The Emperor of all Things by Paul Witcover

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The Emperor of all Things (Book 1 of The Productions of Time) by Paul Witcover, Bantam Press, 447 pages, £12.99 (tpb), 2013

I have come to a certain conclusion: reading a good book is like being in a time machine. Not just because of the period in which said book is set, but also in the way physical time appears to flow very differently. Such is the case in this particular instance, the first volume in The Productions of Time series, which is highly appropriate since its plot is based around time or, more specifically, timepieces. To be even narrower in specificity, Witcover’s tale revolves around a particularly wondrous timepiece, whose provenance is equally marvellous.

It is the mid-eighteenth century: location – London. England is at war with her nearest neighbour and eternal enemy France, but it isn’t going well for the former. Each side seeks to discover advantages over the other, thereby being assured of the final victory. To this end, the respective governments send out spies and agents provocateur to glean anything that might be useful in procuring that advantage. This is where Daniel Quare, a lowly journeyman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers (a shadowy organisation in its own right), comes in: he is tasked by his superior, Master Magnus, in procuring the rumoured timepiece, as its secrets will be extremely useful in besting France. It is known who has acquired it and Quare has been sent to retrieve it discreetly – but, of course, actually getting hold of it is anything but simple.

Ever taken the back off an analogue watch, to inspect the workings inside? And, once those workings have been revealed, have you ever marvelled at the intricacy of the engineering and precision that goes into creating such a clock or watch? Additionally, has your sense of awe ever increased exponentially as you realise that each component, every wheel, gear and cog, has been handcrafted to tolerances almost on the verge of being superhuman? The same could be said of this book.

Witcover’s plotting is every bit as complex as the inner mechanism of a finely crafted pocket-watch – gears within gears, as a chapter title appropriately proclaims. As one gets deeper into the novel, one realises that the larger picture, ie the gears and cogs immediately apparent to the naked eye, is only the beginning: look more closely and it’s clear that there’s a bewildering array of ever-smaller gears and cogs upon which the larger versions are dependent and without which the piece wouldn’t work. Just when one thinks that all has become sharply focused and straightforward, it’s abruptly discernible that there are even more layers of plot and action beneath.

Luckily, Witcover is in total command here – like the most skilled of horologists, every element carefully dovetails into the overall scheme and, while undoubtedly complex in ambition and effect, never overwhelms. The narrative clips along at a fair pace, the twists and turns arriving at almost regular intervals, like bells striking the hour. If that gives a potential reader the impression that the tale is one of predictable monotony, then be assured that that assessment is furthest from the truth – the plot is marvellously and cleverly constructed so that each new surprise is exactly that: a surprise. Additionally, as many of you should know by now, I have a fascination for lyrical language and prose, and this has it in abundance – Witcover has clearly researched his material closely and deeply, the overall effect being one of plunging the reader into the midst of the eighteenth century. The language employed is tightly controlled, with only the occasional lapse into a more modern idiom at the start – but, in all honesty, that’s an exceedingly minor quibble. The only other fault, if fault it can be called, is a slight winding down of pace in the central portion, where the action shifts both temporally and personally to Lord Wichcote and his stay (as a younger man) in the very odd little Alpine town of Märchen, which has its own horological secrets. However, the action and intrigue ramps up once more in the final third of the book.

The cast of characters are as varied as some of the automatons incorporated into a number of spectacular Continental town hall and cathedral clocks. To name just a few, there’s Quare himself, a headstrong youth who acts before he thinks; Master Magnus, the deformed man who has the air of the Other about him; Sir Thaddeus Wolfe, the scheming Grand Master of the Worshipful Company and his equally ruthless right hand man, Master Malrubius:  Aylesford, a tempestuous Scotsman, a man almost too handy with his sword; Lord Wichcote, a somewhat enigmatic collector of strange and bizarre timepieces: Inge Hubner, the large but sensuous landlady of the Hearth and Home, the only inn in Märchen; Corinna, the sole child of Herr Doppler, a fay sylphlike creature intent on becoming a master horologer herself. Each brings life, colour and depth to an already deeply philosophical and intellectual tale, investing the world which Witcover creates with sharply defined clarity and believability.

As to the device itself, it is a grotesquely sinister invention of the imagination, an artefact that itself holds secrets far vaster and more dangerous than any of the earthly protagonists either suspect or are even capable of coping with. Its origins are hinted at right at the very beginning, and its purpose is only gradually revealed as the narrative unfolds. Is it any wonder that emperors and kings are willing to sacrifice anything and everything to gain what it has to offer? The timepiece itself, however, might not be such a willing accomplice…

I sometimes find it difficult to get into a book straightaway, the premise and plot often revealing itself only gradually and painstakingly, but this was an exception. Like time itself, this one happily dragged me along from the very word go, and I dived headlong into Quare’s world gladly and more than enthusiastically. It’s a world where slights are rectified by the tip of a sword or a cowardly stab of a concealed weapon; a world as much beset by intrigue and corruption as our own; where industry, science and art are slowly combining to bring modern society into being, yet it is still a place where mystery prevails and clings to our own world in out of the way locations: it is also a world where magic is still somewhere just around the corner, in odd angles of time and environment, simultaneously enlightening and threatening. The Emperor of all Things is all this and more – I have to admit here that I am not overly keen on trilogies (as I assume The Productions of Time to be) but Witcover’s opening gambit here has more than whetted my appetite for the rest of the series. For that, the author is to be heartily congratulated.

John Brunner by Jad Smith

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John Brunner (Modern Masters of Science Fiction Series 1) by Jad Smith, University of Illinois Press, 196 pages, $21.95 (PB)

The development and evolution of John Brunner’s science fiction was a literature born of friction – between genre and mainstream forms, between pulp and high concept, and even British and American iterations. The tectonic interaction between all these instantiations, informed by Brunner’s own intellectual pre-occupations, helped to create a body of work that was often not appreciated during his own lifetime: a situation that wasn’t helped by his own personality and characteristics (he was known for being a prickly customer when it came to his own work – one can argue the toss on this one: was he deeply caring about how his work appeared in the market or was he just a belligerent curmudgeon?). Despite all that, what he produced, especially through works of the nature of Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit and The Crucible of Time, has meant that his post-mortem reputation as a writer of great breadth and depth ensures a continuing presence in the pantheon of noted SF authors.

Brunner was a high-concept writer blessed with a sense of story and pulpishness as well as craft, and this inevitably placed him in an uncomfortable position in many respects. One of his stated ambitions had been to create an amalgam of the American and British styles of SF, the former characterised by the pulps of the thirties onwards and the latter by a more considered and cerebral, less action-oriented iteration. This was treated with some suspicion by both camps, and led to accusations in certain home quarters that he was more commercially market-oriented than he should have been. Additionally, his work was emergent at the time the New Wave writers (Moorcock, Aldiss, Ballard, et al) were just beginning to make their presence felt, in publications like New Worlds. Contradictorily, Brunner seems to have been heralded as a member of this group, yet did not identify himself with it: similarly, the New Wave derided his literary efforts to a very marked degree.

Jad Smith’s critical study of Brunner, the first in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series published by the University of Illinois Press, attempts to delineate the writer’s literary evolution and place the author and his work in its proper context and put him where he belongs: as one of the Science Fiction greats. Nevertheless, Smith amply acknowledges Brunner’s many faults and doesn’t dodge the many brickbats thrown his way. Admittedly, I’ve not read a great many of his works: I have a few of the original Ace Doubles on my shelves, but have only managed to read The Atlantic Abomination (a work meant as a backlash against what he saw as Lovecraft’s fake ‘literariness’) and Stand on Zanzibar, a book I remember reading with a sense of awe. It was unlike anything I’d previously come across – it wasn’t your typical SF novel in any sense. Yes, the technology was there, but it was mere background and an adjunct to a sociological extrapolation of the future. There are multiple strands ever-converging to a single point, expressed around the main narrative thrust in an almost avant-garde manner in the form of adverts, news sound bites, and excerpts from fictitious books. The novel is information overload to a large degree, but Brunner here foreshadowed the future in an uncannily prescient way: the internet has become just that, the repository for sensory overload.

Smith goes into some depth regarding the development of Brunner’s ideas and their starting points, emphasising the writer’s search for new ways and means of making concrete those ideas. Brunner’s overarching concern was for craft in his writing, a way of expressing the high-concept in both story and form. It’s perhaps easy to see how that might be interpreted as too high-brow by certain factions or smacking of too much artifice by yet others. Even though he more or less ploughed his own furrow with some of the most daring SF to come out of that era, it’s also apparent that he was equally at home in the more commercial end of the market, specifically that of the US which paid better than our home-grown one. One reason for this was that financial constraints often led him a merry dance, as critical success eluded him and he was very often on the verge of penury. As a result Brunner was incredibly prolific during his 35 year career. Smith unswervingly details how often Brunner’s works were only lauded long after they’d seen the light of day, a situation which can be anathema to financial well-being.

Smith writes in an engaging style, unstintingly chronicling the vicissitudes of the man’s life as well as rightfully hailing his triumphs. One problem for some that could ultimately count against the book’s usefulness is its insistence on revealing plot and denouément of Brunner’s bibliography: I suppose this is a critical necessity insofar as highlighting the subtleties of his nuanced writing and the concepts behind them. I wasn’t at all bothered by it – the end result being that I would like to read all of the works cited and those in the bibliography. Brunner was one of those writers I missed when growing up, only really arriving at his doorstep because I bought the Orion SF Masterworks edition of Stand on Zanzibar about a decade ago, with The Atlantic Abomination being acquired not long afterwards as well Altar on Asconel and a few other Ace editions. It certainly won’t be long before I’ll get around to reading those as a result of Smith’s book.

As a general conclusion, if this is the calibre of entries in this series, then there is much to look forward to. I would aver that studies of SF and its authors have for too long been neglected and marginalised by the mainstream of literary criticism, tending as it does to tar everything with the same brush, unable or unwilling to make the distinction between popular conceptions of the genre and what actually constitutes cutting edge science fiction with its blend of sociological, philosophical and political strands. This is surprising, given the genre’s extrapolative and often correctly predictive powers. Much deeper than that, however, science fiction has the power to comment on the human condition in ways that are immediately recognisable to us both as readers and human beings, and is a force that perhaps if taken more seriously could inform the shape of future political and technological policy. Maybe that last is a little fanciful, but it’s a testament to the breadth and scope of the genre that such an idea could seriously be entertained. I am definitely eagerly anticipating lapping up further volumes in the series.

From the University of Illinois Press website:

“Modern Masters of Science Fiction is devoted to books that survey the work of individual authors who continue to inspire and advance science fiction. Books are forthcoming on Gregory Benford, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, John Brunner, Lois McMaster Bujold, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Greg Egan, William Gibson, Joe Haldeman, China Miéville, and Connie Willis.”

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