Ian Watson has been regularly writing books (and, more importantly, getting them published) since before I was born, so I was faintly surprised not to have come across any of them before. Having read Mockymen I now feel slightly guilty about this fact: how has such a fine writer managed to stay so consistently off my literary radar?
If Mockymen were to be turned into a film then the first 70 pages would take place before the opening credits. An Occult Norwegian Nazi sympathiser meets a quiet jigsaw-making English couple with a strange request for them to visit a park filled with unusual statuary in Oslo, and take some dodgy pictures of themselves at night and turn them into jigsaws. This is duly done, but then things go from dodgy to bad and from bad to worse, as the jigsaw couple begin to go to pieces, wracked by bad dreams, and the Occult Norwegian Nazi sympathiser ritually kills himself. Cue sex and unlikely bolts of lightning in Oslo, babies sired by (dead) Occult Norwegian Nazi sympathisers…and finally reincarnation.
Where Rosemary's Baby only begins, our hypothetical Hollywood Mockymen segues into its delayed opening credits: a montage of flickering images showing global civilisation over the next ten years coming to the very brink of ecological and social collapse. Then comes the sudden arrival of an alien spaceship carrying a small number of the eponymous Mockymen bearing gifts. The hysterical montage of collapse now slows and stabilises as we see the technological marvels of the Mockymen pulling a desperate earth back from the brink. In return they ask only for samples of some of our bacterial life and to be allowed to explore our world. They explore it, however, using the bodies of human beings in a persistent vegetative state - a PVS induced, moreover, by the use of a Mockymen drug, Bliss, which gives the user a year of unadulterated, yes, bliss, but then leaves the majority numbed to further pleasure, and the minority in a PVS. These are ready to be occupied by the bodiless Mockymen, whose original forms it turns out were only vessels for their minds, as humans now are.
Good lord, have we only just gotten past the credits? Hollywood will never agree to this!
Fade to black.
Anna Sharman works for the British Combined Intelligence Service, and, as we join her, is investigating the first ever case of a person to have apparently recovered from Bliss usage. Her department, whilst ostensibly protecting the Mockymen visitors from harm (a condition of their intervention is that they are guaranteed safety whilst on Earth), is actually trying to find out something - anything - about the Mockymen, where they come from and why they are here (for as Anna's boss reminds her: beware of Greeks bearing gifts...).
And, of course, there is more to the Mockyman presence on earth than an unhealthy interest in our ecosphere's myriad species of microscopic worms; but what is surprising about Mockymen is just how much more there is to it. I must confess, throughout a good deal of this book I, for some reason, fully expected it to turn into a rather uninteresting, vaguely metaphysical tale, and was amazed when this most unreasonably failed to happen. Perhaps I just have perennially low expectations of books that begin with occult Nazi conspiracies.
To turn that into a more positive statement, Mockymen is a thoroughly engaging and refreshingly well-written book, on a major and minor scale: replete with clever wordplay as well as some groan-worthy puns that nevertheless continually catch the eye, but also excellently thought-out and plotted. There are elements of horror, of science fiction, and of the more conventional thriller, and even a smattering of philosophy texts. And it all fits together rather well, which is surely something of an achievement by itself. That it should be readable and engaging as well is a rather large bonus.
I was reminded of Paul McAuley's Whole Wide World in places, that kind of near-future police procedural, although Watson has his eye on a significantly bigger picture here. Also, Watson's writing style is reminiscent of (or rather prescient of, given how much longer he has been writing) James Lovegrove. Both write in a similarly quiet and understated idiom - a very English style, one might say: reserved, but carefully thought through. This is an excellent novel.
There are relatively few fireworks in Mockymen, but they are of the variety that go off beneath you rather than, as those of most genre books do, above you.