Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Memoria- A Corporation of Lies: A Review

Alex Bobl's Memoria: A Corporation of Lies (at smashwords)(translation from Russian: Irene Galaktionova) is a post-apocalyptic noir dystopian action-thriller set in a near future.  The collapse was brought on by inter-state resource wars.  At the time of the story the fighting is in the past, although refugees, and veterans of the conflict play a prominant part in the story line.  For the term noir, here we will use Merriam-Webster’s definition: Crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.   Add in a little bit of speculative science fiction, and you have quite a mix.

Cover art was by Vladimir Manyukhin

Alex Bobl, an ex-Russian paratrooper, started writing in 2007 and has already produced 16 novels, the best known within the (now translated) S.T.A.L.K.E.R setting, and also has an interesting blog where he discusses (in English) Russian post-apocalyptia and feature artwork and interviews. Memoria is his first novel that has been translated to English.  He is currently living in Moscow with his wife and two boys.

Our hero, Frank, is a lawyer working for Memoria, and the novel starts with his return from an important business meeting in the mostly rebuilt, but still post-collapse, Washington, D.C.  It does not take him long to get himself framed for a crime, and find himself on the lamb.  Shadowy villainous figures are stalking him, and murder and mayhem flourish when Frank and villains cross paths.

Memoria, the Corporation,  has the technology to read peoples memories, and erase the painful moments.  The path to abuse is rather obvious.  To some degree it reminded me of the slightly more subtle scheme in the Australian near future dystopian Yellowcake Springs.  Here, since we are in noir pulp thriller territory, the plotting is a little more over the top.  If they are so good at mental manipulations, it seems like it would be easier to just sell everyone cheap gin, or maybe Vodka in this case, and than just mentally erase the hangover.  The money would roll in.

There was a note at the author's website that its Russian language addition had come out to some  'controversial' reviews. Possibly some people found it a bit chauvinistic in tone.  Its "noir" setting is a bit overplayed.  Are you really going to have future New York City police officers debating the merits of a potential subjects phrenology?   Men dominate the power positions, the bad guy thugs are all men.  Most of the good guys are men, except for one daughter who mostly brings the men their food, along with the occasional biting and scratching in the combat scenes.  All of this would be extremely normal in a 1950s era- noir pulp novel.  But we are supposed to be in the future here.  There are dystopian feminist run future worlds (Gate to Woman's Country comes to mind), so presumably a future chauvinist male future would be fare game - but at least some explanation, or lip service toward this change would be in order.

A lot of Russian post-apocalyptic literature, I gather, is tied in with computer games. This no doubt leads to novels heavy on action. A lot of the original noir novels, moved along a little slower, and less violently, than some of today's page-turners.  Noir balances more toward the action end of the scale.

Did I enjoy the novel?  It had its interesting moments, and I would give it a qualified recommendation.   Combining elements of 1950s noir-crime fiction, modern day action adventure, and post-apocalyptic dystopia, it tended to address each element reasonably well at times, but sequentially rather than concurrently.  As the novel rolls along at a relentless pace, the mood shifts. Starting with a heavy noir feel, it later turns itself into a bit more of a mission impossible meets 1970s New York City cop show. The post-apocalyptic theme is mostly back story to explain the odd cast of characters.  Part of the problem is personal bias on my part: the genre: noir pulp detective fiction is not my favorite literary style. It is one of the few genre, where I like the movies better than the written work.

At times the translation is a bit quirky, nothing incomprehensible, but it is not a New York City style dialect.  I gather that the norm is for the translator to translate toward their native language, not from it.  In other words, if I became a translator, I would translate novels from Inuit (Eskimo) to English, rather than  the reverse.  When translating into a non-native language, it is inevitable that a few idioms are going to get mangled along the way.  The hand-to hand combat scenes are probably impossible to give a smooth translation. They are not easily written in English. Robert B. Parker's Spencer comest to mind.  Spencer had one good fight scene in him, and you better like it because you were going to see the scene over, and over, and over again in every novel. 

With a word count listed at around 73,470, it is longer than the Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon (67,000), but shorter than William Gibson's Neuromancer (79,000).   Givin the strength of the plotting, it could have stayed closer to the lower number without giving up too much.

The depiction of the noir setting strikes me as being fairly close to genre standards.  It is a little more up beat than some of the more famous examples; nobody is killed by their girlfriend. I would feel safer recommending it as a quirky noir crime fiction, than as a quirky - dystopian future.

We now move on to our descriptive  ratings (1 to 7 with 7 being highest): Realism and readability.

Realism here is meant to describe a sense of impending reality for the reader:  does this story line hold at least a potential future course of events for them.  Noir fiction, gloomy though it may be, is not particularly realistic fiction.  It plays with its audience and uses a variety of tricks to mislead the audience so as to bring on the unexpected twist at the end.  Action adventures feature bulletproof heroes enduring ridiculous hardships.  There is an additional science fictional content to the story that has a lot in common with Doctor Frankensteins laboratory.  It is all good fun, but it is not very "real."  Realism is one point below average: 3.

Readability is fairly straightforward.  There is very little real symbolism.  The "noir" is more in the settings tone, than in any illusionary trickery on the part of the writer.  There is a little clumsiness with some of the "vernacular" language, but the only confusing sections are some of the combat scenes.  Since combat is inherently confusing, I am not sure that that is not a reflection of the original in any case.  I wouldn't call it a page turner, but other than one short stretch in the middle, it generally keeps the scene shifting.  Readability is one point above the average: 5.


Giselle said...

Oh this sounds very interesting. Very... intense and deeper than what I usually read so I'm curious! >.< Great review!

russell1200 said...

Giselle: The translated- international novels in general are a pretty intense lot. Why translate the mediocre?

This doesn't come even close to being the most intense.

Which doesn't explain why the Canadians, as a whole, seem to also be better than average. Of course Margaret Atwood destroys the curve.

Alex Bobl said...

Thanks a lot for great review!

russell1200 said...

Alex: Truthfully mashups (genre combinations) usually do give me fits. Since I try and address the novels at least somewhat outside my personal preferences (eclectic), it is hard to know which elements to address.

FWIW, I think old fashioned noir may be the one of the hardest genres to reserect for a modern audience. I remember going to a noir movie revival over a decade ago, and all of the audience was wearing black oufits, with the black or dark makeup look. The audience was more noir than the movies.