(2009) Robert Rankin, Gollancz, £14.95/£12.95, hrdbk/trdpbk, 368 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07872-7 / 978-0-575-08497-1
There are great writers and there are great writers. On the other hand Robert Rankin, alas and not to overstate matters, is just a great writer albeit (to be fair to you dear reader) occasionally. If you had an infinite number of monkeys banging away at an infinite number of typewriters then one of them would be bound to type out the novel Retromancer. I know this to be true because I read it in the novel Retromancer. 'Coincidence,' I hear you cry, but no, as a scientist would I lie to you?
Retromancer is Rankin's 31st novel, but do not let this put you off. You might have thought that his anniversarial 30th, Necrophenia, would be the cracker, but no, Rankin was lulling us into a false sense of security as he has cranked up a gear. This one, Retromancer, is the proverbial biz and is representative of Rankin at his best. But before I review this title, a few words about Rankin's writing in general.
Now, great works of literature, be they The Lord of the Rings that follow a few of the inhabitants of the Shire as they go on a quest, or The Forsyte Sage that follows the trials and tribulations of a single family down the generations, or even great, iconic TV series like Dallas which follows the goings-on in an out-of-the-way Texan city, all have a sense of place and have a protagonistic dynasty. And so it is with Rankin's work. His books' sense of place is largely (but not always) based in Brentford: the well-known (except to tourists) suburb of West London (England). As for the protagonists? Well these usually (but not always) include some of the following: members of the Pooley family across the generations, the guru's guru Hugo Rune, Fangio the barman, the noir private detective Lazlo Woodbine, Barry the transdimensional brussel sprout, all along with an assortment of minor supporting characters ranging from Mick Jagger, the President of the US through to lesser deities and, of course, God himself. And so many of Rankin's books are loosely or directly connected in some way, and so he has amassed a substantive body of such work over the years.
Retromancer has at its main protagonist the grandmaster Hugo Rune, who never pays for anything as he has so often saved the World that all he asks in return is that it covers his expenses. Allied to him is a young James Pooley who was there back with the original Brentford trilogy (before it grew up to becoming quintology and is now an undefined number, polydology) which does beg the question as to why Pooley's older appearances in the earlier books don't seem to remember the adventures of his youth, but then I guess they never really came up in conversation.
Retromancer starts off in Brentford of the 1960s but not the Brentford we knew and loved of the '60s as it has been taken over by Nazis who won the Second World War. All this is a bit of a surprise to Jim Pooley who woke up after a long night of celebration having returned from a year long adventure with his friend John Omally (also a character who has roots in Rankin's original Brentford trilogy). Somehow, while Jim was asleep, an alternate timeline sprang into being and Jim is the only person who knows that Nazis in Brentford is not right, not right at all. Fortunately Hugo Rune comes to the rescue and whisks Jim back to the 1940s and the War itself so as they might try to set the timeline right. Now Hugo insists on calling Jim 'Rizla' just as he did in their earlier adventure over the Brightonomicon and soon they once more bump into the bar landlord Fangio. What follows is a load of old toot including running gags such as beers being named after typeface fonts, along with the serious business of finding out who altered the timeline and can they put it right; let alone who is selling i-pods and playstations on the black-market in World War II Brentford and – considering the protagonists hail from the 1960s – what is an 'i-pod' or a 'playstation' anyway? It is all a little perplexing.
It would be unfair to say that Rankin is a comic genius (to comic geniuses that is), though he is of course the self-proclaimed master of 'far fetched fiction' even if it would be true to say that that itself is not that far fetched. Rankin's tales are fun. Indeed, I (as do very many) like them a lot. Retromancer itself is for my money one of the better ones with a more linear, less higgledy, plot: you may recall I was not so fond of Necrophenia, his last novel. Even so what a time loop, antigravity materials, a two-dimensional person, pirates, Alan Turing (who looks a lot like Brains out of Thunderbirds) and a mythical legendary race complete with dragons, not to mention a werewolf or two, there is quite a bit going on in World War II. Consequently, our champions do need the occasional refreshment such as a pint of Bell Centennial.
Now, there is no need for me to explain how all this pans out save to say that Hugo Rune is on the case.
As for downsides to this novel, well none really. OK, I was personally disappointed that Lazlo Woodbine (one of my favourite Rankin characters) was not in it but then we got him with Rankin's last book (though he does get a passing mention in this one). Nor was Barry the Sprout: though a Brentford allotment of sprouts did get tragically blown up. Still, one can't have everything and Retromancer itself is a veritable Rankin feast. If you are into really zany Brit humour then you might well become a Rankin addict. Though I should point out English had better be your first language as Rankin does come up with some truly awful (for which read 'funny') puns (plays on words). If you have never heard of him then it really is definitely worth checking out this boisterous burl of British brilliance, just choose the titles you start with carefully.
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