Yes, it’s an actual book review of a title I committed myself to 25 months ago. I haven’t done a similar review in 10 months.
The reviewing mill of MarzAat grinds slow. Whether it grinds fine or even produces anything useful you will have to decide.
The mill’s scheduling is also erratic. This book wasn’t even the next in the chute, but I found myself limited to what was on the kindle one day, so I started it.
It came from NewCon Press whose offerings I’ve reviewed in the past: Dark Currents and David Hutchinson’s collection Sleeps with Angels. And I’ve enjoyed them. However, even my blogger conscience was starting to feel guilty about asking for any more of their offerings without reviewing what I had been given.
In fact, the next “new” title I will be reviewing is Simon Morden’s At the Speed of Light, also from NewCon Press.
Review: The 1000 Year Reich and Other Stories, Ian Watson, 2016.
I’ve enjoyed the Watson I’ve read before. There was the amusing bit of recursive science fiction in his “The World Science Convention of 2080” (fan experiences in journeying to the event in a world where technology has regressed). There was “The Great Atlantic Swimming Race” (the link takes you to James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction #5: The British Way so we haven’t escaped all Gunn references), a rumination on LiveAid charity stunts. A versatile writer, he turned in a couple of effective Lovecraftian bits with “The Black Wall of Jerusalem” and “The Walker in the Cemetery”. I enjoyed what seemed to be a witty takeoff on J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island in the short story “Long Stay” in a collection edited by Ian Whales, also associated with NewCon Press.
However, against my enjoyment of those short works, is The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s description of his novel The Embedding as a novel about perception molded by language with “erratic quicksilver shiftiness”. That doesn’t seem my thing, so I’ve read none of his novels.
So, what do you get in Watson’s newest short story collection? (And, yes, it’s still available for sale despite my tardy review.) Semiotics, conspiracy theories, a lot of humor, erotica, fantasy, non-fantasy, mystery, alternate histories, satire, and the haunting presence of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
A lot of the stories didn’t completely work for me. But none bored me though several failed to inspire me to chew over exactly what went on at that end of them. And I liked some stories though not, usually, in an unreserved fashion.
So, what’s with the Dan Brown thing?
He’s name checked in a couple of stories: “The Name of the Lavender” and “The Arc de Triomphe Code”.
The first title evokes Umberto Eco, but its story involves two agents from the CIA, not that CIA but the Conspiracy Investigation Agency, investigating a strange garden in Catania, Sicily and its strange monk gardeners. Brown’s protagonist is mocked for not being “able to parlare any foreign language”. Like so many stories in this collection, there is concern with semiotics, a word whose exact meaning I had to look up. I was unimpressed with the “insight” provided by the narrator, who works for the CIA’s “Metaphor Program”, that “the root of all language is metaphor, noises representing a mother, a tree, a rock”. Pretty banal. And the map is not the territory, and colors don’t exist except in the human mind, and objects are not really a clump of atoms but a diffusion. The Wikipedia entry didn’t convince me there was much practical benefit to this arid philosophizing. Well, Watson’s imagination seems fired by it, so that’s a benefit.
Like a great many stories here, there is wordplay involving similar sounding words from different languages and the allusions they suggest. Sometimes it works – mostly because Watson doesn’t drag any one story out for long. Sometimes it doesn’t. Mostly it strikes me as the linguistic equivalent of gematria which purports that words with equivalent mathematical equivalents are somehow similar and, thus, the objects they represent somehow similar with magic manipulation to follow.
But Watson’s frothy wordplay is often linked with characters of peculiar obsessions and foibles and, sometimes, it seemed rather mean-spirited in its look at certain characters. Which was fine. I like mean-spirited. Or maybe I myself was just meanly disposed to his many of his characters.
The character’s foibles and obsessions in “The Name of the Lavender” are a whole lot of good wine and food on the taxpayer dime and, in the case of the narrator’s female partner, a variety of phobias which plays out amusingly in the conclusion.
“The Arc de Triomphe Code” is much more successful – and even more mean spirited – with one Don Broon, from Dundee, Scotland living down and out in Paris and obsessed with creating his own Da Vinci Code-style bestseller. He tries to charm a young American woman into helping him spin out his … rather unformed, shall we say … opus about the meaning of the names of French generals on the titular monument. But then he finds himself a character in someone else’s novel. It’s one of three stories original to the collection.
And speaking of conspiracies …
Watson is interested in them. And so am I, so I enjoyed his “How We Came Back From Mars: Story That Cannot Be Told”. Our four astronaut heroes are saved from dying after a failed rocket strands them on Mars. Unfortunately, their unknown UFO savior drops them off at a spaghetti western movie studio in Spain, and that creates a lot of complications in explaining things. “Me and My Flying Saucer” is a trifle that looks at the same story from the perspective of the UFO owner.
Plenty of fun is provided by the title story, “The 1000 Year Reich”. That’s Reich as in Wilhelm Reich, but Watson is also playing with the idea of the Third Reich in this mixture of alternate history and Reich’s whacky theories. The alternate history comes in with the Nazis actually being able to occupy part of North America in World War Two, and the world is now split between the power blocs of Japan, America, and Germany with all three having moon bases, and it is on the moon that the story takes place. Reich’s whacky theories of orgone energy being used to control the weather turn out to be true – actually capable of way more than just controlling the weather. Orgone energy can reduce things to atoms, possibly subatomic particles. (Dear reader, I have actually sat in an orgone box. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happened.) The structure is a bit odd and “post-modern” in that Watson makes you aware you’re reading a story. The story starts out with a quote from “Orgopedia, the encyclopedia of freedom” about “Wilhelm Reich (24 March 1883 – eternity)”. And the characters are up to something interesting: creating subversive video games to beam down to the enslaved inhabitants of Earth.
“Blair’s War” is another alternate history but not nearly as inventive. The identity behind the title is obvious way before the ending which Watson seems to intend as startling. Most of the story’s interest and humor comes from Basque refugee girls, fleeing the Spanish Civil War, commenting on the language and manners of their English hosts. Still, Watson packs a bit of surprise in his end notes. In fact, all these stories have end notes which I think almost always adds to a collection’s interest.
And speaking of war, Watson, unknown to me, is regarded as the “man who invented how to write Warhammer 40K fiction”, and “In Golden Armour” is, I suppose (not ever actually read any), like such fiction – “dark and lurid and Gothic and psychotic”. (But fully copyright compliant, of course!) This tale of space combat seems to whiplash, in the ending, between opposing philosophies underlying man vs. alien war tales. It’s another original story.
However, “Faith Without Teeth” was just, for me, a jokey story (involving German puns based on Hegel and ichthyology) set in a weird, alternate East Berlin.
From a tribute anthology to Stanislaw Lem, comes Watson’s “The Tale of Trurl and the Great TanGent”. In “Locksley Hall”, Alfred, Lord Tennyson talked about the “fairy tales of science” and that’s what this is: a fairy tale of science from the far future where are two cybernetic heroes – constructors and contractors of multi-dimensions – undertake a quest to free ten ravishing cybermaidens. It’s a wonderful salute to Lem’s Cyberiad, stuffed with playful puns and metaphors.
Commissioned to go with an illustration, “The Wild Pig’s Collar” is a bit Silverbergian as Watson notes. Arianna Daybreak hails from the peripheral zone of the multiverse where many parallel Earths exist. Out there, something is trying to break through into the main human zone and it needs to home in on the few persons, like Arianna, who don’t exist in multiple versions in that universe. It reminded me a bit of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber in its basic conceit of multiple worlds.
I suppose, if I would have cared more about its conceit, I would have liked “Breakfast in Bed” about two science journalists pondering whether they’ve discovered a mistake in the simulation we (or, at least, they) live. I’m sure Watson probably worked out the logic, and maybe he even justified the funny, chronologically significant spelling at the story’s end. I mostly liked the mocking of geek culture (e.g. Star Wars bedspread and borosilicate espresso cups).
But it was when Watson and co-author Roberto Quaglia mixed Brian Stablefordish speculation on genetic engineering with Indian corruption, reality tv, and crowdsourcing medical diagnosis to give us beastial pedophilia among other things, that things get way more bizarre than living in computer simulations. Mostly logical in its social and technological extrapolations and bizarre in its conclusions, I enjoyed the surreal “Beloved Pig-Brother of the Daughter of the Pregnant Baby”.
The remaining stories range from less bizarre but fantastical to quotidian (at least in setting).
Sure, there’s talk of quantum foam and bubble universes in “Forever Flowing Bubbles”, but it’s mostly a pub story about the virtues of Real British Ale and a homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart.
“Red Squirrel” and “An Inspector Calls” both are “realistic” crime stories with unreliable narrators. Or maybe not. The endings of both are ambiguous and unsatisfying to me, but I liked the parts before. The former utilizes Spanish settings with Watson taking advantage of his relocation to that country. The latter features the neat idea of book titles found at the scene of the crime enabling, through semiotic intuition and magic, the narrator solving crimes.
“The Traveling Raven Problem” is short enough not to overstay its welcome as a story of a young apprentice to a Ravenmaster. He’s full of all sorts of novel ideas about replacing the ravens in a fantasy kingdom’s communication and code service.
“Spanish Fly” and “Having the Time of His Life” are fantastical erotic stories that, again, are engaging reads with unsatisfying ends. Describing the configuration of genitals is not much of a concern in these stories. They are more tales of sexual obsession and dominance. Yes, “Spanish Fly” does feature an aphrodisiacal insect, and there’s also a strange woman, perhaps a prostitute, who lures the protagonist in an obsessive quest for her reappearance. The second story is sort of an erotic version of H. G. Wells’ “The New Accelerator”. The accelerator here is Gwen, a woman who shows the protagonist she can stop time if she’s excited enough. And sex during the walk-through in an open house fits the bill. She’s surprised to find he can share her rate of time during those moments. Her claimed origins are interesting, but her new lover is a bit too jealous of her time.
Clearly, as I expected, Watson operates in a lot of registers. Despite being too fond of ambiguity and semiotic games, the subjects of human life he uses to play his games keep his stories interesting, if frustrating at times.
Not at all sorry I read this one, and I hope to read more Watson.
And What Do I Speak of When I Speak of Wordplay?
This passage from “Faith Without Teeth” is an example:
“Is God some sort of fish?” asked naïve Magda of the freckles and blonde pigtails.
“In a curious way, yes,” replied Grimm. “In Greek the word for fish,” and he began to chalk on the blackboard, “iota chi theta ypsilon sigma, spells the initial letters of the phrase in Greek Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour. Consequently early Christians used a fish as a symbol of their prohibited cult, thus.” And he drew a simple two-arc fish-shape.
“However,” Grimm continued, “our own word Ich signifies the Self, which must belong within society. The great philosopher Hegel expressed this transindividuality thus: Ich das Wir, und Wir, das Ich ist, I that is a We and We that is an I. Social belonging! Practical engagement within one’s environment! The yielding up of one’s teeth. Ich-theology, Heidi, would be the philosophy of Self and therefore Selfishness, existentialism as opposed to socialism. Perhaps this is a little complicated for you…”