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Prometheus Emphysema


By John Clute

L ittle bits of Vellum are so steeped in the great stories of our species that they make the heart race, but the book as a whole reads like blog gas; this is a problem. It is as though Hal Duncan had written his first novel in spasms, way after midnight, in the form of a LiveJournal, and that he never Saved before he Sent. So the good bits get lost, or misremembered, and the poor author (like Orpheus) has to try to find them again the next night, so Vellum reads like an exudation of the compulsion to repeat. It breathes its own air. Sometimes these reiterations of Lost Content mount to a sense of Eternal Return, give off a sense of chthonic pizazz, of eyekicks too deep for tears; more often, reading the thing is like sitting in a motel at the end of time with nothing to watch but repeats of Gods.

Michael Moorcock's Finnegans Wake by Hal Duncan.

Enough. Let us try to get at the heft and heart of some of the good bits without suffering brain death from a lack of oxygen. Vellum is a 21st-century novel set partly on Earth, partly on various Anti-Terras, partly in the Dreamtime; its temporal span runs from Dreamtime to World War I to now and to 2017 or later, when virtual reality and the world have begun to converge into Singularity (as has been foretold us—Alexander Besher's Rim books, for just one instance, are a gonzo celebration of the chymical marriage between AI-driven cyberspace and Underworld). The underlying capo di capi story seems (there is a sequel coming) to concern, on the cosmic level, a battle between the gods, between Order and Chaos, Heaven and Hell, stanch and stench; on the human level (but because every character of note in the book represents an invariable minimum of three entities, one of these entities always being a god, it unduly demystifies Vellum to suggest that anything like an intact "human level" can be ascertained) the battle is waged between repression and rebellion, these abstract terms being variously understood, dramatized, orated about, lived through, transcended.

A promise of something valuable

The devices or grammars of story that articulate this multiverse for us are exceptionally well conceived; there are moments when some acute angle of story surfaces out of the midden of the text, some exact and thrilling moment of grammar, and you think: Now, now it begins. (It doesn't.) As the subtitle implies, the Vellum itself is a kind of Book; it is the skin of the space of all realities, on which our own world is scratched (or tattooed), and it is the skin of the telling of all realities, on which Word itself iterates (or tattoos) all possible outcomes. And there is a Map of the Vellum, whose first page shows its user exactly where he is looking at that first page, and whose succeeding pages carry him outwards and onwards: room to city, city to country, country to continent:

Another page, and another, and the world I knew was only a minuscule part of an impossibly vast landscape ... a world on the scale of Jupiter and Saturn. I turned more pages, two or three at a time, and still each map was at a larger magnitude than the one before, and still the world revealed was only a quarter of the world mapped out on the page to follow. Continents became islands off of coastlines that became continents. ...

I kept turning the pages.

Would he had.

And there is one more brilliant notion: "graving." Every creature in all the worlds is graved with a sigil (or tattoo) of itself, which fixes its story within the interminable folds—both spatial and temporal—of the Vellum. Though Duncan is none too clear about this (or this reader nodded off), it seems as though a single graving, possibly permutated but always at heart the same graving, can iterate various entities through time and space. No man, in other words, is an island. Different versions of everyone inhabit different versions of everywhere. Those who are "unkin"—those whose gravings are so deep that they can manipulate and fall through prose realities almost at will, like characters out of Moorcock—are normally god gravings, and though not every iteration of an unkin graving will blaze with godhead in every pub after quite a few drinks, this can happen. So the stage is set: venue, map, equilibrists and a great war waging against the purse-strings that Apollo and Metratron and their engravings wish to tighten. And that's just the first 30 pages or so. And that's the rub.

Let there be no misunderstanding here: The first 30 to 50 pages of Vellum seem to promise something very valuable: A tale tooled to illuminate chaos without becoming chaos (which I take as a definition of any great work of art). The next 500 pages, tragically, do not deliver, do not raft the chaos like Huck. Vellum hardly begins before it surrenders. The seeming protagonist, he who discovers the Map in the prologue, becomes wainscot almost immediately. Three human/god entities—their intersecting story fragments uttered almost entirely in short incantatory burps—begin to occupy most of the stage, though it was not entirely clear (at least to me) just how many avatars or singletons or walking puns fall in love with Thomas Messenger, who seems to die lots, like Tammuz. But Inanna (also known as Annie, and, terribly, as Phreedom Messenger) follows him down lots. And Metatron, who wants to retain order throughout the Vellum, tortures Finnan, who is Prometheus, who wants us all to escape the reiterative gravings of the bad old gods; here is Finnan late in the book, doing panto stage-Irish but saying something, for once, that lifts Vellum back towards its challenging start:

—So what if it's Achilles' mother who can have a son that's greater than its father? What if it's Io, too? What if it's any girl, every girl? Any woman? Every woman, Anna. Sure and can't any son be greater than his father? Isn't that what it's all about, what makes us all go on? Ye can't look at the sheer bloody-minded defiance of a wee babe screaming its lungs out at the terrible injustice of the world and not have hope. Every generation of us, all born kicking up a racket, rebels every one of us. So who's the son—the child—that's greater than its father? I'll tell ye who it is, Anna.

—Humanity.

This may seem a little garish out here in the open, and maybe a little long-winded, but coming out of the flamer bombinations of Vellum at its worst, Prometheus's telling us that the fire he brings us is freedom from the Gods Our Father is indeed Good News.

Listening to voices at midnight

But the stickiness of untelling, and the gaucheries of those moments when Duncan seems to be acting as stenographer to his own teenage memories, are abiding. The indistinguishable (but earnestly described) couplings of Tammuz with a bunch of lads are in themselves pretty unmemorable, but there is another problem here, right at the ostensible heart of this interjaculation of the Vellum: I cannot work out how the life of Thomas/Tammuz Messenger as a Puckish gay guy in this world really conflates very convincingly with the Tammuz/Inanna story to which it is tied by gravings deeper than plummet sounds (we're told).

His sister Phreedom's descent into the Underworld in search of him may echo the understory, but somehow too easily; which is where Moorcock's influence may be most damaging, where Moorcock graves Duncan too deeply. In the end, nobody seems to die. There is a lot of scarring—there ain't no such thing as a free grave—and a lot of tearing out of vitals by big birds daily, and a lot of (clearly felt) footage of World War I in which the British officer class can be observed killing its own men (just like fathers or gods, as Duncan makes clear); but the soundbite brevity of almost every narrative segment in the book, and the continual return of dead folk in iterations indistinguishable from hitherto, gradually vitiates the reader's ability to care much if (for instance) Anna is raped to death. Because, like a Moorcock Temporal Adventuress, she comes back the next day like legacy software, fatally untouched, fatally unlivened moreover by Duncan's lip-service attempts to believe in her as more than a program to engender pregnant rebirths.

I'm not sure that the conflation of AI/cyberspace and the Underworld has yet become one of the great stories of our species, though it's getting there, but the killing of the father by the son, who is greater than the father, and who carries us closer to the edge without losing the thread, is one of the great stories that we tell ourselves in hope. I think Hal Duncan has been trying to tell that story here. It is for that reason in particular that his failure to stop listening to the sound of his own voice at midnight pumping seems to be such a grave shame. Because Vellum shreds our caring.


John Clute is a writer, editor, critic and scholar of science fiction. His first novel in 25 years, Appleseed, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. He is the author of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia and co-editor of both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in The New York Times. The Washington Post, Omni, F&SF and elsewhere. Much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays, and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003, which includes almost all of the first 75 "Excessive Candour" columns, and other pieces. Forthcoming is An Historical Dictionary of Horror Literature"; he is also working on a third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, due to go online in late 2007.




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