The Weeks that Were
Underground Reading: White Wolf by David Gemmell

Review Round-up: Havana, armageddon & a room of one's own

Three more pieces of short fiction reviewed - Tim Maughan's "Havana Augmented", Simon Morden's "Never, never, three times never" and K.J. Parker's "A Room with a View". 

Paintwork"Havana Augmented" is the third short story in Tim Maughan's excellent Paintwork (2011), a collection that focuses on the meaning of artistry in a near-future cyberpunk landscape. The titular story focuses on a subversive graffiti artist, the second on a documentary journalist and the third, "Havana Augmented", tells the tale of a pair of Cuban gamers. Gaming might not seem like artistry, but Paul and Marcus, our protagonists, take it to that magnificent level. Mr. Maughan's Cuba is a proud island, but one crippled by economic sanctions and a dying tourist trade. Marcus is a computer nut - a genius programmer who cobbles together his own games from the fragments of code he can buy through the black market. Paul isn't a computer whiz, but he's a gifted virtual athlete. Marcus builds the games; Paul wins them. 

The most popular game in Cuba is Street Iron, a Marcus-hacked version of the popular global mecha game Rolling Iron. Marcus has taken the rather banal foundation and converted it to augmented reality genius. The players zip around the city on motorcycles and wearing VR 'spex'. Their giant robots follow them and battle to the death. Entire robot wars are fought without anyone ever noticing. Marcus' variant soon eclipses the real thing, and, as videos are leaked around the internet, the game's corporate owners are keen to cash in.

Sakura, a global gaming clan (in Mr. Maughan's future, these guilds are major NGOs), leads the charge. Leo Kim, power-gamer and international celebrity, comes to Cuba with all his minions and trappings and corporate cronies in tow. The Cuban government, sensing an opportunity, transform Marcus and Paul into national heroes. They're no longer petty criminals playing with black market goods, they're champions.

"Havana Augmented" follows two streams of conflict. Paul and Kim battle with enormous robots which is, frankly, awesome. Mr. Maughan knows how to write an action sequence without letting it take over. The battles are short, streamlined, vicious and very, very fun. The story's true conflict, however, is within Paul. Initially pleased (and stunned) to be out of the shadows, he's suddenly faced with the full force of Global Corporate Decadence (tm). Paul's a fierce Cuban patriot, but one with open eyes. He sees what Sakura could do for his homeland, but can also sees what Sakura could do to it. 

There are few shallow patches in "Havana Augmented", including an elderly uncle that sneaks in solely for a meaningful monologue, but, on the whole, this is the crown jewel of an excellent collection. I'm a sucker for sports movies, especially when the game or match has some sort of Great Significance. Mr. Maughan tugs at my heartstrings with "Havana Augmented" - a giant robot smackdown with a country's future on the line.

Thy Kingdom Come"Never, never, three times never" is one of the twenty interconnected short stories that make up Simon Morden's Thy Kingdom Come (2002). One of Mr. Morden's early works, the collection follows ordinary people during and after nuclear Armageddon - one triggered by Christian fundamentalist terrorists. The closest comparison would be the acclaimed World War Z, which also used distinctly 'ordinary' people and their stories to add realism to a science fictional future. If anything, Mr. Morden's work is stronger due to its terrifying plausibility. Fans of the Metrozone trilogy will almost certainly want to read this collection, as it also provides background into Mr. Morden's world (and even a glimpse into the dodgy past of a certain Russian physicist).

"Never, never, three times never" takes place after the obliteration of several cities in Ireland and the UK. The government is shepherding the rest of the population into London. "Never, etc" follows Diane and Owen as they work they work across the empty land towards sanctuary. 

The set-up - Diane heading to London - is already tense enough, but Mr. Morden carefully unveils one complication after another. The reader quickly learns that Diane is in a wheelchair. After a series of mishaps, she encounters and is helped by another wanderer, Owen. Owen's strong, kind-hearted and the perfect partner. He's also blind. The two form an unlikely duo, with Owen wheeling and carrying Diane, and Diane functioning as their guide.

Relatively speaking, things are good for the pair. Their physical co-dependence turns into something emotionally beautiful and their slow progress towards London takes on a strangely romantic air. They're not lonely - they're just alone, and they're not disappointed to have the whole land to themselves. Diane notes that the radiation doesn't even concern them. This post-apocalyptic idyll comes to an end when they meet a third traveller, Fox. 

Fox earns his name - he's a nasty trickster who combines a sort of superficial kindness with a cruel cunning. He's never overtly threatening to Diane or Owen, but he is inherently distrustful. He also, perversely, never gives the two a moment alone. The connection between them is shattered and Owen can't even read Diane's miserable body language. Their relationship worsens as Fox begins to tell tales of life in London. Apparently the government isn't interested in saving everyone - there are limited resources, after all. What could will a blind man be? Or a woman in a wheelchair? Will there be room for both of them? Fox continues to corrupt the two, playing on their insecurities, until the story's undeniably tragic conclusion. 

Thy Kingdom Come is a good collection, but "Never, never, three times never" may be its finest hour. In a single short story, Mr. Morden encapsulates the good and the evil of Armageddon - the shining moments where humanity rises above itself and the awful ones where we crumble back under the weight of our flaws. The heavily allegorical nature of the collection (and the story) only adds to its enjoyment. Fox is at once a metaphysical menace and a pathetic, human one. He succeeds in causing mayhem because Diane and Owen allow him to - he provokes good people into doing bad things for "the best" reasons - a microcosm of the self-destructive condition that caused Armageddon in the first place.

Tales of Dark FantasyFinally, lest people start to think that K.J. Parker could sneak anything into print without me stalking and licking it, "A Room with a View". This story came out earlier this year in Subterranean's Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 and continues the explorations (moral and systemic) of magic that Parker began with "Amor Vincit Omnia" and continued through "A Rich Full Week". 

Again, "A Room with a View" follows a former student of the Studium, the world's magical academy (well, really it is just a form of natural philosophy, as Parker's narrators invariably try to explain). Manuo is a chronic underachiever - good at magic, but a bit lazy at practicing it (his father, an impressive wizard, was never so happy about this).

After Manuo's graduation, he's been kicked into the role of a 'free-lancer'. He pops around from place to place, assigned magical jobs somewhere near the bottom of the ladder. In this instance, he's combining two of his least favorite activities: mentoring and compliance. Compliance means, in this case, climbing into the "Third Room" and using his astral (not Parker's term, but a convenient shorthand) presence there to check people for demons. Except, for this job, "people" means "dogs". The glamour of magic, eh? A lifetime of study and Manuo's being used as an supernatural flea comb.

Fortunately, the mentoring is a little more satisfying. Manuo is introduced to a female student (a bit of a rarity at the Studium) and a noble one (ditto). Immediately, his hackles are raised, but the Lady Comitissa turns out to be a good egg. She's also, oddly, rubbish at Rooms. What follows for the bulk of the story is a lesson in magi..."natural philosophy". Rooms are the extradimensional spaces to whichmagic users 'transport' themselves in order to do certain types of magicking. By bouncing around from one room to the next, all sorts of eldritch possibilities become available - including, rather unexcitingly, the ability to look into the minds of dogs. 

Parker being Parker, the rather systematic examination of the workings of magic is intertwined with a growing understanding of Manuo. He's kind but flawed - he thinks he's more talented than he is, he also thinks he's been hard-done by the rest of the world (including his father) and that he's 'given up'. As the reader moves from room to room, we're not just admiring their occult significance, we're also inspecting the furniture of Manuo's own mind. And poor Manuo - as engrossed as he is in teaching his new pupil, he's failing to notice that there's something a bit strange going on...

"A Room with a View" is, at first pass, the most didactic of all Parker's short stories - somewhat inhumanly focused on the trappings of magic and not on the characters. The final twists also seem slightly abrupt. This is, however, Parker. However shameless my admiration may be, it is justified. Virtually every aspect of "A Room with a View" is significant, and the story's climax is both simultaneously surprising and skilfully forecast. The magical lessons are the meat of the story (and quite a bit of fun, in a world-buildingy kind of way), but they're less important than the 'classroom'. The trick to the story isn't what Manuo is saying about the rooms, but what he's seeing and doing as he walks through each one. 

As a side note, I've not read the E.M. Forster book by the same name in ages, but suspect that the title isn't wholly a coincidence. Parker's "A Room with a View" does have a rather prominent theme about the pressure of rules (institutional and familial) and the dramatic realisation that they must be broken in order to achieve happiness and satisfaction. From what I remember of Mr. Forster's famous novel, this self-same message also applies. It is less about rebellion than self-realization and, ultimately, escape. (Please chime in if you've also read both the Parker and the Forster and have a better interpretation; this will bug me for a while...)


"Havana Augmented" (in Paintwork) is available from Amazon or Createspace.

"Never, never, three times never" (in Thy Kingdom Come) is available from the author's website.

"A Room with a View" (in Tales of Dark Fantasy 2) is available from Subterranean Press.