In reviewing this book, I first came across (as described below), the term “Tomason.” I thought it would be something that would have cult status online, but Google revealed very little . Perhaps because I was spelling it wrong. Anyhow, in this and the next post I will share two pieces that involved this concept – and invite the reader to visit yet another one of my abandoned blogs…:
One of the perhaps unexpected impacts of personal technology on our lives is a hyperlocalism. The futurism of days gone by has often emphasised the abolition of distance and the opening up of a global arena of action for all of us, but the smart phone and the social network seem to be instead opening up space for the nearby, the quotidian local. Science fiction has often tended to emphasise universal dreams — space operas are replete with Federations and Empires and Intergalactic Thingummies of all sorts, and even less interplanetary works often focus on a humanity in which regional and local identity is less important than fancy posthumanisms.
All of which musings are prompted by both Glenn Grant’s fine collection of tales and Bruce Sterling’s introduction. Sterling, as always, is thought-provoking (why does that always sound like the most damning of faint praise) in his tribute to a man of whom he writes “like most people, I don’t know much about him. I’ve known about him for decades now. He’s an oddly elliptical character.” The introduction is full of gems; the observation that Grant is “the world’s greatest example of a truly regional cyberpunk writer. Most cyberpunks are painfully global in their intentions and attitudes. They like to propel their characters to Istanbul, Tokyo, or Borneo. Glenn’s work is keenly Canadian. Specifically, it’s a crushed, underclass, deeply alternative, bottom-of-the-barrel Canada.” is worth quoting at length (so I just have). It helps capture some of the exciting qualities of these stories.
Sterling describes Grant as a connoisseur of the Tomason, those solid parts of our urban environment which once had a definitive, eminently practical purpose but are now shorn of this, yet are still adrift and rooted in our everyday world. Grant also, apparently, is one of the few cyberpunk authors who would look physically at home in the world of his creation.
The stories themselves are of uniformly high quality. This is a collection that demands to be read slowly. Normally I like to read hedonistically, keeping going until finished. Burning Days demanded to be read in multiple sittings. The six stories are like six artworks which can be displayed in various combinations, each permutation bringing new synergies of meaning.
Aside from the alt-hist tale “Thermometers Melting,” which takes as its point of departure a teenage Ernest Hemingway interviewing an interned Leon Trotsky in late 1917 — in Canada, all the stories are set in a future of slightly varying degrees of squalor, technological advancement, and social discord. The standout tale is the closer, “Burning Day,” which is part hard-boiled noir pastiche, and part a meditation on what it means to be human. Set in a future in which, amidst much global unrest, robots and humans live in a tense co-existence that cannot help recall the situation of many marginalised groups in our own societies, the atrocious bombing of a robot birth ceremony (the “burning day” of the title) is our lead into a world of strange doublings and correspondences between the human and robot worlds.
“Memetic Drift” and “Storm Surge” are the two stories with perhaps most closely match Sterling’s description of Grant’s work as exemplifying a kind of marginalised, counter-cultural Canadian milieu. “Flowers of Avalon” is a neatly circular tale of medical nanotech with very unintended consequences, which plunges the narrator into a nightmare version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. “La Demoňa” is another bracingly off-grid tale of a sort of robotised Mexican wrestling, and the eternal perfidy of the dumb feckless male.
Cyberpunk, as Sterling alludes to in his introduction, has become to some degree a repository of clichés — technodystopias, postapocalyptic wastelands, plucky tech-savvy counter-culturalists. Grant’s stories give this world a new life, and embody rather than simply narrate their themes. Sterling also implies that Grant, unlike almost everyone else, is to all intents and purposes already a denizen of a cyberpunk world. Perhaps this is what gives the stories their force. While he hasn’t actually (well I presume) lived the exact lives or in the exact worlds he describes (if he has, considering what happens in “Flowers of Avalon” in particular, I’m quite worried), there is a mental equivalent of verisimilitude that gives the stories ground and force. Realism is a much abused word in critical evaluation, and means nothing as vulgar as an exact facsimile of “exactly what happened,” but should me a kind of spiritual fidelity to a world that can be entirely created out of whole cloth. Glenn Grant has written realistic cyberpunk fiction.