Wednesday, 25 February 2004

Len Deighton: Bomber (1970)

Edition: Arrow, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1224

I have always found this the hardest of Deighton's novels to get into, partly because it is so unrelentingly serious, but mainly because its beginning is poor. The first chapter in particular has some really terrible, clunking dialogue, and the mechanics of introducing his large cast of characters are not well handled. Even further into the novel, the prose is ponderous and Bomber is very slow moving for a thriller.

The idea of Bomber is to describe a twenty-four hours in the air war towards the end of the Second World War, without demonising the Germans or idolising the British. The airmen on both sides, in particular, are presented as normal people under a lot of stress. (Some of the ancillary characters are a bit more stereotyped, like the German secret policeman who tries to prove that one of the fliers is sabotaging the war effort, but even he has a less formalised counterpart among the British officers.)

Part of the reason for the ponderousness of Bomber is the literary weight of what Deighton is trying to do - conveying the brutality of war, the waste of a generation of young men, while making his portrayal evenhanded with the reader caring for people on both sides. The unpleasantness of twentieth century warfare and its wastefulness is a common theme from All Quiet on the Western Front to M.A.S.H., but it is far harder to think of other examples of war novels which do not just concentrate on one side. In many cases, the ability this gives to have a small number of central characters makes the writing more effective than it is here - the main characters in All Quiet on the Western Front form a single platoon of German soldiers, and M.A.S.H. never looks far beyond just two doctors. By contrast, there are dozens of characters in Bomber of approximately equal importance, which causes serious difficulties - they tend to be introduced with dull and lengthy biographical sketches, holding up the plot, and it is hard for the reader to remember who is who. (This second is a problem even in War and Peace, the most famous "cast of thousands" novel.) I certainly had the impression that Deighton's ambition here overreached his technique. Nevertheless, there are things to admire about the novel. Bomber is meticulously researched, with close attention to detail. (In current TV terminology, Bomber would definitely belong to the genre of docudrama.)

Thankfully, Bomber livens up a bit once the planes are airborne, about halfway through the five hundred pages. (The bombers being British, the raid is a night-time one; the Americans who carried out daylight raids are not even mentioned by Deighton.) For me, this was really too little too late.

Bomber is massively ambitious, which has led to many aspects of it better done by other authors. The touchstones novels about Second World War bombing are both American: Catch 22 about the stresses and strains of being a pilot, and Slaughterhouse 5 about the effects of saturation bombing (as experienced by P.O.W.s in Dresden). Both these novels are much more effective at conveying the horrors of war and the ways in which people cope with them; both are darkly humorous. Black humour is usually something of a Deighton trademark, but here it seems to have been squeezed out by the serious nature of his intentions.

To me, this novel is mainly of interest as a piece of historical research. Bomber is far less successful as a work of fiction, and remains the nearest to unreadable of any of Deighton's novels.

Saturday, 21 February 2004

Justina Robson: Natural History (2003)

Edition: MacMillan, 2003
Review number: 1223

While Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan seem to have become established as forming the vanguard of a new school of British science fiction writers, Justina Robson has yet to gain such a level of recognition. Perhaps her novels, while sharing many of the concerns of these writers, have so far proved just a little less inventive.

Natural History is her third novel, and is her take on the ancient science fiction plot of the first alien contact. This pivotal event happens in an unusual and, as far as I know, an unprecedented way: the discovery of alien technology is made by an interstellar probe which is a combination of human and machine consciousness. The human background to the discovery is that large numbers of such human/machine hybrids (the "Forged") exist, mainly engineered for environments which are not suitable for basic human beings, who are disparaged as the "Unevolved". Many of them have been seeking freedom from the demands put upon them by the human race, and the being who discovers the alien technology is one of them. The discovery suggests to her the possibility of independence for the Forged, with their own planetary system far away from Earth; the technology she discovers turns out to be in part an instantaneous transport mechanism, which she uses accidentally to go to what is presumably the home planet of the aliens who built it. The problem is, this planet seems now to be devoid of life, though full of signs of recent occupation - oxygen in the atmosphere, and so on. The rest of the novel is about investigating this planet in the face of the complications provided by the different ideas of the Forged about how to go about becoming independent.

There are many nods to the classics of the science fiction genre, from the name Tanelorn given to a citylike structure on the new planet (see Michael Moorcock), to Star Trek, to clear influences from Iain M. Banks, and even to Casper the Friendly Ghost. There are also names adapted from those associated with real life SETI projects. This is one of the many reasons why this particular novel fits in better with those of writers like Reynolds and Morgan than Robson's earlier ones.

There are two sides to this novel - the quest to find out about th vanished aliens and their technology, and the relationship between the Forged and the Unevolved. Though the first of these strands is what brings on the crisis in the second, the two are not really as integrated as they could be. Towards the end, chapters set on the eerie alien planet - which is really well done - are more or less alternated with ones set back on Earth where no one has any idea what is happening to the explorers. This means that there are constant, abrupt changes in atmosphere, and this is Natural History's biggest flaw.

The whole novel works up to the revelation of what the alien material - which becomes known as "Stuff" - actually is. This sort of climax is quite common in the science fiction genre; since many of its stories revolve around strange objects, the discovery of their true nature is often the most important moment. However, it is often poorly handled technically; such a climax needs careful preparation, with tantalising hints to hold the reader's interest along the way which don't let slip too much of the answer, which must still be novel and surprising when it is revealed. (This is basically the same kind of construction as is involved in revealing the identity of the killer in a murder mystery.) Here, it is handled superbly well, and the answer is a fascinating one that I would like to discuss but won't because it would ruin the novel for anyone who wants to read it.

Natural History is a fascinating, well thought out piece of science fiction, and it's about time that Justina Robson got some of the wider recognition that she deserves.

Thursday, 19 February 2004

Gordon R. Dickson: Tactics of Mistake (1975)

Edition: Sphere, 1975 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1222

Though Dickson himself is keen that the three novels generally known as the Dorsai Trilogy should be considered to be part of the far larger framework of his Chantry Guild future history of which they form part, there are few science fiction fans who would not feel that Tactics of Mistake, Soldier, Ask Not and Dorsai! are far more interesting and readable than their fellows. The reason for this is simple: Dickson later on let his writing become weighed down by some of the mystical ideas which form a relatively small part of these three novels; interesting they may be, but they dominate the other books to such an extent that the reader is put off.

Tactics of Mistake introduces the Dorsai, a race of mercenary soldiers of the future. The background situation is one which is common in a lot of American science fiction of the period - the Cold War extended over a group of colonised planets. In Dickson's future history, many of these planets are home to groups of specialists - scientists on Newton, the mystical Exotics on Kultis; this, under the name of the Splintering, is one of the ideas central to the Chantry Guild series as a whole: for the human race to mature properly, it needs to split into groups which will each develop a specific kind of human, for later re-integration.

The setting is the planet Mara, host to a small war between the Alliance-backed Exotics, the employers of the Dorsai, and the Coalition-backed Neulanders. Cletus Grahame is an Alliance officer recently arrived from Earth, who has come to Kultis to try out some new ideas he as about military strategy, notably the "tactics of mistake", which basically consists of drawing an opponent into a series of errors at the end of which their position becomes untenable.

There are obviously shadows of the Vietnam War in the novel, and implied criticism of American policy in the opportunistic imperialism which marks both the Alliance and the Coalition. Grahame's tactics similarly seem to criticise American attempts to win in Vietnam by brute force methods - more men, better weapons, rather than tactics suited to the nature of the conflict (as those adopted by the Viet Cong proved to be).

Dickson's writing style is nothing if not mainstream science fiction. The influences of Heinlein and Herbert are clearly to be seen in this novel, for example. Dickson shared with Herbert a desire to make his subject matter more sophisticated than in earlier science fiction; he was here attempting to do for the depiction of military strategy what Herbert had done for politics in Dune. The difference can be seen by citing another example. In E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, the strategic decisions consist of the deployment of a sequence of ever more spectacular weapons, combined with small group operations to disable the enemy command structure. I find it hard to see, however, how the tactics Grahame devises based on the (notoriously difficult to assess) psychology of powerful members of the enemy hierarchy, could be generally applicable. (Think about how hard it has been for Americans to find Osama bin Laden - and I think that Grahame's analysis of future actions of people like Dow Castries are on the same sort of level of difficulty.) Yet Grahame's plans always seem to work perfectly; no miscalculations, no unforeseen difficulties, no chance event ruining things. The only exception to his psychological understanding is his inability to read the woman he wants to marry.

The take on the subject matter may be influenced by Herbert, but the writing style is more firmly in the style of Robert Heinlein's earlier novels (before Stranger in a Strange Land). This is despite Dickson's clear rejection of the type of militarism which is part of Starship Troopers. The Tactics of Mistake is exciting and easy to read. Most serious science fiction fans will probably already have read the Dorsai Trilogy, but if not - anyone who likes writers like Heinlein and Herbert will enjoy it.

Friday, 13 February 2004

John Bunyan: The Pilgrim's Progress (1678/1684)

Edition: Penguin, 1965 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1221

The recent BBC poll to find the best loved English novel, the Big Read, chose The Lord of the Rings, a winner which is almost inevitable in this kind of listing nowadays. But if the poll could have been run a hundred and fifty years ago or more, then The Pilgrim's Progress would have been the runaway winner (so long as we ignore the fact that it is not really a novel). If a family owned one book, it was the Bible; if two, the second would almost certainly be Bunyan, far more likely than Shakespeare. Its popularity was only challenged when the Victorian mass market in novels began to open up, with the success of Dickens particularly. Today, it didn't even feature in the top 100 list. This suggests two questions: why did this book in particular become so popular? and why has its popularity diminished?

Everyone still knows what The Pilgrim's Progress is about, at least its first part: it has become an almost proverbial title. It is an allegory of the Christian life, as seen from John Bunyan's Puritan evangelical viewpoint, and takes the form of the description of a journey made by Christian from the city of Destruction to the Celestial City. The second part (published six years later) describes the subsequent journey made by his wife Christiana, following in his footsteps. Like most allegories, the point is not the story, but lies in the images used to make the point; some of Bunyan's have entered the language, such as the "Slough of Despond".

The reason for the popularity of Bunyan's work cannot really lie in the allegory itself, for his images in general are not particularly imaginative (some are copied directly from ideas which occur in the Bible). Some, like the images shown the pilgrims in the House of the Interpreter, are hardly made part of the story at all. The story itself is unevenly constructed, with at least one character met on the way disappearing from the text without his departure being recorded (this is the Atheist, though it is at least made clear that he is travelling in the opposite direction to Christian). The second part is even more problematic, as it consists of little more than a description of a tour of the places which have already been mentioned when Christian visited them. Both parts include a lot of direct preaching and theological discussion as well as the allegory, but there is also far more of this the second time around.

The popularity of The Pilgrim's Progress must have come more from the timing of its publication, and from its content rather than its quality. The evangelical revival which gave rise to Methodism was just around the corner, and many non-conformists (people who would not accept the doctrine and hierarchy of the Anglican church) emigrated to America in the next few decades. These were the groups who took up Bunyan's book, and they spread it worldwide. It even proved to have cross-cultural appeal, being widely translated and even published in Catholic countries. (For a Puritan work, it is very restrained about Rome, and its references to Catholicism are veiled, but this is still surprising.)

The value of The Pilgrim's Progress to the Puritans was that it is an extremely effective aid to applying an evangelical view of Protestant Biblical theology to the trials faced in life. Through its images and allegorical characters, it was inspirational. The Bible is a confusing document, even for those who profess to believe it literally, and the sort of theology followed by the Puritans was much easier to pick up and understand from a systematic outline; The Pilgrim's Progress is not totally systematic, but it is certainly easier to apply to real life situations than either an abstract summary (like a catechism) or the Bible itself. It picks up one of the big reasons why the parables have always been more popular reading matter than the Pauline epistles - stories are much more entertaining than the direct exposition of theology. Aids to understanding the Bible have always been popular - such aids have been produced to push just about every possible theological position - and The Pilgrim's Progress is one of the most entertaining and is certainly the best known.

So the reason for the initial success of The Pilgrim's Progress was the right content at the right time; if it hadn't been published, I suspect that a Puritan allegory would have come along sooner rather than later (after all, it had been one of the most characteristic forms of medieval literature), and that this might have become as popular. It massively overshadowed all Bunyan's other writing, only Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, his autobiography, coming anywhere near it in popularity even in his lifetime.

The drop in the popularity of The Pilgrim's Progress seems, as far as I know, to have been well under way before the decline in churchgoing which marked the twentieth century West. It may have kept its pre-eminent place in rural areas, but novels like The Pickwick Papers, or alternatively the works of Shakespeare, took over in the urban middle class home.

It seems to me that the change is likely to be connected to the big publishing explosion at the beginning of the nineteenth century. (This is really just a guess; I don't have any facts and figures to back it up.) Apparently, up until then it was just about possible, given a fair amount of luxurious free time, to read every book published in English. Then, when the novel took off, this changed. Even if this isn't actually true, there was suddenly a lot more available to read, and it was also more entertaining. (As journeys go, the Pickwick Club's progress around England may be less edifying, but it's definitely more fun.) Instead of being one of two books in the average literate home, The Pilgrim's Progress became one of dozens.

There are cleverer, subtler and more completely worked out allegories, but none which have had as big a cultural impact as this one. I wonder if today's equivalents in popularity - The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter novels - will prove as long lasting. It is of course noticeable that the criticism that there are cleverer novels of their type around applies just as much to these current contenders; and just as behind The Pilgrim's Progress lies one of the most popular medieval genres, they both build on many precedents.

Tuesday, 10 February 2004

Len Deighton: Only When I Larf (1968)

Edition: Sphere, 1968 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1220

At this point in his career, Deighton seems to have been searching for a new direction. The three novels and the short story collection - An Expensive Place to Die, Only When I Larf, Bomber and Declarations of War - which include Deighton's effective abandonment of his Harry Palmer character are the most diverse of his career. Only When I Larf is the only one of his novels, for example, which could be classified as a comic thriller. (His other works may have comic elements, but here the comedy takes centre stage.) So Only When I Larf and the short stories of Declarations of War mark dead ends, as Deighton never wrote anything like either of them again.

Only When I Larf (joke answer to the question "When does it hurt?") is the story of three confidence tricksters: Silas, an upper class older man whose distinguished war record hid the beginnings of his criminal career; Bob, young and working class, and tired of always playing subordinate roles; and Liz, Silas' girlfriend, whose beauty is often an important part of building up a relationship with the mark. The novel is told from the point of view of each of these characters in turn, a device which enables Deighton to clearly show the reader the development of tensions between the trio, which gradually build throughout the story, especially after a big con goes badly wrong.

In most of Deighton's novels, the prevailing atmosphere is one of cynicism, leavened with satirical black humour. Here, the proportions are reversed, though the humour is not as amusing as the nuggets in, say, The Ipcress File. What drives the plot is the combination of different kinds of differences between Silas and Bob (temperament, generational and class); Liz is a peripheral observer of the friction between the two of them.

I can see why the comedy was something Deighton wanted to try, with humour playing an important part in the earlier novels; and I can see why he never made it quite so central again. There is a bitterness to Only When I Larf which makes it hard to like as a comedy, and much though I admire some of the ideas in it and the way it is written, it will never be one of my favourite Len Deighton novels.

Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Iain Banks: Complicity (1993)

Edition: Abacus, 1994
Review number: 1219

Cameron is a disillusioned left-wing Scottish journalist, whose hobbies are computer games and drug abuse. He is contacted by a mysterious source, who promises him revelations about a series of mysterious deaths of men vaguely linked to the security services in the eighties. He is following up leads from the conversations he has with this man when he suddenly discovers that the police suspect he is the killer in a current series of murders, of the type of repellent capitalist that he has spent much of his career denouncing. Whoever the killer is, they obviously know Cameron's routine intimately - he has always been in the area when an attack occurred. The only way he can prove his innocence is to discover the identity of the murderer himself.

It is interesting, re-reading Complicity, to see how much the character of Cameron pre-figures that of Ken Nott in Dead Air; they could almost be to novels about the same person, a decade apart. The similarities start with their profession, but they also share background, attitudes and habits.

As a thriller, Complicity is exciting, though since much of what makes it work is the revelation of the identity of the killer, it is a novel which works much better on a first reading than a second one. (Thinking back, I remember not expecting to like it much, being put off by the blurb on the back, but then found it much more involving.) The technique used in the two narratives - first person from Cameron's point of view, the unusual second person in the sections from the murderer's point of view - is interesting and the second person works well in causing more distaste for the violence than is usual in the thriller genre. (It also makes you wonder how true Cameron's protestations of innocence actually are, and whether he's also the narrator of these sections, using the second person to distance himself from it.

Complicity is one of Banks' most mainstream novels, but is none the worse for that. It would be one of those which provide a good introduction to his work, particularly in this case to people who are wary of his cult status.