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Monday 18 November 2002

Postmodern, Postindustrial, and Posthuman

by Claude Lalumière

Swan Songs: The Complete Hooded Swan Collection, by Brian Stableford
(Big Engine, 2002)

As documented in Stableford's candid and informative introduction, the six Hooded Swan novels first saw print in the early to mid-1970s, from then-fledgling SF paperback publisher DAW Books. Stableford reveals the dynamic between DAW's Donald A. Wollheim's commercial concerns and Stableford's own goals as a developing writer that led to the creation of this series. It's a great hook and certainly informed my reading of the novels, which I had never encountered before.

Grainger is a self-confessed misanthrope and an extraordinary spaceship pilot. While stranded on a desolate planet, he picks up an alien mind-parasite, with whom he seems permanently bonded and whose existence he keeps a secret. Circumstances lead Grainger to be indentured to Titus Charlot, a man he quickly despises, who offers him the chance to pilot the first in a new generation of starships, the Hooded Swan. Grainger and his crew have adventures all over the galaxy. Grainger, a hardboiled wiseass in the Dashiell Hammett tradition, is, or course, much more of a hero than he would ever admit, and everyone but Grainger himself seems to take his heroism for granted.

The novels are narrated in the first person by Grainger, and he describes just about everybody he meets in the most unflattering terms. One of the pleasures here is to pick up on the discrepancies between Grainger's perceptions and what the characters reveal about themselves by their actions. Not even Grainger's relentless nihilism can hide all the admirable qualities that motivate people around him.

Through the course of the six novels, the solitary and individualistic Grainger must come to terms with several things that challenge his self-image: the parasite who now shares his consciousness and who gently forces him to confront himself; he wants to win his freedom from Charlot (but does he really want to give up the ship?); he shares life-changing experiences with his crew; he must reconcile often agreeing with Titus Charlot with his deep hatred of the man.

In many ways, these are traditional hard-SF problem-solving stories, with a highly competent libertarian space hero who always wins out. Stableford indulges in this formulaic subgenre while postmodernistically perverting it. And that's where the dissonance between the first-person editorializing of the narration and the description of the events and actions comes into play. Despite his individualistic posturings, Grainger depends — emotionally, pragmatically, etc. — on a number of relationships. Even more, despite his constant reiterations that he only cares about himself, he always helps those in trouble, and his justifications sound hollow and unconvincing (eventually, even to himself). The usual colonialist attitude of this subgenre (it is the white Europeans' destiny to conquer any land they encounter) is repeatedly questioned and challenged.

As in Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League series, economics plays a central role in this planet-hopping space opera. But where Anderson propagandized by assuming that the free market was life's dominant paradigm (as most governments, corporations, and mass media would like us all to believe), Stableford postulates a more complex and richer universe that is forever threatened by those who would try to impose a market ideology on it to further their power and fortunes at the expense of others.

Despite being rather short, these novels still feel like they could be tightened further. I think all of them could comfortably be cut to novella-length and nothing would be lost. Nevertheless, they are engaging (if sometimes a bit repetitive), and they have a lot of fun mucking around with a subgenre and its distressing ideology.

I-O, by Simon Logan
(Prime, 2002)

I-O is a slim volume of "industrial fiction [...] manufactured by Simon Logan." All eight stories are original to this volume.

Reading this book, I was reminded of the Sprawl stories from William Gibson's Burning Chrome, which paint prose pictures of a potential world-to-come rather than tell conventional plot-driven tales. Both writers imbue their prose with a street-level lyricism peppered with postindustrial linguistic artefacts.

Like Gibson's, Logan's stories are rich in atmosphere. I found that, while I was reading I-O, my mind was creating a heavy, oppressive industrial soundtrack as background music, drowning out other (real) auditory input. Logan's prose generated images of oil-stained steel walls, of chains grating against metal, of smog-filled skies, of broken-down machinery, of toxic waste leaking from rusted drums, of bodies scarred, modified, and ornamented by metal trinkets of all kinds — whether or not such things were being described. But that's all I got from these stories. My imagination failed to penetrate Logan's prose. The stories left no clear impression; I have no recollection of what happened in any of them.

From the images that I retain, Logan describes forbidding landscapes, perhaps too forbidding for readers to gain access. Or maybe it's just me.

One other very irritating point: there are many typos in this book, and that's always jarring.

Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans, by Paul Di Filippo
(Prime, 2002)
Little Doors, by Paul Di Filippo
(Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002)

Regular readers of my critical writings know by now that I greatly admire Paul Di Filippo's fiction, and 2002, with four new books appearing under his byline, has been a great year to indulge my passion for this quirky prosesmith's work. His novel A Mouthful of Tongues is possibly his greatest achievement yet, and probably the most ambitious and exciting SF novel of the year. His novella A Year in the Linear City saw him boldly and confidently strike out in a new — and rich — direction. And now, as the year draws to a close, two new collections — Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans and Little Doors — appear.

Like all his previous collections, these are thematic books, spotlighting two different aspects of this versatile writer's output. While A Mouthful of Tongues and A Year in the Linear City showcased Di Filippo at the apex of his idiosyncratic creative energy, the two collections present a more conventional Paul Di Filippo.

Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans concentrates on Di Filippo's hard SF. There are a few standout stories — most notably, the two excellent related stories, "A Thief in Babylon" and "Babylon Sisters", that reveal a strong (1960s) Samuel Delany influence — but on the whole this is a less daring collection than, say, Ribofunk, in which the author also dealt with posthuman concepts, but in a more formally engaging and exciting manner. For all the posthumanity of many of the characters here, the narration itself is very "pre-posthuman" — i.e., too mired in exposition from a narrative point of view that is too familiar and contemporary and that undermines the theme of posthumanity (again, contrast with the memetically dense Ribofunk, which made no concession to the world outside its biologically transformed and fluid universe). That said, this collection is more accessible and closer to the hegemonic narrative style of modern SF; it might prove to be more palatable to SF fandom than some of Di Filippo's more daring works.

Little Doors is a collection of Di Filippo's fantasy stories, many of which tend towards the satirical. Again, this is a very accessible book. It's a fun read, but unlike the author's more ambitious works, it does not linger as much in the imagination and there's not that thrilling sensation of encountering something bold and new. Nevertheless, many of these clever stories are imbued with the author's trademark postmodern flair; they are as much comments on various subgenres of fantastic fiction (and pastiches thereof) as they are examples of these subgenres. But the transgressive bite that characterizes Di Filippo's best fiction isn't so much in evidence. My favourite piece here — "The Short Ashy Afterlife of Hiram P. Dottle" — is a pitch-perfect pastiche of Will Eisner's classic comics series, The Spirit.

Of course, being such an assiduous reader of Di Filippo's fiction, I come to these collections with a set of expectations. The Di Filippo I crave is a transgressive and memetically challenging postmodern trickster. But, clearly, there's more (and sometimes less?) to Di Filippo than that. His multifaceted talent leads him to explore many avenues of fictional expression, not all of which will appeal equally to everyone.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a columnist for Locus Online, Black Gate, and The Montreal Gazette.  Some of his recent publications include a critical essay on Paul Di Filippo's fiction and an interview with the author, both for Strange Horizons, and short fiction in The Book of More Flesh and Interzone.  He is coeditor (with Marty Halpern) of Witpunk: Stories with Attitude, forthcoming in April 2003 from 4 Walls 8 Windows. See for news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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