Friday, 11 September 2015

Toby Litt: Journey Into Space (2009)

Edition: Penguin, 2009
Review number: 1499

Warning: this review is going to contain lots of spoilers, without which it would be hard to say what I want to say about it. Please don't read if you don't want to know the plot of the novel.

Toby Litt is, incidentally, someone I used to vaguely know (I had rooms on the floor below him for a year when we were students). Some of his novels I like a lot, and others not at all. Journey Into Space is the first of his books which I have read which comes between the two extremes. Or, rather, it moves from one to the other, as the story progresses.

Journey Into Space is divided into five sections, each shorter than the previous one, which gives an overall impression spiralling into a central point because of the way the plot develops across them, as well as because of influence the decreasing length has on the reading experience. The whole thing is set on that standard science fiction location, the generation ship on its way to colonise another world, inhabited by a very small community. (In-breeding, something which concerns some of the other writers of this type of stories, is simply handled by gene technology.) The plot covers four generations of life on the ship, not starting at the launch but several generations into the journey.

The first section is the most unusual in science fiction terms. It concerns the meetings between two teen-aged cousins, who share their ideas about Earth, a world they have never seen except in the records carried by the ship and messages received by it. The main way they do this is through "describing", where each tries to make the other feel what it would be like to experience something - rain, grass, the presence of animals - they have never known themselves. The theme here is nostalgia, and how we look at a past we can never actually see fully. This might feel like an extended creative writing exercise ("Produce 500 words describing grass from the point of view of someone who has never seen it in reality"), but it is effective at generating a mood which is shattered at the end of the section - Celeste gives birth a child (in a strange passage using a series of images derived from the describes, while the pair are shunned for their incestuous relationship.

In the second section, the child, named Orphan, takes over as the centre of the narrative. He charms his way into becoming the captain of the ship, despite not being terribly bright, and becomes regarded as something of a king and god. He institutes a perpetual, hedonistic party, where everything is done on his slightest whim (though he is manipulated into making decisions by others who have more interest in running the ship). This section seems to be a commentary on a different aspect of today's world, where we are living in the moment without a care for the traditions of the past or for the effects our way of life will have on generations to come. The main problem with this section is that Orphan, as depicted, does not convince the reader hat he has the charm he is credited with

The third section follows the life of Orphan's third child, imaginatively named Three, from spoilt child to ascetic obsessed with being able to write on paper in the old fashioned way, and centre of a new religion, proselytised by her nephew.  It is in this section that news reaches the ship that humanity on Earth has destroyed itself. In the final two sections, the nephew takes over the ship after Orphan and Three die; the ship then returns to earth, receiving a signal to indicate that there have been some survivors, before being deliberately crashed into the earth to obliterate defective humanity (leaving just two survivors, in an escape pod, who know that there is no way they can properly survive). This nihilistic section is much less clearly linked to commentary on twenty first century humanity. It seems perfunctory, and poses a fairly common conundrum - how does the narrative survive and who adds the final words describing the death of the last two humans orbiting earth? It may be that this ending is meant to provide some positive message of hope: somehow, some remnant of human civilisation has continued - but it isn't effective in this way for me, being swamped by the nihilistic theme of the book, which seems to be that the human race is better destroyed than allowed to continue.

The message of Journey Into Space (assuming I haven't just completely misinterpreted the novel, and there is one) is made so much the centre of the novel that other aspects of fiction writing suffer, especially characterisation - Celeste and Three are the only individuals given much in the way development. Apart from the descriptions which form part of the game between Celeste and August, there isn't much filling in of the background; like a lot of modern science fiction, Journey Into Space assumes that the reader will be familiar with the basic idea of a generation ship, for instance.

While there are some interesting ideas in Journey Into Space, parts of it simply don't work, and it generally feels under-developed. My rating: 5/10.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

John le Carré: A Delicate Truth (2013)

Edition: Viking, 2013
Review number: 1498

It's a while since I last read a John le Carré novel, and I picked this up in the local library a little reluctantly, because I felt that his world was often too downbeat for me to enjoy reading his work as much as I felt I should - very well written, provocative, but depressing.

A Delicate Truth is the story of the aftermath of a secret and rather shady operation, a collaboration between British military and a US security firm, organised outside normal security services procedures by an ambitious government minister. The operation is described in the first section of the novel, and the fallout from it returns to haunt some of those involved through the rest of the book. The main character is Toby Bell, who was the minister's private secretary at the time of the mission and was excluded in a manner which made him suspicious. The focus is on Bell's attempt to understand what has happened and to act in accordance with his conscience, not in the way which sustains the cover up.

The ideas of the novel are clearly inspired by the Wikileaks saga and the cases of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden. Several of le Carré's earlier novels, especially The Constant Gardener, The Mission Song, and A Most Wanted Man have done the same thing, but this is the first time where a UK setting has been used to give the novel more immediacy to what I would assume is the author's main audience, his compatriots.

Although the operation is not an official one, and the background is post-Cold War, I found A Delicate Truth reminiscent of le Carré's Smiley novels as a reading experience, more than it is of the recent works already mentioned. This is not the only reason; le Carré's spy fiction has often had matters of conscience and honour at its heart, and these themes play a large part here too. I did feel that this resemblance does make it clear that A Delicate Truth is overshadowed by the Smiley novels - not surprisingly: there is a reason why they are classics of the spy thriller genre.

A thoughtful novel, raising concerns about the actions taken against whistleblowers by those in authority. Though readable, it is a step down from le Carré at his peak. My rating: 7/10.

Friday, 17 April 2015

David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks (2014)

Edition: Sceptre, 2014
Review number: 1497

The Bone Clocks tells the story of the life of Holly Sykes, from her teenage years in Gravesend in the 1980s through to the mid twenty first century. This immediately makes it unusual: most novels are either fairly firmly set in a recognisable past (or more or less present) or in the future. Mitchell also combines, as in several of his other novels, fantasy elements with naturalistic and real world events, such as the war in Iraq.

This is a novel in which it is quite hard to work out what is going on, at least at first reading. Some things are clear: Holly has the second sight (though that term isn't used by Mitchell) and has visions of the future. There are characters who have access to something they call "the script", but their role in the story is not properly explained until near the end. These characters appear mysteriously at moments in the story when an important choice is to be made by one of the more reality bound characters.

The Bone Clocks is episodic in nature. There are lengthy gaps between the dates at which each is set, sometimes decades, and they are not all told from the same point of view. They do make the story a little bit harder to grasp, though the arrangement is not as complex as the structures of some of Mitchell's other novels (the episodes are presented in chronological order). Paradoxically, though, I found The Bone Clocks much harder to read than these earlier books. Each episode was individually interesting, but there is not really a sense of where things are leading to. A character is shared with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but that does not help make things clearer.

The resolution of the mystery of the script does make everything a lot clearer, but it is a very long time coming (I think this is Mitchell's longest novel by quite some way). Even though I am usually a big fan of the author, I felt that it didn't really prove worth the wait. If I had been new to Mitchell's work, I probably would never have gone on to read his other novels, and this would have been a pity. So I would suggest starting elsewhere and come to The Bone Clocks later, if you like Ghostwritten or number9dream. Even then, I feel that the books of Nick Harkaway or Haruki Murakimi are a better follow-up to Mitchell's early work than The Bone Clocks.

The "bone clocks" of the title are human bodies, referring to the ageing process. Ageing and time are the main themes of the novel, though it is also about how something magical can touch the most banal of lives - even someone growing up in Gravesend in the eighties.

Not Mitchell at his dazzling best - but still reasonably enjoyable and intersting. My rating: 7/10.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

Edition: Penguin, 2014
Review number: 1496

This is Mohsin Hamid's third novel, after The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I still think is the best novel to portray the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings, and his debut Moth Smoke, which I didn't like so much and now barely remember. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is, like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an attempt to bring attention to issues from a world that westerners tend not to think about much - this time the poverty stricken Asian communities where very rich and very poor often live almost side by side. It is much more similar, however, to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, which has an almost identical theme.

Adiga's book, while noteworthy for the vigour of its protagonist, is a novel which is traditional in form. Hamid tries something different: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is told in the second person, as a self help manual, with a certain amount of amusing ironic deconstruction of what a self help book actually is (pointing out that if there is one self it is meant to help, it's the author who pockets the royalties, for instance). Each chapter follows the same format - a succinct title ("Move to the City", "Get an Education"), a short introductory paragraph about the nature of the help offered, and an instalment from the "your" story. I usually find second person narratives extremely irritating, but the self help conceit and the thought that has gone into the writing and its balance between the stark reality of life in "rising Asia" and humorous touches means that it actually works quite well.

There is very little in the novel to date the start and finish, though it covers sixty or more years, from young childhood to death, slightly unsettling in the second person. Hamid's nationality suggests that the location could be Pakistan, though he is careful not to be too specific (omitting mention of religion, for instance, or any politics beyond that of the city in which it is set) - it could be any number of places in Asia. A Pakistani background would also suggest that the novel describes a life from colonial independence to almost the present.

Returning to the comparison of Hamid's novel with Adiga's, I would say that The White Tiger is more profound, while How to Get Filthy Rich is more accessible. The same statement would still be true if The Reluctant Fundamentalist is substituted for The White Tiger. I enjoyed How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Hamid has something important to say (if not anything new), but I don't think it will stay with me in the same way as the other two novels have. My rating: 8/10.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Susanna Gregory: The Westminster Poisoner (2008)

Edition: Sphere, 2008
Review number: 1495

This is the fourth of the Thomas Chaloner series, historical mysteries set just after the restoration of the monarchy in Britain following the Civil War and Cromwell's rule. In The Westminster Poisoner, Chaloner investigates a series of murders of government officials, despite interference from his employer, who starts out by telling him who the murderer should be.

As is now standard in this series, Chaloner spends much of the investigation as an outsider to the corrupt world of Restoration London; this provides an interesting perspective, but can become a bit wearing. The Westminster Poisoner is quite lengthy, for a crime novel, and it sometimes feels as though it's spending too much time wallowing in the depravity instead of getting on with the mystery. The depiction of Restoration London is one of the things which first interested me in the series, but I am feeling that by the fourth book it's becoming a little too much always the same.

Still, the characterisation is good, and the mystery is interesting and difficult to solve, and the historical background is meticulously researched. The ending is very good indeed. Generally, I felt that the positive aspects of The Westminster Poisoner outweighed the negative, though it is not as good as earlier books in the series where the background was fresher. My rating: 7/10.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Lee Smolin: Time Reborn (2013)

Edition: Allen Lane, 2013
Review number: 1494

 Annoyingly poorly argued book about moving beyond current ideas of time in physics, with some interesting ideas. Smolin spends most of the book discussing the "timelessness" of modern physics, both relativity and quantum mechanics, without ever properly defining what he means by the term. It's clearly not whether the theories have a time parameter in them, but it seems in some places to mean that time is treated as a whole, as it is in the "block universe" of relativity, and in others that the laws of physics themselves do not change. Smolin thinks we need to look at changing laws in order to fix some of the problems with these theories, but his ensuing discussion of what form these changes may take is infuriatingly inconsistent and contains logical flaws (there is a particularly glaring one on p.163 of this edition). Sometimes he seems to be envisaging laws changing only at the creation of a new universe (if his earlier ideas about black holes in one universe containing new generations of universes inside them is adopted); at others, he seems to be talking about changes between distant parts of the same universe or over time, again in a single universe. Where was the editor when they were needed?

My rating: 4/10.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Iain M. Banks: The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)

Edition: Orbit, 2013
Review number: 1493

The Hydrogen Sonata is the final Culture novel. It is tempting to see some synergy in the themes explored in the story with this fact, for it is about beginnings and endings. However, this is not the case: the rise and fall of civilisations is a theme common across the Culture series, and in the brief author interview included at the end of The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain Banks states that he had another novel's worth of Culture ideas (and that this was usual at the end of writing one).

The Gzilt race is of interest to the Culture (more than usual - the Culture is perhaps characterisable by its rampant nosiness) because they were involved in the discussions which led to the Culture's foundation, but decided not to join. They are now planning to Sublime, to move out of what is considered the real universe into a fairly vaguely defined afterlife for scientifically advanced alien races - something of a cross between a humanist afterlife/Nirvana complete with a rapture event and an inaccessible retirement home (the details are unknown even to the most powerful Culture Minds). However, there are rumours of a secret from the very earliest days of the Gzilt race, one which might cause sufficient unease that its members might not be able to sublime, and this is something the Minds can look into.

 I felt that parts of the plot didn't quite hang together; much of it is concerned with the search for someone who was around in the early days of the Culture and is still alive, who can be asked about the secret (which was known to those involved in the discussions out of which the Culture was born. It really felt to me like there was a lot of fuss being made about quite a minor issue. The details of the story are interesting and entertaining enough that this doesn't seem to matter too much, but the central motivation of the plot is lacking. Like several other of Iain Banks' later novels, The Hydrogen Sonata lacks something of the ambition of his early work.

As I said, the interest is maintained in the small scale details in the plot, and this is one of Banks' most overtly humorous novels. I particularly liked the insect-like aliens, the Ronte, whose fleets of starships engage in ceremonial dances - an idea which somehow manages to combine the alien with the familiar in a way which is really one of the distinguishing features of good space fiction. It also makes The Hydrogen Sonata an entertaining read, among Banks' lightest novels. I enjoyed reading it a lot (more than some of the other Culture novels) - my personal rating is 8/10.