Stamping Butterflies (Gollancz SF S.)
by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Review by Rafe Conn
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 057507650x
Date: 04 August, 2005 List Price £6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Jon Courtenay Grimwood's eighth novel is an interesting and highly readable contribution to the British SF writers' favourite sub-genre 'Literary SF'. Stamping Butterflies offers several different plot lines which initially appear irreconcilable, but as the novel unfolds the various strands are brought together in an intelligent and satisfying manner.
The main plot centres around the character of Jake Razor, former rock star, drug addict and hippie trail burn out. When we first meet Jake he is being instructed to assassinate the President of America by the voice he hears in his head. The subsequent, apparently deliberately laughable, attempt on the President's life leads to his capture and incarceration on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa - think of a European Guantanamo Bay - and his re-naming as Prisoner Zero.
Of the various sub-plots, one involves the younger Jake Razor's dissolute time spent in Marrakech in the 1970's in the company of his manager Lady Celia Vere and a Morrocan waif known as Moz. We follow Moz into another sub-plot involving Moz and his friend/girlfriend, Malika, and their attempts to survive the harsh reality of urban Morrocan existence in the face of brutal carers, a brutal cop and brutal aspiring local gangsters. Then things start to strange up a bit. The other sub-plots relate the tale of the Emperor of the '2023 Worlds' a bizarre collection of gigantic, habitable plates that orbit a sun some light years from Earth and we also follow Tris, an inhabitant of a sort of shantytown formed in a crack in one of these plates. The shanty town is called Razor's Edge which brings us back to Jake Razor, now Prisoner Zero.
The failed assassin confounds his captors by refusing to speak, he is communicating only with the voice in his head, which he names 'the darkness' upon whose advice Prisoner Zero embarks on an escape attempt. In order to deter his jailers from investigating the interior of his cell too closely he embarks on a dirty protest i.e. smearing every available surface with his own faeces. Strangely (and neatly) it is this dirty protest that changes the nature of his incarceration. He adorns his daubs with mathematical equations, his conditions are photographed, the photographs are published and the scientific community gapes dumb foundedly at the partially obscured formulae, which seem to provide answers to Ultimate Questions of time and space. Perhaps this man is not insane, perhaps 'the darkness' actually exists and perhaps this man really does have some crucially important answers.
There are also excursions into the lives of those around Prisoner Zero and another strand detailing the discovery of the 2023 worlds, but I think we have enough plot and sub-plot to be going on with. If you are getting the impression that there is an awful lot happening in this book and it all seems rather complicated, then your impression is correct. For the first 100 pages or so I was resigned to simply not understanding the various ingredients, relying on the notion that if I followed the recipe diligently some great dish would result.
In fact, there is not that much wrong with this novel. Some of the references betray the writer's influences, with so many characters and plot strands some of the dialogue is spurious - quotes from rock songs where something more erudite could be expected. The President of America is a feebly drawn character; having witnessed recently a Presidential election the concept of a capable, honourable, intelligent, pragmatic President is just not feasible. The 'alien artifact/alien consciousness' notion of the 2023 worlds brings to mind a selection of old pulp SF writings but there is an originality here in this marriage of ideas. To be able to write a novel involving comment on the treatment of 'prisoners of terror' with quantum mathematics and a civilization centuries into our future shows an audacious approach to writing science fiction that is rarely found in these days of determinedly demarcated sub genres. How much rarer to read a book that actually crosses these boundaries with confidence, readability and, with qualifications, is fairly well written too.
It is overlong by perhaps a quarter, some of the characters are irrelevant and unbelievable, there are some aspects of the plot that never really get resolved and there is a tendency towards silliness rather than humour. However, if you are looking for an original story containing interesting and memorable ideas then this may well be the book for you.