Saturday 28 July 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Laughter of Carthage (1984)

Edition: Phoenix, 1994
Review number: 887

The second of the Pyat novels - centred around a minor character who originally appeared in the Cornelius Quartet - takes his story from his escape from the collapsing Russia of the civil war which followed the 1917 revolution to a new life in the States. He is as unpleasant a character as ever, definite proof (if any were needed) that the narrators of novels do not have to reflect the views of the author. In this novel, Pyat becomes involved with the Klu Klux Klan, and this is just an extension of his racist views from his earlier condemnation of Jews and Turks. The racism of our past is easily forgotten; it can be seen in the writers who have survived - Kipling, Buchan and Haggard, and to a greater extent two of the most popular twentieth century authors of all, Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie - but is even clearer in those who have now basically been forgotten or whose politics have been overshadowed by what they did (such as film director D.W. Griffith).

It is relatively easy to see why Moorcock wanted to write about Pyat despite his lack of sympathy with the kind of views he would give the character. It can be very difficult for those who would be called liberals to understand the way that people like Pyat think, and Moorcock has certainly managed to give an insight into the paranoid world of conspiracy theories these people often espouse. (The title refers to this; Carthage is Pyat's term for the "decadent" Eastern and African influences which in his view were at this time constantly trying to bring down the virtuous white civilization.) Ironically, while constantly bemoaning the way in which most people have been hoodwinked into thinking these conspiracies non-existent, Pyat is constantly being the innocent dupe - assuming his memoirs to be honest - of others who use him to front fraudulent schemes.

The von Bek novels, particularly The City in the Autumn Stars, demonstrated that Moorcock had the ability to write great historical novels as well as atmospheric fantasy. In the Pyat series, this talent is fully realised. In The Laughter of Carthage, we have a meticulously researched insight into the past. There may be similarities to Flashman, but these are mainly because of the antiheroic central character; this series is stronger, more hard hitting.

James Joyce: Finnegans Wake (1939)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 888

Joyce's final work could well claim to be the most impenetrable twentieth century novel of all. Even in a time when experimental  techniques have flourished, it stands out as a virtually unreadable collection of immensely clever ideas.

In Ulysses, the most difficult section to follow is the scene where Bloom visits the brothel, which is laid out like a bizarre play. It is full of allusions and wordplays, many of them quite obscure. Finnegans Wake basically begins where that scene left off. Few of the  words are actually standard English; most are transformed to have double meanings (at least!). A typical, if simple, example is the word "hiberniating", which is clearly from the context a transformation of hibernating but with the extra letter to make it refer to Ireland (Hibernia being the Latin name for Ireland). It thus has connotations of Ireland as a sleepy backwater, away from the centre of European affairs. This sort of effect must make the novel a proofreader's nightmare.

In Ulysses the desire to concentrate on the clever surface of the prose at the expense of underlying meaning can for the most part be resisted; in Finnegans Wake, where almost every word has two or three meanings which require an effort to untangle, this temptation becomes almost overwhelming. I found that two things which help are to imagine the text being read in an Irish accent (which makes sense of some of the spelling) and to keep the edge of a bookmark under the line being read (to prevent the eye from straying). The novel is very hard work to read, and it is admiration for its cleverness in the manipulation of language which keeps one going. In this way, it is like a particular kind of poetry (The Wasteland being a good example) rather than
other novels.

So what is Finnegans Wake about? Like almost all of Joyce's prose, the setting is Dublin. This is not the real city in the same way it is in The Dubliners or Ulysses, but more a place which is a metaphor for I am not quite sure what - the world, as the centre of a mythic universe, perhaps. (It is clearly an extension of the relation of Dublin geography to the locations of Homer's Odyssey in Ulysses.) Finnegan is a bricklayer who has fallen to his death, and this is linked to the fall in the garden of Eden in the very first sentence of the novel. (This is probably the best known quotation of the whole novel, being printed on Irish bank notes: "Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's..." - which is also I presume a reference to Eden Quay on the Liffey near the Abbey Theatre.) Other characters combine archteypal significance with personification of Dublin geography - H.C. Earwicker (Here Comes Everybody) is also Howth Castle and Environs.

In the end, the details of what Finnegans Wake is about are not particularly important. It is a novel which is a celebration of the pleasure of playing with language. Its most obvious precursors are Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Lewis Carrol's Jabberwocky, particularly the latter. There are still writers who enjoy playing with language in this sort of way, mainly for comic effect - Spike Milligan is an example - but in the end the novel perhaps marks a bit of a dead end in modern literature, having taken the idea of the pun as far as it can possibly go.

Friday 27 July 2001

Kate Ellis: The Funeral Boat (2000)

Edition: Piatkus, 2000
Review number: 886

Having read some good review of Ellis' other mysteries featuring Wesley Peterson, I was initially disappointed by The Funeral Boat. The beginning is badly let down by poor dialogue, and I seriously considered abandoning the novel after the first two or three chapters. Things improve, even though unconvincing dialogue remains the novel's most serious flaw.

The story begins with the discovery of a body on a Devon farm, which soon seems to be likely to be a Viking warrior buried a thousand years ago rather than, as the police hoped, a villain who once lived at the farm, who had disappeared some years earlier. At about the same time a Danish tourist has gone missing, kidnapped, and there is a spate of armed robberies at local farms. Every one of these crimes - as well as the body - seems to Peterson to be bizarrely conntected to Viking raids in the area, though his original desire to become an archaeologist rather than a policeman might have something to do with this.

Apart from the dialogue, there is much to admire in The Funeral Boat. It is well characterised, the combination of policework and archaeology is unusual, and there are nice little touches of humour. I suspect that even so it is likely to be one of the weaker novels in the series, so that I look forward to trying others.

M. John Harrison: Signs of Life (1997)

Edition: Flamingo, 1998
Review number: 885

The still quite new industry of bioengineering has always been an ethically controversial one. This is the subject of Harrison's novel, which describes the human relationships in a small firm of couriers specialising in the field. Their business hovers around the border of the illegal - biological waste, cultures and sometimes even live hosts are what they carry. The main characters, Mick "China" Rose and Choe Ashton, run the company; Rose narrates, and seems always to be more fastidious about what they do - quite often, he doesn't want to know what they are carrying.

The novel is set rather vaguely around the end of the twentieth century, though the event which drives the second half of the novel, the decision of Rose's girlfriend to have some experimental cosmetic surgery, definitely belongs to today's future. While not feeling like a science fiction novel, Signs of Life is full of ideas and certainly makes the reader think about the ethics of the industry and the lack of ethics of those working in it. As Harrison's past work leads us to expect, the novel is extremely well written; its subject matter, however, is not for the squeamish.

Wednesday 25 July 2001

Richard P. Feynman: The Meaning of It All (1998)

Edition: Viking, 1998 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 884

These three lectures, about science, society, philosophy, religion and so on, were delivered in the early sixties but not published until after Feynman's death. They read as though they are basically transcriptions of more or less off the cuff speaking rather than as composed in written form for the book.

Basically the theme of the talks is how science relates to society's other concerns, with interesting digressions on subjects like why politicians' promises can't be trusted (because real life situations are often too complex for sound bit answers). The sections where Feynman defines science and where he talks about religion are particularly interesting, but there are thought provoking ideas throughout.

There are two - at least - disappointing aspects to the lectures. One is the occasional piece of naive American patriotism, endorsing the space race, for example, because it wouldn't do to let the Russians get too far ahead. This is more a product of the time and place than anything else, but it certainly dates what is said and reduces the impact of the more interesting bits.

The other problem is more serious, and pervades the whole book. The general tone of the lectures is over-simplified, and has a tendency when written down rather than spoken to come over as patronising. Feynman was a great communicator, and I suspect this problem is a result of the lectures being transcribed from the oral to written medium without editing. The Meaning of It All is interesting, but could have been fascinating if intended to be a book from the start.

Tuesday 24 July 2001

Ursula K. le Guin: The Farthest Shore (1973)

Edition: Puffin, 1974
Review number: 883

The third, and for many years, final, volume of le Guin's Earthsea series is again a bleak novel. It is more explicitly about death than the earlier two - that is what the title refers to - though it is treated in a less personal way here and so The Farthest Shore may be a novel suitable for younger children than The Tombs of Atuan.

Sparrowhawk is now an old man by Earthsea standards (about fifty), and is Archmage of the wizard's isle of Roke. There, the wizards begin to hear rumours from the farthest reaches of Earthsea that magic is ceasing to work. A prince from the West Reach comes with a definite message to this effect, and Sparrowhawk sets off with him on a quest to find out what is happening.

This turns out to be, in fact, people giving up their power for a promise of eternal life. The life they then have is only a pale reflection of real living, and brings a grey world without emotion or joy - or magic. It is possible that there is a subtext here about the way in which Puritan Christianity suppressed the practice of magic, but this may be reading rather too much into le Guin's writing.

While The Farthest Shore was a satisfying conclusion to the series when it was a trilogy, the first two novels are more memorable; the characters of A Wizard of Earthsea and the setting of The Tombs of Atuan make each of these books stick in the mind. This is probably a reason behind the eventual composition of Tehanu, though that too has a lesser impact.

Saturday 21 July 2001

Rudyard Kipling: Stalky and Co. (1899)

Edition: Wordsworth, 1994
Review number: 882

Few of Kipling's fictional stories contain much of an autobiographical element, despite his frequent use of the first person. In this collection of stories, the school and some of the characters are based on his own experiences; Beetle, in particular, is a self portrait.

The Devon boarding school portrayed in the book is basically a factory for producing future officers of the British army to serve in the colonies, and is by modern standards a violent place, with bullying and savage corporal punishment. Yet Kipling's evident nostalgia for his time at the school infects the reader, who senses the intensity of the friendships and the enjoyment of the experiences, which mainly focus on triumphs over the more petty minded masters. The success of his treatment makes a modern reader quite uncomfortable, especially when he seems to have fond memories of bullying. The way that his schoolboys rebel against authority was controversial at the time, but much less so now. Times have changed.

The reader is also made aware, more deliberately, of a different dark undercurrent. Sprinkled throughout the stories are notes about the future deaths of the boys; they are destined to die young in the service of the British Empire. (One of them, interestingly, is going to be shot by his own men, a less glorified death than the others.) Kipling's point is presumably that the Empire was maintained at a human cost; despite his reputation as a jingoist, this is not the only place where he showed an awareness of this. Few today would deny that there was a human cost, though the focus has canged so that we would think about what it meant to the colonised rather than the coloniser.

Stalky and Co. is one of the most uncomfortable of Kipling's books to read, and this is a measure of the author's talent, as he glories in what is to us unpalatable and almost brings us to feel we appreciate it too.

Leslie Charteris: The Saint in Europe (1954)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1954
Review number: 881

By the mid fifties, Simon Templar is pretty firmly based in the United States. (This changes when the Saint TV series began.) This collection of seven short stories is, however, based around the idea that it is a series of adventures which take place on a lengthy holiday in France and Germany. These include the usual style of adventure - facing those who prey on the innocent, mainly - but there are also two rather unusual stories.

The first of these has dated a bit, and is basically a Saintly version of Captains Courageous; a spoilt, rich young woman is making life difficult for everyone around her, until Simon takes her in hand. By stealing her money and telling the hotel owner that she is a known confidence trickster, he forces her to join him on an idyllic trek through the Black Forest, introducing her to the joys of nature.

Far more convincingly brought off, however, is The Spanish Cow, set on the Riviera. The central character of this is a middle aged rich widow, who owns and wears a fortune in diamonds but manages to expose herself to the mockery and bullying of the other resort guests by, for example, responding to jokes about her appearance by making faces. The Saint is attracted by the diamonds, and is nice to her, only to take pity on her when he realises how lonely she is. It is a sentimental story, unusually so for Charteris, and it succeeds reasonably well in engaging the reader's sympathy.

Friday 20 July 2001

John Le Carré: The Little Drummer Girl (1983)

Edition: Pan, 1984
Review number: 879

This novel is a departure from the spy stories which were the norm for le Carré, and a more successful one than The Naive and Sentimental Lover, because more along the lines of his usual writing. It is about a spy infiltrating an organisation, but not the KGB or the British secret service - this is a Palestinian terrorist cell intent on attacking Jewish targets in Europe. The infiltrator is a British actress, Charmian (known as Charlie), who has been picked for this extremely dangerous task by Israeli intelligence (this is the most unlikely aspect of the novel). They are portrayed just like the Palestinians, unpleasant in some ways, idealistic and admirable in others. This evenhandedness, a refusal to demonise either side, is the major strength of the novel.

Charlie is very well drawn, a believable would-be radical, ready to espouse any cause that she thinks the authorities would disapprove of. The main agents and terrorists are also convincing. The backgrounds, which include hippie communes on Mykonos, refugee camps in the Lebanon, English provincial theatres and German towns, are quite sketchy; the effort has gone into characterisation instead.

The Little Drummer Girl is, I think, the best of all le Carré's novels in which George Smiley is not a character, and is a thought provoking thriller.

Tony Daniel: Warpath (1994)

Edition: Gollancz, 1994
Review number: 880

Tony Daniel's debut novel is quite remarkably imaginative, and is filled with well integrated, unusual ideas. It is mainly set on the planet Candle, five hundred light years from Earth, and the main character is a reconstituted man from the past, when his brain pattern was beamed into space from Earth. That is not the only bizarre method of space travel in the novel; when the first spaceships arrived, they were amazed to find the planet already colonised by Mississippi Indians, who had found metaphysical ways to paddle their canoes across the interstellar void before the white man even arrived in America.

Throughout the galaxy, Indian colonists control the entire stock of a kind of clay that can act as the best computer memory available - a small lump can store an entire human personality. This control seems to be about to bring war between the Indians and the later settlers, and this is a war which mirrors conflicts between the creatures who act as magical familiars for the Indians.

It is the combination of ideas from Indian folklore and history - the ownership of the clay is obviously inspired by the discovery of oil on Indian reservations - with more traditional science fiction which makes Warpath unusual. It is a fascinating piece of imaginative writing, and marks Daniel as a novelist well worth looking out for in the future.

Thursday 19 July 2001

C.P. Snow: Time of Hope (1949)

Edition: Macmillan, 1972 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 878

My first acquaintance with Snow's Strangers and Brothers sequence came - I think - in the early eighties, when I watched an excellent TV adaptation before reading the whole series. Now, twenty years later, my memory of this has been stirred by recently reading Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, and so I'm reading them again. The central character of the series, Lewis Elliot, comes from a family on the borders of middle and working class, born in the early part of the twentieth century at a time when these distinctions were of importance. The novel begins with the formative events of his childhood, his father's bankruptcy and his mother's death. Determined to escape his background, Lewis studies for the bar - an upper middle class profession - despite warnings that he shouldn't get involved in things above his station. The main part of the novel is about his early days in chambers, about him growing up, and about his disastrous passion for the unstable Sheila Knight.

Elliot is almost an exact contemporary of Powell's Nick Jenkins, but other than that there are few points of similarity between them. Everything is easier for Jenkins, because of his privileged background, and this removes a lot of the drama from A Question of Upbringing. Powell's intention, I suppose, was to write a satirical commentary on high society, while Snow clearly wants to make points about the effects of class - how bright people like Elliot are held back by their background. This makes Time of Hope a more satisfying novel, and A Question of Upbringing a book that is more interesting as satire.

Stendhal: Lucien Leuwen (1894)

Translation: H.L.R. Edwards, 1951
Edition: Penguin, 1991
Review number: 877

Stendhal's famous novels, Scarlet and Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, are accompanied by a set of uncompleted projects, of which Lucien Leuwen is the longest and most complete. Two parts were written, requiring only final editing, and a third was projected before the likelihood that the French censor would ban publication led Stendhal to abandon the project.

What is different about Lucien Leuwen that would have made the censor sit up and take notice? Like Scarlet and Black, its setting is contemporary, but it is extremely critical of the regime and of the narrow minded pettiness which characterised French politics of the period (the 1830s). Real ministers can be identified from Stendhal's descriptions. Every so often, Stendhal even felt that he had to put in little footnotes to remind the censor that the expressed views of the characters do not necessarily match the opinions of the author, even though to be both a radical and a conservative would have been quite difficult.

The hero of the novel is an ardent young man, similar in many ways to Julien in Scarlet and Black. The first part, which was more comprehensively revised by Beyle and published before the second under the title The Green Huntsman, is set in the provincial town of Nancy, where he is posted as a second lieutenant in the cavalry regiment quartered there. His background, which is wealthy but not noble, separates him from his fellow officers and from the town's society. Although, as a sophisticated Parisian, he is contemptuous of the society, both the nobility and the bourgeois, he works to become part of it when he falls in love. His feeling that the stupidity of these people would stop them from being successful in the capital is shown to be wrong in the second part. Here, Lucien deserts his post because of the unhappiness of his love affair, but the influence of his father secures him a post in a ministry.

The whole novel is an attack on the pettiness of the French bourgeoisie, the elevation of mediocrity and the cult of the "dead centre" which would perhaps be equivalent to an exaggerated version of the question often posed in parodies of the British Civil Service - "Is he sound?". In its incomplete state, there is clearly polishing that would have remained to be done, and a certain amount of tightening - Beyle wrote it with the idea that he would put more in than he needed and then cut it; but it remains a savage indictment of 1830s French life.

Wednesday 18 July 2001

Brian Stableford: The Fountains of Youth (2000)

Edition: Saint Martin's Press, 2000
Review number: 876

The third novel in Stableford's trilogy about the efforts made by the human race to postpone and eventually eradicate death is rather different to the first two. Set farthest into the future, its characters are the first generation of true emortals, not subject to death by ageing or disease. While the earlier novels were both murder mysteries, The Fountains of Youth purports to be the autobiography of Mortimer Gray, a historian who has written an epic history of death - a subject which fascinates those who are no longer subject to it.

The genre of autobiography is ideally suited to the more thoughtful mood of this novel, which is to a large extent an exploration of the psychological effects that the abolition of death might have. The ideas include the rather disturbing aestheticisation of death, with suicide parties and even the tailoring of new diseases to overcome the advanced immune systems of the emortals. Gray's work is used, against the wishes of the author, as an inspiration for this kind of movement.

The novel which came into my mind while reading The Fountains of Youth was Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, but it is really more like Robinette Broadhead's story in Pohl's Gateway series. Stableford's narrative fails to convey as alien a personality as Stapledon's arrogant last man, nor does he make a rapid pace of change in the long life of his central character as apparent as Pohl does. Stableford's concerns are different, and the character of Gray is different; he is not interested in technology and he is not writing out of contempt for the past. Gray is almost a scholarly hermit, not paying that much attention to what goes on around him except as it affects his obsession with death, and even his interest in that is quite philosophical.

One very odd thing about Mortimer Gray is that, in a world where death has been virtually abolished, he keeps on encountering it. He survives a major catastrophe when quite young, but that it just the first in a series of accidents. Of course, the historian of the human battle of death needs such an encounter to suggest the theme of his work, but it makes his attitude to death atypical and for him to continually just escape from it is not very believable.

One of the interesting ideas in the novel, not really connected to its main theme, is the way that the history is structured. Each of its ten parts consists of a vast organisation of supporting evidence, in the form of links overlaid on the future equivalent of the World Wide Web - clearly using a more sophisticated form of hypertext than we do at the moment - with an overriding commentary. It certainly seems to me that as new generations arise who grown up familiar with the ideas of hypertext, its use will become more and more sophisticated, and the linear narrative with the occasional link which is the form of most web pages today (including this one) will be less and less common.

The novel is more obviously a vehicle for Stableford's ideas than the preceding ones, because these ideas here are more to do with psychology than technology. In the end, this makes the novel more thought provoking but less gripping.

Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon: Casino for Sale (1938)

Edition: Hogarth Press, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 875

The second Brahms and Simon collaboration is a sequel to A Bullet in the Ballet, and is once more a humorous murder mystery set in the chaotic Stroganov ballet company. The eternally optimistic Stroganov, seeing an advert for a casino for sale in a minor resort in the south of France, decides that his fortune is made. Buying it, he transfers his ballet company there and is immediately plunged into rivalry with the casino owned by the English Lord Buttonhooke.

There is very little difference between A Bullet in the Ballet and Casino for Sale. Both are amusing, affectionately ridiculing the pretensions of the edges of the professional ballet world; both are filled with eccentric caricatures; and both have a murder mystery entirely subsidiary to the humour. A Bullet in the Ballet is perhaps more consistently funny, but like one and you will like the other.

Saturday 14 July 2001

Iris Murdoch: The Bell (1958)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 874

In the late fifties, the unusual thing about Murdoch's novel would have been its sympathetic treatment of homosexuality, then still illegal in the United Kingdom; not it is the setting in a religious commune. This is a group of people gathered around the enclosed nunnery of Imber Abbey, based at the house in whose grounds the abbey stands; they want to experience something of the monastic life without taking the full step of a lifetime commitment.

The novel is set during a time of excitement for the community, as they prepare for the arrival of a new bell for the abbey, to finally replace a medieval original lost with the dissolution of the monasteries. There are, as in any isolated small community, tensions, and these are heightened with the approach of the ceremony they are organising. The most important character in the novel is in fact not a member of the community, but her arrival acts as the catalyst for several events: Dora is returning to her estranged husband, and he is working in the archives of the house.

The novel is a third person narrative, but the narrator is made a character as its sympathy moves from one person to another, coloured by their views of and feelings towards the others. It is very clever, and presents a rounded view of the characters in a way that avoids lengthy exposition.

The leader of the community, Michael, is the subject of the homosexual subplot; after a scandal at a boys' school where he was teaching, he was unable to go on to become an ordained minister as he had hoped. The scandal seems to have been forgotten, until the boy involved, now grown up, arrives at Imber; his sister is intending to take the vows to join the Abbey, and is spending some time as a member of the community as part of her preparation. The actual feelings Michael has for the young men he becomes involved with are tenderly conveyed, and his internal struggles, rationalisations and self-condemnation as a pious member of a church which does not approve of his inclinations, are realistic and moving.

Like The Sea, The Sea, The Bell has a central object which has symbolic significance. The bell is clearly an image of religious faith, and the relationship between the new bell and the original medieval one develops certain aspects of this. The novel includes two sermons which use the bell as an image, given by members of the community; these actually contradict each other, which says something about how even people who agree about many things can do so with completely different rationales.

The Bell is a subtle and clever novel. However, its intellectual pleasures are accessible and the novel is a delightful read.

Terry Pratchett: Lords and Ladies (1992)

Edition: Corgi, 1993
Review number: 873

The third novel to feature the coven of witches from the Discworld kingdom of Lancre follows on directly from Witches Abroad, as the three of them return home so that Magrat can marry the king. All is not well, however, as the sinister elves are trying to take advantage of a weakness in the fabric between worlds to attack the Discworld from which they were excluded centuries earlier. (Elves here are not the noble and beautiful creatures you might expect from other fantasy novels; cruel, sadistic and heartless, they can touch human minds to affect our perception of them.)

The elves are the big problem with Lords and Ladies. They have no character and no redeeming features; they are basically machines for being nasty. As a result they evoke repulsion rather than humour, so that Pratchett has to work very hard to be funny. (It is not so much the elves' unpleasantness which is the problem but the fact that they are so uninteresting.) Without them, the novel would be moderately amusing; with them it trades on the legacy of enjoyment left behind by the earlier novels in the series.

Friday 13 July 2001

Ann Barker: His Lordship's Gardener (1999)

Edition: Robert Hale, 1999
Review number: 871

It is clear from the outset that this historical novel is not intended to be taken seriously. The Earl of Lyddington returns from abroad to find that in his absence his sister has moved the village (where he hoped to have a drink in the pub before heading for home) as part of the improvements being carried out to the estate. Moving the village which obscured a fashionable view is a not unheard of action for the English aristocracy at this time; it is the way that the Earl mislays the village which is funny.

The story is a romance, complicated by the fact that the woman the Earl falls for, the daughter of the man redesigning his garden, is disguised as a man because women are not allowed to work. There is a wonderful moment when Lyddington, not yet knowing the truth but finding himself attracted to the friend he knows as Frank, summons the best looking of his servants to make sure he isn't starting to fancy men. The big flaw in the novel is that the moment he discovers the truth is not narrated, which means that the story jumps rather abruptly, which is disconcerting.

In the main, His Lordship's Gardener is an enjoyable, tongue in cheek version of one of the sillier literary genres, the Regency romance, rather in the manner of Elizabeth Peters.

John Brunner: The Compleat Traveller in Black (1987)

Edition: Methuen, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 872

The five tales in this collection, which as it says is the complete set of stories about the traveller in black, were written over about a twenty year period and were revised for inclusion in this volume. The stories all have the same plot, each describing a tour made by the traveller around the cities in his domain, reducing chaos and promoting law; he makes this journey whenever a particular configuration of stars is seen in the sky. He is described as the unique being with many names but one nature; basically this means that he has no other motivation than his task. He goes about it by granting wishes, usually in a way not at all intended by the person making the wish, as is traditional in fairy tales.

Despite his one-dimensional personality, the reader becomes quite fond of the traveller in black, as he plods around his domain, becoming more weary as his work nears its completion. The work involves quite a complex idea of what law and chaos mean; the basic idea is that a world ruled by chaos is unpredictable, with, say, natural laws changing from day to day; but the wishes seem to promote law through a departure from the norm while, on the other hand, practitioners of magic seek to use chaos by making it submit to law and generally end up strengthening it.

Another writer whose fantasy is principally about the relationship between law and chaos rather than good and evil is Michael Moorcock, but his characters seek to balance the two and his conception is rather simpler if capable of spanning far more stories.

The tone of the stories, however, is much more like that of Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth, even if the settings are rather more prosaic. The arcane magic arts, for example, are overcome by the traveller's quiet "As you wish, so be it"; the stories are peaceful and enjoyable. They are among the subtlest classics of the fantasy genre.

Thursday 12 July 2001

Charles Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 870

Two subjects have fascinated readers of Dickens' final, unfinished novel ever since the author's death. The more obvious is the question of how it should end; what we have is about half of a psychological thriller, not quite enough to make it clear exactly what the conclusion was to be. The second topic of discussion is just how much the novel is different from Dickens' other fiction.

Edwin Drood is set in the cathedral town of Cloisterham, based on Rochester, one of Dickens' homes in early life. There, Edwin Drood, a young man who lives in London, spends his holidays with his uncle Jasper. He is visiting Rosa Budd, who is just completing her schooling and who was betrothed to him long ago by the wishes of both their parents, now deceased. To the town also come the Landlesses, brother and sister, who have returned to England from the East and are lodging with a relation in the Cathedral Close. Neville Landless takes a fancy to Rosa, and is piqued by Edwin's growing feeling that Rosa and he are not particularly suited. They quarrel about his treatment of her, and though they seem to have made it up, he is an obvious suspect when Edwin goes missing after the two of them dine with Jasper.

The one thing that is clear about the solution of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is that the villain is Jasper, despite the virtuous front that fools the world. The unanswerable question, in the absence of notes about the ending, is how his guilt will become known; this is obviously connected with the appearance of a stranger in Cloisterham just before the end of the completed section. Conjectures as to who this is have included Neville's sister in disguise, trying to clear her brother's name, or even Edwin himself. To know what Dickens intended here would probably make it easy to work out the solution.

That Our Mutual Friend, Dickens' last completed novel, and Edwin Drood are rather different in some fairly fundamental way to the rest of the author's output is undeniable. The difference almost certainly stems from two causes. Towards the end of his life, spurred by feelings of financial insecurity because he was supporting two households, Dickens massively increased the reading tours that he made, which were extremely lucrative. Not only did they leave him little time to write new material - the gap between the two novels is much longer than in the earlier days, when the appearances of some in periodical form overlapped - but the physical strain they caused is likely to have hastened his death. The longer period of gestation must have made a difference to the way that he approached his novels, and the pair are much more carefully put together. Edwin Drood is much sparser than Our Mutual Friend, which has many complicated subplots and far more characters, and is perhaps a novel planned by a man conscious of his own exhaustion.

The other cause of the change is that there were new writers about who were writing different novels; Edwin Drood was at least in part inspired by a desire to complete with Wilkie Collins, a close friend. Times change and fashion moves on, and to some extent Dickens must have wanted to change in response. That he succeeded so well is a tribute to just how talented he was; Edwin Drood is recognisably by the same author as Oliver Twist, but has new concerns which are expressed differently.

The very beginning of Edwin Drood makes it obvious that it would have been a great novel, with its remarkably modern seeming description of the awakening from an opium dream. The atmosphere of Cloisterham is as well rendered as any Dickensian backgrounds, and the plot is clearly one of his best. The element which is missing, an absence hardly noticed, is the crowd of minor characters which throng most of his novels, Our Mutual Friend included. The incompleteness of Edwin Drood is one of the major tragedies of English literature.

David Brin: Sundiver (1980)

Edition: Bantam, 1985 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 869

Brin's first novel succeeds because of the quality of its central idea, which is not new but which is treated in a way which is very fertile. The source of the idea, in Brin's case, is an attempt to make Erich von Daniken's ideas about aliens being responsible for the rise of human culture a sensible basis for a science fiction story. He does this by postulating a galaxy filled with alien races all of which have become sapient through the intervention of another, through genetic manipulation and teaching (a process Brin gives the convenient name Uplift). The one exception is humanity, with no obvious guiding hand. Either intelligence on earth arose spontaneously or the human race has been abandoned halfway through an Uplift project, both possibilities which are disturbing to the galactic community.

The obvious science fiction reference for this kind of story is 2001, but Brin does not mention Clarke even though Daniken, another influence, comes up quite frequently. It is an interesting development of the idea to come up with an entire galactic culture based on Uplift, using humanity's anomalous status to motivate this and the other novels which follow it.

The story of Sundiver is fairly typical of hard science fiction, about manned travel into the interior of the sun, where strange creatures are encountered which are unknown even to the superior science of the galactics. The hard science component, while interesting, is comparatively unimportant; Sundiver is really about the different personalities, human and alien, involved in the project. The portrayal of the aliens is particularly impressive, each species being convincingly non-human in a different way.

One criticism of Sundriver which has to be made is that the prose style is rather pedestrian, and this is off-putting to start with. It is the quality of the ideas which engages the attention rather than that of the writing.

Wednesday 11 July 2001

E.L. Doctorow: City of God (2000)

Edition: Little, Brown & Co, 2000
Review number: 866

Doctorow's most recent novel manages to be both intensely baffling and immensely satisfying. Fragmentary and ironic, it is hard to say what it is about, beyond its major theme of Jewishness in New York. The two main characters are the Episcopalian rector of rundown St Timothy's in Manhattan and the rabbi of a progressive synagoge on the East side; they meet when the cross disappears from the church altar and is found on the synagogue roof.

This symbolic act of vandalism is quickly forgotten, which is a pity, in a whole range of other strands - the story of a small boy in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, short essays on quantum mechanics, eavesdropping on the thoughts of Wittgenstein, and commentaries on pppular song in the style of the Midrash, a wonderful idea. As the novel proceeds, Doctorow himself becomes more and more present, as we get, instead of a standard narrative, reports of meetings between him and the characters, as though he were a journalist trying to put together a factual story rather than a novelist.

In places City of God is extremely intellectual, but it has character at its heart; the growing relationship between rector and rabbi is the centre of the novel, keeping everything else in perspective so that the reader is only occasionally confused. Every section of City of God is extremely well written; while by no stretch of the imagination as accessible as Doctorow's earlier novels, it is fascinating to read.

Orson Scott Card: Children of the Mind (1996)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 868

The story of Ender Wiggin, one of the most famous in modern science fiction, is brought to a close in this novel, originally intended to be part of Xenocide, from which it follows on immediately. The planet of Lusitania, home of the hive queen saved by Ender and of the third sentient species known to mankind, the pequeninos, is threatened with destruction by a fleet sent by the Starways Congress, because it is infected by the devastating descolada virus.

The virus has been genetically modified to make it harmless, but the fleet heading to Lusitania does not know this. This is because the instantaneous communication device, the ansible, is being turned off because a computer program has been detected using it to gain unauthorised access to computers across the galaxy (you would have thought that the people designing the network would have learned some of the security lessons of the twentieth century Internet). This program, known as Jane, is the last hope of Lusitania, as she is able to make use of the vast amount of computing power to move ships instantaneously - but as she loses access to machines she as rapidly losing the power to do so.

The plot of the novel is quite simple, being basically an unravelling of the strands in the situation inherited from Xenocide. The main interest is actually theological, something extremely unusual in genre fiction. Card has conceived of the soul as an immortal entity, normally inhabiting the Outside, a region beyond normal space and time used for the faster than light travel, but sometimes taking up residence in a sentient being. This is not a new idea, but Card looks at it in a new way. For example, the soul of Ender - Card calls them aiuas, probably to avoid the religious connotations of the word soul - is split between three bodies during his first trip Outside, one his own, and the others created from nothing in the images of his early siblings as they were in early adulthood, Valentine being that part of his personality he most admires and Peter that which he fears. The nature of the two of them is really the central theme of the novel, and is its biggest problem.

The plot is rather neatly worked out, and the writing gives something of the impression that once he'd planned it, Card lost interest, and that the Peter and Valentine characters are too one dimensional (being just aspects of another personality) for him to be interested in them. Things rather suddenly improve about two thirds of the way through, when the character of Ender looks as though he might die; this is something that the author can care about.

The aiua idea is interesting, but a bit problematic in a fictional setting because it is very tempting to use it as though it were a magic wand. It isn't too well defined, and so there are no rules that Card imposes on himself. As a result, Children of the Mind springs no surprises and has nothing to say. The relation between the material universe and the Outside is one of the areas left undefined; it would be interesting to have some issues in the novel which are more to do with how the physical and non-physical affect each other, as this is really at the heart of how Card's model could work.

The novel has smaller problems as well (the treatment of Japanese and Samoan culture, for example, feels perfunctory and stereotyped) and so is not among Card's best; it is a sad end to a wonderful series.

Saki: When William Came (1914)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 867

In 1914, Monro felt that appeasement was the wrong way to deal with Germany; he wanted to sound a warning that if the British did not prepare for war, the consequence would be subjugation. This novel is the consequence, propaganda swiftly overtaken by events; he wanted to portray a Britain which had lost a war and been annexed by Germany to shock public opinion towards war preparation.

From the perspective of those who lived after that war when it cane, who know how horrific it was, to have tried to bring it about seems quite an immoral act - though of course Monro felt he was doing his duty. There are certainly parts of the novel which now seem obscene, in the light of later twentieth century events (one of the results of the German victory which is deplored is a massive influx of German Jews into British society). As the war virtually destroyed the gentlemanly way of life which is the essence of Saki's writing, it may well be the case that had Monro survived the war - he enlisted in 1914 and was killed in France in 1916 - he might have preferred the occupation he depicted. Indeed, from a late twentieth century perspective, one really striking thing about the novel is the naivéte of the "horrors" of the occupation comparted with, say, the treatment of the Poles by Nazi Germany.

Some of the predictions are interesting, given the aftermath of the war. One particularly ironic comment is the reasoning given by German newspapers campaigning for the annexation of a defeated Britain: "They pointed out that Britain, defeated and humiliated, but with enormous powers of recuperation, would be a dangerous and inevitable enemy for the Germany of tomorrow..." This is a pretty good description of the situation in postwar Germany which was so important in the rise of the Nazis to power.

Because of the purpose for which it is written, When William Came is the least amusing of Saki's fiction; it would certainly be forgotten today were it not for his other stories. It is in parts interesting, but perhaps it would be better if it had been forgotten.

Saturday 7 July 2001

James Joyce: Ulysses (1922)

Edition: The Bodley Head, 1960
Review number: 864

It is virtually impossible to describe a novel as complex as Ulysses, even if it were fully comprehended. The basic idea is quite simple, to describe the interior life of a man during one particular, not atypical, day in his life. There is much more to it than this, of course; the evocation of Dublin in 1904 - based not just on memory but on exact research; the parody of such things as advertisements, the newspaper society pages and the catechism; the recounting of bodily sensation in unprecedented detail; the relationship with Homer's Odyssey.

I recently heard an interesting fact, that the 1904 day so meticulously created was the date of Joyce's first assignation with the woman he later married. And yet there is really no trace of this in the novel, no reason why this particular day is of more importance to the characters than any other. It is tempting to try to relate events to this fact - the funeral of Patrick Dignam, for example; what was buried on that day in Joyce's life?

One of the discussions in Vonnegut's novel Timequake is about Ulysses, with one participant debunking the idea that there is really any parallel with the Odyssey (the alternative theory offered is that this was just something Joyce said to provoke interest from academics). Things you might count against it might include the character of Molly Bloom, so unlike Homer's faithful Penelope. There is certainly no direct, linear relationship between the book and the poem; an episode in the novel might match an episode in the epic, but the order of episodes is different. (A lot of the Odyssey is actually about Telemachus' search for his father, or consists of Odysseus recounting tales of his adventures. Stephen Daedalus represents Telemachus, as Bloom's son died young.) Though the relationship is not simple, it is definitely there, and Vonnegut is perpetrating his own literary joke. (That is not to say that there are no other structures in the novel; in the catechistic section, the events of the day are linked to a variety of rituals, including the distinctly non-liturgical "ritual of Onan" as well as Catholic church sacrements.) Even if the Homer link is considered established, there are still important questions which it raises. Why did Joyce choose the Odyssey, and what is it that he is using the parallel to say? These questions are closely related, and difficult to answer without considering another - what is the theme of Ulysses?

Joyce's intention was clearly to write something about what a human being is, both physically - just about every part of the body plays a part in the novel - and psychologically, with its groundbreaking use of what later became known as the stream of consciousness style. Of all Greek heroes, Odysseus is the least stereotypically heroic, even if many of the others are flawed in one way or another. He is a liar, a cheat and a thief; he succeeds by using his intelligence rather than his strength (though he is heroically strong, as is shown by the showdown with the suitors, when none of them is able to bend his great bow). The closest parallel here to Bloom is that Bloom writes newspaper advertisements. The plot of the Odyssey is also of technical assistance to Joyce, as its sequence of episodes along a great journey provides scope for a variety of treatments as well as setting.

It may be, then, that Joyce saw Odysseus as close to modern men, and so Bloom is an unheroic version of his mythic counterpart. Of course, it is also true that Bloom's life is epic to himself.

It is all to easy to lose track of the deeper structure of this difficult to read novel. It is so full of clever tricks, of fascinating details, that there is a tendency to admire the surface and stop paying attention to what is going on beneath it. This is particularly the case in sections like the brothel scene and Molly's internal narrative which ends the novel, which are so brilliantly executed that they almost compel concentration on the immediate context rather than the whole story.

Certainly fundamental to an understanding of twentieth century literature, Ulysses is one of the greatest and most difficult to read of all novels.

Lucius Shepard: Life During Wartime (1988)

Edition: Grafton, 1988
Review number: 865

The central character of Shepard's second novel, David Minghella, is an American soldier in a pointless jungle war, this one in Guatemala rather than Vietnam. The mind powers of the Psicorps play an important part in the fighting, but Minghella won't volunteer when he passes their tests. A meeting with a beautiful psychic woman changes his mind, and after his training he discovers that the war isn't what it seems; it is actually part of a centuries old feud between two families of psychics.

The novel is about American imperialism, about the sort of war that might have come out of the Contra rebellion in Nicaragua. Seen from Minghella's viewpoint, what Life During Wartime has to say is definitely from the American side, if one which is not jingoistic, and is more about his suffering and that of his comrades than the former inhabitants of the deserted villages. The psychological effect that the Vietnam War had on many of its American veterans is obviously the inspiration behind the chilling descriptions of the zombie-like armies of those who have had their minds destroyed by too much psychic manipulation.

By using the genre to say something about the effects of war and the nature of American imperialism which could not be said in a traditional narrative, Shepard has created one of the more interesting and thoughtful science fiction novels of the eighties. He didn't go on to become the major nineties author - at least, not that I noticed - that many fans expected at the time; a pity.

Friday 6 July 2001

Holly Lisle: Diplomacy of Wolves (1998)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 863

For the Secret Texts series, which this novel begins, Holly Lile has combined a fairly standard fantasy quest with a background drawn straight from post-apocalyptic science fiction. There are many similarities to, say, A Canticle for Liebowitz, with the major difference that the world destroying war was not nuclear but fought with magical weapons producing effects similar to fallout, persistent radiation and mutations.

One of the mutations, still occurring unpredictably, produces a being called a Karnee, a werewolf. Kait Galweigh is one of these, hidden by her immediate family - even though the Galweighs are one of the five clans known as the Families which rule the world, this won't save her from the priests' checks for impurity. Brought up to become a Family ambassador, she is acting as a chaperone for a cousin before her marriage when she overhears a plot to destroy the clan during the wedding, by using her heightened Karnee senses.

There are plots within plots, a great deal of complex manipulation and confrontation in this novel, and it is not all completely successfully depicted. Lisle is better at individual relationships, like the strange bond between Kait and a fellow Karnee from the enemy Sabir family than at the political machinations. There are nasty characters and unpleasant actions in the story, and again, Lisle is not quite up to making the psychological impact of these on the other characters believably disturbing. Nevertheless, this is an interesting novel and I want to read the rest of the series.

Piers Paul Read: The Templars (1999)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999
Review number: 862

In Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, every conspiracy theory, every mad story about secret societies, all of them involve the Templars. Their dramatic downfall and the bizarre accusations made against them tend to overshadow the rest of their two centuries of history and the purpose for which they worked.

Read aims to set out something of the true history of the Templars, avoiding the sort of speculation that Eco was talking about. His book is aimed squarely at the popular market, with a good deal being a retelling of very well known medieval history. He spends some time explaining some of the background of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, (to establish the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem), and to describe the development of monastic ideals (as the Templars were a monastic order), the authority of the papacy and the background to the Crusades. Most of the book is in fact a history of the Crusades, and my major criticism of it is that Read doesn't make enough effort to narrate the history with the role of the Templars at the centre.

In the end, despite Read's efforts to put the order in its context, it is the downfall of the Templars which forms the most interesting part of the book. In contrast to many narratives of the story, he makes it seem almost inevitable, as the Templars failed to adapt as the Hospitallers did after the fall of Acre and the end of the Western presence in Palestine in 1291. Unlike the other order, they put a low emphasis on learning (particularly in the law which increased massively in importance at around this time), and they were much more dependent on the West (conquering the island of Rhodes effectively made the Hospitallers independent of the control of Western monarchs). The massive psychological blow of the fall of Acre thus made them particularly vulnerable, so that when Philip IV of France moved against them, they were in a poor position to try and stand up to him, and the old fashioned, elderly grand master, James de Molay, found it impossible to make any coherent plan of resistance. Even so, it did take about ten years from the initial accusations to the final suppression of the order, and this is something brought out by Read which is a contrast to many other accounts.

The Templars includes too much background to really be a history of the order; there is scope for a more focused narrative, even one aimed at the same popular audience. I would have wanted to see more on how the Templars became a prototype of the banking houses of the late Middle Ages, more about how as a multinational organisation they related to the states around them (to phrase the question in an anachronistic way) - they very nearly became a state in their own right, when a childless Spanish ruler bequeathed his kingdom to them; his relatives managed to have the will overturned. This is perhaps of some relevance today, as the nation state is declining and the power of international corporations is growing. Read is a good writer, though, and his book is an interesting history of the Crusades even if it does not really throw new light upon its subject.

Thursday 5 July 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Opium General and Other Stories (1984)

Edition: Grafton, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 861

The immediately obvious strange fact about this collection is that three quarters of it is made up of a (short) novel length Jerry Cornelius story, and that The Alchemist's Question doesn't even provide the title. This comes from one of the other seven pieces, and is about a drug addict living in a dream world, and reads something like a bridge between the Jerry Cornelius stories and the novel Moorcock wrote a short while later celebrating the English capital, Mother London.

The other fiction consists of three below standard stories from the point of view of a Russian agent caught up in a future war; more interesting are the three political essays which round off the collection. The most substantial of these is a discussion of right wing politics in science fiction and fantasy, genres in which some of the most famous writers are in Moorcock's (anarchist, left wing) view extremists - Heinlein and Rand, for example, and, more unusually, Tolkien. I am not convinced that these writers are as pernicious as Moorcock makes out, partly because I don't think my politics have been changed by reading them, no matter how insidiously their views are promoted in their fiction.

One of the other essays is about censorship, and the kind of hypocrisy that destroys those who disagrees while pretending to tolerate disagreement (prosecutions of anarchist bookshops for obscenity), and that is part of the distaste Moorcock felt about Thatcher's Britain which is important in The Alchemist's Question, which is the last Jerry Cornelius story.

The story also draws upon the idea of the battle between Law and Chaos which is important in several of Moorcock's fantasy series, notably those involving Corum. Miss Brunner, who appears throughout the Cornelius chronicles, represents Law, rigidity and authoritarianism - to the extent that the desires to bring on a nuclear winter and make the world more uniform. She has become a figure not at all unlike an exaggeration of Margaret Thatcher. It looks as though the free spirited friends of Jerry Cornelius are about to be defeated, especially as Jerry himself is living in a semi-catatonic state. The ability to move between alternate universes is denied them, and they are trapped into trying a desperate alchemical ritual.

The story is much more pessimistic in tone than the earlier Jerry Cornelius novels; this has a great deal to do with the early eighties and how depressing Moorcock found Britain at that time. It is a savage attack on the pressure to conform, much stronger even then than fifteen years earlier when the quartet of novels was written. It ends up being less successful than its predecessors, mainly because Jerry, though always present, is rendered so ineffectual, so hopeless.

Ursula K. le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan (1972)

Edition: Puffin, 1974
Review number: 860

Of the three novels making up the original Earthsea trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan is most obviously aimed at children. This is not so much because of its content (like the others, it's unusually dark for a children's story) but because of what might have been its content; if it had been written for adults, there are several areas which le Guin would probably have explored more thoroughly.

The central character of The Tombs of Atuan is a young girl, believed to be the reincarnation of the Priestess of the Tombs, a centre for the power of primordial dark spirits, the Nameless Ones. At the age of six, she is taken to the Temple where her name is ceremonially taken from her (names are of extreme importance in the trilogy), so that she becomes Arha, the Eaten One. After some years, she suddenly discovers that a man has broken into the Labyrinth beneath the Temple, the place where no one but her is permitted to go. This man is Sparrowhawk, the central character of the trilogy, who is searching for a lost magical item.

The depiction of the ritual of the Temple an the dark fear which is the general attitude to the Nameless Ones is an important part of the novel, and the former clearly owes something to anthropological descriptions of rituals and Jungian ideas about them. (Le Guin's father was an anthropologist.) It is all very convincing. This could have been more developed in an adult novel, whose readers would be less impatient to move on with the story. The political rivalry between the various priestesses is another area which could have been made more of; Arha is nominally most important, but the middle-aged High Priestess of the newer cult of the Godking is a more dominant personality, and it is her temple, of the deified ruler of the empire in which the island of Atuan is situated, which receives rich gifts and patronage.

The obsession which Arha feels about Sparrowhawk definitely seems to have a sexual side, the fascination of a young teenage girl for the first man she has seen since she was brought to the Temple except her eunuch slaves. This is hinted at quite clearly, but it is another aspect of the novel which might have been made more explicit if it had been aimed at adult readers. In fact, it is picked up in Tehanu, the novel later added to the trilogy, which is meant to be read by adults.

It is common for the middle volume in a trilogy to be the poorest; though this is true of The Tombs of Atuan it is not for the usual reasons (and is, of course, a judgement only relative to the others). Still an excellent young adult fantasy story, it could have formed the nucleus of a greater adult novel.

Wednesday 4 July 2001

David Mitchell: Ghostwritten (1999)

Edition: Sceptre, 1999
Review number: 859

From the start, the narrative of a cult member directly responsible for a gas attack on the Tokyo subway, it is clear that Ghostwritten is an excellent and unusual novel. The characterisation - of distinctly varied individuals - and backgrounds are very well done. They draw the reader in, and pave the way for some of the more complex aims that the novel has.

The whole thing only comes together at the end, but on the way is a great deal of thought provoking entertainment. The novel is a sequence of barely related narratives - the links are things like the fanatic of the first part making a phone call to the Tokyo jazz record shop in which the central character of the first part works, thinking it is a number set up by the cult to help members in peril - spanning the globe and bringing in all kinds of ideas, from Mongolian folk stories to quantum mechanics.

The characters at the centre of the narratives include a ghost-writer and a ghost writing in the first person, but the title also refers to other concerns of the novel, such as the way in which things around us are built up from the ghostly world of quantum physics. Ghostwritten is both extremely clever and extremely well written; it is exciting to read and in places very funny. When you realise that it is a debut novel, the achievement becomes even more amazing.

Rudyard Kipling: Captains Courageous (1897)

Edition: Minster, 1967 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 858

The life of the Banks fisherman, chronicled in this novel, must have changed almost beyond recognition in the course of the last century. Technological innovations such as radar and GPS will have made the seas safer, telephone and the TV will have made the fishing communities less isolated and the big cities may well have lured many of the younger generation away.

At the time when Kipling wrote his tribute to the courage and hard work of these fishermen, the situation was very different. Much of the equipment would have been recognizable to the medieval sailor, though the boats would be stronger to cope with North Atlantic seas and the power would be steam (the latter the biggest advance). Captains relied on an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Banks, with simple instruments like the lead providing all the information they needed for navigation.

Admiration for these men - and hundreds of fishermen died each year - prompted the novel, and it is impossible not to feel the same when reading it. That is for more important than the simple plot, in which a spoilt rich boy is rescued by a fishing boat after being swept overboard from a steamer, and is forced to grow up and become a totally different person during the several months fishing before the return to the mainland.

The banal story makes this one of Kipling's less important novels, but it does still have the marvellous evocation of a foreign culture (which, even then, it would have been to the vast majority of his readership) which is part of his best work.

Tuesday 3 July 2001

Leslie Charteris: Saint Errant (1948)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1960 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 857

This collection of Saint stories is a repeat of the idea of She Was A Lady. There are nine stories, each with a different woman at the centre whose name is the title of their story. There are in fact more similarities than this architectural one; in each book there is one woman who appears in several stories, who is a thief who is effectively hijacked by the Saint, but in a gentler way than is often the case with his victims.

The final story, Dawn, is however completely unique in Charteris' output. Most of the Saint stories are quite prosaic, whereas in this one the main idea is supernatural. Simon is staying alone in the mountains, when a fugitive arrives at his cabin. This man tells a fantastic if rather unimaginative story about rivalry to obtain a gem carved in the semblance of a beautiful face and a girl named Dawn who is the living version of the stone. The man also explains that the whole thing is a dream, that he is in fact asleep in Glendale, California. (This is the reason for the derivative nature of the scenario and aspects of it such as the villain's distinct resemblance to the actor Sidney Greenstreet.)

This story makes the collection one of the more interesting books in the series. The other tales are competent, enjoyable and well written, but remain comfortably within the usual parameters of Charteris' writing.

John le Carre: Smiley's People (1980)

Edition: Pan, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 856

Once again, the British intelligence service known as the Circus is unable to get on without George Smiley, who is recalled a second time from retirement to sort out a problem related to Russian spymaster Karla, controller of the high ranking mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The problem he is called in to sort out begins with the murder of one of the leaders of the community of Estonian refugees, at one time important parts of the Circus' network of agents, but now considered to belong to the past. What Smiley has to work out is what it is that the old man has discovered which has made the
Russians decide that suddenly he is worth killing.

Cleearly in the tradition of the detective early Smiley novels, Smiley's People is not as successful as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Honourable Schoolboy. In those novels, others are entrusted with th operational legwork; here Smiley himself investigates the death in England and Germany, and leads a group in Switzerland. Given his age, he makes an unlikely operative; he was a spy in the war, and this novel if contemporary with its setting (as it seems to be) is thirty five years later.

Ken MacLeod: Cosmonaut Keep (2000)

Edition: Orbit, 2000
Review number: 855

Beginning a new series, Cosmonaut Keep has two independent storylines. The first takes place in a shattered Europe in about fifty years' time, in a Scotland which is a Socialist Republic and then in a space station; it is concerned with first contact with a bizarre alien species, a bacterial lifeform which forms colonies which are incredibly powerful computers.

The second story is set farther into the future, and in quite a distant part of the galaxy, populated (from a human point of view) by the descendants of people rescued from death by aliens, living alongside other hominids and reptilian intelligent lifeforms. The connection with the first story gradually becomes clear as the novel progresses, though to begin with it is a bit confusing and seems to be irrelevant.

The beginning of the novel is actually where most of its problems lie. It takes a fair amount of time to get going, especially the second storyline. It grows on you by the midpoint, but it sometimes feels as though it isn't worth the effort - maybe a more complex structure and greater integration of the stories would have helped, rather than the scheme of alternating chapters MacLeod uses.

The very end of the novel is interesting, introducing a note of ambiguity before the start of the second part of the series; a journey is undertaken, but it is not clear by whom or even exactly when. Though the novel as a whole is not as good as MacLeod's earlier work, it is intriguing enough to make me want to continue with the series.