Saturday 29 September 2001

Alan Dean Foster: The Hour of the Gate (1984)

Edition: Orbit, 1991
Review number: 949

The novels in the original Spellsinger series make up a continuous narrative much more than most fantasy sagas do. This, the second, concerns preparations to resist the plans of the Plated Folk (insects) to overrun the Warmlands, where most of the animals of the alien world on which Johntom found himself stranded in Spellsinger live.

The Hour of the Gate is the least humorous novel in the series, and this exposes some shortcomings despite the clearly professional way in which the novel is put together. This is particularly the case with the description of the trip into the territory of the Weavers, where the companions encounter strange, almost allegorical monsters, which they relate to the causes of nightmares. The tone in this passage is different, the creatures are unconvincing, and Jontom's companions indulge in superficial philosophising.

Things improve towards the end, and there are some shocks in store for the first time reader. However, the end itself is a let down. Like the rest of this series, re-reading The Hour of the Gate has proved something of a disappointment.

Cordwainer Smith: Norstrilia (1974)

Also published as the two novels The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968)
Edition: Gollancz, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 948

Like much of Smith's work, his only singly conceived science fiction novel (The Quest for Three Worlds being a linked collection of stories) was rescued from obscurity to become a classic of the genre. It has a publication history only too familiar for the non-mainstream in America in the sixties; following magazine appearances of extracts in 1960, it was butchered into two novels and only made its first appearance as originally intended in the late seventies.

The background to the story requires knowledge from several of Smith's short stories, describing what he called the Rediscovery of Man and available in the collection of that name. The planet of Norstrilia is the only source of the drug stroon, vital for human longevity treatment; it has made everybody there immensely rich, though they have preserved the simplicity of their way of life - based on that of sheep farmers in Australia - with massive import duties on all luxuries.

Rod McBan the hundred and fifty first inherits the Station of Doom on Norstrilia, but in order to escape from a deadly enemy begins a series of financial manipulations which end with the purchase of the planet Earth. He travels there, and has many adventures with people who want to part him from his wealth, and with the genetically altered animals known as Underpeople who appear in quite a number of Smith stories.

The main aspect of the novel which impresses even today is its sheer inventiveness. Every chapter, if not every page, has an unusual concept, and all of them are seemingly effortlessly made part of Smith's extraordinary vision of the far future. There is also the bizarre ironic prologue, which I suspect is one of many aspects of Smith's writing to be based on Chinese narrative techniques unfamiliar to most Western readers. Even if Smith is widely admired, he remains an idiosyncratic writer even today; his daring can still take your breath away.

Ngaio Marsh: Death in Ecstasy (1938)

Edition: Fontana, 1962
Review number: 947

The fourth Alleyn novel is really the first which is typical of the series. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but is atmospheric and has an interesting puzzle.

The unbelievable happens at the beginning, as series character Nigel Bathgate decides to go to a cult ceremony for a little excitement, and just happens to witness a murder. It seems to be an inevitable problem with crime series, as non-professional direct involvement with violent death is rare, but having an innocent bystander around is useful for narrative purposes. Even where, as here, the investigator is a police officer, the device of having one of their friends innocently involved is common, because it brings a personal element to the case.

Once the hurdle of coincidence has been passed, Death in Ecstasy develops into a classic murder mystery, with generous helpings of the occult, jealousy and drugs. It has some dated touches, but in general is the first of Marsh's top class novels.

Wednesday 26 September 2001

Norman Spinrad: Little Heroes (1967)

Edition: Grafton, 1989
Review number: 946

In popular music, there has always been an uneasy alliance between the commercial and the artistic and, since rock'n'roll began, the rebellious attitude integral to its success. Little Heroes depicts a future where Muzik Inc. controls just about all pop music - it is a company based at least in part on MTV - and aims to take away entirely the difficult to control human artist from the discs they sell. Spinrad's vision looks as though it could still easily come to pass, with today's charts full of an endless succession of seemingly identical boy bands.

But Muzik Inc.'s sales are slipping, and the record company executives realise that something is missing. They call in Gloriana O'Toole, known as the Grand Old Lady of Rock'n'Roll; she is a last survivor of the sixties, who knew and partied with all the big stars. Though she despises Muzik Inc., they blackmail her into making a disc, but she despairs at the talent she is given to work with. Bobby Rubin and Sally Geraro may make some of Muzik Inc.'s most successful recordings, but they are computer nerds rather than rockers.

Little Heroes succeeds because it is extremely well written. The main characters are believable individuals, the situations they end up in have an interesting if pessimistic background that makes sense, and Spinrad uses the feelings that many fans have about the agenda of the music industry to give the novel a message.

The problem that the industry has when trying to sell music is that people tend to look for some indefinable quality, which for want of a better word might be termed "soul". Image can be created, but a performer may only have soul intermittently. It is possible to argue that Spinrad's vision will never come about, that there will always be a market for artists which are not just about image, or the current trend (the success of Bjork and Radiohead could be cited as cases in point). Personally, I would say that the mainstream of popular music is pretty much dead in the way that Spinrad describes, but that there will always be people who want to make music for its own sake and not for the money, and that this is where soul is likely to come in.

Tuesday 25 September 2001

Ngaio Marsh and Henry Jellett: The Nursing Home Murder (1935)

Edition: Fontana, 1961
Review number: 944

Marsh's second novel is her only one written in collaboration; its unique setting for one of her stories suggests that this was Jellett's major contribution. It is also one of her poorest books, full of wild coincidences and unbelievable characters.

The story takes a scare about anarchist terrorists as its starting point. The Home Secretary, Sir Dereck O'Callaghan, drafts a bill to curb these gangs, and, because of its importance, continues working despite appendicitis to try and push it through. Eventually, he collapses in the House of Commons and is rushed to hospital, where he dies during the operation.

The first - and biggest - coincidence is that the surgeon, who has been O'Callaghan's doctor for a long time, has just bitterly argued with him about his treatment of an ex-mistress, and sent him a letter a couple of days earlier full of threats. The ex-mistress is one of the nurses; another nurse is an anarchist who believes O'Callaghan's death would be a blow for the cause. To make things even less likely, the pre-operation discussion mentions a play cuurently in the West End in which a surgeon ends up operating on his worst enemy!

As well as these problems in the plot, the character of Alleyn is still experimental, and is a great deal more camp than his later portrayal, which is disconcerting to a reader used to the more mature novels. The pre-NHS private hospital setting is interesting as a little piece of social history, but that is really the best that can be said for The Nursing Home Murder.

Andrew Crumey: Mr Mee (2000)

Edition: Picador, 2000
Review number: 945

What is the connection between a sex site on the Internet, Marcel Proust, and two men who make a minor appearance in the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau? This self-conscious, literary novel concerns all these things, and though it manages at times to be funny, and at others to be interesting intellectually, it never really quite takes off.

There are three narratives, all connected by the eighteenth century Encyclopedia of Rosier, supposedly a dissenting voice to the famous one written by the eminent French philosophers of the time. One of these is a David Lodge-like story of an academic, a specialist in Rousseau, who develops an obsessive crush on one of his students, another is the story of the minor characters from the Confessions, who are portrayed as an eighteenth century Laurel and Hardy. (Neither of these strands is anything like as funny as their influences.)

The most important strand is also the most original. It is the story of an elderly lover of literature, who becomes interested in Rosier after seeing a couple of references to him. This leads him to discover the Internet as a research tool, but the first time he uses it at home, a search for Rosier leads him to a sex site, to his naive delight and the disgust of his housekeeper. (His innocence is the most difficult thing to believe, as he turns out to be ignorant of quite common English phrases.)

To follow this novel, it helps to be familiar with the the important ideas from Remembrance of Things Past (including "the I that is not always I", which I suspect prompted the name of the main character), the Confessions and eighteenth century philosophy generally. Mr Mee is quite an intellectual novel, but left me with the feeling that it requires more effort than it is really worth. This is really because the characters are never sufficiently interesting or believable.

Friday 14 September 2001

C.S. Lewis: That Hideous Strength (1945)

Edition: Pan, 1955 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 943

Of the three novels by Lewis featuring Ransome, That Hideous Strength is the least interesting. Lewis himself was clearly not entirely happy with it, as he abridged the novel quite considerably after the first publication.

The story of the novel is about an organisation named N.I.C.E., the kind of acronym which after The Man From U.N.C.L.E. became impossible to use seriously. Its public agenda is criminal rehabilitation, but it is in fact out to dominate the U.K. in the name of progress. Being Lewis, there is of course a spiritual side to the whole thing, with the powerful forces of darkness (whose final aim is demonstrated by the novel's title, which comes from a description of the building of the tower of Babel) ranged against Ransome's small group of seemingly ineffectual fighters for good. The human element is provided by Mark and Jane Studdock, who end up on opposing sides without ever having wanted to get involved at all.

The reason that the story has dated is that the idea of progress Lewis is attacking is no longer believed by many, in this age of environmental crisis where the downside of the effects of modern technology have become apparent. When this is accompanied by a diffuse story, and when the marvellous descriptions of alien worlds which are so important a part of Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra are missing, it is easy to see that That Hideous Strength is the least successful of the trilogy.

Wednesday 12 September 2001

George R.R. Martin: A Game of Thrones (1996)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1996
Review number: 942

Most fantasy novels ignore politics almost entirely, relying on devices such as magic to ensure, say, the succession of a long lost heir. Even when the political arena is portrayed, it is usually part of a background which is a sanitised version of medieval Europe and is made anodyne and unconvincing as a result. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is different; it takes the savage and complex world of medieval politics and makes it the main theme of his story.

The Baratheon family has recently become the ruling dynasty of the Seven Kingdoms following a civil war which ended with the defeat and death of the previous, insane king and the decimation of his family. King Robert is far from secure, with Targaryen princes alive in exile and powerful families within the kingdoms making them hard to rule, especially as the tedious business of actually ruling is less to his taste than the fighting for the throne.

The politics here involve assassination, war, false accusation, political marriages, bribery and corruption. They are characterised strongly by the personalities involved - ruthless, honourable, timid, clever and stupid. This is typical of real world medieval politics where so much of the way that power worked was connected to the individual character and their reputation (being considered an unlucky commander, for example, made military failure more likely in the future as others became unwilling to ally themselves). The missing element is religion; this is far more a personal matter than it was in Christendom, and even the adherence of the northern Stark family to older gods is tolerated.

The novel has, like many fantasies, been compared to Tolkien, but the interest in politics makes it seem to me to be more like Frank Herbert's Dune. The writing of Machiavelli is also clearly an influence. The important quality of the writing in A Game of Thrones is that it is very well characterised, so that the reader cares about the political manoeuvring. It is an excellent piece of truly grown up fantasy.

Saturday 8 September 2001

Colin Platt: Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to 1600 AD (1978)

Edition: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 941

It is still usual for different types of historical study to be kept separate. This book, however, combines social history with archaeology most successfully. In most social histories, it is pretty much only documentary sources of various types which are used for those periods in which they exist in sufficient completeness. For most of the period covered in Medieval England, these sources are incomplete, fragmentary and usually have a clerical bias, though that doesn't stop historians using them. Platt, however, backs up much of what he has to say by reference to archaeology, particularly to the study of buildings.

This means that the examples illustrating the social history are not the usual ones; instead of passages from the Paston letters, say, Platt uses the ways in which churches were rebuilt in the fifteenth century, or the changes in village settlement patterns. This may be in many cases a rather superficial change, but it gives Medieval England an entirely different feel and gives a good excuse for the profuse illustrations, both photographs and diagrams.

The other effect that the concentration on the archaeological record allows Platt to do is to correct some of the erroneous impressions which tend to be left by history which is more popular in style. The best example of this is a discussion of the fourteenth century crisis, which is usually connected to the effects of the Black Death. Platt traces the fall to processes well under way half a century before the plague, which came as a final blow to an already over-stretched system. The evidence for this is partly documentary - accounts of trailbastons as a response to armed gangs roaming the countryside at the beginning of the century - and partly from the archaeology - such things as dates of abandonment of deserted villages.

This is also the reason that the book continues for so long after the conventional date for the end of the medieval period in England - the accession of the Tudors in 1485 - and even after the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries which perhaps more than any other events could be said to mark the end of an era. There was still continuity in many areas, which can be more clearly seen from archaeology - buildings marrying fifteenth century styles with fashionable continental architectural ideas, for example. By the end of the book, though, it is very clear that the English society being described is in many ways very different from that a hundred and fifty years earlier.

Leslie Charteris: Señor Saint (1959)

Edition: Pan, 1966
Review number: 940

Four stories set in Latin America (Baja California, Mexico City, Havana and Panama) make up this collection. They are all different variations on the theme of a swindle, some from the point of view of the innocent victims - who are not necessarily the characters you expect - and some from that of the swindler.

This is well trodden, familiar territory for Charteris, and the stories are typical, charming and amusing little thrillers if nothing very special. The original appearances of the stories was in 1953 and 1954, and this is given in the prefatory material of this edition, something unusual in the Saint series. This is probably because the Cuban revolution occurred before the book version appeared, so that the situation in Havana had changed, and the publisher wanted the reader to be aware that this was the case.

Friday 7 September 2001

Jack London: Call of the Wild (1900)

Edition: Award Books
Review number: 939

Jack London wrote a fairly wide variety of fiction, including some early science fiction, but he is overwhelmingly best remembered for this story of dogs in the Alaskan gold rush. Buck, a St Bernard/German Shephard cross, is kidnapped from his owner in California to help fill the massive demand for sled dogs in the far north. Told from his point of view, but with a third person narrator, Call of the Wild describes how he is broken in to this work and eventually becomes successful before feeling the call to move into the wilderness.

The obvious influences on The Call of the Wild are the animal stories of Rudyard Kipling, particularly The White Seal. The Call of the Wild has a similar tone, and uses anthropomorphism of a similar kind - not patronising or prettifying, but trying to give the reader an insight. It is more savage than Kipling, and has something of the American cult of the wilderness, particularly towards the end, an aspect which is unsurprisingly absent from the English writer's work.

It remains an exciting novel, and makes me wonder, reading it again, whether London's other writing will have survived as well as this has.

Ann Granger: Shades of Murder (2000)

Edition: Headline, 2001
Review number: 938

Many fictional detectives are at some point given a murder from the past to solve. Shades of Murder isn't like any of these; it's about how a hundred year old murder case still casts shadows into the present, bringing death once again.

Bamford, the fictional market town which is the location of Granger's Mitchell and Markby series, was also the scene of one of the notorious Victorian poisonings. William Oakley's wife seemed to have died an accidental death from fire, but her body was exhumed after a sacked servant accused him of murder. Discovery of arsenic in the body meant that he stood trial, but he was acquitted; unable to face the small town neighbours who still believed him guilty, he disappeared and no one knew what had become of him.

Moving to the present day, his last remaining descendants, two women in their eighties, are beginning to realise that they are going to have to sell the Oakley home, a Victorian Gothic house named Fourways, and move into a more practical flat that they can afford to keep up. At that moment, a young man arrives, claiming to be their cousin, descendant of a second William Oakley marriage in Poland, and demanding a share in the property. Nobody likes the way he puts pressure on the old women - but is that a motive for killing him with the now extremely unusual method of arsenical poisoning?

Because Alan Markby is already involved with the Oakleys before Jan's death, he is taken off the investigation while, to his resentful surprise, Scotland Yard are called in. In almost all police detective stories, the point of view is that of the investigator called in rather than the locals, and Granger milks her unusual device for comic as well as dramatic effect.

When I bought this novel, the lady in the bookshop - also a Granger fan - said that she had heard that this would be the last Mitchell and Markby story. I hope not - it has been a most enjoyable series of mysteries.

Thursday 6 September 2001

Ngaio Marsh: A Man Lay Dead (1934)

Edition: Fontana, 1960
Review number: 935

The influence of Agatha Christie hangs quite heavily over Ngaio Marsh's first novel. It is set in a country house, where a parlour game which involves a pretend murder turns into the real thing. Motivations for the killing are confused by a very period touch, the involvement of a Russian secret anarchist brotherhood whose holy talisman has been sent to the victim.

The reader is introduced to Alleyn for the first time here, and he is clearly a character that Marsh has not yet finally fixed. As an upper class policeman with a former diplomatic career, he clearly draws elements from Dorothy Sayers as well as Christie. He has a number of irritating mannerisms later toned down, and carries on in a manner which would problably not have been permitted in a policeman even in the thirties - involving a member of the public (the journalist Nigel Bathgate) in an investigation, and even deliberately putting him in danger.

Saki: The Toys of Peace (1923)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number:936

The first of two collections of Saki stories published after his death in the First World War, stories originally printed beforehand, was given a bitter title, an indication of how remote the world chronicled by Monro seemed even ten years later. (The other, The Square Egg, contains stories written during the War.)

As far as the stories themselves are concerned, they are generally poorer in quality than those collected in Monro's lifetime. The edge is missing, particularly in the eerie supernatural themes which run through much of the fiction. On the other hand, there are some excellent stories here, and both the merciless dissection of the stupidities of society and the evocation of the savagery that children sometimes have is present.

Standout stories include Morleva, about a doll, and Shock Tactics, about a young man whose mother still reads his letters, severely cramping his social life.

Cordwainer Smith: The Instrumentality of Mankind (1979)

Edition: Gollancz, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 937

The oligarchy which rules mankind in the background to most of Smith's science fiction is known as the Instrumentality. This may make it seem an ideal title for a collection of his short stories, but of these fourteen there are at least six - and I would say seven - which are not part of his ambitious future history. The short stories not in The Instrumentality of Mankind are collected in The Rediscovery of Man, and there the stories are set in the Instrumentality but only four or five deal with the events given the name which provides its title; neither collection really has a title appropriate to its content.

The stories in The Instrumentality of Mankind are all in some way "also-rans". (This is not surprising given that the other collection's original title was The Best of Cordwainer Smith.) Many of them have an unfinished feel, which is mainly because the ideas they contain are not as fully developed as they are in Smith's most successful stories. This is the case, in particular, with the stories about the origins of the Vomact family. War No. 81Q, while an immense achievement for a teenager, is clearly juvenile. Gustible's Planet is basically a parody of Smith's usual style.

The stories are not without interest, and for many authors this would amount to a pretty good collection. The Instrumentality of Mankind, however, is very much in the shadow of its counterpart.

Tuesday 4 September 2001

Franz Kafka: The Castle (1926/1951)

Translation: Edwin and Willa Muir (chapters 1-18, 1930) and Eithne
Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (chapters 18-20, 1957)
Edition: Penguin, 1968 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 934

Kafka's unfinished novel, which has gained two and a half chapters not in the original published version due to the editorial work of Max Brod, inhabits a similar paranoid world to The Trial. It is not as forceful, the bureaucracy being less sinister and the tone more optimistic, but its frustrations are perhaps as a result more readily related to the reader's everyday life; in the late twentieth century and the twenty-first it can feel that life is a continual fight against the stupidity and immovability of officials.

The central character, K. - altered by Kafka from an originally first person narrative, arrives at an unnamed village. He has some kind of plan, which we never find out, other than it having something to do with the nearby castle, whose officials rule the village. (This makes him different from Joseph K. in The Trial, who of course has no choice in his involvement.) The first task he sets himself is to get the castle to acknowledge his existence, and this is really what the whole novel is about.

The Castle contains a good deal of humour, not something usually associated with Kafka, particularly slapstick in K.'s relationship with the "assistants" imposed upon him by the castle, whom he suspects - with good reason - of being spies. It's certainly the most relaxed of Kafka's works that I have read.

Saturday 1 September 2001

Norman Spinrad: The Iron Dream (1972)

Edition: Panther, 1977
Review number: 933

Most alternate histories are simply narratives set in a world which differs from our own because an event in the past is supposed to have had a different outcome. The Iron Dream is, so far as I know, unique in science fiction because it purports to be a novel written in an alternate universe.

For The Iron Dream is supposed to present a posthumously published novel by an Adolf Hitler who emigrated to the States in the twenties to make a living as an artist for science fiction magazines before writing himself. Published in 1953, Sons of the Swastika (under which title no publisher would have touched Spinrad's novel) won the Hugo award for 1954, when in reality no award was made. The Iron Dream is a reprint, complete with scholarly commentary.

As a fantasy written by Hitler, Sons of the Swastika is pretty much what you might expect, displaying obsessions with racial purity and uniforms, and hatred for Communism thinly disguised as the Dominators who enslave millions telepathically. It manages to be exciting and readable, despite misgivings about its politics which are initially raised by the name of its author.

And this is surely the point that Spinrad wanted to make with The Iron Dream. It is not particularly about Hitler, revealing nothing about its supposed author other than what is part of the popular consciousness. Instead, it is a commentary on the appearance of right wing politics and disturbing psychological obsessions in the science fiction of the period. Sons of the Swastika may be more exaggerated than what has survived, but that is of course how satire makes its point.

There is a great deal of ironic parallel between the career of Feric Jaggar, hero of Sons of the Swastika, and the real Adolf Hitler, which is brought out by the commentary (even though this is supposed to be a product of the same alternate world). It refers several times to the unlikelihood of Jaggar's rise to power and the impossibility that Jaggar's demagoguery could unite a nation behind him in the way that it does. This is not very subtle, but it is quite effectively disturbing.

John Searle: Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (1999)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999
Review number: 932

In this book, John Searle sets out a defence of what he calls the "default" positions in philosophy, the assumptions that are likely to be made by someone who has never encountered the sort of speculation that philosophers indulge in (such as the existence of the real world). He ignores the term "naive realism", probably because it would psychologically undermine his arguments before he starts, but that is basically what the default assumptions amount to.

According to Searle, the book is intended for those who know nothing about philosophy, but he quite frequently lapses from his stated ideal of not using any unexplained technical terms. The arguments he uses are also quite complex, thought perhaps not compared to, say, Sartre's philosophical writing. The major virtue of the book is Searle's writing style, much clearer than many philosophers. (In the twentieth century, philosophers have begun to want to come across as scientific rather than mystical, and this has made their writing much easier to read than nineteenth century equivalents.)

The book's major flaw is Searle's assumption that he is always right and that the philosophers who have disagreed with him are wrong; his writing loses interest as soon as he fails to convince the reader of a point in his argument. (In my case, this was about when he argues that introspection about the nature of consciousness is impossible.) The book becomes more sketchy towards the end, with far less on language and society than on mind, and this does not help - despite the sub-title, Mind, Language and Society has little to do with the real world. There are still interesting sections (that on the boundary between philosophy and science, for example), but I would say that he certainly fails to deliver an integrated account of the three elements of the title, his stated aim.

Overall, Mind, Language and Society is thought provoking if not as important as it thinks it is, and clear if not as non-technical as Searle thinks it is. Worth reading if you have an interest in philosophy.