Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Weapons Grade Snake Oil

Blair Bidmead Weapons Grade Snake Oil (2016)
Here's another one for which I painted the cover, and I should probably also mention that I'm friends with Blair and he sought my opinion on an earlier draft of this novel, and also - no word of a lie - I used to deliver his mail back when I was a postman, although we didn't know each other at the time. Therefore it might be argued that my impartiality is somewhat compromised here. On the other hand it's not like anyone is paying me to write this, so screw you.

Anyway, you may notice at this juncture how I've turned a little red in the face, and I'm looking at my shoes whilst rocking from side to side as though suddenly having found myself in an embarrassing predicament. This is because I feel somehow obliged - possibly in the subconscious hope of countering any potential accusations of bias on my part - that I had my doubts when I heard Blair was writing a Faction Paradox novel; and mainly because I'd disliked his SeƱor 105 novella By the Time I Get to Venus to the point of it making me feel quite uncomfortable because it's always awkward when someone towards whom you feel well disposed produces something against which all your senses rebel. I'd rather not get into why I disliked it, but I vaguely recall having had a similar reaction to some short story or other, something in one of the Obverse collections; and an acquaintance who should probably remain anonymous - which shouldn't be too difficult given that I don't actually know his offline name - expressed a concern that Blair's book might attempt to make the Faction cool, like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere with more skulls; and yes - that would be a bad thing.

On the other hand, Blair Bidmead's Now or Thereabouts, was the high point of the short story collection A Romance in Twelve Parts; although when he asked me to take a look at an early draft of what seemed to be called The 2nd Second, I nevertheless made that fearful gumph swallowing noise made by characters in Viz comic prior to the inevitable encounter with dad's slipper. Once I actually got to reading the thing my sighs of relief were of such force as to sweep several cats out into the yard. Whatever it was that had given me cause for doubt, he'd stopped doing it, and there was a more confident tone to the prose, and the ideas were good and the jokes were funny. Thank Christ for that, I thought.

Weapons Grade Snake Oil is better still, or at least I got more from it, which might also be something to do with my reading it as a proper book rather than as a first draft on a screen - I don't like reading from screens of any description. It's basically a heist novel, the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels of the Faction Paradox canon, I suppose, which I'll qualify by adding that I liked Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, just in case that detail seemed ambiguous. That said, given how
frequently Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels swerves into self-parody, I would imagine that writing this one must have been something of a balancing act, despite which, it skips along at a fair old pace without missing a step. Half of the novel revisits the Eleven Day Empire, the city built inside eleven days taken from the British calendar back in 1752, which is nice seeing as we haven't seen much of the city since Lolita devoured it whole in Lawrence Miles' The Shadow Play. Bidmead delves significantly into the Faction toybox with serious relish, not so much in trying to serve up a crowd pleaser as just for fun; and not saying previous novels in this series have been necessarily lacking in chuckles, but there's something quite joyous about Blair's approach, massive ideas flung hither and thither with reckless abandon, ideas which might seem patently fucking ridiculous under other circumstances cheerfully crayoned into the story and forced to behave themselves, sort of - the princess of Pluto who lives inside an elephant persuaded to take part in just one last perfect crime...

It's the kind of thing which could have gone horribly wrong, particularly given all the obscure references which are there if you want them, which personally I didn't given that you'd have to pay me to watch an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures; but the lad done good, as they used to say at the football matches. It's the sort of writing Steven Moffat never quite manages, albeit in a different medium, because Blair makes the effort to actually do something with those massive ideas rather than just letting them sit there looking pleased with themselves. Oddly, in terms of tone, Weapons Grade Snake Oil is arguably the most Miles-ian contribution to the Faction Paradox series since the man himself was writing, but if that doesn't work as a recommendation, try Iain M. Banks with better jokes and less fannying around. Let's hope he has a few more like this up his sleeve.

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