Friday, 26 February 1999

Victor Canning: The Doomsday Carrier (1976)

Edition: Hamlyn
Review number: 219

The Doomsday Carrier is a late seventies thriller about an unpleasant subject, one which has perhaps even more resonance now than it did twenty years ago. It is about animal experimentation and biological warfare. Charlie is a chimpanzee at a British research station who has just been injected with a modified plague bacillus, one which makes him a highly infections carrier after a three week incubation period. But then he escapes into the English countryside; he must be caught before he becomes infectious and millions die.

Canning is clearly anti both animal experimentation and biological weapons , and cynical about the purposes which governments publicly ascribe to such establishments as the fictional Fadledean. For someone writing before the eighties' rumours that AIDS was the result of a similar biological warfare experiment gone wrong, his writing is pretty prophetic. In particular, his description of the government attitude behind their successive announcements about Charlie, as he remains at large with the deadline rapidly approaching, is very convincing.

The Doomsday Carrier keeps itself well within the limits of the single-issue thriller, not going in for much in the way of characterisation (except for the gentle personality of Charlie) or plot development. By limiting his ambitions, Canning has created the novel of a craftsman rather than an artist - very competently achieved, but not particularly stunning or original.

Jill Paton Walsh: The Wyndham Case (1994)

Edition: Coronet, 1994The Wyndham Case cover
Review number: 218

The fictional St Agatha's College, Cambridge, has two libraries, a normal academic library and the Wyndham Library. This was endowed in the seventeenth century by an eccentric opponent of Newton's scientific ideas, and was stocked with books arguing against him. Not only that, but money was left to provide for the examination of the library stock once a century by someone unknown to the curator, to ensure that the contents would never change. Thus the Wyndham Library contains a large number of dull, outdated, but relatively rare and valuable books, mainly kept in a specially built two-storey tall bookcase, the "Wyndham Case".

Problems begin when a student is discovered lying dead in the locked library, surrounded by a pool of blood. Imogen Quy, the college nurse, quickly becomes involved, and begins to investigate on her own account.

The Wyndham Case is an interesting and well constructed detective novel. It's only jarring note is the rather suspicious attitude the students have towards the police - I don't think that even in these days of the Guildford Four and the Steven Lawrence case it's an attitude that many ex-public school students would share.

Thursday, 25 February 1999

C.S. Forester: The General (1936)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 217

Forester's early novel is a succinctly told story of a fiction First World War general, Sir Herbert Curzon, from his days as a young officer in the Boer War to an ageing, bathchair-bound figure on Bournemouth Promenade.

Forester does not allow himself a great deal of space to develop his story, under two hundred pages in fact, so we are left with a fairly sketchy view of Curzon's life and character. His story concentrates on the Great War, and what he is mainly concerned to portray are the background and motivation of the men whose actions led to the death of millions.

Curzon is in no way a monster; the worst that can be said of him is that he is not terribly bright, that he's stubborn, unimaginative and conservative. These are in fact attributes which make him do rather well in the British Army of the 1900s, but they lead straight to the dreadful events of the War.

Our understanding of how generals like Curzon managed to act in the way they did is the major fascination of this book, and the way that Forester has written it keeps this aspect in mind in a fairly subtle kind of way. He is not out to depict the brutal horrors experienced by the front-line soldiers but to catalogue why and how men who were not evil made these things happen to them.

Antonia Fraser: Oxford Blood (1985)

Edition: Mandarin, 1991
Review number: 216

Jemima Shaw is an investigative TV journalist, who is the heroine of several crime novels by Antonia Fraser. The investigative reporter guise is an excellent one for an amateur detective, for it provides a plausible reason for her to get mixed up in mysterious goings on. However, Fraser avoids the problems that would follow from too much verisimilitude, for Jemima Shaw lacks the large number of researchers to be expected in the team around the star of a programme as important as the one she is supposedly making; she is thus rather more of a loner. (Her programme is, I think, rather like the BBC's Everyman, if slightly more tabloid.)

Two investigations are joined together by Jemima - avoiding the use of unlikely co-incidence on Fraser's part through this manipulation of the plot. An elderly lady in a hospice asks her to visit; a former midwife, she was present at the birth of Lord Saffron, heir to one of the richest inheritances in the country. But what she has to tell Jemima, as an act of contrition, is that she connived at the replacement of a baby which died soon after birth with another, adopted baby boy; Lord Saffron is not really who everyone supposes him to be.

The other is a programme idea which is pretty much forced upon Jemima by the chairman of Megalith Productions, which makes her series. This is to do a profile of rich, young aristocrats, with their golden lifestyle. Prompted by a half-remembered quotation from Cymbeline, he wants it to be called Golden Lads and Girls, ignoring the unpropitious next line about turning to ashes. The title is changed to Golden Kids when someone suggests the original idea may be open to a charge of sexism.

Jemima begins such a programme, deciding to investigate the other matter at the same time by centring it round Lord Saffron, currently an Oxford undergraduate. When his next-door neighbour in college is killed, her investigation takes on a more sombre tone.

Oxford Blood is an extremely well done detective novel, with convincing central characters.

Friday, 19 February 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Hand in Glove (1962)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 215

This is another Marsh novel which is very much in the rather unfortunate shadow of Agatha Christie. The cast of characters, upper class, Home Counties village dwellers, could come out of a number of Christie's novels, and there is not much of Marsh's personality in this book.

The plot itself is not particularly interesting; Mr Harold Carteret's dead body is found under a large, heavy pipe in a ditch being dug by workmen, following a party held by his ex-wife before and during which he quarreled with just about everyone in the village. Naturally, the question of who killed him is quickly and easily solved by Chief Inspector Alleyn.

The characters are very exaggerated. They include Pyke Period, incredibly camp - though no insinuations about his private life are made, this being 1959 and the crime novel, even then, an old-fashioned genre in the way it treated such things. He is not so unbelievable as the trio made up of Constance Cartell, an incredibly stupid middle-aged hearty spinster, her adopted niece Mary Ralston or "Moppet", and the young crook Leonard Leiss. He and Moppet together form an illustration of the thirties' idea of "a bad lot", male and female of the species. The two of them are very unpleasant, but this is matched by the unbelievable doting fondness of Constance for Moppet, her unwillingness to believe that she might ever have done something wrong.

For some reason, it is almost always the case, when Marsh uses an upper class background for her stories, that her cast consists of caricatures.

Nicholas Cook: Music, Imagination and Culture (1992)

Edition: Clarendon, 1992
Review number: 214

The focus of this work of musical aesthetics is on the difference between normal and musicological listening. (The latter is defined to mean listening with attention focused on particular aspects of the music, usually structural, rather than letting the music flow over you.) There is a third listening mode, with music as a sort of background hum, as muzak in a supermarket, but Cook does not consider this at length.

Part of the problem with any attempt to understand these types of listening is that the characteristics of normal listening are remarkably hard to determine: just to be told we are taking part in an experiment will change the level of attention that we pay to a piece of music played to us. This is possible to check by experiment, to some extent: Cook relates an experiment where music students were played parts of movements from works in sonata form, and were then asked to say at which point in the form they stopped. When they were not told in advance what they were to be asked, they only performed as well as they would have done if they had been guessing. Given a second try, they answered perfectly. Even though they knew in advance that they would be asked about the music, they had not taken in the structure until they knew the particular type of question they were going to be asked. (This refutes a commonly held view in musical philosophy, which basically says that the difference between the two types of listening considered here is to do with the musical education of the listener - you have to know how to listen properly to get the most out of music.)

All of this, while interesting, says more about how we listen when we're listening abnormally. In the end, this is a book which doesn't answer the questions it raises; instead, it clears away some of the standard, old fashioned ideas about how we listen to music. The field is open for new paradigms to be suggested.

Thursday, 18 February 1999

Frank Delaney: A Walk in the Dark Ages (1988)

Edition: Collins, 1988
Review number: 212

A Walk in the Dark Ages is based on an interesting idea: to follow in the footsteps of an imaginary seventh century pilgrim from the monastery of Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland, the very edge of Christendom, to Rome and then Constantinople, the centres of his faith. Frank Delaney set out to follow his putative footsteps as closely as would be possible by car - a journey on foot would still of course take months.

Now, it is reasonable to expect a Western monk to travel to Rome, though at that particular time (when the Irish church was losing its independence following the Synod of Whitby) there would be political reasons why an Irish monk would be less likely to do so. The continuation to Constantinople is perhaps more unusual, though the reason advanced by Delaney (curiosity to see Rome's political overlord) makes it possible. The specifics of the route chosen (following river valleys in the main) are plausible enough, but in between the two extremes of route choice Delaney's scheme is less so. Why travel via Iona, Lindisfarne and Canterbury? The obvious reason is not one which motivates a seventh century Irish monk, but is due to Delaney's desire to visit the best known British ecclesiastical sites of the period. It was an age when travel was extremely infrequent, so it is possible that you could explain the choice of route by assuming that the monk was carrying messages for the other monasteries, but such an assumption would assume that enough happened on Skellig Michael to be of interest elsewhere, and that there was a high enough degree of organisation to the monasteries. This was, after all, at a time when many Irish monasteries were just groups of hermits who happened to set up cells in the same place, without reference to each other or any higher authority. Delaney does however, not mention this possibility.

The rule that Delaney has set himself is not to mention events more than a century either side of the date at which his monk is supposed to have travelled. This is a rule which he finds it impossible to keep. The main reason for this is that little enough is known about the conditions of ordinary life, even monastic life, at the precise time in question that it is far easier to generalise. (The difficulties in describing this journey show that, though the term "Dark Ages" is deplored by historians for many reasons, the original motivation for the term, the lack of knowledge and sources, still holds true today.) Apart from that, few remains survive from the seventh century, making it difficult to get a picture of what places were like (particularly in those towns like York and Lincoln where ecclesiastical building continued throughout the Middle Ages). Of the places visited by Delaney, the best seventh century remains are at Ravenna and Skellig Michael itself, and even at these sites we have the most important architecture remaining rather than the houses of ordinary people that would have been a major part of the landscape, particularly at Ravenna. Even so, he finds himself unable to resist referring to interesting events falling outside his self-imposed limits. To explain the complexities of seventh century politics without referring back to the end of the Western Empire is difficult, particularly when you can expect most of your readership to know very little about it.

Even when he sticks to the period, Delaney finds it hard to resist dwelling on the more lurid parts of the history, such as Gregory of Tours' descriptions of the vendettas between the various branches of the Merovingian dynasty. These may be fun to read, but they don't give a very good picture of the normal life of the monks of the period.

A Walk in the Dark Ages, then, is based around an interesting idea, but one which is flawed in the execution. Given the difficulty of carrying it out, this is hardly surprising; and Delaney has certainly managed to write an entertaining book with it.

Frank Herbert: Chapterhouse Dune (1985)

Edition: New English Library, 1985
Chapterhouse Dune carries on almost immediately where Heretics of Dune left off. It is set almost entirely on Chapter House, the planet which houses the secret headquarters of the Bene Gesserit, who are being hunted to extinction by the Honoured Matres returning from the Scattering, the massive colonisation effort of humanity following the death of Emperor Leto. It is the last Dune novel written by Herbert before his death, though since then there have consistently been rumours of more Dune material which is still unpublished - and Chapterhouse Dune leaves several loose threads which could easily provide the basis for the saga to continue.

In fact, Chapterhouse Dune seems to be intended to imply that at least one further instalment was planned. It cannot be said to be 'climactic' and leaves a great deal unexplained. I would still say that the rest of the series is relatively disappointing compared to the first one, but this is really due to the fact that there is no apparent overall planning which would unify the series. The way that this novel points seems to show that Herbert had come up with a plan, of which Heretics of Dune and this novel form the start.

The main character in Chapterhouse Dune is Darwi Odrade, now the head (Mother Superior) of the Bene Gesserit. She is not terribly well differentiated from the other sisters, with the exception of three others who are rather far from the norm (Bellonda, irascible archivist; Sheeana, the former waif from Arrakis who can control the sandworms; and Murbella, the former Honoured Matre). The most interesting characters are, however, the Jewish rabbi and Rebecca, portrayed as survivors of a very ancient people with many centuries' experience in evading those who wish to destroy them. Rachel has made herself a "wild" Reverend Mother, so that she possesses the abilities of the Bene Gesserit; she now stores within her own consciousness the memories of a billion Bene Gesserit whose planet was destroyed by the Honoured Matres. The idea that the Jewish faith survived unchanged and underground for so many centuries is quite a fascinating one, and is one of the aspects of the book that I suspect would have been developed if the series had continued.

Tuesday, 16 February 1999

Dorothy Dunnett: Caprice and Rondo (1999)

Caprice and Rondo coverEdition: Michael Joseph, 1999
Review number: 211

The seventh Niccolo book starts as his various businesses are trying to recover from the revelation of his activities in Scotland and their probably effect on the country's economy, he himself being exiled from Western Europe on pain of having these activities made public. So he goes to Poland, where he embarks on a life of debauchery until the arrival of his old friend Julius, seeking to set up a business of his own there, distracts him. After he accidentally nearly kills Julius, Niccolo sets off on a journey of expiation, joining Julius' wife and the friar Ludovico de Bologna on his mission to stir up trouble for the Turks who pose such a threat to Christian Europe (during the second half of the fifteenth century).

The scenario is a fairly familiar one to those who have read earlier instalments in the series. Niccolo is gifted (to a positively unnatural degree), but flawed by a lack of moral purpose. He lives life as though he is playing a game in a rather self-indulgent way, very much for the moment regardless of the long-term consequences. Now that the long battle of the previous books is over, he is now fighting with himself to some extent, to overcome the consequences of his rather Pyrrhic victory.

Niccolo is remarkably like Dunnett's other major hero, Lymond. Both are immensely gifted (to an extent that they are difficult to believe in if you stop and think about it); both are willing to go outside the normal methods of living accepted by society; both have really difficult family backgrounds; both (particularly Niccolo) spend considerable time in parts of the world which form unusual settings for historical novels of their periods - Russia, Turkey, Africa. They are really one character rather than two, the main difference between the settings of the two series being that the Lymond novels are more romantic, the Niccolo ones more gritty.

Dorothy Dunnett owes a great debt to the works of Fernand Braudel dealing with the growth of commerce at the end of the medieval period; at some points, the Niccolo books read almost like a novelisation of some of his historical writing. This is a reasonable way to write a historical novel, to set characters (real and unreal - the series has an immense cast of both) walking through some of the most well known academic histories of the time. It also provides a way to test the historical theories, if the novelist is as good as Dunnett; if it seems wrong for your characters to act in a particular way, then the history shouldn't make them act that way.

One more criticism of this generally excellent novel (which doesn't apply to the other Niccolo books) is that Dunnett indulges in the rather pointless anachronism of the title of the novel and its parts which refer to pieces of music or plays (assuming that Circassian Circle is intended as a reference to The Caucasian Chalk Circle) hundreds of years later in date. I found this rather irritating, particularly as there seems to be no reason for it.

Michael Moorcock: The Rituals of Infinity (1966)

Edition: Arrow, 1979
Review number: 210

This novel is one of Moorcock's earliest, and shows him as a writer with talent but yet to reach his mature, distinctive style. He still wears his influences on his sleeve, so to speak. In some ways, to see the influences combine is one of the most interesting aspects of this novel, which in most other ways is no more than competent science fiction.

Any one of a large number of science fiction writers could have woven the plot. A small group of scientists have discovered that the earth is really one of a couple of dozen parallel worlds, mostly frozen at a particular stage of technological and social development. They then find out that there are small groups of terrorists setting out to destroy these worlds (which they label D-squads, D for destruction), murdering millions of people with advanced technology which destabilises reality until an unstoppable chain reaction takes over and pulls it apart totally. Doctor Faustaff, son of the man who discovered the alternates, leads the scientists in a campaign to prevent this and to discover the origins of the D-squads.

In doing so, they become aware of the existence of beings bringing new alternates into existence, and Faustaff ends up on one which has not yet been "activated"; the human beings who live there have to perform certain archetypal acts (such as enacting a ritual of human sacrifice) for this to happen. (This sort of idea is extremely typical of the sixties, when this story was written.)

Doctor Faustaff is a superhero in the mould of the characters in pulp space opera written by authors like E.E. "Doc" Smith; his abilities are too wide-ranging and far-reaching to be realistic, and this is another indication of Moorcock's immaturity when this novel was written.

The main influence on the novel, though, is J.G. Ballard (to whom it is dedicated). This is apparent in the dreamlike and abstract nature of the various alternate worlds, many of them damaged through the attempts of the D-squads to destroy them. They are left as surreal worlds of ice or crystal, without the changes being noticed by the inhabitants. (The descriptions of these worlds are among the best features of the novel.) The satirical intention which can often be attributed to Ballard's science fiction is not really present in The Rituals of Infinity; Moorcock's work usually has little to say about anything outside itself. The same imitation of the atmosphere without the intention can be seen in the hints of Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaus Lem in the novel.

These obvious influences were gradually integrated into Moorcock's own style, and in his later books they are not so obviously there. This process, in fact, only seems to take another three or four years; the first of Moorcock's Runestaff novels is already quite definitely in his mature style.

Monday, 15 February 1999

George Orwell: Animal Farm (1945)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 209

Both of George Orwell's most famous books are about the nature of totalitarianism. Animal Farm is much simpler than 1984, being a retelling of the history of the Russian Revolution in the fairy-tale form of a group of animals taking over a farm by revolution from the humans that formerly ran it.

The treatment is allegorical, with many individual animals representing real people (Marx, Stalin and Trotsky) or groups of people (honest workers, the vain bourgeoisie) or ideas (religion and the church). Orwell's novel is not just an allegory, in the way that (say) Piers Plowman is; having a single consistent plot and realistic characters (I mean realistic as characters; obviously talking animals are not naturalistic) makes it a more involving experience than a display of images would be. Orwell has dramatised a part of human history in the same way that Bunyan dramatised part of human spirituality in The Pilgrim's Progress; and it is no accident that Animal Farm and Bunyan's work are easily the best-known allegories in English literature.

The fairy tale elements are matched by a simple prose style, a straightforward piece of story-telling, which makes Orwell's points - totalitarianism is not to be trusted, the communist revolution changed virtually nothing - even more telling. The language combines with the use of talking animals to make the story read as though it were intended for children (hence the subtitle, A Fairytale, but the themes of the novel are certainly aimed at adults.

C.S. Forester: The Good Shepherd (1955)

Edition: Michael Joseph, 1955
Review number: 208

C.S. Forester's tale of the Battle of the Atlantic concentrates on the personality of one man, the captain of an American destroyer acting as a convoy escort towards the end of the war. Captain Krause - known as "the Kraut" by his men - has twenty years' naval experience but little combat experience compared to the other escorts because of the late entry of the U.S. into the war; his seniority means, though, that he is in overall command.

The pressure on the convoy is less than in the earlier years of the war (as detailed in Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea), but there is still plenty of drama. Forester concentrates on his central character, and his account has more heroism and less grinding unpleasantness than Monsarrat's. Reading it shortly after The Cruel Sea makes one acutely aware of the comparative shallowness of Forester's writing, though his aims are rather different from those of the later book. However, the lighter touch and the way Krause is presented makes The Good Shepherd read like wartime propaganda.

A comparison with Forester's Hornblower novels is perhaps rather fairer, but even so The Good Shepherd does not rank with the best of these, which are the novels on which Forester's future reputation will be based. Though Hornblower has some unusual quirks of character, these do not interfere with the reader's appreciation and belief in him; Krause is not so well conceived or realised and so jars rather more. (Hornblower's oddities, of course, tend to make him more twentieth century in his outlook than his real contemporaries; Krause is made less modern by his.) His devout Protestantism is of a type particularly old-fashioned today (and it is important enough to supply the metaphor from which the title is derived: as Jesus is for Krause, so Krause and his ship are good shepherds to the convoy). It is, however, the comparative triviality of this book which really makes it inferior to The Cruel Sea.

Thursday, 11 February 1999

Saul Bellow: Henderson the Rain King (1959)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1959
Review number: 206

Saul Bellow' famous novel is about a man who is a misfit. Henderson is a rich American, yet his behaviour still makes him unacceptable to society. He is a very large man physically, prone to rages and enthusiasms, who finds it difficult to know what constitutes an acceptable way to react to a stimulus. (His attempts to kill a cat accidentally left behind by some ex-tenants from a property he owns are an example of this.)

In what is basically an attempt to find himself, he travels to Africa, asking his guide to show him unusual, remote places and peoples. He meets two tribes, one of which he virtually destroys in an attempt to purify their main water supply of a plague of frogs which goes disastrously wrong. The major part of the book, though, is about the second tribe, where he befriends the king, Dahfu, and unknowingly becomes involved in a religious ritual to bring rain, the success of which leads to his acclamation as a Sungo, or Rain King. Dahfu enlists Henderson's help in his attempts to capture a particular lion alive - this lion is believed to contain the reincarnate spirit of the previous king, and Dahfu needs to capture it to make his hold on the throne secure. During the preparations for the lion hunt, Dahfu engages Henderson in philosophical conversation. This is what Bellow uses to work out and resolve Henderson's alienation, so these conversations are structurally the most important parts of the book.

Henderson the Rain King is a book which grows on the reader slowly. At the beginning, I found Henderson so much of a misfit that I couldn't really understand him; after he arrived in Africa, I began to realise what it was that drove him to act in such anti-social ways. As I did so, I found him less dislikeable; to understand all is to forgive all. The characterisation of Henderson and his development is what has made this book a classic of twentieth century literature.

Philippe Contamine: War in the Middle Ages (1980)

Translation: Michael Jones, 1984
Edition: Blackwell, 1984
Review number: 207

Philippe Contamine's survey is designed to cover a subject that for many other historians might almost as well not exist. There is a stereotyped view of medieval warfare which makes it seem hardly worthy of study: it is seen as lacking in strategic and tactical thinking, consisting of poorly armed peasants hacking at each other with agricultural implements while a ludicrous knightly caste engaged in empty charades of chivalric encounters covered in so much armour they could hardly move.

Like all stereotyped ideas, there are elements of truth and fiction in this view; at the very least, it should be remembered that the thousand year span of the Middle Ages is sufficiently long and Western Europe sufficiently vast and fragmented that few generalisations hold over the area or period as a whole. Contamine's aim is to produce a concise account of the main features of warfare in the Middle Ages, avoiding unwarranted generalisation.

The book is arranged in three parts, including a comprehensive (and lengthy) bibliography. The first part is a chronological survey from the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire to the advent of the first professional armies at the end of the fifteenth century. The second consists of various thematic essays, covering topics such as arms and armour, fortification, tactics and a history of the ideal of courage.

It is in the first part that the limitations imposed by the desire to write a short treatment of such a massive subject become apparent. At almost every turn, there is more that could be said. Even to list the major campaigns of the Middle Ages would take more space than Contamine has allowed himself - though of course his purpose is not to attempt anything so pointless but to show how warfare affected the political and economic situation and how warfare itself changed. Even with the concision attempted by Contamine, War in the Middle Ages is a long book.

The second part is the most interesting, particularly the sections dealing with the theoretical aspects of war, which are less well covered elsewhere. The chapter on courage, looking at how ideas of what should be praised as courage and its relationship to the other chivalric virtues attributed to knights, attempts something very different and unusual.

Wednesday, 10 February 1999

Ngaio Marsh: False Scent (1960)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 205

This is one of the most theatrical of all Marsh's novels, being both about the stage and also very stagy in its setting, mostly taking place in a few rooms like a stage play. Oddly, it is missing a theatrical feature common to most (if not all) of her other novels: there is no "Cast of Characters" at the beginning.

Mary Bellamy, for thirty years the leading lady of the London stage, is about to hold a magnificent party to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. Her temperament, never the most equable, has gradually become more and more difficult; during her birthday she quarrels in turn with her long-time second lead and dress designer (who have dared to accept an engagement to work elsewhere); her adopted son, Richard, who is also the author of the plays she appears in, because he has just written his best work (with no part for her in it), and because she is jealous of his attachment to his new girlfriend, who is to be the leading lady in this new play; her manager and director, who have agreed to put on Richard's new play; and her husband, who asked her not to wear a perfume he dislikes intensely, given to her as a birthday present. All these arguments come to a head with a ferocious tantrum during the party - and then she is found dead, rather gruesomely killed with a strong weed-killer put into the perfume spray.

The character of Mary Bellamy is repellent; the success of False Scent is the way that you sympathise strongly with the murderer and don't want them to be discovered. It is, however, one of Marsh's more trashy and melodramatic novels; but that doesn't stop it being fun to read.

Tuesday, 9 February 1999

Mary Napier: Forbidden Places (1981)

Edition: Collins, 1981
Review number: 204

At the start of Mary Napier's novel, you expect it to be just a standard political thriller about getting caught in a revolution - an Islamic fundamentalist, anti-Western one in a Gulf oil state. A large group of oil company employees, plus other Westerners, are taken out of the country at the last minute in an ancient Dakota. The real action begins hen this crash lands in Albania while making for Corfu. This is the Albania that existed while Enver Hoxha was still alive, a Stalinist regime when Stalinism was out of fashion, almost totally cut off from the rest of Europe, both East and West.

Forbidden Places is, then, a novel about Albania and, more specifically, the two passengers who are detained by the Albanian authorities. As Hoxha ages, various people in the Albanian government are looking forward to what will happen after his death, trying to set things up so that they will be in line as a possible successor. Part of these machinations involve a full survey of the mineral riches of Albania; though the country was known to have vast supplies of rare metals and ores virtually exhausted in other parts of the world, no survey had been made with modern equipment. So the presence on the plane of a mineral surveyor with a new portable surveying device (using ultrasonic pulses interpreted by a computer) was a valuable windfall. Part of the purpose of the survey would be to help determine the course of Albania's relations with the outside world, and the other detained passenger, a woman who had fled from East Germany to West Berlin in the seventies, is thought likely to be of use for negotiations with the Eastern bloc.

In many ways, though, the plot of Forbidden Places is not particularly important. Painting a portrait of Albania and the nature of the Albanian state in the early eighties are the main focal themes of the novel. Napier is particularly interested in the various different types of people - factory workers, senior politicians, Hoxha himself, security policemen, and the two foreigners' relationships with and reactions to them. It is a little difficult to tell if what she writes about Albanian society is based on anything more than supposition, given how closed Albania was; most of her characters are pretty much how you would expect people to be given their situation. In the end, it is the predictability of the characterisation which means that the novel doesn't rate above average in quality, despite its interest.

Frank Herbert: Heretics of Dune (1984)

Heretics of Dune coverEdition: New English Library, 1985
Review number: 203

Another few thousands of years have passed since the events of God Emperor of Dune; Emperor Leto is long gone, though a tiny part of his awareness lives in each of the great spice worms which have re-colonised Arrakis, turning it into desert once again. Freed by Leto's death, humankind has begun a massive expansion, colonising new planets in no-ships, devices incapable of being tracked by the prescient; they themselves, carrying genes from Siona, the final link in Leto's breeding plan for humanity, also invisible to these watchers. (One of his aims was to make it impossible for anyone to set up a tyranny over the whole human race again, by letting colonies be founded that would be impossible to trace.)

Of the various power groupings in what is now known as the human core when Leto died, only the Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilax still retain much power; each has continued to pursue their own agenda, through religious and psychological manipulation and biological engineering respectively. But they are now facing a massive challenge: people from the Scattering are beginning to return, having made new discoveries and developed new abilities.

The substance of the book is about organisations with an incredibly lengthy tradition (many thousands of years longer than any organisation in existence today) and a virtual monopoly of political power having to work out and implement changes to ensure survival in the face of a rapidly changing political and technological situation. This scenario is well developed, with a role for action as well as thought (though the action is sometimes used to cover up weaknesses in the plotting). If the scenario interests you, so will the book. If not, you will probably not get far into it without giving up.

Monday, 8 February 1999

Robin Hobb: Assassin's Quest (1997)

Assassin's Quest coverEdition: Voyager, 1997
Review number: 202

Why is it that publishers' blurbs always describe third volumes of trilogies as "triumphant"? The standard end of a fantasy trilogy is of course the triumph of good over evil, with the heroes and heroines going on to fairy-tale rewards (there is even a passage in David Eddings' Belgariad giving a justification of this ending in terms of the destiny ruling that fictional world rewarding those who have helped it).

There is a triumph of good over evil in Assassin's Quest, but it is far more ambiguous than is usual in a fantasy trilogy, in keeping with the generally dark tone of this series. This is often the case in the better fantasy series, right back to Lord of the Rings. The good are seen to be morally questionable, the bad capable of redemption or justified in their actions; the fairy-tale endings are either bitter or fail to materialise.

The book begins with the mind of the assassin Fitz being restored to his dead body from that of the wolf he was bonded to through the Wit. He sets out to kill the usurping king Regal in his palace at Tradeford, halfway across the country; Regal is responsible for the imprisonment and disfiguring torture that Fitz only escaped by his apparent death. But just when he has Regal almost in his grasp, his prince Verity calls to him from far off, beyond the Mountains; it is a call that uses the Skill they share to make it impossible to disobey, a command imprinted on his mind.

The word "triumphant" could perhaps only be applied to the standard of writing; Hobb does not abandon her bleak vision to cater to the standard selling points of the fantasy genre.

Friday, 5 February 1999

George Orwell: 1984 (1949)

Edition: Penguin, 1970

Though it is the interrogation from 1984 which is the most memorable part of the novel, though there are phrases which have become part of the culture of the English-speaking world ("Big Brother is Watching You", "doublethink", "Room 101"), Orwell's book is principally about the way in which a totalitarian regime can succeed, the way that human beings can become subjugated to other human beings.

The interrogation itself takes up only a small portion of the novel; it is the briefly told story of Winston's "cure"; as O'Brien tells him, they do not torture him out of pleasure in inflicting pain or because they have anything to gain from his confession, but because they want everyone to love Big Brother. That is why he must believe that he hallucinated the evidence proving that the Party lies, that two and two make five when O'Brien tells him so (and despite what he wrote in his diary before his arrest, that freedom ultimately means the freedom to say that two and two are four). But intellectual belief is not enough for O'Brien; it is the emotions the party needs to control. That is why the final sentence of the novel, simply, "He loved Big Brother", is so chilling. Orwell showed the triumph of the totalitarian state over the free will of the individual. All that is left to the reader is the rather empty comfort of the thought that it couldn't happen here.

Thursday, 4 February 1999

Nicholas Monsarrat: The Cruel Sea (1951)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 200

The Cruel Sea is one of the classic novels of the Second World War. It is the story of the Battle of the Atlantic, the struggle between the German U-boats and the British convoys keeping Britain supplied - and in the war. Not only did the two sides have each other to fight, but the Atlantic itself was always ready to claim another victim.

Monsarrat picks two men - Ericson, a regular navy officer from before the war, and Lockhart, a volunteer former journalist - and follows their service together from 1939 to 1945, first on the corvette Compass Rose and then the frigate Saltash. Their story is one of physical and psychological endurance; the horrors of the war in the Atlantic from the position of the British naval convoy escorts and their impact on the men who were not killed is Monsarrat's theme.

Like all books about the horrors of war, The Cruel Sea makes me wonder whether any cause is worth the suffering it causes; this question is one which Monsarrat's characters would certainly answer in the affirmative (at least, most of the time). In some ways, this makes the anti-war impact of the novel even stronger.

There is a tendency in popular fiction to view the Second World War as a kind of game, the world of The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape, of Secret Army and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Cruel Sea brings home something of what it was really like to those who bore the worst of it, the grinding and soul-destroying war of attrition, in a campaign where "Boy's Own" style adventures were hardly imaginable, let alone appropriate.

The Cruel Sea is a traumatic read, particularly the middle section when the tide of the war seemed about to overwhelm the convoys. There is a different kind of heroism being portrayed from the norm in thrillers, a bleak kind that accepts hardship and danger not just for the fun of it (because there is no fun in the particular hardship involved), not for egotism, but to save others from hardship and danger.

Wednesday, 3 February 1999

Marcel Proust: The Guermantes Way (1921)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, 1981
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 199

In the third volume of Remembrance of Things Past, the subject changes. From boyhood in Swann's Way, through adolescent lovesickness in Within A Budding Grove, Proust's narrator now emerges into Parisian society. The Guermantes are one of the oldest noble families in France, and he gradually becomes involved in their circle. (The title of this part also balances that of the first one, in that the two walks taken by the family in the narrator's childhood would either follow Swann's Way, past his house, or the Guermantes' way, past one of their estates.)

The society setting makes it easier to see in translation an aspect of Proust which is there in the original (apparently) - the humour. He has an essentially cynical view of society, seeing it generally populated by fools and bores with titles, the gifted merely tolerated on its fringes. Stupid opinions are applauded when they come from the mouth of the Princesse de Parme, a member of the former royal family; indeed, the opinions of others change as soon as she speaks. It is a case of who you know - and who knows your family - rather than who you are which brings success in the society portrayed in The Guermantes Way. Proust exploits both the stupid and the witty to produce humorous effects, while the whole text is really a denunciation of the basis of high society - snobbery.

The main topic of conversation, which has divided French society, is the Dreyfus affair. It is set at a time when the innocence of Dreyfus was yet to be established; some believed in him, others did not. The whole question was shot through with the varying degrees of anti-Semitism of the people involved. (One position recorded by Proust was that even if innocent he should be left to rot in prison because of the trouble he had caused.)

This serious issue (serious because it highlighted a strong but normally hidden vein of anti-Semitism in the French establishment) is used to make the world of upper-class society seem even more superficial and shallow. And that is, in the end, the main theme of The Guermantes Way - it is an exposé of the superficiality and shallowness of society.