Spare a thought?

Our monthly meeting of the SF Book Group met this evening to discuss Michael Marshall Smith’s rather groovy novel Spares. I haven’t read any MMS for ages and really enjoyed it – he has a wicked sense of humour which appeals to me (surprise) and has some excellent descriptions which I have stored away for future use as put-downs (such as ‘the bartender looked like three kinds of shit in a one shit bag’). It’s interesting going back to this after Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Both feature veterans with moral and psychological hangovers from their service days, there is a real Noir gumshoe mojo going on and both novels feature often amoral anti-heroes in a convoluted world. Coincidentally both authors have had film options taken out on their work (as a sidebar, the new SF Crow’s Nest has a brief chat with Richard Morgan talking about his third novel which will be set on Harlan’s World which is something most of us fans have been hoping to see)

Couldn’t help but think the title Spares is misleading though, and so did most of the group. It refers to the rather nasty business of rich people having clones of themselves made. These clones – known as Spares – are kept hidden away from most human contact in a darkened and locked space so they never develop speech or thought. They are medically cared for and fed by robots but that’s it. They are living organ and limb replacements for their original. Sure, you could use DNA to manufacture new limbs or organs but that takes too much time for the rich folks, so they just keep the poor Spares around and lop bits off as required. Nasty.

Shame he didn’t bring in either some form of pro-life group into the situation or even an underground railroad rescue for them as there was for runaway slaves before the Civil War. But this is because the Spares are actually a McGuffin – pretty much a device to get our main character moving back into places he doesn’t really want to go back to (New Richmond, Virginia, a former flying mega mall which is now over the ruins of the original Virginia – I asked him about that once at an event and he said it was because Richmond was the most awful city, so he exacted literary revenge on it). It’s still a good book but as I said it does make the title misleading since it isn’t really about the Spares. And the general consensus was that the ending was a bit sloppy and rather Deus Ex Machina, as if he didn’t quite know what to do at the end. Certainly well below the standard of such a fine writer. This said, it’s still a damned good read in my opinion, as are all of MMS’s novels.

Next month it’s classics time as we take on Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Was to be John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, but we had to cancel it for the second time due to the publisher, Penguin, being utterly disorganised right now and unable to give us a delivery date. They are relocating their warehouse, which for such a huge publisher is a big undertaking and one sure to give some disruption. However, Penguin – arguably the best know of all publishers – also invested in an untried, new automated system which didn’t actually work when they tried to use it. Some of their books are being sorted from a hastily erected marquee as we speak. As you can imagine this has left the entire UK book trade struggling to obtain Penguin titles. Customers look bemused that they cannot find famous writers such as James Joyce. We’re losing customers and sales and so are all other booksellers. Penguin itself is estimated to lose around £30 million according to this week’s Publishing News an the sales of their large range of travel guides alone are down by an entire third at what should be their busiest time of year for such titles.

So, you’ll understand that as we sat with the group members tonight discussing what future titles we wanted we had to stipulate that we couldn’t use any Penguin authors for the next few months. Luckily we still had plenty of suggestions – one of Diana Wynne Jones’ kid’s fantasies, a Sandman selection (hurray!) and for our late October meeting we wanted a spooky title for the Halloween season and settled on a good Scottish classic, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, which should be great. I suspect most folk are only really familiar with the movie/TV versions which often simplify the text into a good man fighting his evil half for his soul, which is not at all what RLS wrote or intended (Mattoti’s excellent graphic novel version has the idea).