Black Bottle by Anthony Huso
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
26 October 2012
In a recent essay, itself a response to the complaint of Paul Kincaid that science fiction has become an exhausted literature, Jonathan McCalmont has attempted to chart the manner in which a genre lost its way. "The most obvious manifestation of science fiction's exhaustion with the future," he writes, "has been an intentional blurring of the line between that which was traditionally thought of as science fiction and that which was traditionally thought of as fantasy." McCalmont singles out two tendencies—the New Weird and steampunk—as indicative of this saddest of trends.
Whether steampunk and the New Weird really are the faces of the postmodern malaise in science fiction, and whether it is quite possible to construct any grand narrative of what has become a diffuse and heterodox genre (or perhaps, more holistically, what is at this point a tradition), McCalmont is on sounder ground in his suggestion that SF has stepped back from real-world relevance. Six years ago and in this very space, I argued in a review of David Marusek's Counting Heads (2005) that, "Whether in despair at the impending singularity, or [in] simple acceptance that SF has so often got the future wrong that it has become pointless to pretend you think you're right, a fair chunk of recent science fiction has seemed more interested in game-playing than ambition—emphasising genre navel-gazing rather than any serious discussion." There is comfort in retreat.
Black Bottle, Anthony Huso's sequel to his debut book The Last Page (2010), allies itself squarely with the work of writers such as China Miéville and Steph Swainston. Where those writers texturized traditional high fantasy with clockwork mechanics and tabloid culture, Huso follows: in his world, feudal states vie for ancestral power whilst kept in check by newspapers; the contemporary demotic jostles for position with the arcane language of swords-and-sorcery magic; and weird technologies—holomorphy and solvitriol—power the flying machines laying siege to castles and keeps. If there is anything approaching a broad trend in science fictional fantasy, Huso is very much a part of it.
Furthermore, he appears at first to be using the trend in a fashion counter to McCalmont's characterisation of its apostate tendency. As the book opens, the reader approaches the great northern walls of Stonehold with Taelin Rae, a traveler from the southern hegemony of Pandragor. Stonehold is a city she believes to be godless and in need of the church she intends to establish. She recalls as she nears its gates "the summer before last, when the world had changed": a diplomatic vessel had been shot down in the north, and "the victims of the crash had been picked over by northerners" (p. 2). One recalls the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia even before Taelin mentions "her fear over Stonehold's solvitriol program," or the betrayal by "the provincial leader Pandragor had been backing" (p. 2). These early intimations of some resonant political project, however, come to little: on the very next page the quality of Taelin's breasts is twice emphasized by Huso, and on the one after that he is already indulging in the kind of sub-Miévillian wordplay that will come to mar his prose ("a street labelled Sedge Way" (p. 4)). Black Bottle very quickly establishes where it stands on the matter of pretending to contemporary relevance: it will prefer to play generic games and paint comic book cover pictures.
In the story of Caliph Howl, High King of the north, and his consort, the suspected and distrusted witch Sena Ilool, Black Bottle deals—of course—with an existential, mystical threat to its world and the way in which its cast of characters come to fight it. There are reversals—the reader will not be surprised that Taelin does not remain a partisan Pandragorian for long—and there are divided loyalties—it very quickly becomes apparent, for instance, that the witchcraft Sena used in The Last Page to revive Caliph from the dead is not without its cost. There are high politics—a diplomatic mission offers Huso the opportunity to write the kind of serpentine dialogue necessary in this kind of context, which he does not fail to miss—and there is low skulduggery—the now-obligatory violence of this kind of fantasy is, naturally, present and correct. There's a coven of sassy witches ("each of them was improbably attractive" (p. 236)), a number of priggish aristocrats, and a predictably mysterious spymaster. Zeppelins disappear from the sky with a click of Sena's fingers, the distant past returns to haunt and manipulate the present, and Caliph reads interminable tracts of other people's diaries in an attempt to provide the necessary exposition.
In the course of recounting all this, if Huso eschews the often schematicized narrative techniques of the video games which are his day job, in the process he loses in large part any sense of forward momentum. Scenes drag by in torrents of redundant prose; characters speak in similar voices about apparently important things; the curious distensions of time and space which are part and parcel of the Cthulu-ish magic which powers the book's millennial plot are never quite captured on the page—a sense of the gravity and significance of what is occurring when Caliph's uncle reaches into the present from the past, and Sena seems possessed by entities other than herself, is entirely missing. Huso appears to be challenged by the Byzantine complexity of his own story. Characters, faced with unsympathetic superhumans and clear-as-mud metaphysics, simply iterate and reiterate their situations. "'We can’t let the Iycestokians win,' said Taelin. 'We need to make it to Bablemum!'" (p. 319). This is how Huso does—or doesn't do—narrative direction.
Indeed, ultimately Black Bottle's problem is the writing—it hobbles what might (or might not) have been an interesting story first by drowning it in verbiage and then, when it gets to the point, blunting it with bathos. When, late in the book, Caliph takes a life-threatening risk in trusting another character, we are told: "He believed in her not because she had earned it but because he had always thought himself to be a better-than-average judge of character" (p. 427). This poorly-judged line undercuts one of the novel's key moments of decision by likening it to the thought process one goes through when sizing up a used-car salesman. In another key scene of drama, the hopelessly outnumbered witches guard their sanctuary: "Two hundred twenty-two women. Hardly a crowd. More like a number of tourists on a slow day" (p. 366). Why tourists? Does a mere crowd often defend things to the hilt? Does Huso want us to care, or is he conducting some kind of experiment on his frustrated readers?
In short, the novel's diction is disastrous, rendering its fabric dull and featureless. Fear makes a "heart bang like a caged finch" (p. 251); stepping into the shadows and disappearing, "Sena shanked into the dark" (p. 300); we are told of "a homecoming that carved his internal calendar up with anxiety" (p. 24); at another point, we are told, Caliph's "whole body congealed" (p. 134). What, really, do any of these lines mean? Does a caged bird really bang against the bars? Has Huso looked up "shank" in a dictionary? What is an internal calendar, and how can anxiety be used to tear it up? And, this last a question I rather dread to ask, what might a congealed body look like?
In part, one feels that Huso is over-stretching—that he is so inspired by Miéville, a writer of such gift, that he falls over himself trying to plot and to write similarly. In this reading, "shanked" is an unfortunate neologism rather than simply the wrong word. Huso's habit of transcribing alien languages and footnoting them comes to seem an attempt to ape the King of the New Weird's fascination with the permeability and alien qualities of language. And lines like, "Its silvery-gold hand pushed off the glass-black floor" (p. 188) can be read as pale ventriloquisms. This doesn't really rescue Huso from criticism, but it begins to make sense of a novel which, on both the macro but also the micro level, can at times seem senseless. Huso writes that "papers puffed slightly at the edges every time Caliph's fingers struck them" (p. 20); a further character, we are told, "tossed another drink past his teeth" (p. 203). These are the words of a writer trying too hard to be clever, to think of new ways of describing simple things—actions and effects which are so commonplace as to hardly require description at all. The China Miévilles of this world might be able to cast new light on such lines; the Husos of this world are probably better suited to economy.
All this leaves the story mired in accident, and it becomes difficult to draw out salience from the glutted page. The withered attempts to enliven what are at times indecipherable proceedings, to jump on a bandwagon which has itself long since become part of the generic landscape, fail to do for Huso's story what Sena does for Caliph Howl—revive it. The early matching of Pandragor with the USA—it suffered a Civil War in ’61 and perceives itself to be "the freest country north or south of the Tehesh Plateau" (p. 38)—come to very little, perhaps because by its very nature the novel itself isn't capable of very much. Either way, however, Black Bottle's focus turns rapidly inwards—to sexing-up magic or telling Westerosian tales of aristocratic derring-do. We have seen this done before and better, and reading Huso is to be left wondering what the point was.
The novel ends on a disquieting note—this one deliberate—and in this it gently subverts the triumphant close of many epic fantasies traditional and modern . . . but after 444 pages, that is much too little far too late. Black Bottle is both exhausting and exhausted—it is, perhaps, a small proof of the non-direction in which the whiz-bang of fantastical science fiction, with its "chemiostatic" cars and unlikely lithographic news media, have taken the genre. The only way, on this evidence, is down and out.