Friday, 11 July 2014

Iain Banks: Stonemouth (2012)

Edition: Little, Brown, 2013
Review number: 1486

Stewart Gilmour returns to his home town of Stonemouth after years away, following an event which earned him the enmity of the closest that a small town north of Aberdeen has to a gangster family. He has been granted permission to return for a funeral, but do all the family members know (or care) about this? What about the other relationships which were affected by what he did - how will other people react when he returns?

Like many Banks novels, Stonemouth is told with multiple timelines presented simultaneously, though it is one of the simplest versions of this, as Stewart's current visit has his past life in the town interleaved as a series of flashbacks. This is why I've been careful not to say precisely what the event was which led to him being exiled, even though most readers are likely to have guessed well before it is revealed. The biggest problem with this sort of thing is usually that the secret to be revealed near the end of the novel is well known to all the characters throughout, and in the hands of lesser writers leads to some awkward dialogue, as people steer clear from what they would naturally say so that the author doesn't reveal his secret to the readers.

The bridge over the Stoun is an important part of Stonemouth, and bridges have played major roles in Banks' novels before now - obviously in The Bridge, but also in Canal Dreams, where the Panama Canal is like an inverse bridge joining two oceans together across the intervening land. The function of a bridge (or canal) is to connect two things otherwise unconnected, but in the earlier novels the action takes place on the structure itself, which places the characters in a kind of limbo. Here, though, the purpose of the bridge is to act as a transition from one world to another, whether through death (much is made of the bridge as a jumping off place for suicides) or by overcoming the separation between the two sides of Stewart's life. In the outside world, he is successful, and works at a job which brings light to the world, in a literal sense. In Stonemouth, he is a former insider who is now separated from the townspeople by his actions many years ago. So the bridge links to his past, to another world he has been forced to abjure, away from the light. That the gangsters in the town appear to be powerless outside it (they tried to track him down in London) is part of this. Is the novel itself some kind of metaphor for growing up? For leaving the past behind? Or is it even a suggestion that Stewart didn't survive to live his own life, but, like the suicides, crossed the bridge to death?

As well as avoiding the obvious pitfalls, Banks does a good job of winding up the tension until the denouement. Stonemouth is a literary novel structured like a thriller - Banks has always written novels which at the very least flirt with genre fiction, and this is no exception.

The characters are well drawn, the plot is believable, and the background is convincing. So why did I end up feeling that this was not Banks at his absolute best? It's partly that this has been done before by Banks; the prodigal son returning to his roots is the basis of several of his novels, with differences mainly deriving from the nature of the welcome expected. Stonemouth has a particularly stony reception for the returnee, which is perhaps one reason for the name of the town and the title of the novel. The Scottish setting, too, is common to most of Banks' non-genre fiction - superbly well done, but not breaking any new ground. The other problem I had here is that, to me, the characters fail to take off, apart from Stewart, and he himself is pretty similar to other narrators - notably Prentice McHoan in The Crow Road. So it's a good book, but not top class - my rating, 8/10.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Connie Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997)

Edition: Gollancz, 2013
Review number: 1485

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a time travel novel, a farce around the idea of a professional time traveller sent to a time which is not his specialist historical period - Victorian England instead of the Second World War. A powerful and rich woman is trying to recreate the original Coventry cathedral destroyed in the Blitz after the sixties replacement is turned into a shopping centre. She is able to monopolise the services of the Oxford time travellers, retrieving items believed destroyed by the bombing at the last moment (so their removal doesn't create a paradox). But there is one ornament which is supposed to be there on the night of the bombing, but which can't be found - so operative Ned Henry is sent further back than 1940 to find out what happened to it.

In the 1880s, Henry gets involved with eccentric Oxford dons, a trip down the Thames, an upper class houseparty, and a manic attempt to introduce the right pair of lovers to each other so that the future is saved, even though Henry only knows the identity of one of them and the initial letter of the name of the other.

On top of this manic plot, Willis piles on a huge variety of references to other literature: a wide selection of the more popular English language writers from Jane Austen to PG Wodehouse and Robert Heinlein via Dorothy Sayers are either directly referenced or are clear influences. The book as a whole is a homage to Three Men in a Boat - the title To Say Nothing of the Dog is the subtitle to Jerome's comic classic. (I want to point out that the ending of The Moonstone is given away - so anyone planning to read Wilkie Collins' novel who doesn't want to know what happens beforehand should read that first.) Few of the references need to be familiar in order to follow To Say Nothing of the Dog; the most important after Three Men in a Boat is probably Gaudy Night. However, the more of them which the reader picks up, the more they will enjoy the game. This is a type of meta-novel which appeals to me greatly, and I would put several of them into my all time favourites list, of which To Say Nothing of the Dog is now also one.

Very funny, fantastically clever: To Say Nothing of the Dog leaps straight into my list of favourite science fiction novels. I'm a little surprised I hadn't read it before, as it's a Hugo winner and I have been avidly reading the genre since well before it was published, but now I am very glad I have done - 10/10.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Ken MacLeod: Intrusion (2012)

Edition: Orbit, 2012
Review number:1484

Ken MacLeod is an author whose work I sometimes really like (the Star Faction books) but who at other times doesn't really connect with me (the Engines of Light trilogy). Intrusion falls into the second category.

It is one of several recent novels by MacLeod which are stand-alone near future dystopias, rather like the series of similar works produced by John Brunner in the 1970s. There are two main elements to Intrusion: an encroaching "nanny state", particularly concerned to make people live more and more healthy lifestyles; and the moral and social consequences of advances in genetic engineering.

These are given a human aspect through the central character, a pregnant woman who refuses to take "the fix", a pill which sorts out an embryo's genetic abnormalities. Although this refusal is not a crime, Hope is unwilling even to discuss the reasons behind her decision, and this makes her a person of interest to the police - rather in the way that attending a mosque seems to do in the West today. The issues soon become muddled, as the plot development is based on the possibility that Hope's husband might have the second sight, and this begins to take prominence over the elements which were important at the beginning.

My problem with this is that the second sight, by its nature more fantastical than the otherwise realistic seeming near future setting of the novel, just doesn't fit in to Intrusion. It feels like a device used to push the plot forward, without being integrated into the action in a meaningful way. It is given a pseudo-scientific explanation, but one with some pretty obvious holes in it to my mind.

In other areas, too, it feels that there is a certain laziness to the construction of Intrusion, as evidenced by the name of the protagonist. This may be intended to be an ironic gesture, but is neither so outrageously obvious to be fun (as Hiro Protagonist is in Snow Crash), nor sufficiently understated to be interesting.

The subject touches on issues at the very basis of how humans live in social groups. To do so necessitates giving up some individual freedom for the good of the group; the question is, where does the line between individual and state lie? Since the answer to this question differs radically from person to person, culture to culture, and subject to subject, it is not one which can be discussed in depth in a single book - indeed, I think it could be argued that the whole of political theory, and much of sociology and anthropology, deals with ways in which this question can be answered. So it is not surprising that even the relatively limited scope of the discussion in Intrusion merely scratches the surface of what might be said about health care and the government, but I did feel that more could be said - Intrusion seems to be more a statement of a fixed position (essentially, that Hope should have the right to refuse if she so wishes), than an analysis or a treatment in which the plot involves a developing portrayal of the issues. Brunner's dystopias were mainly about attempts to change society (or, more specifically, attempts to reform society to ameliorate problems caused by undirected sociological development), and this makes them much more satisfying if more depressing than this novel.

All in all, an unsatisfying novel which never really gripped my attention - 4/10.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Saladin Ahmed: Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012)

Edition: Gollancz, 2013
Review number:1483

Even in 2013, it is quite unusual to see a fantasy genre novel which draws on a Middle Eastern background, and when you do, it tends to have a background based on the Arabian Nights. Here, though, is an original fantasy which treats ideas from Arab culture in the same way that many British or American writers draw on the western European medieval history, culture, myth, and legend.

The central character of Throne of the Crescent Moon, Dr Adoulla, is a man with a calling. He is, as far as he knows, the last of the fighters opposing the zombie-like magical constructed beings, the ghul. And he is starting to feel his age. With his apprentice, the fervently religious young dervish Raseed, he tracks the ghuls involved in an attack which left a young boy orphaned, The hunt leads them towards a dark secret which threatens the whole realm, though the Kalif is not interested in anything but his own rather unpleasant agenda.

The elements of the plot are not really terribly original, but it is the background which makes Throne of the Crescent Moon a fantastic novel for genre fans - which is why it made the Hugo shortlist this year. The background is not Islamic, though the religious part of the setting is clearly related, and of course it is immediately reminiscent to a Western reader of the Arabian Nights, though again it is sufficiently different not to feel like a straightforward leap into the world of those stories. Most fantasy still follows Tolkien's lead, and has a background derived from western Europe, often in the medieval period, and includes magic related to traditional European legends, such as those surrounding Merlin, or folktales of the faery. Much of the plot may be traditional swords and sorcery, but in this new background, it seems fresh again.

It's important that the background is well done, and placed in the service of the plot, and Ahmed does both admirably. One device which is quite common in fantasy novels, because it affords a means to expose the hard work which went into world building (as well as because Tolkien did it) is to have a group of central characters who between them represent different ethnic groups. Ahmed manages to do this here without it seeming to be a contrived, clunky, cliché - a considerable achievement in 2013.

All in all, an excellent debut, a promising indication that this is a series worth watching. My rating: 8/10.

Monday, 18 November 2013

John Scalzi: Redshirts (2012)

Edition: Gollancz (2013)
Review number: 1482

Redshirts is based on a fairly simple but effective idea. In bad science fiction television shows - and the original series of Star Trek was especially notorious for this - there are frequent missions in which the dramatic tension is racked up by killing off one of the characters, almost always an ephemeral one with no back story played by an unknown actor. In Star Trek, these individuals usually wore red shirts. Scalzi's idea is to look at these events from the point of view of the low ranking, inexperienced officers who would be likely candidates for death by the writers' pens.

What makes Redshirts more than a fan-fiction style parody is Scalzi's use of multiple levels of irony, as his characters gradually become aware that they are living in a fictional universe, when, in fact, they and the writer of the TV show are fictional products themselves. Not only that, he manipulates the plot to use this in a variety of ways, some more subtle than others. For instance, he invents an episode of The Adventures of the Intrepid, part of the novel's back story, in which an encounter with a black hole sends the characters back to 2010 (the date at which the episode is supposed to have been broadcast), which is, as the characters point out, a science fiction cliché which makes it possible to comment on contemporary society as well as (in a low budget TV show) saving on production costs. The ironic twist is that when Ensign Dahl and his companions use the same trick in order to complain to the show's writers about their treatment, they travel back in time to 2012, when Redshirts was published.

There is a widely circulated stereotypical view that Americans don't understand irony. This is something which Scalzi disproves with ease. When, therefore, we notice that, in his effort to highlight the absurdities in the cliché of the expendable extra, Scalzi has fallen into another common recourse of the lazy genre writer, the apparent weak character who turns out to be the hero of the story, we might well suspect that something else is going on. That this is common (good examples include stories by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert A. Heinlein and Lois McMaster Bujold) is almost an understatement - it is something which is part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy to the teenager and especially the stereotypical type of fan, the geeky social outcast. To some extent the use of this trope is n inevitable consequence of the premise of Redshirts: by concentrating on the minor characters, he is promoting them to central status. I am sure that Scalzi is aware that he has done this, and that it is therefore another ironic twist in the novel's construction.

John Scalzi's work is frequently compared to that of Robert A. Heinlein, partly because the military science fiction of his debut Old Man's War reminded people of of Starship Troopers. In a recent blog post, he asked people to suggest writers that his work might be compared to, and he specifically said that there was no point in answering, "Heinlein". Here, though, two other writers came to my mind. James Blish is an obvious point of comparison, as the writer of many Star Trek novelisations, though it is far too long since I read any of them for me to pick out specific similarities (and I think that TV science fiction, including Star Trek itself, is a far more important influence anyway). A more obscure writer, though, has touched on a similar theme, with the same kind of humour but without the irony: James Alan Gardner's League of Peoples series is about the role of ECMs (expendable crew members) in space exploration.

In my view, Redshirts is Scalzi's best fiction so far. I enjoyed Old Man's War and Agent to the Stars, but found The God Engines unreadable. I've generally found his blogging more interesting: I would urge everyone to read the fabulous collection of his blog posts in book form, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded (almost worth reading from the title alone). Enjoyable, funny, approachable, yet with clever irony, I rate Redshirts at 9/10.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Gareth Roberts: Shada - The Lost Adventure of Douglas Adams (2012)

Edition: BBC Books (2012)
Review number: 1481

Despite not being a huge fan of the series, this is the second Doctor Who book I have read this year. Like The Coming of the Terraphiles, I picked up Shada because it is connected to one of my favourite authors.  Unlike Michael Moorcock's novel, though, Shada is excellent.

One of the most famous Doctor Who stories is one which has never been shown. It was one of the three written by Douglas Adams while he was working as script editor on the series in the early eighties. Ffilming was interrupted by a studio technicians' strike, and was never resumed, for a variety of reasons. Now, Gareth Roberts has completed the story, re-working parts of it and extending it to a full novel length. Douglas Adams was, he later said, relieved by the interruption; he was almost as famous for his inability to keep to deadlines as he was for his humour, and Shada was still incomplete even as filming was under way. Roberts took various versions - a video of the incomplete series released by the BBC in the 1990s and script drafts mainly, and put together this novel, clearly a labour of love for one of the scriptwriters who has worked on the more recent revived Doctor Who.

The story shares a character with Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which was written by Adams later in the eighties, in the person of Urban Chronotis, Regius Professor of Chronology. Shada, though, is the story for which he was originally conceived, and he naturally fits very well into the Doctor Who mythos. In Shada, Professor Chronotis turns out to have one of the ancient talismanic artifacts of the Time Lords hidden among the books in his Cambridge college rooms, and this becomes the target for megalomaniac alien Skagra who wants to take over the whole universe and "tidy it up". This brings the Doctor calling, along with Romana and K9, as they try to retrieve the artifact and thwart Skagre - and find out who, or what, the mysterious Shada is.

This is a genuinely good novel - easily the best Doctor Who novelisation I have ever read. Moreover, I have read two other books which appeared after Douglas Adams' death and which were intended to supplement the novels published in his lifetime, Salmon of Doubt and And Another Thing. Neither were very good, but Shada is truly a worthy addition to the Adams canon - well written, funny where necessary, full of interesting ideas. Hats off to Gareth Roberts for his efforts here. Now, if only the Adams estate had asked him to write the continuation of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy...

My rating: 9/10.




Saturday, 7 September 2013

John Varley: Red Thunder (2003)

Edition: Ace, 2004
Review number:1480

Heinlein's science fiction novels were the introduction which many fans had to the genre for a long time, and his stories for young teens in particular have been hugely influential, whether loved or hated. When writing for younger readers, many science fiction authors have struggled to throw off the need to copy his self-reliant, competent, science-obsessed teenage boys who succeed where adult professionals could not. They are clearly very appealing to the sort of bright, but not socially successful teens who are stereotypically genre fans.

In Red Thunder, John Varley seems to me to have been unable to make the final decision whether he wanted to produce a homage or a parody. Often funny, it warps Heinlein's stock plot elements with a great deal of affection.

The main characters are a group of Florida teens - high school leavers failed by the local education system, but who are obsessed with space travel  - and a disgraced former astronaut they almost kill when driving along the beach at night while he is lying on it in a drunken stupor. When it becomes clear that the United States will be beaten to land humans on Mars by China, they put together a space ship of their own, pretty much out of junk, and set of to arrive before the Chinese.

This pretty ludicrous plot is clearly a parody of Heinlein, and by bringing in girls and making his characters flawed, Varley makes pretty obvious points about the some of the more obvious limitations of the earlier man's work. The unlikelihood that teens and a broken man can succeed in an enterprise which stretches the richest nations on Earth is made even more obvious because it is founded on an impossibility, the discovery of a new kind of propulsion, described as "free energy" - a perpetual motion machine.

And yet, the reader is drawn in, and much about Red Thunder is charming and enjoyable in much the same way as Heinlein can be. The parody is partly to tell us that Varley is aware of Heinlein's faults; everything else about his novel really seems to tell us that Varley likes his books anyway.

Three of my favourite science fiction books have very heavy debts owing to Heinlein: Ender's Game; Orbital Resonance; and Saturn's Children. Red Thunder is not quite as good as any of these, but is less serious in tone, so it is a lighter read (not that any of the others are particularly heavy). I enjoyed it a lot, which is not something I always feel about Varley's fiction; it could well be the most fun of any of his novels. My rating: 8/10.