Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Malcolm Pryce's alternate crime universe

I've discussed fantasy novels from time to time, notably Jasper Fforde's, as well as a science fiction story or two, and I've discovered that I may just have finished one without knowing it, at least if alternate-universe books fall under the rubric of fantasy.

A Wikipedia article describes Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth novels as "set in an alternative universe," a description I found helped my thinking about these odd, comic, sometimes poignant books.

I've just finished the second in the series of five, and its title gives a fair sense of the books' tone: Last Tango in Aberystwth. (The rest are Aberystwyth Mon Amour, The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, Don't Cry for Me Aberystwyth, and From Aberystwyth With Love. The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still is due out this summer.)

The real Aberystwyth is a Welsh university and holiday town whose recorded history dates to 1109. In Pryce's world, it's a summer resort where it's always the off-season, the fashions are never the latest, and a whimsical melancholy pervades everything. ("I walked up Great Darkgate Street and through the castle grounds towards the bed-and-breakfast ghetto down by the harbour. This was where the ventriloquists tended to stay, along with the out-of-work clowns, the washed-up impresarios and the men who ran away from the bank to join the circus. ... Down below I could see Sospan's new kiosk — repositioned and re-established after the short-lived fool's errand of selling designer coffee to a town that hungered only for vanilla.")

Like many hard-boiled worlds, it has its disappointed young women who flock to the big city hoping for stardom but wind up doomed to grimmer fates. Only here, the girls hope to model for the fudge boxes sold to tourists but wind up in "What the Butler Saw" movies. And the diversions available to the residents of this world as they spiral downward manage the difficult double of seeming ridiculous to us (but never to the residents themselves) and affecting at the same time.:
"`Where does someone go in this town when they've reached the bottom and and have nowhere left to go?'

"There are lots of places.'

"`For you, yes! For you there are the bars and the girls and the toffee and the bingo and the whelks. For you there is a great choice. But for her. Ah! but for her? You cannot imagine what this girl was like.'"
If you're a fan of the genre, what are the ingredients of a successful alternative universe?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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28 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

If my recollection is correct and it might not be (it was a long weekend that weekend) they boast a lot about how much they hate the English, yet when confronted with a six foot four Geordie with a unibrow and a bad temper the hate tended to melt away into a kind of quiet simpering.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

To my mind, alternate history primarily needs to be interesting. What use is it reworking reality if it doesn't make you sit up and take notice? Otherwise, the writer ought to just stick with the world as we have it.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if Geordies or Englishmen of any kinf are part of Pryce's alternate universe, but a resentful simper in the dark recesses of a druid speakeasy might not be out of place.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, Pryce qualifies. Besides, his world is just close enough to the real one to allow for especially amusing, sometimes almost surreal touches.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

These Aberyswyth books look mighty intriguing, Peter. I am definitely going to track them down. They seem like something I'd like.

My favorite alternate universe...hmmm. My ideal is a place that has recognizable qualities, but just enough things gone askew. If done right, I will like and accept it immediately. I know it when I read it.

I love Jasper Fforde's take on the alternate universe of an almost England. Cars exist. But I love that air planes don't, only balloons and dirigibles. Don't think computers exist either, but time and intra-book travel does. And a dodo named Pickwick.

I love Naomi Novik's historical tales set during the Napoleonic Wars. The English and the French fight each other with the aid of squadrons of dragons. Just a lovely, lovely depiction of my kind of alternate universe. Everything the same, except there be dragons.

I like China Mieville's strange London in KRAKEN and strange Balkan countries in THE CITY AND THE CITY.

I like an alternate universe that's the same only different. In other words, I like to have familiar sign-posts that lead elsewhere. Know what I mean?

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I am glad to hear Pryce´s is an alternative universe - I have wondered quite a lot if Wales was really like that ;)

Alternative worlds have to be consistent - J.K. Rowling makes you believe that if there are wizards, their world must be exactly the way she describes it in the Potter series.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Oh, and the laws of some sort of physics must prevail. Things can't just materialize out of the blue. There must be a reason of some sort why.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I, too, have a feeling you might like the Aberystwyth books. The author's Web site, to which I link in the body of my post, includes a short extract from each novel.

Though I haven't visited many alternative universes, I think I know what you mean by similar but different. Pryce's Aberystwyth is so similar to the real one that I had to have it pointed out to me as an alternate universe.

One reason Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crimes books work for me is that the characters take their world seriously. That helps the reader suspend disbelief.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, my brief experience of Wales is probably more unbelievable than Pryce's Aberwystwyth: nothing but green hills and books. (I spent a day in Hay-on-Wye on a side trip from Bristol.)

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"... and strange Balkan countries in THE CITY AND THE CITY."

That's probably a clever touch on Mieville's part, playing of notions of the strange, exotic East. It's probably no accident that he chose the Balkans, where East meets West, as a setting.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I'm a big fan of the Rad Bradbury story The Sound of Thunder which explains that if you change one minute thing in the past everything would be different. There's a good Simpsons episode about this.

Chaos theory says the same thing. So I get pretty dismayed when I hear things like there's dragons in the Napoleonic wars...if dragons existed the whole history of the world would be different Napoleon would never have existed. I found this to be a big problem with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell too - there's magic in the universe but they still more or less have the same history of England.

In the Ricky Gervais film The Invetion of Lying no human is able to lie and yet Napoleon also existed there too.

These writers just dont really think through the consequences of their actions. Chaos theory is a powerful mechanism. Let's say Franz Ferdinand's driver doesn't make a wrong turn on June 28th 1914...this blog and none of us would exist. Add dragons and magic to the mix - there is no Europe or France or Napoleon.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, is the mere assertion of chaos theory enough to discredit a story about dragons in the Napoleon Wars? I'd like to know how the existence of dragons would have precluded the existence of Napoleon. (Whether one likes stories with Napoleonic dragons is another matter, of course.)

March 08, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

What?

You think an Earth that had dragons in it would be remotely like our own in any way? If any one of a million things about history were even slightly different before 1768 then Napoleon doesn't get born. History doesn't run like clockwork. Its a complex chaotic system. If his mother had cheese for dinner the night before he was conceived then the Napoleon we know wouldnt have been born (because the level of ostrogen in her blood would have been different) If the temperature in the room had been 1 degree different the Napoleon we know wouldnt have been born.

So how could a world full of dragons have a place like France or England or whatever? Its absurd.

Lets say JFK had decided to wear the stetson hat that he had been given that morning for his drive through Dallas. Two men wearing stetsons makes Lee Harvey Oswarld hesitate for a second or two. He only gets one shot off and thats the neck wound that JFK survives.

Every single person born on the planet Earth after August 1965 would not now exist. In their place a whole different bunch of people...Imagine how different that planet would be , because one man wore a hat.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What would chaos theorists and other philosophers say about the possibility that any one (or ten or a thousand) of the world's infinite attributes would have turned out the same had Mrs. Buonaparte dined differently, or had JFK turned puckish and grabbed and donned Jackie's pink pillbox hat at the last minute?

Now, in practical terms, I would likely have difficulty accepting a fictional world indistinguishable for the real one except for the presence of military dragons. But I can't bring myself to reject it philosophically as readily as you do.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

You have to ask yourself whether the universe's logic is internally consisent. Is it remotely likely that an Earth where dragons evolved also produced the rather mundane series of historical events that led up to the Napoleonic war, no. Is it impossible? No. Perhaps the planet is being manipulated by powerful aliens, or God, or exists only as a Sim in an advanced computer programme. But I need the author to explain that. I don't take on trust the improbable series of coincidences that produces dragons and the French Revolution.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think we're that far apart on this. You say: "Is it remotely likely that an Earth where dragons evolved also produced the rather mundane series of historical events that led up to the Napoleonic war, no. Is it impossible? No." I said "Now, in practical terms, I would likely have difficulty accepting a fictional world indistinguishable from the real one except for the presence of military dragons."

I'm just not ready to pronounce logically inconsistent a story that I have not read and about which I know only two facts.

But as a practical matter, you've read more science fiction and fantasy than I have. Have you read any stories that you liked despite their illogic?

March 08, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well I'm afraid Jonathan Strange was one that I didnt like. The Golden Compass is good and Pullman explains the differences between the universes in a very clever way. It's allegedly a children's book but to me it reads more like a story about children.

But that wasnt your question was it? Stories that I liked despite their logical flaws? Well if the author is just being silly and having fun then its all fine with me, a la Terry Pratchett, but if he's trying to make some big statement and that big statement is based on a ridiculous premise...well, I start to get irritiated. To do it well you have to be a very good writer:

Thomas Pynchon almost always succeeds, Philip K Dick, Don DeLillo...

I suppose the one who pulls it off best for me best is James Ellroy. The universe of The Cold 6000 is clearly not quite our own but I bought into it despite its absurdity.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I've liked the one DeLillo I've read, White Noise. I once recommended it to a professor of mine who was looking for something to read on a plane flight.

Pullman explains the difference between universes in The Golden Compass? Now that someone has suggested that Pryce's Aberystwyth is an alternate universe, I'm slapping myself in the forehead and saying, "Aha! NOW it makes sense." The Golden Compass might be worth reading.

March 09, 2011  
Blogger Mack said...

The Aberystwyth books have been on my list for a while thanks for reminding me about them.

I'm about half way through the latest Jasper Fforde Thursday Next novel -- One of Our Thursdays is Missing. Fforde is a master at building alternate universes and may be the best contemporary author doing so. The detail and logical consistency make his worlds easy to accept and enjoy. He puts the same effort in his new color series. The first is Shades of Grey. Again wonderful and logical detail. I actually learned a bit about color theory reading Shades...

March 10, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Well, Adrian, if I go by your theory (chaos or not) I would be very limited in the sorts of 'alternate universe' books I'd read and enjoy. Thank goodness I go by my own, slighlty warped notions. For me, the universe that Naomi Novik creates in her Temeraire series works on a purely story-telling level. I've never actually sat down and thought it backwards to Adam and Eve and the dragon.

She has an England that is similar but different. A China that is similar but different. An Australia that is similar but different. An African coast similar but different. Slavery still exists. (And brought home to the dragons who, in may respects are treated no better.) Dragons have evolved in the wild, most are feral except for those that have, for whatever reason, adapted to man's company. Each country, each continent has its own variety. Each 'corps.' of battle dragons, bred and adapted for war, are made up of many variety of dragon species. For instance, some are suitable for short distance flight only. Some are 'messengers' light and capable of flying long distances. The heavier, larger dragons are used for the weightier fighting - these dragons carry men very much as aircraft carriers carried solders later. Each dragon has a 'captain' who bonds with the animal for the life of the human. If that human should die, a dragon may defy a new 'captain' and go feral.

Oh, and not all dragons breathe fire. There are dragons that have other specialities. Some spew poison, etc. Though the fire-breathing ones are the most prized in war, obviously.

Novik has figured out all the requisites for this man/animal thing to work on some level that makes imaginative sense.

There is a remarkable scene in one of the books after a furious battle when the weary human troops, thousands of surviving men, are making their way home across the countryside and overhead, the dragons, fatigued and wounded, low-flying over. Novik describes this from a distance and it is quite stirring. She writes battles and their aftermath like no woman writer I've ever read.

I am willing to suspend my disbelief and do when I read these books and truly enjoy them. It is one of my favorite series.

March 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mack, what I have learned from the Aberystwyth novels is humbler than color theory: I have learned something about the ambiance of a Welsh beach town that is a bit past its heyday. With the possible exception of one bit in the first book, the two novels I've read are internally consistent, if comical. Now, the real Aberystwyth may be nothing like even the less extravagant aspects of Pryce's, but Pryce is good enough on detail that I believe I glimpse something of it beneath its comic counterpart.

March 10, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Yvette


That series makes no sense to me. I guess I have an imagination deficit or something. I always thought the Napoleonic Wars were pretty exciting in themselves without having to add dragons to the mix. But then again, Naomi sells millions of books and gets her novels optioned by Peter Jackson so what do I know.

March 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Just as I thought that Jane Austen was just fine without zombies.

March 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, it sounds as if dragons are in that fictional world what horses are in the real one.

March 10, 2011  
Blogger Mack said...

Peter, a story that can convey a sense of place, atmosphere and do it naturally has strong appeal for me and I am going to add the Aberystwyth novels to my already uncontrolled TBR pile.

I wish my wife and I would have had time to stop by Aberystwyth. I remember seeing signs to it when we were driving through Wales.

Gary Dobbs stirred my interest in Wales with his novel, A Policeman's Lot, a procedural set in 1904. An excellent story with a strong sense of place and time.

March 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mack, I'd love to hear a report on a visit to Aberystwyth or to visit myself just to glimpse the raw material for Malcolm Pryce's odd world.

You might also like Kevin McCarthy's Peeler, set during the Irish War of Independence.

March 11, 2011  
Anonymous Edward Abraham said...

First, it's not clear to me whether we're talking about universes that can alternate (with other universes, presumably) or about universes that are alternatives to the one we have.

Second, are there not significant and insignificant variables in history? Let's say there was a plot to kill Kennedy. But he wears the Stetson and Oswald shoots the governor. But the plotters don't give up. They bring down Kennedy's aircraft on the flight home.

Now what happens? Does this change the future?

March 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Edward, I had in mind universes that are alternative to ours -- and also recognizable as versions of ours.

If your scenario defines the future narrowly as "a world without Kennedy," then it might not have changed the future all that much. But the stetson/aircraft scenario would likely have resulted in a different future, though not necessarily in ways I could predict. Who would have become governor after Connolly? What would he have done? What precautions would Kennedy have taken between Dallas and the hypothetical plane crash, and what effects would these precautions have had?

I'm virtually illiterate when it comes to fantasy and alternate-universe stories, but it seems to me anyone creating a fictional universe along the lines you suggest would have to answer those questions.

March 17, 2011  

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