Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Salvage: A Review.

Robert Edric’s Salvage is a near future tail set in the northern portions of England near the Scottish border about 100 year from now. It is a snapshot tale of a slow collapse. Note that toward the end of the review, I will be giving away slightly more information than the back of the book blurb. Studies show that most people actually prefer to know the conclusion of a book prior to finishing. If you are one of those “unusual” people that wishes to remain in suspense, there is a “teaser alert” later, and don’t read the blurb on the back of the book either.

Robert Edric (a pseudonym of Gary Edric Armitage) writes in a number of different genre, both contemporary and historical literary novels. He is best known for his three “Song” detective novels. There is an interesting early interview from the “Song” period published by Telegraph here.  Edric one of those writers who is sort of famous for not being famous.  He writes in a very literary style that wins awards, and gets his books review, but has never had that runaway success that really put him on the map.

Edric’s England of 100 years hence is a brooding place.  It is wet and dreary.  There is a lot of flooding.  Even in Northern England it has not snowed in 5 years. Although set in the “future” it does not have a science fictional sensibility to it.  What technology there is that is new, is not much different than ours today.  What is new has the same half-assed low cost manufacturing quality that our new technology does today. It works great if the battery isn’t dead.
As the back blurb of the book warns us, the Gulfstream has shut down and weather shifts have left England slowly drowning in a torrent of rain.  The rivers are rising, and they keep building dikes to hold them back, but the dikes are quickly failing, and they need to scramble to build new housing in higher, less flood prone locations.

A secondary problem is that a variety of viral outbreaks have killed off most of the worlds domestic livestock.  The outbreaks occurred in the past, but the viral infected carcasses were disposed of in a hurried fashion, and cleaning up the old dump sites is an important issue.

The story takes place in a small unnamed town.  The main character, Quinn, is a senior auditor who has been sent to straighten out the towns books so that no legal issues will get in the way of the coming new development.  It is a necessary step, but one that makes the small towns leaders nervous.

On arriving at the town, Quinn quickly meets a kindred soul in Anna.  While he is in charge of cleaning up the books, she is in charge of cleaning up any old contaminated sites.

The town is a brooding place. What is odd is that the author seems to have visited it in an earlier novel.  The following is from a review of an earlier novel.  In this novel the Quinn character is an engineer named Weightman:

Edric brings both to his tense little conversational exchanges and Weightman's silent brooding as he goes about his work. At the same time Gathering the Water is, like practically everything Edric has done, full of dense, symbolical moments: Weightman having pointed out to him a "shrike's larder", a thorn-bush on whose points are impaled the bodies of insects and frogs; a luminous scene towards the end in which a sheep-slaughtering butcher hands a watching old man a lump of raw meat, from which he instantly sucks up the blood.
The above quote is from a review of Gathering the Water, a book he wrote six years ago and was reviewed in the (U.K.) Guardian. That book was set in the 1840s, and involved the intentional flooding of a remote valley in England and the forced eviction of its inhabitants. The novel is one of the advertised novels at the back of the book, and one cannot help but feel that Salvage is a dystopian slightly futuristic version of the same tale: history rhyming in novelized form.

What distinguishes the 1840s from the near future is that one is in industrialized terms a “clean slate” while the other is a bureaucratic morass of meaningless reports, and left over toxic waste. It is a world of push button wars where the Panda's in heaven are waiting for the last Polar Bears to join them.  It is also a confusing place.  If real life can be a confusing place, where what is real is like an elephant in a dark room:  appearing like a very different animal depending on what portion you bump into, it is doubly confusing in Edric’s world.

The Guardian interview for his novel, Gathering the Water, made this comment:

He specializes in the fragment, the dropped allusion, the oblique sign-posting that reveals its true significance 20 pages later or, occasionally, fails to reveal it at all.

I am glad that I read that review, because it reinforced what I had already suspected. There is an awful lot of symbolism within the novel, but this symbolism is very difficult to tease out. Where I have seen some negative reviews, I suspect it is this opaque use of symbolism that is pushing people away.

Some of the symbolism is obvious. The author hammers it over your head. At one point he has Quinn spell out King Cnut's name so that you can Wikipedia it. In an earlier age the author would be dropping in references to Greco-Roman mythology all over the place.  As the modern public will have absolutely no ideas who any but the most common figures of mythology are, biblical allusions are the common form here.

[Teaser Alert Start]

One of the townsmen, Winston, the usually drunk, aging, unemployed newspaper reporter at various times takes on the role of Noah warning of the flood, the blind elderly Isaac (father of nations- but more importantly husband of the biblical Rebecca), and is specifically called “a Jeremiah” the profit who warned of the coming destruction of Judah by the Babylonians. That is a lot of symbolism packed into one minor character. His daughter is named Rebecca, and presumably referrers to the wife of Isaac, who tricked her blind husband into passing on his patrimony to Jacob, rather than the crude Esau. But she was also involved in a number of other stories, and if you start involving the non-canonical Jewish tales (the Midrash) that fill in details of the story, it gets even more complicated.

It is Winston who calls one of the local oligarchy King Cnut. Well that's great. But what does it mean? King Knut is a Danish King that took over a huge chunk of the Northern Germanic areas to include much of Scandinavia and England. He was a patron of the church and is not known as a particularly harsh ruler. His heirs died young and of your various pre-Norman conquest rulers of England, he is not particularly well known. So is “Cnut” meant to reference a rapacious Nordic invader?, some sort of failed Viking King?, a patron of the Church? I don't know. Cnut is too obscure and complex of a figure to say Cnut = X.

And that lack of symbolic clarity is somewhat the problem. I don't mind a little veiled symbolism; it can be fun to tease out. He combines some very preachy moments with very obscure symbolism and it just makes an odd mix. The name of our main here is Quinn, which could be interpreted as intelligent counsel. But he is not a counselor, he is an auditor. Does this mean something, or am I reading too much into it? I keep getting the B-52's song Party Out of Bounds running through my head: except the word "Party" is replaced with "Symbolism" (video - or for my friends "Down Under" a Rio Version).

At least one reviewer has said the final is anticlimactic.  It is not.  It is just that it is east to miss the climax because the revelation is obscured.  In short, the big Noah-like flood is a fake-out.  The town survives it and all the towns problems are washed away.  The construction is delayed, but not stopped.  But the flood is not the climax. The very final scene:

He spoke to her, and she turned to him and held the curtain away from her, revealing her face and, in the darkness beyond, the steadily falling snow, each large and drifting flake vivid and separate in the glare of the lights, and each flake seeming to leave behind it some faint and scribbled trace of its own slow decent Ann's skin was cast in the same unnatural glow.

So, this is how it ends, Quinn thought, surprised that he felt neither anguish nor even any true sense of disappointment at the sudden and unexpected understanding, merely a kind of painless regret that passed as quickly as the realization itself. He felt the sudden beating of his heart and the solid pulse of blood in his temples and his wrists.

'Look,' Anna said to him. 'It's snowing.' There was wonder in her voice, and awe.
Recall that this is a world of global warming and the Atlantic Conveyor (The Gulf Stream) has stopped flowing.
Quinn’s world ending reference comes from Yeats:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang, but a whimper
A few lines in a longer poem which we discussed earlier.

And since we have also discussed Frost we know:

The world will end not in fire, but in Ice
And if you go to the end of the Frost link above, you will see a link to a discussion on the Atlantic Conveyor Belt and what may happen if global warming shuts it down: a lot of ice. A whole lot of ice.
So the flooding is the visible obvious danger. But as the snowflakes fall at the end, the author is bringing up the very question of there ever being another spring.  Death by snowflake.
[Teaser Alert End]
Because it is set in Britain, the United States plays somewhat the role (likely odd seeming to many people who are used to U.S. based dystopian settings) of the shining future hope.  More prescient about the animal virus problems, it took earlier measures and has the resources to try and move forward. 

So what is the net assessment?  I enjoyed the book.  It had a great sense of bureaucratic menace that you don’t seem to see much anymore.  Apart from the confusing symbolism, it is a dialog driven book.  The attention to character details is excellent.  If you catch the true meaning of the ending (discussed above in the teaser alert section), it delivers on its menace.

And for or two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings:  For grittiness I would rate it at six (one lowest, seven highest).  I would go with a seven, but the book gets a little bit of a surreal feel from having relatively few characters and reusing the same folks so many times.  At times you could almost believe that, excluding drainage diggers, there are only twenty-two people living in town. 

For readability, I will say it is a three.  On a certain level it is a fairly quick straightforward read: almost a seven.  But a novel where you have to look up King Cnut, figure out symbolism,  where many of the peoples activities are obscure and often remain obscure, cannot be said to be readable in the sense that an action adventure page turner is.  If you have a taste for literary, versus action based, fiction, you will likely find it enjoyable.

Robert Edric

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