Cities and politics are central to four new earthbound science fiction and fantasy novels. The most powerful descriptive passages in China Miéville’s Kraken (Macmillan, all books 2010) concern the non-places of London. ‘They hauled through streets of which Billy had lost all sense. They must be out in zone three or four where shops were key-cutters and independent stationers. They passed no major chains. No west-coast coffee, not a Tescos. How could these be streets? Garages, timberyards, judo gyms, cold pavements where rubbish moved quietly.’ These nondescript places are the thresholds through which the hero of Kraken, Billy Harrow, must pass in order to enter an occult London. Actually, Harrow is only the ostensible hero; Kraken’s real protagonist is London itself. In Miéville’s fiction, the city is often much more than a place and here it emerges as a seething sentient whose moods – present and future – can be read by adepts called ‘Londonmancers’. They are supposed to be neutral in the wars that take place between the city’s many occult factions: these include the crime-lord Tattoo and his hirelings, the loathsome time-travelling psychopaths, Goss and Subby; the supposedly dead magician Grisamentumal; a squid worshipping cult; and the Union of Magicked Assistants, which happens to have called all its members out on strike. The squid – the kraken of the novel’s title – is little more than a MacGuffin, a pretext for showing the struggles of these different groups to gain control of its tentacular body, all of which are observed by the hard pressed Fundamentalists and Sect-Related Crime Unit (fsrc), which tries to recruit Billy, a curator from a special wing of the Natural History Museum, after the giant squid he looks after inexplicably vanishes. But Billy, like the reader, is quickly transported into the war between the various ‘knackers’ (i.e. those with a ‘knack’ – a magical aptitude). The central idea of squid worship clearly derives from H.P. Lovecraft – attested to by a few references to his Cthulhu cult – but the tone of Kraken is far from Lovecraftian. Instead, the novel is driven by a ferocious comic energy, even if questions of faith and political commitment are never far away.
London is peripheral in Adam Roberts’ New Model Army (Gollancz). It is less-celebrated places in the south-east of England – unprepossessing and unassuming towns such as Basingstoke and Reading – through which the army of the novel’s title advances. It is 2030. The Scottish parliament has declared war on England, which has hired a ‘New Model Army’ (nma) called Pantegral to protect it. nma soldiers, who are not organized along traditional hierarchical lines, refer to the regular army as ‘feudal’. They are hive-minds, rhizomatic packs, which use a ‘wiki’ technology to make collective decisions. The novel is narrated by Tony Block, a captured Pantegral soldier who remains fiercely committed to the nma ethos, and who claims not only that it is possible to run armies on radically democratic lines, but that such armies are more effective than the old, top-heavy leviathans. Roberts’ descriptions of near-future combat are both harrowing and exhilarating (Block argues that war is ubiquitous in human cultures because it derives from the drive towards play, as well as the aggressive impulse). However, for all the vividness of Roberts’ accounts of battle, New Model Army’s world refuses to really come alive, partly because, apart from the war, we see very little of the world in 2030, and what we do see seems scarcely different from our own. This is underscored by Roberts’ penchant for anachronistic pop cultural references – we’re asked to believe that in 20 years’ time there will still be individuals steeped in the popular culture of the 1970s and ’80s. I suppose this isn’t impossible, especially if current retrospective tendencies are maintained, yet allusions to the likes of The Jam and The Cranberries kept jolting me out of the future world Roberts was trying to create. (Curiously, both New Model Army and Kraken make references to the 1984 Smiths song ‘How Soon is Now’; it is compared by Roberts to the sound of helicopter blades, while Miéville comes to it by way of the half-forgotten 1990 track ‘Hippychick’ by Soho, which sampled the Smiths’ song.)
Like New Model Army, Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn (Orbit) concerns, in part, alternative forms of social organization. The novel is about ‘shine’, a light-based cybernetic technology that can induce the brain into following ‘better neurochemical paths’. ‘We’re doomed to an essential apehood unless we change our deepest programming’, one enthusiast proclaims. ‘We’re mostly a set of biological levers waiting to be pulled. But we can change that, and that’s what shine can give us.’ Lightborn begins at the moment that this Utopian promise has – predictably – soured. Something has gone wrong with the shine in the city of Los Sombres, transforming most of the adult population into demented zombies. Initially, Sullivan shows us this dilapidated but not quite dystopian world from the perspective of children and teenagers who do not yet shine, and in its first half the novel details their improvised survival techniques in a city denuded of police and commerce. There’s a neat reversal of perspective later when we finally see through the blissed-out, schizo-psychedelic eyes of the shining. Sullivan sketches her characters and their environment with a real assurance, but, ultimately, Lightborn’s combination of urban scuzz and techno-transcendence feels like a familiar cyberpunk recipe.
Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game (Orbit) is a much more original take on themes of technology and simulation. At one level, the ‘restoration’ here is the restoration of capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. For large swathes of The Restoration Game, the novel could read like a realist account of events that happened before and after the Iron Curtain fell. A history of the Soviet secret police, an account of smuggling operations into the old Warsaw Pact powers, nationalist struggles in the ussr: MacLeod deftly interweaves these into a plot which seems at first to contain few science fictional elements. The narrator is Lucy Stone, who spent the early years of her life in Krassnia, a fictional region of the former Soviet Union, and who now works for a company which designs computer games. Her mother, Amanda, is both an expert on Krassnian folklore and a cia operative. These previously disconnected aspects of Lucy’s life come together when the game company is commissioned – at Amanda’s behest – to design a game based on Krassnian history. Lucy is then drawn back to Krassnia and into her own past. MacLeod expertly relates individual biography to wider historical events. This intensely involving novel has a quiet power that is by no means dissipated by the climax, in which the significance of the theme of simulacra (which has until then haunted Lucy for reasons she doesn’t understand) is finally revealed. Like Kraken and New Model Army, The Restoration Game passes from real-life landscapes into something altogether stranger.