Wednesday, 22 July 2009
First things first: the formatting of this book is absolutely hideous, and the stories are riddled with typos. Plus, there’s a jaggedness to the text on the front and back covers that suggest a poor quality print job. Since Corsega Press, who released this book, don’t seem to exist any more, this isn’t really a surprise.
What is a surprise, is the quality of the actual stories. I’ve never heard of James Burr before, but the blurb on the back of the book certainly sold me on him. Almost all of Burr’s stories seem to involve a pun as a title/punchline, and a strong psychosexual/drug element, and the only person I can think of that comes close to his style of writing is Will Self. Except, Will Self has been going longer, and is more arch in his story-telling.
There are some stories in UGLY that, quite frankly, are largely pointless, or based on such a terrible pun that it renders the work itself redundant. There are also a couple of stories with mismatched time frame/Americanisms/references, including ‘Foetal Attraction’, in which the narrator tells us it’s the 21st Century, and then mentions Supermarket Sweep….which hasn’t been on telly since the late 90’s. Hmmm.
The majority of the book is brilliantly written, with the basis for many of the stories involving relationships between wives/husbands, boyfriends/girlfriends, people/drugs, that range from the perverse (BOBANDJANE) to the bittersweet (Ménage Á Beaucoup).
My personal favourite is probably ‘Life Is What You Make It’, involving as it does a woman dealing with grief in such a bizarre way that she’s fundamentally altered the structure of reality.
‘Bernie Does Camberwell’, in which poor Bernie find himself in constant demand for sex from women, is another excellent piece. The truth behind what’s happening is so obvious is should come with a farty trumpet ‘parr-arrp’ noise when it’s revealed, but that doesn’t stop it from being crap, and maybe even makes it funnier.
Another thing I liked about these stories is that almost all them exist within the same universe. Characters and locations interconnect and reference each other, helping to build a skewered, strangely 90’s, version of London. When Burr uses a different setting (like Barcelona, for the rather boring ‘Blue’), it doesn’t work quite as well, although it is nice for a change of location.
It might not be too bold to say the world needs more writers with fresh and weird ideas, and James Burr falls firmly into that camp. He’s still apparently working on a full-length novel, so I hope it gets finished and a publisher with a proper bloody editor takes it on.
Sunday, 19 July 2009
BLOOD MUSIC started off as a novelette, before growing into this 243 page novel, and you can almost tell, as, halfway through, you’ve gone from a story about a brilliant scientist experimenting on himself, to a tale concerning a most unusual apocalypse…
Not that it matters, thankfully. It’s skilfully done and serves as an intriguing continuation of the central plot – what happens when matter becomes intelligent at the cellular level, and then realises where it is? This has got to be perhaps the most intelligent, and thoroughly mind-bending book I’ve ever read. Greg Bear has clearly done his research, as the story’s crammed with intensely scientific language. On the one hand, it’s hard not to zone out a bit when you’re presented with sentences like: “He had replaced many intron strings – self-replicating sequences of base pairs that apparently did not code for proteins and that comprised a surprising percentage of any eukaryotic cell’s DNA – with his own special chains.”, yet Bear writes with an even flow, and occasional humour, which prevents things from becoming too dry. Plus, the main idea is fascinating.
Vergil I. Ulam is conducting experiments into cellular matter behind the backs of the bosses at the research lab where we works. When they find out, they order him to destroy the results, as it’s “unethical”, for one thing. Sensing he’s going to get fired anyway, Vergil injects himself with some of the test material, planning to ‘store’ it in his body until he gets access to another lab, where he can extract it and continue his research.
However, the new cells in Vergil’s body are a lot more intelligent than he thought, and they begin to ‘repair’ his body, turning him into something other than human…
The horror of change versus the need for improvement forms the central argument, as Vergil, and those close to him, begin to suffer unimaginable alterations when his ‘noocytes’ (as the intelligent matter is labelled) spread. But, it’s not all as clear cut as ‘scientist experiments on self/scientist mutates’, and the real implications of the ‘change’ raise the story miles above any similar comic book/video game plot.
Later on, when the noocytes have overwhelmed entire cities (which is chilling, in a strangely benevolent way), an infected colleague of Vergil’s gives himself up for scientific study, in a bid to understand the noocytes. Whilst under ‘house arrest’, a scientist visits him and supposes the following theory: the universe is created out of Thought. His reasoning is far more elaborate than that simple ‘Socrates’ sentence, but that’s what it (pretty much) boils down to. We, as a race, haven’t generated enough new theories regarding space-time to fundamentally alter what we have always assumed and perceived. The noocytes, however, have.
Like I said: mind-bending.
The hard sci-fi element serves as a thread running throughout the entire story, but itself mutates into something concerning metaphysics and the nature of Being towards the end of the book. If you want something that supposes these ideas, but in a manner that isn’t completely impenetrable, and is in fact very interesting and well-written (it’d have to be, really, otherwise you might as well read scientific encyclopaedias), BLOOD MUSIC is a truly mental piece of work. In every sense of the word.