Tuesday, 30 April 2002

David Wishart: Nero (1996)

Edition: Sceptre, 1996 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1085

The first few Roman emperors have a real enduring fascination, having among them some of the most over-the-top characters in history. Writers from Suetonius and Tacitus onwards (and most famously in the last few decades Robert Graves) have recounted the scandals which surround their extravagances. Nero is of course one of the most notorious, scandals associated with him including murder, incest and arson (if he is indeed to blame for the burning of Rome), while on the other hand being artistic, passionate about music and the theatre.

One of the best known figures of Nero's reign was his advisor on taste, Petronius. When his favourites fell from grace, Nero had a tendency to suggest that they kill themselves, and this happened to Petronius two years before Nero's own death. The method he used (as described by Tacitus) was to gradually drain his blood by slitting his wrists and having slaves tighten and loosen tourniquets, while entertaining his friends and dictating an account of Nero's crimes, to be sent to the Emperor. The conceit of this historical novel is that it is that account, a no holds barred, behind the scenes description of the life of one of history's monsters, by a member of his intimate circle.

This intriguing idea is realised as a distinctly camp first person narrative, as Petronius catlogues being unwillingly drawn into the dangerous imperial circle. Most of the scandal is based on the accounts in surviving histories, Wishart's major additions being conferences between those close to Nero seeking ways to curb the world's most powerful man and diminish the unfortunate influences (as they see it) of Agrippina, Poppaea, and Tigellinus. Another addition is contact with Saint Paul.

Even before reading this novel, it had occurred to me to wonder how the Roman Empire survived the excesses of this period and being under an absolute ruler with no interest in government. Wishart doesn't answer this question, any more than Suetonius and Tacitus do. Instead, he gives an entertaining picture of Nero, with excellent writing using rapid changes of mood as a lighthearted humorous scene is given a sudden chill by Nero's unpredictable behaviour. The most chilling moment of all comes with Petronius' attendance at Nero's famous party lit by torches made of the bodies of burning Christians. Nero is perhaps best read in small doses, as the style given to Petronius quickly ceases to be amusing and begins to irritate. Since this is part of Wishart's characterisation of his narrator, it is not a reflection on the quality of the writing.

Wishart also makes a kind of psychological diagnosis of Nero through the observations of Petronius, seeing him as someone whose problem was an inability to separate life and drama. This is seen to manifest itself in a taste for theatrical display (as in the famous story, included by Wishart but, I think, considered likely to be apocryphal, of the fiddling during the burning of Rome), in an inability to understand the human cost of his actions particularly when ordering a killing and in a tendency to edit the past in his mind and believe that this version was what had actually happened. He comes across as a larger than life, "luvvy"-ish actor whose tragedy was his relationship with his mother and her ability to elevate him to the Imperial throne to which he was not at all suited. It seems convincing enough when reading the novel, though it is clearly extrapolation; there is definitely not enough detail in the historical records for a psychiatric diagnosis.

Wednesday, 17 April 2002

John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids (1951)

Edition: Penguin, 1954 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1084

"When a day you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere." The opening sentence of John Wyndham's famous novel is one of the best in the whole science fiction genre. It is, unfortunately, one which is getting out of date, as Sunday becomes more and more a day just like any other. In the days when shops were closed in England on Sundays, when there was nothing to do except to go to church, then a Sunday would be marked by comparative silence, a lack of traffic noise in particular. The reason that the sentence is so good is that it establishes not just the situation - clearly some catastrophe has taken place overnight which has affected somewhere (possibly just post-) Christian, and it is a disaster survived by the narrator - but the tone of the novel.

By the 1950s, the nuclear holocaust was the catastrophe which would have been on people's minds, but Wyndham chose a different one as the trigger for his novel. This has accidentally proved a bonus, as any depiction of a nuclear war would now almost certainly seem much more out of date, given the limited public knowledge about the atom bomb at the time. (I've seen a film of the time which seriously suggested that sunglasses were sufficient protection from a blast only a few kilometres away.) The nature of the catastrophe has more modern resonances: the blinding lights from space are thought by characters to be a weapon rather like an aggressive version of Star Wars, and the triffids themselves are products of modern farming technology and laboratory experiments with unforeseen consequences.

In other ways, however, The Day of the Triffids now seems rather old fashioned. The first important science fiction novel about surviving a catastrophe is of course H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, and there are several similarities between the two novels. The most striking of these is the restriction of both stories' geography to southern England. Wells completely ignores the rest of the world (all the cylinders containing the invading Martians land in Surrey), but Wyndham has a running motif where people expect rescuers to arrive imminently from America. (This is actually rather likely, since the light show seems to have had to be at night, and so was not at the same instant across the globe, and it is inconceivable that warning would not spread faster than the rotation of the earth, even if only as radio transmissions ceased.)

A less superficial similarity is to do with the nature of their style, as first person narratives by upper middle class Englishmen under exceptional circumstances. They are also both much more about surviving the catastrophe, as opposed to rebuilding afterwards (as is the subject of, say, Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Wyndham is better at involving the reader in what is happening in his novel; Day of the Triffids is far more vivid than War of the Worlds. Wells writes in a very journalistic manner; few of his novels pay much attention to character. Wyndham is much more interested in this than in the description of events, which marked him out from other science fiction writers of the time, particularly Americans, whose major concern was the sense of wonder at scientific and technological marvels. This is probably the reason that Wyndham has remained a science fiction author popular with those who are not fans of the genre.

Tuesday, 16 April 2002

Carl E. Linderholm: Mathematics Made Difficult (1971)

Edition: Mosby-Wolfe, 1971 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1083

When I was a mathematics graduate student, this book was passed around the department, delighting those of us working in pure mathematics. Basically, it takes apart the sort of mathematical ideas generally taken for granted, and shows that they are much more complicated than it first seems if you want to make them rigorous. (There is some cheating when ideas from category theory are introduced and make the explanations even more abstract than they need to be.)

There is, of course, a subject for a serious book in this; I can think of two without any effort (Rudy Rucker's Infinity and the Mind and the far older Bertrand Russell's Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy). Mathematics Made Difficult is not in any sense a book which aims to educate and inform its readers. Much of the mathematics is presented in a way which would probably not make a great deal of sense to anyone not already familiar with it (a course in the foundations of number theory is really the minimum needed to understand most of it, and one in category theory for the detail). What is enjoyable about Mathematics Made Difficult is that it is very funny, full of parodies of school textbook problems and bad puns. Mathematics is not easy to turn into humour, and this book is one of the very small number of consistently successful examples.

Saturday, 13 April 2002

Gene Wolfe: There Are Doors (1988)

Edition: Gollancz, 1989 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1982

Most of Wolfe's novels have a setting which seems to be fantasy rather than traditional science fiction; There Are Doors, a homage to Philip K. Dick, is an exception. When his lover Lara disappears, Mr Green (the central character is never given a first name) sets out to find her, but is soon caught up in a series of parallel universes accessed through "doors". His adventures include incarceration in a mental hospital and being on the run from the police, but also bizarre scenes where a telephone conversation he has just concluded is played out again on a TV show or confrontations happen which are suddenly revealed to be on a stage in front of an audience.

The novel also contains references to Kafka, with the head of the secret police named Klamm, after a sinister character in The Castle, and a mysterious K, the letter used by Kafka for his central (and personal) character in The Trial and in the original version of The Castle. The feeling of the novel is that events are part of some kind of conspiracy aimed at Mr Green, one which is akin to those typical of the work of both Dick and Kafka.

There Are Doors is quite loosely constructed; there are fairly lengthy sections in which nothing much happens. It also seems to be lacking a point; the revelation of what is going on could easily be made far more interesting (and it includes a fascinating science fiction idea which is left completely undeveloped, and which should make the cultures in the parallel universes much more different from reality than they are). For these reasons, which seem to be problems coming from Wolfe rather than by inheritance from Dick or Kafka, it is not to be numbered among Wolfe's best novels, even though it remains among his most interesting in terms of its ideas and references.

Thursday, 11 April 2002

Nikolai Gogol: Dead Souls (1842)

Translation: David Magarshack, 1961 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Penguin, 1961
Review number: 1081

Gogol's novel is better known because of its history than because of its content. Only part one and a few fragments of a draft of part two exist of the three planned; this is not in itself particularly unusual, but in fact Gogol completed the second and destroyed it, and died as the result of fasting to prepare himself for writing the third.

The story that remains in the first part was suggested to Gogol by Pushkin, as was his play The Government Inspector. The central character, the minor nobleman Chichikov, travels around a backward district of Russia buying up "dead souls". When serfdom was in existence in Russia (and it wasn't abolished until after Gogol's death), wealth was reckoned in souls, the number of serfs owned by an individual, and this also determined the amount of tax paid. Each census would reassess the number of souls owned by a landowner, and this figure would determine the level of tax they paid until the next one. Chichikov was buying the right to the names of the serfs who had died since the last census, just a liability to the owner since tax had to be paid but no work could be got out of them. It is quite a way into the novel before the purpose Chichikov has for these useless paper souls is revealed, but it is clear that it is going to be some kind of swindle. When the first part was submitted to the censors, they insisted that the title be changed, as they felt that Dead Souls sounded as though the novel was an attack on the church's doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

This kind of (to us bizarre) brush with the censor was routine for a nineteenth century Russian novelist, and was not the cause of the burning of part two. Gogol fell under the influence of a fanatically strict priest, who convinced him that the novel was sinful. This may have been a general prohibition on fiction, novels often being condemned as immoral, but it could also have been something specific to Dead Souls. After completion of the first part, Gogol decided that what he wanted to write about was the redemption of Chichikov, and he convinced himself that his work would bring a transformation in Russian society. This could well have been seen by a zealot as something prejudicial to the interests of the church. The information I have doesn't go into details of the reasons for the priest's opposition to the work; all that is certain about it is that it led to the eventual burning of the manuscript, after considerable (and understandable) agonising by Gogol. All that remains are fragments and a description of parts of the work in the journal of a friend to whom it had been read. It is clear that the destruction deprived us of some remarkable writing, especially given the quality and breadth of the first part, which Gogol considered to contain his best work. He must have been very sure that the arguments of the priest were right, for them to overcome his emotional attachment to what he had created. Indeed, the attachment was abnormally strong in this particular case: the fasting which brought Gogol's death only weeks after the destruction was motivated by the feeling that he could only really write about the reformation of Chechikov if he reformed himself too.

Gogol's writing is considerably more satirical than that of the other major Russian writers of the nineteenth century, and what is left of Dead Souls consists of a series of portraits making fun of provincial Russia, particularly of the stupidity of the small scale landowner. (And, in fact, I've now realised that I missed part of the point - these nobles are the truly "dead souls" in the novel.) These are written in a knowing way, with Gogol continually addressing a reader (as when, for example, he ridicules the fashionable habit of using a great deal of French by first describing the habit as admirable and then saying that it has no place in a Russian novel so that such phrases will be translated into that language). It is a novel full of humour, not at all a quality normally associated with Russian fiction, and would be a classic even without the strange history associated with it.

Wednesday, 10 April 2002

Robert A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers (1959)

Edition: New English Library, 1970 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1081

A perennial debate among SF fans as long as I have known any is about the nature of Heinlein's politics and the extent to which his ideas are feasible. The two books which provide the main fuel for the debate are Stranger in a Strange Land and this one, which can be seen as portraying opposite poles of his ideas. Many of the arguments are based on a fairly superficial reading of the novels, and on the mistaken assumption that the views attributed by a writer to his characters and used to form their society must be his own (George Orwell being one of the more obvious counter-examples in speculative fiction). I have to say that the hippie culture themes in Stranger are closer to my own politics than the militarism of Starship Troopers, but it is at least a tribute to the immediacy of Heinlein's writing that these debates continue more than a decade after his death and more than thirty years since these two novels were published.

The background to Starship Troopers is of more interest than its plot, which merely follows Johnny Rico from high school into the MI (Mobile Infantry), dropped in armoured suits to assault positions on distant planets in a war with insect-like aliens. Heinlein spends quite a high proportion of the novel explaining the philosophy behind his future world, a regenerated civilization following the "Disorders" at the end of the twentieth century. This is partly because whatever background Heinlein uses, his novels almost always star contemporary (if not already old fashioned when he wrote them) Americans promoting a version of the American Dream, in this case glorifying the the boot camp system as experienced by the writer himself in the Second World War. So the characters could be drawn from any of his novels; it is the way that he sets up the background which is interesting.

The fundamental foundation of the society depicted in Starship Troopers is the idea that the only people who should be allowed to run things are the veterans, for they have demonstrated by volunteering that they are sufficiently committed to the survival of their society that they are willing to fight and die in its defence. While limits to the franchise seem likely to lead to a more committed electorate (compare the violent demonstrations accompanying nineteenth century British elections with today's voter apathy), they do tend towards preservation of a status quo which benefits an elite, and this can easily lead to corruption, unfairness and alienation of those who have no part in government. (Again, Britain provides examples in the nineteenth century Radical movement.) In Heinlein's world, there are compulsory high school classes in political philosophy, designed to uphold the regime (if more subtly than, say, the indoctrination of children in Communist Russia). It has also been the case that in the past most militarist states have tended to become increasingly aggressive, even when they are democratic in origin (Hitler won elections, for example). The causes and justification for the war which is being fought almost throughout Starship Troopers are not gone into in any detail by Heinlein. Perhaps they are irrelevant; but I would certainly not want to fight in a manifestly unjust war. In the end, the society depicted by Heinlein amounts to quite a good argument against its own philosophical foundations. The little that we see outside the military is basically fifties America with less personal freedom.

From the standpoint of the twenty-first century, it is easy to criticise Heinlein. It might be expected that race would play a part in a novel such as this, but there isn't even a mention of it. Rico's name perhaps hints at a Latin American background, so it may be that Heinlein is being a bit subtle here. On the other hand, Starship Troopers contains several examples of the patriarchal sexism which is common in his writing, something which is of course a reflection the age in which he grew up.

Notwithstanding the interest of the background, it is clear that Heinlein did not intend Starship Troopers to be a serious defense of a philosophical idea in the way that (say) Atlas Shrugged purports to be; it is there to give a war story more interest. (Both this and the science fiction paraphernalia are really irrelevant to the story, and are just added on to a tale which could easily be a Second World War novel.) Even so, I'm pretty sure that Heinlein didn't intend what he wrote here to be taken as seriously as it has been; it is a story for entertainment not persuasion.

Thursday, 4 April 2002

James White: Hospital Station (1962)

Edition: Del Rey, 1980
Review number: 1077

This is the earliest of White's long running Sector General series about a hospital in space and, though billed by Del Rey as a Sector General novel, it is in reality a collection of closely linked novelettes with a more distantly related prologue. This is set during the construction of the hospital, designed to serve as the principal medical research centre in galactic Sector Twelve, home to many alien races each with their own peculiarities, psychological as well as physiological. It is a particularly unlikely story, even by the standards of the series, as a massively intelligent member of the construction crew has to take care of a juvenile alien with no training and virtually no information - surely a big building site would have a better set of medical procedures.

More general problems are caused by the vast disparity between the alien races depicted by White. This surely makes it prohibitively difficult to train doctors to treat across species, and also makes the research benefit low, which means that the massively expensive hospital has little rationale. The different environments needed by the patients are not very sensibly constructed, which makes dramatic leakages of (say) chlorine into oxygen breather's wards a staple of the series, but would never get past even a cursory health and safety inspection. The hospital is in outer space - why not make the different environments self contained modules with no physical connection at all?

The rest of the stories feature Dr Conway, who would remain the central character of the whole series. He is really a latter day Dr Kildare, given to flashes of brilliance which he is hardly ever able to share with others, afraid that his revolutionary ideas which end up saving the day would be misunderstood by other, more senior medics. He is less interesting than O'Mara, who is the main character in the first story but is likeable enough.

The whole series is a light hospital drama set in space, and any fans of (say) ER who like science fiction should find much to enjoy in any of White's books. To general science fiction fans, the main interest is likely to be the details of the alien beings portrayed in the stories, which are more detailed and varied than would usually be the case. This particular edition of Hospital Station suffers from poor proof reading, a common but still annoying problem in genre fiction.

E.R. Eddison: Mistress of Mistresses (1935)

Edition: Gollancz, 2001
Review number: 1078

To read Tolkien and Eddison in close succession is to realise just how much the latter is the better writer. This is his second fantasy novel, loosely connected to the first and best known, The Worm Ouroboros, and beginning a trilogy ending with the unfinished The Mezentian Gate. Although the earlier novel is better known, this is the better one and Eddison's talent clearly developed in the nine years since the publication of The Worm Ouroboros.

When strong king Mezentius of the Three Kingdoms dies, his heir Styllis is a weak young man, unable to handle two particularly powerful subjects, his illegitimate brother Barganax and the sinister Honorius Parry. Styllis soon dies, poisoned, leaving a will guaranteed to sow further discord in the vagueness of the terms by which Parry is appointed guardian of his sister Antiope, now queen. The other major character is Parry's cousin, Lessingham, whose honour makes him someone that Barganax can trust as long as he can keep Parry from breaking the agreements he makes.

This plot is closely modelled on the themes from real medieval history, one of which is the continual rivalry between monarchs and their most eminent subjects. A regency presented lots of opportunities to the unscrupulous, as so much of the state consisted in the person of the ruler, and could be guaranteed to disturb the balance between these groups. This could even happen in England, one of the most stable states in Western Europe, as when John of Gaunt was guardian to Richard II. Most fantasy is based on Tolkien's ideas, which in turn come from the literature of the medieval period in which quests undertaken by individuals or small groups with a spiritual dimension are common; in using real life as his source, Eddison prefigures modern authors with an interest in politics, such as George R.R. Martin, though Martin's brutal setting from his Songs of Ice and Fire series is replaced with something more gentle, a dreamlike medieval world as seen through a pre-Raphaelite lens.

People often admire the descriptions in Tolkien's novels, but to me Eddison is superior in this as in many other aspects of his work. What he describes is not so definite, perhaps, but it is infinitely more poetic and suggestive. To me, this invitation to use my imagination is much more satisfying than merely acquiescing in that of the author. Eddison natually also scores in areas where Tolkien is weak: his characters are much less stereotyped, and he can portray interesting women; he introduces a sexuality which is truly erotic; and even includes a hint of homoeroticism.

There is a spiritual side to the stories too, which is more of the things not being the way they seem variety than the overt magic more common in fantasy. The way that this is done is rather reminiscent of George MacDonald, even though it lacks the Christian allegory of, say, Lilith.

Mistress of Mistresses should be more widely recognised as a classic of the genre, but for some reason it remains little known.