30 June 2017


A review of Testament by Hal Duncan (Eibonvale Press, 2015)
Originally published in Interzone

In a Glasgow tenement, Eli takes a scalpel to the pages of the Bible. He is cutting and pasting passages from the five Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas) in order to create a single, coherent narrative. But this is no mere harmony of the Gospels, it is his personal testament. Between the extracts from the biblical story he inserts his own narrative and commentary as he attempts to clarify what Joshua really stood for.

Hal Duncan describes Testament as a ‘high-concept novel’, and it is certainly a very carefully structured book – down to the number of words in each part of the book. Eli tells us he has set himself the task of creating a testament ‘in seven parts, six chapters each part, four verses each chapter, six hundred words each verse’ (p. 43). And that does seem to be the structure of Testament (admittedly I only bothered to count the words in one verse, but there were indeed 600 of them). But that is only the formal aspect of Duncan’s latest work.

The reworked Gospel narrative is roughly chronological, with the seven parts (Jordan, Capernaum, Tabor, Sychar, Bethany, Gethsemane, and Golgotha) corresponding to seven phases of Joshua’s life and work. It is presented in a double column format reminiscent of the school Bibles of old. However, readers who are familiar with one or more of the major English translations of the Gospels are unlikely to recognize this version. Although Eli does speak at one point about cannibalizing a King James Bible, he also claims to be pinning both Greek and English texts to the walls of his tenement. And, where it seems appropriate, he is quite happy to insert quotations from other sources such as the Song of Songs. This has given Duncan the freedom to offer his own paraphrase of the text and to play with the vocabulary in imaginative and illuminating ways (e.g. God becomes ‘the Sublime’ or ‘the Worker’ depending on the context; demons and the Spirit both become ‘inspiration’, though of very different kinds – ‘fouled’ and ‘sacred’ respectively; the Pharisees become ‘the Select’ = the self-elect and so on).

For me, the real heart of the book is Eli’s gloss/commentary (single column to distinguish it from the Gospel material). Here Duncan’s penchant for Moorcockian multiverse hopping comes to the fore. Eli seems to be preparing his testament in the present day. But it soon becomes clear that he is an eyewitness to the events he is revisiting in Testament. Nor is this simple reminiscence; different times and places seem to melt together. So first-century Capernaum is also a Hebridean fishing village in the 1970s. The Roman occupying forces are armed with all the accoutrements of modern ‘peacekeepers’. Joshua leads an Anonymous-style demo outside the Jerusalem temple. Eli’s father steps out of a 1930s’ Duesenberg and into a Roman men’s club for a meeting with Il Duce Pontius Pilate. Joshua, now wearing an orange jumpsuit, is tried by the House of Representatives in a chamber adorned with fascist symbols. Chancellor Tiberius issues dictats from the Oval Office.

An analogous melting and merging takes place with the viewpoint character, Eli. He is a rich young man when he first meets Joshua, but he also identifies himself as the Beloved Disciple, Lazarus, Barabbas, and a certain Judaean from Kerioth. And the picture he builds up of Joshua’s character is equally multifaceted: charismatic young rabbi, pot-smoking hippy, radical therapist/healer, dangerous subversive.

The overarching theme of Joshua’s life and work as seen through the eyes of Eli is the Empire never ended, the Empire must end, the Empire will end. By Empire is not meant just one particular historical manifestation, be it Rome, the Caliphate, the Third Reich, or the USA, but the entire spirit of Empire. Eli certainly buys into Joshua’s opposition to the spirit of Empire, but he doubts Joshua’s methods and fears the consequences of creating a faith that is so easily co-opted by the very thing it is intended to subvert.

This is not a book for everyone. It could have been written specifically to raise the hackles of the Sad Puppies (though it was already in the making long before the Sad Puppies were a twinkle in Larry Correia’s eye). So anyone looking for an action-packed SFF novel will have to look elsewhere. Nor is it likely to commend itself to conservative Christians. But if you are at all interested in a very well written piece of speculative fiction of breath-taking scope, which offers a weird new perspective on one of the formative narratives of Western culture, Hal Duncan’s Testament is a must-read.

23 June 2017

Chasing the Phoenix

A review of Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick (Tor Books, 2015)
Originally published in Interzone

Chasing the Phoenix is set in a post-apocalyptic future, which is littered with the detritus of its high-tech past. China, the geographical location of the events in the novel, has degenerated into a network of warring states.

Enter the central characters – a pair of con men (or more accurately one con man and a con dog). The man is Aubrey Darger, every inch the English gentleman, lover of Victoriana, and admirer of Churchill. His sidekick is Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (Surplus to his friends), a bipedal genetically engineered dog possessed of human intelligence and canine senses. In spite of being thoroughly amoral, Darger and Surplus are a pair of likeable rogues on a par with Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen or Michael Chabon’s Zelikman and Amram.

The story begins with Surplus arriving in the city of Brocade, dressed as a Mongolian shaman, and carrying the corpse of his companion Darger on the back of a yak (later passed off as the sacred yak of Shiliin Bogd Mountain). He is seeking the Infallible Physician who alone can restore Darger to life. In Brocade, he falls in with Capable Servant who leads him to the home of Bright Pearl, granddaughter of the Infallible Physician. She, it seems, has inherited his library and much of his skill. After some persuasion, Darger is duly restored.

A few days later, Darger and Surplus are summoned to attend the Hidden King, monarch of the Abundant Kingdom and would-be emperor of a reunited China. Seeing the prospect of great wealth, they allow themselves to be pressed into service to aid the Hidden King reunite the warring states.

Darger renames himself the Perfect Strategist. In that guise, he masterminds a series of outrageous and increasingly improbable victories against superior forces. However, in order to placate hostile courtiers, he must attempt to satisfy their increasingly contradictory demands, mostly of a matchmaking nature.

Meanwhile Surplus takes on the persona of the Noble Dog Warrior and engages the services of a band of outlaws as a mercenary company under his command. With his Dog Pack and their varied nefarious skills, Surplus aids and abets Darger in his triumphs both on and off the battlefield.

As victory becomes more and more likely, it becomes apparent to our heroes that the Hidden King is quite mad. In fact, he is a pyromaniac intent upon destroying himself and the city of North (formerly Beijing) in a thermonuclear explosion. He apparently believes that his alchemical marriage to the weapon (his Phoenix Bride) in this fashion will result in his deification.

Determined not to be vaporized alongside their employer, Darger and Surplus hatch a plot to assassinate the Hidden King and replace him with Capable Servant. As they put their plan into action, the plot begins to twist in a dramatic way. But Swanwick has not simply introduced a deus ex machina, nor is it merely a last-minute plot device to cut the Gordian knot created by Darger’s increasingly complicated and desperate machinations. Rather, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that from the outset our heroes have been manipulated by forces that have long worked behind the scenes for the reunification of China.

The warring states are successfully reunited. Darger and Surplus are lavishly thanked for their contribution to this outcome. They are then less than lavishly rewarded and unceremoniously deported. And the novel ends with them wondering about their destination (and presumably their next scam).

I was intrigued by Swanwick’s use of language in the novel, particularly his dialogue. In sharp contrast to a lot of recent science fiction and fantasy, at times there is a studied formality about it. Elevated is the only word to describe the language of a mechanic who speaks of ‘chastising’ an apprentice. And yet, the characters can at times slip into much less formal mode as if they are briefly setting aside a public role.

The impression that most of the characters in the novel are playing a public role is reinforced by the naming convention used in this post-apocalyptic China. Everyone apart from Darger and Surplus uses a ‘descriptive’ name sometimes describing a person’s function or character, sometimes seemingly more aspirational, sometimes even contradicting or subverting what the story seems to tell us about them. So, for example, we have Capable Servant, Powerful Locomotive, Terrible Nuisance, and Vicious Brute.

All good SFF novels should have shiny things in them, and Chasing the Phoenix is well supplied from the riches of Swanwick’s imagination. We have surreal ancient technologies (crushing wheels, war spiders) and bizarre GM animals (e.g. the ‘mountain horses’ of Surplus’s Dog Pack). I particularly liked the idea of tutelary cheroots: You want to learn something? Just smoke the appropriate fag! And then there are the sinister ghostly AIs, which populate a substory within the novel. Implacable enemies of humankind, they live a ghostly existence in the remains of the Internet. They appear to bear a personal animosity against Darger and are possibly responsible for the Hidden King’s madness.

I also enjoyed the way Swanwick peppered the story with a variety of well-hidden cultural references including a paraphrase of a famous line from The Mikado and a passage in which Heraclitus meets Benjamin Franklin.

To sum up, Chasing the Phoenix is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the far future, which should appeal to lovers of both fantasy and science fiction.