The Mechanical: morality, philosophy, free will and a fascinating Clockpunk alt-history

The Mechanical,
Ian Tregillis,
Orbit Books

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Clockmakers lie.”

Ian Tregillis first came to my attention when Orbit published his Milkweed series, starting with Bitter Seed, a fascinating and very well constructed trilogy – or perhaps triptych is a better term, as the books aren’t just sequential but curve back on one another – of an alternate history of World War Two, of an even more bitter struggle for national survival by the UK, mad Nazi scientists, scientifically-created supermen with dangerous abilities and an intriguing magic/science underlying it. It was dark, often bleak, relentless and utterly compelling and addictive. So when The Mechanical arrived on my desk – with its very cool minimalist graphic cover and page edges matching the red of the cover colour, very swish – I was eager to see what he was going to do with the start of a new series. Well, you know how I said his previous trilogy was “compelling and addictive” a moment ago? The Mechanical is that too and even more so. This is the kind of novel you’re reading on the bus or train and you actually resent reaching your destination because it means you have to pause your reading.

There are some common elements this new novel – the first in the Alchemy Wars series – has in common with Tregillis’ previous Milkweed trilogy. Both series feature Tregillis’ own take on one of my favourite forms of science fiction, the alt-history tale, a subgenre which, if handled cleverly – as it is here – can fascinate the reader with “what if?” moments where the fictional history diverge from our own around some turning point which came out a little differently. The second thing it has in common with his previous book is in world-building. And if there is something we geeks really love in our science fiction, it’s some seriously good world-building, the sort which has lovely details we can absorb and well-worked out variances from the actual history, with good supporting reasons as to why this world has developed as it has and how those changes from our history affect everything else rippling forward. And here it is handled brilliantly – Tregillis crafts an alternate history for the world that is as intricate as the clockwork mechanicals – the Clakkers – who feature in the story, fine details adding to the feeling of authenticity of this fictional world. For instance steam power is hardly known – who needs steam locomotives or steamships when you can have them powered by rows of mechanicals? And little, knowing details like Delft being famous not for the lovely Delft ware, but for their antique decorated masks for earlier, vintage models of Clakkers, or, being the Netherlands, there are rumours of an “underground canal” rather than an “underground railroad”.

Of course no matter how wonderfully though-out the world-building and the clever reasons for the alternate versions of history, these are just the stage-dressing; it’s the narrative and the characters that make a novel really work, and I’m glad to report that Tregillis handles this as skilfully as he does his background detail. This is one of those eminently satisfying novels where, by the time you get halfway through it, you will be very emotionally invested in the characters, both human and mechanical. We open with a gathering in the Hague – humans and Clakkers coming together to witness something now fairly rare, a public execution. On the scaffold today, some “papist” French spies trying to undermine the fine, upstanding Protestant Dutch. This isn’t the 17th or 18th century though but the 20th. The religious wars are still ongoing, but in this world the Dutch married the maritime and trading expertise to the creation of their mechanical men – general servitors, specialised units like soldier mechanicals, the dreaded multi-legged Stemwinders (which do the bidding of the Horologist’s guild, which after several centuries is not just a powerful guild but also operates elements akin to a secret police/intelligence unit) or maritime or airship mechanicals. The result is that rather than the British creating their vast empire, it was the Dutch who rose to global domination, aided by their almost unstoppable Clakkers, designed to obey instantly, to work tirelessly. They are still at war with France, but this is New France – what would be Canada in our world – because the Continent belongs to the implacable Dutch and the Brasswork Throne. What’s left of the French kingdom and crown is buried in Marseilles-in-the-West, surrounded by Dutch forces from New Holland, based out of New Amsterdam (obviously with no British empire New York remained Dutch and with no British colonists it was the Dutch and French contesting for North America), where Berenice – known as the Talleyrand (a sobriquet for whoever holds the position of the French spymaster) – is being humiliated in the king’s council because the French about to swing from the gallows in the Hague are the main part of her network in the Netherlands, now blown (it’s almost like something from Tudor times, with Walsingham’s spymaster rounding up Catholic spies).

And there is something else, which has brought out the crowds but also large number of the mechanicals in the Hague – a rogue Clakker is to be executed. A machine which has done the seemingly unthinkable and developed free will, able to simply say no to a human command, to ignore the compelling geas upon geas layered on their systems to make them obey, punishing them with a deep, searing pain inside their mechanical souls if they do not obey right away. Many of the city’s Clakkers are lingering, despite the pain of the command geas pushing them to go about their duties, to witness this, as the Horologists plan to burn away the machine’s hard-won sense of individuality in their glowing forge. These machines are born from both clockwork mechanics and science as well as a rich infusion of alchemy (legend has it the great Huygens purloined some of Newton’s secret alchemical notebooks which, along with his own genius, kickstarted this era). Actually it’s not fair to say this doomed rogue – an extremely rare creature the Horologists take huge pains to prevent happening again – has developed individuality.

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As the book progresses and we follow the Clakker servitor Jax and see his interactions with other mechanicals (they click and twang their pulleys and gears to talk secretly to each other, their humans totally unaware), it becomes clear these mechanical creatures are indeed self-aware, but the geasa the Horologists layer on their awareness at creation, like subroutines in a computer programme, bind them, almost the way a magician is said to bind spirits or demons of familiars, to compel them to do what is commanded, aware but unable to refuse. It’s a particular vile form of one of humanity’s scourges, slavery, except this bondage doesn’t just hold the body in thrall but the very being is held in perpetual service. “Clockmakers lie” is the regular secret greeting between the Clakkers, and they dream of emulating the rogue – how did he escape his bonds? Could they do the same? If they did, what would they do, where could they go? Escape to New France and beyond into the north where their own secret legends tell of a place where they can be free? Or is that just comforting folklore for the mechanicals? Circumstances will soon push Jax to find out the answers to these questions rather urgently…

This is an increasingly fascinating book, becoming every more so the deeper you dive into it. The main narrative arcs of Berenice and Jax are well-paced and absorbing, while the superb detailing and world-building I mentioned before flesh this world out into one you can believe in and feel you could explore. Those elements alone would promise you a superb read, but there’s more in here, for those who want to think further, from the more obvious themes revolving around the morality of holding someone – machine or human – in bondage, Tregillis capturing with quiet, emotional intensity the pain of those so enthralled, imprisoned both physically and spiritually, aware but never in control of their own bodies, and the associated philosophical questions of free will – is there really such a thing, or is it only an illusion? There are elements of Frankenstein in here – the creation of new forms of life then not treating them with the respect they should have had, humans dabbling into areas where perhaps only the gods should – and questions of the nature of freedom and the nature of being which will have you thinking long after you finish reading. As with his Milkweed series you cannot take the safety of even lead characters for granted, Tregillis is not afraid to make his characters suffer, some of them quite terribly. All of which makes this one of the sharpest, most intelligent, hugely compelling works I’ve read this year, and I cannot wake to see where Tregillis takes this series next.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Hollywood Noir, the glamour and the sleaze in The Fade Out

The Fade Out Volume 1,

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips,

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Like all the best Noirs, The Fade Out is set in that strange, twilight realm between night and day, the everyday, normal life and the shadow world’s intrigues and weird ways, forever in the shadow of the War. It’s 1948, and places don’t come much more in-between reality and perverse fantasy than Hollywood, it’s manufactured dreams, carefully designed and polished stars and the powerful moguls behind the studios.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter, working away on another new film, one designed to finally make Valeria Sommers the huge star the studio owner Victor Thursby thinks she should be, the “next Veronica Lake”. There are only two real problems for them – aside from the usual power plays, deviancy and gender abuse going on in Hollywood’s old studio system – but they’re fairly major problems. Charlie can’t write anymore. He tries, but the bright spark that marked him out as a rising star scriptwriter a few years ago was crushed out during the war. Fortunately his friend Gil works with him – Gil has already been blacklisted in the start of the reds-under-the-beds scare as the Cold War slowly works its way into American life, so no studio will touch him; now he works covertly with Charlie on the scripts he’s meant to be writing but can’t, a delicate but mutually beneficial arrangement.

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And the second problem? That’s slightly harder to fix than Charlie’s writer’s block. Valeria is dead, only a few pages into the story. Strangled and left lying on her living room floor. And what’s worse is a hungover Charlie wakes in her bathtub and finds the body, realising he must have come home with her after an out of control party the night before and that whoever murdered her did it while he was drunkenly asleep in the next room, totally unaware. Knowing he would be the prime suspect if discovered he carefully conceals any evidence of his own presence in her house and leaves furtively, later pretending to be shocked when Dottie, one of the studio’s press team, tells him the news of Valeria’s death.

Sick at her sudden, violent death and even sicker at the thought he’s had to lie about it to protect himself, Charlie’s already war-damaged psyche and moral guilt compass is about to be kicked in the head, when the studio’s head of security lets slip to him while talking to the police about the case that Valeria hung herself. But Charlie knows she didn’t – she was strangled, murdered, but he can’t say without admitting that he was there and covered it up. But if he doesn’t then the murderer walks free…

He looks around and can’t tell whose grief is real and who’s just putting on show in case the press is watching.”

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Naturally, in the best Noir tradition there is much more to it than this morally intriguing conundrum for Charlie – as he tries to walk a path around Valeria’s death, trying to keep his increasingly drunken, angry friend Gil on the straight and narrow (and their writing arrangement secret) the seedy, shadowy world of Hollywood draws him deeper into moral turpitude, and his sense of self-loathing and broken innocence, shattered first by his experiences in the war (like so many damaged anti-heroes of Noir fiction) then degraded more by witnessing the sleaze behind the velvet curtain of the movie world, grows, and no amount of parties or drink can still it, and every days seems to simply add more sleaze, more problems, more things he hates himself for being a part of but unable to do anything about or to walk away from, while Valeria’s presence hovers over the story, a ghost with glamour in the way only those great 30s and 40s stars could pull off.

It will surprise no-one who has read Criminal or Fatale to learn that Brubaker and Phillips have fashioned a dark labyrinth peopled by lost, damaged souls, some just slightly damaged, some truly damned, dripping with Noir imagery leavened by that beautiful 40s Hollywood glamour (Phillips creating some truly gorgeous interpretations of the film magazines of the period to show the late Valeria in real period style, pose and lighting, very recognisable to anyone who loves their film history), that beautiful but utterly artificial dream the studios sell to the audiences.

As with Criminal and Fatale, the deeper into the story, the more the moral quagmire deepens, the more the characters become lost in their own late-night labyrinthine maze of the soul, and just like reading Chandler or Hammett we’re pulled in there with them, fascinated and disgusted in equal measure, while, despite the increasing complexity Brubaker maintains a tight, well-paced narrative, perfectly partnered with Phillips’ artwork, which draws heavily on the films of the period, re-creating that perfect Noir atmosphere, be it a late-night city street or a darkened office with feeble light struggling through the slats of the blinds. You feel you ought to be wearing a Fedora while reading it.

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Beautifully crafted art by Phillips (with wonderfully moody colouring by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and sharp dialogue and perfectly honed Noir narrative by Brubaker, and that feeling that while one writes and one draws, this is real collaboration, the pair obviously operating on the same wavelength, and oh how it shows to such lovely effect in the finished tale. I could probably just have given you a much shorter review and recommendation: it’s Brubaker and Phillips – you want it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A home afloat

Dusk, walking home along the old Union Canal near where the huge Scottish & Newcastle Brewery used to dominate the area (now all gone, the large brownfield site being redeveloped, just as the canal has been already). As well as new wharfs and new buildings at the end of the canal and holiday barges (and even a floating restaurant barge) there are also folks living year round on barges, using them as house-boats, right in the centre of the city – how cosy do they look against the gathering chill of evening fall?

Judas: the Last Days

Judas: the Last Days,

W Maxwell Prince, John Amor,

IDW Publishing

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I’ve very much been looking forward to reading this book, every since I saw it in IDW’s solicitations a few months ago. Knowing little about it or the creators save what was in the description, it was one of those books that triggered that vibe I get sometimes that tells me I want to check out a particular book. I was also intrigued enough by the idea of a book exploring a long life of an undying Judas Iscariot to ask the author, William Maxwell Prince, if he would like to do one of our guest Director’s Commentary posts (where we give the space to the creators to talk about their new work in their own words, any way they want), and what he said in his guest post just confirmed my bookselling Spidey sense that I really wanted to read this. I was not disappointed; in fact I found Judas delivered rather more than I was expecting.

He had forgiven me before the first lie even spilled from my lips. And that only makes it worse… There was this just this way… He concentrated on you, loved you, even at your worse.”

When we first meet Judas, it’s fair to say he is not a terribly happy bunny – his immortality weighs heavily on him, along with his infamous betrayal. Two thousand years of wandering the world since he betrayed Christ, lamenting a world and people who don’t really change, who keep making the same awful mistakes again and again. And he himself, despairing, wishing dearly to simply end it, but he can’t – he can’t die, he doesn’t even bleed, as we find out in several flashbacks to parts of his two millennia history, including, notably, one scene with the infamous Doctor Mengele in the death camps of the Third Reich as he experiments on prisoners (also dovetailing nicely with the well-documented Nazi fascination for occult secrets and their eagerness to gain any powers for their own ends). We soon see him entering a secret place, a hidden library, staffed with gnome-like librarians, who keep all the stories of the peoples of the world, including his. Surely they can tell him how he can simply die? But no, his story is fixed.

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And so he goes to seek out old friends – very old friends, as it turns out. Judas isn’t alone, each of the apostles is also immortal, and each has found a different way to adapt to their unending lives. And spreading the Word, even if that was what they most wanted in the earliest days, doesn’t really seem to figure in most of their lives today. Matthew is a cross-dressing lover of carnal delights (including pimping for demonic and other supernatural beings) and Paul (the Lesser) is a bloated mountain of a man, gorging on food, drink and drugs. Except with his immortal physique he can swallow, snort or inject as many drugs as he wants but never really gets high. And Paul… Well, let’s not spoil anything, other than to say Paul, by his own admission, “loves a pulpit” and prefers a high place from which to preach. Except these days his preaching seems to be more about remaking things in his own view and boy has he picked a high position indeed… And all of them know Judas wants to end his immortal existence. And some of them know that even among twelve immortal disciples he is rather special…

And I’m not going any deeper into the narrative, partly because I don’t want to spoil things but also because discussing the main plot points here wouldn’t really do the book justice; Judas does indeed have a fascinating narrative, but it is really one of those reads to be experienced rather than just absorbing a story. In fact in many ways this is a story about stories, about the world, faith (religious or in another person, or sometimes both), it’s about how some special peoples – some might call prophets or even extensions of a godhead – become so remarkable because they have learned to start seeing the world in a different way. And not just see it in a different way but realising that their thoughts and beliefs, especially shared with others, can alter and change the world, change people, change reality. And that’s a process that never ends, because this is about the power of stories and ideas, and ideas, the truly good, important ones, are not static, the Word is not just what was inscribed on a tablet millennia ago, never to be changed or deviated from, it’s just a tool, a key, a device to help expand your own doors of perception and develop your own ways of seeing a different world. It’s fascinating.

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What if I told you there was no such thing as a truth? That anything, any idea, can be turned on its head and made into something better… A single loaf of bread can be multiplied into infinite pieces. A man can walk on water. You, me, those men you’re after, we can all live forever. You just have to know how to change a story.

The story manages an intoxicating mixture of religion, philosophy and fantasy, with an added dab of conspiracy theory, and yet I didn’t think it was disrespectful to the source religion, if anything it highlighted the remarkable nature of Jesus and the love the disciples had for him, but also their feelings of loss when he was removed from their presence (and poor Judas, damning himself for his role in that, but at the same time, wasn’t his role a necessary part of that narrative, a requirement to enable this changing shape of the world to the new, better story that The Word promised, to allow Him to be reborn, even more powerful, transfigured?). John Amor has to handle a huge amount of variety in his artwork – Biblical scenes, various other historical scenes, the present day world and some flights of pure fantasy and changing realities, (and he has to keep the main immortal character recognisable in each of those historical segments), a tall order, but one which he pulls off well. It’s a fascinating work, and one which will demand repeated readings (I’ve already found myself going back over it a couple of times), and one of those intriguing books that plants nice little idea seeds in your brain that will tickle away, tantalising your mind. It’s also one of those books where, because it is about the ideas and concepts it is conjuring up in your mind, maddeningly difficult to do justice to in a review, because each person will see those ideas a bit differently. Judas is a book which, I think, will especially appeal to those who enjoyed works like Gaiman’s Sandman, Mignola’s Hellboy and Carey’s Lucifer. Much recommended.

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

World Book Day

Today marks World Book Day. No secret on here, my love of reading and writing and the magic of words. I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember, I really can’t recall a time when I didn’t read; I still have those fragmentary, dream-like images of partial memory from my youngest days as a very small boy, even before school age, reading my comics, enjoying children’s books. More memories of a little older and being taken to the local library regularly by my mum and dad, and always more comics each week (those were the days when kid’s comics like the Beano etc sold in the million, every kid in every playground read them). Making that weekly diet of comics more fun was the fact that my dad would often read them too and would riff on them – each year on holiday there was a small shop that always had some US imports, including kid-friendly titles like Sad Sack, and he’d read those too then use some of the lines with me during the day.

I’ve been a reader so long my body and brain have evolved; like many readers I can breathe words. In fact like many other readers I need to breathe words. I need words like I need oxygen and food and water. They mediate my existence, my view of and interaction with, the world and they shape my response to it. And on World Book Day I would like to ask you to pause in your busy life of work, family, chores and worries and responsibilities. Not just pause to read something and refresh your soul a little, but pause and consider something so seemingly mundane, so everyday that most people for most of the time – even those of us who live in books – forget that it’s not everyday, it’s not mundane or ordinary, it is nothing short of miraculous. I’m talking about words. Language. The mere fact that somehow in our long, convoluted evolution this most remarkable faculty in the universe came forth.

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Argument still rages over how our ancestors evolved this remarkable ability of language, of speech, and all that goes with it, and probably there will always be various theories over how it happened, how both our physical form (lips, larynx etc) and our mental abilities (that growing, big brain that marks out homo sapiens) both grew to make complex language possible. Other animals have communication, a very few have highly complex communication – the great whales and dolphins, for example, may well have a linguistic system as complex as ours, in its own way. But how utterly astonishing it is we have that language – we can’t conceive of thought without language, we need thought to shape language. Our linguistic ability allows us to shape thoughts, emotions, even abstract reasoning and ideas from expressing “I love you” to composing poetry to articulating the design for a rocket to the Moon.

And then we slowly learned to take those words from our lips, from our minds, and to put them on papyrus, on stone, on clay tablets, vellum, paper, digital screens. We learned to write them. And suddenly we had books – we had exo-somatic memory, that is memory that lives on outside of our heads. When the wise elders of the tribe passed away before the written word, we had only our oral tradition to remember their important experiences and knowledge. And impressive as the oral tradition of our ancestors were (think of the great bards of the Homeric era singing the entire Iliad long before it was written down, or the druids of our own land training their memories to store vast amounts of knowledge), it can never store as much information as books can, and it can’t, crucially, communicate them as widely. With Gutenberg and moving type print books moved from hand-written to mass-produced and ideas spread like wildfire across the globe. Now the internet does the same (not always in the best ways, but not all ideas are good ideas after all!).

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And on this day I’d like people to pause for a moment and just reflect briefly on how utterly amazing this aspect of human life is. We sculpt ideas inside our minds, our voice can articulate them, even complex or intimate ideas, and communicate them to others. We can put those words down on paper or screen and share them with anyone who cares to read them. The written word, a medium which allows telepathy, the transference of ideas and images and thoughts from one mind to many others and back again in a complex, interactive web. And we’re so used to this casual miracle we don’t often stop to think just how amazing it is. And how amazing that we turned that astonishing faculty into an object – the written word, the book – that we can share, which can still share out thoughts and ideas and stories when we’re not present personally, even after we’re long gone, a piece of thought made into a sculpture of printed words to traverse time and space in a way our frail physical form cannot.

Science fiction is fond of the scenario where an advanced alien species judges humans and finds us primitive, dangerous, violent and demands to know why we should be allowed to continue. I would take them to one of our great libraries and simply say “we created the book.”

The Death House – fascinating SF for adult and YA readers

The Death House,

Sarah Pinborough,

Gollancz

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I’ve admired Sarah Pinborough’s writing for several years – she’s consistently proven herself to be one of the more fascinating new talents in the UK fantastic genres, and I’ve been especially delighted with the ways in which she crafts stories which you often can’t simply label into one genre or another, as, like a number of other fast-rising (and fascinating) writers such as Lauren Beukes for example, she deftly manages to pull elements from various places, from horror tropes to science fiction or thriller or crime and re-weaves them into something far more compelling. Sarah has also enjoyed success as a Young Adult author, and with her new book, The Death House, she is again dancing around the edges of several genre ballrooms, picking her dancing partners from different rooms at different points; indeed, as well as a delightful weaving of elements from various genres into something new, here she also manages to craft a book which functions perfectly well as an engrossing tale for an adult or for a YA reader.

It’s sometime in the near future, but we don’t know exactly when. Or even where. In fact there’s a quite deliberate lack of solid information in The Death House. We know were are in a future Britain, but we don’t really see it, except in some memories of the children in the house, because our point of view is Toby, a teenage schoolboy, sent to the eponymous house along with other children, because they are “defective”. This future world has some sort of illness – a plague, virus, genetic disorder? We never really know and it doesn’t really matter, because what matters is anyone whose blood test comes up with the wrong result is taken away to one of these isolated homes – there is no appeal, the operation is carried out with clinical, almost Fascist like efficiency and lack of mercy, dark vans swooping on homes, children torn from the arms of their parents. And no-one comes back from a Death House. And no-one outside knows what happens, except it is where the ill kids are taken to await the signs of their symptoms beginning to surface. And even the kids in the house don’t know exactly what this illness is, or even what the symptoms are – different symptoms seem to manifest in different people at different times.

The nursing staff and the token teaching staff in the house (isolated on an island) don’t explain any further, and this just adds to the overbearing atmosphere of fear and despondency. These are youngsters, and they are marked to slowly die, cut off entirely from their previous life, even letters from parents forbidden. It’s just them and the very remote nursing staff who do their best to never treat their young charges as anything other than a job; no emotional bonding or caring here, it’s like an even more hellish version of a boarding school combined with that fear all humans carry of serious illness, the children isolated, physically and emotionally. Toby is the oldest in his dorm and has reluctantly taken on the role of leader for the younger boys in his room, but much of the time he avoids anything that smacks of entanglement, because what’s the point? Today, tomorrow, a month, a year, he is is here till he suddenly develops symptoms (and what symptoms? in the absence of facts, just like every media fulled panic of any new illness there is a Chinese Whispers effect as the kids tell each other about it, although none really know).

His only escape is at night – as the house sleeps Toby pads out quietly to explore, a tiny bit of rebellion and adventure which he has to himself. Until Clara arrives among the latest group, a girl around his age, straight away she attracts attention among the older boys, except for Toby (who had been daydreaming of a girl at school he hoped to get off with at a party just before the black vans came for him). And then he finds Clara too avoids the pills at night and explores the house, during what he considers his time. How dare she! And yes, you just know that his antipathy and his defensive recoiling from any deep attachment just isn’t going to survive against the energy of the life-loving Clara…

And there you go again, Pinborough delighting in mixing genres – we’ve already got a Dystopian science fiction future, a dark, old house right out of a Victorian horror tale, and now we have romance woven into the mix. And more than that, it’s that intense first romance, that type that flares among the confusions of adolescence and burns with an intensity unlike any other you ever experience. And Pinborough charts the development of their friendship then romance wonderfully, the shyness but eagerness, the mixture of fear and desperate hope. And over all this hangs their fate as Defectives, locked away in the house to await their seemingly inevitable fate. One day they will start to manifest symptoms and when they do the impassive nurses will take them away in the middle of the night, while the others sleep, to the upper floor. No-one knows what happens there and nobody returns from that floor. Do they die? Mutate? Are they the subject of experimentation into the Defective? Anyone who’s dealt with serious illness or watched a loved one suffering has felt that numbing horror of feeling totally helpless, and here these kids are living in that state every day.

Again, as I said earlier, Pinborough deliberately holds back on explanations: in some ways it is maddening and frustrating, but I suspect that’s part of the point here – we’re in the same position as Toby and the other kids here. It’s barely mentioned in the outside world and once they are labelled and caught up in the house programme they have no contact at all ever again with the outside world, so they have no access to any information, or any adult who will act as their champion. It’s like being a combination of a child with a terminal illness and being an illegal refugee at the same time, sealed away, forgotten, nobody knows, nobody cares about you or speaks for you or strives for you. Pinborough instead uses this lack of solid information to create Poe-like levels of creeping fear in this old house, and also as a good way of building up the relationships between the kids held inside it, from moments of fear and worry (and attempts by some of them to help and reassure the others) to moments of childlike joy (it suddenly snows, something none of them have ever seen before – it hasn’t snowed in this future UK for a long time, it seems). And as Toby and Clara start to bond on a deep level they start to question their assumed fate in that way only a teen can, that remarkable defiant stance, won’t happen to us, we will survive somehow, escape somehow, live together somehow… Somehow…

The Death House is a masterful piece of writing craft – I think most authors would have felt compelled to add much more exposition and much more explanation in here, more background to this future society, to how it evolved in a way that the state can just take your kids from you and seal them away to die, more details about the illness itself, what it is, what causes it, why does it require such drastically cruel, inhuman treatment to be visited on children? And yes, part of me really wanted to know more about those aspects of this world, but on reflection those are just details, and distracting ones at that. Pinborough, wisely, I think, eschews those partly because it enhances the sense of isolation and dread and fear in the house and among the young patients/prisoners, but also partly because she is more interested in the psychological and emotional effects this has on those kids, and that’s far more satisfying, especially as she is simply so damned good at writing adolescents, from the younger ones to those in that awkward, almost an adult but not there yet late teen period. Hugely compelling and emotional, dark, disturbing, yet also with lighter moments and that slowly emerging first love romance shining through it (as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park, life keeps finding a way, even in a home seemingly only for the lost), with very believable young characters that works for adult and YA reader alike, and as with a lot of writing across the centuries to do with the inevitability of death, this isn’t really about death. It’s about living.

Wrinkles: achingly beautiful, warm sensitive tale by Spanish creator Paco Roca

Wrinkles,

Paco Roca,

Knockabout

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Yes, I know James has already reviewed this (see here) a few weeks ago ahead of it’s release, but there are some books which you can’t resist posting another review of, they get too deeply into your thoughts and emotions. And since it is now on shelves and would be too easily overlooked I think it’s alright to indulge in a second opinion and commend a remarkable reading experience to your attention.

There are still many more interesting comic works coming out in Europe that we don’t get to see here, but thankfully things have improved in recent years, with more translations and more English language editions appearing via some quality publishers like Knockabout, who have translated (another good job by Nora Goldberg – the translators, like editors, often get too easily overlooked for their contribution) Paco Roca’s absolutely beautiful Wrinkles, a gorgeous, funny, sensitive book about family, friends, getting older, declining health.

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Our central character, Ernest, a retired bank manager, finds himself being dumped into a care home as his dementia slowly increases, all but abandoned by his son and his family (it isn’t just that they can’t give him the extra care he needs at home, that would stretch a saint’s patience, but his son makes it clear he has little in the way of plans to even visit the old man once he is in the home, as he is “busy”) – you may expect this to be a downer, an old man dumped into a waiting room for the terminally declining. And while Roca doesn’t shy away from the human tragedy of both body and mind slowly betraying us as we age, this is not an especially sad tale.

Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there… Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s… Better to die than end up there.”

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True there are sad moments, but they are the “beautifully sad” variety that make you smile as much as cry. And for the most part Roca injects the story with humour and some wonderful characters. These people are old, their marbles are slowly being lost one by one as their condition worsens – the “walking wounded” who can still take care of themselves live on the ground floor – the stairs to the upper floor, an ominous presence in their lives, lead to the ward where those too far gone to perform even the most basic functions for themselves are taken to wait in bewilderment for the end, all dignity gone.

Arriving at the home Ernest is introduced to the various characters who live there, including, most prominently, Émile, who will be his room-mate. And old Émile is quite a character, a scoundrel, but a charming one – you get the impression he was a bit of a Jack-the-lad in his younger years, and he has a nice sideline in scamming some of the more mentally impaired residents for a few Euros here and there, building up a little pile of money that he uses to great effect later on in a major scene for him, Émile and some of the others.

Ernest, as perhaps befits an old-fashioned bank manager, is a little distrustful of the chancey Émile, and yet the two start to form a friendship in this, their declining years, and with the other few residents who still have enough mental integrity left to look after themselves, a small band of very different people from different walks of life, brought together by their shared conditions and aware of how little time is left to them before the fog in their minds swallows all that made them individuals. But there are still sparks of life – old Eugene in the physio session managing to trick the attractive nurse into leaning right over him to help so he can then cop a feel of her breasts (much to the amusement of all the other eldsters).

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And others are in a dreamlike form of escapist fantasy, such as Mrs Rose, who stares out the window all day, but in her head she is looking out the window of a carriage of the Orient Express, on her way to Istanbul, Europe passing before her eyes, and she is young and elegant again; she can still interact with the other patients, but only seeing them as fellow passengers. Rose is lost from the real world, but, like Don Quixote or Gaiman’s Emperor Joshua Norton before her, she is happy in her fantasy, happier than her real-life situation could ever make her; her mind has concocted an escape route that keeps her content and really, you don’t want them to do what they did to the Don and make her face the harsh reality; let her dream happily whatever days she has left.

In some ways this is like a 1980s high school romp film – the ‘inmates’ usually have to follow rules and schedules, but sometimes they like to play up, or even indulge in some Ferris Bueller style “day off” time and escape the confines of the care home (it doesn’t go quite as well as Bueller’s day). And indeed the school allegory is one Rosa touches on directly, Ernest’s damaged memory on his first day in the home flashing all the way back to childhood and his first day at school, both daunting, emotional moments where we feel adrift and alone, unsure of ourselves or where we are.

Then there is Émile, who for all his faults, does seem to come to care genuinely for Ernest, helping him as his condition deteriorates. They are pals, and both know their time is limited, Ernest in particular showing increasing signs of mental deterioration. And of course, it continues to deteriorate – the only fantasy here is in the damaged brains of the patients, the rest is the real world, and in the real world, unfortunately, we know all too damned well that these conditions worsen until one days there is nothing left of the person who was once so vital.

In one heartbreaking but incredibly touching scene, after Ernest is given his Alzheimer’s diagnosis by the doctor, he asks Émile to show him that upper floor, where the hopeless go. It’s worse than he thought, and he knows he is potentially looking at his own very near future, mind gone, but body still ticking over, and he begs Émile, his new friend, please help me, don’t let me end up there. And Émile, bless his normally scoundrel-like heart, tries to help his friend, the two sharing reading and discussion because they heard this helps keep the brain going against the deterioration. And both knowing it probably won’t work, especially when Ernest tells him he’s read some Marquez (the remarkable Love in a Time of Cholera), but then can’t remember what it was about…

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There’s no happy ending here, no sudden miracle cures; Roca depicts this quietly, subtly, a sudden empty chair at lunch signifying another gone to the upper floor, while he uses the comics medium to give us glimpses into the deteriorating minds of the patients in a way no other narrative structure could, skipping between flashbacks and imagined fantasy scenes to the real setting, or that sad yet lovely image on the cover of Ernest, head out the train window, photographs – his memories – spilling out into the slipstream, and yet he is with Mrs Rose on the Orient Express, and seemingly happy. There’s a sad sense of inevitability here, the darkening future bearing down on all of them and there’s nothing they can do about it; old age, illness, death, sureties for all human, rich and poor, since the dawn of mankind. And yet still Wrinkles resolutely refuses to be gloomy. And when the reading scheme fails to improve Ernest’s memory, his wily friend then resorts to his trickster ways to help Ernest evade the upper floor for as long as he can.

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It’s an achingly beautiful bit of work by Roca, with much gentle humour laced through it all. This could have remained as sensitive as it is but been much more serious and darker in tone, but I am so glad he opted for the lighter touch. Not just because it leavens the darker aspects (we know all of these people only have a short time left, and, worse, that most of them will lose their minds before the end, leaving just a body that no longer knows itself or its family or friends, a wretched situation too many families have to slowly endure). But because it reminds us that everyday life, even at that advanced age, even in a place like a care home, still throws up funny moments, little laughs, interactions with friends – in short all the little things that make up our days and make life bearable. Despite what is facing them, despite being left where they are, these people are still alive and still human, Rosa is saying, and he gives them all, even the supporting cast, real character and make us care for them, root for them.

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Wonderfully, humanly warm, emotive, funny, sensitive, and cleverly exploiting the abilities of the comics medium to tell a story in a way only a comic could. A scant few weeks into the New Year and already I know this will feature on my Best of the Year list come December.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Hello, little, furry chap!

Walking through historic Greyfriar’s kirkyard at the weekend (walking off a delicious Semla – a Swedish cream cake made only for a few weeks as part of an old Lent tradition), spotted little squirrel sprinting across the grass between the old tombstones, pausing to pick up little twigs and leaves. Couldn’t get a photo as he was too darned fast, zipping along then onto a tree, up and around to the other side. I followed him around but there was no sign of him. Then I saw movement, and noticed a small hole in a knot of of the tree trunk. And sure enough it turned out to be his little hidey-hole, and as I watched patiently he stuck his cute wee head out for a look down at me (you can see him right in the centre of the pic):

A few moments later he darted out, grabbed more of his little collection of twigs and leaves and dragged them back into his little tree home, front paws fiddling around inside while his bum and bushy tail hung out the entrance. Either that or I had just been mooned by a squirrel…

What do you do with a problem like Lucia?

Lucia Hardcover,
Andy Hixon,
Jonathan Cape

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Andy Hixon first came onto my radar when he created the rather unique-looking artwork for Ravi Thornton’s Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone tale, and his highly unusual artwork was a perfect match for that story which veered between seedy, grim realities and magical fantasy. Like the great Dave McKean Andy mixes drawn art with sculpted figures and model sets and montage work, creating imagery that, to me, looked like still from an animated film, something the Brothers Quay or Jan Svankmajer might create, with that quite intoxicating, contrasting feeling of very down at heels, grim reality against a sense of the more fantastical, hope mixed with the grotesque, creating a similar feeling perhaps to that in the best League of Gentlemen episodes.

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In this, his solo full-length work, this artistic approach serves him well, suiting the story perfectly. We follow two main characters, Brick and Morty, a pair of broken, damaged characters adrift in the uncaring, crumbling society of today, living on the edge. Literally on the edge and crumbling – their derelict seaside town, Lucia, is slowly dissolving into the waves, the only house Morty and Brick can afford is right on the cliff edge, next in line to vanish as the cliffs crumble into the sea.

On both the physical and the societal scale, these men are on the edge and that edge is eroding out from under them daily, with nowhere else to go. Morty is a wheelchair-bound man who has seen better days, a wife, dreams of a decent life together, of a career as a respected writer, Brick lives in a delusional state, convinced he will, if he keeps training, become the Ultimate Fighting Welterweight champion of the world. Despite being a tiny, skinny wee bloke who’s not terribly smart. His profile on his website and his dating platform are full of totally imaginary conquests of Herculean effort; while Morty dreams of a return to better times poor Brick seems to really believe his own fabrications and delusions.

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But when you look around Lucia you can easily see why Brick chooses to hide in his made-up world where he can be this physically impressive champion; Lucia is a dreadful place, a sort of purgatory almost, where damaged souls wait without hope. Perhaps like Walter Mitty or Don Quixote before him, Brick needs those delusions – hell, we all need little daydreams sometimes to make the harder parts of life more bearable. But with such a bleak environment, so grim, so hopeless, you can’t blame the little guy for believing in his dream, that if he keeps going he will be what he imagines himself to be, even though he never, ever will be. And like Quixote before him the reader comes to love him, not in spite of his delusions, but because of them, and to not want them to be broken, because to expose him to cold reality, even if it could be done (he is pretty far gone into his own world), it would break him. His own form of dreaming madness keeps him together in this awful world.

No such escape for Morty though, his body broken but his mind still sharp, able to contemplate their situation as they pass boarded up shops on the seafront, like many old seaside towns once a hub of family holidays, nowadays derelict and empty save for the “gold for cash” pawn shops, the bookies and the employment exchange (which in a very symbolic scene is actually in a street already swallowed by the sea, but being a tall office block they just moved the offices up to the floors above the tide mark, meaning you have to row over on a boat to claim your job seeker’s allowance – and naturally if you can’t get to this awkward place you are cut from your benefits).

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But I don’t want to give the impression this is one, long gloomy trip. True, both Lucia and its inhabitants of strange, twisted grotesques evoke a sense of abandonment, of the inevitable crumbling of society, alluding to the state of post financial crash and Coalition-government Britain of bedroom tax on the disabled and entire swathes of the most vulnerable failed or outright abandoned by the older social nets that were there to help them back on their feet. And sadness does permeate – a scene of Morty outside the pawn shop, contemplating his golden wedding ring, all he has left of his previous life, is heartbreaking, all the more so because we know real people are making similar choices in the legions of these businesses up and down every town in the country.

And yet this is not a gloom-fest. I likened the look and feel to the League of Gentlemen earlier, and just like that wonderfully bizarre show this can go from pathos or plain disturbing to incredibly funny (even if it is dark and often grotesque humour). One scene in the cafe sees the bizarre owner described thusly “Wendy looks like a retired dinner lady, who regularly holidays in a timeshare in Chernobyl.”Cruel but also funny and even the cruel nature of the phrase is leavened by more text which again shows empathy for these poor, lost, bizarre characters. And despite the grim situation there’s warmth and love in the relationship of Brick and Morty, Brick supposedly Morty’s carer (and he does help him with his disability to be fair), but often it is Morty looking out for his delusional little chum. Two damaged souls, rejected from the “aspirational” society, living precariously on the edge of a fading town that is itself living on the edge of a damaged country.

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And yet they work well together; together, despite all the odds, they get by (just) and there is something heart-warming in the way they look after one another in this dark world. And while he fashions grotesque versions of human beings, Andy also imbues them, especially Brick and Morty, with a lot of emotion, a lot of humanity in those- odd, disturbing, misshapen faces and bodies; it’s wonderful how his art wrings such emotion from the characters and so much empathy from the readers. It’s dark, disturbing, a black parallel of the failed parts of our own society, of towns where the only shops still thriving are pawnshops and the people are downtrodden and yet somehow not quite broken. Damaged, yes, but not entirely broken, still holding on in any way they can, and the strange friendship of Brick and Morty is their way through this crushing world. Both grotesque and yet beautiful, grim but funny, Lucia is utterly engrossing and Andy is a creator to watch out for.

You can read a guest Director’s Commentary post by Andy talking about Lucia here on the FP blog. This review was originally penned for the FP blog

Some pics from a photo walk

Despite the cold the light was pretty good the other weekend, so I took myself off for one of my “photo walks” in the afternoon and early evening, several hours wandering around, mostly in parts of town I’m not in too often, and taking pics as I go. You never know what you may find – down by the Stockbridge area, outside a barber’s shop, I spotted this amazing bench, made out of old skateboards – art you can use!

While this vintage clothing store and pop-up shop had a nice, slightly surreal (almost Monty Pythonesque) touch with this giant foot outside their door:

Dusk was falling as I started walking back upwards towards the heart of the New Town, passing Cafe Rouge, one of several French cafes and restaurants in the city. The outdoor seats were now all deserted, the temperature falling as night started to settle on a winter’s afternoon, and in contrast the warmth inside against the cold outside had left the windows covered in condensation:

Then I passed this small bar/bistro, and I simply couldn’t resist getting a shot of their neon sign at night:

Just around the corner from Liquor I finally took a picture of an old business on Queen Street I have meant to shoot for years, mostly because the lines of odd statues above it always catch my eye, but I so rarely go past it I forget about it. Since I was walking past and I had the tripod I thought I may as well finally get a shot of it

Then a few moments further up, next to the recently revamped old Assembly Rooms in George Street the lane running between it and the buildings next to it looked rather good at night and seemed to be begging for a black and white shot, so I had to take one (as ever for larger versions click on the pics to see on the Woolamaloo Flickr):

Castle and spire

Another shot from recent night-time round of photo-taking – I was actually taking something else, then noticed if I moved the tripod round a little, perhaps I could fit in the both the spire of Saint Cuthberts and the western flank of Edinburgh Castle. So I had a go and it seemed to work…