Wednesday 28 February 2001

K.W. Jeter: Dr Adder (1984)

Edition: Grafton, 1987
Review number: 770

K.W. Jeter was unable to find a publisher for this, his first novel, for many years. This is not because of low quality, but because it was perceived to be obscene. Like J.G. Ballard's Crash, it portrays an extreme sexual perversion in order to make points about Western culture.

The setting is the Los Angeles of the fairly near future, a Philip K. Dick style background. There, on the Interface between LA and Oakland, surgeon Dr Adder pursues his vocation, creating amputee whores to cater for the innermost secret desires of men. He faces opposition from TV evangelist John Mox and his MFOErs (short for Moral Forces, but obviously having other connotations).

Jeter's message about society is bleak, essentially amounting to an accusation that America is crippled and that the "moral majority" is full of hypocrisy. The main point, made by the way in which almost the whole of society is reduced to the Interface, is reinforced by little allusive references - the Mickey Mouse tattoos on amputee androids intended to replace the victims of Adder's surgery, for example. (This particular reference, which is thinly veiled in the novel, may have been another reason for the reluctance of publishers.)

Jeter's writing is very powerful and provocative. This is at least in part due to the subject matter, which many will find obscene (which is, at least to some extent, the point - Jeter wants to make us realise that some aspects of our lives are obscene). The obvious question, then, is whether the results justify the strength of the content, for in this case only the end can justify the means. (If the purpose is either missing or remains unrealised, then the novel is just unpleasant pornography.) Since its publication, Dr Adder has perhaps lost some of its impact, since both its cyberpunk style background and the unpleasant sexuality have become reasonably common in novels. The true measure of the significance of Dr Adder also lies in this fact, if looked at from the other side - it is one of the forerunners of what is a major force in modern literature.

Tuesday 27 February 2001

Delano Ames: She Shall Have Murder (1948)

Edition: Chivers Press, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 769

Delano Ames' series of detective novels featuring Dagobert Brown has been one I have enjoyed for many years, though they are quite difficult to find and this is only the fourth I have read. She Shall Have Murder is the very first one, and it sets the tone for the whole series, if perhaps in a slightly more self-conscious manner than the later novels.

Jane Hamish, Dagobert's girlfriend, works at solicitors Playfair and Son, and has begun a novel which is a thriller set at her workplace in which one of the clients is murdered. This suddenly becomes less than amusing when the particular elderly lady she has chosen as the victim dies, especially when Dagobert proves that this cannot have been the accident it appears to be.

The idea of writing a novel which turns into reality means that Ames has the opportunity to poke fun at some of the clichés of the crime genre. This is occasionally too self-conscious, but is generally amusing. Compared to the remainder of the series, it is not as accomplished; Dagobert is sometimes an annoying character rather than being as charming as he is meant to be.

Jack Vance: Rhialto the Marvellous (1984)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 768
This part of the Tales of the Dying Earth consists of three stories about a group of sorcerers, concentrating on one of their number, who calls himself "Rhialto the Marvellous". As his name indicates, he is not particularly modest, but he is intelligent and devious. Two of the stories are quite short; the middle one, about his rivalry with another magician who frames him for a variety of crimes and practical jokes on his colleagues, dominates the book.

The third story is perhaps the most interesting. In this, the magicians go in search of the sorceror Morrein, once of their number but now vanished. They track him down to the last planet left at the very end of the universe, and it is Vance's vision of the end which is the most compelling aspect of the book.

Rhialto's intelligence makes him a more sympathetic hero than
Cugel, but Cugel's Saga remains the most entertaining of the series.

Saturday 24 February 2001

Mervyn Peake: Mr Pye (1953)

Edition: Penguin, 1972
Review number: 767

Peake's most famous work, the Gormenghast trilogy, has autobiographical connections with his childhood in China. Mr Pye, his only other completed novel, is also related to his life. This is more obvious, because the location of the novel is not a fictional place but the Channel Island of Sark. This is where Peake worked as a young artist. (Some of the geography of Gormenghast Castle is also derived from that of the island.)

Mr Pye, which also exists in the form of a radio play, is a strange novel. It begins fairly naturalistically, Mr Pye being an elderly visitor to the island who aims to bring sweetness and light and knowledge of his "Great Pal" to the islanders. Christianity is never mentioned, but it is fairly clear that he represents the positive side of a particular kind of evangelist.

However, about halfway through things change, as Mr Pye discovers that, in some sort of joke by his Pal, he is beginning to sprout wings like an angel. Suspecting that this is a result of the goodness he has been practising and preaching, he begins reluctantly and rather inexpertly to perform evil acts.

More detailed connection between the novel and Peake's life beyond the setting is hard to see. Mr Pye is certainly not him, but he may be intended to be the young painter Thorpe. It seems more likely that neither character is wholly autobiographical. Peake's clear feeling that Sark needs the ministrations of Mr Pye is perhaps revealing of his attitude to the people of the island - though I believe he was reasonably happy there.

As a novel, Mr Pye is fairly unsatisfying. None of the characters are really convincing, the plot is too arbitrary. Unless you are a real Peake fan, stick to the Gormenghast trilogy.

Leslie Charteris: The Saint in Miami (1941)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964
Review number: 766

The first Saint story to be set during the Second World War takes place in the USA, while that country remains neutral. The main theatres of war didn't really allow Charteris the scope to write the kind of stories that he specialised in, and he later said that he didn't want to diminish any real heroes by the Saint's fictional exploits; this is the reason for taking him halfway across the world.

Nevertheless, the adventure that takes Simon Templar to Miami turns out to be connected with the war, as is quickly apparent when an attempt is made to frame a British submarine in the destruction of American shipping. Like many of the Saint stories set in America, this novel is more like an action thriller than the others, though it is not without its trademark touches of Charteris' humour.

Michael Moorcock: The End of All Songs (1976)

Edition: Granada, 1981
Review number: 765

The conclusion of The Dancers at the End of Time trilogy opens at almost the opposite point in the earth's history, with Jherek Carnelian and Amelia Underwood marooned in the distant past, in the Devonian period with a broken time machine. They are eventually rescued, and return to the end of time, depicted more sombrely than before, to witness the end of the universe that had been predicted by aliens, seeking to warn pleasure loving earth dwellers that their massive consumption would bring the end much sooner.

The way in which this points a finger at our society is if anything more obvious than it was a quarter of a century ago. The whole of the series is a commentary on the present, as much of science fiction is designed to be; this is a particularly successful example.

This third in the trilogy is much darker than the first two, and the description of the earth as the end approaches and things begin to fail is quite chilling. While pessimistic, the novel does have positive moments. All in all, it is a satisfying ending to one of the best trilogies in science fiction.

Friday 23 February 2001

Jack Vance: Cugel's Saga (1983)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 764

The end of Eyes of the Overworld saw Cugel, tricked once more by magician Iuconnu, returned to the spot on the other side of the world from which he had spent virtually the whole of that novel travelling. Cugel's Saga takes up the story where the earlier tale ands, and he spends this novel making exactly the same journey, from Shanglestone Strand to Pergolo, for the same reason: to gain his revenge on Iuconnu.

Thus, Cugel's Saga has basically the same plot as Eyes of the Overworld, even if the episodes along the journey are different. There are other changes which are more important, and which make Cugel's Saga the most accessible and satisfying of Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth.

The whimsicality of the earlier tales rarely becomes humorous. In The Dying Earth, the story is too diffuse, while the character of Cugel portrayed in Eyes of the Overworld is too unpleasant. Now, Cugel is shown in a mellower light, and humour is more apparent. This instantly makes Cugel's Saga more enjoyable.

Thursday 22 February 2001

H. Rider Haggard: King Solomon's Mines (1885)

Edition: Minster Classics, 1968
Review number: 763

Even twenty years ago, King Solomon's Mines was probably read by most school children in England; I suspect that in the time since then it has proved a victim of political correctness.

It is an early thriller, in which South African elephant hunter Allan Quartermain joins an expedition into the unknown interior in searching for both the missing brother of the expedition's leader and the possibly mythical diamond mines, supposed source of Solomon's wealth, for which he was also searching.

The plot today seems rather far fetched, but in 1885 of course there were still large parts of Africa, even relatively close to the South African towns which were barely known by white men. The diamonds of Kimberley had only been discovered fairly recently, and there was no reason why there should not be vast unknown deposits further into the interior. The Solomonic side of the plot is clearly suggested by the Prester John legends and imperialist feelings that anything showing signs of civilization could not have originated in Africa but must have been the result of contacts with ancient cultures nearer Europe.

This final issue is the real problem with King Solomon's Mines today. It is abundantly clear throughout the novel that Quartermain regards the Africans as less than human. It is less clear that Haggard shared the views of his creation, but it is at least likely given his own background.

Cearly you cannot expect Haggard to be a hundred years ahead of his time. However, his writing would need to have something special about it to make the reader overlook its faults, and this is not the case. King Solomon's Mines no longer seems a particularly exciting novel; even the most famous scene (when Quartermain's party convince their captors of their magical powers by predicting a solar eclipse that an almanac tells them will take place the next day) is too far fetched to hold the interest. Poorly written, this is a novel which now deserves oblivion.

Wednesday 21 February 2001

E.L.Doctorow: The Waterworks (1994)

Edition: Picador, 1995
Review number: 761

The industrialisation of the northeastern United States is one of the most important processes in the development of the modern country, but lacking the romance of the Wild West and the South it is not so frequently a subject for fiction. Doctorow's novel, which is set in New York in the early 1870s, is an exception, and it is a gothic tale strongly influenced by writers of the period.

The narrator is a newspaper editor, who is in a good position to understand New York in this period of rapid change, as the city expands at an incredible rate after the North's victory in the Civil War while remaining under the corrupt government of the Ring led by Bill Tweed. A symbol of the changing city, which is the source of the title, is the vast reservoir behind high walls in the north of the city, providing water to supply industry and the expanding population.

The gothic side of the novel is a Frankenstein inspired plot, which begins when one of the freelance contributors to the newspaper sees his dead father in a carriage on Broadway. The father had been a rich man, his fortune founded on the slave trade and wartime profiteering, and his son had been disinherited following an argument about morality. But when Augustus Pemberton had died, the fortune had disappeared, leaving the widow and another son virtually destitute.

The Waterworks is more than a historical novel. Indeed, it is very unlikely that the events described in the novel could have taken place. It is in part a homage to the Gothic, and is also intended to show something about today's America. This is basically that the single-minded pursuit of wealth does not produce happiness - something which may seem obvious, but often seems to be ignored in practice.

James Joyce: The Dubliners (1914)

Edition: Granada, 1977 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 762

All of Joyce's writing is about Dublin, and the people who live there. It is perhaps most obviously the theme of his only collection of short stories, particularly given their title. Because of the references to people still living in 1904, it took ten years for the stories to be published; this may seem a bit of a strange reason today, as there is nothing really defamatory here. (Characters do make disparaging remarks about Edward VII, in the context of Irish nationalist politics, so this may have been what frightened the publishers.)

The attitude of the stories to the city in which they are set is complex, and generally fairly ambivalent. The various people in them by no means share a single outlook. Generally, though, there is a tension between the attraction of the familiar, that of the truly estimable aspects of the city, and the feeling that it is a place which limits those who live there. Several characters aspire to leave, but then change their minds; or regret not having left in their youth. This latter is what happens in A Little Cloud, in which a journalist meets a friend once again who has lived in London for some years; while on the one hand regretting missing out on his friend's fashionable life, he on the other notices that it has coarsened and vulgarised him.

It is not just Dublin itself which inspires such conflicting emotions. There are relationships in many of the stories which also contain tensions, mainly through husbands and fathers who become violent when drunk. Clearly, Joyce is not the first writer to have attempted to portray this sort of situation, but he does so with a realism that was new and with a mastery of technique which is breathtaking.

The stories in The Dubliners generally concentrate on character and background rather than plot, but they are so well written that even when virtually nothing happens in a story it is still not just interesting but gripping. Like all Joyce's writing, the stories are minutely observed and words are chosen with great care. They are also deliberately arranged, the age of the protagonists gradually increasing through the collection until the final and longest story, The Dead. Of all his great writing, The Dubliners is the most accessible, and forms an ideal starting place for the reader new to Joyce.

Tuesday 20 February 2001

Paul Kearney: Riding the Unicorn (1994)

Edition: Gollancz, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 760

Kearney's third novel is extremely like his first, The Way to Babylon. It has the same premise, with a man's visions of a fantasy world being like madness, with him and those around him doubting his sanity. In the earlier novel, it is the death of the central character's wife and his subsequent depression which triggers the visions, which are of a world about which he has written two novels. This is both a powerful motivation for mental illness and a reason for the particular visions he sees, from a psychiatric point of view' he has been unable to write the concluding part of a successful trilogy.

Here, though, the motivation is far less. Willoby is a disillusioned, ex-army prison officer, alienated from his wife and daughter. The most interesting thing about him is that, in late middle age, he is far older than most heroes of fantasy novels. His visions of another world are diagnosed as schizophrenia, an illness whose symptoms are difficult to pin down, prompting the quotation comparing it to a unicorn printed at the front of the novel which supplies its title. There is no specific episode which prompts the visions, and their content has no very clear connection with the rest of his life.

This makes Riding the Unicorn a rather less satisfying novel than The Way to Babylon, and being so similar to Kearney's début is also a disappointment. There are good ideas in it - Willoby is being summoned as a person with no connections to any of the political factions in the fantasy world to commit a crime which can then be safely disavowed; the nature of the crime turns out to have interesting psychological resonance, as does his relationship with the slave girl set to tempt him to follow the wishes of his summoners - but it is an idea about which Kearney doesn't have enough that is new to say to make this novel equal his earlier standard.

Saki: Reginald (1904)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 759

Monro's first collection of short stories is itself extremely short; twenty or so in under forty pages in this edition. Most of them are not really stories, but little anecdotes, providing context for a witty remark from effete, advanced and cynical Reginald. These include what is probably Saki's most famous phrase: "She was a good cook, as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went."

The purpose of these vignettes is to satirise society. This is done as much through the character of Reginald as it is through what he says and does. He is a product of high society, and yet something of an outsider in that he does not take it seriously. Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward are the kind of figures that Reginald brings to mind; Wilde was clearly an influence on Saki, and Coward, who wrote the introduction to this collected edition of his work, was an admirer.

Saturday 17 February 2001

Jack Vance: The Eyes of the Overworld

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 758

Although The Eyes of the Overworld is considered to be set in the same background as The Dying Earth, it is quite different from Vance's debut. To start with, it is a proper novel, with one plot running all the way through it. This means that there is less space for background, as the central character becomes more important.

The plot of The Eyes of the Overworld is simple. Cugel attempts to rob the mansion of magician Iuconnu, only to be trapped inside until the absent owner returns. As punishment, he is sent on a quest to the ends of the earth to retrieve the lenses of the title which show the spiritual world.

As a central character, Cugel is unsympathetic, being unscrupulous, vain and charmless. Although this is commendably unusual, it does make the novel difficult to get into and not terribly rewarding to read.

Robert Rankin: The Sprouts of Wrath (1988)

Edition: Sphere, 1988
Review number: 757

The fourth of Rankin's Brentford series is written along much the same lines as the first three. Following accidents and sabotage, Birmingham has to cancel its Olympics bid at the last minute, and a mysterious sponsor allows Brentford borough council to step in and take over. A stadium appears overnight, in the form of a pentagram made from a revolutionary new anti-gravitational substance, tethered in the air over the buildings of the London suburb.

The Sprouts of Wrath is not as funny as its predecessors, and this means that the chaotic nature of the plot is more exposed to view. There are some good ideas - perpetual layabouts Jim Pooley and John O'Malley having to find paid work; the attempt by the brewery to turn traditional pub The Flying Swan into an Olympic theme bar; the town councillors who believe themselves to be reincarnations of American Indian chiefs - but Rankin's heart doesn't really seem to be in it this time around.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood: redRobe (2000)

Edition: Earthlight, 2000
Review number: 756

A garish cover and the unusual typography of the title proclaim redRobe to be a trendy novel. It is fashionably violent and streetwise, but it is another case of Earthlight's designers pigeonholing a novel where it doesn't quite belong. It isn't just a novel about drugs, torture and sex; redRobe has more to it than that. (It does, however, contain lots of drugs, torture and sex, and much of the violence in particular is extremely unpleasant.)

redRobe is better than just a distillation of what is currently trendy. It has a strong vein of humour, mostly centred around uncooperative artificial intelligence, such as hand grenades which have to be persuaded to explode at the time you want them to. It also has a reasonable plot, about the search for the computer chips containing the memory backups of a murdered Pope. Its setting, based heavily on cyberpunk, is reasonably interesting if not particularly original.

It is the violence and the exploitation of violence - warfare has become the staple of TV as the ultimate thrill in fly on the wall drama - which stands out as the major feature of the novel, and in the end this overwhelms the other aspects. (Of course, the media packaging of violence is an important issue, and clearly this is one of the things that Grimwood wants to say about our society today, but using packaged violence to say it is a little disingenuous.) Although I found redRobe an interesting read, it did not lead me to want to explore Grimwood's other novels.

Friday 16 February 2001

E.R. Eddison: The Worm Ouroboros (1922)

Edition: Ballantine, 1971
Review number: 755

Often touted as a rival to The Lord of the Rings, Eddison's epic fantasy has more in common with the large scale of The Silmarillion. Eddison wrote four loosely linked novels while working as a civil servant, of which The Worm Ouroboros is the first and best known. Its subject is a war between the Demons and Witches, the latter aided by a willingness to act dishonourably and by the dread sorcery of their king, Gorice XII.

The flaws in The Worm Ouroboros are fairly obvious, particularly at the beginning of the novel. The strangest is a narrator, who is very dull and who is even forgotten by Eddison after a couple of chapters. It is symptomatic of a more general fault, which is a lack of revision. Unlike Tolkien's writing, The Worm Ouroboros is clearly not the product of years of obsessive rewriting, background notes and singleminded vision. It reads far more as though it were written down in one sitting. There are problems with details of the background. Like Tolkien, Eddison uses familiar names from folklore for his peoples; there are Demons, Witches, Imps and so on. However, with the exception of the Ghouls, these all appear to be nations of human beings, and the result is that the reader is torn between the traditional ideas conjured up by these names and the way in which Eddison portrays them. Tolkien's dwarves and elves are far more like their traditional namesakes, and this is a lead which has been followed by just about every fantasy writer since.

The whole story of the novel, we are told, is set on the planet Mercury, and this also gives a bizarre feeling; a magical realm works much metter in a mythical setting like Middle Earth.

There is one aspect of the way in which Eddison uses pieces of the real world which works extremely well. In most fantasy novels, when poetry occurs, it is usually a poor imitation of some sort of heroic sage, derived via models like William Morris and Tolkien from medieval sources. What Eddison does is to find poetry which fits with the style of his writing and the situation; this means that it is written by poets like Shakespeare and Spenser and is a pleasure to read rather than something to skip.

The Worm Ouroboros has many excellent qualities; once you get into to it, it is quite compelling. It is imaginative and literary, if a bit lacking in planning and structure. However, it did not grip the world's imagination as the less poetic Tolkien did, and so did not provide the inspiration to hundreds of imitators that The Lord of the Rings has, with the result that it remains something of a curiousity in a forgotten corner of the fantasy genre.

Thursday 15 February 2001

Jack Vance: The Dying Earth (1950)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 754

Jack Vance's debut is something of a fantasy classic, and was a big influence on writers like Michael Moorcock. Although described as a novel in the list of Vance's works at the front of his books, it is really a collection of linked short stories.

The links are more to do with setting and characters than shared plot elements, and some even contradict others (as dead characters live again, for example). The setting is most important; like Moorcock, Vance gives atmospheric background a high priority. This setting is nominally the earth of the far future, a world full of decadent magic (many of the secrets of the past being lost or poorly comprehended) and many dangers, including creatures who have taken shape from the many centuries of humankind's nightmares.

Each story takes the form of a short quest, and are successful enough to leave the reader regretting the introduction of a new protagonist with the next story; we want to know what happens next. The major failing is, paradoxically, that there is too much invention; it is hard to get our bearings in the world Vance portrays. Still, this ensures that the stories will repay re-reading.

Wednesday 14 February 2001

Hammond Innes: Solomon's Seal (1980)

Edition: Fontana, 1982
Review number: 752

One of Hammond Innes' best thrillers is closely concerned with the unthrilling world of stamp collecting. Its hero works for a Suffolk estate agents, arranging sales mainly of the effects of the dead. When asked to make a valuation for sale of a property, he is intrigued (as an amateur collector himself) by an unusual stamp album, as well as by the young woman living in the house. The Holland family is connected to the Solomon Islands, and she wants to sell to cover the costs of care for her dying brother, whom she is convinced has been struck down by a witch doctor's curse.

The plot is then concerned with the origins of the stamp collection, the shipping line owned by the Holland family, and the feuds associated with its history, and comes together to make a convincing piece of action, more so than in most of Innes' novels.

Ken MacLeod: The Cassini Division (1998)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 753

The follow up to The Stone Canal is very like one of Iain Banks' Culture novels, though it also contains many references to other science fiction writers. It has a similar wry humour, and even goes to the extent of copying the wonderful ship names Banks uses.

The basis of the plot is again the division of humanity into those stored on computer (the "Fast Folk") and those who remain flesh and blood. Most of those who have become Fast Folk have gone mad, and because of their immensely faster speed of thought, have become a grave danger to those who have continued to live in the normal way. The Fast Folk have colonised Jupiter, and the constant stream of computer viruses which they produce have led to the virtual abandonment of electronic computing, and a deadly fear that one day they will develop a new virus which will be able to take over the brain via the optic nerve. The perimeter of Jupiter is guarded by the commando force named the Cassini Division, and one of their commanders, Ellen May Ngwethu, is the novel's central character.

Ngwethu is really the major force in the novel from a literary point of view. She narrates as well as dominating the plot, and is really the only fully drawn character. I didn't find her totally believable, but I loved her smart space suit, which can transform itself into whatever clothing is useful or appropriate.

In the end, I felt that The Cassini Division was somewhat disappointing. Like The Stone Canal, its surface brilliance isn't a reflection of anything deeper to say. MacLeod seems to be a sort of lightweight Iain Banks, though several of Banks' more recent novels also seem less profound and complex than his writing in the eighties.

Saturday 10 February 2001

Leslie Charteris: The Happy Highwayman (1933)

Edition: Pan, 1958 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 751

In the yellow jacketed editions of the Saint stories, the full series to date of publication is listed, in what seems to be chronological order. However, The Happy Highwayman is not in its correct place. Instead of following the early Second World War stories, it is in fact from six years earlier and is one of the first collections of short stories.

The nine tales in The Happy Highwayman are typical of Charteris' writing in the mid thirties, a time when he was immensely prolific. Most of them are not especially memorable, and could stand as templates for Saint stories - in particular The Mug's Game, about card playing swindles. Two of the stories are more unusual, and have been anthologised in omnibuses of Saint stories so must have been considered among the best. The Star Producers is an amusing story of a swindle involving acting lessons which are used to persuade the mark to help finance a non-existent stage production, along similar lines to the film The Producers. The other story, The Wicked Cousin, has a politically incorrect depiction of a disabled man (to make an anachronistic judgement), but his inability to speak intelligibly is important in the plot.

Lindsay Davis: One Virgin Too Many (1999)

Edition: Century, 1999
Review number: 750

By the first century AD, many of the traditional observances of Roman religion must have seemed silly and irrelevant. They were appropriate to the small farming village hundreds of years in the past, so they are about things like making crops grow, not the concerns of the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world. Nevertheless, this feeling would have been accompanied by a certain reverence, for the cult practices were relics of a time seen as simple and virtuous. At the very least, an assumed reverence would have been politic in public. The cults were also an established path to political honours: Julius Caesar himself held the post of Pontifex Maximus.

In One Virgin Too Many, Davies' detective Falco becomes involved in several aspects of this, as one of the candidates for the lottery for a new Vestal Virgin comes to see him and tells him that one of her family has threatened to kill her, and a member of a corn cult, an Arval Brother, is killed at one of their ceremonies as though he were an animal sacrifice. These provide the crime side of the novel, and much of the humour comes from Falco's appointment to the fairly ridiculous office of the Procurator of the Sacred Poultry, responsible for the welfare of official birds including the sacred geese on the Capitol hill (descendants of geese who warned the city of an attack in the past).

This is one of the most amusing novels in the series, but it still has a fairly complex investigation; extremely satisfying.

Friday 9 February 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Hollow Lands (1974)

Edition: Granada, 1981
Review number: 749

Like the first volume in the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy, An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands is set partly just before the end of the universe, and partly at the end of the nineteenth century. It has little to add to what has been said by the earlier novel, and is mainly a continuation of the plot in a fairly predictable way.

Jherek Carnelian has returned to his own time when the Victorians attempted to hang him. He is still in love with Amelia Underwood, and now seeks a new time machine in which he can travel back to Bromley in 1896. He cannot throw himself into the creations which amuse the dwellers at the end of time in the same way that he used to. All he wants to do is to recreate what he saw in the past and to return there as soon as possible.

The virtues of The Hollow Lands are shared with An Alien Heat: the vivid description of the end of time, the bemusement of Carnelian in the nineteenth century, and the satiric parallels with twentieth century Western life. It is a little lighter and more humorous than its predecessor, but it is very much the middle novel in a trilogy.

Thursday 8 February 2001

Robert Rankin: East of Ealing (1984)

Edition: Sphere, 1988
Review number: 747

Rankin's first published writing was a play, Armageddon: The Musical, which later became a novel. In East of Ealing the third Brentford novel, much the same theme is taken up. When Jim Pooley finally pulls off a "Yankee accumulator" (a series of bets on six horses, the winnings from each put on the next), he becomes immensely rich, and his hand is stamped with a bar code which he can use to pay for goods instead of cash. But strange things are happening; as well as the number that goes with the barcode being "666", every building site in Brentford is taken over by computer firm Lateinos and Romiith, before a curtain of light separates Brentford from the rest of the world and inhabitants begin to be replaced by robot replicas.

East of Ealing is not as amusing as The Antipope or The Brentford Triangle; the Day of Judgment is perhaps a rather serious theme for treatment in this way. It does contain its fair share of ludicrous ideas, including one which has bizarrely been taken seriously by some evangelical Christians. That is, that the "mark of the Beast" referred to in Revelation (which it says will act as a license to buy and sell under the patronage of the Beast) is a computer bar code, stamped indelibly on the hand. The special number 666, which is stamped on Pooley's hand, supposedly allows unlimited credit. I think that this idea probably originates in East of Ealing, and as a serious proposal it is so silly that it is hardly worth arguing against.

Ivan Turgenev: A Month in the Country (1850)

Translation: Isaiah Berlin, 1981 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 748

One of the most important plays of the nineteenth century, A Month in the Country is a precursor of the work of Chekhov, and brings to the theatre the psychological interests of Turgenev's novels (which also influenced the writers who followed him). Surprisingly, Turgenev had little confidence in the play, and certainly didn't expect it to be staged. He was modest about his writing in general, and meekly accepted the verdict of literary friends that he was no dramatist. It is possible to see why these critics did not respond positively to the play. It is immensely long; without cuts, a performance would last over five hours. It is not a romantic melodrama, though it has a theme, doomed love, which has melodramatic potential. (Melodramas were the staple of the nineteenth century stage.) Its author describes A Month in the Country as a "comedy", but it is an extremely puzzling generic attribution. It has political and sexual undercurrents which caused trouble with the official censor, leading to its original publication in a drastically cut version. (This translation, like all modern ones, is of the restored full text.)

The plot of A Month in the Country is pretty much a mirror image of that of Turgenev's novel First Love, in which a young man discovers that his rival for the affections of the woman he considers a goddess is his own father. Verochka is a seventeen year old orphan who lives with Natalya Petrovna, her guardian Natalya has recently appointed a new tutor for her own son, the student Belyaev, and Verochka develops a crush on him as Natalya desires to make him her lover. The mainspring of the play is Natalya's attempts to manipulate those around her to get her desires, and this includes trying to arrange a marriage between her ward and their neighbour, an unprepossessing, unromantic man in his late forties. Her machinations eventually cause the destruction of the lives around her.

Turgenev reasonably enough regarded Natalya as the central character in the play, though it is possible to produce it to make the naive Verochka almost as important. The tutor, unaware of the passions he has created, is a fairly empty part. The other men are more interesting. Islyaev, Natalya's husband, is fairly peripheral to the action; always wanting to believe the best of everyone, he sees very little of what is going on around him. The censor wanted to change his and Natalya's relationship, on the grounds that it wasn't decent to portray a woman with a living husband chasing another man. Islyaev's best friend, Rakitin, has been hopelessly in love with Natalya for years, and his unrequited passion could almost provide the basis for a play of its own. Then there is the local doctor, Schpiegelsky, who is a cynical outsider (as a man from a poor background, he is of the wrong class to be fully accepted). His is perhaps the most forward looking role in the play, the observer of the follies of mankind having become quite a staple character in modern literature.

The length of the play gives Turgenev the space to develop the characters in an almost novelistic manner, and this is how he initially regarded it, as something he wrote to be read rather than performed. It does, in fact, work well on the stage, with judicious cutting; far more so than many plays not intended for performance.

Wednesday 7 February 2001

Paul J. McAuley: Pasquale's Angel (1994)

Edition: Gollancz, 1994 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 745

What might have happened if Leonardo da Vinci had concentrated exclusively on engineering, creating working versions of many of the devices he sketched? That is the intriguing idea behind Pasquale's Angel, which is set in a sixteenth century where these devices have precipitated an Industrial Revolution centred on Florence.

The central character of the novel is apprentice artist Pasquale, who becomes involved in momentous events after meeting journalist Niccolo Machiavegli. While drawing an illustration for his newspaper of an argument between one of da Vinci's entourage and visiting artist and diplomat Raphael, news comes to the office that one of Raphael's aides has been murdered. This is a minor locked room mystery which is modelled extremely closely on The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

The plot of the novel, which is rather poor, is mainly an excuse to speculate on what might have become of some of the important figures of the time in the changed background posited by McAuley. It is as a novel of ideas that Pasquale's Angel is interesting. I'm not sure how much an early Industrial Revolution is actually possible, given that the advances two hundred years later depended on economic and technological developments which had hardly begun in the sixteenth century. Capitalism was in its infancy, and materials technology, in particular steel manufacture, was not advanced enough to actually make some of the devices described, such as large scale steam engines.

Robert Rankin: The Brentford Triangle (1982)

Edition: Sphere, 1988
Review number: 746

The second novel in Rankin's series is much like the first, giving the reader more comic insight into the occult reality behind the apparently typic London suburb of Brentford. This time, it is concerned with the connections between the installation of a Space Invaders machine in the Flying Swan pub, an alien spacefleet homing in on an unsuspecting Earth, and the powerful ley lines which form Brentford's boundaries.

Many of the ideas of the series seem to be based on the kinds of things which sometimes come up in silly discussions in pubs - hollow earthers, ley lines, UFOs and so on - and pub culture is very strongly reflected in the novels. The main location in which they are set is the Flying Swan, the characters are mostly the pub regulars. There are absolutely no women characters at all; it is an old fashioned pub culture, from the days before big screen satellite TVs, before pub quizzes, before slot machines, before woman drinkers.

This doesn't stop The Brentford Triangle being very funny, and even quite an enjoyable adventure. It probably helps if the reader is British, so that traditional pub culture is something familiar, nostagic even.

Robert Rankin: The Antipope (1981)

Edition: Sphere, 1988
Review number: 744

Many fantasy authors attempt to mingle the familiar and the exotic in their writing; the familiar enables the reader to grasp what is going on, while the exotic is what defines the genre and what is sought by its fans. The familiar is supplied either by reference to the world around us, for example through the common device by which a normal person suddenly finds themselves in a world of magic, or by reference to the commonplace gestures of the genre.

In humorous fantasy, this combination of the mundane and the fantastic is frequently used for comic effect, by making it amount to more collision than a union between these elements. In Robert Rankin's first novel, beginning of one of my favourite series, this is very well done indeed. The mundane aspect is a pub in a mid-seventies suburb of West London. However much Brentford might appear to be a normal part of the city, it is only like that on the surface. In fact, it, and the Flying Swan pub in particular, forms the focus of all kinds of occult manifestations. Brentford actually exists, and was presumably much as described by Rankin in the sixties, at least before the Great West Road was turned into the M4.

The Antipope is about an attempt to take over the world from the Seaman's Mission in Brentford, built in the nineteenth century to house indigent sailors. Although the man who runs the establishment has successfully barred anyone from taking advantage of its facilities for some years, he is unable to resist a malevolent tramp, who not only moves in but radically transforms the Mission. Only Flying Swan regulars John O'Malley and Jim Pooley, with the aid of expert on the esoteric Professor Slocombe, can stop his fiendish plots.

The Antipope is, like the rest of the series, very funny and undemanding reading.

Tuesday 6 February 2001

Rafael Sabatini: Bellarion (1926)

Edition: Hutchinson & Co, 1928 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 743

By modern standards, Sabatini's prose is rather florid, but it is ideally suited to this tale of early fifteenth century Italian politics. It was a larger than life time, with swaggering condottieri, Machiavellian plotting, and high stakes in politics and war; and Sabatini portrays it atmospherically.

Bellarion, his hero, is a young man of extremely poor origins brought up in a monastery. After naively falling in with a false friar on a journey to Pavia, he becomes a fugitive in the principality of Montferrat, and then by chance involves himself in the complicated affairs of its ruling family. By showing himself a master of political manoeuvre, he begins a rise to power, eventually commanding his own army of mercenaries.

The big problem with Bellarion, once the reader is used to the style, is the central character. He is too good to be true, constantly able to outguess all those around him. His only flaw, in terms of the attitudes of his time, is a lack of any desire to excel personally as a leader; though not lacking in courage, he knows that his physical prowess in the field of battle is low, and is unwilling to expose himself to danger unnecessarily. Sabatini's heroes do tend to succeed through use of their brains rather than through their bodies; he consistently supports the intellectual over the physical.

William Rushton: W.G. Grace's Last Case (1984)

Edition: Methuen, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 742

William Rushton embroils probably the most famous cricketer of
all time in an outrageous and hilarious investigation into the
death of Castor Vilbastard (pronounced Vilibart, as he and his twin
brother Pollux insist), as he is about to bowl at Grace at Lord's.
This investigation, which has its roots in a disastrous MCC tour of
the US a few years earlier, leads Grace and co-investigators John
Watson and A.J. Raffles to Paris and then to the moon, encountering
such famous real and fictional Victorians as Mrs Beeton, Dr Jekyll
and Mr Hyde, Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde. Supremely silly, and
consistently funny, W.G. Grace's Last Case is extremely

Saturday 3 February 2001

J.D. Robb: Vengeance in Death (1997)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998
Review number: 741

In this Eve Dallas novel, a certain repetitiveness is shown; the plots of books in this series are a little too similar. Once again the NYPD of the future is investigating a serial killing, and once again it seems to be the case that the killings are connected in some way to Eve's rich husband Roarke. In this case, the connection is particularly obvious, as Dallas has been singled out by the killer for taunting as each death occurs, and Roarke's butler Summerset is being framed for the murders. There is really a connection, and it takes the couple to Dublin, where Roarke was born, to follow up clues there.

The novel is still enjoyable, but each volume in a series should really break at least some new ground. The appalling standard of copy editing continues - a tradition which really should be broken - the Irish police are called "Garda" not "Guarda".

Alan Furst: Red Gold (1999)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1999
Review number: 740

Following on from The World At Night, Red Gold continues to chronicle the exploits of Hugh Casson, one time film producer, as he becomes reluctantly involved with the various anti-German factions of occupied Paris. While definitely wanting the Germans ruling France, Casson is not a hero and probably would have kept his head down and stayed far away from de Gaullists, disgruntled Vichy Regime secret service and certainly the Communists if circumstances has allowed.

As in The World at Night, two components of Red Gold lift it above the usual level of Resistance thrillers: the characterisation of Casson and the atmospheric depiction of wartime France. Red Gold is basically more of the same, as you might expect of a sequel; The World at Night set a high standard which is maintained here.

Paul Kearney: The Second Empire (2000)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 739

The fourth of Kearney's Monarchies of God series, The Second Empire is the first which doesn't introduce any new elements. It carries on the themes and plots established in the earlier novels - the attempt to colonise the newly discovered Western continent, the war between religions as the Turk-like Marduks attempt to overrun the kingdom of Torunn, the newly territorial ambitions of the worldly Inceptine order of monks (which becomes the second empire of the title). Even though the title implies a concentration on the Inceptines, it is the Torunnan fight for survival which takes up most of the novel, and which provides most of the excitement.

The Second Empire is definitely a mid-series novel, and relies heavily on a knowledge of the events and characters of its predecessors. As some plot strands begin to resolve, it starts to indicate where the series as a whole will be heading. An excellent continuation of a most interesting series.

Friday 2 February 2001

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Martians (1999)

Edition: Voyager, 1999
Review number: 737

This collection of short stories, all previously unpublished, were written to fill out Robinson's famous Mars trilogy after that had been finished. They mainly concentrate on the period covered by Blue Mars, the last and poorest novel of the three, which is a bit unfortunate, and most of them read like rejected sections from the novel, which is more so.

A small number of stories stand out. The most interesting are written from the point of view of Michel, the psychologist who accompanied the original colonists to help them continue to work together as a team. In them, however, the project is cancelled because of his report on the acclimatisation trials in Antarctica, which were used to decide on the final group from the short listed candidates. Then, years later, he meets Maya, who would have been the leader of the colony once more; they talk about what might have been if the colonisation had gone ahead.

If Robinson had published short stories as he had been writing the novels, they would probably have been better; I am sure that magazine editors would have prompted him to improve them, and filling out the earlier novels would have been more interesting. Something else I would have been interested in would have been non-fictional essays describing the relationship between the science described in the trilogy and current research. This sort of thing might not be to everyone's taste, but I am sure that it would be fascinating to many of the fans of Robinson's kind of hard science fiction.

Dorothy Simpson: Dead and Gone (1999)

Edition: Warner Books, 2000
Review number: 738

When the wife of a prominent lawyer goes missing at a dinner party, a police search is begun as soon as they are informed. Finding her body in a well in the garden is the beginning of a case for Simpson's detective, Inspector Thanet, which exposes an extremely dysfunctional family: distant father, mother with compulsive shopping and adultery habits, daughter with unsuitable fiancée, another daughter who disappeared four years ago with her own unsuitable boyfriend, never to be heard of again.

The Mintar family could provide material for several crime novels; they have a large number of problems and secrets. It is a case where Thanet has almost too many avenues of enquiry, and, taken by itself, the novel would be a superior if traditional mystery. Looking at in relation to the series as a whole, one aspect of Dead and Gone really stands out. Part of the mystery involves incest between a brother and sister who do not know that they are related. This theme has come up before in the Thanet series, and while it provides a variety of convincing motives for murder and other crimes, it is a device which Simpson has now unfortunately used too frequently.

Thursday 1 February 2001

William Gibson: Idoru (1996)

Edition: Viking, 1996
Review number: 736

We are rapidly approaching the era when virtual celebrities will become a commonplace; there are already websites which feature purely digital news readers. We will no doubt soon see computer generated actors (improving on Jar Jar Binks) and musicians. Eventually, they will have at least simulations of personalities of their own. The pivotal event of this novel depends on this idea; rock star Rez announces his engagement to a virtual personality.

Believing this to be a sign of some form of insanity, various people start to do something about it: the rock band entourage, who hire Lacey, one of the protagonists, to take a rather mystic look at the data about Rez to see if the patterns in it can tell them what is going on; the Seattle area fan club, who send a representative to the nightclub in Tokyo where the announcement was supposedly made, to find out the truth behind the rumours that reached them.

Gibson's novel, which fits into the post-cyberpunk science fiction world that he was instrumental in creating, is about the nature of fame. This is not just shown by Rez and the idoru (virtual celebrity); Lacey's previous job was to work for tabloid Slitscan, researching exposés of celebrities often with the collaboration of the celebrity themselves. Gibson's view of the world of the famous in the future is cynical; he shows a world where manipulation by and of the media is the nature of celebrity. There are clear signs of this development in the world in which we live today, and the reader will hardly be amazed by the uncanny prescience of Gibson's predictions, but Idoru is well written, an interesting extrapolation of current trends.

Stephen Marlowe: The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes (1991)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 1991
Review number: 735

This trendy-at-the-time novel takes the known facts about the life and background of the creator of Don Quixote, adds fantasy and knowing humour (of a style reminiscent of both Salman Rushdie and John Barth) and comes up with an enjoyable story.

Miguel de Cervantes certainly lived a full life. In the Spanish army at the battle of Lepanto, captured by Algerian pirates, reprieved from execution (which begins the novel, hence the title), imprisoned several times, anathematised by the church, write of one of the most famous novels of all time. To this, Marlowe adds a career as a spy, infatuation with his sister, and a mystic mentor - who is the Arab writer whose work the introduction to Don Quixote claims Cervantes translated as the novel. It is a rich mixture, and it is occasionally rather annoying, with various not particularly subtle ironies involved in the narrative.

The novel's main problem is that Marlowe is too conscious that he is being clever. The prose frequently seems to be saying "Look at me!", and this is tiring. In small doses it is enjoyable, and Cervantes is at least interesting to read about.