MIDNIGHT LAMP, by Gwyneth Jones
Gollancz, 2003, £17.99, 326pp
ISBN 0575074701

This reviewed first appeared in The Alien Online

See also my review of Rainbow Bridge

A: So what are you reading at the moment, man?

B: Funny you should ask that, dude, because I’ve just finished something you’d probably love, being a bit of a music fan and everything.

A: I bet it’s science fiction, isn’t it?

B: Hey, no, wait a minute; hear me out.

A: Man, you know I don’t do all that spaceships and aliens stuff. You know I hate all that crap.

B: Shut up a second, mate and listen. This hasn’t got any aliens or spaceships in it.

(A raises an eyebrow)

Honestly. This is set in the UK in the near-future when everything’s collapsing, Europe’s going mental, the US won’t touch us with a bargepole thanks to a massive deadly computer virus; global warming’s flooding everywhere and refugees are turning up on everyone’s doorstep...

A: And aliens land, right, and sort everybody out? Wait a minute, you said I’d like it because of the music – aliens land and drop off Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Elvis and Kurt Cobain, and they...

B: Fine, if you don’t want to hear about it...

A: Oh, don’t get like that. I do want to hear about it. I promise.
So what happens then?

B: Well, most of that stuff’s been sort of dealt with in the first two books, when the Rock’n’Roll Reich first takes over. I mean, obviously they didn’t want to take over and that’s why they called themselves the...

A: Wait a sec, what was that first bit again? Rock’n’Roll Reich?

B: Yeah, the Rock’n’Roll Reich.

A: Takes over?

B: Yeah, three young musicians, guitarist Ax, techno-head Sage and rock-chick Fiorinda, end up kind of in charge of everything. They play a load of gigs and miraculously keep things going when everything’s falling down; everyone listens to them rather than the government cos they’re kinda cooler than the government.
I knew you were going to laugh when we got to this bit. I just knew it.

A: Bwah-ha ha! You’re soooo right! So it’s kind of like that awful Queen musical by Ben Elton where the music of Queen saves the future and...

B: (Sighs) No. No, it isn’t like that.

A: (Wiping tears away) OK, OK, so is it like... (Sniggers) Is it like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Wyld Stalyns! Bwah-ha ha!
Ow! That hurt!

B: Well, shut up then. Dude, I know it sounds like an incredibly lame premise. I know I sound like, I don’t know, Tony Blackburn or somebody telling you how cool this this, but honestly, this Jones woman is amazing. If you read the books rather than have me mangle the story for you in three lines then it really, really works. You can actually believe that three rock stars might somehow end up running England when it all collapses in a few years time. I know it sounds corny when I explain it but on paper this is amazing.

A: Oh, come on! I’ve never read a good piece of fiction about music – no one ever manages to capture the energy and, you know, the sort of thing in writing about music – like Laurie Anderson said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” You can’t get that feeling across.
And then there’s all that bloody writing out there about jazz. Jazz jazz jazz jazz. God, it’s so tedious! I’d rather you danced to me about architecture, frankly.

B: Then you’re in luck! The main character in this book, Ax Preston, who was, like, the ruler of England, even says, “I don’t get on with jazz.” (p.296).

A: I like him already.
B: And Gwyneth Jones, the writer, she’s in her fifties now and she still manages to capture the music side of things incredibly well. She knows – and I think she genuinely loves – her stuff.

A: So what happens in this book, then? Do Jimmy, Kurt, Jim and the King all come back? Is there a big cosmic jam session?

B: No, Ax, Fiorinda and Sage are all in America trying to hold themselves together after a showdown with Fiorinda’s father in Ireland – he was a big American rock star. They fought and killed him.
A: Killed him? Sounds like these guys should be on Pop Idol – that’d liven things up. Hm, maybe improve the music too.
So what did this guy, Fiorinda’s father, what did he do, cover one of their songs really badly?

B: No. Actually, he was an incestuous paedophile who made Fiorinda pregnant when she was only 12 and had no idea who he even was. In the previous book he possessed the corpse of a dead Irish singer and raped her again, then took her away to his castle in Ireland; he drove Ax and Sage – her lovers and protectors – away, almost got them killed (Ax was held hostage in the US for almost a year), then instigated a coup against the Reich by those horrible Green Nazis. Oh, and the Green Nazis almost burnt Fiorinda at the stake in public in London. Ax and Sage managed to rescue her at the last minute.

A: Oh.

B: Yeah, Fiorinda is a “magic” user who...

A: Hobbits! Hobbits!

B: No; no hobbits. It’s a fairly well rationalised 21st-century sort of magic, no spells or wizards or anything. Fiorinda’s father was a very powerful magic user...

A: Ahh, that explains his possessing a corpse, does it? I was going to ask about that.

B: It does. Anyway, the Americans know about this “magic”...

A: Why are you waggling those two fingers about like that?

B: It means “inverted commas”.

A: Why are you doing it?

B: Because when I say “magic” I’m putting it in inverted commas to sort of slightly distinguish it from either Paul Daniels or Harry Potter.
This is closer to your Arthur C. Clarke variety “magic”.

A: Oh, yeah. Your Arthur C. Clarke variety. Mm. OK. What?!

B: “Any...”

A: You’re waggling your fingers again.

B: That’s because this is a quote from Arthur C. Clarke. I’m quoting.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

A: Is that true?

B: Yes, it is true. Arthur C. Clarke said it; of course it’s true.

A: All that stuff he said in Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World wasn’t all true.

B: That doesn’t count. Anyway, regardless, the magic in Midnight Lamp isn’t quite the hocus-pocus variety, but it’s not just the amazing gadgets variety either. It’s a bit of both, and the Americans are now trying to weaponise it, to harness it. You know what Americans are like. But Sage, Fiorinda and Ax are persuaded to come to America along with all their mates, The Chosen Few, officially to make a movie about their adventures in England but unofficially, and more importantly, to help the government there investigate a whole bunch of horrible “ritual magic” murders/sacrifices that might be connected with the “weaponised magic” research.
All this “magic” is making it sound worse, isn’t it?

A: Honestly? Yes. Are the murders and the research connected?

B: I’m not telling you, you’ll have to read the book. Trust me, it’s worth it: Midnight Lamp is so well written; it’s got a chopped up, slangy, shifting viewpoint style that just feels rock’n’roll, feels a bit edgy and uncut, unstructured and honest, even though it must have taken a fantastic amount of work to make it sound that way. There really isn’t another book around I can think of that sounds like this one.

A: It still sounds silly.

B: Well, Ax, Sage and Fiorinda are tightly locked into a three-way relationship and some of the writing in those situations doesn’t scan so well, I think, it sounds a bit silly, a bit twee even.

A: A bit Harry Potter?

B: No, no, no. Forget everything I’ve told you about “magic”, although it’s a central part of this book by the time you get to here having read the first two it won’t seem silly at all.

A: Does Fiorinda have a broomstick?

B: I am going to hit you so hard in a minute. No, Fiorinda does not have a broomstick; she drives around in a car like everyone else. It’s a car with an inbuilt AI, but then in the future USA all cars have these. Any other stupid questions?

A: So you reckon I should read this.

B: Oh, God, yes. There’s nothing else around like this – it’s unique and completely English and full of life and fun and drugs and music. And love.
These books will be recognised as classics one day, I promise you. Classics!

A: Hobbits.

B: Shut up.

Buy it from Amazon.co.uk