Monday, 28 April 2014

Of the City of the Saved...

Philip Purser-Hallard Of the City of the Saved... (2004)

For anybody unfamiliar with this one, the setting of the title is a city the size of a spiral galaxy existing beyond the end of time wherein all the human beings who ever lived - and even some of the fictional ones who didn't - find themselves resurrected to eternal life. Neanderthals coexist with cybernetic posthumans, ancestors with distant descendants, and death is only a memory because everyone is both immortal and immune to injury whilst they remain within the city limits. It's heaven allegorised as science-fiction, an idea already tackled in Philip José Farmer's Riverworld books, apparently, although not having read them I couldn't really say how well they compare. On the other hand, I think I've read this three or four times now, and it's frankly fucking brilliant, as acknowledged by Lawrence Miles, editor of the Faction Paradox novels and never one to heap praise upon the undeserving, when interviewed by Andrew Hickey on Resonance FM's Reality Check podcast:

I am going to blow my own trumpet here, because I think I was quite a good writer of the Doctor Who books, but as an editor, I really, really came into my own. Phil Purser-Hallard wrote what was basically an eight out of ten book, and I said no, do that bit different, do that bit different, and turn it into a nine out of ten book. I am possibly more proud of the fact that I edited Of the City of the Saved... than I am of any of the books I actually wrote myself, because although I wrote a lot of books that I think, looking back, are quite good - that was the book which was already good, and I can't say that about any of my own books, that any of them were really good, because I look at them now and go yeah, I could do that better. [Of the City of the Saved...] was my proudest achievement.

Rightly so, I would suggest; but before we lose sight of the fact that this novel is already built upon one of the most ludicrous premises imaginable in terms of how improbably distant its setting is removed from any familiar, definitively experienced environment, it should also be remembered that here we have cameos from resurrected fictional characters, and a story the size of a galaxy told from fifteen or sixteen very different viewpoints, and Philip K. Dick himself shows up thinly disguised as a character named Rick Kithred.

By rights, this should have been the biggest, most disastrous soufflé in literary history, a deck of cards Eiffel Tower erected in the path of a hurricane, a 250 page kick me sticker, and yet not only does it hold together beautifully, the sheer scale of such an unlikely triumph accounts in part for why it works. There's a saying about the common problem of debut novels being authors who try to do far too much, and this is of course a prime example, except the basic ideas are so beautifully worked as to yield a story which seems simply tightly packed with wonders as diverse as its setting - possible evidence for the quality of the material being the continuation of the story in more recent Obverse anthologies edited by the author.

Ridiculous ambition is rarely in itself the problem so much as writers whose ideas are much bigger than the scope of their ability to communicate the same cough cough Stephen Moffat blowing up the fucking universe every five bleeding minutes which happily isn't a problem because Philip Purser-Hallard writes with the confidence and ability of someone who clearly loves his medium and greatly enjoys his art.

Thus far, I've seen only one review attempt to identify problems with this book - namely that appreciation is too greatly reliant on foreknowledge of the characters involved, and so it becomes a bit tiresome spotting all the cameos by resurrected celebrities. Even aside from the fact of Of The City of the Saved... being published as one of a series of loosely interconnected titles - which you would have to be an idiot to miss - I don't really buy the first point at all, or find the novel lacking any vital piece of information which may aid in either the reader's understanding or pleasure; and secondly I think I missed almost all of the star guests anyway, so that aspect made very little difference to me.

Having read Philip K. Dick until he was coming out of my arse - if you'll pardon the repulsive simile - or at least coming out of a sort of notional second century arse that's since been eclipsed by the iron rectums of imperial Rome - Purser-Hallard's depiction of said author is a joy, immediately familiar and entirely justified. Also, I'm fairly certain the possibly underused Dedalus character is a homage to James Joyce given the form taken by his narrative. There were other characters whom I suspect may have been borrowed from elsewhere, but nothing that impacted on the wonderfully florid momentum of the narrative, at least not for me. The conclusion, as Daphne Lawless has pointed out, echoes that of Robert Graves' Claudius novels, which I assume was entirely deliberate given the novel being, amongst other things, a discussion of free will and security as mutually exclusive in an environment which may as well be heaven; but otherwise you'll have to argue that one amongst yourselves.

It does a whole lot of fascinating and different ontological things, and I'm not going to sit here listing all of them when it would be easier for you just to read the book; but I will say that it does them with a smile on its face - and a smile quite unlike that slightly off-putting smirk of Douglas Adams congratulating himself - and it does them with the conviction of an author who knows what he's talking about, as opposed to just throwing in a few pseudo-religious allusions for the sake of texture. Even on top of everything else, I've a feeling this novel may also offer some form of commentary on our contemporary culture in which nothing is ever quite lost, and the past remains forever with us - a variation on William Gibson's idea of there no longer being any such thing as the future, which in turn feeds into Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go. This may equally well be simply a pattern I've read into the text, perhaps the inevitable crosstalk thrown up by so many rhythms all running consecutively.

This is the sort of environmentally bizarre novel I always hoped Larry Niven would write, but sadly he never quite got there; and whilst we're making free with the comparisons, we might also consider the very best of Iain M. Banks, the previously mentioned Douglas Adams, and even a touch of Alastair Reynolds or maybe Charles Stross, but in each case without whatever qualities have kept their books from creeping up into my own personal top ten. Of the City of the Saved... remains among my favourite science-fiction novels of the last few decades, and Lordy I wish there were more of such calibre.

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