The Stars My Destination: Alfred Bester

 

“Tyger! tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

– William Blake

He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.

“The best book in the world”, says Harrison. “Considered by many to be the greatest single SF novel”, says Delaney. “A work of actual genius”, says Haldeman. Well, the first is as absurd as one might expect from the man; the latter two may be arguable.

The Stars My Destination is an unashamed retelling of The Count of Monte Christo, at least in its early parts. Indolent and uneducated, brutal and basic, Gulliver Foyle is a seemingly worthless specimen of humanity marooned in space in a small pocket of air in the wreck of an interplanetary craft, but he is also a man of great potential, and when he is abandoned to die by the spaceship Vorga that potential is unlocked, turning Foyle into a ruthless, obsessive hunter for revenge. Determined to track down those responsible, he becomes caught up in a web of questions with immense import: what was the cargo of the ship he served on, the Nomad? Why did the Vorga not rescue him? At the root of these questions is the mysterious substance PyrE, which may destroy or save the world, and perhaps a second secret of even greater significance. In a world dominated by megacorporations that have ossified into commercial ‘clans’, complete with titles and regalia, and in which everybody can teleport through will alone, albeit with limitations, Foyle has to negotiate a path through many layers of deception and confusion, not knowing whether he is playing the role of hunter or of stalking horse.

I will give the book the benefit of the doubt and say that it is stunningly courageous in the amount of faith put in the reader – very little is explained, and much is left to the imagination. Most of the characters, for instance, appear complex, but only if the reader exerts the effort to join up the dots of their strange behaviour, as little is expressed overtly. Large periods of time are elided, and information is dropped as though the reader is already familiar with it, which forces us to pay constant attention. The unfortunate exception to all this is the prologue, an exercise in cowardice, given over entirely to an immense infodump. It is not a badly-written infodump, but it feels completely out of place before the first chapter, with its iconic opening line; all the information in it could have been given in the text, if it was needed at all. It does, it is true, provide an alternative perspective, but a more courageous author would have incorporated that perspective into the body of the text through more inventive narrative devices – which would also have removed the need, at the end of the book, to refer back to the beginning for things that haven’t been needed or mentioned for the entire book.

I can see why Bester is acclaimed for writing two masterpieces, and also why there was not a third: he is on the edge of genius, but delicately balanced. With a more critical eye, if we do not let ourselves get carried away by the virtues of the text, we can see his flaws: stilted dialogue, lack of uniqueness for the characters (particularly painful when we see Y’ang-Yeovil and Dagenham in the same room for the final Star Chamber conference at the end of the book – Y’ang-Yeovil is a cipher, Dagenham is appealing but hugely under-motivated and without adequate backstory, and they both sound exactly the same – it’s not clear that they are both needed in the novel) and a reliance on melodramatic and cliché situations. The decision to give everybody the names of various English towns is physically painful to me, though presumably innocent enough for an American audience, and the end is just atrocious. Leaving aside the multiple, sometimes unnecessary deus ex machinae (in one case literal!), there is far too much given to an out-of-the-page ethics lecture that is strongly reminiscent, in tone and elements if not entirely in message, of Ayn Rand. The final moral decision is mind-numbingly stupid to the extent that I can’t believe it happened (it takes a controversial but interesting stance, but applies to the situation in a way that is incoherent  and self-contradictory to even the most cursory consideration), and the entire ending seems to fail to consider a key piece of information revealed earlier on.

A further enduring problem is the lack of emotional engagement. The novel proceeds at a hectic pace, which exhilarates, but is an obstacle to strong attachment that neuters the shock of the various twists and turns: “my god, X died! oh wait, I only met X two pages ago, why do I care?”; “wow! it was X all along! well yes, but I’ve only heard X say three words so far in the twenty pages they’ve been around, so I can’t say I’m completely surprised” (fictional examples). In particular, alongside Dumas, the novel suffers from the lack of Mercedes: the revenge tale of Dantès is given added power by the fact that, in Mercedes, we know something of his life before the fall, something that endures afterward. With Foyle, nothing exists before he is marooned, so all of the attachments that he feels later on feel rootless, and frankly a little ridiculous. This problem is only one part of a wider flaw in the novel: poor balance. It only really comes to life halfway through – in most adaptations of Dumas, the story proper only begins at this point, yet Bester does not use the first half of the novel to set up the second at all. Foyle’s descent/ascent as he educates himself in pursuit of revenge, transforming his character, feel artificial and cursory, occurring as it does through sudden moments rather than through gradual change. For example, his early (compelling) ‘gutter’ syntax is replaced in a single paragraph as though Bester had said “right, I’m bored of that now, let’s have him speak properly”. The transformative part of the story seems to be of little interest to him, even though it is ostensibly the main theme of the book; instead, the first half of the novel is enjoyable enough in its own way, but fundamentally wasted, in a novel that otherwise seems so short on time for background that it feels a little like a sci-fi series filmed on cardboard sets that wobble when the actors pass. Instead, a great deal of time is lavished on the corporate culture of the future world, but to little effect – it is more like a description of what a man from the fifties would think might happen than like a vision of a real, deep, coloured world. The result is neither immersive nor particularly shocking. Even the Big Idea, jaunting, is underfeatured – some consideration is given to its effects on world society (which are supposedly immense), but even there it feels cursory – a paragraph of hypothesis spread out and repeated through the book, conveyed usually in short expositions rather than in demonstrations of a lived reality.

In short, it is confused, ill-balanced, shallow and often clunky. That said, it does have some good points…

Adrenaline: 4/5. I can’t give it 5/5, in large part because the excitement really comes in the second half, but it was never dull, and became very gripping. It has a hectic, ruthless, almost nauseating pace. Then again, the book is very short, so it doesn’t have to hold the attention for very long. I could have read this easily between lunch and tea.

Emotion: 2/5. Couldn’t really engage with the characters. Some of them (Foyle, Gully, Jiz) had the outlines of real, complicated people, but none were given enough time or attention to blossom into people I actually cared about. Others seemed flat and there only for (dubious) plot reasons. There is a degree of interest, though, even with some of the minor characters (especially the “skoptsy”, in my opinion). Particular mention should go to the horrible secret revealed on the moon, which manages to be truly unpleasant in the middle of what could easily be a desensitising book.

Thought: 4/5. No element here really fires the brain, but it fires so much at us. There are a great many ideas here that could be the subject of short stories or even novels in their own right, which are thrown away in paragraphs. The pace, furthermore, forces us to be on our toes the entire time, as does the nest of betrayal and deception.

Beauty: 5/5. Perhaps I’m being generous, but I think that in places the prose deserves the highest accolade, and in there are many aesthetically striking scenes and concepts – it is a very visual novel. There are, not to give too much away, some experiments with typography that amount to genuine poetry in their interweaving of text, context, typing and conceit. The whole air of the novel is exuberant, filled with a remarkable, exciting joie de vivre.

Craft: 3/5. Clearly, from the above scores, there is competence here. However, the considerable flaws are mostly due not to inherent limitations of the chosen story but to limitations of the author’s craft – better written, this could have had 5s on Thought and Adrenaline, and boosted Emotion considerably. The ending in particular deserves to be criticised a second time.

Endearingness: 4/5. My word, I do hate that ending. Not the very, very end – that’s not bad at all – but the lecture bit and the gods popping out of the machines. Ow. That hurt. On the other hand – it IS fun, and exciting, and interesting and… as I said before, it has a certain joie de vivre that is infectious, and makes it hard not to think kindly on the novel. The ending doesn’t ruin it, only spoils it.

Originality: 5/5. Yes, a lot of it is ripped from Dumas, but that’s more of an homage than a crutch. There is such a madcap procession of events, so many ideas flung at us, such a peculiar setting, that there is no other novel quite like this one – and the ending only amplifies that.

Echo: 0/2. I did feel something on ending it, but I don’t think it was shock. I think it was more… pausing for breath. Most of all, I think that the novel is too short to ever totally immerse, and thus too short to hammer the system badly on withdrawal.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. Despite its flaws, this sit alongside Leibowitz, Kavalier and Clay and Watchmen as a Very Good novel. It touches on brilliance but doesn’t quite get there, in my view. I wouldn’t argue too loudly against anyone calling it brilliant, though.

Blue Moon Rising, by Simon Green

It’s rare for me not to know much about the books I read. Until recently, I had the tendency to latch on to one author (or shared world) at a time and read through their works – so that my collection is clumped, and when I think about an author I can think about a whole range of books they’ve written.

Blue Moon Rising is an exception to that. I didn’t buy it; it was given to me, along with two other genre novels, which had been found reduced. All three are fairly obscure – in internet discussions, I’ve heard one of them (Illusion, by Paula Volsky) mentioned once or twice, and another is so obscure that it was difficult for me even to find out whether the author had written anything else. Blue Moon Rising is somewhere in between. Apparently, a lot of people do buy Simon Green’s books, I just haven’t found any of those people yet. All three of the books had elements that interested me; all three had things that put me off. I haven’t bought anything else by any of the three authors; in the case of this book, I’m really not sure whether or not I should correct that omission.

For those, like me, who are ignorant, Simon R Green is one of the most prolific fantasy and science fiction writers of our age. He’s probably best known for the eight volumes of his Deathstalker series (described as a parody of space opera), and the three connected Twilight of the Empire novels. There are also six Hawk and Fisher novels, four Forest Kingdom novels, three Secret History novels (with names that parody James Bond titles), and ten Nightside books, with an eleventh on the way. And two standalones. And the novelisation of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Aside from that last, all those books are from the last two decades. Blue Moon Rising was published in 1991 – along with four other novels. If you’re like me, none of this sounds very promising.

Blue Moon Rising is… well, as the back of the book says: “A second son, a tired dragon, a unicorn without a horn, and a princess with a wicked left hook: an unlikely company to face a Demon Prince.” Yes, poor old Prince Rupert has been sent away to kill a dragon, only to find that the dragon, who has a butterfly collection rather than a hoard of gold, desperately needs rescuing from an annoying princess he’s been burdened with. The princess, incidentally, is a feisty tomboy who can’t understand why people at court want to her to behave in a more ‘feminine’ fashion, and who expresses annoyance through casual violence. If you’re like me, none that that sounds very promising either. I can almost taste the zany, oh-so-original exclamation marks dripping off that sales pitch.

I’ll be honest: if I were reading it for the first time today, I’m not sure I’d have got past the first chapter of this. It makes it abundantly, painfully, clear what sort of novel this is going to be: a semi-serious parodic epic fantasy that mixes whacky disregard for logic with just enough (sometimes anachronistic) realism to poke fun at the tropes of the genre without letting that stop it from telling exactly the same story as all the novels its laughing at. That much is clear within a few pages, as paragraphs of humorous, though painfully obvious and cliché, witty ‘banter’ between the Prince and his Unicorn about how minstrels never mention the bad bits of adventuring, like how to urinate while wearing armour, are quickly followed by an encounter with goblins… who are so cowardly that they instantly surrender despite the pleading of their tough-guy leader. Oh god. I don’t deny that this sort of thing can be funny… but it’s so tired, so predictable, that it’s hard not to groan.

Except that that’s not what this book is about. The first chapter is, sure. And to a lesser extent the second chapter. The third chapter (there are ten of them in total, one an epilogue, though it’s not named as such) starts out like that… and then it changes gear. The moment comes when several characters investigate the abandoned village of Coppertown, which has clearly been attacked by some sort of minions of the night – and though nothing about the incident is original or unpredictable (the villain of the chapter is straight of the D&D Monstrous Manual, and the conceit is literally a century old and quite famous), it is extremely well done. Monstrous Manual it may be, but I’ve never seen a D&D campaign where the horror of the enemy was as well conveyed. If there’s one way to characterise the opening chapter of the book it’s ‘blasé’ – so knowing that nothing seems really dangerous – but the Coppertown moment is the exact opposite, taking what in many books would have been treated as a casual random encounter and reminds us just how horrible, and terrifying, it would really be. And if the reader is wondering after that whether the gears will change again – yes, yes they will. The author very quickly ramps through the gears from light-hearted parody to gritty, bloody, moving drama, as family feuds and buried secrets, treason and plot, demons and sorcerers and famine and plague and the end of all things break through the happy surface of flippancy.

That’s not to say the flippancy ever completely goes away – throughout the novel there is a dry, almost bitter, humour – but when the events of the novel become dramatic, that humour comes into its own, becomes dark and realistic, where previously it had seemed indulgent and artificial. At its height, Blue Moon Rising is touching, exciting and amusing all at once.

Most impressive of all, however, is the way in which the novel achieves what I think is one of the hallmarks of, indeed the purposes of, classic fantasy: the exaggerated, incredible setting does not detract from the realism of the characters, but instead serves to highlight it. Like a war story or a western, a good heroic fantasy uses its backdrop of almost unimaginable darkness to cast a stark, discerning light on the morality and personal character of the people who inhabit that world; and there is no doubt that this does that. The novel is distinguished from average pulp fantasy through its commitment to moral realism – a complete moral realism that does not simply avoid making its characters plainly good or plainly bad, but that further avoids even committing to exactly what good or bad might be. The characters are all flawed, but it’s not entirely clear which parts are the flaws and which the virtues. In particular, an ongoing theme of the book is that of the extent of duty – how much can duty ask of a man or a woman? Does there ever come a point when we can set our duty down and say that we have done enough and that no more can be asked of us? And can our duty force us to do things that would otherwise be considered immoral – does duty trump morality, or does duty sometimes not allow us the luxury of not being contemptible? Or then again, is duty only a shield for evil and an excuse for a ‘pragmatic’ cowardice? Points are made on all sides, and rarely didactically, but the ultimate conclusion is left to the reader.

As a result of this ambiguity, Blue Moon Rising is populated by some surprisingly complicated and compelling characters, given that it is a standalone novel of moderate length that is packed with incident and short on long contemplations. Aside from the heroic but still not uninteresting Prince Rupert, particular mention must go to his father, King John, immediately likeable but perpetrator of some callous decisions, and mired in self-doubt as his kingdom falls from glory to desolation, and the elder son, Prince Harald, who is cold, manipulative, deceitful, two-faced, misogynist, insecure, brutal, petty… who in other words may well make an excellent king. Supporting characters include the anonymous Champion – somewhere on the borderline between Lancelot and a broken and psychotic man; the Astrologer, Thomas Grey, forced into the role of magical enforcer and hated eminence grise; Lord Darius, hereditary minister of war who would far rather be studying magic; Sir Blays, one of the king’s oldest friend, driven into treason as things turn from bad to worse. Everybody is driven by their duty or by other external demands; the only character who has walked away is the High Warlock, who long ago ran away from the Kingdom, abandoning his heroic role to live in intoxicated hermitage in a Dark Tower with no doors – “a coward, a traitor, and a drunk”.

The novel is not without its flaws. Leaving aside my distaste for its lighter moments, I think that there is an uncomfortable tension between the two poles of style – Harald, for instance, seems to be as intelligent as the dark and realistic elements require, and then suddenly as stupid as the comedy demands. More seriously, the parodic approach to heroic fantasy produces a lacksadaisical attitude toward plot and worldbuilding that betrays the more serious side – repeatedly there are annoying lapses somewhere between plot holes and continuity errors, and nothing ever really quite makes sense. There are also problems in pacing and dramatic structure (even leaving aside the slow and misleading opening): the scope of the plot is too broad for the wordcount and the narrative style, and at times he struggles to hold it all together, which results in certain characters being absent for long stretches, and others receiving less screentime than dramatic satisfaction demands; the plot toward the end feels increasingly railroaded, and the climax combines a too-predictable dramatic moment with a deus ex machina – it’s well done, as DEMs go, but it still is one, and it feels cheap. The aftermath feels rushed and betrays some of the earlier complexities, although it is touchingly written.

All in all, my impression is that Blue Moon Rising is a rather schizophrenic novel – a light-hearted, knowing adventure story has been combined with a dark, grey, meaningful and dramatic tale of unashamed but complicated heroism; it is to the credit of the author that the two elements are compatible at all, but I’m not convinced that the whole is entirely a success. It is also mishandled and unsophisticated in places; this may be interpreted as laziness on the part of the author, but as this was the first original novel of his career, it may be a reflection of naivety or inexperience.

Some people won’t mind the problems. Those who like the humour and can tolerate the autoparodic elements, while not objecting to a little drama, may find this pleasant light reading with a little extra bite. I also think it would make a good novel for children – the style is not dumbed down, but it is always accessible, and though it touches on very dark matters, it does so in a restrained and delicate fashion, preferring implication where others might use profanity or gratuitous gore, and the parodic side would feel more fresh to younger readers; additionally, the way in which it deals with issues of morality and virtue in an interesting but not lecturing fashion may make it interesting for parents to recommend.

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Adrenaline: 3/5. I was gripped throughout (after the first few chapters), but never thrilled. Partly that’s those inexperienced mistakes; mostly, I think, it’s the sporadic nature of the action, which throbs rather than climaxes. What climax there was felt too weak for what had gone before, and the start is too slow.

Emotion: 3/5. As a child, I would have ranked this at least a 4, and possibly a 5. I think I’ve cried at the epilogue before. As an adult, though, a book has to work a little harder, and the (intentionally) derivative and familiar aspects of character and plot reduce the impact somewhat.

Thought: 3/5. Those questions about duty, and some questions about courage, raise this above the average pulp fantasy, but they are not explored in depth, and most of the novel is fairly mindless stuff. The plot belies its formulaic appearance with some interesting complexities and originalities, which encourage a little thinking ahead and reflection, but very little.

Beauty: 2/5. In places it feels as tired as a zombie and its wit may be self-knowing but it is rarely elegant or incisive. That said, it does have some scenes of heroism and tragedy that could be beautiful – yet the prose, while not ugly, is not refined enough to paint in the finer colours. [My, that sounded pretentious. *shrugs* Oh well. My prose is evidently not refined enough to paint in many shades of not-an-arsehole. I try my best]

Craft: 2/5. It’s not badly written. As I think you may have gathered, I don’t think it hits the right note when it strives for levity, except when that levity comes with the colouring lent it by surrounding gravity. There are problems with the plot. The prose is unremarkable. It does try to carve more sophisticated characters and takes the plot in some new directions, but in neither respect does that involve really notable craftwork. It is funny in places, and mostly effective. In the end, I marked it down because more work could have been done on making the ending work better.

Endearingness: 3/5. I’d like to put this higher, but I can’t. I’m not apathetic toward it – I’m torn. I really want to like it a little more than I do. I want to read more about the characters – but I’m not sure I trust him with them. I’m not sure that I so much enjoy the book as enjoy what the book could have been.

Originality: 3/5. I should probably have put this lower. In some ways, it’s very familiar. However, it does try to branch out in every way – in plot, in character, in themes… so I give it the benefit of the doubt for its ambition.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad, Really. And I really don’t know whether to read more of Green. I said I enjoyed what the book could have been, and I’m torn between hope and fear – I don’t want to find out that he doesn’t get any better than this. The two obvious next steps would be the later Forest Kingdom novels, which share the same setting, or the many Hawk and Fisher novels, which share some characters, within the same world; but the first look like more formulaic heroic fantasies, and although I think he pulled it off this time, I worry that repeating the same approach to de-formulaicising fantasy will make that approach itself feel formulaic; the latter series have taglines that make me groan. Oh god, not a pair of unconventional cops in a confused medieval/renaissance film noir setting – oh, the zany exploits they will have, the wise-cracking high-jinks! And yet… I do love the characters, in their simplistic and exploitative way. I guess it comes down to whether Green goes on to be dark and nuanced with flashes of ironic humour, or whether he goes for light ironic humour with servings of drama and unpleasantness. If the former, I could grow to love him. If the latter, I could easily hate him. I’m also tempted to give Shadows Fall a try – it’s a standalone, it seems more serious, and he calls it the best thing he’s done.

The Prestige – Film Version

Well, I’ve followed up reading the book with watching the film. My response is… mixed.

First things first: I enjoyed the experience greatly. It was a good film, well made, perfectly entertaining.

Second thing: it strikes me that this is one of the few times in life when, after the diverging of two roads, the road not taken is quite visible, yet can truly never be stepped back on to. What I mean is that either you read the book first and then the film, or you watch the film and then read the book. Neither is superfluous: they go together well. But I think your experience of both will be irrevocably altered, depending on the order.

I watched the film having seen the book; this was both good and bad. On the good side, I knew what was going on. I think that this is a confusing film, and one which many people will either not understand, or else get only a small part out of. Concentration throughout is essential, and little is done to make things clear or comprehensible. Knowing the plot in advance made it clear how things all fitted together, and so the constant flashbacks (to three different time-periods from two different perspectives) did not trouble me.

The bad – the film puts far greater emphasis than the book on the nature of the secrets of the two main characters. As I knew the tricks, a lot of the impact was lost – particularly at the end, when I wished I still had the naivity that would allow me to enjoy those revelations afresh. In this respect, it would have been better to read the book after seeing the film. The book is more subtle, and knowing the secrets is less of an issue (one of them is revealed very early on) – and, what’s more, the book is more complicated, with more twists in the plot, so knowing the film does not spoil all of the book. The film is not particularly subtle, and so watching it while knowing the secrets was a bit painful in places – the hints at Borden’s secret were clever at first but became increasingly obvious.

The film is more spectacular, as one would expect, but it is also more intentionally confusing – the fewer plot twists are made more twisty by greater complexity in the way they are told. This, as I say, may mean that many viewers lose some of the value of the film – but at the same time, I think it is essential. A masterstroke, even. Faithfully adapted, The Prestige would have made a very long, rather dull film. The Nolans did not adapt it faithfully. They did not adapt it anywhere in the vicinity of faithfully. They ripped it into pieces and put back together something vaguely in the image of the original.

…which is exactly what they needed to do. The result is not faithful to the original – but it is loyal. It is, perhaps, what Priest would have written, had he written the novel as a film. Some things became possible; others had to be avoided. I was struck when watching it by Angier’s method of adapting Borden’s trick – taking something intriguing but not with mass appeal, and massively ramping up the showmanship. The showmanship oozed from every change they made, major or minor – where Tesla experiments, in the book, on an iron rod, in the film it is on a magician’s top hat. More fanciful, perhaps, but better showmanship for the silver screen. The resulting magic trick was not as good as Priest’s original, just as Angier’s first revamp was less satisfying than Borden’s – but it is more accessible.

In fact, here I must admit that I was only ever half-watching the film, because a third work of art was grabbing my attention: not the book, not the film, but the adaptation of the book to film. Because it was artistic – it was brave, it was bold, it was elegant, it was constantly surprising, it was knowing, it was respectful, it was confident. The Nolans could have simply transferred the events to screen; they could have written the best film they could have written, inspired by the book. Instead, the web they created linking the film to the book is convoluted and enticing – rather than regarding the book as a melody to be transposed, they broke it up into an array of motifs, and arranged and inverted and expanded those motifs to fit the demands of the new form. To take a single example: the bouncing of a rubber ball is drawn out of a single scene in the book to become a key motif throughout the film. The result is unique to the film, yet feels completely in keeping with the book. Elsewhere, scenes are thrown through the timelines, lines of conversation are taken from one speaker and given to another… a large part of the film emphasises questions about Borden’s life that are only raised in the book in a few brief sentences by Angier – as though it were Angier writing the film, not Borden, nor Priest. This is new – but it is not disloyal, because the film is not breaking new ground, but only exploring paths named and outlined in the book. It is ‘close to’ the book in the sense of being entirely parallel to it.

The film is not as good as the book. It is shorter, it is simpler, it is more confusing, it is vastly more simplistic in terms of character and theme (in particular, I feel Angier is unjustly made the villain of the piece), it is more heavyhanded and the ending is severely lacking. The film is not as good as the book (because the story is not well-suited to the screen) – but the artwork of the adaptation itself may be, and certainly it’s hard to see how a better film could have been made of the book (except, perhaps, for a little more work being put into the ending).

That said, the film by itself was worth watching – a good film, but not a great one.

Reaction: Never Deal With a Dragon



The first book I read for myself was The Lord of the Rings. The second was probably The Cat That Walked a Week (by Meindert De Jong, apparently). After that, it was probably a series of Roald Dahl books. I don’t remember the order, or even what all of them were.

But at some point fairly early on, my father took me to the local independent bookshop and we looked at the fantasy shelves (because I had been re-reading Tolkien fairly continuously, and had by then read The Hobbit and The Silmarillion and probably Unfinished Tales), and we semi-randomly picked out three first-of-a-series novels, all quite different from one another.  One was The Colour of Magic; one was Pawn of Prophecy; the third was Never Deal with a Dragon, by Robert N. Charrette. I don’t know why they had that there. This was the almost magical time when even TSR books could only be bought in one of two bookshops far away in London – the basement of Forbidden Planet (long before their refurbishment; the ordered walls of white they have there now are awe-inspiring, but there’s something to be said for the stained, delinquent clutter I remember from my childhood) and the basement of a little place called Murder One (which was actually better stocked for shared-world fantasy than FP, as I recall).  The alternative was ordering from the tiny local bookshop, and then waiting for a shipment for America. One time, I ordered a novel from them (Day of the Tempest, by Jean Rabe, as it happens), and had to wait literally a year for it to arrive – by which time I’d bought it in London myself, and its sequel too.

So, I don’t know why this book was there. There was only one bookshelf for fantasy, but they squeezed it on. We bought it; I started to read it; I didn’t think much of it. I was only maybe 8 at the time, and it was clearly too old for me. And probably quite inappropriate, given its sex and violence (not immense by modern adult standards, but distinctly more explicit than Tolkien or Eddings for an 8-year-old), but that didn’t matter. Children are fairly self-censoring in their reading – if a book is too adult for them, they’ll be bored by it. I was bored by this, and set it down quickly. It was Eddings that grabbed my attention back then. I didn’t pick the Shadowrun book up again for several years. I was probably 10, although I may have been an old 9, and this time I loved it. I finished the series of three (by now the anomalously eclectic choices of the bookshop had been rectified, and I was forced to ordered the next two), and then read half a dozen other Shadowrun books, all bought from London, before getting distracted first by Dragonlance, and then by Feist.

That’s a lot of background; but hopefully it conveys a little sliver of how I feel about the book. I took it with me camping with the Scouts, incidentally; it rained heavily, our tent was not watertight, and the book got very damp; when I got back, distraught, we dried it out on our radiator for days. For years afterward, the second half of the book had pages set in a sinuous, brittle wave. Even now, ten or fifteen years later, the final pages have a strange, blotchy darkness that makes me think they hold some lethal form of mould. This book is a very old and a very deep part of me.

Never Deal with a Dragon is two different beginnings – the beginnings of a trilogy, and the beginnings of a novelisation series that now has over forty installments. It was the first ever novel set in the Shadowrun campaign setting. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a lot of the interest comes from that setting, a near-future cyberpunk with Elves and Orks and Dragons (they insist on the capital letters, even for “Human”), and magic both hermetic and shamanic, and a hallucinatory super-internet called “the Matrix”. William Gibson hated it, seeing it as a bastard hybrid of his work and Tolkien; to be honest, it’s the Gibson part that’s problematic. Sometimes the paranoid super-cool noir of the cyberpunk feels too affected, too flamboyant, masking the really interesting parts of the setting.

On the other hand, being the first novel in the setting, Dragon has to pack itself, particularly its first half, with vast reams of exposition – especially since the author hasn’t attempted to begin with some subtle tale of a tiny corner of the world, but rather an expansive story that (while ultimately not that important on the scale of the entire setting) seems at times to want to go sight-seeing for no other reason than to show off the richness of the world around it. At other times, however, either through choice or through time constraints, the novel has to simply not bother explaining things. Normally, I like that sense of confusion in a novel, but there are times where the confusion actually becomes a problem – my understanding of one section, for instance, was damaged by a vehicle described as a ‘panzer’ and ‘a tank’ that it turns out, I think, can actually fly. I still don’t know if it’s actually a flying tank, or some sort of low-flying plane, or, if the former, how it can fly. This isn’t helped by the fact that neither the writing nor the editing is perfect when it comes to continuity issues (taking the same scene – it is established that rigging controls on the microlight are damaged, hence Sam flying it manually for Begay – but then in the next chapter he’s clearly jacked in. What?) – which does a disservice to the book, as it means that one or two things that look at first like continuity issues but which are actually reasonably clever little authorial tricks lose their impact… because I assumed they were just continuity errors and forgot about them, making me confused.

Overall, the plot seems ill-judged. A disjunct prologue (originally a short story) is followed by  a coherent story that sets up the motivations for the rest of the book – but takes too long doing it. A chaotic, rambling series of incidents all ties together for a conclusion that is left until improbably late, with a small little epilogue section tacked on. Taking these in turn: not enough happens in the prologue, which seems a display-of-concept introduction to the world and not a real story; the next section is too slow with too little character interest or dramatic potential; the development section is too flighty to develop any particular strand; the conclusion is weakened by a split into two climaxes, the first effective but the second melodramatic, and never manages to integrate some of the underlying plots; the little epilogue (not marked as such) is twee and over-familiar.

The prose is curiously mixed. Taking any random section, it is rarely painful, and occassionally quite good: the chief flaws are perhaps over-fussiness (a matter of taste) and the common sci-fi trope of failing to make some of the futuristic terms avoid looking conspicuous and unnatural. And yet at times the attention seems to have wandered – twice, there are conversations that seem to have a line of dialogue that cannot be said by anybody present (patches of exchanged lines have been miscounted, so that the “he said” appears to come from the wrong person, leaving the preceding line with no clear attribution), and frequently there are glaring stylistic mistakes, like repeating the same word in too close a succession. The feeling I get overall is that Charrette is a diligent author, who puts a lot of work into trying to describe things, but who has little natural instinct with prose. A few annoying mistakes aside, the result is writing that is uninspired rather than awful.

It is to the author’s credit, then, that the characters are so vivid. They are not deep, but some are imbued with that elusive charisma that makes the reader care. Worthy of particular note in this respect is Dodger, an Elven hacker who affects a pseudo-medieval register that by any rights should be immensely annoying. As it is, Dodger does annoy, but Charrette does a good job of quickly showing a more sober, conflicted character underneath the façade, provoking some grudging empathy on my part. The characters of Hart, Ghost and to a lesser extent Sally were also bright, although the last was highly annoying. Unfortunately, two of the central characters – the protagonist, Sam Verner, and the bitter antagonist, Alice Crenshaw – are grey and uninteresting in comparison.

The central problem of the characters, however, is not their interest, but their motivation. For much of the early novel, Verner has no direct motivation, only a vague interest in finding out more about his sister, Janice, who has mutated into a metahuman, and consequently removed in some way (we don’t yet know how) from the world of his corporation, Renraku; this interest is too distant to impel us, and quickly is pushed back into the shadows. Instead, he is given a new motivation from traumatic events about a third of the way through the novel – but the link between that motivation and his actions is strained, and in any case the boringness of Sam, his almost total lack of powerful emotion, makes it hard to empathise with his new direction. We are told he feels strongly, but we do not feel it. Similarly, Crenshaw’s hatred of Verner seems entirely unfounded, and her actions driven by plot requirements; a crucial fact is let slip in the conclusion that casts a new light on what she has done, but the moment of revelation is so late, and crucially with so little foreshadowing, that it does little to redeem her character – we have by then written her off. Indeed, all the revelation does is cause us to sympathise with her more than the author seems to do – the treatment of her (both in terms of plot and in terms of writing) seems casual and contemptuous. Meanwhile, the lesser characters are entirely without motivation – in particular the sundry cast who help Verner out against their own interests for no real reason. In the case of Dodger, this seems believable if peculiar, perhaps because he has more screentime, and also because he is a more eccentric figure to begin with; in the case of the others, it feels railroaded.

What interest there is comes mostly from the setting. I think this can be broken into five parts: Verner works and lives in an arcology; the arcology’s owner, the Renraku corporation, is one of several ‘megacorporations’ fighting each other illicitly through the use of deniable assets, “shadowrunners”, who are essentially urban mercenaries; the technology is advanced from that of our time, particularly in the field of computing, with a worldwide virtual reality Matrix linking all systems; magic has returned to the world, along with Dragons; and many humans have undergone mutations into Elves, Dwarves, Orks and Trolls.

The arcology element is barely touched on. When I read it, I didn’t know what an arcology was, and this didn’t really tell me. The corporate warfare angle, with all its concomitant intrigue and layers of mystery, is demonstrated, but not really explored – it isn’t a conspiracy novel, where we get to the hear t of things. That said, there is a certain anarchic charm to the unknowable wheels within wheels that spin the plot; we feel alienated by the repeatedly-emphasised distance of the protagonist from any sort of freedom or power. At the upper levels, however, the villains seemed to have a sadly familiar moustache-twirling air to them that made them hard to take seriously. Mr Drake, in particular, is a cartoon character. The account of the Matrix is prescient for its time, but feels dated now that we actually have the internet; it is neither as mundane as the internet, nor as extramundane as a virtual reality world would be; instead, it’s trapped in an uncanny valley that seems to emphasise its alien nature in a way that sits uneasily in a modern world in which the question is not how the Matrix could exist, but rather why anybody would bother. Magic plays a plot role, but its mechanics are never investigated properly, nor its effects, and it feels more like an easier get-out. The idea of mutation is intriguing, but sadly under-examined: after some initial worries about Janice, metahumans are more or less taken for granted from that point on. This is a great shame, as the stigma and possibilities of goblinization in a high-tech modern setting could make fertile ground for a novel.

The novel is the first of a trilogy, but little has been left for the next two to work with. The two main plot points remaining are the fate of Janice, and Sato’s involvement in it, and the Artificial Intelligence that Renraku are developing. The first plot line was introduced but then abandoned, while the second, by the end of the novel, has become intriguing and foreboding, but too small an element to build a trilogy on.

One final plot, however, bears mention: the Doppelganger project. This appears concluded with the end of the book – abruptly and artificially so – but while it’s there, it’s unusually chilling. It may just be my weak stomach and lack of experience in the horror genre, but I’ve always found the Doppelganger truly monstrous, and some of its scenes revolting.

Anyway, scores:

Adrenaline: 2/5. Never really that exciting, except for the climactic fight scene. Then again, it wasn’t a real struggle to get through, aside from a couple of unfortunate falls in tension at points.

Emotion: 2/5. Hard to really feel too much, as it’s hard to care about the characters or the plot. That said, I did sort of feel some connexion to some of the characters, so it could have been worse. Also, the Doppelganger.

Thought: 2/5. Some thought, yes – both because of the setting, and because we’re dropped into the setting and have to be concentrating to know what’s going on. But the interesting elements of the setting are not explored, only used as background colouring (for instance, the presence of metahumans has no vital plot significance, and could be written out with a minimum of effort).

Beauty: 1/5. Can’t really think of anything beautiful in the novel. The prose isn’t too bad, but it’s not aesthetically notable. Perhaps the repugnant ickyness of the Doppelganger scenes has a degree of beautiful anti-beauty, but I don’t want to hang too much praise on a very small part of the book, especially as it’s probably a matter of personal reaction.

Craft: 2/5. The plot is meandering and in places pointless, with too much emphasis on some parts and not enough on others – but it is at least fairly ambitious in its complexity. Characterisation is shallow, but scores a few hits. The prose is solid, and quite descriptive for this type of book, but not exceptional, and there are some flaws (both in style and in continuity) that better editing should have removed.

Endearingness: 2/5. Leaving aside my personal nostalgia, it’s not a book I’d be likely to want to read that often. Its warm points are the setting it introduces and perhaps some of the characters, but neither of this are unique selling points.

Originality: 3/5. The plot is confused, but rather more intricate and unexpected than might be expected from this type of pulp fiction, and the setting, while not explored in detail, is intriguing and unusual (again, I re-iterate that this is more about rareness than about historical lack of predecessors, so the similarities to Gibson don’t count against it, especially as I haven’t read Gibson).

Overall: 2/7. Just Plain Bad. It could have been worse, and it’s almost into “bad but with redeeming features”. It wasn’t bad enough to stop me from intending to re-read the other two books in the trilogy. It should be remembered that I tend to only review books that I think will be good, or that I have nostalgic affection for, so there really are a whole load of books out there that are far worse than this.