Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review of Brian Aldiss's HARM and Nick Mamatas's UNDER MY ROOF

Fifty years ago this month, the seminal British science fiction magazine New Worlds published a story emphatically if enigmatically titled “O Ishrail!” On board “the mental health ship Cyberqueen,” psychiatrists examine a man named Ishrail, who claims to be from a different part of the galaxy, although he looks and speaks like a human being. Ishrail once commanded a fleet of “interpenetrators,” starcraft made “not of steel but of mentally powered force shields” that somehow ride the “maze of stresses” (what the benighted still call outer space). He is a de facto prophet of things to come, an exile from a more advanced civilization — or else he’s just plain nuts. “Quite candidly,” one doctor explains, “there’s hardly a disorder in the book that isn’t present to a greater or lesser degree.”

Brian W. Aldiss, the author of that 1957 story, is now in his eighties, with dozens of books to his name. He vigorously remixes the old Ishraili conflict in a short, sharp new novel, “HARM” (Del Rey: 224 pp., $21.95). The title is an acronym for Hostile Activities Research Ministry, which you could call Orwellian if its operations didn’t seem so close to our paranoid present, drawing dark inspiration from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

“This was the time for seriousness,” Aldiss baldly announces, “for a war against terror.” In a Syrian hellhole, or possibly some isolated house in London, “HARM” tries to extract information from “Prisoner B” — full name Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali. He’s a comic novelist of mixed Indian ancestry, a second-generation Londoner with an Irish wife. (“I was born in Ealing,” he helplessly tells his interrogators.) He has Brit-lit bona fides: His first story was published in Granta and his latest book is intended as a Wodehousean amusement. But it contains a passage in which two tipsy lovers joke about assassinating the prime minister — enough to land Paul before his implacable torturers.

“HARM” reverses the formula of “O Ishrail!” Instead of wondering whether the hero is mad, we see how the Ministry’s absurd and hair-raising treatment opens a psychic fissure in Paul, causing him to imagine that he is on an entirely different world as a release from his wretched state.

Shortly after the imprisoned character recalls some lines from “Paradise Lost” (“The Stygian council thus dissolved; and forth / In order came the grand infernal peers …”[10]), a planet called Stygia blooms full-blown in his mind. This is the far future, when refugees from a wartorn Earth are deconstructed into molecular form to facilitate space travel. Once on Stygia, however, reconstitution goes awry; those colonists who survive lose their original identities and social relationships. Life on the new planet (with its six fragmented moons) becomes a grim, primitive mess of religious fundamentalism, political intrigue and the decimation of the native race, like a perverse mirror of our own world.

Aside from a few bursts of Joycean wordplay, “HARM” isn’t a book to enjoy. Indeed, Paul’s escapist fantasy sours from the start, with his Stygian alter ego, the thuggish Fremant, jailed and maltreated throughout. Aldiss deliberately brutalizes his prose to shatter any possibility of redemption, let alone beauty. The novel seethes with ugly set pieces (not just the torture scenes, but the sex scenes — even the loving ones), toggling between its earthly and alien settings with a horrifying seamlessness that gives the whole enterprise the shape of a fable.

Our daily news reports already seem like dystopian dispatches; instead of trying to trump the outrages, Aldiss uses science fiction to dramatize a mental meltdown. It’s no coincidence that the name of the spaceship bringing humankind to Stygia is New Worlds — the same as the magazine where many early Aldiss tales found a home. Like those future travelers, the decades-old conceit of “O Ishrail!” gets boiled down and hurled through time, and lands like a fresh insanity.


In his third novel “Under My Roof” (Soft Skull: 152 pp., $12.95 paper). Nick Mamatas works off a slightly different set of War on Terror jitters than Aldiss, aiming for humor rather than horror.

Here, Sept. 11 has been renamed Patriot Day; footage of the World Trade Center attacks, suppressed for years, is finally being broadcast. The collective tension has taken Daniel Weinberg, an unemployed Long Island autodidact, to the breaking point. “With every war,” Mamatas explains, “Daniel got more frantic … stay[ing] up all night and just walking around the dark kitchen and smacking his fist against the table.” Perhaps less ambitious than the planet-hallucinating Paul, Daniel declares his house and yard “free and independent from all law or governmental incursions of the United States of America.”

Daniel’s proclamation has some teeth: He’s managed to construct a nuclear warhead by harvesting the element Americium-241 from thousands of broken fire alarms heaped in the junkyard. Soon, the media, National Guard, and Homeland Security get interested in Weinbergia. The small Pacific island nation of Palau recognizes the new country’s sovereignty, and assorted dissatisfied Americans make the pilgrimage to 22 Hallock Road — hippies, nerds, “tax cheats, college kids who made up their own languages in their spare time, a woman who called herself Doctress Arcologia who wanted to build a treehouse outside my window.” Microstates spring up all across the country; “Brown University,” Mamatas writes, “was supposedly planning to secede next.”

“Under My Roof” is accurate, fast-moving satire that transcends mere target shooting by virtue of its narrator, Daniel’s 12-year-old son Herbie. The novel affectionately captures his age-appropriate cynicism and insecurity; at times, he’s a kindred spirit to the awkward protagonists of Daniel Pinkwater’s young adult novels. There is, however, one essential difference: Herbie can read minds. Mamatas lucidly and hilariously deploys his telepathy, allowing him to know all, see all and eventually transmit helpful information to allies in need.

It’s a parody of the surveillance and interrogation mania of the post–Sept. 11 era — the exact opposite of the excruciating and ultimately useless methods practiced in “HARM.” The scary thing about “Under My Roof” is that some readers might feel more secure being ruled over by a telepathic adolescent than by anyone currently in power.

[Originally appeared April 2007,]

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