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Matt Cheney on Vellum:
... each time I was ready to give up on the whole book as gassy claptrap, something snared me again, a detail or a phrase or an image, and before I knew it, I'd read another fifty pages in a kind of hyperattentive dream.

Some reviewers have, of course, disliked the book, and that hasn't surprised me at all -- this is the sort of book that causes strong reactions in readers, and it is a book that requires some real effort to read, given its length and complexity. I've not been much annoyed by reviewers who said, "I don't get it, and I don't want to bother getting it," because that's anybody's right, but I have been angered by a couple of reviewers who, strangled by the leashes of their pet taxonomies, have willfully and lazily missed the riches within the novel.
TM Wagner's review:
In fact, Vellum is empty, pretentious twaddle. It's another naked emperor for the cheering throng that mistakes obscurantism for brilliance. I cannot even call Duncan's novel an exercise in style over substance, because that term implies a substance beneath the style. Duncan, having exhaustively researched ancient myths, is just playing around with them here without shining the light of understanding upon them — either as stories in and of themselves, or upon the role of myth as a necessary defining ingredient of civilization.


I was surprised to find many of the book's fans describing it much the way Matthew Cheney does on The Mumpsimus: "It's a mess. But as messes go, it's one I had a lot of pleasure wading through." I suppose this demarcates the line between Vellum's defenders and detractors. Either you roll with its author's penchant for masturbatory self-indulgence (an attitude I have some sympathy for, as I apply it to a handful of writers myself), or you don't. In Hal Duncan's case, I didn't. Cheney writes, "...each time I was ready to give up on the whole book as gassy claptrap, something snared me again..." Those snares missed me. Thanks for taking one for the team, Matthew.
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A while back, I posted about Hal Duncan’s debut novel, Vellum, and said that while Duncan has much going for him as a writer, I felt his approach to his world made his story less effective than it might otherwise have been. More recently, I’ve been reading Justina Robson’s Living Next-Door to the God of Love, and for me it contrasts with Vellum in a couple of interesting ways.

You could argue, in some ways, that Living Next-Door has complimentary strengths and weaknesses to Vellum. On the one hand, Robson is not as good at writing sentences as Duncan. In particular, she rarely creates a convincing sense of place, whereas many of the settings Duncan visits in Vellum are extremely well-drawn. She is also less good at voice; both novels feature multiple first-person narrators, but Duncan is better at making them distinctive and different.

On the other hand, however, Robson is better at constructing her story. Duncan’s prose may be fluid, and the short sharp segments may be deliberate, but they come across at times as blog gas (as John Clute’s recent review of Vellum memorably puts it). And for me, a significant problem with Duncan’s book was that the vellum felt too much like a literary construct, and not enough like a believable reality. If I believed the story was aiming for a sense of artificiality this wouldn’t be a problem, but it seems to me that Duncan wants us to believe in, be impressed by, the size and scope of the vellum; and as I said in my earlier post, in the end it feels small to me. Like one human imagination, not the limitless possibility of a universe.

Living Next-Door to the God of Love, by contrast, and among its other virtues, evokes infinity with some skill. The book is a (very) loose follow-up to Robson’s previous novel, Natural History. That story ended with humanity grabbing the possibilities offered by Stuff – essentially, magic – with both hands. Living Next-Door starts in a setting where Stuff, and the intelligence behind it known as Unity, can make entire universes for humans to play in. As in Vellum, mind shapes reality. The first chapter, for instance, is set in Metropolis, a universe where anyone can be any hero they want to be. Parts of the book are set in Sankhara, a city in which massive arcologies are just a few blocks away from dirty industrial fantasy. It’s described as ‘high interaction’, and it gets reshaped nightly, according to the dreams of the people who live there (shades of Dark City, at times).

Writing about Vellum, I used Stephen Baxter as an example of a writer who effectively evokes a sense of infinity. The particular example I used was the opening of Time, which speaks to the emptiness of a universe in which humans are the only intelligence. Robson doesn’t use that trick, but she does get to use a similar one; as I said, Unity is an alien intelligence, so instead of a sense of emptiness you get a sense that humans are not the only ones doing the dreaming. But the moment that particularly impressed me is yet another trick, what you might call the experience of immensity. Baxter uses this, too, quite frequently, as for example at the start of Exultant, which pitches us headfirst into a galactic-scale battlefront from the perspective of a young fighter pilot:
He was deep in the Mass, as pilots called it – the Central Star Mass officially, a jungle of millions of stars crammed into a ball just thirty light years across, a core within the Core. Before him a veil of stars hung before a background of turbulent, glowing gas; he could see filaments and wisps light years long, drawn out by the Galaxy’s magnetic field. This stellar turmoil bubbled and boiled on scales of space and time beyond the human, as if he had been caught at the centre of a frozen explosion. (3–4)
This is pure telling, and in that sense perhaps not very sophisticated. But it works: you can see the stars in front of you. Now, here is the comparable moment in Living Next-Door, in which a regular human researcher is given a glimpse of Sankhara’s cosmology. The speaker is his guide:
Space. And scattered within it, glittering dust.


We fell again. The number of musical scales exploded, dominated by the relentless seething fury of the stars in their speeding dance as they whirled around the galactic nucleus. Disk stars and gas were so loud I couldn’t stand to look at them. Halo stars sang in almost single notes by comparison – a relief.

We saw one star.

‘Sankhara’s star.’ (200)
There are a couple of things I like about this. Firstly is the fact that she didn’t have to do it at all - but given that she did, like the fact that Unity is non-human, the revelation that Sankhara is not just a planet (as we have been assuming) but an entire universe reinforces how big an arena the story is taking place in, and how small the characters are in relation to it. The second is that where Baxter bludgeons you with blunt scale, Robson personalises it. Not only does she zoom-in, from widescreen to tight focus, but she shows you what effect it is having on the person seeing it; you feel it that bit more.[1]

The reason this matters is that all three stories – Vellum, Exultant, Living Next-Door to the God of Love – are, to a greater or lesser extent, depicting human actions on a vast canvas. For the actions of the characters in these stories to convince, we have to be able to see them in relation to that canvas. All this is sleight-of-hand: of course Robson’s novel doesn’t literally contain anything outside human experience. But it feels like it does.

I could draw other points of comparison between the two novels as well. For instance, the majority of the humans in Vellum are unaware that their world is but a scratch on the vast yadda yadda, while in Living Next-Door everyone knows what Stuff is and what it does; it gives them a metaphysical certainty that they can control their lives that subtly affects the way they act. Too, both novels investigate layers of character. Vellum has the conceit that Seamus Finnigan is Shamash is Prometheus is Sammael, back past all the shadows on the cave wall to the true character. We are all made of our predecessors, and that can affect us. In Living Next-Door, Unity can absorb other beings into itself, in a process called translation. Avatars of Unity are described as ‘eating’ other characters, taking them within themselves; among other things it’s another metaphor for how we carry others in our memories, and how coming to understand the experiences of others can, again, affect and change us.

But maybe that will be material for another post. In the meantime, I don’t have a conclusion, save maybe to say – this is why getting the science fiction of a story right is important. If you’re hoping to tell human stories in fantastic contexts, your fantastic contexts have to support your human stories. That’s why, in the end, I’ll pick a book like Living Next-Door to the God of Love over a book like Vellum every day of the week.

[1] To be perfectly correct, in Exultant, the character seeing the galaxy – Pirius – has been bred in space, and raised to be accustomed to that sort of vista, so the lack of reaction is actually characterisation. But there are similar moments in other Baxter novels that don’t have that excuse; I’m just too lazy to find them at the moment.


Sep. 15th, 2005 08:14 pm
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My travel reading over the past week has been Hal Duncan's debut novel, Vellum. It's a book which has been attracting a fairly significant amount of attention in the sf world, and it's also getting a big marketing push from Pan Macmillan (the proof copies, from a limited run of 600, are things of beauty). You can read a very short extract here, and a slightly more substantial one here.

Vellum is a tale of War in Heaven. The vellum itself, we are told, is the substrate of existence, on which our own world is but a scratch. The story of Vellum encompasses a good number of these worlds and a good number of characters. It's a swirling, nonlinear, hopscotch of a plot that it would be a nightmare, or a fool's errand, to try to describe. One character suggests that it would be too much to ask for cohesion, and that the best you can hope for is comprehensiveness. So far, so Big Fat Epic (indeed, this is Book One of Two). What sets Vellum apart is the ambition of Duncan's project, and the verve and confidence of his writing; he has described it as 'a superhero comic strip about the war in heaven, written by James Joyce, drawn by Picasso and soundtracked by The Stooges'.

The quality of the writing is easy to demonstrate. Duncan writes fluidly, and often strikingly:
'He sings of the vast void and of seeds, of shatterings and scatterings and gatherings, of seeds of earth and air and sea and flickerings of flecks, the flash, the flux of fire' (242)
He recreates a range of times and spaces--the trenches of the Somme, a dusty trailer-town in the American midwest, a pulpy alternate world not a million miles from Sky Captain's world of tomorrow--and populates them with iconic, almost aggressively cool, images. He gets under the skin of his characters, and demonstrates an acute understanding of human nature. Indeed, with such a sprawl of settings, it's the characters that hold this book together. Most of them are (whether they realise it or not) unkin, more than human, with the ability to see the nature of reality, and the power to shape and define it; but they are also, in Duncan's hands, people.

The overall project, it seems to me, is also easy to describe, but almost impossible to assess until the followup, Ink, arrives next year. What I think Duncan is trying to do is present a Grand Unified Theory of Story. The vellum is 'the media of reality itself, the blank page on which everything is written, on which anything could be written' (42). The worlds of Vellum are written worlds, storied worlds, and the characters of Vellum are characters we know. Phreedom Messenger is Anna is Inanna is Ishtar; Seamus Finnigan is Shamash is Prometheus is Sammael. Jack Carter is Jerry Cornelius is Jumping Jack Flash is ... you get the idea (one of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Duncan unwinds his characters as events progress, revealing their archetypes and antecedents). Their stories are ancient, and provide Vellum with much of its substance. Sumerian myths are remixed with works by Virgil and Aeschylus--and more than that, are remixed with everything and anything Duncan can think of: there are references to Moorcock (obviously) and Bradbury, Lovecraft and Joyce, and many more. In the vellum, every tale ever told, from every genre ever considered, is equally true, and equally mutable.
--Everything's real, said Jack. Everything is true; nothing is permitted.

-- I thought, that's a quote. I thought, I recognise it, but I couldn't place it and it didn't sound quite right. (24)
There's a question here about whether the novel ever becomes more than the sum of its parts--echoes of stories are not, after all, the same thing as stories--but that doesn't stop Duncan using this baseline to make wider points about the artificiality of categorisation, whether by gender or by race or by sexuality or by anything else. To be bad in this book is to divide, to discriminate, to separate--or to try to remake the world into a single narrative. The world can only be understood as the world.

But it's in this area, in its larger construction, that I think the book starts to run into trouble. For one thing, Vellum is so big and messy that it is also patchy. Sometimes it feels bloated; sometimes repetitive. For another, at least for me, by the end of the book the most striking thing about the vellum is not that it feels big; it's that it feels small. Part of this is simply the fact that the conceits involved are so vast and hyperbolic--an ultimate war, on infinite worlds, between gods--that we become desensitised. Duncan clearly knows this is a risk; one character, travelling across the vellum, confides that
'I am getting rather blase about the scale of things here in the vellum, I fear; it's all rather gauche and grandiose for my liking, like the arms-race conversations of children when they degenerate to the level of infinity-times-infinity and infinity-squared and infinity-to-the-power-of-infinity, so there!' (423)
But I think there are other parts to the problem, and that they're more fundamental.

Every world of the vellum is recognisable as a version of Earth. More or less distorted, it's true--the world's inhabitants may have wings or tails, for example--but still identifiable. The reason for this is that reality, in Vellum, is a human-created thing. This is a novel about the unlimited reach of human imagination; the God of Gods may be the Author (which is why, incidentally, I might argue that it's not New Weird (if that term still has any meaning at all). It doesn't trust its fantasy enough, doesn't give it enough independent existence). But in fact, the more I read of the book the more limited the vellum seemed. I kept thinking of the prologue of Stephen Baxter's novel Time:
In the afterglow of the Big Bang, humans spread in waves across the universe, sprawling and brawling and breeding and dying and evolving. There were wars, there was love, there was life and death. Minds flowed together in great rivers of consciousness, or shattered in sparkling droplets. There was immortality to be had, of a sort, a continuity of identity through replication and confluence across billions upon billons of years.

Everywhere they found life.

Nowhere did they find mind - save what they brought with them or created - no other against which human advancement could be tested. (5)
Time is the first in a loose series of stories, known as the Manifold sequence, that feature the same characters in different worlds. Baxter's reason for this is practical more than thematic--he wants a theoretical playground in which he can alter one variable, namely the answer to the Fermi paradox, and then generate a story--and his portrayal of infinity and eternity is just as much a word-built illusion as Duncan's. But the emptiness that so haunts Time is also there in Vellum; and because it is unacknowledged, it diminishes the novel. Something as vast as Duncan tells us the vellum is should not be bounded by human concerns, or should at least be capable of imagining outside them, but that never seems to be the case. If you like, it's a question of infinities--a question which Duncan is clearly aware of, since he describes it in the novel. Human imagination may be infinite, but the universe can contain an infinite amount of thinking beings; aleph-one, rather than aleph-null.

If this paradox is meant to be obvious, if it's meant to be a dissonance at the heart of the novel, then I tip my hat to the author. But it didn't seem that way to me; indeed, it felt uncomfortably parochial. And I worry, too, that it may be an unavoidable consequence of the book's style. Vellum cries out for a genuine glimpse of the infinite, some sense of perspective; but the tightly focused, frequently shifting (modernist) viewpoints that Duncan writes in never allow that scaling-out to take place. I said it was difficult to assess Vellum at this stage, and that seems true to me; but I can't help thinking that where it wants to be vast, and contain multitudes, it instead is oddly empty, and tells only part of the story.

Other takes:
[ profile] peake, here.
[ profile] kellyshaw, here.
Cheryl Morgan, here.
Lawrence Osborn, here.
John Clute, here.

UPDATE: Matt Cheney's review of From the Files of the Time Rangers by Richard Bowes makes an interesting comparison with some of what I said above:
Epic stories of time travel, particularly ones that try to roam through various parallel universes, are doomed to failure almost from the outset, because in trying to capture so much they highlight all that is, inevitably, left out. I couldn't help but wonder while reading From the Files of the Time Rangers, for instance, why the characters were so focused on the United States, why their world was one essentially created by Europe, why the few references to the Middle East were all of threat and strife, why Africa and South America seemed to lie outside the timestream. These thoughts are unfair to use as criticisms, because a writer can only write so much, and the secret of art is to produce a panorama from a keyhole.

Perhaps failure is the wrong word -- certainly, doom is. Rather, the success of an epic time travel story lies in its ability to make us feel the vast universe beyond us, and that success shows itself in small moments, tiny seconds when the depth of the past seems to open wide, and all the chances of an infinity of beginnings appear, against all odds, to be comprehensible. Such moments occur more than once in From the Files of the Time Rangers, and they are worth savoring.
It's exactly those glimpses of infinity that I think are missing from Vellum.

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