I think it was in Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies For Fun and Profit that I first read the maxim that coincidences can only ever work against the main character, as a source of strife and turbulence. Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine pays no attention to this principle whatsoever.
While I seem to follow him on every social network going, I’m pretty ambivalent about Ellis’ work. I never got into Transmetropolitan or his work on Iron Man. I did, however, greatly enjoy Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. and I thought his first novel, Crooked Little Vein, was pretty good, although it seemed more like a succession of individual scenes (issues, perhaps, speaking to his background as a comics writer) rather than a natural sequence of events. This thing happened, then this thing happened, then this thing happened… which is OK, because they were all interesting things and, besides, the book was basically a road trip, so can be forgiven for being structured around its stops.
Gun Machine, however, promises a much less linear experience. Where Crooked Little Vein was a straight line, Gun Machine promises a web, much more tangled and expansive. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same problem of linearity and therefore doesn’t fulfil its early promise. The premise was good – a room full of guns, each tied to a single unsolved murder and arranged in an apartment in a meaningful, but cryptic manner. The setup offers a hint of something deep and weird, but the book spends a lot of its time just going through the motions of a detective novel and not a great one, at that.
About two-thirds of the way through, I realised that my main problem was that everything that moved the plot forward had just fallen into the protagonist’s lap without him ever doing anything. It was, again, a sequence of things happening. I don’t know why that isn’t enough (that’s what plots are, surely?) but once noticed, it made the book deeply unsatisfying.
(It also has that same slight futurism that I found jarring in Crooked Little Vein, where details appears contemporary apart from one or two pieces of technology which make the motion of the plot not just easier for the characters, but also the author. )
Perhaps I’ve missed the point. One of the themes of Gun Machine is the idea of invisible maps, be they ancient tribal sites or the flow of data through modern Manhattan. The fact that that Detective Tallow and his CSU colleagues find information so easily may be because of some kind of predetermined path that they are consciously unaware of, but follow on an instinctive, spiritual level. I have no idea if that’s the author’s intent, but having typed it out it seems like the kind of authorwank I might say to someone who criticised one of my pieces. I don’t think Warren Ellis is prone to that sort of thing. I suspect he would just tell me to fuck off and then go and roll around in his pit of money and whores.
If he ever tires of that, I hope he writes more novels. Both of them are flawed, but interesting ways. I may be projecting here, but I think one of the problems is that they’re both tied within the constraints of genre. If Gun Machine wasn’t quite so detective-y, it might have been a lot more interesting. And, now that I think about it, if the main character was one of the Crime Scene Unit officers rather than a cop, the pattern and methodology might have been more open for exploration. I really didn’t expect to read a Warren Ellis novel and come away dissapointed that it wasn’t weirder, but there you are. It’s enjoyable enough, but I’m not sure it’s worth the £13.99 asking price.