far, far in the future, Richard Pike is a disreputable pimp in the Pilipinas Archipelago, a former war hero and expat from the Darkling Island, whoring out the love of his life - the demonic "malignos" Gala, a devout catholic born in the deep underworld, and a turncoat on her people during the great war between the Earth Above and the Netherworld. trouble comes our lovers' way, and the brave Gala is poisoned and simplified. Pike must journey to the heart of the Netherworld, to the mind-bending city of Pandemonium, to find her cure. a dark and surreal science fantasy quest ensues.
do you have a secret inner hipster, a snobby elitist who loves your little finds - ones that no one else seems to know about? i sure do. i get a thrill from liking things that few people will ever come across. but it's a sad feeling too. why haven't i heard about Richard Calder before now? why isn't his excellent Malignos better known? it seems unfair.
this is a pretty amazing novel. its dense & hallucinogenic imagery, casual sadism, and intense focus on perverse & not-so-perverse spirituality reminded me of the early, bizarre trilogies of Elizabeth Hand and Paul Park. even better, his use of arch & deeply ironic dialogue, his shallow & self-absorbed hero, and the oddly cheerful & light tone for some dark events were reminiscent of Jack Vance's equally picaresque and arty Dying Earth series. in this story of a tormented, murderous hero and his larger-than-life sword, there is also more than a nod to Moorcock's Elric series - it seems almost like a straight-up homage. and, obviously, the basic narrative of this novel - a hero's descent into an underworld to save the life of his lady love - is also the basis of innumerable tales and legends.
the writing is wonderful. the imagery is gorgeous. the narrative is compelling. the characters are off-kilter but strangely iconic. the author, himself an English expat living in Philippines, brings to the table both insouciant verve and a lived-in understanding of elements of Filipino culture. this is science fantasy that made me pause and consider many things.
it is perhaps inappropriate to actually call this a "science fantasy". the history of this world is given careful pseudo-science explanation. SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH: first of all, the universe is composed of many dimensions. sometimes these dimensions bleed over and sometimes denizens of one dimension will cross over to another. in a certain dimension that is clearly where the idea of Hell sprung from and bled over, evil is good. people apparently have given themselves the appearance of what we call devils, amongst many such outre appearances. the philosopher-scientists who dominate this dimension, and the dark-energy beings that protect them (including that eternally famous villain, the cold-hearted Metatron) became ambitious and sought the create their own personal universe. disaster occurs; their dimension is destroyed; their spirits crossed over to a new dimension to possess and integrate with its more perverse and artistic residents. these newly transformed beings began to create great & terrible machines and to fashion new, more appealingly demonic forms. they were called many things: goblins, ogres, malignos. they are not necessarily evil... they just see things a different way. and driven underground, they plot to someday return. oh, and i'm not even talking about our dimension. Malignos takes place in a post-post-post-apocalyptic future of a familiar-seeming earth, but one that includes such world powers as Atlantis and Cathay. it's all so mindboggling and carefully thought-out... awesome!
there are many absorbing scenes, bizarre & beautifully described tableau, and moments of stylized dialogue & offhand musings to enjoy, to chuckle over, to slowly digest their implications, to read again, maybe to treasure. one of my favorite bits:
"If she embraces old superstition, Defoe, it is because the new superstitions that have currency in our world, superstitions that inhibit and finally destroy our sense of empathy, will lead us all to destruction.' Gala frowned. She did not seem to like the equation of her faith to superstition. Neither, perhaps, did I. But I was too damaged by war to be able to lift my face to heaven and put all my hope in the love everlasting. The only thing I feared more than the mummery of my own existence was the possibility that God also was an ostentatious fake."