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Posts tagged ‘William Gibson’

Best Books 2014

The Golden AgeI’d hoped to get this up last Friday, but I ended up holding off because The Weekend Australian’s Best Books feature didn’t run until Saturday and I didn’t want to preempt my contribution to it. If you’ve got a few minutes I strongly suggest you take the time to check that list out, since it’s crammed with great stuff. You might also want to check out the lists in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, as well as the excellent Books of the Year feature in Australian Book Review (which I also contributed to but isn’t online and is available for the price of a couple of cups of coffee).

As I said in the Oz and ABR, two of the books that stood out for me this year were Ceridwen Dovey’s wonderful suite of short stories, Only The Animals and Joan London’s luminous new novel, The Golden Age. I suspect both sound like slightly odd propositions at first blush – the Dovey is a series of stories about animals whose lives cross over with literary figures such as Tolstoy and Kerouac and Lawson, and the London is about two teenagers in a polio hospital in the 1950s – but they’re both fantastic books, and I’d be very surprised if the London wasn’t all over award shortlists here and overseas in 2015.

Staying with Australian books for a moment, there were three others I enjoyed enormously. The first is Chris Flynn’s The Glass Kingdom. I loved Flynn’s debut, Tiger in Eden, but the often very funny The Glass Kingdom shows Flynn stretching himself imaginatively and technically as he interrogates the various ways men perform masculinity. I was also very impressed by Fiona McFarlane’s tautly written debut, The Night Guest, and the fabulous P.M. Newton’s gritty and brutally unsentimental take on Sydney and crime, Beams Falling.

I also loved two books I’ve already written about but hope to write something longer about soon, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. I know I’m not alone in being deeply impressed by the Faber, which is both very strange and deeply affecting, but I was also very moved by the Mitchell, which seemed to be deeply and productively engaged with a series of questions about time and loss.

Only the AnimalsMoving further afield I also completely adored Ali Smith’s smart, sexy and very moving How to be both, Jenny Offil’s wonderfully fragmented and very witty Dept. of Speculation, and Will Eaves’ marvellous The Absent Therapist, and while half the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Bark had already been published in Faber’s Collected Stories a few years ago, even four new stories by Moore are something to celebrate. Something similar is true of Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, almost all of which I’d read elsewhere (and sometimes as non-fiction, which gives the book an even more unsettling frisson) but gathered together the pieces form a powerful and troubling whole. And Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is exactly as smart, funny and wicked as you’d expect, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Whether Richard Ford’s new Frank Bascombe book, Let Me Be Frank With You, is a novel or four short stories is an interesting question, but either way it sees Ford back on top form as he depicts the now retired Bascombe not quite adrift in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Next to Ford Colm Toíbín’s writing can seem deliberately unshowy, but his new one, Nora Webster’s portrait of a woman rebuilding her life after the death of her husband offers a reminder of just how good he is. And while it didn’t make the Booker shortlist Richard Powers’ new novel, Orfeo sees Powers interweaving classical music and biology and terrorism in typically brilliant fashion (just quietly, if I could write a novel like Orfeo I’d die happy).

As I mentioned the other day you can catch me, Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe chatting about our favourite science fiction and fantasy books on the Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review special, but as I say there, I was enormously impressed by William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral, which is both brilliantly written and grounded in a fully lived social reality in a way his last couple of books haven’t been, and Adam Roberts’ darkly witty, deeply literate and very unsettling riff on talking animals, Bête. I also adored the second part of Sean Williams’ Twinmaker trilogy, Crashland (which has one of the most jaw-dropping endings I’ve read in ages), Simon Ings’ creepily visceral exploration of virtuality, Wolves, and although I think it’s an almost wilfully unlikable book, I was deeply impressed by Peter Watts’ chilly follow-up to the terrifying Blindsight, Echopraxia. And while I didn’t think Ann Leckie’s sequel to last year’s Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword was as successful at a narrative level as its predecessor it was no less thoughtful and uncompromising in its depiction of the nature of power.

Of the debut science fiction novels I read this year the one I loved the most was Monica Byrne’s jagged and sensual The Girl in the Road. And while I’m not sure whether it’s really a genre novel at all, I hugely admired Mountain Goats’ frontman John Darnielle’s awkward and deeply distressing study of trauma and the possibilities of the imagination, Wolf in White Van.

And finally, turning to fantasy, two novels stood head and shoulders above everything else I read. The first was Garth Nix’s wonderful new Old Kingdom novel, Clariel, a book that comes at the world of the Old Kingdom from a new angle, and which doesn’t just provide a reminder of just how wonderful that world is, but of how rich and magical and funny Nix is when he’s working at full throttle. And the second was the emotionally expansive and deeply satisfying conclusion Lev Grossman’s fabulous Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land.

H is for HawkOn the non-fiction front I loved Iain McCalman’s passionate and thrilling history of the Great Barrier Reef, Reef, and slightly closer to home, Ian Hoskins’ wonderful history of the New South Wales coastline, Coast. I also very much enjoyed James Nestor’s descent into the world of freediving and fringe science, Deep (a book I want to write something more about soon) and . But the two non-fiction books I loved the most this year were Helen MacDonald’s sometimes strained, sometimes eerily beautiful H is for Hawk (and interestingly the third book engaged by T.H. White’s legacy I’ve read in the last couple of years) and Sophie Cunningham’s tense, terrifying and frighteningly prescient study of Cyclone Tracy and its aftermath, Warning.

Of the graphic things I read I loved a number of the quirkier titles Marvel has been producing, in particular Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire’s brutal and brooding Moon Knight, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, G. Willow Wilson’s joyous Ms Marvel and Charles Soule’s now-sadly cancelled She-Hulk, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Emily Carroll’s fabulously creepy collection of shorts, Through the Woods, a book that brilliantly marries a finely tuned affection for the pulp comics of the 1950s, an awareness of the cruelty of fairy tales and a wonderfully acute grasp of the darker corners of the human psyche. It’s great stuff.

Of course as always there are a number of things I haven’t got to yet but am looking forward to very much, in particular Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the third part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Boyhood Island, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, Rjurik Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky, Jane Bryony Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Angela Slatter’s The Bitterwood Bible and Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a number of which I hope to get read over the break.

On the subject of which I hope the holiday season brings good things to all of you, and the year ahead is full of good things. Peace and goodwill to you all.

Emily Carroll, Through the Woods

Emily Carroll, Through the Woods

The Coode Street Year in Review

the-coode-street-podcastI’m planning on getting a Best Books post up in the next week or so, but if you’ve got an hour to kill in the meantime you can catch the Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review special, which features Jonathan Strahan, Gary K. Wolfe and me chatting about some of our favourite science fiction and fantasy books of the year. Books discussed include Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, Adam Roberts’ Bête, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, Garth Nix’s Clariel, William Gibson’s The Peripheral and Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road.

You can listen to the show via Podbean or iTunes. And congratulations to Jonathan and Gary on the new partnership between Coode Street and Tor.com: it’s very exciting news for all concerned.

 

Distrust That Particular Flavor

Just a heads-up to say I had a review of William Gibson’s new collection of non-fiction, Distrust That Particular Flavor, in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. I think collections of non-fiction made up of occasional pieces by novelists are generally to be approached with caution, but this one most definitely isn’t: it’s smart, provocative and offers a genuinely fascinating glimpse of the way Gibson’s thinking has evolved over the past decades.

And if that’s not enough Gibson for you, you might want to check out my reviews of Zero History, Spook Country and Pattern Recognition, as well as a couple of follow-up thoughts about Zero History, and a now rather antique review of All Tomorrow’s Parties.

William Gibson goes culture jamming

A couple of weeks back I posted a promotional video featuring William Gibson reading from his new novel, Zero History. At the time I mentioned I was reviewing it, so I couldn’t really say much about the book, but I’m now free of that restriction because the review is in this morning’s Weekend Australian.

Obviously you can read the review in full over at The Weekend Australian on my Writing page but in case it’s not clear on the face of it, I liked the book a lot. As I say in the review, I think both Zero History and its predecessor, Spook Country, can be at least partly understood as a sort of literary culture jamming, clever, essentially parodic attempts to expose the inner workings of what McKenzie Wark once called the Military-Entertainment Complex (if you haven’t seen it I urge you to check out Ken’s experiment in crowd-sourced cultural analysis, GAM3R 7H30Ry, published in conjunction with The Institute for the Future of the Book).

I think there’s probably a level at which this playfulness is now beginning to subvert the capacity of Gibson’s novels to do the things he wants them to do. Interestingly, the problem isn’t that the playfulness necessarily detracts from the more serious questions the novels explore, it’s that the business of the novels, and more particularly the relatively conventional narrative structures Gibson employs to play out their plots, hold the books back from really cracking open reality in the way I think they want to. I’ve said before that I think Gibson bears comparison to Delillo, but reading Zero History I did find myself wishing it would show some of Delillo’s preparedness to allow the textures and conceptual armature of the novels to become an end in themselves, or recover some of the more formally innovative qualities that make the final instalment in Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, All Tomorrow’s Parties, so exciting.

But by the same token, it’s this quality that makes the book so satisfying at an emotional level. For all his fascination with textures and technology, Gibson is a surprisingly gentle and human writer in many ways, and that quality is on full display in Zero History. It’s not just that there’s real tenderness in his depiction of the recovering addict Milgrim’s rediscovery of a larger world, or that Gibson writes with considerable empathy and acuity about addiction, it’s that he grants the reader the not inconsiderable satisfaction of seeing the heroines of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, Cayce and Hollis, find a measure of happiness.

As I say, you can read my review in full at The Weekend Australian. But because I realise I’m now one of the few people who have reviewed the entire trilogy, I’ve also uploaded my pieces on Pattern Recognition and Spook Country (originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Literary Review) to the site. And if that’s not enough Gibson for one morning, you might want to check out the promotional videos for Zero History and Spook Country. Or visit the man himself at William Gibson Books or on Twitter. Or, if you’d like to take a step sideways, check out Gibson’s introduction to photographer Greg Girard’s wonderful book, Phantom Shanghai.

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Zero History

I’m reviewing William Gibson’s new one, Zero History, for The Australian, so I can’t really talk about it here, but just to whet your appetite, here’s a trailer for it. It’s a little brief, compared to the trailer for Spook Country, and I’m not sure Gibson’s voice is really strong enough to drown out the soundtrack, but as the excerpt in the trailer suggests, it’s the book where the seemingly unconnected post-Iraq paranoia of Spook Country meets Pattern Recognition’s fascination with branding and the corporatisation of culture. I’d just say enjoy, but it’d be remiss of me not to suggest that if you haven’t read Pattern Recognition (or indeed Neuromancer and Virtual Light) you should do so immediately: it’s one of the best books of the last decade, and along with Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, by far the best piece of writing to come out of the convulsions that began with September 11, 2001.

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Phantom Shanghai

Phantom Shanghai

In 2005 I spent three months attached to the East China Normal University in Shanghai as an Asialink resident. Perhaps fortuitously, we didn’t end up living in one of the newer parts of the city, but in an apartment at the top of an alley house not far from the corner of Huaihai Lu and Shanxi Nanlu in the old French Concession.

The dodgy wiring and rats aside, it was a fascinating place to stay, not least because it gave me the opportunity to get to know some of the last remnants of Old Shanghai. For all its well-deserved reputation for criminality and vice, Old Shanghai was also the site of an incredibly fertile collision between European and Chinese modernity. This collision gave birth to writers such as Shi Zhecun, and Liu Na’ou (I’d probably also lump Eileen Chang in there as well, since although her work concentrates on the years of the Occupation, and was published in the 1940s, it exists in the shadow of the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s she grew up in), nurtured political radicals such as Mao and his wife, and most visibly these days, resulted in the peculiarly Shanghainese fusion of European and Chinese architecture that can be seen in the remaining pieces of the pre-1989 city.

'Alley (Yangshuo Lu, looking north), 2006', © Greg Girard, 2006

'Alley (Yangshuo Lu, looking north), 2006', © Greg Girard, 2006

Even in 2005, when I was there, these remnants of the old city were vanishing fast. The pace of change in China is (or was, until recently) dizzying, and the Chinese have little interest in preserving what they see as the European city (Shanghai may have been the site of the most potent encounter between Europe and China, but it is also, for that very reason, seen by many Chinese as a symbol of the West’s exploitation of China: not for nothing were the towering buildings of Pudong built straing back across the river at the symbols of European power and wealth that dominate the Bund).

The process has created a city which is very much in flux. Buildings, streets, even whole neighbourhoods seem to vanish overnight, swept away without trace. The results can be startling, shocking, and just plain disconcerting: my partner and I often ate in a restaurant a few blocks from our home; a few weeks after we left a friend who’d eaten there with us was back in Shanghai, and he discovered that not only the restaurant was gone, but everything within a radius of a few hundred metres had also been demolished, apartment blocks already rising on the site.

'Fuzhou Lu Mailboxes, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

'Fuzhou Lu Mailboxes, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

One of the ironies of this process is that it is largely undocumented. Images of Shanghai tend to fall into one of two categories, seeking to capture either the gleaming modernity of the new China, or the elegance and mystery of Old Shanghai.

In a very real sense this is a reflection of a more profound double-vision that afflicts most Western interest in Shanghai. Whether in guidebooks or literature, Western eyes seem unable to see that there are other Shanghais lurking beneath the surface of the city, histories and realities laid down during the Occupation and the Cultural Revolution which exist alongside the more comfortable images of Old Shanghai’s glitter and decadence and New Shanghai’s shining skyscrapers and designer boutiques.

'600 Things, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

'600 Things, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

These questions are on my mind because I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece about the city, but they’ve also reminded me about the one book I’ve ever seen that seems to me to catch something of the accretive nature of Shanghai as a city, its sense of layered history, which is Greg Girard’s splendid Phantom Shanghai. The images in Greg’s book show a city in flux, a place where the past is being gradually wiped away, yet they also show the many, often enigmatic, traces its past has left. Somewhere – and it may be in Denton Welch’s marvelously strange Maiden Voyage, but I can’t find the reference – there’s a wonderful description of the way Chinese cities and towns often seem to be constructed out of detritus, repaired and repurposed, yet still resembling nothing so much as a conglomeration of offcasts and broken things, and there’s something of this in the images in Phantom Shanghai, as well as a sense of the almost surreal light of the city at night, the reflected glow of the pollution and the neon. But there’s also a sense of the ghostliness of the city, of the way its seems haunted by its past, and by the simultaneous closeness and irretrievability of that past.

With Greg Girard’s permission I’ve reproduced several images from the book in this post, and you can see more by visiting the Monte Clark Gallery website, or Greg Girard’s website (where you can also read William Gibson’s introduction) but I really do urge anyone with an interest in Shanghai to buy the book, – it’s a remarkable document of a city in transition, and of a world which is vanishing even as we speak.

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William Gibson

William Gibson at dinner with fans in a Wagama...
Image via Wikipedia

For anyone who’s interested, William Gibson has started posting excerpts from his new novel on his blog at www.williamgibsonbooks.com. The first was posted on New Year’s Day, and there have been several more substantial pieces over the past couple of weeks.

The excerpts suggest the new book picks up somewhere after Gibson’s last novel, Spook Country leaves off, and that it will draw the brilliant Pattern Recognition and Spook Country together into a trilogy, mirroring the pattern of the Sprawl and Bridge sequences.

Gibson experimented with the same practice during the writing of Spook Country, and though a lot of his fans were excited by it, I felt it was better to stay away and wait for the real thing. Perhaps I’m just too busy, perhaps it’s a more deepseated, novelist’s prejudice against the idea of wiki-ing a book (though I’d be interested to know how many of the responses the excerpts receive Gibson will take on board).

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For those wanting more Gibson paraphernalia, here is the very stylish video Gibson’s publishers released to coincide with the publication of Spook Country in 2007.

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And here is a short review of Pattern Recognition I wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald in 2003. It’s still available online, but for some reason the quotes in the version on the SMH website have dropped out, rather changing the sense of the piece. That being the case I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing my original review below with the missing quotes reinstated (I hope the SMH won’t mind).

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pattern_recognitionPattern Recognition
By William Gibson

Somewhere in the middle of Pattern Recognition, William Gibson’s seventh novel, the central character, Cayce Pollard, describes her memories of that day in New York, of the impact of the second plane. The experience, related in a fragmented, dream-like language, seems to collapse time, collapse meaning. It is “like watching one of her own dreams on television. Some vast and deeply personal insult to any ordinary notion of interiority. An experience outside of culture.”

What Gibson’s language strains to reveal in that event, or more properly, in our experience of it, is the sense of vertigo it induced, of the collapsing of boundaries: political, geographical, personal, ethical, its singularity lying not in its death toll, or in its nature but in our experience of it, the way it unmade the certainties that not just our present but our future were grounded in.

Whether it was begun before or after September 11, this sense of our experience of reality exceeding itself is wound deeply into Pattern Recognition. Not only is it the first of Gibson’s novels to take place in the immediate present, it also seems to represent the closure of some kind of circle in his writing, not least in the allusive play between the names of its protagonist, Cayce and the anti-hero of his groundbreaking first novel, Neuromancer, Case.

Of course to call Gibson a writer of science fiction has always been to misunderstand him. Gibson’s antecedents lie more in Burroughs and Pynchon than Arthur C. Clarke, their strange, essentially poetic assemblages of image and echo designed to explore the inner textures of a culture which exists increasingly outside of time and space. The effect is probably nearest to that of an intellectually rigorous brand of video-art: suggestive, unsettling, and unresolved, its meanings arising out of the interplay between the elements rather than residing within them.

And so, despite its contemporary setting Pattern Recognition is classic Gibson. Moving between London, Tokyo and Moscow, it turns upon a series of film fragments which have been appearing anonymously upon the internet. These fragments, in an echo of the Joseph Cornell-like assemblages of Count Zero’s artificial intelligence, are possessed of a mute, almost inexplicable power, a power attested to by the global underground following they have attracted. Carefully denuded of any identifiable signs of context or origin, the fragments may or may not be part of some larger work, yet regardless their power stems from their sense of compression, the way they seem to signify the possibility of a meaning which they simultaneously deny.

Cayce, a follower of the footage herself, is commissioned by her sometime boss, the wonderfully-named Belgian market-guru, Hubertus Bigend (who “seems to have no sense at all that his name might be ridiculous to anyone, ever”) to establish the identity of the footage’s creator. Bigend’s motives for doing so are ambiguous to say the least, but Cayce accepts nonetheless, a decision which drops her deep into a world of obsessed footage-heads, industrial espionage, Russian mafia and cryptography, only to fetch up, finally, in the painful truth of the footage’s origins.

Woven through this are a collection of images which play off each other with ever-increasing subtlety and power. The pictures of the missing pinned to windows and walls and doors in New York. An amateur archaeological dig near Stalingrad, where guns and badges, uniforms and eventually an entire Stuka, its pilot still in its cockpit are being drawn from the suffocating, erasing mud by Russian skinheads. Diagrams of the arming mechanism of antiquated American explosives are uncovered coded deep inside the footage. Mechanical calculators designed in Buchenwald are traded to collectors from car boots, resembling nothing so much as grenades. And everywhere, out of the fragments of the past, the present and the future, meaning suggests itself, elusive, partial yet possessed of a strange and ultimately deeply moving poetry.

Like Gibson’s futuristic novels, which refract the present hauntingly through the lens of their possible futures, there is something at once utterly immediate and strangely timeless about Pattern Recognition. It captures the fluidity of meaning and the sense of shifting certainties which infect our historical moment, strung between the unrecoverable past and the nascent future. ‘“The future is there . . . looking back at us,” as Cayce herself says. “Trying to make sense of the fiction we have become. And from where they are, the past behind us will look nothing at all like the past we imagine behind us now.”

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 March 2003.
© James Bradley, 2003.

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