Thursday, 17 November 2016

Class Novel 1: "What She Does Next Will Astound You" by James Goss (2016)

contains SPOILERS

"Don't judge a book by its cover", they have said since time immemorial (or, at least, since whenever books had cover art). But what about a book's title? After all, judging a book by its title is fair game, isn't it? Covers are trivial things, commissioned by publishing houses and crafted by people who do those disturbingly creative, visual arts like drawing (shock horror), but titles are noble and full of profundity and depth and meaning? Right?

In a sense this question of judging actual content on the basis of a mere pithy summary, of trusting what you're told, is at the heart of James Goss' novel "What She Does Next Will Astound You" - appropriately, too, given the novel boasts such an excellent title (and a rather lovely cover, too, but that's by-the-by). It's the kind of title you'd simply have to retrace your steps in a bookshop to look at again. It hooks you. Draws you in. It's blatantly constructed with that one purpose in mind: to get you to read it. And that, of course, is why it's so terribly effective, because Goss is both trying to get you to buy his book and simultaneously satirizing our insta-news, BuzzFeed, click-bait, oversharing, five-more-minutes-browsing-the-pointlessness-of-the-Internet culture. You know the kind of titles I mean: "What This Girl Did For A Homeless Man Will Blow Your Mind" or "Top 10 Reasons Not To Eat Ginger With Parsley" or whatever.

The novel's first half (broadly speaking, it splits into two; the second, starting at page 135 out of 338, slightly longer than the first) focuses fairly tautly - and with, at least at first, minimal sci-fi trappings - on the aforementioned phenomenon, that which we might call our over-sharing culture. And Goss absolutely nails what this means for teenagers, both its manifold excitements (the world can see me do this cool thing really well!) and its manifold disasters (ending friendships, exposing scandal). As Matteusz says early in the novel, "Life does not happen unless you put photo on Facebook. Unless you tweet it. Unless you post video on YouTube. It is like philosophy." Indeed. This same thought occurred to me often in my teenage years - that people would become so obsessed with the Future's Perception Of This Event that they would seemingly neglect the present actuality of the concert or the Niagara Falls or whatever it was they were experiencing at the time. No matter if I can't actually remember what happened at the party last night, the logic would run, or no matter if I didn't really have a good time - the important thing is that I am seen to have done so. That there are laughing, smiling pictures all over social media so I can prove to myself, almost, if I try really hard and convince myself, that FUN WAS HAD BY ALL, HONEST.

This is not a completely 21st century phenomenon (the notion of "keeping up appearances" crops up in most 19th century novels worth their salt about class or a family's finances going down the drain, while Russian aristocrats were known to live frugally all year round so they could afford an enormous banquet with even more lavish entertainment and sailing boats on champagne lakes than their neighbour managed six months ago); but it is of course something that is much, much more widespread now (do you remember the ice bucket challenge, which gets a nod here? What about #necknominate, where people would down pints in ever more ridiculous ways then nominate someone else to do it, and which ended in people dying in hospitals because they'd tried drinking a pint of whisky? "Competitive dieting"? This stuff seems outlandish, but it really happens. This is the inanity of a 21st century existence). Goss milks this teenage panic of #FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) for all it's worth, laying bare the central characters' iffy relationships with peer pressure, the teenage compulsion to share, share, share, and their aching inadequacies in the face of the latest trend. One particularly moving segment sees Ram's texts to his girlfriend Rachel - who is killed at the Autumn Prom in Class' very first episode, For Tonight We Might Die - displayed all over the Internet without his permission for all to see: starting all cutesy and "Prom night baby!!!! Cant wait to see you!" (Read 6:32pm) before abruptly turning into "Miss you" (Delivered), "You're funeral today. Can't face it" (Delivered) and eventually "Please come back" (Delivered), "Please" (Delivered) and "Love u" (Delivered). The pit in your stomach feels a long way down, and that's far from the last deftly delivered emotional truth in the novel.

Eventually we learn that this latest craze (centred on the website truthordare.com) is in fact a smokescreen to manipulate human children/teens into fighting an alien war. This isn't new ground for the Doctor Who universe - it pops up in the 1995 Seventh Doctor novel Toy Soldiers, the 2005 Ninth Doctor novel Winner Takes All, and the 2007 Sarah Jane Adventures story Warriors of Kudlak. But - with the caveat that I haven't read the first - I think Goss' take on the idea is unlikely to be bettered, for its excellent weaving together of video-game-style use of "levels" and "missions" with the uncertainty of youth. "I played the game, only I didn't realise it was a training level for something else": a dummy run for adulthood alright, that pressure of doing the latest thing, and of needing to do it better than the last in order to keep face. "If I do something," Ram scoffs when the ice bucket challenge rears its head again, "it'll be really amazing". It's as human as it gets to want to take part, and in a world like ours, where the Internet is teeming with all kinds of instructions ("do this! wear that! don't eat this kind of food!"), where is a young adult trying to make their way in the world to turn? "Signs had been put up everywhere," Goss writes of a hospital building Ram visits, "so many of them that nothing seemed to make sense anymore" - and you can be damn sure he wants us to read this comment in light of the sheer multitudes of information with which we are daily bombarded. He even reflects this multiplicity of voice effectively, too, flicking from 3rd person narration to 1st person accounts to transcripts of videos to different perspectives to newspaper reports to lists. Always a new perspective.

This uncertainty makes the teenagers relatively easy for these faceless manipulators to exploit, because all you have to do is drop in a new lens, a new way of filtering reality, to make them see things the way you want them to be seen. Seraphin (the reluctant face of the truthordare.com campaign, all gorgeous hair and fit-for-YouTube-fame freshness) recruits these kids into an Internet domain (very Bells of Saint John) and pits them against a ferocious race of slimy, tentacled octopi called the Skandis. So far, so Hunger Games; and, indeed, one will notice Goss' debt to Suzanne Collins' famous YA trilogy here, though the concern in this instance is not so much the political dilemma of "panem et circenses" and keeping the ruling classes entertained as our individual predilections and the way we contribute to the Western world's very own media frenzy through our never-ending cycle of click, like, refresh. Of course the next logical step is to compare YouTube videos or shoot-'em-up games and the normalizing of bland inanities or aesthetically graceful violence with propaganda videos during times of war (here, those of the Quill, but there are plenty in our world too). And we're easily led into it, because "every image you've seen has been altered to make you the hero of the movie of your own life". Just like dear old Twitter and Facebook and all the rest of them. The grandeur of the echo chamber.

And woe betide those who do not take part: the implications of what April in particular - first through the other side and into the new realm of the war against the Skandis - goes through are incredibly disturbing, and truly justify the more "adult" aspect of Class' remit. Awoken in the night and assaulted, slapped and grabbed, with a rotting alien's severed head thrown onto her face, its tongue in her mouth, she is then forced to live in a claustrophobic room with this gagging smell and then relive the whole experience as it is watched by the rest of the camp as they clap, cheer, and wish her Happy Birthday. This terrifying brainwashing camp normalizing the most extreme behaviour will inevitably invite comparisons with the Hitler Youth or Komsomol, and for good reason ("children playing with toys - that's all we've been all along. Bang, bang, you're dead". Except there are casualties, and in horrendous numbers). The next sickening moment comes the first time Ram thinks he glimpses the face of a friend of his whose skin got scorched filming a truthordare video in the eyes of one of his Skandi attackers, but the truth is far worse: that this vision of ravenous monsters is an utter sham. That there are no disgusting or evil octopi (not in this story, anyway). The Skandis are, in fact, peaceable, ethereal, "an agreeable merger between angels and butterflies", and currently being utterly massacred by Earth schoolchildren, schoolchildren who were eager to partake in the latest fad. The real villains - who set up the whole thing for viewing figures and profit - are far more obscured, far less visible, but no less sinister for that ("we think the universe is full of evil UFOs with probes, or of great shining space gods. Turns out, it's full of really twisted people", and every bit as parasitically dull as that sounds. Because evil is banal, as Hannah Arendt has taught us). 

It's a darker plot than Doctor Who would tend to go down, and thus utterly fits Class' slightly darker tone: the whole thing engineered by some kind of (literally) faceless, nameless organisation who - pleasingly, like Gus in Mummy on the Orient Express or the entity in Midnight - remain utterly unknown at the story's end. We get the tiniest of tiny hints that they somehow fit into the Quill race's backstory - it's mentioned that they once offered their services to the Quill to help them overthrow their Rhodian oppressors - but that's it, and Goss gleefully knows how much this bleak ambiguity will irk us: "You have no name," Quill tells them, "the humans will find that a shame. They really do like their closure. If there's one thing they love more than an apology it's someone to hold responsible for everything wrong with their lives... No one knows it's you, because no one knows who you are. And no one ever will. No names? No faces? The humans are really going to hate you." In the end, of course, it doesn't matter - the faceless sci-fi villains who are behind all this could be any old CEO of Instagram or YouTube or truthordare.com or indeed the off-shore media mogul who owns the kind of newspapers that lean toward supporting this sort of violent, extra-judicial action (cough cough). They're the villains of our world. "The end comes," as Coal Hill School's former caretaker said once, "as it was always going to: down a videophone." 

Other things:
  • I approve of the cover both proudly boasting Patrick Ness' name (a sure-fire to draw in teens/YA in a bookstore) but also using the same font as his Chaos Walking trilogy.
  • there's a nice emotional truth to the opening chapter: teenagers do daring things addictively, but deep down they want to be at home with their mums.
  • some brilliant stuff inside Ram's head - particularly dramatising his dysfunctional relationship with his "passive aggressive" leg ("it was like having a butler for a limb") and his hypocritical refusal to do an ice bucket video topless so as to stay dignified ("he'd wear a T-shirt. A tight one with the sleeves hacked off"). These are still early days for the group, and the advantage of Goss getting inside his character's minds and fleshing them out a bit more is we learn that at this stage, despite the "gang pulling together" we may see on screen, that Ram "didn't like Tanya, not as such, but he understood the point of her." April seems "out of focus" to him, while she finds him very direct - something akin to a left/right hemisphere split, I should think. Ram also gets a tender, moving scene with an injured boy's mum, in which he thinks she looks like "she was hoping for something better out of life than rain", and his material with his dad Varun displays the warmth of their relationship very effectively.
  • This is an April-centric novel to an extent, in that she probably gets the lion's share of the storyline, but it doesn't focus on her to the exclusion of everyone else. What it does do with her back-story, her interiority and her memories of the car crash at the hands of her dad Huw, is nonetheless powerful. "Normal life is so fragile. It breaks easy," she says at one point, echoing her line in the show about "all life is on the knife edge". We also learn she doesn't go clubbing "unless the music is really good", and her reference to "baby steps" nicely pre-empts the ending of Brave-ish Heart, where she uses the phrase with her mother.
  • a bit of exposition at the start to set up the show's premise and backdrop, but not too clumsily done.
  • "the ambulance pulled out of the car park, leaving behind a mournful crowd taking shocked selfies". Bleak.
  • There's some great Quill/Matteusz stuff early on, as we learn she mistrusts him and resents him living in their house. Even when picking a mug in the kitchen, Matteusz complains, he feels she is "judging the mug".
  • Charlie and Quill each think they understand humans better than the other. In fact, their dynamic is very well rendered here, and feels in keeping with the show. Quill leaps off the page, in part due to how good Katherine Kelly is, but Goss' stuff for her is just gold. "She was frowning, which, to be fair, was like saying other people were breathing" is good, reading Captain Corelli's Mandolin and wondering why the mandolin isn't some kind of weapon is better, but her barnstorming entrance onto the Skandi world in the story's third act is a corker, shooting down three Skandis, providing the shock revelation that off-world and in this new dimension she can actually use a gun and then shooting April in the head to give us a cracking chapter cliff-hanger -- all of that at once. The only thing I think's a bit odd is her not understanding the Internet, as she seems quite au fait with it in the show.
  • Charlie is perhaps a little posher and stiffer on the page than he is in performance (I think it's the lack of contractions, which reads very unnaturally) but he still gets some gems, such as telling Matteusz "please drop your trousers; I wish to look at your legs", being confused about saying sorry (apparently, ritualistic Rhodian apologies demand the right kind of food for the occasion), comparing virtual reality to the Cabinet of Souls, and a fun nod to "plume priests" self-immolating back on Rhodia as an act of political protest (though if it got to oppressed Tibet/Arab Spring levels of bad, maybe we shouldn't mourn the Rhodians all that much...) 
  • 15 Cats That Look Shockingly Like Miss Quill = wonderful chapter title
  • Things You'll Only Get If Your Home Planet Was Destroyed In The 90s = even better
  • The Coal Hill StandardDisappearanceLetter Word Document template is an utter hoot
  • Not much Tanya here, but the occasional good bit: she fixes Ram "with a disappointed stare that would make concrete check its shoes".
  • "That's life," Varun tells his son as he breaks off a bit of chocolate rather inelegantly, "it never has straight lines."
  • "There was a reverential way of closing a door that only nurses used. It meant bad news."
  • "That was how real conspiracies went. They weren't exciting. They were a bit dull actually."
  • "Perhaps she wasn't at the end of the universe after all, but simply in Slough. God, she would love to be in Slough."
  • "Is this what it was like for astronauts? Amazement at being where no one had gone before, followed by an annoying slight itch in their space boot?" Ha. Fun look at how experiences never live up to the imagination.
  • "She knew aliens existed, but had always thought of them as a vague possibility, in the same way that she knew Russia existed."
  • "Who calls their daughter Audrey?" (Surely a nod to The Curse of Fenric). I also thought the whiteness of the other world was a bit Scherzo while Seraphin's colossal face is a bit Face of Evil.
  • "There was no simple resolution. No happy ending. It would be nice to say the aliens bowed back, and left in peace. They did not...it seemed easier for them to ignore their murderers. We are, April thought, beneath contempt."
  • "We thought we were Han Solo blowing up the Death Star. Really, we're Stormtroopers".
  • And, of course, at the end it's revealed that the detox from it all won't last - Tanya goes back to video games, people go back to filming other people's misery and sending it to You've Been Framed! Because the one thing we can learn from history is that we never learn from history, but rather make the same mistakes over and over.

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