Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Conrad’

Thin Air cover(Thin Air, by Richard K. Morgan. Del Rey, 2018, 528 pp, $28.00)

by Zeke Teflon

It’s nice to have Richard K. Morgan (aka Richard Morgan in the UK, for god knows what reason) back writing sci-fi after what seems to have been a decade wasted writing fantasy, the Landpit for Heroes trilogy. Having been a huge fan of Morgan’s previous sci-fi novels (especially the Kovacs trilogy and Black Man) I read the first thick-as-a-brick book in the trilogy, The Steel Remains — notable for its lack of plot — and got through the first two pages of the second book, The Cold Commands, before deciding I couldn’t stand reading any more of it.

Thin Air is a return to form. The tone is reminiscent of both the Kovacs books and Black Man (Thirteen in the U.S.) in both grittiness and political subtext. It’s set on a very dystopian Mars a couple of centuries hence, and is a commentary on the results of colonialism in a neo-liberal context. (Various streets and buildings are dubbed Gingrich, Hayek, Reagan, Rand, etc.)

One of the opening quotes sets the tone:

Far from heroic and romantic heraldry that customarily is used to symbolize the European settlement of the Americas, the emblem most congruent with reality would be a pyramid of skulls. (Dean Stannard, American Holocaust)

For the purposes of this review, suffice it to say that the anti-hero of this brutal tale, Veil, a genetically modified former corporate mercenary, is every bit as emotionally numbed and damaged as former envoy Takeshi Kovacs in the Kovacs trilogy. (FYI, the first book in the Kovacs series, Altered Carbon, and its sequels, is much different and considerably better than the still-good Netflix series based on it.)

The plot is intricate; every single corporate, political and governmental entity is corrupt and treacherous; and the action is almost nonstop and graphically described. There’s a huge amount of violence in this book, all of it very well and stomach-churningly depicted, and a much smaller amount of graphic and accurately described sexual content — a very welcome departure from the customary sci-fi norm of cartoonish ultraviolence and prudish sexual avoidance.

Welcome back Richard K. Morgan.

Highly recommended.

(The only thing I’d add is that for those interested in the psychology of colonialism, the best sci-fi work is Mike Resnick’s A Hunger in the Soul, regarding a barely disguised East Africa. The two best works period are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his appallingly funny short story “An Outpost of Progress.” Barbara Kingsolver’s horrifying The Poisonwood Bible is also well worth a read.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, a Spanish-English translation on Venezuelan anarchist history, a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover




by Kathleen De Grave, author of The Hour of Lead: A Novel of Kansas and Other Alternate Realities

The other day I spent twenty minutes in a small town library in Illinois, the kind that gives half the space to the children’s department and squeezes everything else—from newspapers and magazines to computers and reference books—into the rest, leaving a couple of rows of shelves for books.  I wandered down one of the four fiction rows, remembering how it used to feel in my hometown library with shelves of books all there for me—all that possibility behind shiny, crinkly, flamboyant covers.  And as I wandered, a question came to me—one I continually ask but never get a complete answer to: why is this book not a classic but that one is.  Is there really something about certain novels that blows us away?

So I chose a novel on my left (the J’s), the first that came handy, with an author and a title I didn’t know, and opened it at random.  I instantly found myself in a lively scene, reading along easily, the story-line being familiar and fun.  Then I turned to the shelves on the right, the letter U’s, and saw John Updike, a classic writer if anyone is.  Again I opened the novel at random—and found myself in a sentence.  The words were simple enough, but I was drawn into their sound and their mystery.  Here was not so much a scene as a plunge, deep into a character’s psyche.  This story wasn’t familiar.  It wasn’t safe.  But I felt pure delight as I moved from surprise to surprise.

No wonder I keep asking the question—what makes good writing?  I can appreciate this or that quality; I can look from far out and see the whole design or zoom in and see an image, a word, a syllable.  But always I come back to the basic point: I know it when I see it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about one quality I see a lot in the kind of writing I’m talking about.  I’ll call it “metonymy,” indirection, not talking about a thing straight on, but just off to the side.  It’s like peripheral vision.  Somehow those vague forms on the edge of our sight take on a meaning and a depth that the objects straight before us can’t.  It’s like catching a shadow from the corner of the eye that disappears when you try to look directly at it.  In fiction, the effect comes through metonymy—focusing on something associated with the object instead of the object itself.  The crown, not the king.  This isn’t a metaphor.  The king is not like the crown.  They are one and the same.

Think of a boy on a bike on his way to school, backpack with all his books and secrets securely strapped on.  Think of that boy hit by a car: his legs twisted in the wheels of the bike, his backpack flung to the curb.  We could peer at the blood, take a CSI journey into the boy’s brain, listen to the hysteria of the woman who had hit the kid.  That would shock and numb us, maybe give some titillation.  But metonymy takes us to the backpack instead.  The torn straps, the ripped notebooks, papers skittering down the gutter.  The backpack makes us feel.

No wonder horses wear blinders.  If they look straight ahead, they don’t get scared.  Unnerving suspicions and shadowy forms can’t surprise them there.  But for a novel to stick in the mind, the blinders have to come off.  Joseph Conrad knew this.  He couldn’t give us Kurtz straight on in all his gore.  He had to use indirection, come at him sidewise,  in the “glow that brings out a haze.”  While Kurtz is crawling on all fours toward the “unspeakable rites,” Marlow looks at Kurtz’s empty bed.  Conrad gives us that indirect shock and all it implies.

The most direct writing is the worst—all abstraction: “Kurtz is an evil man,” “the boy suffered horribly”—because it makes us feel the least.  Good writing is concrete—all details and lively scenes.  But the writing we remember, the writing that haunts us, that makes us read the novel again and again gives us details that are just off center, where they can shimmer and let our own decentered vision call up the shadows that scare us the most.