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The Executioness cover

The Alchemist cover

The White City cover

I think I smell homework. There are three books down here on the desk—two by authors whose works I know and admire, one by a writer I hope to know better in due course; all of them published by the estimable Subterranean Press—and each one of them gives off a slightly stinky whiff of duty done. Nothing wrong, one supposes, with doing a job of work; except that the joins tend to bump the reader, those junction points in the marshalling yard that should not disrupt the passage of story, unless the point of the telling is to do so. Indeed, as I read Elizabeth Bear's surreally disconnected wampyr tale set in a cozy steampunk Moscow circa 1900, I did rather wonder if—perhaps half-crazed by the evacuatedness of the non-story she wasn't quite getting around to telling—she had decided to make a post-modernist game of the thing, like writing a sestina with the rhymes missing: something kind of Nabokovian, perhaps, without the hauteur. Amiable thought. We'll return to The White City in a minute, after looking briefly at Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell's twin-city novellas, The Alchemist and The Executioness, which, having successfully graduated from obedience school, sit in front of us smelling like tame dogs in a hot room, wagging their tales for a pet.

All of this should not imply, cruelly and erroneously, that the three authors we are gazing upon in some perplexity do not work under the lash of the oneiric, that they are not real authors at all: that they are not hypnopomps dredging gruel and adamant from the abyss we share. There are moments in all three books where something inadvertent—which is to say not under the schoolmasterly control of the conscious mind—seems to shine through, carrying the reader blind into passages signposted in accordance with mysterious laws; moments, in other words, when the authors of these books seem surprised by joy, when they are like the god that instructs the sun to move. There are many terms for this, for the sense that one both embodies and obeys the law. Afflatus. Inspiration. Tapping the source. Rhyme. Reason. Imagination. Transport. Superba. Esemplasy. High anxiety. Boys in the Backroom. Grok. One word I like in particular, as it moves the focus from the psyche within to the instructions generated that make the world, is (of course) intihuatana, an Incan word. Intihuatanas—which may be literally translated as "posts-to-tie-the-sun"—are stone pillars erected at points where, during the course of the solar year, the sun will shine directly overhead, casting no shadow. What is significant about the intihuatana, however, is that it does not reflect the sun's arrival and departure upon its course, but instructs it to do so. An intihuatana is the embodied word of god (the god Inti), the breath of the god in stone, a crossroads that brooks no backtalk from Oedipus: it embodies the story of the world by telling the world to get on with the story. What better dawn thought might any writer in the prime of life have than the thought that he had been a godstone in the aisles of morpheus, simultaneously the god and the god's command, doing the dreamwork, inscribing the tale as the god meant it to be inscribed, poling us home. A maker is a god who obeys holy writ. I'd be hugely disinclined to think that Bacigalupi and Bear and Buckell utterly failed to feel as stern as intihuatanas as they poled their tales into harbour and the day; but I think maybe something else was happening too.

When a well-trained writer, one versed in the obedience-school mantras of the writing workshops of the West, composes by rote, he may imagine himself enacting the rules of story laid down by the god within to keep the sun upon its course, but what the reader often senses is not so much afflatus as template. The problem is that the true verb of template is not to template but to churn. (See churnalism.com to access a churn engine which, on being fed a press release, will generate a "churn rating": the percentage of any given article that has been reproduced from that press release. [To provide you with this information, I have churned an article by Paul Lewis from The Guardian, online 23 February 2011, printed the next day, p. 14.]) So when a writer is working by rote, and imagines he is obeying his own Word as to the true nature of the story he is continuing to tell, he is in fact obeying yesterday's Sun. It is now that the junction points begin to show: because we already know what's going to happen.

We have already read the press release.


Here is some review coverage. The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi and The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell are set in a shared world apparently created by these authors alone. It is a fairly standard Late Culture fantasyworld, its Golden Age long gone due to the interaction between the use of magic and the growth of a vicious thorn whose barbs cause a sleep unto death. As we are in an ongoing universe whose principles of origin have not been divulged, we are not to know how long this malign equipoise between magic and thorn has functioned: whether it is a "natural" correspondence as found in most traditional understandings of magic, one whose effects have only gradually come to dominate the world; or a curse; or the consequence of some prior Loki tinkering; or a steampunkish technology needing a taming whiphand; or what. All of which is fine by me, and I suspect will bother few readers. In 2011 we are used to stories set plump in the middle of ongoing fantasyworld crises, aeons after the Wrongness is first detected: Wrongness in this case being an equipotence of bramble and magic that horrifically lacks any moral dimension, as the bramble grows in response to any use of magic: whether to heal the sick or to glorify Gaddafi. The Empire of olden times, that rose-and-fell in the East, is no more; tinpot dictators and crazed mages and religious fanatics run the ex-satrapies into the ashen ground. Poverty, corruption, starvation, injustice: rife. The sole response to the dilemma of the magic/bramble interaction is to execute anyone discovered using magic.

The two novellas are linked by this common ground, and by a vagueish sense that The Executioness precedes that of The Alchemist; both are set at least partly in the provincial city of Khaim. In Buckell's rather clattery tale, which is told by the eponymous widow whose husband had been an executioner and who had to take his role or her children would starve, an execution is interrupted when fundamentalist raiders attack the town, which they burn after abducting the children in order to brainwash them, the executioness's own boys among the disappeared. She turns berserker, but is beaten senseless (beat: cross the points: awaken in a new world) and is picked up by a caravanserai where she learns to fight, and finds herself the fount of a growing legend about an Executioness who will lead the women of the land to victory, but she does not like this. (Beat.) But in order to follow her children she has to train regiments of women all the same, and to invest the city of Paika, whose fundamentalist ruler she necessarily kills. Then she takes over. Her children are over the sea. Maybe they will return.  Seemingly a bit later back in Khaim, an alchemist—made desperate by poverty, as he can no longer work magic (so when did this situation start: wait for the next instalment, I figure)—invents a kind of non-magical fire-thrower balanthast that is death to brambles. Surreptitiously he uses magic en passant to keep his beloved daughter from dying of the lung rot. He takes his invention to the court of the Jolly Mayor who runs things, along with his vizier, a hubristic magician (beat), Majister Scacz (beat: nobody whose name is lumbered with four consonants in five letters can come to a good end). The Alchemist's demonstration is successful—and it was at this point I came very close to prayer: that the author please not let Majister Scacz (beat) imprison the Alchemist and maximize his own power by restricting the use of the balanthast, rather than using it properly and giving back to the world the huge powers of magic he might once himself wield again with honour and gain renown too? Silly wish, if a book is being written on auto-pilot, churn meter turned off: there has to be a reversal, doesn't there? Isn't there an intihuatana stone fixed squarely across the end of the first act of any tale that blocks untoward progress into unknown territory? that insists the sun must do its job, that The Alchemist (for instance) must obey a three act structure—Invention; In Prison; Upsadaisy—laid down long before churnalism.com blew our cover (when was the first Clarion)? But Bacigalupi allows a few sentences into The Alchemist that remind one of his real work; and maybe something will come of this toyed-with world. Maybe some surprise in the night that the god will grant us next time.


It is hard to say much of the weirdly contextless storytelling that beheads Elizabeth Bear's The White City, though I read an ARC and maybe the finished version will admit to readers that the tale is an entr'acte between two unmentioned novels—New Amsterdam (2007) and Seven for a Secret (2009)—about the brainy spidery elusive wampyr detective, Don Sebastien de Ulloa and his "court," and that therefore nothing here need be explained, resolved, argued for or against, loved or hated, begun or ended. Don Sebastien and his court have come to Moscow, apparently to get over the death of young young young Jack Priest, one of their intimates. Churn warning: we soon learn that an old murder and a new murder seem to connect Jack—whose sprightly sixteen-year-old mind we are given privileged access to in a series of flashback chapters set seven years before, in 1897, which go nowhere at all because he's dead—to Don Sebastien, to two members of his court, named Irina and Irene (I think), and to a very ancient wampyr named Starkad, a figure whose deep pallor, fright wig, melodramatic wampyr-poses and comically overinflated utterances made me think—can't imagine why, the Shadow knows—of Rowan Atkinson. Nothing happens onscreen that ruffles a feather; the murder is solved mostly by smelling things; and the book shuts, without doing more than namechecking the sights of Moscow.

There are competent sentences throughout—Bear is a rewardingly efficient author when she is on track—and an underlying sense that the lines of power in the book are somehow olfactory. If White City were a graphic novel you could draw the smells of it. But nothing lasts for more than a page or so. The steampunkish setting—conveyed through a familiar transformation of lines of power and transportation into visible sigils, usually polished brass—did not amount to an argument. My recourse, as I've hinted, was not to think of The White City as some sort of detached retina but as a profound experiment in pure story fragmentation: Churn Unbound. A bit like reading one of Ezra Pound's Cantos. In the absence of any thunderation of intihuatana from deep within the genuine writer Bear, all you had to do this time round is learn Chinese.




 John Clute (jclute@gmail.com) has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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