Friday 23 May 2014

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

I recently started to read Wool by Hugh Howey, a novel which has received strong reviews and was selected as a monthly read by the Classic Science Fiction discussion forum. It is set in a huge self-sufficient post-apocalypse underground bunker in which thousands of people have lived for generations. They cannot survive on the surface as the atmosphere is poisonous, but live camera feeds constantly remind them of what it is like. Criminals and the suicidally inclined are sent outside to keep the cameras clean in the few minutes before they die. The story begins with such a suicide then follows, in great detail, the actions of the elderly mayor and her equally aged deputy sheriff. Frankly, I found it rather unimaginative, in fact downright dull, and while I did my best to keep going I finally put it down after reading 120 of its 500 pages.

Unimaginative is not a word that could be applied to the next book I picked up; Dream London by Tony Ballantyne. It is set not long in the future, when something very strange has begun to happen to London; the proportions and even the locations of its buildings and open spaces have been changing, gradually altering day by day. The usual commercial shops were being replaced by small, often quirky establishments. Furthermore, the personalities of the residents also seemed to be shifting to an older pattern, in which superstition rules and women are housewives, cleaners or prostitutes. The final twist being that no-one can leave London – no matter how hard they try, they keep finding themselves back where they had started.

The story is told by Captain Jim Wedderburn, a charismatic former soldier and now a famous rogue and a pimp. He finds that two opposed groups want to recruit him to their causes; one to destroy whatever is changing London, the other to exploit the changes, and while he prefers the former group, the latter is threatening all manner of unpleasant fates if he does not comply. He tries to find a way through his predicament (not always successfully) as he gradually learns more about what is happening and why, before witnessing the rousing finale.

Regular followers of this blog will be aware that I have a soft spot for fantasies set in modern London, but while this one held my attention throughout, I wouldn't count it among my favourites. The fantasy is a little too surreal, rather like an adult version of Alice in Wonderland (but note that the language alone, as well as some of the scenes, mean that this is emphatically not a book for children). Jim Wedderburn is also not a particularly sympathetic character, which makes it harder for the reader to become fully involved. High marks for effort and novelty, downgraded somewhat by the execution of the ideas.

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