Friday, 29 October 1999

John Horgan: The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (1997)

Edition: Little, Brown, & Co.
Review number: 376

John Horgan originally set out to write a book of profiles of the most eminent scientists of the late twentieth century, based on interviews he had carried out as a journalist for Scientific American. But he became fascinated by a theme he perceived in these interviews, the question of whether we might have almost reached the end of what science can discover about the universe.

The first thing he has to do is to define the various ways in which science might end, to establish criteria against which the ideas scientists have about science can be measured, and it is rather unfortunate that this is the least clear section of the book. (This is really because Horgan does not separate this out and state it in an orderly fashion, in one place.)

There may be theoretical limits on what can be known, a physical equivalent of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. The problem with this is that attempts to apply this mathematical result to science are never very convincing, as Horgan points out. He goes on to argue for this point of view in certain branches of science, where the major theories discussed are not empirically testable. This is clearly the case in historical fields of study, such as cosmology and evolutionary biology, where we cannot prove that any particular theories of the origins of the universe and of life are wholly correct, because these were one off events (as far as we know) in the distant past. All we can do is see if the theories we have come up with match up with what we see around us now (the microwave background and the distribution of matter, the fossil record and Earth's ecosystems).

There may be limitations affecting science in general, if a final "theory of everything" is discovered. Then there would be no more fundamental revolutions to come in science; it would only be a matter of filling in the details. This is the attitude that nineteenth century scientists are accused of holding, though (again as Horgan points out) historical investigations have tended to disprove specific allegations (Kelvin's supposed speech in which he said that all that there was left to do was to discover physical constants to more decimal places; the patent office official who resigned because nothing was left to be discovered). There is of course the possibility that a revolutionary new discovery will be made, a new theory will be proposed, but even today, Horgan says, the evidence is against it. There has been a dearth of revolutionary ideas since the sixties; most of theoretical science since then has continued steady development of those of the first half of the century (relativity, quantum mechanics, subatomic structure, the synthesis of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolution) or from that decade (DNA, the standard model, the Big Bang). Theories currently touted as the next revolution (such as superstrings and various inflation scenarios) contain ideas that may be inherently untestable. This means that we may be moving into an era of what Horgan calls "ironic science", a term borrowed by analogy from Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, an analysis of poetry in the seventies. Lacking new discoveries to make, scientists move away from traditional science to reinterpret older theories and to discuss metascience. In other words, science loses its independent existence and becomes part of philosophy once again.

The third reason that science may end is that we no longer have the power to invent deeper theories; science becomes beyond human cognitive abilities. There is, after all, no obvious reason why human beings should be able to grasp the universe of which they form part; in fact, the vastness of the universe by comparison with our minds makes it unlikely. The universe is a complex object; why should it be governed by a simple set of rules? Evidence for this point of view comes from the difficulty of grasping current ideas, increasing specialisation and the length of time needed for becoming a fully fledged researcher in a modern scientific discipline.

The fourth reason is more mundane: scientific research is becoming too expensive. Governments, always parsimonious towards pure research, have become even more so since the end of the Cold War. Projects like the Superconducting Super Collider have failed to receive funding because the cost is perceived to outweigh the benefits, and the propaganda value gained from big science projects is less (would the US fund a moon programme today with the same urgency as granted the Apollo project?). In fields like particle physics, bigger and bigger experiments are needed if more fundamental discoveries are to be made, and even then there is no guarantee that they will be made (much of the last twenty years has been spent just confirming the details of the standard model rather than advancing any further). And then applications are not at all obvious; we may not be able to do exciting new things as a result of these experiments, and without applications (results, so far as governments and corporations are concerned), no one is going to fund the research.

The first three reasons are interesting philosophical speculations, but it is the fourth that is in my opinion most likely to bring an end to the scientific search for meaning in the universe. The scientific establishment has naturally attacked Horgan's book, because it is negative about the future of science. Yet we live in a world where science is still to some extent seen as the universal panacea that will bring enlightenment and truth, and eliminate all evils (even though some of these evils, such as pollution, are consequences of earlier scientific 'advances'). In this environment, a negative voice is perhaps a good thing; nobody is attacking science strongly enough to destroy public confidence in it in the way that scientific blunders are doing (through food scares like the BSE crisis, for example). There is a tendency towards arrogance among successful scientists, and many could do with thinking a little harder about what they are doing.

It is this arrogance which comes over most strongly from Horgan's book; the profiles (which still form the bulk of the material) stay in the mind a lot better than the philosophical argument. Either Horgan doesn't like eminent scientists, or they are a uniformly unpleasant bunch of people. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between. Scientists are not benevolent, absent minded, white-haired men in white coats; to be successful in the field can require many of the same qualities as it does to be successful in, say, high finance. The way that people look up to scientists, viewing them as a race apart, can breed arrogance; specialism can lead to an obsession with hobby-horses and blind misunderstanding of other fields. On the other hand, a few interviews with people like this are hardly likely to give you high expectations about meetings with others. So the interviews make the book more interesting, but they do present a rather one-sided view of scientists as a group of people.

Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere (1996)

Edition: BBC Books, 1996
Review number: 375

The television series on which this novel is based was not greatly liked by critics; a little strange, for it was one of the more innocative pieces of TV science fiction/fantasy to be shown for a long time. Most SF on TV, from Star Trek onwards, is rather backward looking, reflecting ideas that were new and interesting in written works over a decade earlier. Neverwhere , on the other hand, starts from an interesting idea. Having a fantastic world which is around our real one but beyond our perception in some way is not a new basis for a fantasy novel - it is hinted at in parts of The Hobbit, for example - but to equate that fantastic world with the lives of the urban homeless is a bold stroke.

This background enables Gaiman to subtly shame the viewer/reader for the way that most in our society ignore the homeless; no one is more invisible than a beggar in the Strand. It also gives a gritty realism to London Below, to contrast with the rather fanciful personifications of tube stations found there (the angel, Islington; the earl who holds court on a train; the black friars).

However, this came over better in the original series, which was incredibly well designed. The book version seems rather thin on plot by comparison. Without the direct images from the screen, the suspension of disbelief becomes harder, and some parts of the story become a little too reminiscent of Gaiman's comic book background (the exaggerated violence of Croup and Vandemar, for instance).

Neverwhere is a worthwhile novel, but the TV version is better.

Thursday, 28 October 1999

Vera Mowry Roberts: The Nature of Theatre (1971)

Edition: Harper & Row, 1971
Review number: 374

This book, a description of the forms and development of drama, came out almost thirty years ago, and its age shows, especially in the chapters on cinema and television. Its analysis is very conventional, based around the ideas traditionally associated with Aristotle's Poetics.

Roberts is particularly keen to distance live theatre from cinema and television, partly because there are clear similarities but principally I suspect because she has a somewhat elitist agenda and wants to make the reader feel that theatre is "better" without explicitly saying so. All three are indeed dramatic arts, involving an interaction between actors and audience. It is the nature of that interaction which is different in each one (ignoring the existence of documentary films, news and other non-dramatic forms in television especially). In television and film, a performance is mediated through the screen, allowing the use of techniques such as multiple camera viewpoints and location shooting which cannot readily be utilised in theatre. The almost universal use of recorded material as opposed to live performance is another source of difference, as is the fact that the actor is performing to a host of machines and their operators rather than an audience; both these change the relationship of the actors to their work. The major difference between film and television is the intimacy achieved by the latter with small screens inside the home. In the theatre, the actors and the audience are physically present in the same space, each constantly reacting to the other. This produces a different kind of intimacy, though it makes impossible most of the commonplace effects of film and television.

Having put the relationship between actors and audience at the heart of the theatrical experience, Roberts spends most of the book discussing theatre from a different point of view, the analysis of playscripts. There are several reasons for this. Scripts are permanent, while performances are not. Verbal descriptions of performances can convey little, and even films of a performance cannot communicate all that is happening (which is why watching a video of a stage show taken through one stationary camera is not as satisfying as being present at the performance and seeing it from the same viewpoint). Scripts (together with performing spaces) constitute the raw material from which theatre is made - in almost every case. There is a vast body of criticism already in existence analysing theatre through scripts, from Aristotle onwards, some of which has in turn influenced the writing of plays through the ages. Yet, given where Roberts places the central aspect of the theatrical experience, such a description is rather unsatisfying. It would be interesting and unusual to read an analysis of what passes between actor and audience, though it would be much more difficult to write.

The vast amount and variety of drama means that in a book that attempts a holistic description of theatre the reader can probably find exceptions to almost every generalisation. The conservative nature of Roberts' book makes this even more likely. She doesn't talk about non-Western theatre traditions at all, and religious ritual, out of which Western theatre developed, is only mentioned in the historical survey. Nevertheless, it is an interesting summary within its limitations.

Wednesday, 27 October 1999

Iain Pears: The Last Judgement (1993)

Edition: Gollancz, 1993
Review number: 373

I presume that this is the third of Pears' Jonathan Argyll series. It is a little difficult to tell given the evidence presented with this edition, which is perhaps something Gollancz should have done rather better. (It's a hardback, likely to be bought by libraries, where readers cannot always see all the books by a particular author on a single visit.)

I would not have thought there were so many reasons to connect fine art with murder, but Pears has been consistently inventive throughout the series. The repeated characters are charming, well drawn and interesting, the mysteries nicely constructed, and the art world background adds a touch of glamour. Like most crime fiction series, the details of the puzzle are the only elements undergoing major change from one book to the next; the relationship between Jonathan and Flavia slowly develops. But I expect the series to provide consistent entertainment for some time before it starts to pall.

Michael Moorcock: The English Assassin (1972)

Edition: Fontana, 1988
Review number: 372

The third novel in the Jerry Cornelius tetralogy explores the series themes of dissolution and anarchy in a rather different way from the earlier books. Here, protagonist and storyline fragment as well as the background.

The novel starts with the discovery of a dead body in Merlin's Cave, beneath Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. The body belongs to Cornelius, but he doesn't stay dead long. Each section of the novel sees Jerry initiating a different apocalypse set in a different version of the Earth. Moorcock establishes each background quickly, in a manner clearly learned from the best science fiction short story writers. Recurring characters (from earlier novels) crop up again and again in slightly different guises, and Mrs Cornelius, Jerry's monstrous mother, takes a more central role than she did before. Self references (and external ones) abound; characters from other Moorcock novels, ideas from The Final Programme and A Cure for Cancer - particularly the idea of total destruction as a cure for the cancer eating away at society - reappear.

Realism is brought back by the use of real newspaper quotations about violent death, mainly of young children. This is an effective method of stopping the effect of each catastrophe being like Hollywood special effects - a spectacle which does not have any real consequences.

The English Assassin is one of Moorcock's best novels, admirably fulfilling its role as the penultimate volume in a series by never quite containing a satisfactory conclusion, always leaving the reader wanting a bit more.

Tuesday, 26 October 1999

Victor Canning: The Immortal Wound (1978)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 371

The Immortal Wound brings Canning's Arthurian trilogy to its conclusion. Unfortunately, the novel is no more satisfying than the earlier stories and the annoying little touches which I found so jarring continue - the poems, and the way that descriptions of characters' thoughts are continually interrupted by the exclamation "Aie!".

This novel tells the story of Arto's progression from young leader of a small war band to high king of Britain to his death, with length gaps. Much of the force of the legendary material is dissipated, the more Freudian touches (Arthur's unknowing incest with his sister, the symbols in the quest for the Holy Grail, the betrayal by Lancelot) being fairly ruthlessly suppressed. Only Guinevere's adultery is mentioned at all, and that is excused by her motivation: to produce an heir for Arto in defiance of a prophecy that he will "throw no seed".

The best of the three novels is the first, The Crimson Chalice, perhaps because it has least connnection to the well known legends.

A.A. Attanasio: The Perilous Order: Warriors of the Round Table (1999)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999
Review number: 370

The third of Attanasio's Arthur (Arthor in these novels) series tells the story of the first few years following the moment at which Merlin proclaimed him king, when he had just pulled the sword from the stone. It is the most difficult time of his reign, when he has to persuade the minor British kings to follow him, an untried teenager whose kinship to Uther is only attested by Merlin, against the Saxon invaders.

To bring about an alliance between these kings is Arthor's aim: this is the perilous order of the title, because of its fragility. But there is another reference in the legend, which Attanasio does not explicitly mention, to the idea that one of the seats at the Round Table is the Siege Perilous, in which to sit means death except to the pure knight destined to sit there.

A large part of the story focuses on the struggle between Merlin and Morgeu the Fey. This is Attanasio's treatment of one of the most powerful themes in the Arthurian legend, the incestuous relationship between Arthur and Morgeu before the former knows who either of them are. In the second book, Morgeu arranged for the child she bore to receive the reborn soul of her father Gorlois. (It is of course the mother Ygrane shared by the half-siblings.) This is to bring about revenge on Merlin, who she believes responsible for the death of Gorlois.

Merlin, knowing what the birth of Mordred will mean to Arthur, steals the soul of the baby, still in the womb. But things go wrong; the soul of Gorlois ends up in Merlin's body, and Merlin has to carry out an astral quest to recover his body.

The magical world is a particularly strong aspect of Attanasio's series, convincingly dovetailed with the mundane one inhabited by most of the characters most of the time. The contrast is heightened by the writing, with the magical beings coming across as more elemental than the humans. The strongest part of the novel is the powerful description of Cei, cast into hell by Morgeu, ending up in a decaying twentieth century inner city, meeting a disillusioned alcoholic Catholic priest.

Friday, 22 October 1999

Robert Walser: Running With the Devil - Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993)

Edition: Wesleyan University Press, 1993
Review number: 369

Heavy metal music is a strange phenomenon. Despite derision from rock critics and bitter emnity from the establishment, it became one of the most popular subcultures of the eighties, when it and rap changed mainstream popular music indelibly. Such a phenomenon is clearly a gift to cultural studies. Running With the Devil is a sympathetic examination of heavy metal, looking at its history, defining musical characteristics, examining its appeal to its fans and the claims of its detractors. Walser is well qualified to do this, being a classically trained musician who has been a guitarist in a heavy metal band, as well as a researcher in cultural studies.

He criticises preceding studies of metal on several grounds. Like many accounts of popular music, the more musicological ones have tended to concentrate on the lyrics, ignoring what most fans feel forms the major part of the songs (the musical content, which Walser feels is vital to the appeal of heavy metal). This is partly because in verbal descriptions it is easier to analyse words than music and partly because of the automatic assumption that there is nothing worth analysing in popular music. On the other hand, critical accounts that have concentrated on the cultural aspects of heavy metal have had distinctly flawes methodologies, frequently accepting the stereotypes of heavy metal without investigation. (An example of this is the assumption that fans of heavy metal are almost exclusively working class in background; Walser used questionnaires and conversations with fans to discover that in the late eighties at least this was not the case: fans' economic backgrounds followed the distribution of the US as a whole.)

Walser uses his own musical analysis to convincingly explain the large fan base built up by heavy metal. The music is about power and transcendence. This is not just because of the high volume. Effects like the guitar solo, where the virtuousity of the lead guitar overcomes all opposition, and the aggressive nature and delivery of the lyrics alsoe contribute. This is the reason why fans of heavy metal are in my experience as well as in Walser's far more gentle than the violent image frequently assigned to the music. Listening to heavy metal has such a cathartic effect that it is a calming rather than enraging influence. The empowerment provided by heavy metal explains why it appeals to so many, particularly teenaged boys; why the fans tend to be quite gregarious, seeking out other fans to form a strong subculture; why the right wing US establishment saw it as such a threat.

A fair proportion of the book is devoted to refutation of many of the claims made by critics of heavy metal, some of which are sufficiently ludicrous that it's a pity that they need to be contradicted. They are based on a stereotypical view of the genre, on selective quotation of lyrics - Walser gives a wonderful example of this: lines from Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast have been used to "prove" that Satanism is the hidden agenda of heavy metal, yet the next few lines express strong disapproval of the Satanic ritual described - and on misleading and invented statistics - the claim that "most" heavy metal songs are about Satanism is easily refuted just by counting song themes.

Running With the Devil is a fascinating examination of the heavy metal subculture. A little ironic touch is contained in the title: the difference between heavy metal culture and the academic culture for which the book is written is shown by the restoration of the final "g" to the first word of the title of Van Halen's song Runnin' With the Devil.

Thursday, 21 October 1999

Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince (1514)

Translation: George Bull, 1961
Edition: Penguin, 1977
Review number: 368

There are a few books whose fame is based more on a distorted picture of their contents than on those contents themselves. Examples include the abstraction of the "unities" from The Poetics, and, more recently, the relationship between the writings of Stanislavsky and the dogma of "method acting". The Prince has perhaps suffered more than these two from its reputation, for that reputation accuses Machiavelli of advising princes to act in a hardly honourable way. Machiavelli was so strongly disapproved of that he was frequently equated with the devil during the sixteenth century. This is thought to be the reason for the popularity of the name "Old Nick" in England at this time, for example, though it seems to pre-date Machiavelli in origin. He appears in various Elizabethan plays in this character, notably Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (under a punning version of his name, Make-Evil).

The reason for this disapproval was based around Machiavelli's abandonment of the ideal man of virtue for the man who wishes to succeed in the real world. He explicitly denies that he is writing about the idealised states beloved by ancient philosophers (Plato's Republic is probably the most famous); he is writing about things the way they are. "The gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation."

This is the seed on which Machiavelli's reputation as a demon was built. For it amounts to a rejection of the teachings of the Christian church, and of the chivalric ideals of the later Middle Ages. The church told men that God would protect and bring honour to the virtuous; chivalry that virtue was the duty of the true knight his burden being to accept what his conduct brought upon him. (I am using the male gender because the idea of a successful female ruler was alien to Western culture for many years to come; England's Elizabeth I succeeded by being as manlike as she could manage.) Such high standards were never maintained; many rulers went beyond Machiavelli's teachings in cynicism and opportunistic behaviour (Philip IV of France is a good example). Machiavelli openly states that this sort of thing is the way to behave in advice aimed at rulers; this is what is shocking about The Prince.

The reason that Machiavelli states this so openly is because of the underlying assumptions he makes. To him, the aims of a ruler are, first and foremost, to retain posession of a kingdom - The Prince deals only with monarchial forms of government - and secondly to enhance his own standing as a ruler. His advice about morality is derived from these ideas. This presupposition is in contrast to the earlier idea that the aims of the ruler should be to honour God, to set an example of obedience to the church, to act as the fount of chivalry for his people, and so on.

Having seen how Machiavelli breaks with the past, the question that follows is how relevant is is writing to the present day, almost five centuries later. The way that nations work and rulers relate to them was already changing in the early sixteenth century; in some ways, the type of states that Machiavelli was writing about already belonged in the past. He still retained unquestioned the idea that the principal function of the prince is to lead the nation in war. Virtually nothing that does not ultimately pertain to warfare is given any attention. But as the modern economic structure developed, this swiftly changed so that finance and trade came to be the dominant factors. Today, too, we in the West live in a culture in which government is far more intrusive into our everyday lives. Custom and tradition are less important and more easily manipulated (principally through the popular media).

But although Machiavelli's understanding of the function of a ruler is today out of date, and with it much of the detail of The Prince (for example, the need to become an excellent hunter to practise skills needed in fifteenth century warfare), his cynical and pragmatic view of life has not. Indeed, it is perhaps the dominant philosophy of our age and is the natural consequence of accepting the idea that we do not answer to any "higher power" for the actions we perform. The methodology adopted by Machiavelli could be applied to almost any situation: first, decide what is to count as success; then look at various ways in which it is possible to act in terms only of whether they will increase chances of success. The word "only" is important; Machiavelli would have us ignore the conventions of morality except to remember that they will influence the way that others think of us, which itself may be an element of the criteria for success.

Tuesday, 19 October 1999

Joseph Heller: Closing Time (1994)

Edition: Pocket Books, 1995
Review number: 367

Almost thirty five years after finally finding a publisher for Catch 22, Heller wrote a sequel. Through this period, every book he has produced has suffered from comparison with his first novel. He has never managed to combine the elements of farce and tragedy so well as was made possible by his theme of helplessness in the face of official stupidity.

Many elements from Catch 22 are present, transformed, in Closing Time. In Pianosa, the characters were terrified of being killed in the war. Back in the States fifty years later, they are terrified of dying of cancer. Sudden death from illness replaces sudden death from warfare as the driving force in the background. This is a fear which it is easier for most readers today to identify with, I suspect.

Using these characters from the past makes Closing Time an unusual novel in at least one respect. Few novels have all the main characters in their sixties and seventies; adolescence is probably the most common age for a protagonist.

There is a different emphasis, too, in the attitude towards official stupidity and duplicity. The anger of Catch 22 is replaced with resignation. "This is how the world is, and nothing we can do will change it" is a viewpoint more appropriate for the seventy year old. There is less energy in Closing Time; it does not grab you in the same way that Catch 22 does.

One result of this is that you read three quarters of the book feeling that it is not as good as Catch 22. Then Heller suddenly pulls out the rug from under your feet, and its then a rollercoaster ride to the end. You are too gripped to distance yourself from the book, even just far enough to consider its quality. But, after finishing it, I was not convinced that it was up to Catch 22's standard. The tragic is not so tragic - the death or nearness to death of a seventy year old is difficult to make so affecting as that of the same character at twenty - and the comic is not so comic - this is the lack of energy again. Perhaps the best thing Heller has written since Catch 22 (though I have an affection for God Knows, because I like the idea behind it), Closing Time is not quite its equal.

Dorothy Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh: Thrones, Dominations (1998)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998
Review number: 366

I would normally avoid sequels to stories by dead authors like the plague; they are frequently written in a way which shows the new writer too lacking in imagination to have ideas of their own, and involve implausible plots when they attempt to continue a story which was concluded by the author (not leaving loose ends easily unravelled). There are exceptions. Peter Tremayne's Raffles stories are one, George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels another - though they are off at a tangent from rather than being straight continuations of Tom Brown's Schooldays. There are several reasons for expecting this novel to be another exception: it was started by Dorothy Sayers herself, fills in a gap in her series rather than continuing it, and is completed by an author who has a good reputation in her own right (and one whose work I like).

These expectations are to a large extent fulfilled. No indication is given as to the stage at which Thrones, Dominations was left by Sayers, or what information there was as to her plans for the remainder of the story. (She abandoned the novel to work on the translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, also uncompleted at her death.) The novel itself is about the early months of Peter and Harriet's marriage, following on from Busman's Honeymoon, and in structure and style it is a close relation of that novel.

In both novels, the first half is concerned with the relationship between Peter and Harriet and the way that those around them react to it. (The difference between their positions in society would have been far more important in the late thirties than now.) These chapters in both books contain extensive quotations from the diary of Peter's mother, the dowager Duchess of Denver. Then, in the second half, we have a mystery, less difficult here than in most of Sayers' own books.

The quality of the job that Walsh has done is shown by the fact that she has produced a novel in which it is virtually impossible to detect her hand at all. It is perhaps more similar to Busman's Honeymoon than I suspect that Sayers herself would have left it, the prose is perhaps a little more smooth, and the puzzle not so dependent on complex mechanical details (like the radio in Busman's Honeymoon, the haemophilia in Have His Carcase, for example). The strong characters of Peter and Harriet are as central as ever - the hero worship of Lord Peter maybe toned down a bit, perhaps to better suit modern readers - and are just as convincingly portrayed. The flattering expectation of literary knowledge in the reader is still present, though restricted to English more than in the novels by Sayers alone.

I would be interested to know what relationship this finished product bears to the material left by Sayers, but the very least that can be said is that Walsh has produced an excellent and convincing Lord Peter novel.

Leslie Charteris: Alias the Saint (1931)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton
Review number: 365

Like so many of the Saint series, Alias the Saint contains three disconnected stories of the length Charteris found most pleasant to write. The book is from the early period when he was churning out the stories at an incredible speed, particularly given their quality. In this collection, we have the story in which Simon Templar first uses his favourite alias of Sebastian Tombs (chosen to annoy Chief Inspector Teal), a locked room mystery, and a complex plot revolving around a kidnapped (beautiful, female) chemist rescued by Templar.

The first story is the best, having a lot of humour and a twist. The middle one gets a bit bogged down, and I found the last one a little far-fetched. But there's still more in the Saint of the thirties than in most other thrillers of any decade, even when the stories are not Charteris' best.

Monday, 18 October 1999

Steven Saylor: Roman Blood (1990)

Edition: Robinson
Review number: 362

The third I have read (but the first in sequence) of Saylor's Roman detective stories about Gordianus the Finder gets him involved in one of the most famous trials in history. It's famous because it made the name of Cicero, whose speech from the trial still survives.

The murder victim, Sextus Roscius the elder, is a wealthy farmer who has retired to Rome to enjoy himself while his son (with the same name) runs the farm, its profits funding the old man's taste for the high life. The two men have never liked each other very much, and when the father is murdered in a back street - on his way to a brothel - during a visit by the son to Rome, the latter is suspected to be a parricide. This particular crime carried an extremely unpleasant penalty under Roman law (a most painful execution), and so the trial immediately assumed immense public interest, and so was likely to enhance Cicero's career if a successful defence was made.

Saylor has looked carefully at Cicero's speech - the prosecution speech does not survive, and has to be inferred from the rebuttal of points from it made by Cicero - and by reading between the lines has constructed an interesting mystery novel. (Cicero's speech aims to prove the innocence of his client, rather than to identify the guilty party.) This makes Roman Blood take a place in the top rank of historical crime novels.

Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 364

Unusually for a novel which has a schoolteacher as its principal character, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is not really about growing up. It is about being a non-conformist in a world which values conformity above almost everything else. It is about the influence we have on each other, and how some people try to live their lives vicariously through others.

Miss Brodie is a primary teacher in an Edinburgh girls' school in the thirties. She has unusual ideas about education, and isn't really interested in teaching her pupils the usual subjects. Instead, she tells stories which awaken an interest in the world, and she does not censor them to make them more "suitable" for children.

When Miss Brodie decides she is entering her "prime", she picks out a group of girls who seem to respond particularly well to her stories. These are the girls through whom she tries to live vicariously; her stories often now focusing on excelling as an individual. She talks a lot about vocation, how to recognise the one task in life for which she believes each person is destined. While the Brodie set, as they become known, pass on through the school, the keeps up contact with them, wanting to know what they are doing down to the smallest detail, yet always slightly distorting it to fit their lives into the mould she wants them to live in. (The most obvious example of this is her attempt to manipulate one of them, at seventeen, to have an affair with the art teacher with whom Miss Brodie herself refused to have an affair a few years earlier.)

The rest of the teachers at the school are constantly trying to find an excuse to get rid of Miss Brodie. This is a battle in which the Brodie set play an important part, for the headmistress is keen to get from them the information which will lead to her downfall, as they know more about Miss Brodie than any of her colleagues. In the end, one of them does betray her, and this not only loses her her job but brings her prime to an end. When the adult girls from the Brodie set return to Edinburgh after the war to visit, they have tea with Miss Brodie and find that she is reduced to obsessively taking up the question of which one of them it was who betrayed her.

The clever part of Spark's writing in her best known novel is the way that she makes it clear that Miss Brodie is not as wonderful a teacher as either she or the Brodie set think the is, even in her prime. Different from those around her, an inspiration to those she taught, a lifelong influence probably not (though that is what she clearly hoped to be). It is difficult to be a teacher without seeking to influence your pupils, but in many ways Miss Brodie was an influence which at its best was unsettling, bringing questioning of the accepted certainties around the girls, at its worst unhealthy. (This last is made most clear by the admiration for Hitler and Mussolini she sought to pass on to the girls.)

The action a teacher, or indeed any adult, should never perform is to attempt to live vicariously through children. Parents are most likely to do this - pressure to take up opportunities denied to or turned down by the previous generation - and it can be extremely harmful.

Ben Jonson: The Devil is an Ass (1616)

Edition: Nick Hern Books
Review number: 363

Other than Volpone, I find Jonson's plays rather difficult to read, and I have never had the opportunity to see one on the stage. The main reason for both of these observations is to do with the large size of the cast and the lack of any large starring parts. (Shakespeare often also has large numbers of characters, but he generally writes at least one very dominant part which makes famous actors want to perform the play and also makes it easier to read - it's hard to forget who Hamlet is.)

The large casts make Jonson's plays confusing on the page, particularly when they have convoluted plots. On the stage they must be easier to follow. The Devil is an Ass is a satirical version of the Faust legend, as dramatised by Marlowe. A minor demon named Pug begs time off from his work in hell to go to Earth and cause mischief. The problem is that he is not very bright nor imaginative, and he finds that society is already far more sinful and wicked than anything he can conceive of. His tricks all go wrong - he gets employment as a servant, and seeks to cause trouble between his master and his wife by arranging for her to have an affair and him to find out; but she assumes that her jealous husband is trying to lay a trap for her.

I suspect that this, and the other parts of the plot, could be made great fun on stage, but I found that I had to concentrate so hard to follow what was going on that the play didn't grip me very strongly.

Friday, 15 October 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Light Thickens (1982)

Edition: Fontana, 1982
Review number: 361
It is perhaps fitting that Ngaio Marsh's last novel should have a theatrical setting, given the importance of the theatre in her life. (Symmetrically, her first novel, Enter a Murderer, is also set in a theatre during a production of Macbeth.) It does use the hoary old device of the acted death of a character turning out to be a real killing of the actor, one which she herself has used at least three times, but the story is well enough written to make light of that defect.

From the story point of view, we meet an old acquaintance again: Peregrine Jay, the author and director from Death at the Dolphin. He's now putting on a production of Macbeth at the Dolphin, things beginning to go wrong when someone starts to play practical jokes designed to remind everyone of the play's superstitious reputation as an unlucky one. For the final scene, the death of Macbeth at the hands of Macduff, a really spectacular fight sequence is devised. The man in charge of this, Gaston Sears, is a little bit strange on the subject of weapons; he brings a genuine claidheamh mor along (treating anyone who will listen to a lecture on why it shouldn't be known as a claymore - the anglicised spelling), and this is used to decapitate the actor playing Macbeth.

Events proceed smoothly to Alleyn's unmasking of the villain. Light Thickens is not as dated as some of Marsh's attempts to appear contemporary. This fault, combined with her general inability to write convincing children, is apparent here mainly in some appalling schoolboy slang - I can't imagine anyone in the early eighties describing something as "sonky-polly-lobby".

Through her long career, Marsh wrote some of the best of the classic crime novels. Her fifty novels are decidedly uneven, and some would perhaps be better forgotten. Her main faults included repetition of plot ideas; the desire to re-use characters meaning that coincidence was used too frequently (what proportion of people ever get involved in one murder investigation, let alone three or four?); her attempts to be contemporary from the sixties onwards, which merely made her look old fashioned; her inability to portray the working class or children. She also had many virtues - obviously, or else she couldn't have become such a well beloved and long lasting writer. She wrote strong characters, Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy in particular taking a place in readers' affections; her plots are usually moderately complex puzzles and are generally fairer on the reader than those of Agatha Christie; her love for New Zealand and for acting brings a particular enthusiasm for the novels which involve these elements.

George MacDonald Fraser: Mr American (1980)

Edition: Pan
Review number: 360

In what was not quite a break from his Flashman series, Fraser wrote this novel about an American, Mark Franklin, who struck it rich and travelled to England, to the village his family had emigrated from many years previously. In 1909, despite being both American and nouveau riche, Franklin is able to move in the highest circles of English society, helped by amusing Edward VII at a chance meeting.

As in the Flashman books, Fraser includes a lot of historical detail in his narrative, including tales of the Wild Bunch, the Curragh mutiny, the music hall, the behaviour of suffragettes at the Royal Academy exhibition. And Flashman, at ninety still chasing pretty girls, makes several appearances.

The main reason that Mr American is not as good as the Flashman series is because of the blandness of the main character. I suspect that the realisation of this is the motivation for bringing Flashman into the story, to spice it up a bit. The Flashman novels contain almost all of Fraser's best work (I have an affection for Pyrates as well) and should probably be stuck to except by real fans.

Thursday, 14 October 1999

John Barnes: Orbital Resonance (1991)

Edition: Gollancz Millennium, 1998
Review number: 358

The front cover of this edition bears an endorsement from Orson Scott Card comparing Barnes to Robert Heinlein. On the basis of earlier Barnes novels, the John Brunner-like Mother of Storms and the brutal Kaleidoscope Century, this may seem rather a strange comparison to make. Yet Orbital Resonance is distinctly reminiscent of the best of Heinlein's books for teenagers, a tradition to which Card's own Ender's Game perhaps also belongs. (Orbital Resonance has a low-gravity game which is quite similar to that battle room in Ender's Game.

Set on a space station designed to aid the colonisation of Mars, the background to Orbital Resonance is a ruined Earth in only a few decades time. The satellite is the last bastion of the civilisation of mankind; there a group of gifted children are being conditioned to become the new elite of the human race. The novel takes the form of the journal of one of these children, Melpomene Murray, as they approach adulthood and a crisis in the form of a new arrival from Earth in their class.

Barnes also makes points about the way that the West lives today, by looking at how the relatively affluent children on the satellite see the lives of those remaining on Earth's surface, a place of continual famine and desperate want. Part of the school curriculum is a subject intended to enhance the children's understanding of and empathy for what is going on, yet they are virtually unaffected by the video footage, merely making such callous and stupid comments as "why don't they just grow more food?". They may be gifted, but they find it exceptionally difficult to understand any point of view different from the culture conditioned on them; another example is the complete incomprehension the narrator has as to why her word processor might possibly query the use of the word "clitoris" as "audience-inappropriate" (after all, girls on Earth must have them too).

Like Heinlein, Barnes manages to write convincingly as a bright teenage girl. (As a man in his thirties, I may not be the best judge of this, but he at least convinced me.) The sentimentality of Heinlein is absent, and Melpomene's crushing discovery of the years of manipulation at the hands of her parents is strongly handled.

Arthur Hassall: The Balance of Power 1715-1789 (1896)

Edition: Rivingtons
Review number: 359

Part of one of the earliest European histories aimed at the general reader, The Balance of Power summarises the complex politics of the eighteenth century. Now over a century old, it is hardly surprising that the view of history that is offered now seems distinctly old fashioned, but that is far outweighed by the book's man excellent qualities. In fact, it seems much less out of date than many history books written this century, because of the excellent writing.

There can be no doubt that Hassall had a wonderful gift for summarising complicated political manoeuvrings. Balance of Power is still worth reading if you want a straightforward account of this period, more dominated by the personalities of its rulers than almost any other. If, however, you want an account of the development of industrialisation in Europe or the social changes leading to American independence, the French revolution, imperialism or the capitalist system, you would be advised to seek out a more modern history.

Wednesday, 13 October 1999

Dave Duncan: Past Imperative (1995)

Edition: Corgi, 1997
Review number: 357

Duncan's novel, first of a trilogy, impressed me deeply despite its rather shaky beginning. He uses two ideas which are rather unusual in the fantasy genre. The first of these is to vary the standard plot in which a normal Earth person is catapulted into a magical world of which he understands nothing by making the events in the two worlds closely connected - the First World War (the Great War) and a contest between the gods of Nextdoor (the Great Game). The events leading up to the war on Earth are encouraged (or discouraged) by agents from Nextdoor, who hope to use (or prevent the use of) magical power generated by the deaths of so many young men to influence the Great Game.

The fact that the magical system devised by Duncan works in this way leads us to his second idea. Through sacrifice and pain, magical power (which he calls mana) is generated, for the being on whose behalf the suffering is incurred. The gods require mana to continue to exert power, and so the religious system of Nextdoor is unpleasant and tyrannical. Conventional fantasy generally uses sanitised versions of the Nordic pantheon, and religion usually plays little part except possibly to differentiate good and bad (as in all David Eddings' fantasy series). Society is generally fairly secularised, probably it is easier to write about something closer to the author's own background. (One interesting minor point of Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane is the culture shock when Thomas Covenant discovers that the inhabitants of the Land are not talking conventionally or metaphorically when they speak of Earthpower.) Religion on Nextdoor is a large part of life, is distinctly arbitrary and definitely unpleasant, based mainly on ideas from some of the more repugnant rituals of Earthly religions - self-mutilation, temple prostitution, Thuggee style murder and so on.

I sometimes feel as though I write a large number of these pieces talking about the treatment of religion in fantasy novels. This is not, I hope, because I am obsessive on the subject. Religion is an extremely important force in human history, playing a vital role in people's psychological make-up. For the first time in history, we are living in a society which is to a large extent secular. Religious activity is marginalised if not actively mocked, and even the most devout usually live their lives split in two between their daily routine and religious observations. (There are cultures in which this would have seemed incredibly alien; to the ancient Israelite a distinction between spiritual and secular was hardly imaginable.) With the decline of (principally Christian) mainstream religion, a large void has opened up in the lives of many people, to be filled with all kinds of new things: an interest in the esoteric, a religious devotion to secular objects - money, the workplace, pop music for example. The popularity of fantasy is possibly an aspect of this, with magic and religion put into a context where they become permissible. To take religion seriously in fantasy, then, is frequently an indication that the writer has something to say and that they are not just trying to cash in on the popularity of the genre.

The standard of the writing of Past Imperative is not quite up to that of the ideas. The characterisation is reasonable, and includes a major character with a disability, unusual in a fantasy novel. The book begins in a lacklustre way, and the invention of names is distinctly poor and unconvincing (areas of Nextdoor are called things like Narshvale and Sussvale, not particularly evocative or interesting). The combination of the map and name pronunciation chart was almost enough to make me give up before starting the novel. Almost the only aspect of the treatment of language that I liked was the way that the hero, transferring himself from Earth, knew none of the language, and almost inevitably cast himself in the role of "holy fool" required by the plot.

Tuesday, 12 October 1999

James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

Edition: Penguin, 1991
Review number: 356

The issue of race has been so powerful in twentieth century American society, it is hardly surprising that so much of the best literature it has produced relates to the subject. Go Tell It on the Mountain is a rather unusual novel with the theme, since it is about the role of Christianity in the experience of black men and women in the first half of the century, and only indirectly about the relationship between black and white.

The relationship between races is implicitly part of this story, since (from a non-religious point of view) it explains much of the attraction of Christianity, particularly the hard-line evangelical forms of Pentecostalism, to these people. Promise of a better world to come, justice done towards the oppressors, status for the true believer: a potent set of ideas for a society working its way out of slavery.

Go Tell It on the Mountain tells the story of a young man, Johnny Grimes, growing up in Harlem in a poor family who are one of the mainstays of a tiny local Pentecostal church. Those who know him expect that, one day, he will become a great pastor, yet in his teens he is beginning to think of escape. This is partly because of the attractions of the world, but also partly because of the hatred his abusive father Joshua, a church deacon, inspires in him.

The novel concentrates on the climactic night in John's spiritual life, a night at the church where he must make the decision whether to accept Jesus as Lord or reject him forever. His parents and his aunt are there, with other church members, and the book basically tells us the thoughts of each as they pray, to give us an insight into the events that shaped the Grimes family.

Go Tell It on the Mountain, then, brings together two major themes of twentieth century literature, the history of American race relations, and the role of religion, and takes an unusual angle toward both. Much more positive about Christianity than most recent novels, it even takes the truth of charismatic theology almost for granted. It is concerned with real, imperfect people, not "saints" (in the generally understood rather than theological sense), but people with a real and living faith. Written at a time when the attitude of the white intelligentsia was particularly anti-religious, it is not surprising that Baldwin has been described as the writer they loved to hate.

Monday, 11 October 1999

John D. Barrow & Frank J. Tipler: The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1996
Review number: 355

It may seem that there is not very much to be said about the anthropic principle, that it is an interesting sideline in the philosophy of science which may have a minor role in explaining why the universe is the way it is. To Barrow and Tipler, it has formed the peg around which a seven hundred page book can be written, one which takes the reader on a survey of cosmology, theology, the future of the human race, and the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. It is a fascinating book, occasionally rather on the mathematical side for a popular science book.

The anthropic principle, as discussed by Barrow and Tipler, comes in three varieties, with a "Final" form as well as the more familiar "Weak" and "Strong" versions. The Weak Anthropic Principle is hardly contentious. It merely says that the existence of carbon based life is an observed fact, so that the universe must have properties which make such life a possibility. Barrow and Tipler make as strong a case as is possible for the explanatory power of this idea, but I still feel that it is limited. It may explain, for example, that the universe has to be large even if the Earth is the only planet containing life (to have expanded for long enough for galaxies to form and supernovae to occur to create some of the elements we require), but not why the universe happens to be this large. All the principle states is that if it weren't, we wouldn't be here to observe the fact. However, most of what can be inferred from it doesn't actually require the presence of life; the example I've referred to could be deduced just as logically from the existence of uranium. (Life is a sufficiently complex phenomenon that it requires a large collection of such pre-conditions, so the anthropic principle is a convenient summary of many similar explanations.) It also involves the deduction of causes from effects, and that is something which requires a great deal of care, to say the least.

The stronger versions of the anthropic principle are far more contentious, and more closely related to the design arguments used to "prove" the existence of God from the appearance of design in the universe. (These arguments are summarised in an excellent historical overview which forms the first chapter of the book.) The standard strong principle says that life must evolve at some point in the history of the universe, rather than that it just has evolved. As Barrow and Tipler point out, this means that life can be said to be part of the "purpose" of the universe in some way, and this doesn't make much sense without the deduction that life must at some point have a measurable effect on the whole cosmos. This point leads into a lengthy discussion of just what this effect could possibly be, which is fascinating but extremely speculative. The first point made is that it is very difficult to imagine any way in which a species confined to a single star system could affect the universe. So interstellar travel is a necessary development, and that requires intelligence. This is the motivation behind the authors' formulation of what they call the Final Anthropic Principle, which states that intelligence must at some point arise and never die out.

The discussion of how interstellar (and, indeed, intergalactic) travel could be developed is fascinating and seems convincingly feasible. Their ideas are based on the theoretical von Neumann machine, which is basically a machine which can create replicas of itself. A von Neumann machine could be made a space probe that seeks out a star likely to have the resources to enable replication (using a strategy based on analysis of the Polynesian colonisation of the Pacific islands), and then copies itself. Given sufficient processing power to be considered intelligent and a sufficient density of planetary systems - considered likely in current astronomy - this would amount to colonisation of the galaxy by intelligent systems over a period of several thousand years.

In fact, these arguments are sufficiently convincing that they are used to support the idea that there is no more advanced race of beings in the galaxy than humanity, because we should now have been contacted by probes of this sort. (Even if they did not want to directly contact other forms of life, the action of such a probe on reaching the solar system would probably be detectable.) The idea that we are alone in the galaxy, however, contradicts the equally convincing "Copernican Principle", that there should not be anything particularly special about the Earth - we are just a small planet orbiting a typical star in a typical part of the galaxy. The only way to reconcile this with the idea that a society only slightly more advanced than we are would have contacted us - and Barrow and Tipler estimate that von Neumann probes will be economically viable in a few centuries at most - is to argue that some catastrophe almost always destroys a civilisation between two and six hundred years after the Industrial Revolution (or its equivalent). This pessimism may seem justified in a society facing possible nuclear devastation, social disintegration and ecological disaster.

The authors do not dwell on this. It is really a long - and fascinating - digression. The main thread of the argument is rejoined with a discussion of the end of the universe in which some form of intelligent life has basically colonised the whole, and is trying to circumvent in some way the 'heat death' predicted by thermodynamics. This part is necessarily very speculative (cosmologists do not even agree on the broad details of how the universe will end), but certainly represents just about the only feasible way in which life could affect the whole universe.

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle is an extremely complex book, and is exactly the kind of science book I enjoy, finding a peg to discuss a large number of fascinating ideas that turn out to be connected despite appearances. The earlier chapters, about the Weak Anthropic Principle, are solid expositions of material which I've seen before (and which will probably be familiar to most people with an interest in the philosophy of science). The later writing, about the stronger principles, contains much less well-known science. I suspect that these versions of the anthropic principle are probably wishful thinking, the outcome of the desire to feel that we are significant. This doesn't invalidate much of the science contained in the book, which is an excellent one.

Friday, 8 October 1999

Michael Moorcock: A Cure for Cancer (1971)

Edition: Fontana, 1988
Review number: 354

In Moorcock's second Jerry Cornelius book, lots of things have changed. Cornelius himself, for one thing; now virtually a mirror image of his former self in personality and appearance (unusually dark with white hair instead of unusually pale with black hair, far more passive, with opposite tastes - he now only drinks Pernod instead of being allergic to it, for example). The passivity is the only change which makes much difference to the feeling of the book, and it is not a huge change: Jerry was always ready to let things happen to him rather than trying to influence what was going on.

It is the background which has changed most, as though we have moved into a parallel universe to that of The Final Programme. This unsettling change to a more decrepit version of the world, Europe in almost total anarchy occupied by American troops led by officers straight out of Dr Strangelove, is the precursor of the further changes to come. The introduction of the Derry and Toms roof garden also introduces an important location.

Perhaps the least accomplished of the four novel sequence, A Cure for Cancer is principally an indication that not everything in The Final Programme is what it seems.

Thursday, 7 October 1999

Ivan Turgenev: On the Eve (1860)

Translation: Gilbert Gardiner, 1951
Edition: Penguin, 1973
Review number: 353

Turgenev's short novel is based around a memoir written by a friend, who suggested he might like to turn it into a novel. It tells the stories of a small group of upper class teenagers in Russia on the eve of the outbreak of the Crimean War. Elena comes from a home troubled by the infidelities of her father, and this has hardly given her a taste for any kind of marriage that might be arranged by her parents. She is loved by one of a small group of friends, Pavel Shubin, who introduces her to the Bulgarian revolutionary Dimitry Insarov. (Bulgaria was at this time ruled by Turkey, whose oppression of the Slavs in its domains was one of the major causes of the Crimean War.) Shubin thinks Insarov an interesting person, but not one likely to arouse the passions of a woman, and he is very upset when he becomes a favoured rival for Elena's love.

It is Insarov's patriotic devotion which makes him a romantic figure to Elena; no matter how passionate he may be about her, his duty to his country must come first, and this is what fascinates her. It is a total contrast to the meaningless lives of the upper class Russians she sees around her.

Though Turgenev's writing pointed the way to the psychological dramas of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, his work is far more mild and serene in the effect it has on the reader. This is especially true of On the Eve, despite the potential for melodrama in its plot. The title is in fact most apt, for it gives the impression of great things eagerly awaited around the corner, and this is the emotion that Turgenev seeks to produce in his readers throughout the novel.

Leslie Charteris: Featuring the Saint (1931)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969
Review number: 352

Reverting to his favourite length of Saint story after two full-length novels, Charteris published these extremely typical novelettes in his fourth volume from the Saint saga. This includes one of my favourite of all Saint stories, The Wonderful War, in which Simon Templar brings off a South American revolution with the help of two friends.

The other two stories are set in England, now safe once again for Templar following his royal pardon. In these, the Saint aims to rid the world of two men who prey upon others: a drug dealer, and a man who has made his fortune after murdering his partner. The serious side of the preceding stories is still apparent; the Saint's activities lack something of the facetiousness that came to characterise them later.

Wednesday, 6 October 1999

Victor Canning: The Circle of the Gods (1977)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 351

The second of Canning's Arthurian trilogy tells the story of Arthur's growing up, until his twenties and early fame as a war leader. The traditional story is pretty much ignored, with only the odd character whose name suggests the standard legends. (Instead of Lancelot, for example, we have a character named Lancelo.)

The simplicity of the plot of The Circle of the Gods - the title comes from the name used by Canning for Stonehenge - brings improvements with it over the first book of the trilogy. Canning is clearly more comfortable with a fairly straightforward description of action, and the descent into bad poetry which marred The Crimson Chalice is mercifully absent.

Nevertheless, characters remain two-dimensional and the fifth century background incidental.

Robert Penn Warren: All the King's Men (1946)

Edition: Secker & Warburg, 1974
Review number: 350

Warren's story of fictional Southern US State Governor "Boss" Willie Stark is inspired by the story of real Louisiana governor Huey Long. His interest is not in the political manoeuvrings which gained such men their position, but in their character and personality, and how they affected those around them.

Stark's personality is viewed through the eyes of his close friend Jack Burden. Burden comes from one of the old, rich families of the state, and his working for Stark is viewed as a betrayal by his mother's friends and neighbours - for Stark has brought about the downfall of the clique of families which has controlled the state for many years. Burden believes in much of what Stark is doing, and admires him; yet he doesn't offer him the hero worship of some of his less critical followers.

Stark's aim is to remove - or at least reduce - the corruption with which the state is run, to benefit those who live in it. He and his nominees control the state no less definitely than their predecessors, but he wants to improve the lives of others not fill his own pockets. That is not to say that his methods are entirely ethical, and he himself says that no man has entirely clean hands. Burden is both drawn to and unwilling to compare Stark to Burden's ancestor Cass Mastern, who carried on an unsuccessful campaign against slavery. Stark is far more successful, but suffers a great cost to himself, his family and his friends.

Tuesday, 5 October 1999

Marcel Proust: Time Regained (1927)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, 1981
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 349

The final volume of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past has as its themes ageing, illness and death; an appropriate (if gloomy) way to bring to an end his narrator's exploration of his life. Like other volumes published after Proust's death, Time Regained shows signs of a missing final revision, chiefly in minor inconsistencies; but it is an amazing achievement for all that, containing some immensely powerful writing.

The events of Time Regained - and events is perhaps rather too strong a word - take place some time following those of Albertine Disparu. After the First World War, the narrator's health, delicate since he was a child, fails, and he spends years a recluse in a sanatorium. (The precise nature of his illness is not specified.) Following a recovery, he returns to Paris, and attends a fashionable society party. This party - after a lengthy piece of introspective philosophy - is described in one of the most powerful pieces of prose in the entire series of novels. It at first seems to the narrator that he has stumbled in a bizarre fancy dress event in which everyone is to come as an old man or woman; but gradually he realises that their appearance is due to their real ageing, compared with his memory of them from twenty years previously.

In fact, the untrustworthiness and impermanence of memory is one of the ways in which the themes of this last novel are linked to Proust's central concerns of perception and memory. As well as containing people he once knew well but now hardly recognised by the narrator, their relationships have changed and new people have arrived on the scene. Important but now dead people are hardly remembered; on the assumption that things have always been as they are now, the past is adapted to fit the present.

All this means that Remembrance of Things Past ends on a sombre note; but it has chronicled the whole life of the narrator, and life ends with death.

John Dickson Carr: Till Death Us Do Part (1944)

Edition: Penguin, 1967
Review number: 348

Carr's novel has a title that is today primarily reminiscent of Johnny Speight's series about Alf Garnet in the seventies; both of course refer back to the marriage service. The title is not really closely related to the events in the novel; in fact, there are no married couples in the story at all.

Till Death Us Do Part is a typical Carr mystery. He wrote many subtle variations on the locked room theme - body found in room locked on the inside, so that how the murder was committed is as interesting as who did it. While each one is well crafted and intriguing, they are best read in small quantities. The puzzles generally involve ingenious plots, misdirection, people not who they appear to be, and the incisive intellect of Gideon Fell sorting it all out to unmask the killer.

Monday, 4 October 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Photo Finish (1980)

Edition: Collins, 1980
Review number: 347

Right at the end of her career, Marsh took her detective Alleyn back to her beloved New Zealand, scene of some of his earlier successes. It was almost forty years after her previous novel set outside Europe. Photo Finish also features a flamboyant, larger than life stage personality, the soprano Isabella Sommita. Emotionally exhausted after attacks on her by a photographer naming himself Strix, who pursued her across the world, surprising her in unflattering poses to destroy her image, she goes to the New Zealand home of her multimillionaire lover. From there she summons both Alleyn and his wife - Alleyn to investigate the identity of Strix, Troy to paint "La Sommita". Alleyn accepts because he is interested in suspicions that some of Sommita's entourage are involved in the drug trade, Troy because she is fascinated by the singer's face and the challenge of conveying a personality whose vanity and temper are almost as famous as her voice.

At the house, in an inaccessible part of the South Island, the party is cut off by bad weather. Then her maid finds Isabella Sommita, dead, with Strix's latest photo attached to her body by the dagger through her heart.

This, Marsh's last but one novel, is more like an Agatha Christie than most of her books. It has a strong puzzle at its centre, to which character distinctly takes a second place. This is the case to the extent that I found it difficult to remember which of the characters were which in some cases. The background is well done; the beauty of the South Island is portrayed convincingly but is never obtrusive.

In quite a large proportion of Marsh's novels - I should think around ten of the fifty or so - Troy is innocently involved in one of her husband's cases. I have mentioned this before, but I bring it up again since it is mentioned in Photo Finish. Alleyn remarks how much he hates Troy being involved in his investigations, and says that this has happened four times. Perhaps through a career of over fifty years Marsh had a less solid memory of her novels than I do at the moment, having read them through in order in two years, but I was immediately able to think of more examples than this.

Anthony Powell: The Valley of Bones (1964)

Edition: Penguin, 1968
Review number: 346

Wartime army service is the background to book seven of A Dance to the Music of Time. It is not active service, Nick Jenkins being sent to a unit which remains in Northern Ireland until the fall of Paris and the end of the book. This is a complete break from his normal life in London's literary circles, and so the characters from earlier in the series are almost totally absent. Even Nick's wife Isobel only appears on a couple of pages.

The Valley of Bones is a fairly unsurprising chronicle of the absurdity of wartime life in the army; there must be dozens of such books, including Spike Milligan's far more outrageous war memoirs. The more novels I read from A Dance to the Music of Time, the less I feel I understand the way that fifties and sixties critics raved about the series. They are certainly enjoyable to read, competently written, but lack (to my mind) significance.

Friday, 1 October 1999

George MacDonald Fraser: Flashman and the Dragon (1985)

Edition: Fontana, 1985
Review number: 344

The eighth Flashman novel follows on from the sixth, and deals with the complex situation in China in 1860. In the middle of a civil war which still amounts to one of the most bloodthirsty campaigns in military history (the Taiping Rebellion - only the Second World War had more casualties), the British undertook a major military expedition to escort Lord Elgin to Beijing (then known as Pekin) in safety, there to force the Chinese Emperor to ratify the treaty which ended the Opium Wars. The damage done to Manchu superiority by this expedition, involving thousands of British and French soldiers and leading to much Chinese Imperial loss of face, ranks as one of the most important events in human history, for it sowed the seeds of the eventual downfall of the empire.

The Flashman series is written around the premise that he must be part of every important military action of the mid-nineteenth century and meet every important person. It is inconceivable, therefore, for him not to turn up at this expedition. The way Fraser gets him involved this time is that he accepts a job that he expects will be a doddle, escorting a cargo of opium into China. (His skill with languages means that he can deal with the Chinese authorities.) But he discovers that his cargo is actually far more dangerous - guns being run to supply the Taiping.

Since the previous instalment of the Flashman papers, as Fraser calls them, he seems a rather mellower character. As time goes on, he gets more comfortable to read about, less likely to do something particularly unpleasant. Most of the unpleasantness is concentrated in the barbaric (to European eyes) disregard for death and suffering - and in fact positive joy in causing them - which characterised the Chinese military (both Imperial and Taiping) at this time.

Michael Jecks: The Abbot's Gibbet (1988)

Edition: Headline
Review number: 345

There is little to say about The Abbot's Gibbet, fifth in Jecks' series of medieval West Country mysteries, that could not also be said about most of its predecessors. A competent puzzle, in this case plotted with a useful device to avoid the trap of overuse of coincidence (a fair to bring together the protagonists, usually scattered across Western Europe), it has strong characters and an excellent background. I have not yet tired of the series, so for me it is not yet time to want Jecks to move on to something new.