Scoop Review of Books

Setting His Sites: Review of Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis (Jan, 2013) Mulholland Books/Hachette


Review by Mark P. Williams

Warren Ellis writes astute, accurate fictions about the role of information in society.

He’s explored digital information’s possible and actual relationships to truth and deception through technology in the longer graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, about futuristic gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem, and in a more contemporary thriller framework through the episodic spy thriller Global Frequency. Now, in his second prose novel, he gives us a contemporary police procedural through which information flows in torrents in both electronic and more nebulous ways. Stylish and economically written, Gun Machine is part police thriller and part philosophy of information; it’s a darkly humorous and incisive meditation on the contemporary city scape.

All of Ellis’s fictions are structured by ethical questions about the implications of information networks for social relationships, whether that means the consequences for local people of global actions, or the feel of living in online worlds while trying to maintain offline relationships. In some of his most famous and distinctive graphic novel series work, such as the gloriously over-the-top Transmetropolitan or the eerily disturbing Doktor Sleepless, this has taken an overtly Science Fictional form, exploring future cities which display characteristics of a variety of contemporary locations. In his prose novels so far he has used the form of detective fiction to reveal the hidden networks of interaction under the skin of acceptable society. Crooked Little Vein took us through dark subcultures and conspiracy theories, linking secret governments to secret fetish clubs in a Swiftian attack on contemporary social privilege.

Gun Machine has an altogether different tone, although it retains Ellis’s characteristic dialogue. (Nobody conjugates swear-words quite like Warren Ellis; for witty stretches of punkish foul-mouthed excess it’s between him and the late Steven ‘Seething’ Wells, and I think Transmet may have the edge.)

[EDIT (12 Mar, 2013): Ok, I need to clarify that one a bit: Steven Wells uses foul language as a form of vernacular Surrealist rhetoric to attack conventions of representation (see  Warren Ellis uses it to express his characters’ fury at social inequality and injustice by making swearing fit characterisation with an exceptional acuity and ear for spoken rhythm. Different beats on the same dancefloor.]

While Transmetropolitan and Crooked Little Vein are both mentioned on the cover of Gun Machine, the style and themes of the novel are far closer to Iain Sinclair’s contemporary meditations on the city or China Miéville’s urban fantasy fictions than to either of those texts.

Set in a contemporary New York, Gun Machine links place and perception to the different speeds of flows of information, exploring the different indices of historical maps, police maps, financial maps, and hidden maps, all intersecting across the territories of New York city. Mixing social registers deftly, Gun Machine moves effectively from the psychological to the technological, and between cultures with an emphasis on lived experience. It is a novel about how small details can build up to form catastrophic, uncontrollable events.

When John Tallow’s partner James Rosato is killed by a naked man with a shotgun, who has just snapped because he is going to be evicted from his apartment building, the shootout literally opens a hole into the hidden world of the most prolific, well-organised and well-concealed killer that the city has ever seen. Tallow, still suffering from shock, finds a room lined, floor and walls, with guns, each one linked to a different unsolved murder dating back twenty years—each gun a symbol of a singular violent act, suggesting an occulted narrative of New York’s underworld.

Tallow follows the case through the histories of the guns and starts to uncover the patterns that define them to study the shape being made by the killer, and those of the people who have been benefitting from his killings; it comes back to information: the histories of the guns; the cases they are connected to; and the motives behind the killings. Thematically, Gun Machine has something in common with China Miéville’s The City and The City (2009); it explores a central reality of cities: that our movements through urban spaces are sometimes defined more by subjective maps than by any sense of a city’s objective layout.

From the Surrealist and the Situationist International’s notion of the drift (dérive) — drawn on in the books of Iain Sinclair — the idea of a psychic geography of urban space, and the concept of psychogeography, have had a significant impact on contemporary British fiction. Ellis’s novel both draws on and stands out from this tradition, which often borrows the languages of mysticism and European traditions, by choosing to explore the hidden histories of New York and by explicitly rendering its engagement with this in terms of flows of information.

Arguably the real subject of the novel is the expression of spaces as territories: the plot drives a debate between opposing forces attempting to impose a specific vision of human subjectivity. The characters perceive their place in the world along clear lines in terms of isolation versus familial and friendship groups; in terms of territorial spaces or in terms of flows of communication; in terms of the ‘deep-history’ of Mannahatta or in terms of the ‘futurist’ perspective of Wall Street’s financial algorithms. The various maps of the territory of New York are diverging ways of understanding aspects of reality, so that the novel manages to present a sense of meticulous layering, crosshatching and short-circuiting, of modes of expression sitting on top, alongside and nested within one another with the cop/killer dyad straddling them all. It is a novel about making sense of the world through different expressions of information:

art is information, and song is information, and music, and dance. (306-7)

The killer, known as the Hunter, sees New York in terms of contrary spaces and a perceptual split between old and new worlds. The police, and primarily Tallow, see the city in terms of specifically demarcated territories of duties and patrols which they have special license to traverse. What drives the novel is the instability at the heart of both characters: the Hunter’s obsession and Tallow’s disconnection from events mirror one another more strongly than the obvious reflections of their roles. Tallow has an interest in history, but it is unfocused before he stumbles, so suddenly and traumatically, upon this case—confronting the Hunter’s collection gives him something to engage with. The Hunter in turn has been focused, putting together his masterpiece, but it has been almost wholly undone by police intervention. The struggle to reassert their own expressions of meaning is the compelling motive for both of them.

The result is by turns full of meticulous bloody violence, lessons in the history of fire-arms and the Five Boroughs, and Warren Elllis’s characteristic attitude towards social formation and social justice. The tone stands very precisely on that unsettling borderline between cynicism and angry righteousness of attempting to reconcile the contradictions of contemporary social mores — a kind of angry romanticism that says: we damned-well can do better.

Embrace this book, its characters and their (occasionally skewed) perspectives; it is variously furious and hilarious, fascinating and disturbing, and it may just make you see cities differently.

[Mulholland Books have an extract from Gun Machine here]

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Mark P. Williams

Political Journalist and Independent Academic Researcher
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