Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Félix J. Palma - The Map of the Sky

At the time of writing, it’s been about three weeks since I published a negative and damning review of Félix J. Palma’s The Map of Time on Strange Horizons. It’s been about two weeks since I, filled with trepidation but obligated by a review copy received some weeks before, began that book’s sequel, The Map of the Sky. As I progressed through its opening and stayed up late for its middle, I was reminded that The Map of Time had had many, many good qualities along with its bad. The Map of the Sky exhibited all of those. Still, frightened of another disappointment, I tried to keep myself aloof. Hundreds of pages later, that task wasn’t going so well. The expected fall from quality just didn’t come. When penning the sequel, Palma seems to have decided to leave his pseudo-twists and questionable gender politics on the cutting room floor, leaving us with a swanky, rollicking time travel adventure that can proudly boast not only Martians but more literary giants than you can shake a hardcover at.

Like its predecessor, The Map of the Sky wastes no time in describing itself as a “melodrama” (p. 1), and it does its best to live up to and exploit that characterization with every page that follows. Characters, emotions, and events are all twisted for effect. Under Palma's deft hand, the novel's cast and every object will never fizzle when they can vividly and gleefully explode.

Palma writes at a gleeful, meandering, and stylized sprint. He often leaps over setup and causality with a knowing glance that assures us that, well, we all know what that part is, so why don’t we just get to the good stuff? That is not, however, to imply that our path is a direct one. When Palma spots something interesting off in the periphery, he charges at it, and it’s not uncommon for us to leave the main story wholly aside as we chase down some fascinating tangent or other.

This happens on a micro and macro scale. Chapter one has H.G. Wells learn about Martians on Earth. Not long after, chronologically, the invasion kicks off. But we don’t see that for a few hundred pages, because first we leap back in time to the arrival of the Martians and the ill-fated arctic expedition, staffed in part by Edgar Allan Poe, that encountered the Envoy as he landed. In the midst of that digression, innumerable other digressions follow. After all, though we begin on the ship, we then have to know how the explorer got there. And that entails a further digression on the subject of the hollow Earth…

The rapid, shiny-object-driven course of the narrative doesn’t only apply to the order the events are told but the events themselves. The Map of the Sky is not a straight arrow but a succession of different attempts and eventualities in the face of changing circumstance. Palma produces scenes, arcs, and set pieces, and then he moves on, and that winking fluidity comes to dominate the novel’s feel more than any single section. It’s that fluidity that allows him to roll between huge ranges of tone and style. The claustrophobic Horror of the barren Arctic, a series of increasingly outlandish romantic misunderstandings peppered with the behind the scenes sweetness of two servants falling in love, the widescreen and raygun-filled battle for London, and the building melancholy of the novel’s penultimate scenes are all effectively drawn and contrasted.

Still, that many modes and narratives all firing at once does occasionally lead us down a bit of a dead end, and on more than one occasion Palma must retune the novel and shift us to another track while we watch, something that is only one of the many ways Palma has not only let the reader in on the game but made that shared knowledge the very basis of his work. It’s that tacit agreement, established by the narrator’s frequent addresses to the reader and Palma’s perpetual sly grin, that allows Palma to circumvent the harsher laws of plausibility and narrative and reach greater heights still of wonder and effect. Even the characters seem to almost share the knowledge that their lives are observed.  Beyond all of Palma’s tricks of narration and stories within stories, the characters know that the watchers matter. As our dear explorer friend admits at the climax of the Arctic portion of our tale: There was no longer any need for heroic or desperate deeds, because no one was watching. From the very first scene, the drama had taken place without an audience, in the intimacy of that godforsaken stretch of ice (p. 151).

Awareness of audience, here, is not just a sly teller of jokes or a narrative enabler, for this is a story about stories, and so it is only fair that it itself crosses the final barrier between character and reader. But, before we quite reach the effect of tales, I had better establish the background of their telling, retuning this review in the midst of its forward march to encompass something not quite covered and to, if I may be so obnoxiously pretentious as to do so, stylistically ape the reviewed in the review. Perhaps, however, the sheer scale of the subject I now turn us to can forgive the awkwardness of its broaching.

We come to the universe as a whole, and it cares little that we have. Despite its brilliant colors and fun, The Map of the Sky is a denizen of the Weird regions that so many of this blog’s most-reviewed authors dwell in, even if it does so from a rather Science Fictional perspective with rather more invasion to it than, say, the urban decay of Thomas Ligotti’s work. The Martians (who are not, in fact, from Mars, but, really, isn’t it far more important that everyone thinks they are?) have exhausted the resources of their own planet. And so they have come for ours. This is, needless to say, a rather unjust setup. But, as the Martians know, “The Cosmos care nothing for the Earthlings’ absurd morality.” (p. 315) This is a novel about facing what is beyond comprehension, about seeing a world greater than the one you knew, and then (with the literary equivalent of surround sound) being invaded by it. We are outmatched by it. Our plans fall to nothing. In a universe vaster than comprehension turned hostile, we’ve little left.

But we do have stories. Amidst death and destruction, Palma seeks to justify life and what makes it matter even without the guarantees or purposes of God or right and wrong. The answers he comes up with? Love and dreams. The first of those is conveyed in a headstrong, outlandish fashion that leads to some great lines (Their laughter intertwined, like fireflies crossing in the night sky (p. 477) but didn’t wow. The idea of dreams, however, rather does, for now we cycle back into the idea of stories and how not only laughter is here intertwined but heroism, hope, dreams, and belief. How delightful ideas can have their own work and how great deeds are more the products of words than of acts. The novel’s sprawl is less random than it first appears.  By the end, most (though certainly not all) of it has come together in one way, that of shaping the beliefs and tales that form its backbone, and, amidst the silliness and the strife, Palma strikes a vein of gold. As is said: Man needed to dream. (p. 192)

So, what of the negatives? If you clicked through to read my review of The Map of Time that kicked this one off, you were likely expecting rather more of them. After all, that novel did not exactly work for me. But its two chief flaws were simply absent here. Admittedly, gender is not treated perfectly to my satisfaction. Every female character can handily be summed up as “love interest,” and only one achieves any note, and even she only does so when there isn’t a more important male narrator around (which happens the barest handful of times). But I can’t quite hang Palma for that, and I’ll admit that I was hypersensitive this time around to that and to the few other awkward moments (does Miss Harlow really have to almost faint?) because of this book’s predecessor. As for The Map of Time’s habit of pulling the rug out from under its reader, there thankfully isn’t a single instance of that here. This time around, when Palma promises something grand, he not only provides it but does one better.

The Map of the Sky swept me away. I don’t just use that expression because it’s a handy reviewing cliché with which to begin my concluding paragraph, either. By the midway point, I was distinctly feeling like someone who, filled with trepidation, dipped a toe into a seemingly unpleasant river and suddenly found himself three miles along, concerns well out of sight on the abandoned shore, and having the time of his life. On the first page, Palma writes: If our tale does not take you to the dizziest heights of exhilaration, we will refund your five cents so you may spend them on a more exciting adventure, if such a thing exists! (p. 1) At the time, I marked that quote out because I thought that a demand for a promised refund might be a witty, if perhaps cruel, way of ending a scathing review. But it seems that Palma can keep his money. And, furthermore, it seems that, against all odds, I’ll be sticking around for book three.

Friday, October 26, 2012

News: Editorial Assistant, Publication v9, and the Kenyon Collegian

Though I’ve been horrifically dilatory about finally mentioning it on here, I’ve spent the last few weeks as an Editorial Assistant over at Innsmouth Free Press. In that time, I’ve begun a column about upcoming Horror releases, contacted reviewers for the upcoming anthology Fungi, and participated in numerous dark rituals. Wait, scratch that last part. You aren’t supposed to know about that yet.

Anyway, it’s a rather exciting position that involves working with some great people and on some great books. As for what it means round these parts, the answer is, at least for the moment: not a great deal. Reviews shall continue as they have been. I will, though, link future new release columns up so any interested readers can hop on over and take a look. The one that just passed is here. If you are a Horror writer with a book coming out, feel free to email me for inclusion, but know that I would strongly prefer you do so only a week or two before release date. If you are a Horror reviewer and would like a crack at Fungi, email me about that too.

In other news (which is to say, the news that tripped this news post from “I’ve really to to get on that” to “this delay is just getting embarrassing”), the good folks over at Plasma Frequency Magazine are to publish my short story “A Game of Distance” in their third issue, scheduled for release on December 5th.

Finally, the Kenyon Collegian (which is to say, the newspaper of Kenyon College, that college at which I’ve been reading books for degrees and then relaxing by reading more for fun for some time now) has featured me in an article entitled "Existential Themes and Swordfights." Exciting stuff!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kristine Kathryn Rusch - The Disappeared

I discovered Kristine Kathryn Rusch through Asimov's Science Fiction. Whenever I saw her name, I knew the piece below it would be one of the issue's best, the kind of Science Fiction that creates new and vast rules and societies and, from them, gripping plots that delve into characters and issues. After a few such stories, I knew I had to try Rusch's novels. Alas, from those expectations, The Disappeared was not the best choice. Though conflicts inherent in its setting do generate its plot, this is a novel whose setting is riddled with little holes, inconsistencies, and silliness, and all to such an extent that it rather sunk the book.

The human part of the Retrieval Artist universe, which this is the first novel (though not the first story) to explore, is vague and not particularly striking. Most of what we see of this sometime in the future setting takes place on the Moon, in what is referred to as the Armstrong Dome. We spend our time with two detectives, a fugitive, and an affected family, so we don't get to see a great deal of the Dome or the people in it. What we do see is rather familiar; when a character is forced into a police aircar, Rusch immediately gets rid of any strangeness involved in the air part of the vehicle by bringing up the old police car ordinariness: there was a plastic protective barrier between the back seat and the front, and there were no door handles on the insiders of the back doors (p. 176). Just about the only things I found interesting about the human society here were the references to a Moon historical preservation movement (p. 160), a consciousness of a historical progression from our time that we, alas, never got to see much of.

The majority of The Disapppeared's worldbuilding, however, is concerned with aliens, or, as we never learn all that much about any one particular alien group themselves, how aliens interact with humans. Humans, see, are expected to abide by alien laws when in contact with those aliens. The Rev subject their prisoners to hard labor. The Disty, to public vengeance killings. The Wygnin, though, leave you alone – they take your children. As a result, human cops find themselves having to track down humans who committed no crime by human standards so that they can be delivered to inhuman justice, a setup reminiscent of an exaggerated version of today's international law courts or US antebellum Northerners and the Fugitive Slave Law (comparisons that Rusch invokes by referring to these laws not as interplanetary, interspecies, or anything like that, but as multicultural (p. 42)).

Detectives Flint and DeRicci are two such cops, tasked with three outcroppings of such cases. Three people were found dead on a yacht at the hands of the Disty. Two parents struggle to win their children back from the Wygnin by any means necessary. And a woman, promised to the Rev, has managed to escape and is loose somewhere within Armstrong Dome. The three cases are linked by more than just alien involvement. Each of the three used a Disappearance Service, companies of humans who believe that no human should have to answer to inhuman laws, who smuggle the guilty away and into new lives with new identities. But one of those Disappearance Services is now selling its clients out to the very people chasing them. From all this, The Disappeared attempts to be a steady exploration (or, as it's the beginning of a series, at least the beginning of such an exploration) of these interaction's intricacies, and, while that intellectual puzzle is developed, Rusch provides tension through the fugitive's storyline.

My first problem is that I simply don't buy the setting's central premise, that men would ever allow themselves to be subject to such draconian punishments that they had no control at all over from people that they did not know. At one point, we learn about "the interstellar waiver" (p. 269), which makes every member of a company submit to all laws of the worlds on which the company they worked for did business (p. 269). This means that, when a single employee messes up with the Wygnins, everyone, no matter how many worlds away they were, just lost their children. What?

Rusch tries to justify all this by having characters say that This is the price we pay for interstellar commerce (p. 276), making it all, I suppose, an attempt to show the injustices we'll put up with in the name of the dollar. But it goes too far for plausibility. This is not showing a factory's poor conditions; this is like saying that an immigrant in a factory is not only subjecting himself to poor conditions but that, if another immigrant he has never met performs poorly, his great grandmother will be plucked from her native land to be eviscerated by the foreman. I have no idea why any reasonable human being would ever agree to such terms, let alone in the aggregate, especially as we are never shown what it is that all these aliens have that could justify such absurd risks.

The novel's big moral revelation – that all this is sort of, maybe, you know, wrong – is therefore not exactly a surprise to any reader who has not, in the past few years, enslaved another human being. When Flint realizes that he can no longer support such a system, the reader is not wowed by his moral strength or bravery but is simply stunned at how nobody but he and his partner find all this a tad outlandish. DeRicci is considered a bad cop with a terrible past because she once refused to go along with one of these things, but I simply don't believe that every other cop in the department was so gung-ho about the whole evisceration-deportation routine that they could assume her a morally failed incompetent for it. All of this "no, really?" morality is not exactly helped by stunning revelations like: He [Flint] wasn't sure he would like being punished for doing the right thing (p. 286).

Moving past the whole plausibility issue, the puzzle at The Disappeared's heart, the question of how the different cases can be solved without surrendering the humans and how the detectives can play the aliens off against each other, are crippled by holes in the setting. If aliens are allowed to hunt down anyone who crosses them, and if the law joins them in that hunt, then helping a fugitive disappear should obviously be a crime; aiding and abetting a fugitive most certainly is in our day. Not at all. In fact, these Disappearance Services have a wealth of public knowledge about them floating around (p. 287). Yet no one thinks to arrest them or to, at the very least, start the search with their files.

The various alien groups maintain their consistency no better. One of the first things that we told about the Rev is that they are incredibly quick to anger and that they despise both [hand] gestures and interrupting (p. 225). Then our character and an interpreter, an expert in Rev culture, are put in a room with some Revs. What happens next? The interpreter raised two forefingers, so that Flint wouldn't speak any more (p. 251). But the interpreter shouldn't feel too bad; even the Rev can't keep track of their own cultural quirks: "This is fine," the Rev said in English, interrupting Flint and the interpreter both (p. 256).

The fugitive that is supposed to be providing the novel's tension is a cunning foe (p. 326), a woman who has genuinely set the record for fleeing the law in Armstrong Dome. Flint finds himself thinking that: If every criminal were as smart as Greta Palmer, his job would be a lot harder (p. 237). So what is so brilliant about Ms. Palmer? That's rather hard to say, or at least to say in any way that isn't the two word dismissal of "absolutely nothing." Her vaunted escape from police custody? Entirely the result of how nobody ever thought to search her properly, allowing her to simply keep her gun and shoot her way out of their fancy/retro aircar. Her record breaking time on the run, in which she avoided the city's massed street patrols and was undeterred by having her plastered on every buildingboard and the net? I'll let her give you her tactic herself:

Before she got too far, however, she altered her appearance as best she could. she turned her shift inside out, revealing its white interior (which still looked clean) and she rolled up her pants so that they ended just below her knees.

Even though she felt that would keep her away from all but the most observant police, she was still cautious (p. 292).

Oh. Yeah, that does sound rather brilliant. Similarly to how I'm forced to conclude that everyone but Flint and DeRicci have had their ability to empathize surgically removed, I have to conclude that the entire Armstrong Dome police department, besides those two, is stunningly bad at their jobs. Or maybe they are all just dragging their feet, not wanting to have to turn the poor woman over to the alien Gulags.

As one would expect from a Detective novel, Science Fiction or otherwise, The Disappeared's plot progression and climax are both dependant on the intelligent piecing together of clues and details. Alas, the piecing together here is not so intelligent. Flint spends the first half of the novel slowly deducing what was handed to the reader in the first few chapters and would have been obvious regardless, that one of the Disappearance Services is not so scrupulous. The main why he does this is by checking the captured ships' logs. The hardened criminals knew, of course, to erase any incriminating data. But they apparently did not know that their computer would bare its soul, including anything supposedly erased, to anyone that identified themselves as police. Whoops.

The climax, though, is worse. Just about every character in the novel simultaneously comes up with the same brilliant solution to a Disappearance Service gone bad and the aliens closing in – use another Disappearance Service that hasn't gone bad! Everyone goes off to do this. It goes swimmingly. The end.

The Disappeared exhibits some of the same traits that Rusch's excellent short fiction has in spades, but it shares none of that works' success. The characters of Flint and DeRicci are competently done but are, like just about everything else, drowned under the setting's flaws. Though I haven't given up on Rusch, I can't say I'll be quite as excited as I once was to see her name in print the next time around.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Robert Jackson Bennett - The Company Man

"What is our city built of?" Samantha asked as they walked. "What's down there, in its heart?" (p. 388)

Robert Jackson Bennett's second novel, The Company Man, brings us to Evesden, a city on the edge of America at the beginning of the 20th Century that houses the industrial monolith McNaughton Corporation. The city that has changed the world. McNaughton has brought forth strange new weapons, trolleys, and airships. And that's just scratching the surface of what it may one day unveil. Mr. Hayes, a man made cursed with and brilliant by the ability to hear the thoughts of those around him, works to protect that marvelous company's secrets. It's a dangerous job, for, though McNaughton may have wrought great works and avoided horrors like the First World War, the city of Evesden is sick and teeming with the human byproduct of these titanic changes. As union men begin to die, those masses begin to move. Hayes begins the novel investigating these mounting incidents and end it investigating the city and modernity itself.

The Company Man is a novel of two successive parts, joined by a revelation and a shifting of scale, and the first of those is something I can best characterize as a kind of steampunk noir. The city of Evesden is, needless to say, filled with marvels, marvels that awe not only the man of a century back but that are still stunning to us. Bennett is not only adept at dreaming up these technologies and then fashioning them believably into the fabric of his city but also at conveying the wonder the city's newcomers (like Hayes' new assistant, Samantha) feel and the hopes its more optimistic leaders put on these devices. But that is never allowed to stand alone.

Bennett shows wonder, but he does it through a muted color spectrum, paints the impossible in all the hues of the down-beaten and the looking up. Speaking of one of the locations he visits early on, Hayes said: The future was only a mile or two away but would come no closer to places like these (p. 6). The problems with Evesden are not merely ones of distribution, however. We see greatness up close, and, for all its splendor, it is nonetheless jagged and deadly, something described in terms of unforgiving industry and the eerily supernatural: On cold days the moisture from the shore would mix with the fumes from the plants, layering the thin, winding streets in a thick fog, and as you walked along one lane you would sometimes see a factory emerging from the curl of the clouds ahead, bejeweled with harsh blue lamps and covered in endless spires, like the deck of a ghost ship drifting mere yards away (p. 26).

If descriptions like those establish Bennett's tremendous prose powers, then it must be known that his other great strength is character, and it is as much through that lense as it is through his images that Bennett establishes the city's feel. We open with Hayes and the dogged cop Garvey looking down at a corpse. From there, we do not move onto a succession of other explosions but onto the friendship between the two men. Like the great noir writers of yore, Bennett is able to write dialogue that flows fast and feels real but is rich with meaning. As Hayes and Garvey converse and afterwards, as they move apart and the story progresses, we get a sense of who each man is and how he interacts with the world and, from their similarly and likely uselessly striving and yet distinct views, a grander sense of that world.

Each of the main characters – Hayes, Garvey, and Samantha – has, somewhere within the novel's pages, a sentence or passage that lays bare their very core. Such statements could easily spoil the characters' depths, something which Bennett manages to avoid in two ways. First, he saves these revelations for near the end, once the reader has seen enough of them to reach such conclusions on their own. Then there's how these thoughts are never stated in the objective, authorial voice but are, instead, left to other characters to say after they have come to know their companions well enough. Due to that degree of distance, these statements are not cheat sheets to the characters but rather insights into them, insights insightfully tainted by the speakers' own flaws and ideals. All of this, though, is not to suggest that Bennett's characters are no more than a sentence deep; their ethos so summed up, the characters' lives do not crumble into naught but examples. Each of them is more than their drives, and we see, through their interactions with each other and their world, the man behind the plot and even almost behind the character.

It's not only our three leads that develop personalities and souls, for the city of Evesden comes to life here. Bennett imbues its districts with not only histories but atmospheres and its masses with not only patterns and moods but lives. The Company Man is neither a particularly tight novel nor a particularly fast one, but its laxness, the way Hayes and its other characters branch out and speak to more and more people as it progresses rather than honing in, proves to be one of its greatest strengths. The city of Evesden is rife with rumors, and Bennett shows us the vastness of those mumblings, of the people trying to piece together the impossible events around him, and in doing so he fills in the heart of his world with endless and often desperate speculation.

So much of Evesden is, of course, tied up with the unions, with the growing struggle against McNaughton. It becomes clear as their struggle continues that neither side truly instigated it, that these conditions were almost inevitable and that they are nonetheless unlivable. Neither side is truly looking for war. They are, instead, looking to survive in this impossible world. As the union's followers say, combining as is so often combined in this book bibilical levels of hope with the utmost desperation: We came here looking for the promised land […] We didn't find it. This place chewed us up and spat us back out. We're not looking to Mr. Tazz for a general, Mr. Hayes. Not for someone to tell us who to hurt. Least, I don't look at him like that. We just wanted someone to show us the way out of here. That ain't so much, is it?" (p. 280)

In terms of plot, The Company Man is very much noir, at least for now. Hayes is pursuing a mystery, but this is not a sanitary puzzle for him to solve. When Bennett contrasts the methods of Hayes and Garvey, it is along lines perfectly familiar to anyone who has read Dashiell Hammett's puzzle-defying work of noir, "The Tenth Clew," (collected in The Continental Op): Garvey was forever inspecting every little item and every line of dialogue, trying to arrange the murder in his mind. Harvey found people more interesting, and especially getting them to tell him what he wanted to know. Investigation was as much a con game as it was a science (p. 192).

Like a lot of Crime writing, Bennett uses plot twists. Alas, they are one of the few areas in which he is unsuccessful. None of the twists in The Company Man are bad or damaging to the narrative, but all are predictable. The fantastic rumor mill that I just discussed adds immeasurably to the book's power, but it also has the result of giving the reader just about all the answers long before the characters are ready to credit those answers. As a result, the book's middle section – in which the mystery is broadening and burgeoning into the territory of impossible revelations but won't quite get to them yet – lacks the power and drive of its opening and closing.

But then the other shoe drops, the scale shifts massively, and the book goes from a kind of stylized steampunk noir to full on, big screen Science Fiction noir. [Be warned: SPOILERS from here on out.] Throughout, characters have wondered about McNaughton's incredible technologies, speculated that they were unworldly and alien (p. 26). That they don't seem to have been built by men. Those men are correct. McNaughton's marvels have been harvested from the crashed remnants of an alien spacecraft. Now, armed with such wonders, man is on the brink of destroying himself. But that spacecraft did not come here by chance. It was sent by a star faring race that is trying to prevent new intelligences from doing just that, from growing and growing and tearing themselves to nothing. Its message, it says, is that your kind will die. […] That it will overreach, and crumble, and perish, and be forgotten. And that this will happen soon (p. 406). Now, crashed, its remnants are only aiding the apocalypse that it tried to stop.

In a lesser book, the final act would, from there, be obvious. Hayes and Garvey and Samantha would become heroes, saviors, would stop the coming destruction with a stirring speech or maybe a timely strike. But no. For all its large scale grandeur, this is still noir, and one man cannot stand against the world. As the remnants say, There is no stopping it. This is the way. It [our industry and world] is a machine grown so large, and with so much momentum that it cannot stop, only fall apart under its own force (p. 412). What can we do if we cannot save the world? We can survive, no matter the devastation. All life desires destruction, we are told. All that matters is if it survives it (p. 413). And so Hayes' ultimate role is not to be the world's protector but rather its rebuilder, the man who tries to conserve what little may be left after its annihilation. The man that, due to his gift and curse, knows more about man than any other.

The remnants of our world, though they must be saved, will not be forgiven. Often, in The Company Man's pages, characters who have done horrible things realize their sins. Often, they try to atone for them. They fail.  Will he forgive me? a pedohile asks Hayes, horrified of his sins and of God's judgment. Do you think he will forgive me? Hayes' answer? No […] No, I don't (p. 326). More cutting still is the fate of a child, twisted and warped by unearthly technologies. He was innocent. Still, There could be no return from this. No way back. Not from this (p. 432). The guilty, damned, and damming of The Company Man cannot be saved, and the world, filled with them as it is, cannot be, either. As Hayes says: I don't think there's any fixing anything. Not really. Not for long (p. 379).

There is no reason to think that the world to come will be different that, after the great nations war and destroy, man will be good. Good men like Hayes might save the world's ashes, but they will not set their course or constitute their heart. In Evesden and, no doubt, in what is to follow it, the good were forever fated to die young and die violently. Fated to change the world only in their remembrance left behind in the hearts of those who lived on. In the sinners. In those who unjustly survived the slain (p. 435).

Writing for Strange Horizons, Niall Harrison argued this shift to be where Bennett "sabotages" the heart of his own novel, turns away from the world he has created. I disagree; I think this is where he broadens that world, where he turns The Company Man from a statement about Evesden to a statement about the world, our world, and about man. It is true, of course, that this shift comes to subsume the earlier struggle with the unions, but Bennett's criticism was never, I believe, intended to encompass solely the idea of union reform. No, the unions are simply a symptom of a larger problem, of the costs of our new world and of the forces unleashed.

It's true that, by the end, the unions and the company are both juggernauts made of nothing, the one led by the ignorant, the other by the invented. But that absence of maniacal leadership shows a problem greater than that wrought by one man, a problem inherent in our world and race. By removing the easy antagonism of its opening, by pitting all of humanity against a greater threat (even if that threat is at our own hands), Bennett makes unavoidable the conclusion that there is no enemy to blame these woes on, no foe to lash back at, that this is our doing and that the solution must be ours. That this is something faced by all of us. Near the novel's end, Hayes and his superior sit in the McNaughton building, and his superior desperately tries to cling to some shred of a tie between them, something that unites them against the deadly world outside. Hayes tosses it away. As he says: I'm not company […] No one is. There's no union. No company. No city. Just people. Alone. And unwatched (p. 440).

The book ends with Hayes and Samantha standing over a piece of McNaughton machinery and activating it as they begin their quest to try and salvage what we can. The final two lines go thus:

"Yes, said Hayes."Things are going to get better."

And they sat and watched as the machine awoke (p. 454).

Viewed on their own, those lines are filled with hope. Viewed in terms of the rest of the novel, they seem to promise a future far more impossible than the most fantastic pieces of McNaughton's technology.  They are striving for the impossible, and that, I think, is The Company Man's very heart. At one point, we hear that a character was made for lost causes (p. 300). And yet he, and his fellows, continue fighting for them nonetheless, fighting against impossible and inevitable odds and never surrendering to the doomed and dooming world around them.