Mike French and Karl Brown: An Android Wakes

AndroidAn Android Wakes is a graphic novel that’s been put through a centrifuge, restoring it to the traditional form of an illustrated novel, pages of illustration interspersed with short chunks of prose. It’s in an unreconstructed style that is all about traditional sf-dystopic concerns that I first saw in the 1970s in 2000 AD, the first modern British sf comic. SF graphic storytelling has changed since then, but you’d not think so to read this book. The story is testosteronally old school, so if you like pictures of masculine androids in trench-coats and fedoras, carrying guns, you’ll enjoy this book. I’m not going to touch the sexual politics because there is simply no point. The blurb indicates very clearly how retro and noirish the plot wants to be:

Android Writer PD121928 is part of the Android Publishing Program. To replicate a writer’s life, his wife has been forcibly removed and he lives in solitude with an allowance for drugs and state prostitutes. Having just had his novel The Eating of Citizen Kane rejected, he now has 14 more attempts to get a story accepted for the program or he will be deactivated.

I don’t know if I dislike the writing more than the art. Logic took a holiday while the author wallowed in nostalgic images and disconnected ideas. It’s also very, very meta. The android keeps having his novels rejected because they don’t fit the buyers’ requirements. The manuscripts (seriously? This is a dystopic future and novels are sent to publishers in hard copy?) are returned with the words bleached out, and the android begins again, running out of writing time. The rest of the story is composed of the rest of his novels, and while I dipped in and out, looking for something to make me want to keep reading, the experience of the book became more important than the story, or the multiple, interchangeable characters. The force of the artwork – derivative though it is  – makes the banality of the vignettes unimportant, and perhaps this is why this book has been published at all. Together they create a powerful visual statement. I don’t like the statement, I never want to read it again, but I can’t deny that it’s made an impression on me.

Examples of good ideas, that could have gone somewhere but didn’t, come from the android itself. In the opening pages it goes to the fridge to drink a bottle of oil (as a man might go for beer, or milk). Point one: you don’t need to keep oil in the fridge, so that’s a joke that doesn’t work. Point two: why would an android need to drink the stuff? Oil is for lubrication, not for nutrition delivery, so bathing in oil would make more sense. (Unless the android thinks it’s a man so is enacting human activities, which might be part of the dystopic vision?) Another example: the android wakes up in bed in oily sheets, a pile of iron filings on the sheets as the result of a night of grinding its teeth. Why would an android (no muscles, no nerve endings) need sheets, or a pillow, or to lie down, or to sleep? Grinding teeth would be unlikely to extrude the filings out of the mouth, they’d go down the android’s gullet, if it had one. And so on.

This isn’t a book for me, but it’s a beautifully produced, excellently printed, weighty, luxury-feeling tome that might delight your sullen adolescent at home who needs a present to make him (probably not her) smile. If the production values are an example of what Elsewhen Press can promise for all their products, they deserve success, and better novels.

Mike French and Karl Brown, An Android Wakes (2015, Elsewhen Books) 978-1-908168-63-4, £13.99, published on 17 November 2015


Now posting on Vulpes Libris: Karen Russell’s short stories

Karen 3Reading short stories is a calming way to drop off to sleep: you start, you finish, you think about maybe reading one more, you turn the light out. Zzzzz.

Not so with Karen Russell: her genius and enticing weirdness makes you read the whole damn lot in one go. She’s published two collections of stories (St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove), and one novel, Swamplandia. There’s even been a short film made of St Lucy’s Home, and she can depend on legions of fans clamouring for more of her eclectic and superbly told stories of gentle domestic weirdness. Pop over to Vulpes Libris for more.


Karen 4

A homosexual sf future wrestling with political ecology: Naomi Mitchison’s Solution Three

Solution 1If you like elliptical, immersive, euphemistic strangeness in your science-fiction narrative, this novel is for you. Published in 1975, Naomi Mitchison’s Solution Three retains some slang that was archaic even then, like ‘cat’ for person, which made this reader jump, and certainly adds to the strangeness in the dialogue. Could you ever empathise with a character who says of another that ‘this cat told me’? The setting is a strange combination of the modern British National Health Service, Maoist self-denunciation and the insouciant babbling cheerfulness of Brave New World (Naomi Mitchison was great friends with Aldous Huxley in the 1930s). Homosexuality is the social norm for relationships, heterosexuals are more or less tolerated but labelled as ‘deviants’, and clones are born to surrogate Clone Mums, who have to watch their children carefully for when they start showing ‘the signs’, at which point the children are taken away from the nursery and ‘strengthened’. ‘Strengthening’ is such a horrible process for these four and five-year olds that no-one ever asks what it is; they simply accept it as part of Solution Three, which is the Way We Live Now.

Solution 2This is a post-something society: not post-apocalyptic or post-nuclear, but post-Aggressions. These appear to have been a long-ago total war, after which two far-seeing male and female scientists evolved a social pattern for future society to save humankind, decreeing that homosexual relationships would thenceforth be the norm as this would avoid future Aggressions. Thus the population of the civilised parts of the world is paired off whether they like it or not. Uncivilised areas continue to practice aggressive heterosexuality, which is a cause for concern and stern treatment. The characters in the novel are crop scientists, investigating outbreaks of agricultural viruses and struggling to maintain food supplies for a very crowded planet. This concern about the genetic modification of food sources is something Mitchison would go on to write about more fully in Not By Bread Alone in the 1980s. in this novel, she’s much more concerned about social engineering, the rights of maternity and enforced sexual norms.

Solution 3The storytelling is engaging and chatty, creating an immersive reading experience, but this is a hard novel to understand. The elliptical dialogue glides across the surface of meaning, so it’s tricky to work out what is going on and what the consequences will be.  The subplot about Miryam the deviant and her husband struggling to raise their two children in their one-room flats (they’re not allowed to live together) reaches a happy ending when she is awarded a two-room apartment with a little balcony. Her feelings on being given such riches and forgiveness for her deviancy say as much about the society she’s living in as the actions that lead to this largesse. Mitchison writes from the heart outwards, concentrating on women and who they love, to sketch out an outline of this experimental dystopic future. It really is just an outline: there isn’t enough depth in this novel to produce a solid impression of how this society works, or even how it got to be this way. The details are in full focus, the rest is a bit foggy. But given the rarity of fiction of this period (of any period?) that tackles sexuality and ecology with such fair-minded objectivity, this novel is a literary historical treasure.

Solution Three is available second-hand. There are also new editions with scholarly commentaries at The Feminist Press, and at Kennedy & Boyd.