Friday, 28 May 2004

William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)

Neuromancer coverEdition: Voyager, 1995
Review number: 1239

Neuromancer is one of the few novels which revolutionised their genre. After twenty years, its influence has only become more obvious - it's hard to think of a serious science fiction novel of the last decade which doesn't owe a debt to Neuromancer, not to mention films like the Matrix.

The story is pretty typical of thrillers, a seemingly simple plot turning out to contain wheels within wheels. Case is a burnt out computer hacker, unable to "jack in" to "cyberspace" (phrases invented, recontextualised or popularised by Gibson fill the novel) because he has been contaminated with a neural toxin on top of drug addiction. He is plucked from what is almost a down and out's existence, fixed up by the finest surgeons using revolutionary procedures all to carry out what would be his grestest coup: to hack an artificial intelligence owned by a mysterious Swiss based family firm.

Computers of some sort had long been part of the science fiction stock of clich├ęs, of course, by 1984. Mechanical minds appeared in the genre before the Second World War, but it was only when real computers began to be developed that their depiction began to have any sensible relationship to what might be projected into the (then) future. It was authors like Isaac Asimov (with his robot and Multivac stories), Robert Heinlein (Mycroft Holmes, the computer running Luna City, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) and Arthur C. Clarke (HAL in 2001) who began to think about how computers might realistically interact with humans. The interesting thing is just how wrong they were; none of them really picked up on ideas like networking or virtual reality which are the staples of science fiction (and, in the first case, real world) computing today. These authors all had academic connections, and it is a measure of just how obscure the experimental networks of the late sixties which evolved into today's Internet actually were that none of them picked up on the idea at the time. Most technological changes are already the basis for at least one science fiction story; the role of world wide networking in modern life is probably the most important one that is not. Experiences related to virtual reality appear in writers like Philip K. Dick, but they tend to be more drug mediated than the products of computers and come out of the hippy movement of the sixties. In the real world, the early eighties was the period in which computers first began to appear in homes (early Macs and PCs alongside less pwerful machines like the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Micro). The Internet was still basically confined to the American academic world, with very basic interactive software - early (non-graphical) multi-user games. So the cyberspace portrayed by Gibson was a huge leap, both from contemporary reality and from the science fiction around him; it is not surprising that a new subgenre, called cyberpunk, was immediately spawned following the publication of Neuromancer. It is amazing that Gibson put together his vision of cyberspace before the invention of the Web; it would not be going too far to claim Gibson as one of its conceptual parents.

Clearly, Neuromancer is a science fiction novel of immense importance. But it is less easy to decide just how good it actually is. There is no denying that the plot becomes hard to follow, particularly towards the end, for example, or that the characters are not among fiction's most rounded. It is also obvious that, apart from the computing related ideas, Neuromancer owes large literary debts. Mostly these seem to be filtered through famous film versions - Philip K. Dick is the most obvious (via Bladerunner), but also the detective stories which became film noir and William S. Burroughs. These influences are the ones which, alongside the interest in computers, continued to define cyberpunk. It is really the innovative computing which makes the novel; combined with the atmospherically sleazy future in which the novel is set, it has an impact which makes these criticisms seem unimportant.

Yann Martel: Life of Pi (2001)

Edition: Canongate, 2002
Review number: 1240

There are several unusual aspects to the narrator of Life of Pi, Piscone Molitor Patel. The first and most obvious is his name - his father chose it because he was interested in swimming; it is a Parisian pool. Secondly, he lives in an Indian zoo where his father works as a keeper, and thirdly, he is simultaneously a devout Hindu, a devout Muslim and a devout Catholic. When his family emigrate to Canada, taking many of the zoo animals with them to new homes in American zoos, disaster strikes and their ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific, leaving Pi (as he is known) stranded in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger.

The Indian background, the religious aspects of the novel, and its air of unreality all bring to mind Salman Rushdie. Life of Pi is more genial than that suggests, as well as being full of useful tips on how to avoid being eaten if stranded on a small lifeboat with a hungry tiger. As time passes, it becomes clear that at least part of Pi's story is actually delusional, visions brought on by his ordeal; their onset is subtly introduced, so that even after the reader comes to realise that not everything Pi recounts is real (itself an ironic realisation in a novel reader), they are still unable to put their finger on when they began - possibly even right at the beginning: maybe there is no tiger.

Though the Indian background is a totally superficial reason to link this novel with Salman Rushdie, the other common ideas do suggest some kind of kinship. However, there is something missing from Life of Pi as compared to Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses. In Rushdie's work, there is an underlying (satirical) purpose to the techniques he uses - the history of the Indian subcontinent since partition in one case, the author's feelings about Islam in the other. That sort of point to the novel is missing here (or at least I didn't pick it up), and so to me Life of Pi is lacking something in literary weight.

That doesn't mean that it's not worth reading. Another connection with Midnight's Children is that it won the Booker Prize, and it has been a big favourite with book groups since its publication. Adjectives used to describe this novel in reviews that I have seen commonly include "uplifting" or "heartwarming". That sort of description often seems to be a cover up for mawkishly sentimental, but that isn't the case here; I can't say I found it any of uplifting, heartwarming, or sentimental. Amusing and interesting, that is what I would say.

Friday, 21 May 2004

Len Deighton: Spy Story (1974)

Edition: Triad, 1975
Review number: 1238

After a sequence of novels which are each in some way different from everything else he had written, Spy Story is Len Deighton's return to basics. It could almost be another sequel to The Ipcress File - it even shares several characters. (It is actually listed on Fantastic Fiction as one of the Harry Palmer novels, but the narrator is named, and isn't Palmer.)

Pat Armstrong, the narrator, works in wargaming, using the latest intelligence about Soviet military deployment with the help of what are now extremely primitive computers. When his car breaks down at night and he is unable to find a phone, he uses a key he still has to let himself into his old flat to make the call from there - only to find he has apparently continued to live there: and his family photos around the flat now show him with a slightly altered appearance. He is clearly at the centre of an elaborate plot of some kind, but the question is what, exactly?

This is by now familiar territory to readers of spy fiction - hence the throwaway title - but few writers have ever covered this ground as expertly as Deighton. The tone is bleaker than the earlier Harry Palmer novels, but then the optimistic sixties have long passed. There is still humour here, though; less of it and less obvious, but still present. For a thriller, there isn't a great deal of action and a lot of what there is happens off stage. Spy Story is more subtle than most spy thrillers; Deighton's interest isn't in staging stunts but in the relationships between agents of various types and the politics of the interactions between different agencies, British and American, which is perhaps a slight shift from his earlier writing in the genre. This is a chance to lie back and relish vintage Len Deighton, at a slightly slower pace.

Thursday, 20 May 2004

William Trevor: The Story of Lucy Gault (2002)

Edition: Viking, 2002
Review number: 1241

Lucy Gault is the daughter of a family of Irish landed gentry, a small girl at the time of the civil war which followed the First World War and led to the partition and independence for the south. When attacks are made on their home, her parents (reluctantly) decide that they need to leave the country, but when they set off, Lucy runs away. Becoming convinced (through a series of coincidences) that Lucy is dead, they go away and deliberately lose all contact with those they knew in the area, so that when Lucy is found some days later, they cannot be traced, and so she remains in Ireland, brought up by the Gault's former servants.

This whole episode, which is the basis for the rest of the novel, strikes me as extremely unlikely, no matter how neglected and overgrown the Gault estate had become. The event has so many purposes in The Story of Lucy Gault that it is only possible to touch on a few. One of the most interesting, but not one I am absolutely sure is intended, it that it is possible to identify Lucy, cut off from her parents, with the new Irish state, and her parents with the British; if this is so, then Trevor is painting one of the most pro-British pictures of Ireland (from the point of view of a writer from Eire) ever produced. (It is precisely thinking about what he would be saying that makes me doubtful about the accuracy of the identification.) On a more mundane level, it makes the story of Lucy Gault's otherwise rather uneventful life more interesting, because it has such a strange event near its beginning, and it introduces an element of suspense, the reader being left to wonder when (and whether) she will see her parents again. Lucy's abandonment by her parents is the one thing that raises her story above the commonplace, but I found it so unbelievable that it became the novel's fatal flaw.

Ignoring this, The Story of Lucy Gault is quite well written, though in itself it surely wouldn't justify the quotation on the front cover describing Trevor as "one of the great contemporary novelists". One of the better than average contemporary novelists would be nearer the mark, judging by this novel alone. There are better portrayals of rural Ireland, there are more affecting and believable portrayals of abandoned children (Lucy is an exceptionally self-effacing central character). Presumably, William Trevor has written better novels, but on this evidence I really can't be bothered to find out.

Tuesday, 18 May 2004

Iain Banks: Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003)

Edition: Century, 2003
Review number: 1237

Iain Banks' first book length non-fiction writing is on a subject which has little interest to me, and is certainly a book I would not have picked up had it not been for the author's name. The subject is whisky, and I have been a teetotaller for over fifteen years. So a book about scotch is not really one calculated to appeal to me, and indeed I did find the parts of Raw Spirit which are in fact about the drink rather dull (there is clearly a limit to the number of ways that even such an inventive writer as Iain Banks can find to describe the tastes of the different malts - "peaty" is a word rather lacking in synonyms). The book really only takes whisky as one theme among several, as it describes a series of journeys motivated by the idea of visiting every Scottish distillery; it is basically a travel book. So quite a large proportion of Raw Spirit - more than half - is about other things: Scottish scenery, Scottish roads, Iain Banks and his friends, his cars, and how he feels about the Iraq war. This is all much more interesting, if repetitive in places.

So what's in Raw Spirit for the reader? That depends very much on what the reader wants to get from it even more than is the case for most books. A whisky connoisseur would probably have more detailed and systematic information about single malts available from reference books they already own, even though here they have the information recorded in a more individual manner. As a travel book, it could do with illustration - Banks often mentions photos being taken, but only two are used, and a map showing the distilleries and itinerary would make the logic of the journeys easier to see. The trips themselves lack the epic of unusual quality one expects from a travel book. The main interest in the travel sections comes from the various friends and relatives who accompany Banks on his trips, modern car journeys not that interesting to read about. (Scotland is not to me a particularly unfamiliar country; to others, this may be more interesting.) This leads to what is probably what most readers will get from Raw Spirit - autobiographical anecdotes from a favourite writer. In the end, this is a book for fans of Banks' fiction, for those who want to know more about the man behind the novels. Like many writers, the creator is less interesting than his creations. (This is exemplified when Banks compares his own happy childhood with the abuse and neglect many readers expect to have been necessary to produce The Wasp Factory, as though, as Banks points out, people can only write from their personal experience.) This really is a book strictly for the fans.

Wednesday, 5 May 2004

Stephen Donaldson: Lord Foul's Bane (1977)

Edition: Fontana, 1978
Review number: 1236

Thomas Covenant is a successful writer working on his second novel, when progressive numbness in his hands is diagnosed as Hansen's Disease, better known as leprosy. His marriage breaks up and he is shunned by the smalltown community in which he lives. But then, a casualty in a traffic accident, he finds himself in the Land, an unspoilt world built upon a magical harmony between people and their environment, a place full of vitality and health. But this environmentalist heaven is experienced by Covenant as a gibe against his own illness, especially as his leprosy is to him, as to many in the history of the disease, conceived of as an outward sign of some spiritual impurity. As well as this, he seems to have been cast in what he tries to believe is a dream in some sort of Messianic role he cannot understand, let alone accept.

In the early eighties, Donaldson was widely regarded as the greatest fantasy writer around. His Thomas Covenant series - two trilogies - brought a philosophical depth to the genre that had been lacking from its most popular exponents. His immensely flawed central character was a far more ambitious creation than Tolkien's bland heroes; Thomas Covenant was capable both of great deeds and vicious crimes - and this is something which seems to make both more believable. (One of his first acts after arriving in the Land, overwhelmed by the vitality of this new world, convinced that he remains impotent as he knows full well that his disease is incurable, and still hoping that he is dreaming, is to rape a young woman. The working out of the physical and psychological effects of Covenant's crime is one of the strengths of the First Chronicles, but even without this, an attempt to make a rapist in any way sympathetic is extremely unusual and courageous.)

The series also makes admirable use of the idea that the central character is unable to believe fully in the fantasy world in which he finds himself - this is an obvious reaction for someone to have when suddenly in a world where magic works, but not one that was often explored before Donaldson. It is actually left unresolved even whether the reader is meant to believe in the objective reality of the Land for a considerable period; it is only in the third novel of the series, The Power That Preserves, that events are described which neither involve Covenant nor are being reported to him.

Admiration for Donaldson has in the decades since waned somewhat, especially as they have brought little that is new from him - Mordant's Need is more formulaic fantasy than Thomas Covenant, and the Gap series is even more extreme, working out similar themes more intensely in science fiction which I found unreadable. Even at the time, people did not hold back with criticism. The commonest fault readers found in the Thomas Covenant series was that the writing was full of hard and obscure words. To me, this would be more of a challenge and a problem, and in any case I have never found it to be particularly true; all that people who say this seem to mean is that Donaldson was not writing for the kind of young adult market that was expected to be the target audience for the fantasy genre in the late seventies. Spellsinger would have been more typical of what was around at the time (it's actually a bit later, and it is of course deliberately intended to be a light read). Since then, serious fantasy has matured a great deal, and that there has been far more produced on an adult level is itself a kind of testimony to Donaldson's achievement.

A more serious problem, and one which seems graver now than when I first read the series, is that Donaldson's writing it too melodramatic. For example, no one is ever described as "speaking"; they "rasp" or "groan". Covenant is repeatedly "crushed" by the virtues of the people he meets - loyalty, truth, simplicity, courage. The impression of a high level of emotional strain extends without respite from the beginning to end of this series and fills much of Donaldson's other writing, including the detective novels written under the name Reed Stephens. It gets irritating, and mitigates against the characters becoming fleshed out in the reader's mind. On the positive side, it does make some scenes particularly memorable; from this novel, Covenant's trip into his local town and the attack on the wraiths of Andelain have stayed in my mind over the years.

Donaldson may not be up to the kind of reviews he received at the time (though the "comparable to Tolkien at his best" tag reprinted on the cover is really pretty meaningless - I would agree that the Covenant series is as good, but I don't have that high an opinion of The Lord of the Rings as literature). However, he did introduce the idea that the fantasy genre could be used to explore issues as well as to entertain, and he did this in such a way as to retain the mass market. (The more literary fantasy stories, such as those of E.R. Eddison, had previously generally ended up as niche, cult objects.) The Thomas Covenant series remains readable, if in smallish doses, and those fans of the fantasy genre of my age who bought copies twenty years ago would be pleasantly surprised on opening them again.

Saturday, 1 May 2004

Joseph Heller: God Knows (1984)

Edition: Black Swan, 1985
Review number: 1235

Even for the most dedicated Heller fan, and the impact of Catch 22 created vast numbers of them, his second and third novels are frequently heavy going. But then eventually (over twenty years into his career, for he was never a particularly prolific novelist) came God Knows - immediately accessible, hilariously funny and wickedly subversive.

The idea behind God Knows is simple. David, King of Israel, author of the psalms, recounts his life while on his deathbed, in the voice of a twentieth century American Jewish patriarch. To work, this has to be done extremely well, as is it no easy thing to write a narration that convincingly comes across as being from the mind of a man recognised as one of the greatest poets in history.

Apart from the difficulty in matching up to his literary merit, David is an excellent choice for this type of novel. He has quite a lot of space devoted to him in the Bible, which records many fascinating events in his life but which also leaves room for Heller to expand on the characterisation of him and those around him (Heller's portrayal of Solomon is particularly amusing). The picture painted of him is neither black nor white in 2 Samuel in particular is neither black nor white morally, making him a more interesting subject for a novel than (say) the prophet Daniel. And there is his importance as an influence on history and an icon for Jewish culture - it is no accident that the star of David was made the symbol of the Zionist movement and now appears on the flag of the state of Israel. (As he asks out at one point, "Does Moses have a star?".)

A lot of the humour in God Knows stems from the use of anachronism in a way that reminds me of Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon. An example of the type of joke used is when David tells his generals to "send a wire", only to be reminded that telegrams haven't been invented yet (the joke being not only that they don't exist, but also that every one knows what they are). This kind of humour is one which quickly becomes wearing, so it's good that Heller doesn't use it to excess; it would have been easy to put jokes along these lines into every paragraph, and that would have killed the novel stone dead. He also makes most of its uses more subtle than the example I've given. Much more pervasive is the use of anachronism in a more indirect form, as Heller gives characters stereotypical Jewish roles from twentieth century America; this also introduces an element of satire.

David's life inclded a fair amount of personal unhappiness, so God Knows is not a sunny novel, even if the humour in it is not as bleak as that in Heller's earlier novels. It is part of the Jewish father stereotype to complain about his children, but David really had a lot of grief from his - the death of Bathsheba's first child, slain by God as punishment for David's sin in sleeping with another man's wife and sending her husband to his death; the rape of his daughter Tamar by his son Amnon; the rebellion of his son Absalom. (And Heller adds the stupidity and humourlessness of his son Solomon - "Schlomo, that schmuck".) However, to Heller, David's relationship with God was the most significant in his life, and though he makes David make light of it, it is clear that the character regrets the withdrawal of God's voice of guidance more than anything else (this was another consequence of his adultery with Bathsheba).

From a literary point of view, God Knows is one of the least significant of Heller's novels. On the other hand, it is among his most accessible and enjoyable - and it will make you laugh out loud.