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The strange work of French pulp writer Serge Brussolo is finally available in English

The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome is the first of Brussolo's novels to be translated – and, happily, it's also one of the best.

The improbably prolific Serge Brussolo is the author of well over 150 books in his ­native France, in genres including science fiction, thrillers, horror, fantasy, war, police procedural, historical drama and young adult fiction. He has written weird tales influenced by J G Ballard, books set in ancient Egypt, in Viking Europe and during the Hundred Years War, techno-thrillers à la Michael Crichton, werewolf novels (under the pseudonym Akira Suzuko), medieval interstellar adventures (as Kitty Doom) and a series of bestsellers about an American teenager with magic ghost-o-vision glasses, Peggy Sue et les fantômes. Brussolo publishes up to three books a year, a rate at which even a team of writers working overtime might be hard-pressed to maintain stylistic consistency, and this, coupled with his unapologetic recycling of plots and ideas, goes some way towards explaining why his literary reputation hovers between guilty pleasure and national treasure. Even so, one might expect to have had a sniff of his work in English before now. Mais non.

That is about to change with The Deep-Sea Diver’s Syndrome, the first of Brussolo’s novels to be translated into English and, happily, also one of the best. The premise will be distantly familiar to readers who have seen Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (released in 2010), though the book appeared in France 18 years earlier, as Le syndrome du scaphandrier: its protagonist, David, leads a gang of metaphysical burglars who enter a dreaming mind and pull daring heists to retrieve its treasures.

In the wonderful opening pages, David and his two sidekicks leap out of a long, black car that keeps obstinately trying to turn into a shark, and on to a pavement that desperately wants to become a beach (“Fix your stability,” one character warns, “take a consistency pill”), and use a jeweller’s eyeball and severed hand to gain entry to his shop. Their quarry is a huge black safe – “No matter the shop, the safe was always the same” – which belches, gives out “intestinal gurgles” and the thuds of a beating heart, and recites random numbers and mocking slogans as the cracksman sets about his work.

Once opened, it reveals crunching bagfuls of loose stones (“He came across bags like that in every heist. The psychologist said it was negative thinking”), which the protagonist seizes as his dream begins to disintegrate and he is sucked helplessly towards the surface. As first chapters go, it takes some beating.

But Brussolo’s novel is even stranger than these opening fireworks suggest. Unlike the dream-agents of Inception, who fish for industrial secrets in the minds of their drugged subjects, David is a sole trader and the brain he plumbs is his own. Objects brought back from a dream are mysteriously converted upon waking into flesh-like sculptures, “palpitating faintly like frightened animals” until someone comes and takes them away: they are, we soon discover, the new artworks of a world in which Picassos and Klees have become the province of rag-and-bone men (“Paint applied to a canvas with a stick topped by animal hair? How crude!”) and where collectors scramble for “ectoplasmic curios” manifested by dreaming prospectors.

The overheated pulp heists in which David specialises, as his psychiatrist observes crossly, are just “a magic formula that allows you to concentrate”; another dream-diver spends his nights on endless safari, where he is the great white hunter Majo-Mako, “He-Who-Slew-Like-Lightning”. In most cases, indulging in too much of this kind of introspection ends badly: although the public loves dreamers’ work, they often slump into endless comas, poison their inscapes with tranquillisers, or die of porcelain brain tumours in which the pathologists discover “tiny, exquisitely chiselled figurines”.

It doesn’t take a very alert reader to spot the metaphorical dimension in all this, but the anarchic surrealism at work in Brussolo’s novel is such that it can never quite be reduced to a parable about the artist and society. Like Burroughs in his cut-up fictions, or Ballard in the mad Californian dreamscapes of his Vermilion Sands stories, he is coolly at home in the deranged landscape he creates, in which hypnotists whisper cryptically to security cameras, dead dreams lie frozen in special vaults lest they explode when they thaw and flowers sprout wildly in cityscapes of the mind as the dreamers’ bodies decay.

His book is sometimes silly (there is some awkward dialogue, the odd dramatic longueur and altogether too much banging on about “ectoplasm” for my taste) but it is also totally, unapologetically compelling. What an introduction, then. And there’s plenty more to come.

The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome by Serge Brussolo, translated by Edward Gauvin, is published by Melville House (220pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis

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Sexless in space: the post-apocalyptic novels re-imagining the future of gender

In these fictions, the future has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

Devastating the world has a persistent lure for authors – not just because it gives them spectacular backdrops and unconstrained possibilities for their fiction. There’s also a political imperative to imagining catastrophe. “People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen,” says off-world survivor Christine Pizan in Lidia Yuknavitch’s post-apocalyptic The Book of Joan. “If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life.” That’s a delusion that has proved costly to Christine’s society. Now, above a scorched and trashed Earth, a fragment of the elite is sustained on a vessel named CIEL, which Christine calls an “idiotic space-condom”.

The dream up on CIEL is of impenetrable self-reliance. Even the inhabitants’ bodies, mutated by radiation, seem to be conspiring in this idea: hair gone, skin blanched, primary and secondary sexual characteristics withered and sealed. “I have a slight mound where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it,” explains Christine. “Nothing of woman is left.” The world, she says, has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

But this dream is both a lie and unsatisfactory. CIEL can only be sustained by extracting resources from the remnant Earth below. Its residents’ lives are docked at 50 years: any longer and they’d be an unacceptable burden on the finite reserves. Unfortunately, there’s no one to replace them. No sexual dimorphism means no having sex, which means no reproduction. CIEL is a dead end for humanity, and wombless, vaginaless Christine yearns for what used to be “between my legs, where a deeply wanting cavern used to cave toward my soul”. Female organs, so often presented as nothing but lack, are substantial enough to be missed when they’re gone.

In the absence of sex, the only thing left to do with one’s person is turn it into text. Culture on CIEL consists entirely of grafts – elaborate acts of storytelling scarified deep into pallid tissue, scrolls of skin stretched out and pouring down from the body, faces barely recognisable as faces after extreme modification. Christine is one great artist of the form; the other is Jean de Men, CIEL’s despotic leader, who converted trash fame into tyranny as the world fell apart. And yes, that does seem like a very on-the-heavily-customised-nose reference to Trump – but that’s not all the character is.

De Men is also a resurrection of his medieval The Romance of the Rose-author namesake, vicious misogyny and all – “all the women in his work demanded to be raped. All the women in his stories used language and actions designed to sanction, validate, and accelerate that act.” Stories are inscribed on bodies, shaping them to the culturally-imposed narrative; but stories can also be rejected, new ones written. Like the historical Christine de Pizan who blasted The Romance of the Rose in her 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies, Yuknavitch’s Christine kicks against the patriarch in writing. She authors a resistance by grafting a new and forbidden myth about the girl-soldier Joan of Dirt, who opposed Jean and was burned for her insurrection.

In Danny Denton’s debut The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, the dystopia stays on the ground, in a version of Ireland where the rain is constant, surveillance universal and violence ubiquitous: “The city festered; the suburbs drowned. And the countryside changed forever… Ireland became a cesspool for deranged life.”

Like Yuknavitch’s, the tale Denton tells is one of storytelling. There’s a Sweeney who sits on a barstool, sputtering disregarded truths into his cups like the mythical mad king. The slammed-together science fiction and folklore echo Flann O’Brien, and so does Denton’s dizzying playfulness as he flits through narrators – parts are told by a Death-like figure called Mister Violence, parts in script form, all in a densely allusive future-dialect.

It’s another world where resources are overstretched and fertility is at a premium. “Are simply too many people fighting over what’s left?” asks one character, and the most fought-over thing of all is the baby that the Kid in Yellow begets by T, the daughter of gangster chief the Earlie King. T dies in childbirth, and now the two men (well, the Kid and the man) war for custody of their progeny, to Mister Violence’s delight. This leads to some spectacular set-pieces, but for all Denton’s stylish bluster, the story slips away. These are ciphers, not characters (compare The Third Policeman for proof that it’s entirely possible to do character while populating a fantastical hellscape), and what happens to them holds little weight.

Slight as the Kid, the King and the rest of them are, they do at least have the benefit of existing. Women, on the other hand, are thin on the ground. The Kid wonders: “Where the fukk are all the mothers?” It’s a good question, but an even better one is this: where has Denton put all the women who aren’t mothers, or substitute mothers, or whores, or dead? Unlike those of Yuknavitch, Denton’s metatextual flits don’t extend to an interest in the politics of who gets to tell these stories.

Maybe it takes Yuknavitch’s smarts about gender to write environmental dystopia: it’s impossible to think seriously about what humans are doing to the planet if you can’t think beyond the old macho ideas that fix the human subject as male (penetrating, hard, whole) and women (penetrated, soft, holed) as a subsidiary material. Vulnerability and humanity are not mutually exclusive, although our stories have long insisted otherwise.

In her own reading of the Joan of Arc story, Andrea Dworkin noted that Joan’s virginity wasn’t a statement of purity but “a radical renunciation of civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice”. In other words, Joan refused intercourse because
it would have marked her as female, with all the inferiority that entailed.

Yuknavitch’s weirdly beautiful Joan is a reinvention of what being human is. We are not something against nature but something within nature, permeable and dependant on the world, no matter how we tell ourselves we can stand above our planet and exploit it. 

The Book of Joan
Lidia Yuknavitch
Canongate, 288pp, £14.99

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow
Danny Denton
Granta Books, 368pp, £12.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist