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Friday 10 May 2002

The Great Escape, by Ian Watson
(Golden Gryphon Press, May 2002)

Reviewed by Nick Gevers

Like Ian Watson’s previous collections, The Great Escape is a treasury of sly concepts, a Pandora’s Box of often apocalyptic mischief. Watson can be eminently serious — several of the stories here are sober reflections on issues of some immediacy — but even then, there is a joy in experimentation, an exuberant refusal to be dry or orthodox, that is the mark of an intellectual trickster, restlessly eager to play the cunning fool with our minds. Yes: if Science Fiction is a kingdom of ideas, Watson is its arch-jester; and he’s never more diverting than when he wears the motley of his assembled short fiction, a patch of cybernetic gray here, a square of stygian black there, a glimpse of hellfire red yonder, all with a paradoxical antic glow. The knowing diversity of images in Ron Walotsky’s superb cover painting sums this up beautifully.

By his own account, Watson is an artificer of connections — he juxtaposes several unusual ideas, they merge almost of themselves into a narrative, and another striking fictional hybrid is born. This technique is extraordinarily fecund; it can result in an appearance of lopsidedness in some stories, of a steady felicitous build-up of thought that peters out, as if critical mass could not quite be reached, as in “Three-Legged Dog”, the book’s opening story; but more usually, the conceptual marriage is darkly or whimsically appropriate. Watson is fascinated with questions of human perception, in particular the part played by language — Chomsky’s deep grammar — in shaping us and dictating our thoughts, words, actions, our very illusion of continuous conscious selfhood; the Continental linguistic theorists who have influenced him, and his own grounding in the British tradition of the cognitively exploratory scientific romance, impart real rigor to his imaginative projections. So his tales, daring chimeras of concept, play with informed ingenuity to, and on, our more skewed and symbolically rich ways of viewing the phenomenal world; they interrogate our dreams, especially those born of genre...

Take “The Great Escape” itself. This is a fifteen-page story set in Hell, with some neat tricks to complicate the setting; the angels assigned by God (or Whomever) to keep a close eye on the wiles of Satan are troubled by A Sense That Something Is Wickedly Amiss (the reader had better prepare for a similar, pervasive, sensation as the book advances). Not to give too much away, Watson’s demons are conspiring a mass breakout; and it doesn’t require especial acuity to recognize that the tortured souls in Hell are ourselves, poor sufferers on this mortal plane, that the demons are the SF writers and fantasists who may just torment us into conceiving alternatives to the dull normality that oppresses us, and that the angels are the censors, the boring dutiful old farts who would keep us in our quotidian places. The Great Escape is an essential act of desertion, a ticket to testing paradises of the mind; and The Great Escape is a marvelous collective goad in that direction. It is a guide to constructive escapism.

And so Watson repeatedly describes things of the imagination — linguistic constructs, basically — becoming governing metaphors for everyday lives; sometimes, as a caution, he makes these destructive, but often they are redemptive. The destructive possibilities first. In “The Amber Room”, a man’s obsession with the eponymous legendary chamber instantiates it as his subjective or visionary dungeon, the place where his guilt and desire will eternally feed on themselves. Despite the inward horror of this, Watson’s light touch is never altogether absent; “The Amber Room” is also full of the lunatic love of hang-gliding, and the low farce of intrigue in dilapidated Kaliningrad. The joke is on the narrator in “When Thought-Mail Failed”, a brisk Orwellian look at the downfall of a hive-mind utopia, and the reinvention of the totalitarian wheel afterwards — memes eagerly recolonize the Earth, mind conquering matter. Exploiting a private interest of his, Watson allows cheap Japanese ceramic kitsch to possess the fancies, and involute the affections, of a married couple in the sinisterly hilarious “The China Cottage”; “Early, in the Evening” relates the triumph of wily Time as human consciousness, in a failure of intuition, loses purchase on it; and “Tulips From Amsterdam”, a brilliant succession of nested reminiscences, masterfully summarizes how the mind succumbs to its memetic parasites or creators. This is all dagger-in-the-ribs storytelling, penetratingly weird, savagely discomfiting; fortunately, there is some relief in the more upbeat examples of imaginative fixation that Watson presents...

The five negative case studies are balanced, if subversively and sardonically, by such stories as: “The Shape of Murder”, in which a celebrated Belgian detective, being the best idea around on a starship carrying an alien emissary to Earth, becomes literally embodied; “Such Dedication”, the utterly Watsonian central conceit of which, that Christ’s twin brother might make an ideal first interstellar astronaut, evolves into an absolute psychological necessity; “What Actually Happened in Docklands”, featuring Ian Watson himself as a dreamer whose dreams, with the assistance of lightly-disguised versions of John Clute and Robert Holdstock, describe and redeem the world, or at least a Fantasy Convention; “The Boy Who Lost an Hour, the Girl Who Lost Her Life”, a heart-wrenching interpretation of autism as a state dependent on childhood readings of the moon; and “The Descent”, in which alien memes take the entire benighted human species out of itself. “The Descent” is distinctly ambivalent about the metamorphosis it depicts; in a further tale, “The Last Beast out of the Box”, there is a profound sense that the fancies Watson incarnates in his stories are reflections of a reality too devastating ultimately to contemplate; but at least reality has meantime been mooted, illumined, reinterpreted, placed in the context of the probable functionings of our minds, those grammatical semblances of conscious coherence. Amidst their general japery, Watson’s perverse parables of perception tell us what we are, and if memes indeed make us, maybe that is best couched as a joke.

The joke resounds. Other stories are mordant indeed. “A Day Without Dad” considers postmodern life as a form of ancestor worship. “Caucus Winter” and “Nanunculus” assert, the one directly, the other obliquely, that we serve simply to iterate the AIs that succeed us-memes progressing into silicon. “Ahead!” is a cruel parody of the expectations of those whose heads are cryogenically preserved. “My Vampire Cake” concerns the death of one undead by an overindulgence in icing — perhaps a good choice to close off The Great Escape, lest the reader surfeit on escapism and insight. Visionary overload threatens. The story-memes are out in overwhelming force as the book’s covers hurriedly close. They close, and the reader is himself, or herself, once again; but we are such stuff as memes are made on, and there is no escape save The Great Escape—

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in the Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue, of which he co-edited), Foundation, SF Site, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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