Thursday, 27 December 2018

Leslie Charteris: The Saint and the People Importers (1971)

Edition: Thomas & Mercer, 2014
Review number: 1515

In recent years, the news has been full of refugees; immigration, legal and illegal, is seen as a problem by many. But people have been concerned about it for decades, and even centuries, and this is a novel about illegal immigration from the early seventies (the TV episodes that the novel was based on were aired in 1969 and the book came out in 1970).

This is not the first Saint novel to take on social and political issues, including pre-war attacks on the Nazis in Prelude for War (aka The Saint Plays With Fire). Many Saint stories have a moral content, as Simon Templar is almost always taking on the bad guys in order to help an innocent victim. Here, his activity is prompted by a newspaper report of the killing of one of the immigrants as a warning by the traffickers. However, there is no serious attempt to integrate any of the issues surrounding immigration into the story, the abuse of would-be immigrants by traffickers being only the motivation for a TV thriller. The eventual "solution" to the problem of the existence of a group of rescued immigrants seems crass and insensitive today. To be fair, the TV episode and this novel were not intended as any kind of serious exploration of the issue; the adventures of the Saint are about entertainment pure and simple. The nature of the MacGuffin in The People Importers is not really suitable for this treatment, and it shows.

Like many of the TV based stories, this is a much more straightforward thriller than the earlier Charteris stories. Although his introduction says that he added his own signature touches to each one, that is little in evidence here. One for Saint collectors only, really.

My rating: 6/10.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice (2013)

Edition: Orbit, 2013
Review number: 1514

Back in 2013/4, Ancillary Justice won just about every award going in the science fiction genre: Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA. It's the only novel to have done this (no others have won even all the first three), though the more limited scope of some of the awards makes this slightly less impressive than it otherwise would be. It also led to suggestions that Leckie was a natural successor to Iain M. Banks (as reprinted on the back cover of this edition).

Ancillary Justice tells the story of Breq, a Radsch ancillary. The Radsch are the rulers of a space empire, colonialists dedicated to the expansion of their civilisation, and ancillaries, known colloquially as "corpse warriors", are their soldiers, basically zombies with added artificial intelligence, sharing a gestalt mind with several others of their kind. Breq is part of the mind of a warship, and she is at a colony planet when the human officers of the ship are ordered to carry out a mass murder. The ship's reaction to this leads Breq to discover that the gestalt human mind which makes up the leader of the Radsch is divided against itself, and to a journey to kill this group individual. Rather unusually for a part of a trilogy, Ancillary Justice has its own satisfying ending, which leaves enough openings for a promising second and third volume (which I have already read, as this is my second reading of the series).

The first thing that strikes me about Ancillary Justice (and its sequels) is the originality of the universe that Leckie has invented. Yes, it has echoes of other pan-galactic civilisations in science fiction, especially Banks' Culture, but it contains many different elements which make it unique, and also fascinating as expert world building. Many details contribute to this, especially the otherness of Breq. Leckie very cleverly takes ideas used in much science fiction (artificial intelligence, space travel, interstellar wars and colonial empires, telepathic communication, and so on) and gives them a novel twist, guaranteeing the interest of the long term science fiction fan.

Engagement with issues is also very clearly part of what Leckie wished to achieve, from nearly the beginning of Ancillary Justice: there are few novels which deal with why people follow orders to commit an atrocity, and what effect this has on otherwise normal, decent human beings when they have done so. And it is unusual for science fiction to deal with this kind of issue. The fictional discussion of colonialism is more commonplace, but adds another aspect to an already multiply faceted background.

Leckie manages to describe the feelings of Breq-as-part-of-a-gestalt in a convincing way to those of us who have never experienced being a mind split between several bodies. This experience is used to make Breq seem alien to the reader: successful portrayal of the alien is rare in science fiction, when it is so much easier to make an "alien" just like a human being inside a costume. Another aspect of this is provided by making Breq unable to identify the gender of the humans she meets, assigning (as she says at one point) masculinity or femininity to people based on whether she thinks their actions are masculine or feminine, which results in a fluid concept of gender, one very different to the still common binary expectations of many of today's humans. This also ties into Leckie's use of the novel to engage with issues, with its clear ties to discussions of what gender means in the twenty first century.

Science fiction, it is said, is always about the era in which it was written. And Ancillary Justice definitely has contemporary relevance. It is also a fascinating portrayal of an alien world, and an exciting story about characters the reader cares for. It is perhaps in this way that Leckie can be described as a successor to Iain M. Banks, and she joins him in my list of favourite science fiction authors. My rating: an unsurprising 10/10.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Matt Ridley: The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge (2015)

Edition: Harper Collins, 2015
Review number: 1513

While there are many interesting ideas, points and quotes in this book, I found it frustrating and unconvincing. While it is apparently about how evolution works in a number of settings, essentially those of complex emergent systems, much of it uses that as the basis for an attack on any form of control or management of these systems - it's a libertarian manifesto in all but name.

I have a fair number of issues with the book. First, and fundamentally, I don't think it makes a case for the word "evolution" being applied consistently to all the subjects. It starts, naturally enough, with one of the best known and best understood subjects, the evolution of life. Here, there is a sound mathematical foundation, a set of statistical rules which can predict many things (such as, for instance, the ways in which altruism can bestow an evolutionary advantage despite the immediate appearance that it shouldn't). While there are mathematical models for some of the other concepts, such as the economy, there isn't the same broad agreement on the most acceptable model. In some cases (education, for instance) it is hard to even see what a model would be like, and here it feels more as though something is evolutionary because it is complex and changes over time.

Second, the shortness of the treatments of the different topics makes it appear that Ridley makes his points through selective quotation. Some of the discussions do talk about other ideas in the field, but I think they are not given even the appearance of a fair hearing. Some authors are quoted repeatedly, which makes selective quoting seem more obvious. I don't think that this appearance was Ridley's intention, but it does reduce the impact of the book.

Thirdly, the book seems to me to avoid talking about some of the ethical issues involved in taking the libertarian approach. While he talks approvingly of unregulated private enterprise, and even makes it seem that this will improve the lot of everyone, the problem is that even in today's heavily regulated world, unethical individuals abuse positions of power over others: there have always been companies run as sweat shops, and we still see prosecutions for slavery and exploitation on a regular basis (especially, it seems, in those underground industries which are less regulated because of their essentially criminal nature, such as prostitution). It often seems that those who put forward libertarianism do so because they expect that they would be among the winners, and they don't really think about what this means for the losers. This isn't to say that live isn't going to be grim for the losers in the world as it is today, or hasn't been miserable in the past, and Ridley does cite several examples, including some from the worst moments of British colonialism.

Overall, there is much said which is interesting, but I found the book more frustrating than convincing. My rating: 5/10.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Ernest Cline: Armada (2015)

Edition: Century, 2015
Review number: 1512

Ernest Cline's first novel, Ready Player One, was one of my top reads of 2018, when I finally read it. Even though I am not a gamer, I was introduced to computers in the 1980s and played many games in that decade, and Cline's nostalgia for that decade combined with the excitement of the story resonated with me. After that, it wasn't long before I sought out Cline's second novel.

In Armada, narrator Zack Lightman is an obsessive teenage player of the game Armada, a first person shooter where the aim is to prevent an alien invasion. When it becomes clear that Armada and other games are secretly training drone operators to fight an expected (and now happening) alien invasion of Earth, Zack is enlisted and flown to a secret base on the far side of the moon. But he becomes uneasy, as he starts to think that there is something wrong with the story he and the world have been told about the aliens.

In many ways, Armada is very similar to Ready Player One. The games and their integration into the story, the young, nerdy hero, the eighties nostalgia are all basically identical. The characters generally could be interchangeably in either novel. This makes Armada less than ideal to read soon after Ready Player One, but is not necessarily a bad thing - many genre writers essentially continue writing what they know and what made them successful in the first place, and a large number of readers enjoy each slightly different version of the same story.

As in Cline's first novel, the writing is good, drawing the reader in and providing an exciting read. I often find that lengthy descriptions of combat in science fiction become tedious, but this is not a problem here. (This tedium is really why I have never been greatly interested in first person shooter games.) Further interest is provided by an underlying critique of the clich├ęs of game scenario design - in fact, these are the clues which suggest to Zack that there is something going on behind what is on the surface. While this is interesting, it is damaging to Armada if regarded as a thriller, because of the way it undercuts so many scenes - visceral excitement is hard to generate if the protagonist is constantly wondering whether his role is too easy, if the enemy being fought is holding back for some reason, so that every battle is just within the capability of the player.

I would rate Armada at 6/10 - and I suspect it would get a higher rating if I'd waited for longer before reading it.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Jonathan Sumption: Cursed Kings: The Hundred Years War IV (2015)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 2016
Review number: 1511

The fourth volume of Sumption's brilliant history of the Hundred Years' War is up to the standard he set in the earlier books, and very similar in many ways to them. Cursed Kings covers the early years of the fifteenth century (up to 1422). Until 1413, both countries were ruled by kings whose rule was compromised: Henry IV of England, who faced difficulties establishing the legitimacy of his rule after deposing Richard II; and Charles VI of France, who spent long periods mentally incapable of governing while the many other royal princes squabbled and diverted national resources to their personal gain. Neither reign was a period for a country to take pride in, and it often seems as though the governments of the two countries seem to be competing to make the poorest showing. Both crowns suffered from a chronic lack of financial resources, along with political disruption which was at times close to civil war. This means that the period was mostly one where the war was characterised by uneasy truces rather than open combat, at least until the accession of Henry V in 1413. The most interesting question about the early  years of the fifteenth century covered is what happened to make the immediate recovery of England so fast and so successful.

The second half of Cursed Kings is dominated by the effect of Henry V on the war. As Sumption says, "as with other successful warriors, his personality has been almost entirely masked by the uncritical adulation of contemporaries and the nostalgia of a later generation which lived to see his achievements undone". Being the subject of one of Shakespeare's best known and least ambiguous plays does not help, of course. I did occasionally feel that Sumption fell into the same trap that he warned about. Whatever he was like as a person, Henry's effect on the war was dramatic, and at one point, it looked as though France was about to be entirely extinguished as a nation. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that his personality, drive and ambition were the main reasons why the position changed so dramatically.

The book ends with the deaths of Henry V and Charles VI, paving the way for the final act of the long drawn out conflict to be covered in the final volume.

The book does include a fairly obvious copy editing error, not something I've seen in the earlier volumes. It is fairly minor (the town of Ham is described as "unwalled" on page 285, and then on page 286, its inhabitants "shout defiance" from these non-existent walls).

Friday, 3 November 2017

Paul Beatty: The Sell Out (2015)

Edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
Review number: 1510

The Sell Out is a novel which divides opinion. If you look at online reviews, ones which give it very high ratings are common, but so are ones which give it very low ratings. The style and the content of Beatty's novel are responsible for both these extreme reactions, and I can really understand why people think of it in both ways.

I started out as a fan. The first part of the book is a tour de force of satirical humour: this is I think the only Booker Prize winner I have ever laughed out loud when reading. Basically the book starts with the ending. The narrator ends up before the US Supreme Court, basically for actions which call the comfortable assumption of white people that there is no longer any racial divide in the United States, which is the first chapter, with the rest of the book leading up to this appearance. The early parts of the book are an extended, vitriolic, riff on what it means to be black in twenty-first century America, full of references both literary and otherwise, and also full of language which may well shock.  It's kind of like the illegitimate child of Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth. Strong stuff, and although I was enjoying it, I didn't want to read more than a few pages at a time.

As the book goes on, the tone settles down somewhat, and this is actually a problem. The actually story is less interesting than the set pieces and jokes - things like a parody of The Charge of the Light Brigade, or a stand-up comedian making jokes in the format of academic reports on psychological experiments. Without the energy present at the start, The Sell Out reading experience becomes an impatient wait for the next extended joke.

If you don't get many of the references (and I'm sure I missed some, not being into gangsta rap), the jokes won't be as funny. If the language offends, you will find The Sell Out unreadable. It made a difference to me that the book was written by a black writer; I think I would have been offended if it had been written by anyone else. The first part is really love or hate; the second half is so much less successful that it was just mainly average. Overall, my rating for the book is 7/10.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

G.K. Holloway: 1066 (2014)

Edition: Troubadour, 2014
Review number: 1509

What book could be more appropriate to review on 14th October, the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings!

1066 is clearly the defining date in British history, the one year everyone knows. It is probably the most important single date in English history. And it is also the end of a long series of complex events in English history, with roots in the renewed Viking attacks on England almost a century earlier. On top of this, the surviving contemporary documentation of what happened is scanty by modern standards, and some of the events as well as the details of characterisation are either disputed or recorded by biased sources. All of this makes the events of the year a challenging subject for a historical novel.

How as G.K. Holloway approached it? Well, for a start, neither the main title or what looks like a subtitle are entirely accurate. Holloway's narrative begins many years earlier than 1066, and doesn't reach that year until about two thirds of the way through the book. I would also have said that what happened during the year year is perhaps more driven by personalities than many historical events (particularly those of Edward the Confessor, Harold and William of Normandy). Despite the choice of quotation, Holloway's writing does suggest that these played a huge part - fates imposed remarkably little. (The source, by the way, is the moment in Shakespeare's Henry VI when Edward IV is offered the crown of the deposed Henry; another king overthrown by force, four hundred years or so later than Harold). Making the novel not quite as expected from the cover is not a big problem, though.

1066 is told from an apparently neutral third party perspective, as though it were a documentary - far more detailed, of course, than a historian could be with the available sources. Where sources disagree, or where they are biased or disputed by modern scholars, this means that Holloway has had to make a decision. So, for instance, the fictional version of Harold is killed by the arrow in the eye, though some historians would argue that the depiction in the Bayeux tapestry is at least ambiguous. More seriously, I find the character of Edward the Confessor not entirely convincing - the sources for this are works aimed at promoting the campaign to make him a saint, which are not going to present a rounded picture of an individual and which definitely use ambiguous word choices to do this (he is described a chaste using a Latin word which could either mean virginal - an important qualification for sainthood - or faithful within marriage, for instance). Holloway has clearly done a lot of work on researching the background, but it seems to me to be more trusting in the original sources than modern scholars think they deserve. Given the need to make choices, this is not entirely problematic, but a reader who has come across some of the debates will find it a little frustrating. I feel that the third party neutral narrative was a wrong choice; a first person account from an incidental figure (or multiple figures) might well have worked better.

The most important negative aspect for me in 1066 was the unleavened unpleasantness of the characters.  The men are mostly thugs or devious troublemakers, or  worse; the women are sex toys or helpless political pawns (with two exceptions, Harold's common law wife Eadgyth, and William's wife Matilda). There are some very unpleasant passages involving rape, torture and murder. To a large extent, this reflects the realities of life in eleventh century Europe, but it does become somewhat unrelenting. This was the main problem I had with the book, it was at times a chore to read.

However, there are many positive aspects to 1066. One difficulty with writing this novel is the large number of events which need to be described and put into context; here, Holloway succeeds admirably. It is easy to follow what's going on and who is who. The clear writing style helps with this, too. Of course, the astonishing events of the year make for a memorable tale. While this review may have spent more time on the negative aspects of the novel, they are outweighed in my opinion by the positive. My rating: 6/10.