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Selling Out
Justina Robson
Gollancz paperback £10.99

review by Steve Sneyd

If there are guilty pleasure records - ones you feel you shouldn't enjoy, but find yourself helpless not to, instances of 'the potent power of cheap music' - there also are guilty pleasure books. And Selling Out, to me, is a classic example.

All the way through one level of my mind kept remarking the book's faults - talky long-windedness, the way everyone involved had to have victim culture-type issues (but then that seems de rigueur for most texts today), a one-damn-thing-after-another tendency in the extreme, episodes and characters being introduced for no particular reason at all of either plot development or general enlightenment of the reader, and above all a kind of overarching daftness. This wasn't the sort of silliness of a Terry Pratchett or a Robert Rankin, a blatant jokiness to make the reader laugh. This was a kind of bred in the bone oddity, reminding me of Shakespeare's line about "a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing."

And yet, and yet - the pages kept being turned, as if under compulsion. It was complete cognitive dissonance, to use the psychologists' term for the human ability to believe two totally contradictory things at one and the same time without worrying about the incompatibility. Selling Out was idiotic - and a damn good read in the old fashioned sense that conveyed un-ironic praise for a volume that does the job of entertaining the reader, at any rate this one, without stint, no matter how much the critic corner of the mind kept jibbing. Where, then, to start getting down to specifics, does the story take us?

A very-near future, for starters, a few years after 2015 with plenty of overhang (and hangovers, in both senses) from our present... Indeed, though as said there isn't the overt punning and slapstick humour element here, there is plenty of low-key, almost postmodernist mocking, or at any rate ironic, pastiche of today, from brand name re-contextings to celebrity culture, particularly at the rock star celeb end, retro nostalgia for Goth and disco, and so on.

At the same time, there are, quite literally, whole new dimensions to society. A quantum bomb test took place in that reality-changing year, 2015, and much more than an earthmover, it was a gate-opener, to a whole series of other worlds, dimensions, possibly even universes, each bizarrely inhabited - inhabited, moreover, not by aliens in any conventional sense, but by the physical realisations, as fully real autonomous beings, of a variety of figures out of human myth - faeries, elves, demons, ghosts, and so on, each species occupying a dimension of its own but more than ready, now the quantum bomb has made the interconnections which permit travel between one realm and another possible, to visit and interfere with the others, and particularly to come strut their stuff on Earth.

In response to the resulting uncertainty as to what to do about the new arrivals, whether chancers or troublemakers or economic migrants wanting to exploit their special skills or just those on the run from their home worlds, and what their real long term intentions are (sounds familiar?), our species has unified. The Earth, now one state under a shadowy bureaucratic governing body, in effect an unobtrusive dictatorship, has been renamed Otopia, and it's time to go on the offensive, or at any rate try to defuse whatever threats are posed by the powerful entities of the newly contacted worlds. (This book, by the way, is the second of a series - following Keeping It Real, but the early pages involve enough of characters explaining the situation to each other that I didn't feel lost because of not having read the first volume.)

Specifically, there's another job for Otopian secret agent Lila Black, all too human despite being mostly metal and electronics - she had to be rebuilt after a terrible accident, and the opportunity was taken to build in a mass of enhanced capabilities and weaponry. From the top of her flight vanes to the bottom of her rocket feet Lila would be superwoman-plus, if it wasn't that she has more issues than weapons, and that's saying something.

So here's a one-person army about to be sent to Demonia under the cover of researching a travel book for tourists from Otopia (one intriguing question the book hints at without ever really clarifying is that of just how much, or more likely little, the ordinary folk of each realm, as distinct from those at the power structure level, have even grasped about the otherness of the various others, though we are told that the demons have caught onto using ebay to sell dubious artefacts to humans), but really as conduit for secret diplomacy and a bit of spying on the side.

But is all that busy-busy activity really going to help cure her guilt feelings about her parents' death for which she blames herself - particularly as they're still limboed unsatisfactorily in one of the new-found dimensions, the realm of the dead, let alone her inability to feel at ease in a body mostly no longer flesh, or the uncertainties of her on-off relationship with her married lover Zei, half-demon half-elf pop-star, or get away from the nagging of the dead-alive entity Tath that has taken up residence inside her breast and keeps giving her advice-come-instructions in italics. And there are plenty more problems whenever those aren't enough.

In other words, Lila is permanently out of her comfort zone, to put it mildly, taking refuge, without lasting success, in permanent action with an overlay of adolescent-ish hero-worshipping silly crushes whenever the least opportunity arises. Justina Robson sums up the heroine's emotional state (page 60): "Lila longed for the march to her room to never end... That was the problem with having to maintain control, you could not stop moving... if she stopped something waited to overwhelm her."

She's the most extreme in suffering this comfortless neediness, but character after character, despite their more-than-human capabilities, is similarly lost in emotional trauma and unresolved self-questionings. It's almost as if the book's non-stop action element - where Raymond Chandler recommended that, whenever an author can't think what should happen next, a character should come through a door with a gun in his hand, in Selling Out there's forever a new menacing entity, inexplicable force, or mysterious astral whatsit about to burst through the opening from yet another realm - is there to enable the protagonists to briefly blot out from themselves their unstoppable emotional needinesses.

This isn't to say that there's no coherent plotline or story-arc, complicated as it is by digressions and by frequent switches from one viewpoint character to another. And there are at least three specific macguffins. Otopia's attempt, via Lila, to discover where power lies in Demonia and manipulate it once found. Zei's search for the true cause of the split between the light and dark elves, with its potential for mutual suicide, yet more worrying still, for the truth of his own involvement in the start of the feud, and the biggest macguffin of all, albeit one that the characters scarce dare discuss, and that the ending leaves unresolved for the next book in the series, the question whether, beyond or above the six worlds in touch since the quantum test disaster, there lies a seventh, that of the Others, and if so who or what are they and are they the true pullers of all the tangled strings of generally incomprehensible events since 2015.

Of course, the tangling also extends to myriad subplots, like Zei's entertainingly fraught relationship with his rock band - he wants to issue Disco Inferno as a single, saying "I always wanted to be like James Brown, or at worst Olivia Newton-John." The others regard him as a potential sell-out, while the faerie backing singers long to revert to their true water-horse or kelpie nature and start drowning young male fans - and that's just one more among endless 'never a dull moment' complexities.

Trying to pin down why the book is so likeable, against the odds, perhaps part of the answer lies in the hapless way its many protagonists find themselves, despite their superpowers of a variety of kinds, at the mercy of what Harold Macmillan called "events, dear boy, events." Having such reactive rather than active, almost bumbling, acted-on characters, as with Lila often seeming to be stumbling about in headless chicken mode, is certainly a high-risk authorial strategy, yet Robson somehow succeeds in making it work. Perhaps, as with Philip K. Dick's 'little man' characters, appealing because they persist against all odds in worlds they never made and often barely comprehend, in a tradition going far back past Chaplin's tramp persona to Candide and beyond, by cutting her super-beings down to size through their emotional frailties and general blundering unawarenesses, she causes the reader to sympathise, when if they were on top of their game, as it were, they would remain awesome and therefore distanced.

Another strength which must be mentioned is the vivid and colourful descriptions of extraordinary settings and cultures, ranging from a world where only the bones of past massacre break the emptiness, yet at a touch dust turns golem, to emptinesses fleets of sentient death-ships sail, to lands where, as in some Jacobean tragedy or Albanian upland, blood-feud is the highest art - and those are just three of many bizarrely picturesque settings summoned by convincing description.

To that, though, I do have to add one downside on the description front; i.e. that it was possible to get a tad tired of the frequently recurring appearances of picturesquely menacing aetheric energies, which after a while became a bit Madame Blavatsky meets The Terminator! There are also, to add one further very trivial complaint, occasional clumsinesses of sentence editing to be found, for example this: "No debutante of any kind could have been more thoroughly exhausted than Lila by the... enjoying of fine things than she was - and she was fusion powered."

Selling Out is, then, to sum up by ending where we began, a guilty pleasure book par excellence - and reading it, despite its length, won't leave you exhausted, even if you're not fusion-powered, unless of course you end up exhausted by beating yourself up as a punishment for enjoying something you shouldn't have, or certainly not so much!
Selling Out by Justina Robson


Also available in
Quantum Gravity
series:

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

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