Friday, 31 October 2003

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2003
Review number: 1193

The fifth novel in this phenomenally successful series starts with a big dose of the theme which occurs in several of the others - Harry's feelings of abandonment and loneliness as he spends the summer holidays with the awful Dursleys. This particular year, he is especially cross about it, because the contact he does have with his schoolfiends consists of hints that something exciting is going on but they are unable to tell him what it is.

The tone of the seven hundred plus page novel is set by the early chapters, another similarity with the earlier Harry Potter stories. Harry spends the year angry (he is, after all, an adolescent), trying to deal with things he doesn't understand, and having people keep things from him. There is rather less of the straightforward problem solving or "derring do" than in the earlier books; the whole of The Order of the Phoenix is more sombre and generally less exciting and immediate.

With each new Harry Potter novel, anticipation and expectations have grown in intensity; with The Order of the Phoenix, the extra delay before its publication (a two year gap rather than a single one - though Rowling was at pains to point out that there was no plan to release a novel a year) made this even more the case than before. I was disappointed when I finally read the novel, but found it hard to decide whether it is truly poorer than its fellows, or if the weight of expectation was too much.

There are good points to The Order of the Phoenix. Harry's discovery that his father wasn't perfect is one; Harry and Ron's attempts to understand girls are amusing; the exploits of Fred and George continue to be enjoyable. New character Luna, strange daughter of the editor of a downmarket wizarding tabloid, is an asset. (The series as a whole is full of negative portrayals of the media, a reflection of Rowlings' feelings about her own treatment in the real world, presumably.)

There can be no denying that The Order of the Phoenix failed to live up to my expectations, at least. This is to some extent because of the way that anticipation was fuelled by the release of details from the plot, in particular that someone was going to die. Rowling rather unfairly plays with the knowledge, parading candidates for the role in front of the reader, and I found the part of the plot relating to this a disappointment. It would have worked much better to have the death of a major character as a surprise.

Overall, though, I did end up feeling that The Order of the Phoenix isn't up to the standard set by the earlier novels. If felt too long, and the writing seemed tired, particularly when repeating elements which had already appeared (such as descriptions of lessons). It would be a brave editor who suggests changes to as big a name as Rowling, but the novel would almost certainly have benefited if someone had done so, even though it would have been even more delayed.

Iain Banks: Dead Air (2002)

Edition: Little, Brown, 2002
Review number: 1192

Published just about a year after 9/11, Dead Air must have been one of the first serious attempts at a novel in which the tragic events of that day played a part. That being said, it doesn't play that important a role in the plot, being more significant in the emotional background to the novel. It is hard to think of a novel that has survived any length of time which is quite so firmly rooted in identifiable and important near contemporary events; the best known examples I can think of are the panic about anarchists which prompted Conrad's The Secret Agent and Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday about a century ago. There are many more novels which were prompted by events which seemed more ephemeral even at the time and which are now only remembered because of the literature they inspired - the story of Alexander Selkirk which was the basis of Robinson Crusoe, for example. Usually, novelists seem to choose events which are far enough in the past that their importance is clear, if they want to anchor a novel to a specific historical time, or events which are so important and wide-ranging in their effects that time has to be taken to digest even part of their meaning - people don't tend to write the best war stories during the conflict.

The tone of Dead Air is set by the first chapter, in which a wedding celebration turns into a game of dropping superfluous foodstuffs and possessions from a loft apartment into the car park far below, wanton destruction which is interrupted as everyone's mobiles go off to tell them to turn on the TV and see the attack on the World Trade Center. The novel is full of small unexpected ironies, twists and unusual ways of looking at the world (picking up on the phenomenon of everyone's phone going off more or less simultaneously is an example). In Canal Dreams, Banks has written about people more directly involved as victims of terrorist attacks; 9/11 seems to have been an event which was more than usually able to touch those who were not themselves physically harmed.

The story is about "shock jock" Ken Nott, who makes a pretty good living being outrageous on a London radio station. There are several events which form foci to the novel as well as 9/11 - the difficulties which arise from a love affair with the wife of a gangster, a series of death threats, a TV interview in which Nott confronts a Holocaust denier. The plot does rather come across as the setting for Banks to get the series of rants which he makes the main feature of Nott's radio show out of his system.

Dead Air came across to me as the least interesting of Banks' novels to date; there is nothing in it which reaches out and grabs the reader (or if there is, it missed me completely). That is not to say that it isn't well written and enjoyable, more that it is less individual and unusual than his earlier novels.

Friday, 24 October 2003

Dan Simmons: The Rise of Endymion (1997)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 1191

Centuries after the events chronicled in Hyperion, the novel which began the series of which The Rise of Endymion is the fourth, human culture in the galaxy has changed dramatically, apparently returning to an archaic form. Through its monopoly of the cruciform, a parasitic, cross shaped piece of nanotechnology which makes it possible to reconstruct a person's personality and memory in a new body after death, the Catholic church has become the dominant power in the majority of the human populated worlds. It has changed to, to an organisation more closely resembling the corrupt church of the early sixteenth century (complete with Inquisition) than the reformed religious movement we see today.

The plot of The Rise of Endymion is fairly hackneyed; it tells of a young girl, prophesied to be a new Messiah, who takes on the might of the Catholic church armed only with her blook, which when drunk by others passes on an extreme awareness of the universe while being incompatible with the cruciform. The Messianic figure is so common in science fiction and fantasy that it is the details which are important rather than the general plot idea, and Simmons is a good enough writer to create a whole series of fascinating environments in which his story can unfold, including a most unusual orbital grown as a giant tree rather than by the more mundane method of constructing it from rock. (An orbital is basically an alternative to a planet, a ring around a star rather than an orbiting ball.)

The most obvious influence on The Rise of Endymion, including the standardised plotline, is Frank Herbert's Dune series, especially the later novels. It is probably the galactic political manoeuvrings as well as the Messianic plot which make this top of the list of related fiction. Simmons includes details which are little nods of homage to other writers, ranging from Asimov (the android characters all have the title 'A.', like the 'R.' given to Asimov's humanoid robots) to Wolfe. It is not all derivative, of course; the vast majority of the details are Simmons' own and the style is all his too. In the end, the novel lacks the visceral impact and originality of Hyperion and could be described as good rather than great.

Wednesday, 22 October 2003

Nigel Williams: Hatchett & Lycett (2002)

Edition: Penguin, 2003
Review number: 1190

When a teacher dies on a school trip to France in 1939, her colleagues decide that it will be easier to smuggle her body through Customs back to England before "discovering" her death than it will be to deal with the complexities of the French judicial system. Though this turns out to be only the first in a series of murders of teachers at the Croydon girls' school at which she taught, the start of the war a month later overshadows the investigation, as does a last minute decision to help a Jewish girl escape to England by pretending she is part of the school party.

Stirring this in with a love triangle between the teachers most likely to work out what happened, and you get the recipe for this hilarious novel by the author of The Wimbledon Poisoner. While some of the jokes and ideas may have been recycled (notable sources include Spike Milligan's war memoirs, Catch 22 and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), and while most of the characters are eminently dislikeable, much enjoyment can be had laughing at the absurdities of the home front early in the War, the absurdities of the crime genre, and the absurdities of young love. The odd serious moment - several characters take a small boat to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk, for example - serves to heighten the effectiveness of the humour (as it does for Spike Milligan and Joseph Heller too, of course).

Hatchett and Lycett (named after the two male teachers in the love triangle) is well put together by a master craftsman of humour. It may not be really original, but it is better than the average comic novel. It doesn't seem to be stretching Williams terribly much (I didn't get the feeling that The Wimbledon Poisoner reached the limits of his talent either). Craftsmanship rather than inspiration is the order of the day here.

Tuesday, 21 October 2003

Iris Murdoch: Henry and Cato (1976)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1976
Review number: 1189

Morality, religion and sexuality were constant preoccupations of Iris Murdoch as a novelist, and they are the central themes of Henry and Cato. As the title suggest, it is a novel with two central characters, who both have to come to terms with major upheavals in their lives. Henry Marshalson is the younger son of an English gentleman, working as a minor academic at a small American university, when his elder brother dies in a car crash and he inherits the estate so has to return his ancestral home. Cato Forbes is from the same village in northern England, and he converted to Catholicism at university and became a priest. Now, living in a failing mission in West London about to be demolished, his faith is turning to doubt. At the same time, he is falling for a good looking but amoral youth (known as Beautiful Joe) who haunts the mission.

Apart from their friendship, what Henry and Cato have in common is the desire to get away from their families (with the exception of Cato's sister Colette). Both have or had domineering and bullying fathers, an evil which is exacerbated in Henry's case by the feeling that he could never match up in any way to his brother Sandy. This feeling is shared (and fostered) by his mother, even after Sandy's death. Cato's Catholicism is something of an attempt to break from his father's influence, and particularly from his father's ideas about what his career should have been, though there is no doubt that the feelings he once had for Jesus Christ also seemed perfectly genuine.

Henry and Cato is a novel which poses questions about how people work rather than giving us Murdoch's answers to them (unless her answers boil down to "people are too complex to assign simple motivations to", which seems reasonable). Most of the major - and many quite minor - characters are well drawn individuals; the only exceptions are Colette and her and Cato's father. Their sketchiness is rather strange, considering the amount of effort the author has put into what is quite a large number of others.

Parts of the plot are distinctly melodramatic, presumably to intensify the dilemmas suffered by the characters. There are parts which are hard to believe, which left me feeling that this is one of Murdoch's least satisfying novels, even if it is an interesting read for the character development and description.

Thursday, 16 October 2003

Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2003
Review number: 1188

Novels with disabled central characters, and particularly ones in which these characters are the narrators, are rare. Mental illness is something which makes people especially uncomfortable and books which deal with it in anything other than a superficial way are really hard to find. (The criminally insane crop up fairly regularly in thrillers, but they are usually a device to inspire fear or allow the author to obfuscate a killer's identity by making them not have a reasonable motive.) Where a disability is taken seriously, the treatment is likely to be worthy and heavy going, and it took considerable enthusiasm from my mother to persuade me to read this novel.

Christopher Boone is a fifteen year old who has Asperger's Syndrome, and he decides to write a book to describe his detection into the killing of a neighbour's dog, found impaled on a garden fork. He is clearly remarkably intelligent (although he attends a special school, he is about to take Maths A-level at the age of fifteen), but he doesn't relate to his environment (and particularly the people around him) in the same way that a normal individual would.

The novel is really an attempt to explore these differences in understanding, and we learn a lot about how Christopher thinks. It doesn't greatly matter who killed the dog, and an understanding of human motivations and relationships will almost certainly mean that the reader works it out long before Christopher does. Far more interesting are things like his justification for deciding by the patterns in the colours of cars passed whether the day will be a good one or a bad one, and other insights into what might at first glance seem to be irrational ideas.

There are at least two ways in which this novel throws an illuminating light on how people think. (It is not surprising that cognitive scientists find people with Asperger's particularly fascinating.) One of these is just how much we assume in everyday life, how good we become at relating things together and interpreting events in terms of all our past experience. This is exemplified in The Dog in the Night by Christopher's solo rail journey from his home in Swindon to London (one of the simpler UK routes), where even tiny things like not immediately being able to understand that "two ninety five" is the same as "two pounds and ninety five pence" prove to be difficulties. What strikes me about this is that Christopher's abilities in this area - extrapolation of known background - are more akin to those of a computer program than those of a normal human being. To most of us the process of classification and generalisation is so automatic that we find it hard to realise just how difficult a task it actually is.

The other realisation that downs on the reader is to do with how Christopher sees himself. It is conventional to describe someone with Asperger's as "afflicted", but that is certainly not how it seems to Christopher. He is generally quite happy (the events which distress him, such as being touched, only have short term effects, and things that would upset a normal child, such as being told his mother is dead, don't affect him on an emotional level). In fact, it is his family which is made unhappy by his actions and by the strain of coping with living with him, even though they obviously love him very much. They hide their exasperation as a result, and combined with Christopher's inability to empathise, they manage to keep the destructive effect he has had on his parents' relationship completely secret from him.

My Room 101 nightmare has always been that I might go mad (and sometimes when particularly depressed I wonder whether I might already be mad and just not realise it). But there is only a certain distance from normality that it is possible to go before one ceases to realise that one is thinking abnormally. It stops being possible to put yourself in the position of another person who is thinking normally, as external evidence such as Christopher's special school education will still (unless the abnormality is really serious) make one aware on some level that one is not like other people. The way that Christopher is is to him just a fact of life, and it doesn't distress him in the way that being served yellow coloured food does.

Christopher's happiness is extremely important in The Dog in the Night-Time, as it prevents the novel being heavy and depressing. Instead, it is easy to read and fascinating, and is in many places quite funny. Reading it was an unexpected pleasure.

Thursday, 9 October 2003

G.K. Chesterton: The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

Edition: Wordsworth, 1996
Review number: 1187

In some respects, Chesterton's first novel seems almost contemporary in outlook; in others, it is stuck in its time, now almost a century in the past. One of the great problems of our age (at least in the West), according to politicians, is political apathy; that is a link between today and the Britain of 1904. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is set in 1984, a famous year in science fiction, and the consequence of that apathy has been to turn political office into the result of a random selection process. The fact that this is virtually the only change to have occurred in an eighty year period is Chesterton's side-swipe at the prophets who attempted to say what would happen in the twentieth century, a pastime as popular then as it has been again with the turn of the twenty first. (The first chapter consists mainly of ridicule of some of the ideas of these would be prophets, each one made ludicrous, and the principal butt of the attack is the scientific utopianism of H.G. Wells, ironically the most accurate of the prophecies, at least in its prediction of the dominance of technology.)

What sparks change in this vision of a static culture - like Wells in The War of the Worlds, Chesterton compresses his world to southern England - is the appointment of Auberon Quin as king of England. Quin is a practitioner of a dying art - humour - and his big joke is to create gaudy (and extremely uncomfortable) uniforms in medieval style and force the sober officials of the London boroughs to wear them on official occasions. This runs into one problem - Adam Poole, the Provost of Notting Hill, is a man without humour, who has an obsessive devotion to his home neighbourhood which has been fired by the cod-patriotic rhetoric which Quin uses to set up his scheme. From this it is a short step to open warfare between Notting Hill and its surrounding boroughs.

The introduction to this Wordsworth Classics edition suggests that Chesterton had a serious point (I'm not completely convinced that he did), which was that a war would be a good solution to the political apathy he saw around him. He goes on to say that such a position became unthinkable after the carnage of World War One, but I think that is a naive view of the world. It could easily be argued that the recent conflict in Iraq and the response of the US and other Western nations was manipulated for a variety of reasons which included this one; just look at how huge the media circus surrounding the fighting was right from the start. Earlier, the Falklands Was was escalated by Margaret Thatcher and her ministers to lay the basis for her subsequent re-election as British prime minister. At least this sort of behaviour has been fairly widely condemned as unacceptable.

If Chesterton did want to make a serious point, then another candidate could be based on the contrast between Quin and Poole, the one unable to take things seriously, the other unable to do anything but. Both prove equally responsible for the destruction of peace in Britain. In the pomposity of Victorian local government, there was much that was hard to take seriously, and Quin is to some extent a self-portrait by a man who clearly saw how ludicrous it could be.

Friday, 3 October 2003

Iain M. Banks: The State of the Art (1991)

Edition: Orbit, 1991
Review number: 1186

The State of the Art is unique in Banks' output in being a collection of short stories. It contains seven short stories, previously published in magazines and anthologies, alongside the novella The State of the Art which had appeared in the States but not in the UK. The book really falls into two parts: the Culture stories (the long novella and two others) and the rest. To deal with the latter first, these stories are basically parodies of some of the basic clich├ęs of the science fiction genre (first contact stories, for example) or fairly heavy handed social commentary. The parodies are heavily indebted to American giants of the short story form, such as Fredric Brown, while the other stories lean heavily on the shoulders of the British New Wave, particularly Michael Moorcock. In neither case does Banks really match the quality of those whose work he draws on. The best of each group are Odd Attachments, about an alien shepherd whose disappointing love life proves disastrous for a human astronaut, and Piece, about the fight between rational and irrational thought in eighties culture.

One of the Culture stories, Descendant, is really in the same vein as the non-Culture tales; it is only incidentally set in the same milieu as Banks' science fiction novels. A Gift from the Culture and The State of the Art pick up on one of the novels' major themes, the way that the Culture reacts to other civilizations. The State of the Art describes a Contact survey of the Earth in 1977 (Contact being the part of the Culture which deals with external relations), with the aim of deciding whether the galactic civilisation should reveal itself to us or not. This isn't a particularly new science fiction idea, but the decision of one of the surveyors to remain on Earth whatever is decided makes it an interesting exploration of the theme.

I found A Gift From the Culture to be the most effective of these stories. A former Culture citizen is blackmailed into performing an act of terrorism. It has a deeper exposition of character than is usually managed in a short story; Wrobik's life seems a mess but he (and Banks manages something unusual with the gender; born female but changing sex as is quite normal in the Culture, Wrobik is made quite a feminine man) doesn't really want to change it. This reluctance is epitomised by his relationship with a faithless dancer. He is a misfit now, and presumably was always one even in the anarchistic Culture, and this is what it makes it possible to manipulate him into the act of violence he is desperately keen to avoid.

The general impression given by The State of the Art is that Banks is a novelist dabbling in short story writing, an impression which is strengthened by the small number of short stories he has produced in his career. The collection is worth reading, but in the end is likely to appeal more or less exclusively to fans of the author's novels.