The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback (1911)

ModernElectrics1912-02According to some people, for example, Gary Westfahl[1], Ralph 124C41+ (henceforth Ralph) is one of the most significant science fiction books of all time. Given its context – the year it was written, what had come before – I can understand why it’s thought of in that way. Is it one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time? Far from it!

Gernsback originally wrote and published Ralph as a 12-part serial adventure in Modern Electronics magazine beginning in April 1911. It was first published as a complete text in 1925. My copy is a reprint of the 1958 2nd edition as published by Wildside Press. I didn’t read any of the introductory elements, and this was my first reading of the story.

With the exception of Shelley’s Frankenstein and much of Wells’ output to this point (A Modern Utopia excepted), most full science fiction novels had been attempts at nailing down utopian visions. At the start of Ralph the over-riding impression that this is to be a futurist adventure. It almost has a pulpish-ness to it. Ralph saves the life of beautiful woman, even though she is in another continent. She flies to New York to find him and they fall in love. However, Alice, for it is she, has unwanted attentions from 2 suitors (an Earthling and a Martian), and she is kidnapped and taken into space. Ralph must save her!

Let’s rewind a bit. Ralph 124C 41+ is one of the ten most brilliant ‘men’ onRalph the planet. Hence the + designation. We are in a technological future where he invents almost everything (so it seems) that drives human civilisation. Those who invent or create other elements of society are mostly only referred to by their numerical name. It is 2660. Humans have inhabited the inner planets and encountered Martians too. One day, while working in his lab, Ralph rescues Alice by remotely directing energy from the top of his building in New York. He manages to melt an avalanche in Switzerland. Alice and her father fly to New York to thank him in person. He then spends much of the middle section of the novel showing her the sights and marvels of the modern world, explaining in detail how each thing works and how it benefits society. Of course, many of the inventions are his, including a new one, which features a dog. He also uses the phrase “as you know” quite a bit. So, despite Alice being a smart woman who knows stuff, and despite living for 20-odd years in this world that Gernsback has created, she needs everything explaining to her. Ah, so this is a thinly veiled utopian rant after all. She is the theatre for the reader. Shame. Even the final section, when Ralph chases his enemies across the solar system, Gernsback is more concerned with describing his ideas for the future rather than telling a story.

A concession: Ralph has some minor character development – from focused scientist to heartbroken, vengeance-seeking lover – but everyone else in the book is a one-dimensional foil for Gernsback’s imagination. But to be fair, what an imagination, considering the early 20th century. To be sure, technology and scientific development were snowballing during this period, but the list of Gernsback’s/Ralph’s inventions and modifications is impressive in anybody’s book. Which is the key to Ralph’s perceived significance.

Some of the ideas are disappointing. Especially the reliance on the ‘fact’ of ether which is used to explain much of the world Ralph lives in during the early chapters. Quite early after Ralph starts showing Alice and her father around, the prose takes on a tedious tone. At one point, it seems that even her Dad is explaining electromagnetic travel to Ralph, who is one of the 10 greatest minds on the planet, remember. When Ralph explained to Alice how restaurants of the future worked, my faith in Ralph as a story disappeared.

Unsurprisingly for its time, Gernsback shows his misogyny throughout. Ralph smiles patronisingly at Alice’s “feminine” remark. Alice shows little agency. She is shown around, captured and rescued. It is hard to accept such characterisation, especially in a significant text. Women, as demonstrated by Alice’s suitors and even Ralph, are still little more than possessions. Another trait made it to Ralph (and Gernsback’s) utopian future: violence. Ralph resorts to threats of punching Alice’s other suitors. Not much of a utopia if all this great technology hasn’t evolved the human mind-set or ideas of equality and social justice. At least discrimination against Martians isn’t there. They and their technologies are looked up to; or at least Alice’s suitor’s mind is.

Gernsback spends a lot of time describing in great detail how some of his ideas work, and this is the novel’s only saving grace (although the writing itself is competently enjoyable). Even electronic packing machines have a page and a half of description. I enjoyed the idea of the “gravitational circus”. Nice for a society to make science an entertainment. But chapters such as “The End of Money” which is pretty much all Ralph explaining to Alice, drive the final nail in the coffin of Ralph as an adventure novel and nothing more than another dull utopia. Shelley would be spinning in her grave, realising that no-one except Wells seems to have grasped the idea of telling an actual story is the point of a novel, a work of fiction to be enjoyed, in 100 years of the evolution of science fiction. And this despite a flourishing literary world. There are brief diversions into story, interrupting the tract more than anything. Distractions rather than interests. The use of Ralph’s own invention against him (the Magnelium ship) is about as good as the plot gets. Which is more than a disservice to the idea of a story.

Ralph becomes the first human to create a “heavenly body” towards the conclusion of the story and then uses what can only be described as Gernsback’s version of Chechov’s gun to save the day – see the earlier mention of the dog (although I suppose any one of the unnecessarily described inventions could have been used). Is this all about Gernsback’s ego? I know nothing else about him, other than the shambles awards named after him. So credit him with his ideas. Don’t talk of predications and failures of scientific description (unless that was his original intention, to predict the future) – that’s not what science fiction is about. Don’t talk about utopias that treat women as objects and possessions with no agency. Don’t call Ralph a great work of science fiction when it is a failed utopian rant. Science fiction, yes. Significant, to a point. Any good, not really.

Image credit: “ModernElectrics1912-02″ by Published by Modern Publishing Company, New York, NY. Hugo Gernsback Publisher. – Magazine Art Website Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

  1. [1] The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction by Gary Westfahl, Liverpool University Press, 1999, page 135.


What’s the point of Sci-Fi Book awards? Or, some great books I’ve read thanks to the Clarke Award.

Station Eleven proof.inddThe Hugo Award fiasco really upset me. Of course, the whole right wing bully-boy tactics is offensively stupid, but I’m not part of that world (thankfully) so I had little vested interest. Most people who were involved wrote about it far better than I even could. Seek out their words. What upset me more was everyone seemed to be arguing about what books were on the short-lists and which ones weren’t. No-one seemed to be taking about reading. The quality of the fiction. The passion of the stories (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t read anything about great genre fiction in relation to the Hugo nominations. Even though I’ve read Jim Butcher in the past (great first few novels then…bored now) I’ve no desire to read any of the shortlisted novels this year.

Does anyone care about reading anymore?

I like the Kitchies. They seem to me to highlight innovation. They are progressive and diverse. From this year’s shortlist, I’ve read and enjoyed Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor although I didn’t think it was amazing. No emotional resonance for me. Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith, The Peripheral, by William Gibson and The Race, by Nina Allan are all on my to read list for this year. As for the debut category, I’ve read Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (see below), while Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and The Girl in the Road from Byrne are on my pile. While intriguing, Viper Wine (Hermione Eyre) doesn’t really appeal to me. Good lists and plenty of good stuff on there, but to my sensibilities (and like an indie music or film festival) there does seem to be an agenda of sorts. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that notion, just to be clear, and if so, it is a good agenda (inclusive, diverse, innovative as I mentioned).

To me however, the Clarke Award appears to be just about the books. This year’s short list is:

  • The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. CareyThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
  • Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson
  • Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North
  • Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
  • The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’ve not read the first two and probably won’t. Carey’s is possible but it just isn’t grabbing my attention. I’ve read that Europe In Autumn is more of a sci-fi spy-fi techno-thriller type which isn’t really my bag. So, thoughts on the rest:


The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North

To me, this reflects the genre-defying fiction that I love. It is really a time travel story without traditional science fiction time travel elements and reminded me a little of Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls. However, it is character study. A lesson in choices. We all regret this choice or that one and in North’s story, Harry August gets to make different choices and also pre-empt the actions of choices to come. North’s prose is so very readable and the world she creates is so detailed and believable. One of those books that you never want to end because you enjoy being in it so much.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

The same can be said of Station Eleven. It is a traditional science fiction trope – the end of the world caused by something as ordinary as flu, but told in a complex and gripping narrative style from varying points of view – including that of someone who wasn’t even around when the end comes. The idea of focusing on actors and musicians is unique – certainly in what I’ve read previously. Friendships, survival and religion are key themes. Again, the world Mandel’s creates with brilliant prose and intriguing characters is one (despite its horrors) where I just wanted to stay in. The way she combines the various threads of the narrative so they make sense without being over-blown is admirable. The ingredients are familiar, the recipe common, but the final meal is deliciously new.

Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta

Itäranta’s debut appealed to me, although I hadn’t heard much about it. In a weird way, this could be set in the same world as Station Eleven although much further into the future, when the post-apocalyptic recovery is further along. Although in this case the cause was apparently environmental. Itäranta writes beautifully, especially considering it isn’t in her first language. Some of the sentences are pure poetry. “But water doesn’t care for human sorrows. It flows without slowing or quickening its pace in the darkness of the earth, where only stones will hear.” Sadly, the story is somewhat lacking. The characters (who have complex and secretive relationships) and world building (I like the plastic graveyard motif) are fine but there was lots of set up which promised so much but never really delivered. I was more interested in the words than the story.

The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’m about 2/3s through this excellent book. Almost directly opposed to the Memory of Water it is written in a straight forward manor but the story is so very engaging. I can’t wait to find out what happens. Essentially about the power of religion (so far) and trying to understand a new intelligent species on an alien planet, the corporation who has sent the pastor is represented by engineers and pharmacists who would be home on the Nostromo in Alien. It is intensely interesting and readable. I hope the ending is the one the reader deserves after 300+ pages.

Congratulations to the 2014 winner: Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – which I think is awesome! A triumph of story-telling.


What I love about all four of these is that I’ve really enjoyed reading them. Not thinking about them for what they are or what they represent in the wider sense (short-listed literature). I’d read North’s book before the list was announced and Faber’s was on my pile to read. I probably would have stumbled across Station Eleven but I probably wouldn’t have known about Memory of Water. I was lost in all of these books. Proper joy of reading stuff. I read Mandel’s 330 pages in 4 days because I didn’t want to stop reading it. I wanted to know what happened in the conclusion but I wanted to keep reading forever. This is the power of great fiction and it is something that I believe gets lost in award season with all the perceived in-fighting and back-stabbing. Of course, the contradiction is that I wouldn’t have read the latter three on the above list quite so soon (if at all) had they not been short-listed.

So I have a love/hate relationship with science fiction and speculative fiction awards. They often point me in the direction of terrific stories and characters and introduce writers I might not have come across. But to me, they are missing the point of what good books are for and not celebrating the story as a thing itself enough.


The History of Science Fiction Literature – A Modern Utopia by HG Wells (1905)

A Modern UtopiaDeclaration of interest: I really wasn’t looking forward to reading this and debated not bothering at all. However, it has merits in the history of science fiction so is worth my time.

Originally published (as so many novels of the time were) in serialised form from October 1904 to April 1905, A Modern Utopia came to be a book later in 1905. I use the term book deliberately. This is no novel. I read a free Gutenberg edition published of the first edition.

What is a novel? Fiction. Certainly. A narrative journey. Correct. A description of events and characters which change over the duration of the story. Hopefully. For me, a story is all of the above and something more. Something almost intangible. A novel encompasses the story. Embraces it. A Modern Utopia is no novel, despite describing fictitious events and characters. There is little plot to describe. The Owner of the Voice, the narrator, and his companion, the Botanist, find themselves on a planet exactly like the Earth in terms of biology and geography, but on the far away in space ‘out beyond Sirius’. All the individuals who exist are duplicated on both planets. The companions are in alternative Switzerland and meet some people. They go to London and meet some people, including the Owner’s duplicate. The Botanist pines after a woman back home, and meets her double. Nothing else happens. There are no events, no character development – both the Owner and the Botanist remain at the conclusion as they were at the beginning of their journey. The Botanist is there to provide a counterpoint to the Owner of the Voice but he is passionate, irrational and driven by unreason. Hardly the definition of the personality of a scientist. All that remains is discussion and description of the utopian society and comparisons with Earth.

This is a long essay, not a novel and the best way to have read it would have probably been the in its original serialised format as published. In the light of history, and specifically the history of science fiction literature, A Modern Utopia is not a good read. Indeed, the opening line of one of the chapters is “were this a story”. Wells himself knew this was no novel or tale. The occasional dips into the narrative of the companies feels like an afterthought. It would have made more sense if Wells had scrapped the narrative conceit and the elements of fiction.

Wells opens the debate with descriptions of other written utopias, some of which I’ve written about, including those by More and Morris, as well as the science of Darwin and the histories and philosophies of Plato for example. He certainly knows his stuff. It is competently researched. This is a self-aware and I think, self-serving piece, which ultimately fails by its own rules. Via the Owner, we learn, as previous utopic novels have done before, about the culture, economics, politics and such like of this planet. Wells says a utopia must be planet-wide to succeed. Maybe he is correct about that, if little else. There is little talk about how the companions arrived, by the way. They just did. Why should the reader accept such a thing? There is little talk of technological advancement anywhere. A train travels 200mph. That’s about it…This becomes more fantasy than science fiction.

The protagonists understand the language of this planet because the whole world has a common language they know. But while everything else is the same as Earth, the culture, traditions, ideas being different, have led to a different destiny. Which is odd, because history dictates destiny. If Greece hadn’t risen as it did in the times of Plato, I would not be sat here in Kent, typing on a laptop, no matter what my personality and philosophy.

So Wells talks about free will, personal freedoms and a migratory nature of people of this place. There are no positive compulsions. The society is split amongst broadly unrealistic lines, with people falling in odd categories. While writing, this is presented as speculation of what the planet should be, rather than fact. The writing itself is very dull and plodding with very long sentences and paragraphs the length of pages. I found myself bored for much of the book. I don’t know if there are a lot of great ideas in his utopia, because I stopped caring. The comment about drinking on Earth to “lighten up dull days and hopelessly sordid and disagreeable lives” did bring a wry smile to my face, however. Some things never change. It was only when the bad ideas came up I woke from my slumbers.

Wells plays a dangerous game, criticising past written utopias but making the same mistakes he points out, reflecting the views of the era. He says Plato failed to mention machines because he knew nothing of them. Yet Wells cannot name technology from his future either. Surely a utopia would have better technology than he describes. He is a prejudiced as those who went before. This is best exemplified by the general misogyny of the book. Women cannot be equal to men, he writes, but must be paid for motherhood as they cannot do the important work men do. It is Wells attempt at saying women should be free. He fails. His views on marriage are equally archaic. No mention at all of LGBT issues for example. A utopia would embrace and respect all. And as for race: “an adult white woman differs far from a white man than a negress or pigmy woman from her equivalent male”. Where to begin! Thus he talks about religion and race, ill-informed as the times were. He even suggests that the only “sane and logical” thing to do with inferior races is to exterminate it. I don’t think he was satirising the ideologies of the time, merely reflecting them. If he was true to his utopic beliefs, he should be more aggressive in his dismissal of such notions, not providing the reader with a cure for insomnia.

A Modern Utopia is no novel, no story. It is a dull essay that falls into the same traps as it accuses its forebears of. It takes a very naïve view of people and society and answers no questions. As for science fiction, barely! Although it might be the first novel-length prose fiction that takes place almost entirely on another planet.

Stepping out of the comfort zone: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Mother NIghtMother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Confessions by Kanae Minato, Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. Various works by Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami.

When I pick up a book I have a rough rule of thumb: nothing that can possibly happen to anyone in the real world today. It is rare that I don’t read anything that is covered by fantasy, science fiction, horror or magic realism. The above examples are the closest I come to reading what some might call normal or contemporary fiction. Of those examples, I haven’t really enjoyed Moore and Minato. The rest I’ve loved. Having just read Mother Night I thought I might investigate why.

I set myself a meaningless challenge at the start of 2015 which goes against my usual dislike for conformity. I plan to read all of Vonnegut’s novels in order. And so I come to Mother Night. Published in 1961, it was his third novel, following the science fiction of Player Piano and Sirens of Titan. I didn’t choose the read non-genre other than within the limitations of my own challenger.

This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. It is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This is a literary trick I like and dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. The best example is probably The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). The protagonist is an American who moved to Germany as a young boy in 1923 and then a well-known playwright and Nazi propagandist. He is now awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he recounts his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested. Incidentally, this is the first time Vonnegut uses his ‘so-it-goes’ approach to narrative, which I’ll come across again later in the year. Admittedly, in Mother Night the author plays with fiction and narrative, so although there is no fantastical elements, it is far from straight forward fiction. It is satire, as black as night. It is speculative fiction at its best.

Mother Night is clever, funny, bleak and brilliantly written. Vonnegut was a practiced writer before he became a novelist. His debut was outstanding and this isn’t far behind in terms of technical achievement. The plot is interesting enough but it is the themes and characters that keep you interested. Campbell feels like a classic unreliable narrator. He describes his motivations but remember, he is on trial in Israel for being a Nazi. How honest is he being? Only the actions of others hint at the truth. Vonnegut is so clever with his plotting and how he plays with the reader.

I think I’m happy enough to read what might be described as non-genre fiction but it appears there are some conditions. Literary tricks. Metafiction. Playing with the reader. Dark comedic satire. And if the list above is examined carefully, none of it could actually happen in the real world under normal reality rules and conditions. Mother Night is not science fiction and is not alternative history. It is not fantasy in the traditional sense. However, most good science fiction tells the reader something interesting about the human condition, either on an individual or global level. Vonnegut achieves this in the 175 pages of a memoir of a war criminal. Genius.

Telling Tales: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Buried GiantThe best novels are about great stories, interesting or surprising character development and taking the reader on a journey of discovery. The latest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro is a historical fantasy and as has been said by others, two out of three ain’t bad.

What I have enjoyed previously about Ishiguro’s novels have been the power of his writing to evoke a sense of time and place. Whether he’s in a dystopian horror or a dream-like Eastern European city, the reader feels a part of the novel; understands its place. In The Buried Giant Ishiguro hits those notes perfectly again, despite the tale being told is set in Arthurian times. The main characters are, as the narrator describes, known as Axl and Beatrice. An elderly couple, Britons, living out their days in a village, perhaps somewhere in the south west of England. As with the other villagers, even the younger ones, memories are foggy and motivations are unclear. Even recent events. Ishiguro plays with words and ideas when describing the fuzziness of memory – and indeed with being – with a deft touch. The couple’s relationship is beautifully solid too, despite the difficulties of time. Axl only ever refers to his wife as ‘princess’ and they have very real ups and downs.

One morning, as Axl vaguely recalls a visitor and her conversation with his wife, it is decided they should go to seek out their son, who lives in a distance village. Although they cannot remember why it should be so. And so they set out. This is a journey narrative. A movement of characters from a to b with encounters and trials along the way. They meet a warrior and a boy who it seems has been bitten by an ogre. They meet a mysterious boatman and one of Arthur’s knights. They visit a monastery where nothing is as it appears. They learn of the she-dragon called Querig and why it is so important to not only their lives, but all of England. To reveal more would be to spoil the journey, and its conclusion.

The framing of the story, revealed at its conclusion, is brilliant and as realisation dawned on this reader I felt that the reading journey had been worthwhile. Because to be honest, I’d struggled somewhat in the middle section of this book. While the main characters are interesting, the others, especially the warrior and the boy, weren’t as developed. Some of the events show some imagination (the boatman and the pixies are but two) and wit; proving Ishiguro is as comfortable in this genre as in others. However, the story itself was a bit thin. The book is about memory (the buried giant) and perceptions, along with history and the wars fought in historical England. Trouble still brews between the Britons and the Saxons. There is an element of religion too and implications that the dragon and the memory loss are punishments from God (our heroes are Christians). The concepts are brilliantly woven throughout the book and characters’ interactions. The sense of walking through this country highly evocative. I love the fact that this is a fantasy adventure where the main protagonists are an aging couple with no special powers or, for example, remarkable courage other than the desire to see their son. It is all about the journey and the reveal. However, the actual narrative, from village to village to monastery to dragon’s lair to Axl and Beatrice’s son is a little on the dull side. The dialogue a little on the trite side.

There was significant hype about The Buried Giant with Ishiguro admitting he threw out the first draft and press interest in whether or not he thinks of this as a fantasy. I think for me, the hype and the anticipation are not met by the actual tale told. I am big fan of fairy tales. Usually they are resolved due to human kindness, and contain a sense of mystery and wonder. Ishiguro has attempted to write a fairy tale here, and it does have those elements to it. While there is nothing wrong with the descriptions, the main protagonists and story-telling, the actual tale needed more focus, more texture. Style – a beautifully written and powerfully cleverly constructed idea – over substance.

Original version published here: 

Literary tricks: Thoughts after reading Day Four by Sarah Lotz.

Day FourFine lines. Brilliant fiction is often about fine lines.

I like a literary trick. I find them clever (I like clever). Providing they’re not at the expense of a plot. When the author is going all hey look at me, aren’t I clever but there’s no story, I’m not so keen. You can admire the effort but find the result and even the intention pretentious. Almost all fiction that I read, probably what anyone reads, is standard format: chapters and prose; first person or third. I often ache for something different, original, challenging. But again, not at the expense of story. When I read, story is paramount.

In Sarah Lotz’s The Three, which was presented as reportage, the ideas and plot where left open to interpretation. I was delighted by the book. It was a refreshing read, although not really a literary trick. Reportage is reasonably common in fiction. The Three, thankfully, defied genre and left questions unanswered. I was eager for more. When I started to read her follow up, Day Four (which incidentally can be read as a sequel or a standalone – no previous knowledge required) I thought, nice, she hasn’t tried to repeat herself. No, instead Lotz does something more rewarding.

The Three was a thriller which could be read in a variety of ways. When four planes crash with only three survivors, speculation is rife about what it might mean. Day Four is a more conventional tale of a disaster aboard a cruise ship. The first few chapters are, apparently, standard narrative. It is day four on the ship’s voyage. We meet a PA of a superstar medium. Then Gary; a man with a perverse secret. Next up is one of the ship’s crew – a chambermaid called Althea. By now I thought I wouldn’t like this one so much. Straight forward pot-boiler and lots of characters it would take a while to get to know. I sometimes struggle with novels that begin with multiple viewpoints because each time a chapter begins it feels like a new book is beginning. These things take time. The next chapter features a couple of elderly women. The one after, a medic called Jesse, who has a dubious past. And then Devi, another member of the ship’s crew. Oh, and now we’re into day five and there’s a blog post. This is a lot of POVs. And then we’re back with the PA and the chapter headings are repeating. Intriguing.

So the ship is floating without power and the passengers and crew are becoming restless. Weird shit goes down, although we as readers, are never spoon-fed. Each chapter, from the POV of each character, moves the plot on nicely without repetition or cliché. As one chapter ends, the next takes place a few moments later, but without telegraphing or an obvious handing over of the baton. Lotz’s skill is to make us care about each character, although we spend precious little time with them, while presenting an intriguing plot, with more questions than answers. The skill is also to forget the literary trick and simply follow the narrative. The feel of the book is more of a classic ghost story with a medium as the conduit for the action, although there are hints of other weirdness going on. I’m not usually a fan of the page-turner, the pot-boiler or what-ever you might call it, but I couldn’t put Day Four down. When the coda comes along, again in a changed format, I hadn’t an inkling of what was going on. When the denouement presented itself I was more than happy to go along with it because Lotz had proved herself to me. I wasn’t being played with. I was being told a decent story in a captivatingly different way.

Day Four isn’t a profound novel. It doesn’t say a whole lot about the human condition that hasn’t been said elsewhere. It’s not a particularly original story either. The sub-text, as with The Three, is minimal – people are basically animals. But it comes with an ending that makes you reflect on the story and the style of writing as a whole (and whether or not a sequel follows I’m happy with my own council). However, it is an interesting story, without being stuck up its own arse. This fiction stays on the right side of a fine line. It isn’t brilliant, but is highly enjoyable and eminently readable. What elevates it into something more is the interesting style. Lotz’s isn’t going on about how clever an author she is – and she is clever – but she can write a readable story in an attention-grabbing style. And for that, I thank her.

There will never be a great superhero novel pt 3: Thoughts on Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

TigermanThere’s a slightly troubling element to the making of gritty realistic portrayals of superheroes, which Christopher Nolan’s Batman series just manages to steer clear off. Mostly down to the selection of the villains in those films. However, as soon as you think about the rest of the DC canon, especially the rest of the Justice League members (aliens, mystical princesses et al), a realistic Batman is ludicrous. Realism and superheroes just don’t mix. The concept is ridiculous. But then, how can you portray superheroes, at home in the visual medium of comics and on the big screen, in 300 or more pages of black and white; words in a book. I don’t think you can.

Nick Harkaway’s third novel, Tigerman, is the real deal. His first novels were interesting starters – full of flavour but with way too many ingredients and an uncertain and confusing final dish. Tigerman is a main course worthy of fine dining. A few high quality ideas executed with near perfection.

The title and the branding of the book suggests that we’re in the land of superheroes. While the novel is a fantasy, it could almost be real. Because it is the story of a man and a boy; an ex-soldier lost in the world and a child looking for friendship in a world dominated by American pop-culture – comics, music, film and YouTube. The boy speaks in brilliant hybrid dialogue: “Emote later. Right now: Voight-Kampff FTW”. The story is set on the island of Mancreu. Our hero is Lester Ferris. Mancreu is a fictional island in trouble. Located ‘somewhere’ it is a cocktail of African, Asian and Arab influence. The cocktail is about to blow: pollution from chemical companies have led to semi-regular ‘discharge clouds’ which have some interesting effects on the local wildlife (fish changing sex) and people (brain damage causing language and memory defects). The UN and other bodies have populated the island with various representatives, all of whom play a part in Lester’s life. The big one is coming and the island is to be evacuated. Officially, an ‘Interventional Sacrifice Zone’. Lester is the impotent yet dutiful British Brevet-consul. Single and childless, has befriended the comic-book literate boy (who has no name). He is serving his time as the friendly bobby-on-the-beat. Meanwhile, as Mancreu is effectively a non-place, lawless, there is a mysterious fleet of ships just beyond the horizon. All sorts of illegality might be found on the ships. From extraordinary rendition to whore-houses and more, anything is possible.

Lester wonders if there is a future for him and the boy. Maybe he could adopt him? There seems no sign of a family. They usually meet in a local bar where the boy talks of superheroes and comics. Until the day bar-owner, Shola, is murdered and our heroes are almost killed too. Lester begins an investigation which uncovers more about the island and the fleet than he expected. When visiting Shola’s grave, he has an encounter with a tiger. Later, he discovers that he must create something powerful and frightening (and to disguise his identity so he doesn’t get in trouble with the bosses back home in London) to get to the truth about Shola, and the boy. He takes his cue from the tiger and a superhero is born.

Except he’s not a real superhero. He’s not even Batman. He’s a skilled fighter who uses surprise and fear as a weapon. No real superpowers or billionaire’s playthings. No magic or science. There is a passage about half way through when Harkaway is discussing the philosophy of his hero (and one echoed by Nolan’s version of Batman) that Lester can’t fight the bad guys, but Tigerman can. He can do anything, because he isn’t real. Beautifully observed. There are many myths on the island, such as the eternal Bad Jack, so Lester and the boy create a demon. The international cast of supporting characters (Dirac, Lester’s French counterpart, the Japanese scientist Kaiko, Jed Kershaw from American intelligence, the Ukranian and others) all play their part in what is more like an empirical spy thriller, set in some darkest Africa. Of course, the set-up is pure superhero – the boy being Robin to Tigerman’s Batman.

The key to Harkaway’s writing is the textured depth and imaginative characterisation. It is one of those books who’s character are so rich than by the climax, you feel like they’ve penetrated your reality and you want to keep them close, even after the book is over. Many of the supporting cast are fairly one-dimensional but the two leads are so well-written you can empathise with Lester’s every emotion and smile at the boy’s cultural references. The writing is terrific and the plot is as complex as any novel: fantasy, superhero or familial drama. Which is what this really is. Tigerman might be magic realism dressed up in a 4-colour comic-book costume, but at its heart is story about a lonely middle-age man looking at his single, parentless life, and the boy who he hopes might think of him as a father. It is Lester’s flawed paternal desire that drives him to dress up as Tigerman, not a sense of heroism. There is plenty of that to come, mind – fights, rescues, plans and such-like.

When the denouement arrives, I almost didn’t buy it. I couldn’t decide if Harkaway has been too clever or not clever enough. On reflection: Goldilocks. Just about right. To his credit. There are so many ideas to the novel, and like his previous novels, I kept expecting a stumble. It never came. For example, the island’s overseers are an organisation with a name shortened to NatProMan. I’m sure this is deliberate, hinting at an evil adversary for our hero. But it doesn’t descend into cliché. NatProMan is a red herring. Even the secret James Bond baddie-base isn’t hackneyed and is portrayed with affection.

Throughout the book I kept wondering if the goo-soup of a volcano that had doomed the island would somehow go off and turn Lester into a real unreal superhero with proper fantastical powers. I’m glad it didn’t. Tigerman isn’t really a superhero novel, and only just a novel about heroes, even though it has affections for comics. I never really equated to other superhero books I’ve read. I didn’t imagine Lester’s costume as a comic-book creation at any point (although I might have if my expressed fear had come true). Tigerman is an entire novel about how Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive spider. Except it turns out that bite has no after-effects. It’s also a novel about the Gwen Stacey decision on the George Washington Bridge (Lester has to make a choice – be a hero or be a father). It is not a great superhero novel but a great novel about superheroes. Real ones.

Original review published here: