There are several way to begin: John Meaney's second novel is a bildungsroman, telling the story of Tom Corcorigan and his struggles to take his place with the Lords who rule Nulapeiron, overcoming the handicaps of his struggling, poverty-stricken father, and mother who disappears.
To take one of several ways in which to begin:: John Meaney has been held out in the SF world as a rival to China Mieville, now each has published two big novels, after years of trying to break into INTERZONE The question, then is, is PARADOX as good as Mieville's PERDIDO STREET STATION?
One could begin in several ways.
A quarter way in, there is a foreshadowing:
"He wants me to identify it as Epimenides' paradox.
"But Tom's reticence seemed only to amuse d'Ovraison. 'Well, then. Do you recognise the material?'
"Tom shook his head.
"'It's antimony.'" (page 102, emphasis in original)
Twenty-five pages later Tom Corcorigan is sent to the Sorites (sic) School in order to explain his ideas, although given much more of the impression of a viva voce defence of a doctorate. There he expands on his thesis of a continuing series of worlds ever re-creating themselves - his mathematics has taken him into cosmology:
"'My niece informed me, some time ago, of the puzzle known as Tom's paradox.'
"A flush rose in Tom's cheeks. 'A veridicial paradox, sir, as you know.'
"He meant, it was only a puzzle to a child who did not know how an infinite series might converge.
"'She was five SY old. To her, it was a real antinomy.'
"Tom inclined his head. 'That was why I chose that example.'" (page 126)
From paradox, we have passed through the anagrammatic white metal, to its synonym, antinomy. Principally associated with Kant's CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, antinomy is the incurable opposition of thesis and antithesis, a situation which cannot resolve itself into synthesis. Earlier Tom has had a cat which he has named Paradox, but if there is a theme, intentional or not, to this novel, it is more likely antinomic than paradoxical, as it struggles with its matter and fails to make it cohere.
Tom's journey begins in 3404, presumably 3404 CE. This tends to make the late discovery of his cosmology very unlikely, as it seems obvious, even if some of the language in which it is expounded is rarified and technical. Interposed with Tom's story is another, of Karyn, a timeship pilot, who is undergoing unpleasant surgery in order to interface with her ship (something also covered in TO HOLD INFINITY). It is likely to have been Karyn who appeared to the boy Tom in the local market to hand him a crystal, whose meaning takes all his life to work out. Tom manages to keep his crystal secret, even through his later period of imprisonment and serfdom - but clearly this lady and her gift are echoes of Vivian, the Lady of the Lake, and her gift of Excalibre to Arthur Pendragon. So from paradox and antinomy which require opposing pairs, we are beginning to arrive at other pairs, such as this novel and the Arthurian legend in interplay, while Tom's "That was why I chose that example" has echoes of Sherlock Holmes's "That was the curious incident" in "Silver Blaze"(on the dog that did not bark in the night). It is nearly a hundred years now since modernists such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce began using allusion so heavily as a literary method that its currency must be questioned.
Not only is Corcorigan a mathematical genius he is also a near-Olympic standard athlete, and also at ease with some of the daughters of the Lords and Ladies who rule this sealed world. This is after he has been sent to an orphanage (though called a Ragged School) and had his arm removed as a thief (though he was the orphan whom the others made fall guy). In an orphanage on Nulapeiron the boys can be lead out to see an arachnargos remove one of their colleagues. Oliver Twist missed that. Oliver Twist had not seen his mother fall under the spell of an Oracle, a creature whose mind is not entirely in this dimension, removed to share in the pains and pleasures of servitude and addiction, and her rescue did not form part of his life plan.
Novels provide strange ways of closing the gaps in time. Nulapeiron is ruled by a selective aristocracy, and having made his mathematical point, Tom is taken into the class and immediately made ruler of his own demesne. (This is not unknown - the Chinese civil service worked like that, if you read Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee stories, though it worked less well in Europe, as John Robert Christianson's recent TYCHO'S ISLAND (C.U.P. 2000), a biography of Tycho Brahe, narrates). Simultaneously, and immediately in office, Tom becomes part of the revolutionary underground determined to overthrow the established order. That failing, he becomes a down and out, who is later discovered to be a super-teacher in a bare-foot school, when his methods and successes bring him pupils from many levels, as he redeems himself. Strangely, for a man who can conceive of many universes blooming and closing, who knows that the Oracles can see the future, Tom never considers how time dilates in his own life story - though it has events enough for three or four men.
So much for the construction of a personal history. There is another dichotomy: between the language of the novel, and the structure of the computer codes that are quoted throughout Meaney's fiction. In the former he frequently abandons standard syntax, in the latter his syntax, with matching openings and closures, tags and bracketing, is exact. Whether the computer code is in Z, the meta-language designed for specifying programs, which Meaney mentions in his acknowledgements I am not sure, but they show up his abandonment of the common rules of grammar in the main text, as sentence follows sentence on some pages containing no verb, no subject, appearing not to follow on from its precursor. At other levels, too, language stops repeatedly: for instance, after using the anagram "antimony" as a foreshadowing Meaney includes no more word-play, and yet the sequence of events will change repeatedly, meaning that new story elements have not been raised before at all, either implicitly or explicitly, and so there is little linking backwards and forwards to bind the story.
At this point it must become clear that PARADOX raises a question, again it will be binary: is all of this intentional or not? And another question: does it work or not?
I pointed out Meaney's use of allusion, readers will have noticed another implicitly when I described Karyn's becoming a pilot - the author's name is explicit in John Meaney's dedication - to Anne McCaffrey. China Mieville is similarly allusive, as his KING RAT and PERDIDO STREET STATION overlap with Christopher Fowler's ROOFWORLD, for instance, extending the mythical London caught at the corner of the eye. By an unhappy coincidence his world also features creatures, arachnids, caught between dimensions, carrying victims away: that is, unhappy for John Meaney because Meaney's work is diminished by Mieville's successful treatment; the difference showing how easily this method of extension and overlap can slip into the derivative.
Unclear that the methods and effects of PARADOX were intentional, I am not sure that John Meaney knew what he was doing, or what he was trying to do. So the answer to my second question is definite: the novel does not work.
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