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Archive for September 21st, 2009

Dialogue For Nerds

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Consider these two extracts from conversations between strangers from the prologue to The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod. The first takes place on a transcontinental flight:

‘I believe the Bible,’ said Campbell. ‘Which means I believe it about the Creation and the Flood, and the dates when these happened. I just think it presumptuous to look for evidence. We should take God’s word for it.’

‘And how do you explain the stars, millions of light years away?’
‘How do you know they’re millions of light years away?’
‘By measuring the parallax,’ the woman said.
‘Good,’ said Campbell. ‘Most people don’t even know that, they just believe it because they were told.’

The second takes place in a nightclub in Edinburgh:

‘Well, I don’t have a problem with it, as such,’ said Campbell. ‘Like I said, it’s nothing personal. But I’m certain God wouldn’t have forbidden it if it wasn’t somehow against nature. I don’t know why you have these impulses, but I’m sure you weren’t born with them.’ He frowned. ‘Were you ever made to wear girls’ clothes in childhood, or something like that?’

‘All right,’ said Jessica. ‘Don’t bother telling us about cross-dressing being an abomination, which is what you’d come down to at the end of all your rationalisations, and which I’d take seriously as a sincere motivation if you were just as down on prawn cocktails and cheese-and-ham sandwiches and you weren’t wearing polyester-mix socks. You told me earlier that you weren’t against queers specifically, you were just as much against everything that goes on here.’

This is simply painful. The conversations are unlikely enough but the locations make them even more ludicrous. MacLeod has often given the impression that as far as he is concerned every nexus of human interaction is, in fact a student common room or newsgroup waiting to happen but this is surely the nadir. It is not just the rejection of realism but the intellectual smugness of playing Devil’s advocate in this way – the solipsism of a contrarian – which so rankles.

There was much discussion after the release of this year’s Hugo shortlist and the possible impact that blogging had had on the Best Novel category. The finger was pointed at Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross and John Scalzi; MacLeod and this novel had less than a third of the nominations needed to secure a place on the shortlist but he does share some characteristics with Stross and Doctorow (if not Scalzi). Like Stross he has more ideas than he knows what to do with, like Doctorow his concerns overpower his prose. You might hope that his blog would allow him some outlet to safely bleed off this excess. Instead the opposite seems to have happened.

The structure of MacLeod’s novels has been fundamentally broken for some time now and is one of the reasons I promised myself The Execution Channel would be the last book of his that I read. He is an incredibly compelling writer but narrative has been replaced by a mere aggregation of ideas and opinions. I failed to keep that promise and I will persevere with this book but it is clear that he doesn’t have any interest in such basic niceties, the prologue of The Night Sessions suggests that the book is not a novel at all but simply the continuation of blogging by other means.

Written by Martin

21 September 2009 at 19:35

Posted in books, sf

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