Posts Tagged ‘Neal Stephenson’

Some books resonate at the exact frequency of the human heart. Silently and Very Fast is one of them.

Elefsis is a machine intelligence who first learned to speak in similes, whose habitat is the internal brain- and dreamscapes of five generations of the same family, and who now has now found itself bound to Neva Рthe final angry, secretive scion of the Uoya-Agostinos Рunder circumstances it does not fully understand, and which Neva herself is reluctant to explain. Who is Elefsis? How deep a routine is love? How long a lesson is grief? What, ultimately, does it mean to be human?

No matter what she writes, Valente herself seems to function as a literary triple-goddess: a three-in-one of Poet, Mythmaker and Mythbreaker. Her stories crack fairytales open like eggs, mixing their yolks with myth and grief and feminism and the outrageous beauty of poetry until something wholly new is produced: a critique of the mythic that nonetheless refracts the power of our oldest stories and turns them seamlessly to new ends. At various points,¬†Silently and Very Fast¬†evokes comparison with China Mieville’s Embassytown, Neal Stephenson’s The¬†Diamond Age, Tad Williams’s Otherland and Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone¬†– and yet it is also Inanna and Psyche, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, Prometheus and Matryoshka dolls and turtles all the way down and, because this is Valente, Persephone emerging from the underworld. (It is not coincidental that Elefsis begins as five bright jewels – five pomegranate seeds – only one of which is taken into the body of a girl-who-is-more-than-a-girl, and whose consumption initiates transformation.)

The whole novella is an exquisite balance of grace notes; at one point, Alan Turing is reborn as the Prince of Thoughtful Engines in a story-within-a-story that is itself a reworking of Snow White. Beautifully structured, poignantly characterised and breathtakingly relevant, Silently and Very Fast is a paean to the idea of stories as identity, with everything from family to consciousness to grief described as an ever-evolving narrative told both by and for its participants. It is an exploration of the mythic and the human whose fulcrum rests on the truth and power of interior landscapes, the worlds we hold inside ourselves becoming oroborous with the worlds we help to make.

Unlike with Valente’s Fairyland, I¬†didn’t cry out loud while reading this book. But its depth and beauty kept me vibrating on the edge of tears the whole way through, that pulse-tight gasping where every word lands on the heart like a kiss, like¬†electricity, and leaves behind a mark. This year, Silently and Very Fast has been nominated for a Hugo award for Best Novella, and I will be extraordinarily startled if it doesn’t win. But even if the unthinkable happens, you need to read this book. Trust me: you won’t finish it the same as when you started.

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Best. Book. Ever.

That’s the short review. The long review, in which I mention not only the author (Nick Harkaway) but somewhat of the content, has just started. Thus:

The Gone-Away World is set in a post-apocalyptic, not-too-distant-but-slightly-parallel Earth. It is not exactly sci-fi, nor is it quite fantasy. Rather, it is speculative fiction in the fullest sense of the phrase: it speculates. Grandly. And it is fiction.

To say I enjoyed this book is an understatement of gross proportions, somewhat akin to describing Hiroshima as a power outage. Among other things, reading it by the photocopier contributed to my recent firing from a government bureaucracy Рa pleasant irony, given what Chapter 1 has to say on the subject of pencilnecks. Having turned the last page less than an hour ago, I am therefore ideally placed to confirm that this is a book well worth getting fired over.

The¬†chronology is interesting, and also highly effective. Imagine a linear narrative, its¬†scenes labelled A to Z. Were you to pick up Scene¬†R and¬†place it carefully in front of Scene A, you’d have the right idea, as this is what Nick Harkaway has, in fact, done. In this respect, the structure is reminiscent of Memento: from an unconventional starting point, we travel back through the preceeding narrative in an orderly fashion, thence to discover the pivotal¬†reason for said starting point. And this we do, with a hefty whack of¬†brilliant, witty, outrageous, absurd, intriguing and above all entertaining sidenotes thrown in.

How, without ruining the book (and The Gone-Away World is not to be ruined lightly, or, for preference, at all) does one describe Wu Shenyang, Master of the Voiceless Dragon gong fu? Note – and this is important: Master Wu is not a ninja. Nor does Ronnie Cheung, foul-mouthed spirtual guardian and professional asshole, train ninjas. I will say no more. But read, and you will learn why.

I, geekily, am wont to describe the extreme cleverness of Harkaway’s writing in terms of other authors and their works – which is indulgent, as the man is clearly no mimic. Nonetheless: think Neil Stephenson and Cryptonomicon. Think Neil Gaiman and American Gods. Think Terry Pratchett and Night Watch. Think Jeeves and Wooster. Think the place between profundity and laughter. Think moments of awesome nerdity, heart-wrenching power and ripsnorting absurdity. Think lines, and the blurring of them. Think beauty.

By the photocopier, I cried. At home, I phoned my mother interstate to read her a passage, and laugh. It’s that kind of book. It’s hard to include my favourite moments here, although I’m sorely tempted. But like the gong fu of Wu Shenyang – and ultimately, the book itself – it’s about how you react. Sufficed to say that if a dialouge on exploding sheep, the Matahuxee Mime Combine, the ultimate in ninjas vs pirates and a man called Gonzo Lubitsch don’t whet your appetite, nothing will.

Trust me on this: just buy the damn book. Read it. Love it.¬†Reccomend¬†it¬†to friends, relatives, co-workers and people you met at the pub. Then read it again. And so one day, when the list of Modern Classics is reappraised, there will be at least one book near the top that you read voluntarily, and loved, and get why it’s listed.

Really. It’s that sort of book.