We’re reading THEATRE OF THE GODS by M Suddain

2 Jul

“Rollicking space opera” is all very well, but Adam Roberts wishes this one came with stabilisers.


M Suddain
Theatre of the Gods
Blacklist Publishing/Jonathan Cape, HB £14.99

Different writers work their craft differently. Some approach the novel as a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which they work with so fine a brush as to achieve exquisite effects. Others pull down the big lever on their Composition Machine and extrude novels by the yard. And others still – M. Suddain is one of this last kind – hook a fire-hose to the pressurised tank of Storyfoam and spray it wildly about. “Sweet mercies!” the narrator of Theatre of the Gods cries, as the end approaches; “I can hardly hold this story together!”


The hero here is M Francisco Fabrigas (wizard, explorer and “one of the most brilliant and inventive minds of his generation”), who assembles a varied crew to steer a spaceship from one universe into another. The whole thing takes place in a teeming alt-reality comprised of equal parts steampunk, Warhammer 40,000 pastiche and The Pirates! in an Adventure with Spacemen. Here, from near the novel’s beginning, is a representative chunk of descriptive prose.

Carnassus: Gateway to the Empires, named for the baron found hanging from a gantry on his seventieth birthday because he could no longer bear to look upon the monster he’d created. The iron core of the city was once the crypt to an extinct empire: that of Her Majesty Queen Arcadmius IX, Millions were entombed here in a honeycomb of vacuum chambers. When Princess Malvia III died of ennui she was placed here, still clutching her dead lover’s paintbrush and her husband’s sword. When half her family fell to laughing plague they were buried therein, their hideous grins still locked upon their faces. When the old mega-crypt was turned over to the Royal Transit Authority, the fleshless legion it contained was roughly woken from its slumbers. The new owners stacked layers of slum housing on the crypt. On that the bolted shipyards and naval depots, the great airport, and from that sprang the many million cranes and gantries, and from one such gantry swung the Baron Carnassi: because the poor man could no longer bear to see the endless ships full of strangers coming in; the coral growth of steel expanding into the velveteen blackness. Also, he was depressed.

Theatre of the Gods is a novel simultaneously very busy and very arch. Fabrigas and his crew fly through null-space, land on a jungle planet, get eaten by a space-dragon, visit a sort of alt-China, are chased by various assassins and stare-down a great many Certain Death Moments. There are lots of short chapters hopping the narrative back and forward in time. There are pictures (though my proof copy did not contain these), poems, interpolated cod-adverts (codverts?) and “Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite”-style posters, menus, and an extract from a manual on caring for carnivorous plants. There are sea shanties based on 80s and 90s chart pop hits. But many of the gags have the shape of jokes without actually having any effective content, and therefore fail to ricochet off the reader’s funny-bone: “If life sends you demons, make demonade”; “There was a heavy sound, a cross between a thud and a splat. It was a thplat, definitely”; “Is your beard on tight?”; “‘Sheeeeeeeeooooooaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!’ Fabrigas suggested.” A smashed automaton warns of danger by shouting the word (printed in the novel in multiple columns of type)


across pages 287 to 294. The reader is often buttonholed by the narrator, to be assured that none of this is to be believed, or to be told what no reader could miss (“what a place we find ourselves in now. What a mad and dangerous universe of possibility”). This is the sort of thing the novel means when it says “mad”:

The Black Widow had stolen a set of rocket wings from a papal guardsman and was now flying over the city towards the royal launch bays where she hoped to find her former friend M. Francisco Fabrigas and give him the box containing a universe containing a world containing the captain of a ship from the next universe—all before the poison she had inhaled killed her.

It’s not throwaway, this, and neither is it random – the novel spends a deal of contortionist energy setting up the situation herein described as part of its peripatetic narrative trajectory. But it, and myriad similar moments in the novel, are less effective than they could be, less mad and more “mad”. Mad needs a sane against which to define itself in order to achieve purchase on the reader’s imagination. In a world where everything is bonkers nothing really bonks.

I’m suggesting that Theatre of the Gods is either an Eton Mess of a novel or else just a Mess. It may make your eyeballs ache. Conversely, you may fall upon it with cries of joy. Which way you jump will depend upon how you feel about a novel that has ingested one too many orange Smarties and keeps tugging on your arm urging you to come play on the swings. I’m tempted to call it “Harkawayesque”, but the comparison doesn’t do Suddain any favours, actually; and the novel as a whole freewheels, or wheels freely, through time and space in a way much more centripetal than Nick Harkaway’s more carefully orchestrated mode.

Reviewing books is not wholly a subjective business, but it is necessarily partly so; and this is truer of reviewing comic writing than other modes. This needs stressing. Suddain’s eight-ball prophet, his half-buried references to Talking Heads songs, his goofy always-impeding sequence of life-ending disasters, his midget Terror-Pope, his many suggestions that the reader turn to the “Little Pages of Calmness” located at the end of the novel – all of this failed to cause a smile to appear upon my Praisegod Barebones of a face. Perhaps the book is at fault in this matter. Perhaps the problem is with my sense of humour. Suddain’s capacious, cheerfully hit-and-miss, sprawlingly goofball approach didn’t tickle me. Your smileage may vary.

Look at that last sentence. See what I mean?

The point is this: I need to try and ground my reservations in more than a merely subjective response; to try and say why I think it is that Suddain’s goofy space-pirates-gonzo-shaggy-dog yarn doesn’t work. In a word, I think the answer is: whimsy. I don’t mind scattergun; I don’t mind (indeed, quite admire) too-much-caffeine free associating and inventiveness; I don’t even mind the relentlessness with which the comic element is pursued. What I find sticks in my craw is: whimsy.

As I closed the back cover and settled down to ponder what I had just read, a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail popped unbidden into my mind. In that film the questing knights meet Tim the Enchanter, played with a pantomime Scots accent and various over-telegraphed facial expressions by John Cleese. He warns the knights of a terrible rabbit: “The entrance to this cave is guarded by a creature so foul, so cruel, that no man yet has fought with it … and lived! BONES of full fifty men lie strewn about its lair!” At the end of his speech, Graham Chapman’s King Arthur says: “What an eccentric performance.” It’s a courteous deflation, but one both funny and—pardon me as I grow pompous—a necessary one. That literatures of the fantastic needs must trade in the bizarre and unusual does not mean that they must therefore trade in the silly. SF’s relationship to reality is ironic, rather than mimetic; but this is not the same thing as saying that SF has a perfect license to freewheel. Whimsy is to Irony as Fancy is to Imagination. Irony is deep, and eloquent. Whimsy is shallow and dumb. “What a place we find ourselves in now,” Theatre of the Gods tells us – addresses us directly to tell us, on p.540. “What a mad and dangerous universe of possibility!” And sometimes, but only fleetingly, Suddain does manage to actualise this: to capture something of the penetration of Bosch’s canvases, or Arkham Asylum, or the Alice books. But more often the timbre is mad in the “You don’t have to be mad here to work here- but it helps!” sense of the term.

I’m an Englishman. My worry is that we English overvalue eccentricity, whimsy and suchlike related foolery. There’s a reason: for England is a deeply conformist society that likes to pretend it isn’t; and eccentricity becomes the totem by which we reassure ourselves of our individuality – the boring guy in your office who says ‘hail fellow well met’ rather than hello, and wears a multi-coloured bow-tie because he thinks it makes him interesting. Who has the courage to deflate his little ego-sustaining bubble? Who dares tell him that whimsy is not the talisman against despair he thinks it is?

As Freud argues, humour is amongst other things an index to our subconscious anxieties. The more sex embarrasses and worries us, the more sex comedy will make us howl with laughter (it’s not a coincidence that the Carry On films enjoyed such a vogue in sexually-repressed Britain, and at the historical moment – the 1950s and 1960s – when the cultural attitude to sex was just beginning to change. If physical pain and social humiliation worry our subconscious minds, then slapstick comedy will provides us with the most effectively cathartic release of all that negative energy. If we’re most anxious about embarrassment then The Office and Extras will set us off. We English love our Pythonesque surreal humour – not the “isn’t it funny that?” of the great North American stand-up comedians, but the “wouldn’t it be funny if?” of a people whose greater anxiety is, subconsciously, that any change at all to the status quo would douse normality in catastrophe.

The danger is that eccentricity becomes a fetish in its own right. That we become unable to tell performative eccentricity from actual weirdness. In retrospect, Jimmy Savile could hardly have broadcast his antisocial oddness more blatantly, short of literally dressing as the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and prowling the streets with a big net. At the time, though, he was treated as a loveable eccentric; which is to say, his eccentricity was taken as totemic of our national capacity to “have a bit of a laugh”, to “tolerate nonconformism” and so on. In fact, we English are historically very poor at tolerating nonconformism, and whenever we hear unexplained laughter we experience the spurt of fear that the butt of the joke must be us. This is why whimsy, as a dilute form of this madness, has a special place in the national affections; and why I dislike it so.

This takes us quite a way from Suddain, who is not English, and certainly is under no obligation to be as hung-up on the downside of whimsy as I. His novel is, to repeat the King, an eccentric performance; but maybe that’s exactly the sort of thing you’re looking for. Much of the bubbliness is fizz-for-the-sake-of-fizz, and the many elements don’t cohere into the properly estranging. Its whimsy, turtle-like, goes all the way down, which may be why I didn’t laugh. But there’s no doubting the restless vigour that animates this cavorting great Mongo of a novel. That’s the Alex Karras Mongo, not the planet. Mongo, we recall, likes candy. If your tooth is sweet enough, you too might enjoy Theatre of the Gods.

What do you mean, you don’t know who Mongo is?

Read Adam Roberts’s Three Surprising Theories of Science Fiction in Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins, out now for tablets, phones and screens.

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