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52 Books #12: The Affinity Bridge

March 28, 2011

Common questions asked when I admit (cringingly, waiting to be called out on it) to new acquaintances that I am ‘a writer’: ‘What’s your book about?’ (This gets a confused reply.) ‘Do you have an agent?’ (Though no-one, annoyingly, has asked this since I actually got my agent.) And most confoundingly, ‘What genre is it?’ This used to annoy me — having to say, ‘It’s not really in any genre, it’s literary’ — until I started to realise, via an article in the Guardian, a response or two by  well-respected fantasy author M. John Harrison, and several conversations with m’colleague Tim (I don’t have a link for him) — that ‘literary’ has come to mean something as restricted and traduced as ‘science-fiction/fantasy’, ‘romance’ or ‘Western’ (to use the most common genre subdividers in bookstore). One of the things which prevented me boxing off ‘literary’ into a genre-category of its own is a sort of double-negative: ‘”Literary” fiction,’ I might have said, ‘is not badly-written in the way “genre” fiction often is.’

Well, this is of course a subjective sort of thing: in the above-linked post I took to task The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey, which gussies up its plot with prose that looks like it’s well-written, poetic, original etc, but in fact obfuscates rather than illuminates the action it describes. “Literary” language and ‘pretentious’ language: there’s quite an overlap. This is not to say that “genre” fiction doesn’t have its fair share of the pompous and meaningless (see Adam Roberts’s amusing reviews of Robert Jordan’s interminable Wheel of Time cycle for many, many examples). But the difference in my mind has tended to be this: literary fiction is, by (faulty) definition, well-written. Genre fiction (though not by definition, of course) is not.

And so, at length, to The Affinity Bridge by George Mann (Snowbooks), a ‘steampunk’ novel which populates a Victorian detective story with some of the tropes of SF and fantasy: zombies, robots and automated vehicles. It’s 1901 and an airship has crashed in Finsbury Park, killing all the passengers — but the robot pilot has vanished. Meantime, the police are investigating a seemingly unconnected spate of violent murders in the Limehouse slums, and following up reports of an eerily glowing figure seen at the scene of the crime. Meanwhile ravening zombies, or ‘revenants’, are lurking in the pea-souper fogs, ready to devour unwary Londoners…

Our heroes are the suave Sir Maurice Newbury, a Crown investigator in the employ of a Queen Victoria kept artificially alive by anachronistic medical technologies, and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, about whom I can tell you roughly as much as the author does: she’s pretty, she likes breaking down doors, and she has a sister. There is — spoilers! — some reason for her to be less fully characterised than one would hope (this is revealed in the Epilogue, a lead-in to future books in an ongoing series featuring this pair), but rather more could have been done with her nonetheless. I visualised them rather as Adam Adamant and Miss Jones from Adam Adamant Lives, but without the delightful tension of clashing politics those two enjoyed. (In fact, Mann subverts the will-they-won’t-they plot familiar from all manner of investigatory duos by having Newbury and Hobbes become openly attracted to one another fairly early on in their adventures.)

The book moves along briskly, as Newbury and Hobbes investigate the crashed airship, the murders in Limehouse and — rather sidelined — the disappearance of Newbury’s housemaid’s brother and of one of the Queen’s relatives. These latter two get forgotten about for much of the book and their plotlines are wound up somewhat summarily, the case of the missing brother solved by a neat coincidence which makes the book creak rather more than clockwork men and flesh-eating zombies do. And, just to be on the safe side, Mann throws in the character of Veronica Hobbes’s sister, incarcerated in an asylum, who has the fortunate talent of seeing not just into the future but about two hundred pages further into the book, meaning that she gives a dirty great clue to proceedings at the hundred-page mark, ensuring the reader is somewhat ahead of the characters thereafter, waiting for them to catch up. Since part of the pleasure in mysteries is trying to second-guess the sleuths, this rather takes the fun out of The Affinity Bridge.

What’s more, my old literary-vs-genre hackles were raised throughout Mann’s novel, because the prose is pretty awful throughout. Hackneyed phrasing abounds  — Newbury tells a police colleague there is “more than meets the eye” to a case; a character has “raven-black hair”; Hobbes is, as noted above, described simply as “pretty” — and words are squandered willy-nilly: as early as the Prologue, we find a character “scrambl[ing] hurriedly” for his gun. On other occasions the adverbs are just bizarre: on p.181, a character shows he’s offended by “strolling pointedly from the room”. It’s not just the prose: the dialogue is frequently woeful and anodyne (I winced especially at Scottish housekeeper Mrs Coulthard beginning a sentence with “I ain’t”, and wondered whether Victorian ladies would really introduce themselves to one another, as they do throughout, with the formulation “My name is Mss Veronica Hobbes”).

So much for the humans: what of the technology? I’ll just about allow “automatons” as the plural for the robots who populate the novel (though I think “automata”, being more old-fashioned, would be apt for the Victorian setting). There’s no excuse, however, for airships being constructed and housed in “hangers” throughout, ensuring a very strange mental image, and — though no engineer — I’m pretty sure that an airship which travels so close to the ground that its passage ruffles the hair of those on the ground beneath it, couldn’t possibly leave the “vapour trails” the one on p.21 does.

One final niggle, over an error which permeates the entire text: Mann doesn’t know that the past tense of  “may” is “might”. A triple-whammy of misuses on p.125 (“she could see how the [automaton] may have found itself confused” and two other howlers) left me writhing on the floor in despair. Didn’t Mann have a proof-reader? An editor? A best friend? If there was an editor, he can’t have been reading very closely otherwise he’d have noticed that a description of the ‘glowing policeman’ case which appears in Chapter One is repeated almost verbatim in Chapter Three (pp.19-20 and p.38 respectively). Okay: this is pretty pedantic, but if the argument is that a romp can get away with being imprecise in its language, because you’re getting swept along by a fast-moving and engaging plot — somewhat an inversion of the (improbable) argument that it doesn’t matter if nothing much happens in a literary novel because the prose will be pretty enough you don’t really mind — then I don’t think it’s unreasonable that workmanlike prose be tightened to at least be syntactically correct so the reader actually can buy into that fast-moving plot rather than scanning sentences for misused grammar.

This is the problem, then: Mann is highly-praised, obviously influential within SF circles, prolific, and a perceptive commentator, going by his blog. (He’s also, which earns him bonus points, a Doctor Who fan, having written for the Big Finish audios and penned one of the tie-in novels.) Yet this book is badly written, poorly characterised, and seems to lack even the confidence in its readers not to chivvy them along with a blatantly self-serving fortune-teller a third of the way in. On the other hand, the dynamic setpieces — Newbury battling murderous living cadavers, crazed knife-wielding automatons, and the clockwork men’s psychopathic inventor — are impressive in a way that action sequences in literature are often, for obvious reasons, not. The plotting, while not woeful (the reason for the automatons’ going rogue links to the plotline about the zombies in a very satisfying way), is muddied by having too many investigations kicked off in the opening chapters, many of which are neglected for quite some time before being tied up hurriedly in the final few pages.

But I came back, having read the book fairly speedily over a couple of nights, to the opposition between “genre” and “literary” fiction. It can’t all be down to style — but what is there preventing The Affinity Bridge having not only imagination and clever counterfactual-history worldbuilding, but also more fully-realised characters and prose that aspires to being something better than merely serviceable? Is it that readers who cleave to the SF & Fantasy section in bookshops (real or virtual!) are simply accustomed to bad writing? I can’t imagine SF fans would be happy with that assertion, but the fact remains: for a genre often at pains  to point out how forward-thinking and innovative it is, The Affinity Bridge makes a remarkably poor ambassador.

Other reading in Week #12:

Fred Vermorel Fashion and Perversity (Bloomsbury)

Victor Serge Unforgiving Years (New York Review Books)

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