt when I first read Gibson’s short stories or Womack’s novels, this sense of entering a fully realised near-future world, almost tactile in its feasibility and terrifying in its immediacy.

Sleepless takes place in a seemingly near-future version of LA (despite the fact that the story itself is set in 2010), where people suffer from an incurable disease that causes insomnia. Our main character is Parker Haas, a police officer, whose own wife suffers from the disease and who, working undercover, becomes involved in a case involving the drug Dreamer, which is the only substance that can temporarily alleviate the affliction. Perhaps inevitably, he becomes entangled in a web of corruption, money, drugs and politics as he tries to balance his personal morality and the demands of his investigation.

Let me repeat, this novel is fucking terrifying at times. It’s too close to home, in some ways, so very relateable and immersive, that you will continue considering its implications long after you’ve finished it. Huston’s novel unflinchingly explores the potential social and political implications of such a situation, economically and sparingly, sowing seeds that bear haunting fruit in the reader’s imagination, like all truly succesful works of art should.

I’m not writing anything else. Go get it now.

Greg Egan’s Zendegi

As imperfect as it is, I really enjoyed aspects of Greg Egan’s latest novel. I found it to be Egan’s most readable novel, vividly realised and economicaly presented. The thing is that by its very nature Zendegi can only be enjoyed in a very fragmentary fashion, unfortunately.

Zendegi is a near future novel that revolves around questions of identity, both personal and national. The plot revolves around two main characters, whose stories are told in alternating chapters. One is Martin Seymour, an Autralian journalist who is sent to Iran to cover the 2012 elections and decides to stay there. The other is Nasim Golestani, a young Iranian expatriate whose work in mapping the human consciousness becomes the groundwork for the creation of a very popular MMORPG, Zendegi. Their stories become entwined when Nasim returns to Iran with her mother and they are brought together by political and personal circumstances. Martin suffers from cancer and asks Nasim to help him have his consciousness mapped and become a Proxy (an avatar) in the game, in order for part of him to be able to keep providing guidance to his son.

My main complaint is that the story moves in a rather facile fashion, with the background political and developments working themselves out in a rather simplified way and the plot resolving itself very conveniently. The whole thing is narrated very elliptically, with situations left unfinished and characters sketchily presented. It feels like Egan was undecided about things and he couldn’t reconcile the personal aspect of the story (Martin and his son) with the scientific one (Nasim and the mapping of consciousness), finally leaving both underdeveloped. The problems of the articulation and construction of identity and consciousness that appear to be forming the core of Egan’s novel are integrated within the characters’ everyday experience, without Egan having to resort to extreme infodumping, but we don’t really get anywhere. The same goes with the fact that he decided to set the story in Iran. Even though he is at his strongest when he presents everyday life in Iran, the little rituals that frame social interaction, that aspect again remains incomplete.

It’s a shame that Egan couldn’t really juggle his themes and choices. Parts of this novel work really well and it’s a shame that he didn’t take his time with rest of it.

Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space sequence is among my favourite SF ever. Few, if any, works of SF can match them in sheer scope. Wonderful universe, populated by intriguing peoples and aliens, with a terrifyingly immense back story. Now, for some reason, Reynolds has chosen to leave space opera to one side and move on, rather unsuccesfully, to China Mieville territory.

The story takes place on a planet where shifting zones affect the function of technology, ranging from completely forbidding to hi tech. Quillon, an escapee from the higher levels of Spearpoint, a city spirally built around a massive spire that pierces the clouds, aided by a woman called Meroka, has to go into exile in the lo tech zones outside Spearpoint, hunted by his people for the secrets he knows.

In terms of world-building, Reynolds does a pretty good job, as usual, casually revealing aspects of life on the planet and giving glimpses of its history. However, that’s pretty much all we get. Unlike his former novels, Reynolds does not fully explore his world. He gives us tantalising hints (i.e. the Bane sequence) but never follows up on them. As a result, the narrative is not really fleshed out. It is a very linear construct, uneven and ultimately disappointing. At the same time, Reynolds’ world feels very derivative. Heavily influenced by Mieville, Terminal World is also reminiscent of Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World, Vernon Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, Iain Banks’ Matter and Bob Shaw’s Ragged Astronauts trilogy in both concepts and overall mood.

Quillon is a very uninteresting character, definitely not strong enough to carry this story forward. The impetus is provided by secondary characters who remain underdeveloped, as does the story to which they hold clues. Reynolds has never been praised for either his characterisation or his dialogue, both of which remain formulaic and stilted, even more so in a novel that lacks the drive and scope of his previous ones.
There are some great grotesques and a host of bizarre creations like the Mad Machines, the Skullboys or Tulwar but they are too derivative of Mieville to give the novel enough life.

Terminal World reads more like an unfinished exercise than a fully fledged, complete novel. Meandering and without focus, it ends up being nothing more than a catalogue of half-interesting scenes in a half-constructed world.

Dan Clowes – Wilson

The 90s was a pretty exciting time for popular culture in a lot of respects, with the possible exception of comic books. Mainstream comics were mostly crap, some of the worst ideas in comics merchandising and marketing were initiated then and the market was pretty dismal. Not so for indie comics, however, and one of the best, most varied and distinctive was Dan Clowes’ Eightball. I loved the idea of a book written and drawn by a single creator that had the look and feel of an anthology. Plus Clowes dealt with themes that were interesting to me and his drawing style was (and still is) awesome.

Clowes is finally back, after about five years, with Wilson, an episodic “graphic novel” (I don’t care for the term), narrated in one-page, strip-style vignettes. It tells the story of a cranky, annoying, self-centred middle-aged man who, when his father dies, decides to go looking for his ex-wife, who left him 16 years ago. It’s a deeply human story, punctuated with Clowes’ darkly comic punchlines.

Clowes is a great storyteller and every single scene in Wilson has been impressively observed and rendered. As a portait of a cynical, disconnected and yet movingly sensitive middle-aged man, it is incredibly effective. It has always been Clowes’ gift to make his oddball characters feel recognizable and familiar in all their cynical, often charmless, otherworldliness.

His drawing style changes from page to page, ranging from really cartoony to Tomine-style clear lines, much like it did on Eightball. It is direct and effective, effortlessly expressing the nuances of Clowes’ storytelling. As much as I appreciate the formal experimentation of someone like Chris Ware, I am a sucker for the subtle craftmanship that goes into the creation of a seemingly simpler story like Wilson. Loved every lovingly drawn page of it.

I don’t make a point of reading steampunk novels but I am a bit of a sucker for Moorcockian alternate history re-imaginings. I also enjoy pulpy sensationalism ala Sax Rohmer and Dennis Wheatly, so I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually read Burton and Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. Besides, how could I resist such an idea? Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Swinburne fighting crime? I’m there! I’ve long been a fan of Philip Jose Farmer’s amazing Riverworld series, which certainly doesn’t fall into that category, so I’ve often wondered why authors of historical fiction haven’t mined the life of Burton more exhaustively yet, outside of the odd detective novel or passing reference. It definitely lends itself to imaginative reconstruction.

Anyway, Mark Hodder (the creator of the Blakiana website, dedicated to the fictional detective Sexton Blake) saw the potential and pounced, which is fine by me, since he did a really good job with this novel, which is the first of a projected series, apparently. Let’s hope the next installments will be as good. The story takes place in a steampunk version of Victorian London (obviously) and revolves around the well-known mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack, a series of sightings and attacks that took place from the 1830s to the 1880s around London by a person of singularly weird appearance, who was able to perform extraordinarily high jumps.

England is in the throes of massive social and political upheaval: the faction of the Engineers continuously introduces new technological inventions and the Eugenicists develop genetically modified animals for unpaid labour; the opposing faction of the Libertines preach the free aesthetic appreciation of life, while the Rakes, an offshoot of the Libertines, go even further with their unrestricted magical, sexual and anarchic practices. In the midst of all of this, Francis Burton, newly returned from Africa and confronted with the treachery caused by his former friend and colleague John Hanning Speke, is drafted by the Prime Minister of England as King’s Spy, in order to investigate the mysterious attacks and the disappearance of Speke. Accompanied by the poet and aesthete Algernon Swinburne, Burton’s search leads to the corrupt heart of British politics and the possibility that his world shouldn’t exist at all.

It might sound like Hodder bit off more than he could chew, but he pulls it off admirably. The world is effortlessly described because Hodder is in no haste to introduce various technological or social developments. Burton and Swinburne… reads like the product of a contemporary in terms of its observations and the integration of all the aspects of life. The sporadic insertion of advertisements in the body of the narrative is a brilliant move that serves to convey detail without Hodder having to tell us about it. In this sense, as well as in its subject matter, it is really close to comic books like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Warren Ellis’ recent Aetheric Mechanics and Captain Swing.

The story is full of great grotesques and cool ideas, a lot of them very funny, like modified parrots with Tourette’s, a devilish albino swordsman (an homage to Moorcock’s Elric?), steamhorses, werewolves that spontaneously combust, rotorcars and that’s not taking into account what Hoddder has chosen to do with Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, among others…

Hodder’s writing follows closely the pulp writing of the day in all its colonial, sensationalist glory. Burton and Swinburne… is a rollicking, old-school, unpretentious pulp adventure and I enjoyed every single page. The narrative is brilliantly paced and ingeniously plotted. Hodder stayed close to the original sources of his story and built his plot around them. As the narrative progresses, the reader becomes increasingly more aware of how organically Hodder has incorporated the steampunk element and accounted for the Spring-Heeled Jack incident. The two elements become causally intertwined easily and logically, as Hodder makes sure to provide clues almost from the beginning. In terms of sheer structure, Burton and Swinburne… is definitely reminiscent of Victorian pastiches like Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx and Michael Cox’s criminally overlooked The Meaning of Night.

Considering that this is a first novel, it is a fine achievement and it sets pretty high standards for Hodder’s follow-up. Please do not let us down, sir.

Moon and Ba’s Daytripper

Fabio Moon’s and Gabriel Ba’s Daytripper (Vertigo) must be the most moving, human comic series out there at the moment. Not to mention one of the best looking comics in quite a while. Each issue of Daytripper focuses on a particular year in the life of Bras de Oliva Domingos. At the end of each issue, Bras dies. One would think that, given the concept, there would be no point in reading past the first couple of issues, but the damn book gets better and better.


Moon manages to draw the reader in incredibly effortlessly, focusing on simple, everyday scenes and recognisable, relatable characters. Even though you know the outcome you can’t help but be really affected by Bras’ death every time. The pace is exemplary and Moon develops each chapter magnificently.

I don’t know if Daytripper would have such an impression on me if it hadn’t been for the combination of Moon’s stories and Ba’s artwork. He first came to my attention with Casanova (Image), written by Matt Fraction. This time, his art is being coloured by the amazing Dave Stewart and I find it considerably more appealing. Stewart’s palette complements both Ba’s idiosyncratic artwork ad Moon’s wistful tone.

It feels great to see Vertigo putting out some great titles again and it’s a shame that some of them are being so criminally overlooked, like the excellent Exterminators. Besides Daytripper, series like Air, Unwritten, DMZ and Sweet Tooth are more than welcome alternatives to the slop that’s out there.

I have to admit that I came to this one slightly biased. I haven’t really liked anything I’ve read by Roberts in the past and even though I was hoping this would change, it didn’t…

New Model Army has an interesting premise: that free-thinking individuals can assemble and form an army with no hierarchical structure or chain of command. Rather, they can communicate in real time, via wikis, where each member can contribute opinions, and fight by navigating the terrain through Google Maps. In true anarchist fashion they don’t have specialisms, so there is no sense of inequality. They download information on different topics and they train as medics, negotiators, soldiers etc., all at once. Being non-hierarchical and highly mobile, they can evade capture by simply disbanding and going back to civilian life. They can adjust their tactics rapidly, thus maintaining an advantage over traditional armies which are slow to react because of their rigid hierarchical systems.

Most of the story is narrated by a member of such an army, which is incidentally caled Pantegral, in language full of similes, as well as numerous references to both popular culture (games, tv shows, music etc) and critical theory, philosophy etc. A bottle of wine lays “Humpty-Dumptied”, while a heavy wooden door looks “like the monolith in 2001”. And that’s where the trouble starts. Roberts has to resort to making his narrator a university graduate in order to justify the constant flow of academic references. He doesn’t wear his erudition lightly. The novel ends up feeling so self-indulgent and exhibitionist that the few moments of insight and interest collapse under the burden of artificial and heavy-handed similes and allusions. What’s more, the whole thing feels contrived and forced, especially when compared to other near-future SF like en MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods or William Gibson’s Spook Country. Roberts’ language has never sounded as effortless as Gibson’s or McDonald’s.

The reader leaves New Model Army feeling overwhelmed rather than exhilarated by the concept, which is a major problem in all of the novels that I have read by Roberts and a damn shame because his ideas are usually terribly interesting. However, the concept on its own,no matter how interesting it may appear at first, cannot maintain the reader’s interest unless the writing is good enough as well. Roberts’ writing isn’t tailored to serve his themes. His pointless desire to dazzle with erudition shines through every time, leaving the reader feel patronised and confused.