There is some good news about this strange book. Streaking is a discussion novel, a tale almost entirely consummated (no joke) through talk, and the talk is conducted by Brian Stableford at his level best. On the other hand there is some bad news too: instead of embedding this talk into a narrative structure readily capable of shouldering it—into the Menippean satire stays of a narrative Thomas Love Peacock might have written, for instance, or Ronald Firbank, or maybe even Tom Stoppard—he has placed his talking heads into what reads rather like a Victorian Gothic melodrama.
That is no joke. Streaking is stocked with all the appurtenances typically illustrative of Decadence in the great minds of Victorian dramatists like Dion Boucicault, or maybe Henry Arthur Jones: the bad baronet, the casino, the game of chance, the stately home, the Oriental temptress, the wise wizened mother of the Oriental temptress, the sudden ageing of the Oriental temptress, the thuggees, the daring kidnap, the assassins of the thuggees, the witty but deeply faithful butler, the bristly paterfamilias, the deathbed of the bristly paterfamilias, the female relic of the paterfamilias who (rather like a Wodehouse aunt) constantly misses the point in thunder, the feudal village, the feudal villagers with fetlocks, the tugging of the fetlocks, the local festivals at which the locals dance a local dance they stole from Ruddigore, the loyal local bankers from Leeds with literal suitcases literally full of money whenever the bad baronet needs a bit of fast funding, the family curse (or is it a curse?), the secret library inside a secret library inside another secret library where the secret papers appertaining to the family curse (or otherwise) are concealed, the unspeakable rituals each heir must undergo or pay a price that cannot be uttered, the leal local girl who'll get the baronet in the end after he reforms. But the really truly odd thing about all of this is that it is not set at the end of the 19th century but at the beginning of the 21st.
It would be foolish to suggest this is undeliberate, or that we are not meant to get some sort of joke, though in fact no jokes are told (except one passable witticism involving Geoff Boycott). No, we all know the thing was done. The mystery is, why? There may be—indeed there is—some genuine pleasure in being teased and tickled by the kind of incongruities Stableford gives us here, but somehow we need to think that all this quite expert hoo-ha is a violon d'Ingres, a secondary kind of creative effort on his part. What Stableford has primarily been here on Earth to do over his long career is give us food for thought, and most of his serious fiction has been transparent to the arguments that are its true burden. The trouble with Streaking is that the vehicle is so heavily poop-decked that it's hard to keep one's attention fixed to that central cargo of speculation.
But we must try. The substance of Streaking is a long series of discussions between the bad-baronet protagonist and others about the nature of luck. His name is Canny Kilcannon. After his father dies in the stately home in rural Yorkshire, he becomes the head of a family that has for centuries enjoyed unusual—almost certainly unnatural—good luck in all its dealings. Earlier members of the family have treated this phenomenon, which often announces itself through a visual streaking of the world for an instant before some crux event occurs, as something that must be ritually placated: all bad baronets (Canny is actually an earl) must perform dozens of rote ceremonies, must keep their luck secret, must marry locally, must this, must that. Canny will have none of it. He does not know how his luck works, or what may vitiate it; he is not even sure if his luck (as it is supposed to) has diminished after his father's death (the family lore insists that his luck will only be reestablished after he has sired a son on a local woman). He thinks it may be genetic, that it may be simply consequential on his family's careful husbanding of resources subsequent to some perfectly natural run of good luck centuries earlier; he is full of theories.
When he discovers that famed Eurasian supermodel Lissa Lo, the most beautiful woman in the world, has not only sussed his luck but is herself blessed with a similar preternatural family strain of luck and begins to discuss with her their mutual blessing/curse, the plot bestirs itself a little. Lissa and Canny's most plausible speculation is that their good luck comes from nudzhing the world by virtue of some genetically enhanced intensity of attention to things. What may happen, they think, is that as they act out their destinies and make their lucky choices, they unconsciously focus what might be called a Heisenbergian gaze upon the world; they are observers whose experiment is the world to come, and what comes to pass is what fits their needs as intense observers who (à la Heisenberg) modify the flux by observing it.
Lissa and Canny then discuss at very considerable length, with great formality, without a trace of humour (or expression of desire), what might happen if they fucked, and had a child who might combine their two genetic strains. It is impossible to quote effectively from this quite extraordinary conversation between the club-bore bad baronet and the most beautiful supermodel in the world—who can talk philosophy too—because the deep surreality of this jaw-jaw requires many pages (which Stableford clearly feels he can afford) to have its full effect.
Before they eventually get to bed, several weeks later, Canny becomes involved in the tragic death of Martin, the husband of his childhood friend Alice, who has been killed by muggers just a few hours earlier. Canny tells Alice he knows "something of what you must be feeling." Nonsense, she says. But nothing can stop the insufferable Canny, who goes on to inform her that she feels a kind of inevitable guilt at Martin's death, and that Canny does too, having been mugged himself and surviving; "I feel guilty," he continues,
"because I was lucky and he wasn't, and I know just as well as you do how ridiculous that is—but it's no more ridiculous than you feeling guilty because he's dead and you're alive, and that's what I mean when I say that I understand."
"You patronizing bastard," Alice said contemptuously. . . .
Canny paid no heed to the interruption at all. "You see," he went on, "I can't help thinking—or feeling, at any rate—that there might be some kind of weird cosmic balance in which every bit of good luck I have is balanced out by somebody else's bad luck—in this case, Martin's. I'm a lucky Kilcannon, after all."
I stop here, but Canny doesn't. As a demonstration of almost insanely cruel insensitivity, this scene might seem masterful—except for the fact that Stableford never gives us the slightest sign, either through nuance or comment or turn of plot, that he realizes what an extrremity of human behaviour he has dramatised for us. Indeed the reverse is the case. After a few more conversations of almost equal obtuseness—conversations any sane interlocutor would kill to put a halt to—Alice actually goes to bed with the pedantic, unfunny, brutally thick, not particularly handsome, but extremely lucky Canny.
There is a bit more story. Lissa and Canny (as we've indicated) also hit the sack talking, and the sex they have is really really good, we are told. Lissa is convinced that she has conceived, and at the very moment the next day when Canny's Woody Allen finally reaches her egg and a son (it has to be a son: the Y chromosome is necessary for a full explosion of potential) can begin his course towards a world-twisting birth, the universe itself (as it were) dizzyingly intervenes. It is reminiscent of the climax of Pamela Zoline's "Busy about the Tree of Life" (1985), and it works pretty well here.
But this sudden climax comes a bit too late. The imposition of philosophical récit on Decadent melodrama and the anachronistic shifting of this incompossible melange into a contemporary setting—all of which nose-thumbing would have required a triumph of esemplastic wit to carry off—never swells or gells; perhaps because nothing in the final pages of the book, or anywhere else, gives any sense that Stableford thinks there's anything odd here to explain. It is as though he's telling us we should be perfectly happy to swallow the narrative pretexts of Streaking in order to be able to quaff lots and lots of his inestimable discourse. The talk, as I hinted, is indeed brilliant at points, and it is never dumb. But it is not in fact various enough plausibly to inhabit the various interlocutors of the tale—who, unlike the tallking heads in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924), all sound uncannily like the same head—and it violates human expectations of human behaviour too often for us to feel sufficient conviction in the task of knuckling down to wisdom. I know we should all try harder. I know Stableford has given us a world of discourse here. But he has disdained his own telling.
Which is bad luck for Streaking.
John Clute's current projects include the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, due to go online late next year, and The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Terms Applicable to Horror Literature, to be published by Payseur and Schmidt this November.
Strange Horizons published an interview with Brian Stableford in 2001.