Monday 2 July 2012


Ian McDonald, 2007
(June 2012)

A real curate’s egg, this one. I read River of Gods a while back and it was exceptional. Exotic, exciting, excessive (in a good way) and other words beginning with ‘ex’. This was less captivating. Not bad, but I ended up reading it in parallel with another book which is something I very rarely do; I usually prefer focusing on one thing at a time.

On that note, I think that part of the difficulty was with the structure. There are three parallel plot strands – set in the Present, Future and Past – each with their own lead characters and storylines. We start in the Present (well, 2006) and that’s unfortunate in that this is the weakest of the three. Primarily this is because the protagonist of this strand is so massively unsympathetic. She’s a reality TV producer, for fuck’s sake. In the current moral climate it’s hard to think of a more reprehensible, less empathy-provoking way of earning a living, short of ‘Kitten Stamper.’ It’s almost like the author is deliberately trying to make it difficult for us to like her because he fancies the challenge. Even as her worlds go to hell in a hand-cart, it’s still hard to care about her as an actual person.

Now, the difficulty in viewing her as a real person is exactly the same difficulty she has for the ‘stars’ of her shows. Some of the Present storyline is clearly intended as satire on the contemporary media landscape, but I don’t know if this bit is. I don’t know if a lot of it is. Often it just feels that it’s trying too hard to be edgy and cool. Even the Future strand’s actively bisexual Paulistana wide boy protagonist seems a less self-conscious attempt to be ‘alternative’. This storyline is better though, even if it initially suffers slightly from being The One With All The Exposition.

But the Past is where it’s at. It’s basically Heart of Darkness relocated to the Amazon, but it has genuinely interesting characters and I really wanted to know what the resolution would be. Obviously the strands start to converge as the novel progresses, but the three are presented in a strict rotation so I found myself skimming through the Present and Future in order to get back to the Past. That probably wasn’t the intended effect.

I’m glad I stuck with it though. The final sections, when all the strands get woven together and the rotation gets blurred, are glorious. Ambitious, horrifying, exultant (there’s your other ‘ex’), and everything that good SF should be. Does all that make up for the earlier weaknesses? I reckon it just might.


  1. Sounds like a bizzare book. I do like the author's challenging readers to not be as seemingly shallow as the main character appears to your description.

    So few books have been rewarding in the "strands get woven together" way at the end. Lotta good books have been put down because they were judged in an incomplete way...the END is indeed very very important.

    1. It's a fine line. Challenging is fine, but these aren't textbooks, and are still meant to read for pleasure. I don't mind being pushed or stretched, in fact I usually enjoy it, but it can be taken too far. I'd rather enjoy the entire book, not just the last 50 pages.

      I think he pulls it off here, but it's a close run thing.

  2. Reading worries me Kamo. For a number of reasons. Not because the author doesn't have something interesting to say. It's just that the 'knowledge' or 'wisdom' from the book, tome, or whatever it is too often seems to exist only in an environment which the creator has absolute control of her subject. Maybe that's why the autobiographies are so attractive.

    1. I think right there you've nailed the difference between good and bad writing. Even with autobiographies the author is obviously in complete control of what s/he says and how she says it. Sins of omission, and all.

      With bad writing you can see the joins. Good writers cover it better, is all.