Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Inferior Comedy

Rachel Redhead The Inferior Comedy part one (2014)
Some small portion of this collection began life as Doctor Who fan fiction, something to which I might not ordinarily have been too well disposed; but as is explained in the afterword, the author became quickly frustrated with the inherent limitations of borrowed characters and subjected them all to major surgery. Such transformations seem to be a common theme in what I've read of Rachel Redhead's writing, or if not specifically transformations, then the instability of identity and, in some cases, gender. Everything here is subject to change, but before I give any false impression of this being some frowning treatise:

Mechi waited until the wash cycle had completed and the water emptied out. Then she opened the door in her body and took out the hot, dry washing. She put it into the bright orange basket for later sorting before hastily refilling the cleaning liquid tray for the next load.

The Engineer looked at his new robot companion. 'I'm still not sure why you wanted that upgrade.'

'You biologicals always think in such limited terms. I've always wanted to be a washing machine, ever since I first became sentient all those years ago.' Mechi remembered the hassle she'd had trying to get her intelligence recognised the day after she'd announced she was quitting her job. There had been court cases and all sorts of legal wrangles and all those tests and even a psychiatrist had been involved at one time. He'd gotten upset because she'd crushed his precious couch. 'Even though I have a terrible fear of water and, strangely, toffee yoghurt, I've never imagined myself being anything else than this. It's just such a great comfort to have a load of washing on fast spin.'

The Inferior Comedy is actually part one of a two volume collection of short stories written over a number of years, although given the thematic consistency of these stories, and the way in which even the narrative sometimes appears fluid beneath the details by which it is described, you can read the whole as a single thing in the same way as you can read Burroughs' Exterminator as a novel if you so chose, which I did. Burroughs probably seems a peculiar name to invoke, but the more I read of Rachel Redhead's work, the clearer it seems that far from being a former fan fictioneer who has found a way to crack jokes without it reading like a bad Douglas Adams impersonation - a common pitfall for a few of Redhead's contemporaries, as I've noticed - she seems kind of unique, almost her own category. I suppose maybe if you imagine a female Burroughs with Care Bears rather than heroin as the drug of choice - given the often wilfully pink frilly edge to the narrative and all the hugging; but most of all it reminds me of Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time books, demonstrating that same cheery disregard for science-fiction convention, and doing more or less what the hell it likes. It's often genuinely surreal, and surreal in the sense of André Breton's pals breaking the boundaries between the conscious and subconscious rather than some crap band slapping a photograph of a banana on their album cover; and this contrasts with well-grounded bursts of kitchen-sink realism to form a thoroughly convincing whole; which is why it works so well, I'm guessing.

Rachel Redhead's prose short-circuits expectation and makes free association in a way that makes for a strangely liberating read, and it helps that the jokes are funny without being the whole point of the thing. The fan fiction roots are easy enough to spot if you're looking, but the whole has long since transformed into something far more individual and weirdly fascinating than the fiction of which Redhead was a fan.

I must admit I approached this one with caution. I had read and enjoyed her Raithaduine Saga a couple of years ago, although it had some problems with typos, punctuation, and repetition of certain words - specifically reading like it could have benefited from some proofing. There are a few of the same issues here, but much less so, and her writing is itself much tighter, seemingly more confident and less inclined to peculiar tangents unless there's a really good reason, which admittedly there often is.

If this were the seventies and New Worlds magazine was still publishing Moorcock's weirder flights of fancy in a climate more conducive to literary experimentation of such flamboyance, Rachel Redhead would be a household name and John Boorman would probably have followed Zardoz with an adaptation of something found here, probably starring Ollie Reed and Paula Wilcox. Unfortunately it's 2015, so until the stars realign, we'll have to make do with the Lulu versions for the moment.

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