It is famously said that there are only N different stories in the world, where N is a number constantly argued over but almost always less than 10. The art of being a writer is to take one of these ur-stories and craft it into something new and unique. Sometimes that can take the form of following a plot: boy meets girl, they fall in love, they argue, they reconcile, they live happily ever after. Other times it can be far more brazen. That’s especially so in science fiction where we have this idea called The Conversation.
What that means it that science fiction is constantly in conversation with itself. When someone writes a new time travel story, they are always in conversation with H.G. Wells, and with the many time travel stories that have been written since. Can you change the past? Can you kill your grandfather without killing yourself? Is there only one future, or are there many? Time and time again, these issues are addressed. As with the ur-stories, the trick is to do so in a fresh and interesting manner.
Some stories, however, cast such shadows over the landscape, that few writers dare to tread in them. How can one improve on a legend? Well, perhaps by mashing it up with another legend. And perhaps by asking it to address the greatest question of the age.
Over the past decade, many writers have produced what they think of as their 9/11 story. The fall of the Twin Towers left an indelible stain on the collective unconscious. Each fiction writer has looked at that mark, and performed her own Rorschach test on it. The pictures that they have seen have been many and varied. Lavie Tidhar, it seems, saw San Francisco, a black bird, and the rising sun. He saw something so audacious that many writers would quail before the responsibility of such an undertaking. Tidhar, it appears, has no fear.
Our hero is named Joe, though he could easily have been named Sam, for he is a private detective. He has a dingy office, a bottle of whisky, and no clients. A beautiful dame walks in. She asks him to find someone for her. The office is not in San Francisco, it is in Vientane in Laos. That’s perhaps not important, save that Laos is a pretty nice place to be. That should be a warning that not is all what it seems.
Time passes. Joe works on the case. He’s after a writer improbably called Mike Longshott, the author of a series of pulp novels. The hero of these novels is Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante. They seem to involve a lot of people getting blown up. Joe travels to Paris, to London, to New York. Pulp novels demand such locations, such globe-trotting. But as he travels it becomes obvious that we are not in Kansas any more. This is a world in which Bin Laden is a fictional character. As we read on we discover that Joe’s world is quite different from ours: not as technologically advanced, but far safer. There is no war on terror, no war on drugs.
As you may have noticed, what Tidhar has in Osama is mash up The Maltese Falcon with The Man in the High Castle. It is an astonishingly audacious thing to do, and he has done it to make a novel about 9/11. For an encore he will perform a quadruple somersault without a net over a pool filled with hungry piranhas while locked in a straightjacket. He might succeed at that too.
The reason he succeeds is the thing I can’t tell you much about, because it would be too spoilerly. All I can say is that, as with The Man in the High Castle, there is a question as to which world is actually real. Is it ours? Is it the world of the book? Are they both real? Can we pass between them, and if so how? There is an answer, but you won’t see the full picture until the final chapter, and the chances are it will hit you like a freight train.
There are, of course, things you may not like much about the book. It is, after all, a noir detective novel. That’s not the sort of book where you get much in the way of interesting female characters. There are also, I think, places where Tidhar tries a little too hard with the style. Overall, however, it is a phenomenal achievement. I’d have no hesitation recommending it to a wide audience, because it is just the sort of science fiction that a mainstream audience would find easily accessible. Why it is published by PS Publishing is a mystery to me, other than to note that Pete Crowther is a very wise man who is unafraid to take a risk on a very brave book.
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