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Book review: <i>The Raw Shark Texts</i> by Steven Hall

If this was a meal, it would be a fine Japanese dish eaten with a beautiful returned astronaut.


[Editor note: The cover Tom refers to is not the one pictured above.]

Too much white, too little imagination. A shark fin blurs across some text. It’s not atrocious, but the book’s plot is so fecund that I feel justified calling this a wasted design opportunity, a case supported by the superior UK and US covers.

The plot

(NB—if you’re one of those people who wants to enjoy something in as unsullied a form as possible, then you might want to skip this plot summary. I’m not giving it all away, but the plot inescapably involves the main idea, so if you want that to be a surprise, skip ahead.)

Eric Sanderson wakes up on the floor of a house. He doesn’t know how he got there, whose house it is, or even that his name is Eric Sanderson. A note in the hall directs him to a doctor. It also purports to be from himself, and is the first of many that he’ll receive from this source. The doctor tells Eric that he’s suffering from a rare psychological disorder called cognitive dissociation, triggered by the death of his lover Clio in a diving accident in Greece. The letters from Eric’s past self, however, tell a different story. A story about arcane forms of protection from an invisible creature which, he claims, is hunting him, devouring his memory one bite at a time, moving in for the kill. And it’s not beer. It’s a conceptual fish, a shark, in fact, called a Ludovician. It’s a predatory, self-aware idea, born in the infinitely complex four-dimensional mesh of human interaction. Invisible and intelligent, it chooses a host and hunts them relentlessly, feeding from the thoughts and memories in their minds until nothing remains but a shell.

The good

The idea. It’s a friggin’ ripper. It’s so good it makes you wonder why nobody else thought of it first. Like Jeff Noon’s Vurt, Michael Marshall Smith’s early work, or, yes, The Matrix, Hall creates a true sense of awe in the reader by dropping open a trapdoor in reality, then guiding us further into the unknown with successive ideas which, while increasingly surreal, all follow the logic of the thoroughly thought through core conceit. Novel ideas this invigorating don’t come along too often, and Hall has the stones to think it out, get it down, and, importantly, focus on the central story without getting lost in the trees of possibility which sprout from such fertile ground (Matrix Reloaded, I’m looking in your direction!).

This isn’t much like The Matrix, truth to tell, but there is one major similarity, which is the love story at the heart of the plot. It serves to ground the borderline madness of the main concept. So does the small, effective supporting cast and the eerily mundane un-space where much of the story takes place—deserted warehouses, shops, corridors and car parks. Particularly well conveyed is the ache of loss felt by Eric for Clio—rather than take an easy out and marry them or give them some star-crossed cute-meet, Hall shows their cheeky day-to-day relationship in nothing but good light (a holiday), and their silliness and youth make the hole where Clio’s love was seem still harder to bear. It’s also a great contrast to the blank-walled foreboding of the book’s early chapters, where Eric’s neat little bubble of new memory floats across a void where, we know, terrifying things wait and observe.

I’ll say it again, because it’s an important part of what makes this such a great debut—Hall steers the powerful plot engine with skill and restraint. When plot revelations cause the READER to look off into the distance as their mind ticks over with fresh possibilities, it’s a pretty good indicator that the writer needs a bucket of talent just to work out which diversions to indulge, and Hall pulls it off quite competently. The basic structure and pacing are fairly conventional for a thriller (there are 3 distinct stages), but there’s a reason these conventions exist, and they typically frame plots only a fraction as challenging as this one.

Hall does an excellent job of showing us the Ludovician (and the network it inhabits). It’s almost effortless, which is a pretty good trick given that in terms of descriptive writing it’s like explaining a new colour in the spectrum without mentioning any old ones. He cheats a tad, in an entirely excellent manner, by using typographical tricks and diagrams to concoct a sort of symbol-of-a-symbol-within-text-which-is-in-itself-symbols... If you get me. It’s the kind of bullshit flourish that only writers with the confidence of youth or experience could get away with, and Hall does with flair.

The bad

It lacks the psychedelic blooms of Noon’s books or the nightmare gardens of Marshall Smith’s, and, the brilliant main thrust aside, is less haphazardly inventive and colourful than either. On the other hand, this means its successes are less scattershot, its internal logic much tighter, and its appeal far broader (Vurt, for instance, though bizarre in concept, is actually easier to explain than it is to read, and the revolutionary nature of even an acknowledged classic like Neuromancer will remain primarily known within the province of science fiction fans). Perhaps it’s most telling to say that, despite The Raw Shark Text’s many intangibilities, it’d translate far better into film than any of the books above.

It can feel a little... sparse, at times, due in part to this simplicity, and in part to the very small cast; Eric is alone and amnesiac for half the story. The real-world setting is a ballast and a backdrop contrast, but its description lacks the stylisation and panache of good science fiction—Hall’s focus on the central thread of the story means that the ignorant everyday world outside lacks detail.

You might get the impression that Hall has bitten off more than he can chew, but this is not the case. I could argue that there’s a lot left on the plate going to waste, however. Hall includes tantalising outlines of ideas like the Unspace Exploration Committee, the Myron Croft group entity, secret aquariums of predatory thought-fish, and the historical (not to mention chronological) implications of sentient ideas, but doesn’t come close to colouring them in. This is because it’s such a staggeringly good idea and could fill a ten-book series, never mind 300 pages, true, but it’s also because he devotes an awful lot of space to the fairly mundane relationship between the central couple. Okay, that’s a tad harsh, but their dialogue does stagger somewhat along the line between twee and cute, and doesn’t spend much time striving for verisimilitude either. It’s perfectly okay for Eric to idealise his last days with Clio on their sun-soaked holiday on the Greek islands, but sitcom gags work less well down an abandoned lift shaft between two characters who have abandoned any hope of a normal life anywhere, no matter how much of a connection they’re meant to have.

Oh, and to draw one final parallel to Marshall Smith, Hall is far FAR too keen to project cloying bollocks onto cats. And I’m a cat person. So be warned.

Really, this is great, and it’s far more interesting than I’m making it sound. The last third is an absolute freaking corker. Go. Read. Try something new. And, if you figure out exactly what happens at the end, let me know.

What I learnt

That there are still some new ideas out there, even in territory as thoroughly strip-mined as the novel.

In short

Title: The Raw Shark Texts
Author: Steven Hall
Publisher: Canongate U.S.
ISBN: 1841959111
Year published: 2007
Pages: 448
Genre(s): Fiction, Thriller, Science fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuffhere.

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