Saturday, October 05, 2019

Millennials (1): Harry from the Agency (1997)

Philip Gluckman: Harry from the Agency (1997)

I don't know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life... anybody's life... my life. All he'd wanted was the same answers the rest of us want. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do is sit there and watch him die.

Hampton Fancher & David Peoples: Blade Runner (1982)

Most purists can’t stand the original theatrical release version of Blade Runner, with the intrusive voice-over and the soldered-on happy ending. If that’s the first version of the movie you saw, though (as it was for me), things can seem a bit different.

Some bits of it work pretty well – like the one above, for instance.

I guess that the point of these NZSF essays of mine is somewhat similar – Where did we come from? Where are we going? How long have we got? Does it really matter if New Zealand can claim its own independent SF tradition? Well, I guess that to a dedicated fan, everything matters.

If it gives you a kick - as it does me - to read about a long grey space ship descending over Remuera Rd in Philip Gluckman's Harry from the Agency, then you'll understand what I'm getting at. If not, well:
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
- Sir Walter Scott, 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel' (1805)

I felt it in Scotland, first, when reading James Hogg's strange, mad Gothic novel The Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). The streets his hero trod, the fields on top of Salisbury Crags where he saw his vision of the devil, were familiar to me from my everyday wanderings through Edinburgh.

It's a city that stays, for the most part, the same: the same street layout, the same landmarks. It's definitely strange to be able to retrace someone's steps like that when you hail from a New World city like Auckland, one that rebuilds and reinvents itself every few decades: a bit like Blade Runner's futuristic-yet-retro LA, in fact.

Frank Sargeson: That Summer: Stories. Cover by John Minton (1946)

But then, when I picked up an old edition of Frank Sargeson's That Summer on an Edinburgh bookstall, the fascination with the country of my ancestors, Scotland, shifted slowly to a nostalgia for my own native land - New Zealand.

It's true that That Summer portrays a past so distant, even for me, that it has few connections with the Auckland I remember - but so poignant and beautiful was the story that I've never been able to get out from under its spell ever since. It's my benchmark for a completely successful New Zealand novella: a great and moving story by anyone's standards.

William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984) [German edition]

None of this helps us directly with Harry from the Agency, I suppose, but perhaps it helps to explain why the book has such a powerful charm for me. It's a piece of Kiwi cyberpunk, of course - brewed up from a set of ingredients readily located in the complicated zone between Blade Runner and William Gibson's immensely influential debut novel Neuromancer.

And what is Neuromancer about? It's the first book in the 'Sprawl' trilogy, completed in Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). It introduces a world of world-weary Chandleresque antiheroes, roaming through strange city landscapes - half ecological devastation, half virtual reality - and their equally world-weary (but super-cool) girlfriends.

The epitome of all these is the streetwise 'Razorgirl' Molly Millions whom burnt-out hacker Henry Case hooks up with in the novel, and under whose protection he undertakes his dangerous mission into cyberspace (a term Gibson is credited with coining).

William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984) [Brazilian edition]

[Warning - numerous plot-spoilers ahead]

Sound familiar? For Gibson's protagonist 'Henry Case,' read Gluckman's "Harry Stone' - both drug addicts, both drifters, both selfish almost to the point of insanity. For Gibson's 'Molly Millions,' read, on the romantic side, Gluckman's lithe, long-suffering brunette heroine Toni; on the genetic modification side, the ninja space-assassin Miyuki.

So much is obvious. But the fact that the tropes of cyberpunk are so essentially repetitive as to be easy to replicate - whether in movies such Johnny Mnemonic or The Matrix, or in novels such Lucius Shepard's Life During Wartime (1987) or Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net (1988) - doesn't mean that there are no meaningful distinctions to be made between these works.

Like the Gothic novel, Cyberpunk used stereotyped motifs to ever more complex ends. The seeds of its destruction lay mainly in the fact that the future it gestured to so beguilingly is now upon us. What its writers assumed would take decades or centuries to accomplish has fallen in on our heads in a matter of a few years.

William Gibson & Bruce Sterling: The Difference Engine (1990) [Brazilian edition]

In that respect, William Gibson's other great generic breakthrough, Steampunk - as outlined in his novel The Difference Engine, jointly written with Bruce Sterling - may yet prove to be more enduring.

Philip Gluckman: Harry from the Agency (1997)

Third generation of NZ doctors - an old family curse. Keen musician, my novel "Harry from the Agency" is available in all libraries. Absolutely love my job and I have a special interest in treating patients with Hyperhidrosis.
- Dr. Philip Gluckman, 'About.' Albany Family Medical Centre
According to WebMD, "Hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, is a common disorder which produces a lot of unhappiness." I'm not quite sure how it connects with Harry from the Agency, but certainly Harry does a good deal of sweating in the course of the narrative - principally because he's a junkie hooked on heroin, whose horizon is pretty much defined by the prospect of his next fix.

To add insult to injury (or perhaps to provide Dr. Gluckman with some plot points where he can really use his professional expertise) Harry is also infected with the appalling flesh-eating Delta-8 virus. Rather than offering up hints, though, it might be better simply to quote the book's blurb:
2205 AD. Global warming has accelerated out of control. The middle of the planet is lifeless, drenched in steamy, poisonous rain. Auckland has become a city of islands, and Antarctica is home to most of the world's population. Multinational corporations have deserted Earth to create planetary empires. The Delta-8 virus, a consequence of deep space exploration, is a plague upon the remaining inhabitants.

For Dr Harry Stone, medical section, World Intelligence Agency, time is running out. Not only does he have the virus, the narcotic supply that sustains him is coming to an end. And as his world is failing, Harry is faced with a choice.

Harry from the Agency reveals a convincing future rife with corruption. With its noir atmosphere this book will especially appeal to fans of William Gibson.

Philip Gluckman lives in Auckland. This is his first published novel.

Charlize Theron as Aeon Flux (2010)

Harry from the Agency got a somewhat mixed reception when it first appeared towards the end of the 1990s. I remember hearing a radio review where the two (female) commentators were immensely scornful of Gluckman's heroine Toni. And it's true that, in appearance at least, she sounds a bit like a foretaste of the movie version of Aeon Flux. Slightly more subtle than the animated TV show, but not by much:

Aeon Flux (MTV: 1991-1995)

Toni sat on the floor. Her sky-blue dressing gown, wrapped tightly around her, concealed perfect skin. Even a casual observer would have been drawn to the fullness of her lips. [16]
She changed into skintight trousers and a jacket over her white singlet, her boots, ran down to her new Triumph, threw on her shades and chopped it into gear. [187]
Actually Toni can't even sit at a computer console without looking sexy:
'Something up?' Jackson's baritone voice bellowed from behind the lithe figure, sitting hunched forward over her knees, both feet up on the console, her company jacket off and slung casually over the back of the chair. [135]

It wasn't really the fact that Toni was so cool (and so hot) that irritated the two radio commentators. It was the fact that she put up with so much from Harry without any obvious return. He had, after all, left her behind to die on a battlefield - though he does have a few weak-kneed excuses for that.

What's more, for all the latent altruism she detected in him - free clinics for the poor, etc. - his main preoccupation throughout is getting more drugs to feed his habit.

'Why,' Robert Graves once asked, 'have such scores of lovely, gifted girls / Married impossible men?'
Simple self-sacrifice may be ruled out,
And missionary endeavour, nine times out of ten.

Repeat 'impossible men': not merely rustic,
Foul-tempered or depraved
(Dramatic foils chosen to show the world
How well women behave, and always have behaved).

Impossible men: idle, illiterate,
Self-pitying, dirty, sly,
For whose appearance even in City parks
Excuses must be made to casual passers-by.

Has God's supply of tolerable husbands
Fallen, in fact, so low?
Or do I always over-value woman
At the expense of man?
Do I?
It might be so.
Toni hasn't actually married Harry, but she certainly puts up with more from him that would seem to make any sense. Robert Graves seems no wiser than the rest of us as to why that might be, however, so I guess we just have to accept it as one of the paradoxes of life (or, as in this case, self-indulgent fiction).

A good deal of the novel is set on the desert planet Alterrin-3. With its muezzin, and its mad AI cyber-sultan, this planet could certainly be said to have a certain amount in common with the more famous Arrakis (aka 'Dune'), beloved of Frank Herbert fans everywhere.

And, as with Paul Atreides, Harry too goes to ground among a group of indigenous desert people, whose wounds he tends, and who therefore prove willing to assist him in his self-appointed task of broadcasting to the universe the cure to the Delta-8 virus which its creators are trying to suppress.

There's also a galactic empire in the mix: a little like that of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV (or, really, like any other Galactic empire in SF: from Servalan's in Blake's Seven to the one Darth Vader manages in Star Wars). This one is run by Maximilian Oesterburg III - with somewhat less than Teutonic efficiency - for the benefit of his eight-year-old heir, and is, like all corporate entities great or small, devoted to profit and the bottomline over all.

Brian Aldiss, ed. Galactic Empires (1975)

So why should you read this book? It does, after all, consist mainly of a shuffle of the major SF trumps, laid out in a not-unconventional order. Perhaps that's why it's had no (published) sequels, either.

Gluckman writes well. He writes very well. And one can't but feel a strong personal involvement with Harry and Toni which endows them with a certain extra-textual solidity. Harry is a fairly self-indulgent self-portrait, I suppose, but he does have enough defects - alongside a few good qualities - to feel like an actual human being much of the time.

Is the same true of Toni? It's hard to say. But she's certainly no more implausible than Rachael in Blade Runner, Chani in Dune, Molly Millions in Neuromancer, or any of the other razorgirl babes who infest cyberpunk - as well (I suppose) as SF in general.

Strangely enough, it's in its settings that Harry from the Agency really comes alive. Alterrin-3 may not have the solidity of Dune, but it does have an Australian outback feel to it which makes it seem very much like a plausible place.

The islanded Auckland of the future is good, too. Gluckman is wise enough not to indulge in too many Ballardian evocations of the vista, but the hints he drops here and there are enough to give it a solid presence in the mind.

Like most SF futures, Harry from the Agency probably errs on the side of optimism. It's taken quite some time for the ice-caps to melt, after all - and there's only one really incurable plague ravaging the population.

William Gibson, too, has had difficulties with sequels. So powerful was the vision of Neuromancer, that it overshadows everything he's produced under his own name since. Only the collaborative Difference Engine could be said to have matched it.

Perhaps Philip Gluckman was wise to stop at one novel. It is, after all, extremely accomplished in its own right, and to repeat it would be to risk undermining the effect.

I could easily imagine him writing something else, though, something completely different, possible even out of the speculative fiction mode. Harry from the Agency is auspicious enough as a debut to persuade me that it's a lot more than just another Neuromancer / Dune knockoff transposed to downtown Auckland.

Dr Philip Gluckman

Philip Gluckman

Select Bibliography:

  1. Harry from the Agency. Reed Books. Auckland: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd., 1997.

Homepages & Online Information:

Albany Family Medical Centre

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