Node 4 – “Raven of Dispersion” Published

Finally! Node 4 of the Dereham Connections has arrived.

Not quite in time for Christmas, unless you’re very quick – but it is finally published this year, at least. The book is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon, and available to order as a paperback from other places, I should imagine.

Raven of Dispersion is set in the imaginary Dereham, somewhere in an imaginary corner of Wiltshire, in a very real long, hot, summer of 1976. The mysteries that swirl about the town are about to entangle the young and the arrogant in ways they can’t imagine.

Six friends. Charlie, James and  Imogen, Stuart and Kate, Paul. They walk the sun-soaked hill tops, searching for answers, looking for UFOs. They talk about the occult. They drink, flirt, smoke and kiss.

Charlie had always fancied Imo. Tall, beautiful Imo. Everybody loved her.

Imo loved James. Except… Except, James was fond of his brandy, and at eighteen had already started down a road that led, Imo feared, to drunkenness and dissolution.

Imo was, however, happy that her best and oldest friend had fallen for Stuart. Handsome Stuart. Flirty Stuart. Lots of girls fancied Stuart, even Imogen once – much to Charlie’s chagrin. What Charlie feared most was that Imogen would one day leave James and take up with Stuart. Why he feared this outcome above all else, Charlie wasn’t sure. So when he fell for Paul’s younger sister Jane, he felt he could at last put all that nonsense about Imo behind him. It wasn’t like he was obsessed or anything. No, he wasn’t like that at all.

And Paul? He had studied the occult masters, and was a neophyte no longer. He knew how to perform the Banishing Ritual and Regardie’s Healing Ritual of the Middle Pillar. He had seen Raphael and Ariel. When he and James whimsically decide to work the paths of the Kabbala one night on Copsehill, what could possibly go wrong?

Everything…

Because when the Raven of Dispersion enters their world, a slow spiral into madness begins.

Raven of Dispersion at Amazon

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Dereham Connections – Node 4 – “Raven of Dispersion”

So, after the contactees and spies and conspiracies of the early 1970s, Node 4 — Raven of Dispersion moves us into the middle of the decade, and the long, hot summer of 1976. We leave behind characters that we have followed through the two preceding novels. Now, instead of spies and contactees and night-club owners, we become involved with young adults.

But I don’t like to think of this as a young adult novel — the characters are simply young; when I was that age, I didn’t think of myself as a young adult. I just thought I was brilliant and knew everything.

The characters in Raven of Dispersion are burgeoning intellectuals, exploring the world of ideas through the unconventional route of UFOs and the paranormal, and their first explorations of T S Eliot, Karl Marx, DH Lawrence,  Colin Wilson, and so on. Of course, being young, there are feelings to contend with  — love, and that new-fangled word, relationships.

It is at this nexus of love and the unconventional that things go a little bit awry. Because the young can be just a bit too sure of themselves, certain that they know what they are doing. And the young might also think their experiments — with balloons and lights, let us say — can surely have no consequences beyond the scientific.

And yet one balloon, and one set of lights — mixed with a pinch of beauty and one lovin’ spoonful of psychosis — are the ingredients for a proper brouhaha.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm — Review

Where Late the Sweet Birds SangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This the first Kate Wilhelm  novel I’ve read, and I rather enjoyed it.This is, of course, her acknowledged classic, the winner of awards, and an entry in the Gollancz Masterworks series.

When a family of entrepreneurs and farmers see the apocalypse coming, they make plans — long-term plans — to protect the future of their family, and the future of humanity. The nature of the apocalypse has effected human fertility, so cloning will be required, and luckily, distributed around the inter-connected families, are large areas of farmland, wealth, technical know-how, and expertise in reproductive sciences. After much experimentation, human cloning is finally mastered — but there are limits to the technique. Cloned children look alike and, as with popular notions about twins, they think and feel alike. They become lonely when they are not together, even their sexual relationships revolve around each other. There are, however, especially among the first clones, some who learn or retain individuality. Such people cause problems for the gestalt experience of the clones; yet such individuality is required to explore the post-apocalyptic world. Clones who attempt to explore that world away from their brood siblings ultimately breakdown. The novel becomes, then, an exploration of the individual versus the group.

As so often, a work of science fiction, set in the future, about a future technology (cloning), seems beneath the surface to be a comment about the society and culture in which it is written. The main character of the second-half of the book, Mark, has a well-developed sense of individuality. Mark carves in wood and stone, he paints. He can track people through the woods. He wears moccasins and jackets of leather. He can use a canoe on the river. He loves the woods and being alone. He talks to trees. He is the very model of a rugged frontiersman, the kind of individualist who built America. And while we understand the reasons why the cloning technique was developed, and feel some sympathy for the clones, still the clones are weak in their togetherness, too much the same, and their empathy and sympathy for each other makes them fragile.

One can’t help wondering then, if this is, however indirectly, and however unexpectedly, a comment on a society that looks on its members with too much sympathy and empathy and provides them with too much, and on people who expect the state to provide; a criticism of societal control by elites; and ultimately a paean to the rugged individualist, liberal (in the European sense), anarchic, free-thinking and artistic.

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Sorrow Mystica — Why Connections, Why Nodes…

The perspicacious among you might have noticed the subtitle to Sorrow MysticaDereham Connections: Node 2 — and wondered what that was all about…

Well, the novels so far written are all connected in some way. They are a series, a chronicle, or what have you. Informally, they were known for some time as The Dereham Chronicles; but that implied they were all set in the imaginary Dereham — that they were a chronicle of the town. However, the series is not so much about Dereham, as about people whose lives intersect and are in some way influenced by events in the town. (Although, if the books also lead you to want to move to Dereham, I’ll have done my job.)

Still, I wanted to give notice that the novels are connected in some way. I thought an overall title like A Dance to the Music of Time might work. But then I thought something like that might be a bit too… precious… for some scifi-spy-thriller-paranormal-romance-based novels; such a “series” title might make the books appear as, “that is to say, literature”, as Henry Miller once wrote. And the fact that at least one of the books is not set in Dereham bugged me. And then one day I concluded that the books were about the connections between the characters in them; it was the connections that were important. And that’s how Dereham Connections came to be.

And then I saw each novel as a coming together, a meeting point, of the strands and webs of the lives I was weaving, where the connections created a knot, a tangle of wires — a node. And that was how each book came to be called a Node. So why is the first book Node: 2? Because there is no Node 1. Not yet, at any rate. All the Nodes are ordered by when they are set – starting in 1971 for Node 2, and ending in 1984 for Node 6. But they might yet be published in a different order; expect the unexpected.

Anyway, here are the nodes that we — co-author Kevin and I — know for sure will be published over the next year or so:

Node 2         Sorrow Mystica                                                    
Node 3         Crossing the Line
Node 3.5      Genial — Being the Tale of the Courtship of Simon and Julie
Node 4         Raven of Dispersion
Node 5         The Ethical Hitman
Node 6         German Overalls

Only Node 6 remains unwritten — but I know what it’s about. There are notes. And it has to be written. Nodes 2 and 3 are co-written with Kevin. Nodes 3.5 through 6 are written solely by me.

There are other nodes in the pipeline, but they remain a little vague (and depend on my co-author)…

Review — “A Wrinkle in the Skin” — John Christopher

A Wrinkle in the SkinA Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another enjoyable slab of post-apocalyptic cosy catastrophe from John Christopher.

Earlier in the year, I read Christopher’s The Death of Grass. That was lean, taut, and gripping, with a particular grey bleakness. This book follows a similar pattern — ordinary people surviving a catastrophe — but here the catastrophe has a more unlikely cause: worldwide earthquakes that cause severe damage and disruption. Of course, the book was written in the early 1960s, when much less was known about plate tectonics, so colossal earthquakes perhaps had some plausibility.

Ultimately, though, the science is irrelevant, and to place post-apocalyptic novels in the science-fiction genre is perhaps mistaken. Because after the initiating disaster, such books inevitably become about people, about society and human relationships, about what makes state and society.

There is much to fear in the post-apocalytic world — rape, pillage, murder, illness, death. That much is made plain, and Christopher does not shy away from it. And in a lovely Ballardian moment involving a stranded cargo ship, there is madness and defiance too. In some ways, this is a novel that sits between the apocalyptic niche Ballard carved out in books such as The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere and the very British catastrophes of John Wyndham.

The prose is as clean and lean as in The Death of Grass. It has a kind of traditional, British style I associate with Orwell, Greene and Somerset Maugham, a style I find myself favouring at the moment.

This novel is, in in the end, less desolate, less gloomy than The Death of Grass. Its conclusion offers some optimism amid the devastation and wildness. There is, in the end, a kind of hope that, however hard it might be at that moment, in the future a good, just and fair society can be rebuilt.

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Review: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in some unspecified time period in which people rarely die of illness, only of old age, such “unnatural” deaths are televised and have become a spectacle for an audience unused to such suffering. The book has been seen as a reaction to the intrusiveness of television and nascent reality TV programming; yet, in the end, it is predominantly a book about people and relationships in a particular near-future milieu.

Indeed, Katherine Mortenhoe doesn’t even appear on television until half way through the book; and then it becomes clear that this isn’t some modern, intense, immersive 24-hour reality show, but more in the nature of an hour or half-hour nightly documentary in which the audience is provided with edited highlights of the gradual deterioration and death of the subject.

Katherine Mortenhoe is to be filmed by Roddie, NTV’s star reporter, who has made his own sacrifice to become even more relevant and useful in a televisual age; he has had his eyes replaced with cameras. Having secretly watched her when she was diagnosed with her – fanciful – terminal illness, Roddie is certain there is going to be more to Katherine Mortenhoe than a pitiful victim slowly dying in front of an eager audience; Roddie is eager to follow Katherine and discover the woman who will persist, despite the pain and suffering, over her last few days, the real person who continues to exist even through the horror of illness and death.

Roddie and Katherine become closer than either would have imagined as Roddie chases the continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, who has accepted her ultimate fate in death but refuses to accept her fate as surrogate for suffering and pain.

The narrative takes an interesting tack in terms of point of view. Roddie’s point of view is told in first person; Katherine’s story is told in third person. The continuous Katherine is distanced, as if seen through the lens; Roddie, the voyeur, the surrogate viewer, is immediate and here. When the novel is in third person, other, minor actors sometimes become the viewpoint character, as if they are also now part of the dramatised and continuous Katherine Mortenhoe; and towards the end of the novel there is a sense that sometimes an omniscient narrator takes over, who can see everybody in, and knows everything about, the unfolding drama. These movements between types of viewpoint play with the notion of subject and audience, of watcher and watched, of voyeurism and gaze in an interesting way.

Both Katherine and Roddie are well-developed characters, and even the minor characters are filled out enough for us to understand their motivations; particularly Katherine’s husband and Roddie’s boss at NTV. I also found Compton’s writing style easy and enjoyable, with interesting turns of phrase.

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Review: The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is hard to review a book that has so many extant reviews, so many of which are so positive. The Road is my second Cormac McCarthy book; I have recently read No Country for Old Men, which I found interesting, gripping, a page turner, with hints of wider themes and interests. Like The Road, my edition of No Country for Old Men had many flyleaves that contained glowing extracts from glowing reviews extolling the virtues of the book. And though I enjoyed the book, I found that I had not discovered those virtues.

When I finished The Road, and returned to re-read the many glowing extracts from glowing reviews on its flyleaves, I found myself rather at a loss. I had enjoyed the novel, and its spare language and short, well-spaced paragraphs had made it a quick read, gripping enough to keep me turning the pages. Yet, I found nothing new or extraordinary in the book, nor in its language. The language was spare, certainly, and repetitive at times. Yet, The Road belongs to a genre — the post-apocalyptic novel. Of course, the post-apocalyptic novel has mainly been the reserve of science fiction authors, and I couldn’t help wondering if any of the reviewers who had written the glowing extracts from the glowing reviews had read J G Ballard, or Harlan Ellison, or Samuel R Delany or Walter M Miller or many others.

The post-apocalyptic novel has an honourable tradition in science fiction; The Road offered no new shocks and no new horrors, no departures from that tradition. What “new” horrors there were, over and above earlier entries in the genre, were more because of where we are, as readers and writers, in what we allow and what we accept, than in anything extraordinarily outre. Earlier authors, such as Delaney in Dhalgren had experimented with form; Ballard had been elliptical and distant in his series of ‘disaster’ novels, The Crystal World, The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, and, of course, The Drought; in Damnation Alley, Zelazny’s hero has to drive a truck along a post-apocalyptic road.

Of course, in a Cold War world in which everybody was mentally prepared for nuclear disaster, the post-apocalyptic science fiction narrative thrived. Such was the currency of apocalytics and disaster in New Wave science fiction, the title of Michael Moorcock‘s collection of Jerry Cornelius stories, The New Nature of the Catastrophe, made perfect sense while being an ironic dig at a tradition he had helped foster.

This then, was my problem: The Road was a worthy entry into the tradition; but it carried with it nothing more than previous (mainly science fiction) authors had provided; and I would rather have The Drought, or A Boy And His Dog, or A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker on my desert island.

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