I have just finished the third instalment in John Birmingham’s Dave Hooper Trilogy: Emergence, Resistance, Ascendance. I’m reading Birmingham, of course, because I’ll be interviewing him in a couple of weeks for Outspoken. Generally we don’t want to do too many repeat authors but I’d bumped into him at the Reality Bites Festival last year in Eumundi and in response to my casual question of what he was up to he told me he was publishing not one but three (3!) books in the first half of the new year, ‘Not the sort of stuff you write, Steven, sci-fi/fantasy.’ ‘Christ,’ I said, ‘No orcs, I hope.’ ‘God yes, orcs,’ he replied, ‘Well, not orcs as such, but monsters from the under-realms.’ When he saw the expression on my face he launched into his speil. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘it starts out in the Gulf of Mexico, on a rig like the Deepwater Horizon. Dave Hooper’s the security officer and he’s been on a binge, blowing his annual bonus on alcohol, sex and drugs and he’s flying back out to the rig hoping to have a few hours to sober up when they get the call there’s been an incident… monsters are boiling up from the depths. Out on the rig Dave finds himself confronted by one of these things, raging drunk on the blood of its victims, and by chance whacks it with a splitting maul, killing it and thus transferring the energy and knowledge of the beast to himself… They have, you see, drilled too deep…’
Now I had a conversation with a young person the other day about this sort of thing. She said, ‘As soon as someone in a book names their sword I’m out of there.’ Which pretty much sums up my own attitude. Dave’s splitting maul, in these books, is called Lucille. Enough, you’d think, to have me running. But Birmingham brings an intelligence to this sort of guff which is both unusual and fascinating. He’s long been a weapons afficionado: it’s not uncommon to find one of his characters cradling one or other piece of hi-tech materiel, indeed on his blog Cheeseburger Gothic at one time he had a long thread asking for opinions on how to make your way across the US after civilisation had broken down, what equipment would be required… and this had given licence to a whole army of libertarians and ex-military types to spend many thousands of words listing (or arguing with each other about the relative merits of) various guns, vehicles, rocket launchers etc.. What I mean to say is that Birmingham doesn’t mind blowing things up. He doesn’t shrink from murder and mayhem, in fact he seems to to take a particular pleasure in destroying whole American cities; these are action novels in the primal sense, but they’re also scenarios to play out aspects of humanity, both social and political in unusual ways. Dave Hooper, Super Dave, is deeply flawed and being given super powers doesn’t in any way deliver him from his inner demons. Those around him, who have to try to point his new abilities in a useful direction, often refer to him as a moron, which is probably not quite fair because he’s clever enough, while lacking, perhaps, emotional intelligence. The problem being that he has to work out his issues on the world stage while fighting an ever expanding horde of monsters. (One of the more curious powers he’s gained is an extremely powerful effect on women of child-bearing status)
One of the keys to writing good fiction is the ability (sometimes very difficult) to remain true to the reality you have created. What this means is no explanations given, or none outside of the course of the narrative. If there are ravenous monsters boiling up from under the ocean (and many other places besides) then that is the world the story inhabits, the author has to have complete belief in his own reality. If for a moment that wavers then the reader, too, becomes lost. Birmingham never flinches. If anything he gets better over the course of the three books – one of my complaints about some of his earlier series were that they started off remarkably, extraordinarily, well but, as the story played out, became less interesting or plausible or something – whereas in these ones the ideas and scenarios only become more fascinating and entertaining. The third book, Ascendance (which, I guess it’s some kind of spoiler, doesn’t finish the story), is a real tour de force, the first fifty thousand words are all one set piece, taking place in the space of a single night in Manhattan. Reading it I was, in the first place, unwilling to put it down, but also in a state of awe at Birmingham’s capacity to sustain the narrative in a manner that levened the mayhem with an unfolding of Dave’s understanding and his relationship to those around him, cut with wry comments on society as a whole, throwaway lines that chart the course of western civilisation in less than fifty words, or which turn the characters back on themselves and our perceptions of them.
I’m not going to detail the plot or give away any more spoilers, but I will say it appears that I’ve been guilty of false advertising in my promotion of this Outspoken event by including in the blurb the statement: ‘none of this waiting a year for the sequel with our Mr Birmingham,’ because clearly there is going to be a sequel. Never mind that I can’t wait for it… I’ll have to.
Outspoken presents: A conversation with John Birmingham. And, introducing, Andrew McMillen, author of Talking Smack. Maleny Community Centre, July 22, 6 for 6.30pm. Tickets $18 and $12 for students, available from Maleny Bookshop 07 5494 3666 for more info visit Outspoken