My travel reading over the past week has been Hal Duncan
's debut novel, Vellum
. It's a book which has been attracting a fairly significant amount
in the sf world, and it's also getting a big marketing push from Pan Macmillan (the proof copies, from a limited run of 600, are things of beauty). You can read a very short extract here
, and a slightly more substantial one here
is a tale of War in Heaven. The vellum itself, we are told, is the substrate of existence, on which our own world is but a scratch. The story of Vellum
encompasses a good number of these worlds and a good number of characters. It's a swirling, nonlinear, hopscotch of a plot that it would be a nightmare, or a fool's errand, to try to describe. One character suggests that it would be too much to ask for cohesion, and that the best you can hope for is comprehensiveness. So far, so Big Fat Epic (indeed, this is Book One of Two). What sets Vellum
apart is the ambition of Duncan's project, and the verve and confidence of his writing; he has described
it as 'a superhero comic strip about the war in heaven, written by James Joyce, drawn by Picasso and soundtracked by The Stooges'.
The quality of the writing is easy to demonstrate. Duncan writes fluidly, and often strikingly:
'He sings of the vast void and of seeds, of shatterings and scatterings and gatherings, of seeds of earth and air and sea and flickerings of flecks, the flash, the flux of fire' (242)
He recreates a range of times and spaces--the trenches of the Somme, a dusty trailer-town in the American midwest, a pulpy alternate world not a million miles from Sky Captain
's world of tomorrow--and populates them with iconic, almost aggressively cool, images. He gets under the skin of his characters, and demonstrates an acute understanding of human nature. Indeed, with such a sprawl of settings, it's the characters that hold this book together. Most of them are (whether they realise it or not) unkin, more than human, with the ability to see the nature of reality, and the power to shape and define it; but they are also, in Duncan's hands, people.
The overall project, it seems to me, is also easy to describe, but almost impossible to assess until the followup, Ink
, arrives next year. What I think
Duncan is trying to do is present a Grand Unified Theory of Story. The vellum is 'the media of reality itself, the blank page on which everything is written, on which anything could
be written' (42). The worlds of Vellum
are written worlds, storied worlds, and the characters of Vellum
are characters we know. Phreedom Messenger is Anna is Inanna is Ishtar; Seamus Finnigan is Shamash is Prometheus is Sammael. Jack Carter is Jerry Cornelius is Jumping Jack Flash is ... you get the idea (one of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Duncan unwinds his characters as events progress, revealing their archetypes and antecedents). Their stories are ancient, and provide Vellum
with much of its substance. Sumerian myths are remixed with works by Virgil and Aeschylus--and more than that, are remixed with everything and anything Duncan can think of: there are references to Moorcock (obviously) and Bradbury, Lovecraft and Joyce, and many more. In the vellum, every tale ever told, from every genre ever considered, is equally true, and equally mutable.
--Everything's real, said Jack. Everything is true; nothing is permitted.
-- I thought, that's a quote. I thought, I recognise it, but I couldn't place it and it didn't sound quite right. (24)
There's a question here about whether the novel ever becomes more than the sum of its parts--echoes of stories are not, after all, the same thing as stories--but that doesn't stop Duncan using this baseline to make wider points about the artificiality of categorisation, whether by gender or by race or by sexuality or by anything else. To be bad in this book is to divide, to discriminate, to separate--or to try to remake the world into a single narrative. The world can only be understood as the world.
But it's in this area, in its larger construction, that I think the book starts to run into trouble. For one thing, Vellum
big and messy that it is also patchy. Sometimes it feels bloated; sometimes repetitive. For another, at least for me, by the end of the book the most striking thing about the vellum is not that it feels big; it's that it feels small
. Part of this is simply the fact that the conceits involved are so vast and hyperbolic--an ultimate war, on infinite worlds, between gods--that we become desensitised. Duncan clearly knows this is a risk; one character, travelling across the vellum, confides that
'I am getting rather blase about the scale of things here in the vellum, I fear; it's all rather gauche and grandiose for my liking, like the arms-race conversations of children when they degenerate to the level of infinity-times-infinity and infinity-squared and infinity-to-the-power-of-infinity, so there!' (423)
But I think there are other parts to the problem, and that they're more fundamental.
Every world of the vellum is recognisable as a version of Earth. More or less distorted, it's true--the world's inhabitants may have wings or tails, for example--but still identifiable. The reason for this is that reality, in Vellum
, is a human-created thing. This is a novel about the unlimited reach of human imagination; the God of Gods may be the Author (which is why, incidentally, I might argue that it's not New Weird (if that term still has any meaning at all). It doesn't trust its fantasy enough, doesn't give it enough independent existence). But in fact, the more I read of the book the more limited the vellum seemed. I kept thinking of the prologue of Stephen Baxter's novel Time
In the afterglow of the Big Bang, humans spread in waves across the universe, sprawling and brawling and breeding and dying and evolving. There were wars, there was love, there was life and death. Minds flowed together in great rivers of consciousness, or shattered in sparkling droplets. There was immortality to be had, of a sort, a continuity of identity through replication and confluence across billions upon billons of years.Time
Everywhere they found life.
Nowhere did they find mind - save what they brought with them or created - no other against which human advancement could be tested. (5)
is the first in a loose series of stories, known as the Manifold sequence, that feature the same characters in different worlds. Baxter's reason for this is practical more than thematic--he wants a theoretical playground in which he can alter one variable, namely the answer to the Fermi paradox, and then generate a story--and his portrayal of infinity and eternity is just as much a word-built illusion as Duncan's. But the emptiness that so haunts Time
is also there in Vellum
; and because it is unacknowledged, it diminishes the novel. Something as vast as Duncan tells us the vellum is should not be bounded by human concerns, or should at least be capable of imagining outside them, but that never seems to be the case. If you like, it's a question of infinities--a question which Duncan is clearly aware of, since he describes it in the novel. Human imagination may be infinite, but the universe can contain an infinite amount of thinking beings; aleph-one, rather than aleph-null.
If this paradox is meant to be obvious, if it's meant to be a dissonance at the heart of the novel, then I tip my hat to the author. But it didn't seem that way to me; indeed, it felt uncomfortably parochial. And I worry, too, that it may be an unavoidable consequence of the book's style. Vellum
cries out for a genuine glimpse of the infinite, some sense of perspective; but the tightly focused, frequently shifting (modernist) viewpoints that Duncan writes in never allow that scaling-out to take place. I said it was difficult to assess Vellum
at this stage, and that seems true to me; but I can't help thinking that where it wants to be vast, and contain multitudes, it instead is oddly empty, and tells only part of the story.
Cheryl Morgan, here
Lawrence Osborn, here
John Clute, here
UPDATE: Matt Cheney's review
of From the Files of the Time Rangers
by Richard Bowes makes an interesting comparison with some of what I said above:
Epic stories of time travel, particularly ones that try to roam through various parallel universes, are doomed to failure almost from the outset, because in trying to capture so much they highlight all that is, inevitably, left out. I couldn't help but wonder while reading From the Files of the Time Rangers, for instance, why the characters were so focused on the United States, why their world was one essentially created by Europe, why the few references to the Middle East were all of threat and strife, why Africa and South America seemed to lie outside the timestream. These thoughts are unfair to use as criticisms, because a writer can only write so much, and the secret of art is to produce a panorama from a keyhole.
Perhaps failure is the wrong word -- certainly, doom is. Rather, the success of an epic time travel story lies in its ability to make us feel the vast universe beyond us, and that success shows itself in small moments, tiny seconds when the depth of the past seems to open wide, and all the chances of an infinity of beginnings appear, against all odds, to be comprehensible. Such moments occur more than once in From the Files of the Time Rangers, and they are worth savoring.
It's exactly those glimpses of infinity that I think are missing from Vellum