Fiction reviews

Even for many fans of the genre, knowledge of Russian science fiction and fantasy begins and ends with Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris. With its minimal special effects and deliberately jerky switches of film stock, the movie managed to be far more unsettling and thought-provoking than its contemporary, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (and certainly more so than its recent wooden Hollywood remake with George Clooney).

Yet Russian literature of the fantastic has long roots, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries when folklorists transcribed fairy tales as part of the nationalist project.
And the world of the witch Baba Yaga and her chicken-leg-powered mobile home, peopled by demons, vampires and shaggy shape-changers, still flourishes today. Only today, the demons of Moscow make satellite phone calls, lead heavy-metal rock groups and struggle to debug cheap computers.

Its best-known explorer is the Kazakhstan-born novelist Sergei Lukyanenko, whose book The Night Watch aroused huge interest in the West when director Timur Bekmambetov’s film version was picked up for world distribution by Fox in 2005. A translation of the novel—the first in a trilogy—followed, and now volume two, The Day Watch, has hit the shelves.

Bekmambetov’s previous form—he had worked with the United States king of classic horror, Roger Corman—may have helped that bit of marketing. But The Night Watch was compelling material, mixing an epic struggle between the forces of light and darkness with barbed satire on Russia’s stampede towards ruthless consumerism (“very poor people, lots of problems, very rich oil barons,” said Bekmambetov) and a complex moral centre. Lukyanenko trained as a psychiatrist, and endows his characters with nuanced internal lives as well as fangs and feathers.

The Night Watch told its story from the perspective of the forces of Light. The Day Watch switches viewpoints, dropping us into the headquarters of Darkness, where individual freedom and the survival of the fittest rule.

This second book builds on the plot lines established in the first, so it helps to have read The Night Watch. This one, though, has a co-author in cyberpunk author and songwriter Vladimir Vassilyev. His collaboration is reflected in the quotes from Russian pop lyrics that embroider the pages, providing a chorus of commentary in richly metaphorical language. It’s the kind of thing Michael Moorcock did in his Jerry Cornelius books, or Gwyneth Jones in her ongoing English Revolution series.

But although this is fantasy (and despite an idiot cover blurb invoking Harry Potter), its central problem is very real: the impossibility yet necessity of good coexisting with evil if the world is not to go up in flames. Both books are about compromise. In the first, the Hitler-Stalin pact featured large, though to explain how would give away too much of the plot. In the second, we’re in John le Carre territory, as agents find more in common with their opposite numbers than with their possibly treacherous masters as they seek to contain an immensely powerful new wizard, fathom the direction of the strategic chess game, and fall in love.

And yet these books engage in a way that many jaded, cynical spy operas do not. In much of that genre—think, for example, of The Good Shepherd—there is no moral centre. All players are equally corrupt. In Lukyanenko’s fantasy world, the good may screw up monstrously, particularly when adopting the tactics of their adversaries. But ethics that do not involve the law of the jungle survive. Hopefully, that is not only the case in fantasies.

(For more on the world of Russian science fiction and fantasy, visit the excellent website.)

Shriek: An afterword by Jeff Vandermeer (Pan)

Gwen Ansell

We lack adequate labels for much modern fantasy. If it comes from Latin America, we grant it a serious literary name: magical realism. If from elsewhere, it is often corralled on the bookshop shelves with the fluff about cute talking aliens, pointy-eared dwarves, robots and the mighty-thewed Conan.

In an attempt to liberate the works of writers such as China Mieville, Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Jeff Vandermeer from such Disneyesque company, a whole dictionary of new terms has been invented. That last-named, for example, has had “the new weird”, “urban fantasy” and the clumsy “cross-genre fiction” hung around his neck. Vandermeer himself credits influences that might lead us to better terms: Jorge Louis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov and Angela Carter. But urban he certainly is, with works set in the fantastical cities of Veniss (in Veniss Underground) and, more famously, Ambergris—which is where Shriek returns us.

The baroque city of Ambergris (which first appeared as the setting for Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen and which is meticulously mapped at was once the domain of mysterious indigenes, the Gray Caps. The rapacious feuding merchants, totalitarian churchmen and empty socialites who now run the city forced them underground, where they brew fungal weapons and wait. Shy historian Duncan Shriek finds a way into their world. When he disappears, his sister Janice writes her version of his story; when she in turn disappears, Duncan re-emerges to edit and annotate her tale.

That skeleton might suggest a standard fantasy: taciturn aliens out of Jack Vance; twisted humans out of Angela Carter and mysterious shadowed city out of M John Harrison. But Shreik is far more: it is also an elaborate riff on the process of writing and rewriting history. Publishers, booksellers, journalists, historians—Duncan has an affair with a student; she becomes a revisionist historian who betrays his work—and diarists all get their share of Vandermeer’s satirical ink.

For, dark and ornate as Vandermeer’s style is, his writing is also very funny. The nightmarish scenery backdrops caustic wordplay and slapstick farce. Duncan and Janice are recognisable people: ridiculous, vulnerable and appealing. For those who’ve followed Vandermeer’s work, this latest book draws together the grand yet sometimes impersonal place-building of City of Saints with the punchy characterisation that made Veniss Underground so compelling. And a label for it all? Vandermeer simply says: “When people ask me if I’ll ever write about the real world, I tell them I’m already doing it.”

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