Thursday, July 06, 2006

John Sundman: Cheap Complex Devices

I am coming round to the view that, for me at least, some of the most rewarding and interesting fiction is to be found in odd corners on the internet, and among the self-publishers. (Kelly Link, for example, although I didn't take to her, is a self-published author.)

I haven't given up on the mainstream, big-time publishers and writers -- far from it. But with them, what you see is what you get. There aren't many surprises, and there are quite a few disappointments. If you want something adventurous, risky, edgy, you need to go to the smaller guys. And, now that we have whatever you want to call it -- Intarweb 2.99 or whatever -- they aren't so hard to find.

A few weeks ago, I read John Sundman's first novel, Acts of the Apostles (AA), which he published himself some years ago. (See my enthusiastic review of 24 May 2006.) And now I've read his second one, Cheap Complex Devices (CCD).

AA was a relatively straightforward book -- a techno-thriller perhaps is the best description -- using orthodox narrative technique. CCD isn't orthodox; not by a long way. On the whole, I think you would be well advised to read AA before you attempt to read CCD.

John Sundman is a computer guy. To be more precise, a software guy. He was at one time the chair of the software development architecture team of Sun Microsystems, and he has won a couple of awards in the IT field. Both his novels deal with the world of technology.

I think the best way to describe CCD is to say that it is what English gentlemen of a certain age would describe as a conceit. Others might call it metafiction; one of the book's many enthusiastic reader/reviewers on does just that.

A conceit is (according to Oxford) an elaborate metaphor or artistic effect; a fanciful notion. CCD is all of those, and more. Metafiction is... Well, read the Wikipedia entry. I don't think metafiction is a very good descriptor of CCD, and since I had arrived at the description 'conceit' by about page 3, and since the author himself uses that term to describe his book on the final page, I think I'll settle for that.

It would be impossible to give you a precise summary of what CCD is all about, but briefly, and unsatisfactorily, and possibly misleadingly (because I am not really all that bright, despite my best efforts to appear to be)...

CCD purports to be 'edited' by John Compton Sundman. (One of Mr Sundman's little quirks is that he gives himself different middle names/initials on each of his books: F.X. on the first, Compton on this one; Damien on his work in progress.) CCD is said to be the winner of the Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative; i.e. it's supposed to be written by a computer. But it isn't, of course.

(Not as far as I know, anyway. One upon a time there was Max Headroom, who looked like a construct of the computer graphics industry but wasn't. But now you could do Max 40,000 times over, and people have, in all those Hollywood movies. So today you have a novel which looks as if it was written by a [very wonky] computer but isn't; and in twenty years' time you will have... War and Peace 2026.)

It gets more complicated than that, but I will just confuse you if I go any further. Like Russia (as described by Winston Churchill), CCD is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

As the novel proceeds, layer upon layer of fantasy and paradox are piled upon each other, until you lose track of where you are supposed to be, and what you are supposed to be reading. This effect is many times more pronounced in CCD than it is in Richard Rathwell's Red the Nile, Blue the Hills; and, as that book was too, CCD is reminiscent of Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare.

This is a remarkable book. (To buy a copy from the author, go here.) I can't say that it made me laugh or cry, but I did find it fascinating. I would like to recommend it, but I suspect that you need to be seriously eccentric to enjoy it. Either that or working in the IT industry, which amounts to the same thing. Computer guys will appreciate, no doubt, far more of the nuance than I do; but there's enough there for anyone, provided you are ever so slightly weird yourself.

Come to think of it, there is one aspect of the book which is emotionally moving to the point of being disturbing and upsetting. On the very first page, the page which is usually the half-title, we find the following: Enna boobie, it's cold.

It turns out that Enna boobie (sometimes rendered booby) means It's cold in some (real or imagined) foreign language: possibly (?probably) Wolof as spoken in Senegal. And there is an image associated with this statement. Here is what the computer which is writing CCD says on the antepenultimate page of its novel:

What is this long novel about anyway?

About a child. A child. A cold child left behind. How the memory of a cold rag-clad child saying "enna boobi" it's cold, made me start to think one day about Gordon Biersh, and how after that I was useless.

Actually John Sundman's novel isn't long: 100 pages or so. And here's what one reader, Mr Goat, says about it:
Very early first impression: In places, it reminded me of doing stack traces back when we learned about recursion. I estimate that before I can review it properly, I shall have to finish it, read Acts again, read this again, and have two glasses of wine.
Make that three.


Martin said...

Greg Bear has written a pretty funny 3-page piece called "Ram Shift Phase 2". It's a purported book review by a robot of a novel written by another robot.

"ALAN2's latest novel (the 5,456,678th work from this author) is entitled RAM SHIFT PHASE 2. A more appropriate title cannot be conceived."

It's in Hartwell & Cramer's excellent latest sf anthology.

EminemsRevenge said...

As your excellent review of my book (which i have on the redirect...although i'm not sure ON is the correct term) shows...YOU DO seem to span the globe far and wide for talent...although HOW you find the time is beyond me!!!

THIS sounds like an interesting read, and i'm off to Amazon to pick it up now ]alas, MY book is temporarily unavailable over there:-( ]

Thanks to reviewers like you a lot of good literature is NOT falling thru the cracks...

Gully said...

It's pleasing to see His Grumpiness devoting some interest to self-published authors.