What I said then:
Classic sci-fi that, according to the blurb at least, seems strangely prescient.
What I say now:
Oh. What a fool I am.
After my disastrous experience reading Jane Eyre over the Christmas period last year, when this December rolled around I thought 'How 'bout a sci-fi classic this time? How dense and difficult could it possibly be? It's probably an action-packed romp!'
I picked the wrong God-damn sci-fi classic. I was hoping for something as fun and exhilarating as The Stars My Destination, and I didn't get it.
Written in the late sixties but set in 2010, Brunner's world is grossly overpopulated. In the west, Eugenics Boards give licenses to bear children only to those with clean genes. Post-colonial Africa can't feed itself. Nobody knows what China's up to, as it has closed its borders. Psychologically unable to deal with the crowding in the cities, people frequently snap and run amok (becoming 'mukkers'), killing, starting riots, and generally going off the deep end. The plot of the book, such as it is, centres on two room-mates: Norman, an African-American, heads a giant American corporation's plan to basically buy an entire African country; and Donald, who is plucked from his indolent lifestyle and transformed into an assassin and spy, then sent to abduct a third-world geneticist who's made a startling discovery.
I say "the plot of this book, such as it is" because Brunner has a pretty unique approach to narrative: the whole thing is made up of hundreds of miniscule chapters, many of which have no connection (or very little connection) to anything else that's happening elsewhere in the novel. Often the various narratives stop dead so we can be treated to an avalanche of snippets from TV shows, or conversations on the street, or advertisements, or the collected works of an obnoxious social theorist named Chad C. Mulligan, all offered in a context-less blitz on the senses. This is a very deliberate tactic on Brunner's part: as well as allowing him to give a wide-ranging view of his imagined world, its disorientating effect is deliberately supposed to provoke a feeling of 'information overload' in the reader. There exists in the novel a super-computer named Shalmaneser which processes vast quantities of information from all over the world, looking for patterns. The layout of the novel forces us, the reader, to attempt to do the same. I guarantee you won't know who everybody is all the time, but that's okay, you're not really supposed to.
Unfortunately, that made it pretty much the worst possible book for me to read in the midst of the Christmas Retail Insanity I've been living through for the last few weeks. If I'd been a bit more alert and attentive I might have made more connections, understood it better, and liked it more. As I was reading, twisting the strands of the different stories together, I kept hoping that all this information would ultimately cohere into a satisfying novel.
Not much, however, could have made me satisfied with the way that Norman and Donald's twin narratives both petered out with endings that were not remotely satisfying. Norman's tale, in particular, had a 'Seriously?!?!?' ending, that made me feel that slogging through 650 pages (maybe 150 of which featured Chad Fucking Mulligan) to get there. Very briefly: the African nation Beninia that Norman's company wants to both exploit and help (for a pretty cynical book, the corporation's motives are strangely un-arsehole-ish), has a history of non-violence that is remarkable --- despite grinding poverty and multiple warring tribal groups spilling over the borders, there hasn't been a single murder in fifteen years --- and which needs an explanation. And the explanation sucked big time.
While certainly interesting, I could only recommend this one to big sci-fi fans who are willing to find pleasure in the incidental details of an imaginary world. Brunner's setting is really very convincing, well thought through and imaginative. The way he applies that setting to the telling of a story is less convincing.
about to read: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
books to go: 93