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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 of attention 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.

Vellum 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 is so 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.

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)
Time 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.

Other takes:
peake, here.
kellyshaw, here.
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.
Interesting take. My feeling on this was that, rather than trying to encompass all of Story, Hal was making the point that so many stories are really built upon other stories. I felt as though he was pulling up the cracks so we could all see how much wiggle room there was in them; whether, in fact, stories are fated/doomed to repeat themselves, or whether we (or the unkin) can actually step out of the story. Phreedom's story, I think, is most about this; we see her try to escape the war, and yet we realize in the end that she is only repeating Inanna's story. (And yet, in the same way, her story is the most outward-moving of the stories in the book, with the numerous little stories-in-progress which she and her paramour move through, offering alternative and largely unexplored narratives. Reynard's own journey through the Vellum also explores this, particularly in the first book.) The word I kept thinking of, and I'm certain Hal intended this though I don't recall it showing up in the book, was palimpsest; the idea that this had all been written before, and even though we might burn off the existing ink and try to write something new, what we are really doing is tracing the impressions of what is already in the book.

Just my two cents. :-)
Hal was making the point that so many stories are really built upon other stories

Oh, absolutely. I was vaguely alluding to that when I mentioned stories echoing other stories, but it was a long post already and I didn't want to add another 500 words by going into it in more detail. I like the way that the characters move through stories-in-progress. But I don't think that excludes what I was talking about in the main post, it's just that all of the many stories he's dragging into the vellum can be traced back, through layers, to increasingly primitive ur-stories. That's exactly what happens with Seamus in the second half of the novel, after all.

You may well be right that the overall arc is one of escape, in which case Ink could end with the mother of all conceptual breakthroughs. If it does I'll be right there with him. ;-)
True, that doesn't exclude your point; I'm mainly saying that I wasn't bothered by it because I felt the focus was elsewhere. It's a many-layered and complex book as it is, and I think that it would have been difficult to step very far outside the main story to call attention to something "beyond human" without diffusing it entirely. Similarly, to call attention to the lack of same would fall outside the concerns of the book, it seems to me.

But there's also the point you make, that the next book could prove either or both of us entirely right or entirely wrong in our readings. :-)
I didn't want to add another 500 words by going into it in more detail.

Who are you and what have you done with Niall Harrison?
I also like that the book encourages you to think about its relation to other stories. I kept seeing other parallels or reflections or twists on other things I've read or watched--as with Time--and I liked that effect. The Seamus stuff made me think of Firefly, 'War Stories':
"Have you ever read the works of Shan Yu?"
"Shan Yu, the psychotic dictator?"
"Yep. Fancied himself quite the warrior poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture ... the limits of human endurance."
"...that's nice."
"He said, 'live with a man 40 years, share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano's edge. And on that day you will finally meet the man."
"What if you don't live near a volcano?"
"I expect he was being poetical."
"Sadistic crap legitimised by florid prose. Tell me you're not a fan."

-- Book and Simon
I hadn't noticed the Firefly resonances, but Yes. I think that's one reason the book worked so well for me; it was able to evoke and incorporate so many stories while still telling one that is very much Hal's own. To reference Lovecraft and Burroughs and Alan Moore etc. etc. without ever becoming sycophant to those creators and their works. Really, it's a testament to the confidence of his storytelling; it's almost as if he were respectfully showing them to their seats, then saying "Look what I can do."
'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)

I will read further, but isn't this rather purple? It feels hugely over-written from where I'm sitting: "flickerings... flecks... flash... flux... fire..." (?!?!); "shatterings and scatterings" (?!?!?!?).

It just feels tricksy.
Well, it works for me, and by no means the whole novel is written in that style--big chunks of it are written in various dialects, some of it is straightforward pulp writing, and so on.
I suppose this is the sort of passage that could divide readers:

The road cuts deep into the sharp-carved shadows of tall trees for a second, slices between dark juts of moss-slicked rock and through a concrete underpass; and she takes the circling slip road off to the right and turns and turns, and then she's up and out and on the Blue Ridge Parkway, riding the wide road that runs from mountain spine to mountain spine along the length of the whole range. And the sun is hot but the air is clear and crisp as a cool spring and she can look out to her left and to her right and see the world on either side, the hills in the beyond, the valleys in between, the vast, green, rough, soft sculpture of time and space, of earth and sky.

Earth and air, earth and sky... etc. etc.

I'm not sure what I think of it. I fear reading it would give me a headache. And isn't clear and crisp air a rather over-used cliché?

And yes, if you look to both the left and the right, you will see "the world on either side." Happens to me all the time. :o)
I will put that on a handout for my fortchoming 'Not Everyone Can Be China Mieville 101' class ...
Don't forget to send me a copy...
do people want to be?

*has yet to finish one of his novels*
In some ways, I actually prefer Duncan's writing to Mieville's, I think. They both tend towards an excess of detail, they both overuse certain words and constructions, but Mievillle will tell you the same cool thing in three different ways, and Duncan will (usually) tell you three cool things in different ways.
I actually think he is a better prose writer than Meiville. I can see where you and scribeoflight are coming from, and it is a little purple, but this is not Duncan's major problem.
Actually, this passage about the world on either side is making an allusion that up on this stretch of highway, the barrier between worlds is thin (Vellum borrows/tips its hat heavily to Moorcock's multiverse), and that there are possibilities and worlds all around her, and indeed, at one point she launches herself off the road and out of our world, into another part of the Vellum. Hal's writing is all over the place in the book, but in a good way. At times, vividly descriptive, other times a hard punch to the gut. His deftness and range separate him from China (and his ability to resist using language just to impress--I adore China's writing, but I prefer his short fiction--I haven't had enough patience to finish one of his novels since KING RAT). Duncan's surety of voice and pure range of tone cannot be captured with little snippets. Not even close. And that voice is undoubtedly the novel's greatest strength. As VanderMeer said on his blog, "It’s one of the most assured first novels of the decade, and it’s a novel many writers beginning their tenth novel would kill to have written." I couldn't agree more.
I was thinking of reading Vellum. Now I'm not sure I'll bother. :\
Well, I'd be interested to see what you make of it. I suspect the main things that bothered me wouldn't even register for you, and you'd have different problems entirely. :)
You'd hate it. It would have you writhing at the pretentiousness and pointlessness of it all.
To be honest I don't think the pretentiousness would be a problem. The pointlessness on the other hand...
I suspect so. Thank you kindly.
Just out of interest, have you ever read any (good) Gene Wolfe? Say The Fifth Head of Cerberus, or The Book of the New Sun?
No. Everything I've heard about him makes me want to put his head in a microwave. I'd put the rest of him in it, too, but assume he wouldn't fit.
Ok I admit that normally I just glance over these reviews without much interest. Today however I think the words '...a tale of War in Heaven.' jumped out and made the theology hoer in me go 'oOo'. I would probably read it just for that, especially with the looks into imagination.

I have to say that i kind of liked the alliterative quote you...err...quoted. Alliteration is meaty and as a carnivore I appreciate that, also as an easily amused girly girl it's just plain fun! That kind o thing would make me read it out load two or three time, then giggle. (Hell just by Vast Void I was grinning).
Hmm i may have taken the wrong meaning from that, but you have to laugh at that kind of pretension (and yes alliteration to that degree if meant seriously is pretension)

Speaking of pretension, prose makes my teeth ache. It also makes me want to through things, which is why there is a David Copperfield shaped dent in my wall. Especially gratuitous prose, where it's nothing more then something to fill the page.
That whole ‘vast, green, rough, soft’ bit? I mean come on, he’s a moment away from describing her hair as ‘a rippling field of flaxen wisps blown lightly by the wind’ or maybe if she’s a brunette ‘a flowing main of raven locks’. Oops… did just turn this into a bad romance novel?

Ok now that I have successfully ran away from the point I was going to make I think I’ll go before I get thwaped
Ok I admit that normally I just glance over these reviews without much interest.

Not to worry. I think those who read the reviews are a minority. :)

(Hell just by Vast Void I was grinning).


Hmm i may have taken the wrong meaning from that,

It's possible. :p

but you have to laugh at that kind of pretension (and yes alliteration to that degree if meant seriously is pretension)

I think it's meant ironically, in a I-know-this-is-OTT-and-you-know-this-is-OTT-but-isn't-it-great? kind of a knowing way.

It's a bit like Illuminatus, but with less of a sense of humour.

Ok now that I have successfully ran away from the point I was going to make I think I’ll go before I get thwaped

If I promise not to thwap you, will you tell me what the point you were going to make was?