Sunday, 22 November 2009

Martin Martin's On the Other Side by Mark Wernham

This is a satirical near future dystopian reality head-fuck, not a hundred miles from The Red Men, and was also nominated for the Clarke Award (losing out to Ian McLeod's Song of Time, which I haven't read). Jensen Interceptor is a minor civil servant in an oppressive future Britain where the population is kept distracted from civil liberties by cheap drugs and game shows and tawdry celebrity crap. Unexpectedly he's drafted into the secret service to spy on a cell of terrorists who believe in a TV psychic messiah from the early 20th century and finds his loyalties tested as he is drawn to their teachings.

This isn't a very original premise, but makes for a hugely entertaining novel, based mainly on the brilliantly sustained voice of Jensen Interceptor. He's kind of an innocent, I guess, wide eyed and good natured charismatic and appealing despite his appalling vacuity. It's effortlessly fluid and clever, with a funny turn of phrase and well-captured jauntiness that make it a pleasure to spend time with him. Later, as he gets embroiled in the plot of the Martin Martinist terrorists, his hapless and wilful attempts at spying generate more humour, and because Wernham keeps Jensen as an affable fool, his moral confusion is sympathetic and interesting. Despite his grotesqueness, I really felt for old Jensen as he struggled to make sense of his experiences.

There are a number of other stand out scenes, not directly connected to Jensen that display Wernham's sympathetic eye for human emotions and ability to communicate them with great power, for example, Emile Henderson's post-mortem confrontation with Jack Jackson or when Jensen is allowed to view the memories of the old lady in the cafe (which reminded me so much of Winston Smith and Julia fiding peace out of sight of the screens in 1984 that I have to wonder if this was a direct reference). Wernham's clearlt a writer of great ability.

It all unravels somewhat in the last fifty pages or so, and I think Wernham made some bad decisions regarding the plot. Making Claire – Jensen's madonna-like moral compass among the Martin Martinists – one of “them” came totally out of the blue, and Reg made for a very unconvincing bomber. These sudden character twists revealed the hand of the author at work, pushing the plot in an unnatural direction.

I was also underwhelmed by the ideas of manipulating humanity's baser instincts with an aim for social control. It seems to me that the thinking behind this wasn't fully explored – what's the goal of this society? It didn't really seem much better than the current world at controlling eruptions of violence, and there was no secret elite protecting their own way of life like the inner party in 1984. I think an accidental tyranny of the lowest common dominator is at once more convincing and more chilling than the “manipulated by THEM” conclusion presented (albeit with great passion) here. I guess part of my problem with this is that I have written very similar stories myself. I think I always aim for a resolution of the conficting impulses of society, between difficult freedoms and easy but oppressive comfort. I don't see why you can't enjoy a weekend caning drugs and fucking big-titted bimbos and then get back to making the world a better place during the week(if only my life were so!)

There's also something a little retro about gender relations Jensen Interceptor's. Aside from Claire and the old lady in the cafe, the only women around are bimbos ripe for the fucking. There's no female equivalent of Jensen, no Fat Slags types getting bladdered and showing their knickers on a Friday night. I have to say that as much as i enjoyed this book, I kept coming back to this point and found it rather distracting. This raises the question of whether writers obliged to reflect these kinds of equal opportunities issues. While I'm not sure I'd say they're obliged to do so, in this case I felt that women were reduced to such shallow clich├ęs that it made me distrust the rest of the setting. Because women were so absurdly under-represented I couldn't believe in Jensen's world as a real place.

Despite these caveats I found this a hugely enjoyable book, particularly for the first 200 pages. Highly recommended!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.