Saturday 31 August 2002

China Miéville: Perdido Street Station (2000)

Edition: Macmillan, 2000
Review number: 1116

Miéville has received a great deal of praise for this novel and for his début, King Rat. Personally, I was unwilling to read to the end of King Rat, and found much that I disliked about Perdido Street Station; but it is plain even to me that there is much to admire about Miéville's writing.

The huge and dilapidated city of New Cabuzon is home to a variety of different species, including ones which have the appearance of insects and plants as well as humans. The central character Isaac is a human scientist - in this fantasy steampunk connection, something like a cross between an alchemist and a physicist and naturalist - who is approached by a garuda with a commission. This birdman has had his wings removed as punishment for an alien crime ("choice removal") and he wants Isaac to make it possible for him to fly again. To this end, Isaac collects hundreds of specimens of animals which fly, whether they do this magically or physically; but his work has to be suspended when a mysterious caterpillar turns out to be the young of a slake moth, an incredibly powerful and dangerous creature which feeds on thoughts and dreams. (Coincidentally, the slake moth is connected to an organised crime syndicate, the head of which has just approached Isaac's artist lover to create a sculpture of himself; this is a weakness in the plotting of the novel.)

Perdido Street Station is a very long and ambitious novel, and has space not just for a great deal to happen (far more than in the summary just given), but also for description of the city. This is something Miéville does in a way which makes the novel read like a cross between Irvine Welsh and Mervyn Peake. The story itself isn't particularly great; it is the background which is important and, good writer though he is, Miéville seems to have had some difficulty in extending his ideas over 700 pages. Some of the non-humans aren't particularly alien, the only one which really impressed me being the giant spider known as the Weaver. For me, though, the real problem is the relentless grimy feel of the novel, something which mars King Rat to an even greater extent. (It would be interesting to see whether Miéville is able to produce something different in future.) Ifelt as though I was being compelled to admire the technique in something I didn't actually like very much; a reason that only just kept me going to the end of the novel (together with the faint hope that Miéville would pull some kind of amazing trick at the end). To say that Perdido Street Station is a triumph of style over content would perhaps be going too far, but it is definitely a novel with tendencies in that direction.

Wednesday 28 August 2002

Michael Moorcock: The Eternal Champion (1970)

Edition: Millennium, 1995
Review number: 1116

Begun in the fifties, published in the sixties as a novelette before finally being expanded to a full novel in 1970, The Eternal Champion contains the earliest version of the idea that is central to most of Moorcock's fantasy, together with the fruits of over a decade's development of the theme. The idea is basically that there is one person, immortal or reincarnated, whose aspects are the heroes of fantasy. It is perhaps influenced by the Hindu concept of the avatar, where important figures in legend are incarnations of the gods, particularly of Vishnu; it is also an ironic comment on the unimaginative sameness of much of the fantasy genre.

The story in The Eternal Champion is of Londoner John Daker, who responds to a summons he seems to hear in his dreams, from a barbarian king and his beautiful daughter. They are performing rituals in the tomb of long dead warrior Erekos&eumlaut;, seeking to bring the return of the hero that has long been prophesied. When Daker responds, he becomes Erekosë;, champion of the human race in their desperate war against the alien Eldren. Like the other aspects of the Champion, Daker is tormented by dreams of his other selves, but in this case he is unhappy because, though the humans describe the Eldren as treacherous and wicked, this seems to better match their own actions.

It was a commonplace of science fiction (particularly American science fiction, the major part of the genre's output) in the first decades of the Cold War to mimic that conflict; the best known example is Star Trek, where the Federation represents the West, the Klingons and Romulans the Soviet Union and China. It is rarer to do this in fantasy, which (post-Tolkien) usually uses plots about an individual quest to overthrow tyrrany which makes it not such a good genre to explore political ideas. The Eternal Champion is the only example which comes to my mind. Generally, the rather simplistic and racist assumption is made that the forces of humanity represent the West, and the aliens the Communist Bloc. I don't think that there was generally a conscious desire to write propaganda, more that in the American magazines that defined the genre, writers tended to accept the view that they were the good guys. Young though he was when he wrote this story, Moorcock tries to do something more subtle. The humans keep on spouting rhetoric taken from extreme anti-Communists of the time, justifying treacherous acts on the grounds that that is the only way they can beat the innately treacherous Eldren. What they achieve is to completely discredit their side, showing themselves to be worse even than their portrayal of their enemies, let alone than the Eldren actually are. Even Jolinda, the woman with whom Daker falls in love, eventually reveals herself to be just vain and shallow, and as much prey to xenophobia as anyone else.

The background to the novel is lacking an element which later became an important part of Moorcock's concept of the Eternal Champion: the balance between Law and Chaos. It is a theme that would have probably got in the way of this particular story, which has a different point to make; it is about hypocrisy and hysteria rather than the nature of evil and morality.

The aim of the novel, to make readers think again about the orthodox (Western) view of the Cold War, is unusual in fantasy (though common enough in the more literary spy thrillers like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold). The background is rather dated now, as much of the fiction it is counterbalancing has vanished without trace. Even so, The Eternal Champion has something to say about mob hysteria, which continues to be relevant as the American leadership seeks to renew the war against Iraq.

Friday 16 August 2002

Isaac Asimov: The Stars Like Dust (1955)

Edition: Panther, 1958
Review number: 1114

In retrospect, The Stars Like Dust is one of Asimov's most disappointing and dated science fiction novels. I'm not sure, reading it now, whether or not it was originally explicitly aimed at a young adult audience (the one that many people assume still that all science fiction is written for), but it certainly doesn't really have enough to offer to impress a reader who is not a novice reader of the genre.

The Horsehead Nebula region of the galaxy was divided into a large number of smallish aristocratic nations, until they were all suddenly overrun by the banally named Tyranni about a generation before the story is set. The old royal families have been left in place in a ceremonial role; the hero of The Stars Like Dust is the son and heir of the titular ruler of one of these planets. Biron Farrill is studying on Earth - largely ruined in an ancient nuclear war - when his father dies, executed for treason by the Tyranni. An apparent attempt on his own life leads him to flee back to the Horsehead Nebula, to the palace of the Hinriads on the planet of Rhodia. A series of adventures follow, which even at the time must have seemed derivative (they're a poor imitation of A.E. van Vogt or E.E. "Doc" Smith), ending with a stupendous discovery which should mark the end of the Tyranni.

This stupendous discovery is the main problem with The Stars Like Dust, at least for a non-American. It turns out that this is the long-lost American Declaration of Independence, a document whose explosive power is supposed to doom tyrants. It shows, perhaps, a touchingly naive faith in the power of the admittedly inspiring words about freedom and independence (Asimov's background as a first generation immigrant in the thirties makes the alternative possibility, cynical manipulation of the reader, unlikely.) But it can hardly be argued that the example of the US constitution has made the Earth free of dictators, and even the US cannot be considered the epitome of freedom and equality. (Rodney King can't have thought so, in his final moments.) To use the discovery as the climax of the novel is not only a major weakness, it is the sort of twist which smacks of the inexperienced writer at this length - it is typical of the genre's short stories.

Other problems with The Stars Like Dust include the frankly unbelieveable plot - the base of a rebellion which is being gradually stocked up with men and weapons would be hard to hide economically, let alone be kept a secret by the thousands of people involved. The various conspiracies and plots which fill the book are not very convincing, and the people involved have inconsistent characters - to much insight in some areas, not enough in others. There is a romance subplot, but that is based on exactly the kind of portrayal of a female character that is one of the commonest criticisms of the science fiction genre ("it's written by and for geeks who have no idea what women are like").

Friday 9 August 2002

Jack Vance: Emphyrio (1969)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 1113

The struggle of one person (at least until recently in science fiction usually a man) against tyranny has been one of the favourite plots in the genre since 1984. Emphyrio is one of the better known novels to use this idea, and it is a rather more subtle tyranny than is usual in this sort of story. The planet Halma is famous for its handmade goods and, to preserve its position, the craftsmen who live there have for generations been forbidden to use any of a long list of technologies. (This is to prevent their goods being sullied by any idea that they might be mass produced.) This whole aspect of their lives is controlled by the guilds, who take a strong and conservative line on technology, even if it is not to be used for "duping". (This part of the background to the story is rather reminiscent of the opera Die Meistersinger.)

Amiante and Ghyl, father and son, produce carved screens, but don't fit in terribly well on Halma. They exhibit an independence of thought, which leads them into a series of clashes with the guild officials in their village. When Ghyl stands as a candidate for village mayor using the name of an ancient hero Emphyrio, Amiante secretly produces election posters using a forbidden mechanical duplication process. As a result, he is arrested and "re-habilitated", a mental treatment which eventually leads to his death.

As a writer, Vance is best known for rich and evocative backgrounds. Halma is such a background (with the stifling effect of the guilds particularly well portrayed), but here it is less important than in most of his novels. The adventures of Ghyl are what Emphyrio is really about. This makes it a particularly accessible introduction to Vance's work, as well as an especially satisfying example of it.

Tuesday 6 August 2002

Ernest Hemingway: Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (1927)

Edition: Vintage, 2000
Review number: 1112

Hemingway is famous as a macho writer, and this is a novel which demonstrates why. It combines exquisite writing with central characters who are not only repellent but who are made more so by the author's evident admiration, and (in the second half) with a subject matter now generally condemned outside Hispanic culture, bull fighting. The human part of the novel is about the relationship between the narrator and wild English aristocrat Lady Brett Ashley, which could be said to resemble a bull fight itself.

It is possible to defend Kipling, another author with attitudes now out of fashion, against those who criticise his pro-imperialist outlook. I would base such a defence on two grounds. First, he was a product of his time, and second, his attitude to the British Empire was more complex and more ambivalent than his critics grant. Hemingway may seem to be in a similar position; both writers are among the greatest creators of pictorial atmosphere in the English language, and both chose to immortalise something which is today viewed with embarrassment, if not repugnance.

Bullfighting is something which has hardly any apologists outside Spanish culture, and I for one was shocked when staying in a Spanish hotel to find that it was shown on prime time TV (I was flicking through the available channels to see if there was anything to watch). On the other hand, many tourists guiltily succumb to the lingering fascination and reputation for excitement it has, and when in Spain go to a fight. Apologists for Hemingway would say that this excitement, savage maybe though it is, is what The Sun Also Rises conveys, as well as his other writing about bullfighting. Such is the vividness of Hemingway's descriptions that even though the fights themselves only take up two or three chapters of Fiesta, they dominate the novel (contrasting with the rather tedious Parisian socialising of the first part) and do convey such excitement even to a reader opposed to what they are reading.

This hints at the difference between Kipling and Hemingway - the latter gives the impression that he is nothing like as ambivalent about the subject of his writing. Kipling's subject in his Indian novels is really the clash of two cultures (even in stories like those in The Jungle Book, which contrast the village and jungle), and the imperialist message is diluted a great deal by his admiration for, and desire to promote understanding of, India. The Sun Also Rises is also about admiration, for the machismo of the bullfight, but there is no opposing idea to counterbalance it. Indeed, you get the impression that the author even admires the rather unpleasant bunch of drunks who are the novel's main characters (albeit contrasted with the simple innocence of the young matador Romero).

In terms of style, Hemingway's elevation of journalistic prose into an art form makes him a great writer. That is true, too, in his greater and more acceptable novel, A Farewell to Arms. The Sun Also Rises perhaps also has some value as a document of Parisian café culture and pre-Franco Spain. As a novel, it is impressive and repellent, and ultimately too one sided to take seriously.

Sylvia Brownrigg: The Metaphysical Touch (1988)

Edition: Gollancz, 1998
Review number: 1111

How can one respond to a catastrophe which destroys the very centre of your life? Emily Piper, Pi to her friends, is a philosopher at Berkeley until the 1991 fire wipes out her home, her books and her cat. She stays with friends and relatives, unable to face anything to do with her former life (including books). Eventually, she moves in with a relative of a friend, a woman herself in the middle of a divorce and with an unhappy seven year old daughter. Pi has been given a computer by one of her friends, and she begins to discover the joys of the Internet. In these days before the domination of the Web, that really means email and BBSs. (This made the novel something of a nostalgia trip for me, as this is what things were like when I first went online in the late eighties.)

On the BBS accessed by Pippa, a bit of a stir has been created by a series of posts called the "Diery". (It reads rather like the wonderful monologues in the radio comedy drama At Home With the Snails.) This is a journal apparently written by a man named J.D. who has lost his job and is dealing with suicidal urges by documenting them. Although he goes to considerable lengths to hide his real identity, he contacts Pi directly after she posts stories based on parts of the Diery.

The Metaphysical Touch is the story of their virtual relationship. It is very well told, the emails that pass between Pi and J.D. are convincing. It is a philosophical novel, and in places requires a fair amount of concentration as a result, but it is worth it.