10 February 2017

Review: UBO

Image from http://www.solarisbooks.com/
UBO
Steve Rasnic Tem
Solaris, 9 February 2017
PB, e 320pp

I'm grateful to Solaris for an advance copy of this book.

A blend of science fiction and horror, award-winning author Steve Rasnic Tem’s new novel is a chilling story exploring the roots of violence and its effect on a possible future.

To say that this book surprised me is putting it mildly. The two previous books by Steve Rasnic Tem that I had read - Deadfall Hotel and Blood Kin were supernatural, somewhat monstrous but - allowing for some weirdness - very much set in the here and now.

UBO is different. UBO is set in... UBO, whereever that is. It's a decaying building in a decaying city, where strange, malevolent "roaches" - giant insects - imprison and torture humans, forcing them, by some strange mind control, to inhabit the memories of notorious criminals and killers. These parts of the book are dark and very difficult to read. We hear the internal monologues, the self-justification, the arrogance, of a spree killer, of a bloodstained tyrant, a domestic abuser, a serial killer, a medieval warlord - all of them real historical people.

Running through the book, as a thread, are the self-deluding narratives of Holocaust perpetrators.

It's extremely well done, deeply, deeply chilling and at times, really nasty. The reader experiences this at one remove and that is unsettling: the conceit of having actual people kidnapped and forced to relive life after terrible life is even more awful.

And yet, in a sense, that's not the worst. There are the life stories of the prisoners themselves - seen from the viewpoint of Daniel, who gives nicknames to his own particular group: Falstaff, Lenin, Bogart, Gandhi. A common theme, again, is of the failure to control anger, of actual or potential harm to families and friends before the men - they are mostly men - were carried away to UBO. They speculate, as these hard-given up stories emerge, that they have been chosen to match the lives of those they inhabit. They muse on whether they bear guilt for the things they do in those "scenarios". They self-justify their own behaviour: most, though, are curiously incurious about where they are now, why, and what will become of them.

So it goes. The scenarios are sometimes more, sometime less violent. The world of UBO leaks into them at times. And then - everything changes. We've been fed clues, glimpses of something behind the world here, and that is eventually revealed. When it is, it makes a kind of cruel sense of what has gone before - but it is the kind of sense that makes one despair of humankind's ability ever to improve.

This is a magnificent, but such a dark, vision of humanity past, present and future. Firmly in the camp of a kind of realist science fiction - only leap of imagination is really needed here, that ability to jump into others' (past) memories - it is still in atmosphere and setting far distant from the other Rasnic Tem stories I mentioned before: even the monsters in those were more human than some of the actors here.

What a work of imagination this must have been. What an experience for the reader. Disturbing, compelling, it's a book that will remain with you long after you close it and come back from UBO.

Strongly recommended.


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