Michael Allen

John Sundman has written three science-fiction novels (perhaps techno-punk is a more precise description of them). This document contains my reviews of all three: The Pains (published 2008) – reviewed 12 February 2009 Cheap Complex Devices (published 2002 ) – reviewed 6 July 2006 Acts of the Apostles (published 1999) – reviewed 24 May 2006 The second two reviews originally appeared on my blog, Grumpy Old Bookman. Michael Allen 12 February 2009

The Pains by John Damien Sundman Illustrated by Cheeseburger Brown Reviewed 12 February 2009 The Pains is John Sundman’s third novel, the first two being Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices. This third book comes with a set of admirable illustrations by Cheeseburger Brown. All three of Sundman’s books are somewhere between excellent and brilliant, in their way; but whether you will enjoy them or not depends, as usual, on your personal tastes. Perhaps the main purpose of this review is to give you enough information to decide whether you would like to read this one. For myself, I have greatly enjoyed all three of the novels, and I much admire the author’s talent. Let us begin with categorisation. If this book was in a library, where would it be shelved? Under Science Fiction, probably, because that’s a broad church, but the author would prefer, I think, to describe it as an example of techno punk. And what is that, pray? The answer, taken from the author’s press release, is that it’s a form of fiction ‘which grapples with issues such as the role of technology as a destructive force, the devolution of modern civilization, and the threats posed by socio-religious cults in a 21st-century global culture linked by the Internet.’ Perhaps the best way to describe the book is to say that it takes place in 1985 (or so) in a parallel universe. This is a world in which Jesus Christ has never been heard of, but Fred Christ definitely has. Whereas Jesus was crucified on a cross, Fred was hanged. The cross, as a symbol, has no power in this world, but the noose does. Oh, and Ronald Reagan is Minister of Awareness; he plays the role of friendly Uncle Ronald. And the nation Freemerica is ruled by The Party. What we have here is a novel which doesn’t just tell a story. It consciously and deliberately sets out to make you think, as opposed to just feel. It wants you to think, for instance, about whether religion is a force for good or evil, or whether it’s both, depending on who’s in charge. The book makes well signposted references to George Orwell’s 1984, a book which Wikipedia (an internet source, and therefore infallible) describes as a classic dystopian novel: i.e. it describes a possible state of affairs which the author earnestly wishes to warn us against. The principal character in The Pains is Mr Norman Lux. He is a trainee priest in the Society of Fred, a Jesuit-like body with some of the same disturbing characteristics as the real Jesuits. Norman is an unfortunate individual who finds himself suffering agonising pains – pains which he believes are experienced by a trainee priest such as himself in proportion to the danger to another person’s soul; and, what is more, the fate of that other person is tied to the fate of the world. The sufferer of such pains is, whether he wishes to be or not, a kind of saviour. He can only save himself if he saves the endangered soul, and thus saves the world.

It is one of John Sundman’s eccentricities, if that’s the right word, that he gives himself a different middle name, or set of initials, for each book. Thus Acts of the Apostles was written by John F.X. Sundman, Cheap Complex Devices by John Compton Sundman, and this one by John Damien Sundman. One famous Damien, or Damian, was, of course (how could you have forgotten), one of a pair of healing twins who died for their Christian faith in the third century. But Damien was also the lead character in a 1976 horror movie, in which a small boy of that name was revealed to be the Antichrist. I don’t know whether any of that is relevant to The Pains, but you might wish to think about it. The Pains is a short book, and it invites you to ask questions and expects you to have an enquiring mind. You may or may not think that that is a reasonable (or even necessary) thing for a novel to do. By the time I reached page 53, I was asking myself, for example, whether this book is a critique of contemporary American society in general, and of its foreign policy in relation to Iraq, in particular. In these unenlightened times, you may have escaped being taught Latin at school, and you therefore may not know that Mr Norman Lux’s surname is the Latin word for light. I recently attended a Church of England service at Candlemas; this took place in a mediaeval church which was lit solely by candlelight, and the service was constructed around the concept of Christianity as embodying a light which will save the world. As a result, I am inclined to think that Mr Lux’s name was not picked from the phone book at random. Other leading characters in The Pains also have names which give rise to questions. There is a female scientist by the name of Dr Xristi Friedman; her academic specialism is cryobiology; i.e. low-temperature biology. The chancellor of her university seems to think that she is just the right person to take charge of a collection of severed heads which have been deep frozen. One of those heads just might be – possibly, maybe, perhaps – the head of the hanged Fred Christ. There is also reference to a certain Templeton Cheney (another surname which might ring the odd bell), and this Cheney may or may not have been involved with the Mindpixel project, a project which existed, for a while, in our own dear universe, never mind any parallel ones. A certain Pete Seeger also appears in these pages, where he seems to be regarded as a left-wing commie bastard, which is much the way that the real-life bearded folk-singer of that name was regarded in our own time – at least by those of a right-wing persuasion. Others just thought he played a pretty good tune and had some concern for other people besides himself. Oh, and there’s a character called Sundman, too. When I got to the last few pages of this novel I began to wonder whether the author has been driven mad by eight years of Bush and Cheney, and what they have done to his country. By ‘driven mad’ I don’t mean that he has ended up paranoid, or sit-in-a-corner-and-talk-gibberish kind of mad. I just mean that,

like many other good men (and women), he may have been filled with overwhelming despair and rage at the way his country has been led. George Orwell (1903-1950), author of 1984, lived long enough to see that the political philosophies of the left and the right lead, ironically, to the same end: namely tyranny. There wasn’t that much difference between Hitler and Stalin. Both exercised total control, and murdered millions in pursuit of what they perceived to be the public good. And in 1984 Orwell tried to warn the people of the remaining democracies about what it would mean to allow such forces to take over the state. Rightly or wrongly, my take on The Pains is that John Sundman is seeking to make a similar point. His third novel constitutes a dreadful warning of what will become of us if we allow the situation to go unchecked. (I use the word dreadful in its proper sense, i.e. it is filled with dread.) As a result, readers of The Pains are likely to find a key question arising in their minds: What are we going to do about the current state of affairs? It is, of course, much easier to do nothing. But, as Edmund Burke pointed out, ‘For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.’ And many of us have been doing nothing for quite a long time now. If I seem, in the course of this review, to be implicitly critical of the US government, that’s because Mr Sundman is an American, and he writes about ‘Freemerica’. But the situation is exactly the same in the UK, and, I dare say, in most other ‘free’ societies. In the UK, for instance, we have a government in power which, during the last 12 years, has lied to us constantly, consistently, and shamelessly. When caught out in its lies, which it frequently is, it betrays not a hint of embarrassment or regret. And freedom evaporates daily in a mass of worthless legislation which makes it ever easier for the government to exercise control. Ever since the French Revolution there has been a battle raging, particularly in Europe and North America, between the forces of freedom and tyranny. And freedom is losing. Perhaps that wouldn’t matter very much if those who are voted into power, or take power unto themselves, were halfway competent. But they aren’t. Witness the collapse of the world’s financial system. Perhaps it is time to stop being discursive and say that The Pains is a pretty good narrative read, and it holds the attention throughout. It can be read with enjoyment without reference to any deeper meanings and implications. But by my reading The Pains also touches upon the key issues of our time: it is a book which is philosophical to the point of being mystical. Its central question is, how do we rescue a soul gone bad? And the soul which has gone bad is that of Freemerica; upon the fate of which, like it or not, the rest of us largely depend. Note: You can read the full text of The Pains online, under a Creative Commons licence.

Acts of the Apostles by John F.X. Sundman Reviewed 24 May 2006 On 1 May of this year I mentioned the name of John F.X. Sundman, and said that I had read chapter 1 of his Acts of the Apostles online. I then took the liberty of suggesting how that first chapter might have been improved. Well, I hereby apologise. In fact I grovel. I have now bought, with my own money, a copy of the entire book, and I'm glad I did. Having read it, I can tell you that this is a deeply impressive novel, especially as it seems to have been the author’s first, and I can assure you that John Sundman needs no advice from me, or from anyone else, on how to construct an effective book. I see from John’s wetmachine web site that the print version of Acts of the Apostles was self-published, and that it won the Writers Digest National Selfpublished Book award in 2001. I’m not surprised. If you want to categorise this novel, I would have to call it a science-fiction thriller. John is a very experienced software man, having been at one time the chair of the software development architecture team of Sun Microsystems, and he has won a couple of awards in the IT field. So it is obvious that he understands the digital world and has a good insight into other recent developments, e.g. in biotechnology. Furthermore, he can write. (In the acknowledgements he says that Joe Regal, the literary agent, taught him.) This is nearly always a formidable combination. I am reluctant to go into too much detail on the plot. It’s complicated, and plot summaries are always unsatisfactory. Let’s just say that this novel is set in the mid 1990s, and that it concerns the use and abuse of technology. There are good guys and bad guys. One reader has said that the book is actually about Kaczynsky’s Postulate: that technology and freedom cannot be reconciled. In this case, one group tries to advance technology – specifically, nanotechnology – in ways which will more or less eliminate freedom. I have sometimes expressed the view that writers really shouldn’t worry about how their work will be viewed in the future. Just making the bloody book work in the present is enough of a problem for most people. However, I have the very definite feeling that this is a book which will be read in 50 or 100 years from now, in the way that we now read books such as The War of the Worlds, 1984, and Brave New World. People will look at it and say – see, that is what they were worried about at the end of the twentieth century. How quaint! Alternatively, they may read it and say How prescient! Let’s hope it’s the former. From a reader’s point of view there are a few difficulties. The principal characters are nearly all young and involved in IT or science, and it is sometimes an effort to keep track of who is who. But as you get to know them better this becomes less of a problem. At page 218 I made the following note: This is a book that gets better as it

goes along. It’s only when you read a book like this that you realise what a feeble, runty thing the average thriller is. And a few pages later: This is a rare fusion of science and, in the broadest sense, literature. It isn’t commercial in the sense that Neal Stephenson is commercial (though even he has never had a big fat hit), but it’s quality stuff. As you stick with this book, it begins to be moving, in addition to gripping. And the ending is ironic, amusing, and sad. It’s a formidable achievement. This is a long book, in terms of wordage, and I would have been a more comfortable reader, visually, if the font had been larger and there had been fewer lines on the page. But then, of course, the page count, and the cost, would have gone up. Not that it’s terribly relevant, but is it my imagination, or is there, on page 305, an echo of James Joyce’s short story The Dead? David Daiches, a professor of English at Cambridge in my time, once described the last paragraph of The Dead (in a lecture that I attended) as perhaps the best written piece of prose in the English language. Or words to that effect. Acts of the Apostles isn’t in that class. But it will do for now. Oh, and by the way: the wetmachine web site contains an account of how Acts of the Apostles came to be written. A cautionary tale if ever there was one. Perhaps you’d better read it before you embark on your own long-planned masterpiece.

Cheap Complex Devices by John Compton Sundman Reviewed 6 July 2006 I am coming round to the view that, for me at least, some of the most rewarding and interesting fiction is to be found in odd corners on the internet, and among the self-publishers. (Kelly Link, for example, although I didn’t take to her, is a self-published author.) I haven’t given up on the mainstream, big-time publishers and writers -- far from it. But with them, what you see is what you get. There aren’t many surprises, and there are quite a few disappointments. If you want something adventurous, risky, edgy, you need to go to the smaller guys. And, now that we have whatever you want to call it – Intarweb 2.99 or whatever – they aren’t so hard to find. A few weeks ago, I read John Sundman's first novel, Acts of the Apostles (AA), which he published himself some years ago. And now I’ve read his second one, Cheap Complex Devices (CCD). AA was a relatively straightforward book – a techno-thriller perhaps is the best description – using orthodox narrative technique. CCD isn’t orthodox; not by a long way. On the whole, I think you would be well advised to read AA before you attempt to read CCD. John Sundman is a computer guy. To be more precise, a software guy. He was at one time the chair of the software development architecture team of Sun Microsystems, and he has won a couple of awards in the IT field. Both his novels deal with the world of technology. I think the best way to describe CCD is to say that it is what English gentlemen of a certain age would describe as a conceit. Others might call it metafiction; one of the book's many enthusiastic reader/reviewers on does just that. A conceit is (according to Oxford) an elaborate metaphor or artistic effect; a fanciful notion. CCD is all of those, and more. Metafiction is... Well, read the Wikipedia entry. I don’t think metafiction is a very good descriptor of CCD, and since I had arrived at the description ‘conceit’ by about page 3, and since the author himself uses that term to describe his book on the final page, I think I’ll settle for that. It would be impossible to give you a precise summary of what CCD is all about, but briefly, and unsatisfactorily, and possibly misleadingly (because I am not really all that bright, despite my best efforts to appear to be)... CCD purports to be ‘edited’ by John Compton Sundman. (One of Mr Sundman’s little quirks is that he gives himself different middle names/initials on each of his books: F.X. on the first, Compton on this one; Damien on his work in progress.) CCD is said to be the winner of the Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative; i.e. it’s supposed to be written by a computer. But

it isn’t, of course. (Not as far as I know, anyway. One upon a time there was Max Headroom, who looked like a construct of the computer graphics industry but wasn’t. But now you could do Max 40,000 times over, and people have, in all those Hollywood movies. So today you have a novel which looks as if it was written by a [very wonky] computer but isn’t; and in twenty years’ time you will have... War and Peace 2026.) It gets more complicated than that, but I will just confuse you if I go any further. Like Russia (as described by Winston Churchill), CCD is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. As the novel proceeds, layer upon layer of fantasy and paradox are piled upon each other, until you lose track of where you are supposed to be, and what you are supposed to be reading. This effect is many times more pronounced in CCD than it is in Richard Rathwell's Red the Nile, Blue the Hills; and, as that book was too, CCD is reminiscent of Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare. This is a remarkable book. (To buy a copy from the author, go here.) I can't say that it made me laugh or cry, but I did find it fascinating. I would like to recommend it, but I suspect that you need to be seriously eccentric to enjoy it. Either that or working in the IT industry, which amounts to the same thing. Computer guys will appreciate, no doubt, far more of the nuance than I do; but there’s enough there for anyone, provided you are ever so slightly weird yourself. Come to think of it, there is one aspect of the book which is emotionally moving to the point of being disturbing and upsetting. On the very first page, the page which is usually the half-title, we find the following: Enna boobie, it’s cold. It turns out that Enna boobie (sometimes rendered booby) means It’s cold in some (real or imagined) foreign language: possibly (?probably) Wolof as spoken in Senegal. And there is an image associated with this statement. Here is what the computer which is writing CCD says on the antepenultimate page of its novel: What is this long novel about anyway? About a child. A child. A cold child left behind. How the memory of a cold rag-clad child saying ‘enna boobi’, it’s cold, made me start to think one day about Gordon Biersh, and how after that I was useless. Actually John Sundman’s novel isn’t long: 100 pages or so. And here’s what one reader, Mr Goat, says about it: Very early first impression: In places, it reminded me of doing stack traces back when we learned about recursion. I estimate that before I can review it properly, I shall have to finish it, read Acts again, read this again, and have two glasses of wine. Make that three.