Reading: Tony Ballantyne – Twisted Metal

After a gap of some years between reading Capacity, I finally dug my way through Tony Ballantyne’s Divergence and Recursion, reading the first last, and it was remarkable how the story unfolds when read non-sequentially; possibly better than if I’d read in order. And with the arrival of last of the trilogy, also carried home in my bag was the first of The Robot Wars (or Penrose), Twisted Metal.

Having read two works by the same author in quick succession, I get a feeling for how they write, the choice of words, the personalities of characters, the perspective from where the work is written, and a sense of when a scene or narrative thread is compelling and accomplished, or when it drags and succumbs to being mere words on paper.

Different authors leave a different taste also — or texture maybe, which is probably why I stick to authors that don’t leave me feeling like I’m suffering the aftereffects of a fever or sickness. Not to say I’m insinuating an author is so bad I feel ill, it’s possibly more like a Burroughsean language virus, where some authors combine words, narratives, inclinations into a stratum beneath the story that affects me like eating something disagreeable.

It’s also a cumulative thing. A short story seldom contains enough density to induce this weirdness; though one book by the right author is sufficient to bring on the uneasy disturbances well before the first third is up. Ballantyne doesn’t have the full disequilibriating influence on me some other authors do, and I think it’s a trait of writing pronounced in sci-fi or sometimes fantasy, but he did instigate some peculiar and strange dreams.

Separate but accompanying this macabre choice of language, is the author’s own biases. Often obvious, or revealing themselves unambiguously over the course of several books (Neal Stephenson and William Gibson are two prime examples), this superficial and uncritical choice of narrative structures and elements is far easier to locate and cause me to dispense with reading the author again.

Ballantyne slips into this, a tiresome habit of male, white, european science-fiction writers, wherein despite being a couple of hundred years in the future, with changes in culture possibly more radical than that from neanderthal to early 21st century, the default culture of late-20th century — that of the author’s formative years, is firmly and unquestioningly embedded. It’s usually enough to make me put the book down. Or throw it.

So when Twisted Metal begins with the premise of a planet of robots, and these robots are sexually dimorphic and ostensibly heterosexual, and married, and the point of view is of the male robot, I wonder if it will reward my effort in any meaningful way to push through the first pages.

Essentially, I can’t make sense of this, when a conceptually robust world-building bashes into 1970s Terran heteronormativity. And not as a plot element. The problem is these authors aren’t stupid. They’re able to write novels in a specific genre of high enough quality to be repeatedly published, are absolutely no slouches when it comes to the math, science, physics and so on of the scenes and worlds they populate, often even have very engaging female characters (this in Capacity is what led me to read the other two of the series), and yet it’s as if only the barest fleeting acquaintance with the past forty years of feminism (in its entirety) has brushed by them.

Which is why I read China Miéville, Iain Banks, Charles Stross. Not to imply they are perfect, and it’s confusing for me they also happen to be white european males (i.e. that I have yet to firmly establish a non~ author in my favourites), but perhaps to say fundamentally they appreciate that if the setting is not Earth, Europe, Contemporary Era, then it’s unequivocal that gender, identity, desire cannot be uncritically of that era either. And even if it is this setting, as Charlie beautifully demonstrates in Rule 34, it’s entirely plausible the entire cast are somewhere in the etcQTBLG phase space.

Perhaps I won’t make it far through Twisted Metal then. Not to worry, I have Miéville’s Railsea in my pile and Charlie’s latest about to heave its way into me view, and Iain of the M. variety has a new Culture novel out in a couple of months, as well as Poetry of the Taliban and a few other China books being worked through … it’s not as though I’m short of quality reading material, and if the author can’t be arsed enough to get a grip on the state of play in 2012, I certainly can’t be arsed encouraging them with my euros and time.

Tony Ballantyne — Twisted Metal
Tony Ballantyne — Twisted Metal