Wednesday 28 November 2001

Robert Louis Stevenson: Catriona (1893)

Original title: David Balfour
Edition: William Heinemann, 1924 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1000

When reading Kidnapped, it seems as though all the loose ends are tied up; but as soon as you move on to the sequel, it becomes clear that a large gap has been left. This is that no move has been made to clear the name of Alan Breck Stewart of the Appin murder, which David Balfour witnessed in Stevenson's earlier novel.

Unlike the earlier story, Catriona is a love story rather than a thriller, as David falls for the daughter of a rogue. Stevenson concentrates on the character of David; Catriona Drummond is pretty much a typical Victorian heroine. More interesting is her mischievous friend, Barbara Grant, and the introductory note by Stevenson's wife records that he found it difficult for her not to gradually become the heroine. (It also records that the original title of the novel caused confusion, as people thought it was just a new edition of Kidnapped under the name of its hero.)

Catriona is a satisfying sequel, even if, like many such, it would not be a great novel if read on its own.

C.S Lewis: Screwtape Proposes a Toast (1965)

Edition: Fontana, 1965 (Order from Amazon)
Review number: 999

This collection of generally hard to obtain but previously published pieces by Lewis was the last book he worked on before his death. There is no unifying theme; most of it consists of sermons and talks delivered over a period of around fifteen years.

The title piece is rather different, being - as its name indicates - a follow-up to The Screwtape Letters in which the demon Screwtape is addressing the graduation dinner of the Tempter's College. Screwtape being Lewis' most famous creation, with the possible exception of Aslan, people continually pressured him to write a sequel to the Letters, which he resisted doing for several reasons. The obvious one is that he felt that the idea of diabolical letters was exhausted, but more interestingly he had been alarmed to find how easily he was able to assume the demonic point of view. The idea that he did think of producing as a sequel was to write an equivalent from a guardian angel's point of view, but he felt he couldn't do justice to this (and I suspect that it would have been less interesting in the same way that Paradise Lost is more striking than Paradise Regained).

None of the pieces match up in terms of quality of writing to the rest of Lewis' theological output, but the collection manages to be thought provoking in places, particularly when it challenges the underlying assumptions which came to be commonplace during the twentieth century.

Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 998

Reynold's debut novel is billed on its cover as "the first great science fiction novel of the century". Leaving aside pedantic dissections of this based on its date of publication, this is only a little over the top; it is one of the best attempts to combine hard science fiction with intelligent characterisation that I have read, and it contains a fascinating depiction of life a few hundred years in the future that is much more unlike our own than many writers ever manage.

The story starts off, as several science fiction novels have before, at an archaeological dig into alien artefacts from a vanished race. This is a fertile beginning, and related scenarios have produced wildly different stories (as Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Frederick Pohl's Gateway and Paul J. McAuley's Four Hundred Billion Stars testify). In this case, the Amarantin were a birdlike people who were wiped out by some kind of anomalous event in their star, but they have left tantalising clues that somehow a pre-technological people had actually mastered space flight.

The dig, run by the leader of a colony on the Amarantin planet set up for the purpose, runs into trouble when dissension among the colonists leads to a coup. This leader, Dan Sylvestre, is a member of a powerful family, who is, in the other main facets of the plot, being pursued by an assassin and by the crew of an Iain M. Banks - like spaceship who want him for the medical knowledge contained in a computer simulation of his father. (The relationship between Dan and his father is very complicated, and is central to the depiction of the main character.)

This excellent novel paints a convincing picture of a possible future, of some of the ways in which humanity might change. In five hundred years, people will be at least as incomprehensible to use as our way of life would be to an Elizbethan, but not many science fiction authors make much of this. Indeed, given the speed of current developments in the biological and computer sciences, the sort of advances depicted by Reynolds and their psychological consequences may well be with us sooner than this.

Wednesday 21 November 2001

Mary Stewart: The Last Enchantment (1979)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1979
Review number: 997

Many modern adaptations of the Arthurian legends have a tendency to flag and fade as they move towards their end. The reason that this happens, I suspect, is connected to the current fashion for putting Merlin at the centre of the story, when his place in the legends is virtually over with Arthur's accession of the throne. Then, the initiative shifts, and considerable changes would be needed to make him remain the most interesting hero. He is involved less and less before falling prey to Nimue, in what is the most interesting legend about his later life.

Mary Stewart does her best, but suffers from this problem as much as other authors who have used a similar approach. The best part of the novel is towards the end, as Merlin tells of his experience of illness and near death. Stewart might have been better off editing her material down from a trilogy to a pair of novels, because the second one, The Hollow Hills, also fails to set the imagination alight.

Leslie Charteris: The Saint on TV (1968)

Edition: Pan, 1970 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 996

After two series of The Saint TV programme, there was no more suitable material remaining among the Saint stories written in the previous thirty five or so years. This may seem a little strange, considering the vast amount that Charteris had written, but there are good reasons why so little was reusable. The initial agreement had been that no new stories were to be developed, and the decision to make each fifty minute episode self-contained was a major limitation. Other decisions were to cut out permanent companions (and Patricia Holm or Hoppy Uniatz occur pretty frequently), and to ignore easily datable tales, which makes all the wartime stories and some of those from previous years unusable. Budgetary constraits were quite stringent, ruling out stories with easily identifiable exotic locations. So, as he explains in the introduction, enough money was offered to overcome Charteris' scruples, resulting in the stories chosen here, two of the most memorable of all the TV episodes. Both are stories originally by John Cruse, adapted by Fleming Lee; the screenplays were by John Cruse and Harry W. Junkin.

The better story is the first, The Death Game. Here, Simon Templar gets involved in a student craze for simulated assassination, and discovers that it is an orchestrated front for the recruitment of real killers by a criminal organisation. In the other story, he is contacted by a furious sculptor who is convinced that the Saint has seduced his girlfriend; when Simon goes to visit this man and try to find out what has really happened, the artist is murdered in front of his eyes and attempts are made to frame him for the killing.

By choosing two of the best stories from the series, this collection is able to match up to the bulk of Charteris' output; it is one of the best of all the postwar Saint books.

Tuesday 20 November 2001

Michael Moorcock: London Bone (2001)

Edition: Scribner, 2001
Review number: 995

In Moorcock's earlier short story collection, The Opium General, the title story was by no means the lengthiest item. The same is true here, but London Bone dominates the collection (in terms of quality and memorability) and deserves to provide the title. (There is also a marketing reason for using it as the title, which is the connection it establishes with Mother London, one of Moorcock's best and most successful novels.)

The story London Bone is set in a near future, and is narrated by a speculator who finances West End shows, temporarily suffering a setback because of a collapse in the popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber. He becomes involved in a new venture, the supply of an incredibly beautiful material initially thought to be mammoth bone from a London building site. It is eventually shown to be human bone, transformed by lime, London clay, and seepages of raw sewage. The story is about the effect that the nostalgia trade has on London, as it cannibalises its past, selling the bones of its ancestors and destroying the soul of the city. It is a powerful and memorable story.

The long story in the collection, The Cairene Purse, is set in Egypt, again in the fairly near future. A western engineer is searching for his sister in Aswan, on a Nile virtually abandoned by tourists because of pollution, the destruction of most of the monuments and their replacement by Disney-built replicas at desert resorts far from the impoverished mass of the Egyptian population. Atmospheric and thought provoking, it is nonetheless not as significant a story as London Bone, perhaps partly because of the length, which feels a touch over extended for the story's ideas.

The Cairene Purse is an odd one out in the collection, for even though not all the other stories are set in London (Doves in the Circle is in New York), they share a metropolitan background which is as well realised as the fantasy backgrounds which were the staple of Moorcock's earlier career. The stories also share a nostalgia for an earlier age, particularly London before or just after the war and certainly before Thatcher, a politician viewed by Moorcock as the destroyer of the essence of her country. Typically for Moorcock, cross references to his other stories abound, characters such as the Cornelius brothers frequently being mentioned in passing.

The best of the stories not yet mentioned is the second, whose title, London Blood, makes it a companion to London Bone. This story, an anecdote of pre war South London, is the most like the novel Mother London. There is really, though, no great connection between these stories and the novel, and London Bone

Thursday 15 November 2001

Anthony Trollope: The Prime Minister (1875-6)

Edition: Oxford, 1983
Review number: 994

The fifth Palliser novel is one of Trollope's longer, and, as is customary in the series, combines its political plotlines with a romantic subplot, the political plot relating to the other parts of the series and the romantic one specific to this novel. The latter is more interesting than the time spent by Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium, as Prime Minister, even if it is that which provides the novel's title. The most memorable aspect of the Palliser Ministry is that its leader is reluctant and does not enjoy his position at all.

In the other plot, Trollope introduces a scoundrel rather like Melmotte in The Way We Live Now. Ferdinand Lopez is a penniless adventurer who uses other people's money in dangerous speculation; even worse, to some of the characters, is that he is foreign and Jewish despite a fa├žade of the English gentleman. (Trollope has occasionally been accused of anti-Semitism because of characters like Lopez, but he was interested in the reactions of society to Jews rather than in attacking them.) He manages to marry an heiress, the innocent Emily Wharton, against the wishes of her family, but eventually his schemes overreach themselves when he runs as a candidate for Parliament. What is interesting about his character is that as an outsider he doesn't understand conventions of society, but that he continually attributes his failures to the enmity and bad faith of others, and thus the results of his actions bring out the worst in him.

The structure of the novel is dominated by Lopez, but in the end the conventional happy outworking of the Lopez/Wharton plot is subdued by the fall of the Palliser Ministry. This makes it one of Trollope's better novels, but the many references to the earlier members of the Palliser series mean that it shouldn't be read on its own.

Wednesday 14 November 2001

Philip K. Dick: The Zap Gun (1965)

Edition: Grafton, 1975 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 993

Philip K. Dick had two concerns which appear over and over again in his novels, the meaning of humanity and the chance or occult motivation of events. The second theme is of primary importance here. The idea of the novel is that the arms race is effectively over, but that those not in the know ("pursaps" as opposed to "cogs") need to be persuaded that weapons research is still going on. So there has arisen a "weapons fashion industry", which each week comes up with a design, which is shown in action on TV (against androids; none of the weapons really work) and then elaborately "ploughshared" - turned into some peaceful gadget. The weapons designers get their ideas acting as mediums in trances, which is where the occult motivation of events comes in.

The crisis comes when Earth is invaded by aliens and suddenly real weapons are required - weapons which the pursaps believe to be already in existence. Or is this what is happening - the only source of information about what is going on (cities disappearing after satellites appear in orbit) is a toy designer who appears to have travelled in time from the future with a warning.

The extremely trashy title may have prevented this novel, which with its theme of the alien slavers is a satire on the pulp science fiction genre, being one of Dick's better known, but it is easily up to the high standard regularly reached by his fiction. It lacks the punch of his biggest classics, but doesn't fall far short.

James Thurber: Thurber Country (1953)

Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 992

The essays in this collection, mainly written for the New Yorker in the early fifties, are typical of Thurber's gently satirical humour. Though some now seem rather dated, particularly in terms of the depiction of women, most are still very funny. Thurber had an unerring eye for little absurdities - a typical example being his dissection of the reading of lists of famous people who share a particular day as their birthday on local radio stations - and a wonderful fund of anecdotes.

While humour based on the absurdities of society is generally a transient thing - cartoons from nineteenth century magazines are uniformly unamusing today - Thurber's vision has lasted better than most, and collections of his writing are still worth reading.

Tuesday 13 November 2001

Josephine Tey: The Franchise Affair (1948)

Edition: Penguin, 1951
Review number: 991

The Franchise Affair may be Tey's best known novel (it is probably a toss up between it and Brat Farrar). It takes a famous eighteenth century crime and updates it into the twentieth century, and it may well be the most famous crime novel which doesn't involve a death.

The Franchise is the name of a house which stands on its own on a main road, and which is inhabited by the Sharpes, mother and daughter. Their quite life is suddenly interrupted when a sixteen year old girl makes a serious accusation against them - that they kidnapped her and imprisoned her in their attic, where she was systematically beaten over a period of a month. Her story is corroborated by her knowledge of the interior of the Franchise, a house which the Sharpes say she has never entered.

The story is told from the point of view of the Sharpes' solicitor, who is more used to the duller kind of work which would be expected of a small market town solicitor, mainly wills and conveyancing. It is thus assumed throughout that the girl is lying and that the aim is to prove it, by showing what she was doing in the missing month and how she came to know about the interior of the Franchise. Tey comes up with ingenious solutions to both of these problems though they have the flaw that they rely on twentieth century technology and so couldn't solve the equivalent problems for the eighteenth century version of the mystery.

One of the major themes of the novel is how it is impossible to know the truth about what is reported in the media, illustrated by the way that a tabloid takes up the girl's story and the misinformed comment in a liberal magazine which follows. While Tey takes things a little far to make her point - surely there must be some causes of this type which deserve to benefit from media publicity (child abuse scandals in children's homes are perhaps an obvious example) - it is difficult not to agree that much journalism panders to the prejudices of the lowest common denominator.

The slightly facile psychology of The Franchise Affair (particularly apparent in Tey's recurring fascination with the possibility that criminals could be infallibly detected through their facial features) does not stop the novel from deserving its place as one of the classics of the genre.

Saturday 10 November 2001

Lois McMaster Bujold: Cetaganda (1996)

Edition: Baen, 1996
Review number: 990

The central idea of this Miles Vorkosigan novel can be summed up in a sentence from it (also quoted on the back of this edition): "Miles had always dreamed about saving the Empire. He just never expected it to be the Cetagandan Empire." Although currently at peace with his native Barrayar, Cetaganda has long been a traditional enemy, having at one time been an occupying power Miles is a member of the Barrayan delegation to the mourning ceremonies for the Dowager Empress, but the reader will not be very surprised when things go wrong right from the start, when his spaceship is attacked when it docks with a space station orbiting the capital planet of the Empire.

The main aspect of Cetaganda which differentiates it from the other Miles Vorkosigan novels is its portrayal of the bizarre imperial culture. This is clearly modelled around ideas from imperial China - aristocratic, secretive, delicately artistic and at the same time brutal; incomprehensible to outsiders, providing endless opportunities to offend against obscure protocol. Reflecting Bujold's interest in the biological sciences, the Cetagandans have spent decades enhancing the genome of their senior aristocrats, ending up seeming to be hardly human - impossibly beautiful and long lived, committed to incomprehensible goals.

As a well written, exciting and occasionally humorous science fiction thriller, Cetaganda is typical of the series, if less thought provoking than some; and the series is one of the most enjoyable in modern science fiction.

Terry Pratchett: The Truth (2000)

Edition: Doubleday, 2000
Review number: 989

In about twenty years, Terry Pratchett has produced twenty five Discworld novels, of a fluctuating standard; The Truth, which is the twenty fifth, is one of the best of them. Several others share the plot device where an idea from our world leaks through to the Discworld to cause havoc - Hollywood in Moving Pictures, rock'n'roll in Soul Music, and now newspaper journalism in The Truth. It succeeds better than the earlier novels in this vein, because the humour is part of an interesting plot.

The newly emerged Ankh-Morporkh Times (slogan the wonderful misprint "The truth shall make ye fret") has a huge story almost as soon as its first issue. The ruler of the city, Lord Vetinari, appears to have killed his secretary, a most uncharacteristic action. The editor, William de Worde, is driven by his desire to find out the truth, while constantly distracted by people with funny shaped vegetables and a rival, National Enquirer style, tabloid.

The Truth manages to balance its plot with the need for jokes much more successfully than many other Pratchett novels, and introduces another memorable character in William de Worde to go with those from earlier in the series.

Thursday 8 November 2001

Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)

Edition: Oxford, 1983
Review number: 988

The most famous vampire story of them all has become an enduring part of the mythology of our culture. Hundreds of books, films and TV programmes have been based on the ideas in this novel; its only rival as a Gothic myth is the story of Frankenstein.

The story is told in what I suspect was a new variation on the form of the epistolary or journal novel, being supposedly a collection of documents - letters, journals and newspaper clippings - that together tell the tale of Count Dracula's involvement with Jonathan Harker and his friends. There are three distinct parts to the story - Harker's visit to the Count's Transylvanian castle; the Count's arrival in Whitby and the death of Lucy; and the campaign against the Count under the direction of van Helsing.

The novel has obvious defects. The sensationalist prose may have set the standard for trash fiction, and certainly fits the subject matter, but it would hardly win prizes for literary merit. The contributions supposedly the work of different hands all read much the same - a common defect in this sort of structure. Some of the novel's most important events are unmotivated, particularly the decision of the Count to move to Whitby (with considerable inconvenience, given his need for the soil of his homeland and the difficulty he has in crossing water) after centuries of safety in Transylvania. His meeting with friends of Jonathan Harker, who has just escaped from him in Romania, is an unlikely coincidence, too.

The reasons that the story has succeeded so spectacularly despite these defects are also quite easy to see. Stoker has taken several existing traditions and made an exciting and atmospheric whole from them. This whole is clearly related to psycholgical ideas current at the time of publication. While it would be wrong to explain away the story as being about repressed sexuality - especially female sexuality - or the subconscious, these ideas are obviously present. (The principal victim of Dracula in England is a woman, and she is transformed from a pure angelic being into a predator.) By tapping into ideas that were around at the time, Stoker ensured the immediate popularity of his novel. The themes he picked have continued to fascinate through the twentieth century, and so the myth's continued success has some connection to the way that ideas of the irrational have shaped our own time.

There is indeed an interesting strand of anti-rationality in the story; van Helsing cannot fight Dracula by explaining him away or through the application of science (the only use he makes of technology is to journey to Romania by rail rather than sea to get there before the vampire). Instead, he must attack him with knowledge of religion, arcane lore and superstition - the crucifix, stake and garlic. This is a tradition which has continued right down to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There are repeated images of madness throughout the novel, with it being consistently used as a metaphor for the feeling experienced when under the control of the vampire. Van Helsing hypnotises Mina when she falls under Dracula's spell, and this was a technique used at the time for the treatment of the insane (by Freud, among others). There is also a character, Renfield, who is an inmate in an asylum and whose insanity, influenced by the vampire, takes the form of a need to consume animal flesh (flies, spiders, and small birds).

The vampire is in part a way to externalise this type of irrationality, just as in the past a poor farmer might blame witchcraft for failed crops. Today, people tend to blame their upbringing or the government for their own shortcomings rather than the supernatural, but the connection still makes the story compelling. Stoker has turned his psychological interests into an adventure story, and while lurid it is never so trashy as to be off-putting; those are the secrets of the success of Dracula.

Saturday 3 November 2001

C.S. Lewis: The Screwtape Letters (1942)

Edition: Fount, 1982 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 987

After the Narnia series and possibly his science fiction trilogy, The Screwtape Letters is Lewis' best known work. It isn't intended, like most of his fiction, as an apologetic for Christianity, but as an aid to a Christian - it is designed to help someone overcome temptation. This purpose is carried out in such a way that it is entertaining even to a non-Christian.

The reason for this is partly the method used, the conceit that the contents are letters addressed by a senior devil to a more junior, inexperienced tempter, and partly that the whole book is very well written and clearly thought out. If the theological background is accepted, even for a moment, then the letters are convincing; if not, then they are certainly entertaining and occasionally thought provoking.

Friday 2 November 2001

Leslie Charteris: Vendetta for the Saint (1963)

Edition: Charter, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 985

The first full length Saint novel for some years turns out to mark an end point in the series; with the next book, the stories are lifted from the TV series rather than the other way around. As the title indicates, it pits Simon Templar against the Mafia in Sicily; when he witnesses a tourist rebuffed in a Neapolitan restaurant after asking an innocent question and then hears that the man has been murdered the next morning, he is convinced that a secret is hidden in the question and that he wants to do something to avenge the killing.

One of the interesting details of this particular novel is that Charteris seems to have finally decided to age the Saint - a decision reversed for the TV series, naturally. There are several references to the way that things might have been done differently had Simon Templar been in his prime - not that he doesn't manage to pull off superhuman feats of dexterity and endurance all the same. Perhaps too much so - the story, with its extremely powerful villains worsted by one man, is one of Charteris' more ludicrous.

Peter Guttridge: The Once and Future Con (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 986

The recent foot and mouth outbreak has shown how much the British rural economy is dependent on tourism rather than simply on agriculture. This industry is increasingly reliant on heritage, as that is one of the UK's major selling points (the other being the convenience to Americans in particular of being and English speaking nation). This humorous crime novel is set in one particularly important yet controversial part of the tourism industry, the heritage built up around the Arthurian legends.

This is, of course, because the legends have been attached to many (incompatible) places, whether by multiple identifications of names in earlier traditions (as with Camelot) or by downright invention in later ones (as with Tintagel). The total absence of artefacts that can be reliably associated with Arthur - assuming that he even existed, which some doubt - also provides opportunities for the unscrupulous. This could be very lucrative; the best known Arthurian sites, Tintagel and Glastonbury, are among the most visited in the country.

The situation is clearly ripe for satire, especially given that most tourists are not interested in historical accuracy. They want a good time, and for many this means a theme park style experience which is like the films they have seen - fifteenth century jousts not fifth century cattle rustling. The Once and Future Con attempts to do just this, being about a murder investigation during the inauguration of a theme park centred around the supposedly newly discovered bodies of Arthur and Guinevere.

Unfortunately, the novel is neither funny enough to succeed as a satire, nor is the mystery absorbing enough for it to succeed as part of the crime genre. Indeed, I spent quite a lot of time while reading it wondering whether it was worth the effort, and continued mainly because that involved less thought than finding another book to read. It is mildly entertaining, but not as good as the reviews imply that Guttridge's earlier Nick Madrid novels are.