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18 December, 2005

Review: 'Stamping Butterflies' (Jon Courtenay Grimwood, 2004)

I picked up a copy of 'Lucifer's Dragon' from the sci-fi display table in Waterstone's Lancaster in 1998, drawn by the intriguing description on the front cover (of the NEL edition): 'The cybershock sensation'.  It's one of the few occasions when I've bought a book without prior knowledge of it, solely on the strength of the cover.  I did enjoy it, mainly for the pacing and richness of the cyberpunk concepts, but the number and aggression of the sex scenes felt a little juvenile.

I certainly enjoyed it enough to try another by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and I've since read all of his books except 'neoAddix', which has been out of print for as long as I've been aware of JCG. That's a pity, as 'reMix' and 'redRobe' seem to be the second and third parts of a trilogy. Though the common elements in those I have read are peripheral, and each book adequately stands alone, it'd be good to have a clearer idea of the context and character evolution.

'Pashazade', 'Effendi' and 'Felaheen' form another trilogy, set in the North African city of El Iskandryia; not the real Egyptian city of that name (Alexandria, in English), but a fictionalised version. The Arabesk novels are nominally sci-fi, but that's secondary to the characters themselves, expressed with a markedly more mature style than earlier books. That said, I didn't find them quite as accessible as those earlier books. I suspect some readers would enjoy the earlier, overtly cyberpunk novels but not the El Isk ones, or vice versa.

The next, 'Stamping Butterflies', is somewhere between the two. It's neither a case of a fairly minimalist plot carrying the leisurely development of characters, nor of a fast-paced, wide-ranging plot somewhat overshadowing the characters (without wishing to overstate that distinction in the earlier books, either); characterisation and sense of place are major strengths, but less critical to one's enjoyment than before.

There are three distinct storylines, a chapter of the first followed by a chapter on each of the others before continuing the first, progressing that way until the threads resolve (ooh, nasty mixed metaphor) into one. It's a common style, particularly in cyberpunk, but this is one of the most subtle treatments of that interlacing process I've read: the threads don't run in parallel then merge, they almost bleed into one another and before the reader even notices, they've already combined.

The title is a hint to one overall theme: that tiny actions can have vast consequences in the future. That truism could be considered simplistic, but JCG takes it much further, even reversing it. It's all very quantum.... Also note that this isn't the beating of a butterfly's wings creating storms elsewhere, it's stamping butterflies – violence has consequences too.

I won't provide a synopsis, as I'd recommend you find that out for yourself by reading the book, but two brief points:
One of the interlinked stories has a North African setting, like the Arabesk series, but it's set in 1970s 'real world' Marrakech, and the associated socio-political environment, not the fictionalised El Isk, and there's no crossover to the earlier books.
Another thread could be considered a commentary (though not overtly a judgement) on Guantánamo Bay, Abu-Ghraib and the US practice of imprisoning suspects abroad for interrogation illegal on its own territory. Whilst I thought the confusion of torture, legal & psychiatric visits and bureaucracy exhibited seemed credible, the scrabble for legitimacy seemed less likely (but what do I know of the true situation?).

I found the ending a little anticlimactic. To be trite: the journey is better than the destination, and the resolution of the overarching plot isn't so satisfying as the reader might have been anticipating.

I finished reading the book and drafted most of this entry weeks ago, on 20 October, but was rudely interrupted by a phone call from Warszawa ;) and somehow haven't got back to it until now. Coincidentally, on that same day, I discovered that JCG's new novel, '9Tail Fox', which I hadn't even known was forthcoming, was published. The cover resembles that of 'Stamping Butterflies', but I'm pretty sure that's merely consistent graphic design, rather than an indication that it's the second of yet another trilogy. 'Stamping Butterflies' didn't seem to leave an opportunity for continuation, and felt 'right' as a self-contained, complete story.

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