Sunday 15 September 2019

Sailor Twain or The Mermaid in the Hudson - Mark Siegel (2012)

Rating: Excellent

I don't read many graphic novels, but when Sailor Twain was gifted to me from a friend who works in another library (it was a 'weeded' library discard...) and I was told that it was considered to be one of the classics of the genre I made a mental note to give it a read. A year later and with the need for something easy to read whilst on holiday Sailor Twain turned out to be a beguiling distraction. In the late 1800s Captain Twain sails on a large steam-ship ferrying pleasure-seeking passengers up and down the Hudson River. The ship's owner, Jacques - Henri de Lafayette, has gone missing and his brother, Diedonne, has taken his place. Twain has an uneasy relationship with the mysterious womanizing Diedonne, but becomes embroiled in his own secrets when he rescues an injured mermaid and hides her in his cabin. Their ensuing relationship becomes central to the narrative and also a rich source of poignancy. Twain is an engaging every-man character, whose kindheartedness leads him into the literal and psychologically murky waters (yes...) of the beautiful mermaid of the Hudson River.

Sailor Twain works so well because the narrative is complex, with intriguing characters and allusions to literature, culture, history and myth. The story is satisfying on many levels and features an ending that is both final and ambiguous, which is difficult to achieve. The artwork is darkly beautiful and is responsible for much of the narrative tension, with most panels featuring a deep level of detail, both with the characters themselves and the settings.

Sailor Twain encourages slow and careful reading, with the artwork drawing (yes...) you into the narrative in enticing ways. I also took my time because I was enjoying it so much that I didn't want it to end. Siegel has a way of illustrating characters that seems simple and yet captures their essence perfectly. The atmosphere is shadowy, it always seems to be raining and the mermaid and the river have an almost Gothic allure that is addictive. Most of all it made me wish that mermaids were real, and perhaps they are...

Tuesday 10 September 2019

The Stochastic Man - Robert Silverberg (1975)

Rating: Excellent

Robert Silverberg is one of those science fiction writers who has seemingly been around forever (born in 1935), and is legendary for his prolific writing; he began submitting short stories to science fiction magazines when he was a teenager and apparently at certain stages in his career wrote over a million words a year. Fortunately Silverberg is also a quality writer and I read quite a few of his novels when I was a teenager, enjoying them immensely. The Stochastic Man happens to be the last novel Silverberg wrote before 'retiring' from writing in 1975, before returning in 1980. The novel is set in 1999 and features a protagonist, Lew Nicholas, who has 'stochastic' skills that allow him to hone in on statistically probable future events. Into Lew's life comes Martin Carvajal, a man who can actually see the future. Precognition is an almost irresistible premise to the average science fiction fan and fortunately in this case The Stochastic Man does not disappoint.

Despite the fact that much of the narrative is politically focused, with Lew using his future wrangling skills to try and help the Kennedy-like presidential aspirant Mayor Quinn, the novel is taut and compelling. The Stochastic Man is also a fascinating glimpse into what Silverberg thought the future might be like, in New York at least. In the mid 1970's when the novel was written New York was in decline and Silverberg extrapolates from there, placing a wealthy elite in security protected buildings whilst the rest take their chances on the mean streets. Drugs are legal and are just another consumer product, sexual mores are loose to the extent that open relationships are the norm, but perhaps the most prescient future event is revealed when Lew wonders why the host of a party has the window screens shut on one side of his apartment. Lew realises it is to block the view of the ruined Statue of Liberty, destroyed by a terrorist attack - wrong building and a few years too early, but it still sent a shiver down my spine regardless. The primary reason why The Stochastic Man works so well is the range of sympathetic characters, in particular Lew Nicholas, whose life radically alters in challenging ways when he meets Martin Carvajal, the sad-eyed "destroyed" individual, haunted by his visions of the future. One can't help but feel sorry for both characters, but the novel ends on an unlikely positive note that strangely made me feel a little better (but not for long...) about the current dysfunctional era we are living through, that it too will pass and better times may be ahead (but I doubt it...).