on February 10, 2002
The Physiognomy is a story in three acts, in which protagonist Cley shows his despicable nature, then travels through purgatory and is given the chance to redeem himself by doing right by those he had wronged. It's a simple story arc, told against a dark and surreal backdrop: The Well-Built City, crafted in the image of the mind of it's maker, the Master, Drachton Below. The territorial town of Anamasobia, inhabited by plebians whom Cley sees as almost bestial. The sulphur mines of the island of Doralice, run by twin brothers and an intelligent monkey. Not to mention Cley's vocation: Reading the nature of people by measuring the character of their faces and bodies.
Ford proves to be an able scripter, and despite its sometimes-gruesome subject matter the book is filled with dark humor, often taking the form of some character saying something totally unexpected. Cley's predicaments are often novel and challenging, and the story moves right along. Small touches fill out the story and make the whole place seem vivid and real... at first glance.
The Physiognomy's greatest weakness is that it never really gets below the surface of its story. Physiognomy is an impressive device, filled with the potential for all sorts of moral quandaries, but its use diminishes quickly and drastically after the first third of the book. The nature of the Well-Built City is never really explored, the ramifications of (essentially) living in someone's mind not really plumbed. For that matter, Cley himself is something of a cipher. We don't really know where he came from, what led him to Physiognomy, or why he stays in his position. Greed? Ambition? Fear? Devotion to the Master? All seem plausible, but none any plausible than any other.
Moreover, arbitrary events occur at various points in the story without any reason I could see. This often lowers a scene to the level of cheap melodrama: Rather than testing his mettle, Cley sometimes is either overcome quickly and pointlessly, or saved in a deus-ex-machine fashion.
It seems that the book is meant to be a sort of allegory. Perhaps a sort of twisted Garden of Eden (there's a fruit, an Adam and an Eve, and all sorts of exiles), or perhaps a simple (if heavy-handed) story about how we tend to judge people based on superficial characteristics, and that we all will go to any ends we have to to advance our position (and, perhaps, that the 'solution' to these problems is to eliminate the need for positions in society). But none of these options feels true or sufficient. The conclusion feels devoid of purpose.
The book's strength - beyond Ford's writing style - is the mass of churning ideas and the way in which Ford expresses them. There are ample quantities of neat stuff to keep you reading, even if you don't quite figure out how they all fit together. The character names are also neat, sounding very evocative, but you're rarely quite sure of what.
The novel which The Physiognomy most reminds me of is Sean Stewart's Resurrection Man, which also painted a portrait of an intriguing world with its own rules, but which also felt like it didn't follow through on the promise of its concepts. Neither is a bad book, but both feel essentially unfinished, like they're lacking the soul to give them true strength.
on December 3, 2001
I have mixed feelings about Jeffrey Ford's science fantasy novel The Physiognomy. While I rank it above the average, it's still frustrating to read a book with so much potential so needlessly wasted. Jeffrey Ford had great ideas for it but I didn't like the way he handled many of them. I'll let you know about my biggest gripes in a minute, so keep reading.
For this review, I split the novel into three parts. Act one is, in my humble opinion, the best chunk of the book. Here we witness as Cley, renowned physiognomist of the Well-Built City -- the urban brainchild of overlord genius Drachton Below --, is sent to the rural landscapes at the edge of the known world on a trifling mission he's not very pleased to carry out. Cley is a cruel and conceited individual, intelligent but at the same time blinded by his own knowledge and an addiction to a drug known as Sheer Beauty. With a charming personality such as this, it's no surprise he vents his frustrations on the hapless peasants, whom he rates pathetic creatures after only a quick glance at their physiognomic traits. Jeffrey Ford shows great talent for dark humour in his portrayal of Cley, but it's a pity it only lasts for the first part of the novel. Granted, Cley isn't a character you could easily identify yourself with, but I still liked him a lot at this stage. (...)
Cley is also perhaps the only truly well-developed character in The Physiognomy, while all the others seem flat by comparison. Unfortunately for him, though, things are about to change.
The story goes a bit downhill from here. Luckily not into the Forbidden Zone of Badness, but downhill nevertheless. For starters, things happen too damn fast at times, especially from the second act on. Jeffrey Ford seems in a hurry to finish the book, and its scanty 244 pages add to that impression.
During the second part of the novel, Cley endures a set of conditions that gradually change him into a man of healthier disposition. Possibly because the narrative seems so rushed, his moral metamorphosis felt awkward to me. Not unlikely, but still awkward. Or perhaps the surrealism of the world around Cley made it feel that way, I don't know. What I think is a pity is that the protagonist begins to flatten and lose complexity as a result. Oops. On the other hand, Jeffrey Ford writes up some more cool concepts, fewer than in the first part, but fortunately not as squandered.
The third act gives us Cley's return to Drachton Below's Well-Built City. Without going into particulars for the sake of spoilers, I'll just say I didn't appreciate the novel's kind-of vacuous antiscientific message, nor did I like to see Cley made into a wimp at the end. The rating goes down a notch here as far as I'm concerned, though I understand other people's views on the subject might vary.
Like I mentioned at the start of the review, The Physiognomy boasts quite a few first-class concepts -- I'll tell you of Drachton Below's pet, a clockwork-animated werewolf, just to tease your appetite. Sadly, Ford leaves a trail of undeveloped ideas behind, instead exploring those I wouldn't like to go into -- for instance, he describes an expedition to Paradise in more detail than I'd have cared to have. The bottom-line is he ended up murdering the whole thing's sense of wonder for nothing, and any author who pulls one of those without a pretty damned good reason gives me cause to lop a couple of points off the book's score.
So, when the time comes to fill your shopping cart, is this book worth picking up? I'd say yes. The Physiognomy is an original and interesting read in spite of its flaws, the mass market paperback is cheap, and the whole thing wouldn't take you more than an idle weekend afternoon to finish. Personally, I'd encourage you to give it a try. You might even like it better than I did.
on July 12, 2001
While it's being shelved under science fiction, and while it no doubt is science fiction, The Physiognomy feels more like fantasy for most of its length. Two thirds of the novel are spent outside the dystopian Well-Built City (which itself has an interesting mix of old and new technology), setting for only the last third of the book. We don't get in touch, for those two thirds, with the technological advance of the City, and that explains the fantasy feel.
The story is interesting, though The Physiognomy feels incomplete. That's because it's part of a trilogy (the next novels are Memoranda and The Beyond). Cley, the protagonist, is a physiognomist, which is a state function- the state being under the totalitarian rule of Drachton Below, a man with a severe god complex - that combines, in a fashion, the functions of investigator and judge. Remember Judge Dredd? Cley is almost like Dredd, only he doesn't execute people. People are executed by a gas that inflates their heads until they pop. Not by the physiognomists themselves. Those only point their fingers at certain people, and find out if they're guilty of a crime by the measurements of their bodies. They can also predict the future using the same science, the Physiognomy. The Physiognomy was created by Drachton Below so...you get the picture.
At the beginning of the story, Cley is a corrupt, morally disgusting individual. He is sent by Below to investigate a crime in the 'territory'. That's the starting point in a journey of, say, self and world discovery, and soon enough Cley is one terrific guy (suspension of disbelief necessary, for sure). The Physiognomy is well done and entertaining, and very worth the read. I would have appreciated more solid world building (things are sometimes just too vague), but the novel is fast paced and interesting, with very surreal imagery (if you're into that, the book's a treat). I'll read the next two.
on March 24, 2001
Don't believe anyone who says that "The Physiognomy" is irresistibly entertaining. For the first seventy or so pages (a good portion of this 200-page book) I had to resist the urge to toss this of Jeffrey Ford's creations across the room. The viewpoint character, one Physiognomist Cley, is a tough pill to swallow from page one: he believes himself the very crown of creation, and harbors a deep loathing for everyone else; he literally has to supress the urge to punch his partners in conversation; he is a notorious drug addict, and has protracted hallucinations every few pages; at night, he dreams of kicking people in the seat of the pants. The lugubrious arrogance and aloof cynicism of his narration instantly kills any pretense of fun.
For a good while it seems that Mr. Ford's only gift is that for surprisingly original juxtapositions, with virtually no substance connecting them. The novel's setting can be loosely termed as "steampunk"; the reader relishes in the well realized originality of the semi-divine Drachton Below and his toy metropolis, his perverse clockwork zombies, the outlying forests filled with all sorts of Bosch demons, and the tiny frontier villages filled with slowly calcifying miners. Unfortunately, there is little or nothing connecting this imagery, and the entire novel has an unrealistic, dream-like quality to it: Ford's sulfur mines hardly seem like such a horrible place (despite the fumes, Cley doesn't seem to develop TB, and at night he relaxes in a pleasant cottage with a monkey butler), and the bulk of his characters seem to be automata. For a while I hoped that the emerging metaphysical elements would connect into a unified whole by the end, lending the book a somewhat lasting impression. I ever built up an entire scheme of cyclicity and time loops which seems to fit the novel quite well, but, no, I was wrong: the novel ends without resolving many of the reader's questions, focusing on the prosaic matters instead.
Mr. Ford's "The Physiognomy" sorely lacks a definite mythos. It fails miserably as a novel about characters, and doesn't have enough to make it a novel about ideals.
on March 8, 2001
I found this tale about the transformation of Physiognomist First Class Cley to be dark and somewhat slow going despite the remarkable characters and ideas that abound. Cley, as we meet him, is a most unsympathetic and brutal personage.
Sent on a mission from the "Well-Built City", fashioned by Master of the Realm Drachton Below as a massive mnemonic device to contain and stimulate his memories, to the backwater mining town of Anamasobia in the Northern Territory, Cley finds he is overcome by the circumstances and the curious inhabitants of the town.
His accelerating descent forces him to the island of Doralice where he is left to suffer in the hands of the strange Corporal Matters brothers and the true ruler of Doralice, Silencio the ape.
He is eventually released and continues on his path to redemption.
I definitely read through all of this adventure with sustained interest in the fate of Cley, the almost perfect Arla, the partially roboticized Calloo and the many other bizarre and extraordinarily imaginative characters, and the amazing circumstances in which they find themselves. The book is dense with wondrous ideas and events that continue to amaze right to the end. Given that, it is strange to me that the dark forboding feeling never completely leaves one.
There is much that is curious here. As the Well-Built City is the embodiment of the mind of Master Below, so this book gives substance to the strange and wild and fascinating imagination of its author. I wonder how far his excellent prose and style can take us.
I am definitely looking forward to reading Fords continuing adventures of Cley as he gradually recovers his humanity in a world far from our human experiences.
Dark, but highly recommended.
on December 2, 2000
After I had finished reading this novel, I ran across it again, of all places, in a supermarket. Why on earth was it there? It is not a national bestseller and is weird, non-conventional, and literate. It is the type of book, like the Gormenghast Trilogy, that is absolutely wonderful but not likely to become a favorite of the masses (at least not right away). Most of the complaints about the book is that Ford didn't write it the way someone else would. One of the reviewers here said as much because he/she thought it was stupid that Ford had Cley loose his ability to read the Physiognomy, simply because it was not what he/she would happen. Also, in his review column in Asimov's, Norman Spinrad complains about Cley going through a moral epiphany and becomes a "conventional" hero. While, I think that the turn around was to sudden and wish that Cley's acid wit did not dissapear and this kept me from giving it five stars, I think they are minor flaws. Plus, Cley's wit does not dissapear completely and is somewhat more prominent in Memoranda than the later part of the book.
on May 12, 2000
This book has a wonderful premise. Cley has studied his whole life learning to use the complicated tools and mathematics that make a person an open (braille) book. Using simply the bumps on your head, and the width of your eyes he can tell what you had for lunch. He himself has perfect five star features that make him smarter, more attractive, and certainly more important than you or I. When he is finally sent into the field to investigate who has stolen a very important Item, I anticipated some rude awakenings for Cley. Indeed, he does meet a woman who sets some of his notions on end. However, just as he's starting to check each person's nostril dilations in the town to find the thief, he suddenly forgets everything he had ever learned. Poof! Suddenly he can't remember the significance of lip dimension. And that's about where I stopped reading. I scanned ahead, and as far as I can tell, he doesn't stop scratching his head and wondering where his learning went for most of the book.
on August 8, 1999
This is the kind of book that might get discussed in a college class on literary interpretation, but which isn't worth reading as a novel. The author seems to aim for an Orwellian kind of social relevance, and ends up with less plot, less character development, and indeed less relevance than Orwell.
Science fiction or fantasy readers will be attracted to the premise of a culture driven by physiognomy, but will be disappointed : the idea is never developed at all, as the book turns into an uninterestingly-written fight against totalinarianism in which physiognomy plays no role whatsoever.
Nor are any of the other potentially good ideas developed, such as the creature from Paradise or the abilities of the Master.
Summary: If you want some mysticism to discuss in your literary club, or if you want to write a term paper for your literature class, go for it. If you want an interesting novel, keep away.
on March 19, 2001
I admit it. I read this book,and soared through the pages. The prose was engaging- I created a flow and you were dragged through this novel. But after the book was finished and placed beside my bed- I wondered about what I had just read. It was quite descriptive/cryptic, and actaully quite sick and perverse. It was the battle between good and evil- but not really. More between bad and wicked. There wasn't really one character I could indentify with, or even root for. In the sequel it gets even worse as the most sympathetic character is an educated a demon- and we are forced to feel bad for his civility. I still don't know if I liked the book- the style was fine, but as a whole it left a deep chill in my bones.
on August 20, 2003
The world that Ford creates in The Physiognomy is compelling, detail-rich, and difficult to forget. I think even the most suspicious readers will be charmed by his depiction of the Well-Built City and the details like the miners who have inhaled so much dust that they turn to stone.
Unfortunately, his grip on characters isn't quite as good. While Cley is engaging on a certain level, as a reader I was ultimately unable to care about either his goodness or his badness. If Ford could have made him matter just a little bit more, then it wouldn't have felt so empty at the end.
Despite the flaws, one of the most original fantasy reads I've had in a long time.