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Lost Boys cover

"I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on these matters any more than we should listen to window cleaners. I don't know where their status comes from."

—Terry Eagleton, December 2007

I received my review copy of Lost Boys on the same day I attended the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke Award ceremony. Although there was a pleasing consensus that Black Man was a worthy winner, there was plenty of pre-award controversy. This year it centred not just on the usual complaint that—shock—the shortlist included "literary" novels but that the shortlist was almost exclusively concerned with heavily politicised near-future worlds. The complaint seemed to be that the judges had selected novels that were too relevant. Where was the space opera? Where was the escapism?

Hmm. Well, people will always carp but it doesn't seem surprising that judges for literary awards will be drawn to books that catch the prevailing mood of our time. Turn on the TV and everyone is telling you the world has gone to shit. Open the newspaper and pundits are now lining up to stick two fingers up at Fukayama and tell us that the post-Cold War period was not the end of history, but rather a brief pause, and that history is now back with a vengeance. And this mood is infectious. If 11th September didn't actually change anything, enough people believed that it did for it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy and the invasion of Iraq only sealed our collective fate.

This brings us to Lost Boys, the debut novel by James Miller. Why has this pitched up at Strange Horizons? Little, Brown are really pushing this novel as an important and relevant debut: they draw over-inflated comparisons between Miller and J. G. Ballard and Rupert Thomson; the Managing Director himself suggests that the novel is a refutation of the Eagleton quote about the political irrelevance of novelists; the proof comes complete with not one but two dust jackets; the back cover has all the right words ("post-Saddam," "brutal consequences," "Western imperialism," "gripping geopolitical thriller"). Is this a version of Ken Macleod's The Execution Channel from the other side of the great literary divide? Although it talks the talk of a "day after tomorrow" political thriller, it walks a rather different walk, one signalled by a couple of other words on the jacket: "apocalyptic fable." The world is still going to shit: it is just going to do it in a languid, dreamy fashion.

Lost Boys is a fable in three acts. In the first, we meet Timothy, a twelve-year-old public school boy recently returned from Saudi Arabia. Subject to the routine casual bullying of all new boys and the cultural alienation of an Army Brat, he is repeatedly visited by a boy outside his bedroom window. Is he taking solace in an imaginary friend or is he haunted by an alien presence? What is the connection to the disappearances of his fellow pupils? In the second act, Timothy's distraught father, Arthur, listens to a series of tapes made by the mysterious private detective Rupert Errol Buxton, which attempt to explicate the disappearance of Timothy. Buxton may or may not be psychic (and he muses on this question himself), but either way, he identifies connections within the case that others have not and is a further reminder that mimesis is not Miller's goal. Buxton charts the rapid expansion of the phenomenon he is investigating until he is eventually overwhelmed by it. In the third act, Arthur takes up the investigation, albeit in a passive and circuitous fashion, before the novel tails off into its insistent but vague point-making conclusion.

This is pretty thin stuff, but there would certainly be potential for a decent novel here if Miller weren't such a woefully underpowered writer. Now, my mum always told me never to trust Beryl Bainbridge and you should always listen to your mother, but I was astonished to discover just how inapt her front cover description of Miller as "A formidable writer" is. To pick a typical scene from the first act:

They played their favourite computer game. Timothy was the insurgents, Harry the Coalition forces. Thanks to a well-placed car bomb and an expert rocket attack on a torture camp, Timothy made it to the next level. Harry staged a worthy counter-offensive until one of his cruise missiles went awry, missing the rebel base and hitting a children's hospital instead. Then it was bedtime. (p. 41)

This insipid prose is Miller's novel in a nutshell. I don't believe in the game, and I don't believe in the brothers: all I see is a pitifully weak bit of satire delivered in a deliberately banal voice that is no less banal for being so. You could say it is understated but really it is just underdone. Every now and then, clearly aware of this, Miller inserts a crashingly out of place metaphor as if to plead with the reader that he can write fireworks, honest. Of course, these completely shatter the idea that we are seeing the world from Timothy's point of view. Or rather they would shatter this idea if Miller had been able to convincingly establish it in the first place. There is simply nothing believable about the world Miller sketches, it is divorced from reality, and so his fable floats free, unanchored, neither informed nor informing the real world.

Things do improve with the appearance of Buxton because, even though he is entirely off-stage, he does speak in a compellingly believable way and there is something successfully disquieting about the imposition of his disembodied voice on the novel. By then, though, it is too late. We just float along in this mood bubble, encouraged to feel that the world is a bit strange, the world is a bit broken, the world is a bit wrong, but nothing more. The mood that informs the novel is not just this mildly apocalyptic fug of doom but the more specific, schizophrenic fear society has about children. It is fascinating, if disturbing, that the mass media has forced youth into the two extreme and opposing roles of victim and persecutor, but Miller never gets into this, although surely this is his intent. Lost Boys captures a mood but does not comment on it. Since this is the stated aim of the novel and Miller has nothing else to fall back on—prose style, characterisation, plot, etc., etc.—we are left with only the vaguest generalities. The sins of the father will be visited on the son? I think I have seen this sophisticated geopolitical worldview put more succinctly elsewhere. Possibly on the walls of pub toilets. If this is the best Miller has to offer, then perhaps I will listen to my window cleaner.

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
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