But Reg, he got too serious for my liking; kept swallowing too, like he was thirsty. I mark him down in the column marked 'suspect'. That's where you put people who aren't good consumers and who piss you off. Twats and idiots get a sus mark. Once they've got a sus mark next to their name off one of our FGs, they don't get no special offers or coupons or three-for-one surprises, ever.
[Warning: quite a bit of swearing in the quotations this time...]
It's become something of a tradition here at Eve's Alexandria when reviewing awards shortlists: administering a good kicking to the, let's say, less serious contenders. The dead weight, the shortlist fillers, the ones that are presumably only on there because the judges were napping, or couldn't agree on something else. In the case of the Arthur C Clarke Award, the point-and-laugh slots are often (but not always!) filled by lifeless, clueless literary fiction, the type of mainstream-published novel which plays with science fictional tropes that haven't been cutting edge in forty years, and which is so busy being, like, daringly imaginative that it forgets to get under sf's skin, or be any good.
[NB: 1) Although it didn't make the shortlist in its year - and much as it pains me to say it, since I generally love Margaret Atwood's work - Oryx and Crake is a prime example of this. So poor, so forgettable. 2) I certainly don't mean to imply that all shortlisted non-genre sf is invariably rubbish: Hav and The Carhullan Army were both marvellous books that I was glad to see brought to genre attention.]
Now, I will admit that 2009's "huh?" book - Martin Martin's On the Other Side, by Mark Wernham - is both less of a slog than either of last year's pair (Raw Shark Texts and The Red Men), and less drearily solipsistic and wishy-washy than 2007's (Oh Pure and Radiant Heart). (It's shorter, for one thing.)
But bloody hell is it irritating.
Martin Martin's begins with a pair of prologues, one set in 1944 and one in 2008, told in the sort of pedantically-wordy third-person narration that always strains the patience (see also: Streaking). Barely a paragraph goes by without some redundant description that fills space but says nothing, heavy-handedly conjuring visuals for the reader that the reader is perfectly capable of imagining for themselves - although if you're fascinated by the finer details of microwaving lasagne, this book may be for you.
Then the first-person narration kicks off - live from dystopian England, an unspecified number of years in the future - and suddenly taking the cardboard sleeve off the Waitrose lasagne seems really, really interesting by comparison:
Oi oi! Heads up! Jensen Interceptor here. And here is what I have to tell you: my fucking story. All the ins and outs and everything. Believe or don't, I don't give one either way, cos me, I'm going places, yeah?
Joy unbounded. After slightly less than a page of wittering on in a similar vein, Jensen concludes the first chapter with "Let's get right into it, then, yeah? Fucking great" (the latter being his catchphrase), and I'm fighting the urge to bang my head against the nearest wall. As his "fucking story" unfolds - a life of happy pills, home improvements, and a half-arsed performance as a government bureaucrat give way to some thoroughly inept spying (also for the government), which in turn gives way to possible time travel and psychic possession - I found the urge returning all too often.
Wernham does a good job of packing all the very worst aspects of modern life into his future dystopia. Unbridled capitalism has been elevated to an absolute good, and buying pointless but fashionable tat that breaks down or falls out of fashion (after a year, "cos by then it's rubbish and boring anyway and you want the new one") is a social duty. When Jensen's shiny high-tech Dermo Shower goes to the great plumbing network in the sky after a mere six months, his boss recommends a better model, explaining:
"The 90B lasts two years before anything packs in. It's well fucking cool."
"Yeah, well, it's shithole," I say.
"That's as may be, but the shower engineers need work, don't they, Jensen? [...] If showers don't break, Jensen, what would the shower engineers do? Think about it."
The government, meanwhile, monitors and controls its citizens at every opportunity; its justificatory rhetoric is an unholy mixture of right-wing paranoia, nanny-state paternalism and I've-got-mine entitlement. When Jensen goes on a training course for the security division, in order to take a new job monitoring people, his tutor tells him "how a secure society works, about how everyone keeps an eye on everyone, and how this becomes a self-perpetuating system of security, how lack of trust leads to complete trust" and that "Security without paranoia isn't security". Another security official explains that people like Reg, mentioned in the header quote above, "'lack clarity and simplicity'" in their thinking, and that it is necessary to "'monitor people so they don't make the wrong choices, so they don't start making a mess of things. [...] It's for their own good, you understand.'" Such people, of course, are just lazy, and jealous:
"You must remember, Jensen, they're nutters," says Brock. "Proper out of it in a really bad way. They're not like us. They've messed up their lives so they want to mess up ours."
"But that's so not fair!" I goes, and Brock nods.
"I know, Jensen, it sucks ass. Which is why we need to keep an eye on them."
It's the old refrain: poor people are only poor because they don't try hard enough, and they're going to steal away your hard-earned cash if taxes are raised/benefits are increased/immigrants are allowed in the country/'positive discrimination' is instituted! This appeal to the baser instincts is symptomatic of Wernham's dystopia: his whole society is organised to infantilise its members. The education is minimal, the explanations are kneejerk simple, and shiny baubles - or shinier drugs (there is a strong Brave New World feel) - are available at every turn to keep people like Jensen contented and stupid. If Jensen is a dumb, shallow, sexist bastard, it's because his environment is calculated to nurture his ultra-laddishness. He may also (it is hinted but never properly explored) have been chemically and behaviourally manipulated as a child to be a creature entirely of appetites. It's no coincidence (though wearying) that the book's female characters are limited to silent sex objects seen from a distance, and equally silent waitresses at the supposedly hedonistic bar Starfucks (whose service, despite the name, seems limited mostly to providing maternal substitute security for their arrested development male clients); the one woman with a speaking role is kept on a pedestal of perfection, and eventually dies to further the narrator's story.
How high does the infantilisation go? It's never clear - Jensen's boss Brock is, as we've seen, almost as dim as him (their exchanges were one of the few bits I found funny), and the implication is that the higher reaches of the security services retain more of their faculties, but Wernham apparently isn't interested in exploring the how and why of his world, instead plunging Jensen into an extended drug binge that may or may not also be a short stint inside the mind of the titular Martin Martin, a TV psychic who enjoyed a brief notoriety in 2008. This is impressively bonkers - I can't help but admire a book where the plot goes so Total Bollocks Overdrive (hat tip, Tony Keen) that I lose track of what's going on - and contains some nice touches, like the creepy, claustrophobic sequence where Jensen's face is reconstructed for his undercover work (shades of Minority Report), and eventually builds into a bureaucracy-will-eat-itself story reminiscent of Brazil. But it never really amounts to much, and is hampered by how derivative so much of it is.
Objectionable or frighteningly deluded narrators can be extremely effective devices, and virtuoso exercises in characterisation, when used well. But Jensen feels too much like a joke who outstays his welcome, and Martin Martin's is thus rendered little more a tedious, subpar retread of A Clockwork Orange. Burgess' novel remains compelling for its uneasy combination of familiarity and alienating difference - the recognisable dynamics of performative teen masculinity taken to violent extremes and clad in bizarre slang, the contrast between Alex's world and that of his hand-wringingly half-aware parents - and for the ways in which Alex emerges as a very real individual, damaged but indomitable, above and beyond the shock factor of his actions or the flashy ventriloquism of the prose.
In Martin Martin's, it is soon clear why Jensen is objectionable and deluded, as I've said: his environment is tailor-made to produce and reinforce his behaviour. In case we missed that, the dramatic irony is the disconnect between Jensen's perceptions and reality - Wernham's wink to his readers - is often clunkingly obvious:
When you don't watch the shows and can't afford to buy all the smart mags with the pictures of the famous people, you must sort of lost touch with what's going on in the real world, and then you find your heroes in people like Reg and worship them like they're Bammer Rhymes. It's tragic, really. As if Reg is as cool as Bammer. Reg is totally poor and doesn't even know what Jizz Factor or Purploids are! How can she be impressed with that? Fucking Reg.
But the book does nothing much with this, content to revel in its satire without reaching for anything more. There is a part of me, moreover, that found him not really extreme enough to be a satire, and certainly not enough to be really shocking. Jensen is a boorish waste of space, but he was hardly unfamiliar. We've all had to listen to someone who talks like this:
I wasn't as bad as Fyodor. He can't really take his boris that well and he ended up in the Roman room, and we all know what goes on there, yeah?
Fyodor's fucking funny. He doesn't say 'Starfucks', he says 'Tsarfucks'. It's a Russian thing. Fyodor's Russian, yeah? But like English too.
We've all been cornered by guys like him; I've avoided him in nightclubs, I've had to share train carriages with him and his loud, drunken, football chant-singing mates, I've rolled my eyes at the comments he's yelled at me from his car as he drives by. My own society is already tailor-made to produce and reinforce such behaviour.
The problem with Martin Martin's, then, is: I don't wish to spend any time in Jensen's company in real life; why would I appreciate 300 pages inside his head? The simple truth is that I don't care about Jensen, I don't care about what he cares about, I don't care about his world - and the novel, unfortunately, never once encouraged me to care. I could read (or watch) most of this elsewhere, without the irritating narrator; indeed, I already have.