Tuesday 30 December 2003

Brian Stableford: The Omega Expedition (2002)

Edition: Tor, 2002
Review number: 1206

I had high expectations for the culminating novel in one of my favourite science fiction series of recent years. Apart from anything else, it includes many characters from the earlier stories, and promises to wrap up the story of the human quest for emortality (not immortality, just immune to aging and disease.)

The main part of the story is, like that of Dark Ararat, told from the point of view of a man recently revived from cryogenic suspension. But Madoc Tamlin is not someone who was voluntarily frozen at the beginning of an interstellar voyage; he is one of the longest frozen survivors of those whose fate was entrusted to one of those companies which already exist that freeze the dead (or, in this case, dying) to preserve them until a cure is found for what killed them. Tamlin is one of the characters from Inherit the Earth, but he doesn't remember when and why he was frozen. No one really has much interest in reviving the thousands of bodies in this state, but Tamlin has been thawed as a test run for a much more famous frozen body, the financier Adam Zimmerman, whose fortune endowed the foundation which centuries later made the crucial breakthrough which made emortality possible.

The Omega Expedition is, unfortunately, the weakest novel in the series. For me, the disappointments began with the introduction, a brief reprise of the other five novels. Something I liked about this series of self-contained novels is the way that it seems to consist of two trilogies, the second of which apparently goes back and fills in the gaps. It seemed an unusual way to organise a series, but it is definitely interesting and effective. However, it turns out that this was the result of the way that the publisher commissioned the novels, rather than Stableford's initial idea.

This is a small beginning to what to me was a whole series of disappointments. The first section is the story of Adam Zimmerman's life, as retold by historian Mortimer Grey, the central character of The Fountains of Youth. To me, this section seemed sentimentalised and dull, though it's title suggests that it may be aimed by Grey at children. (The phrase "children of humankind" could also refer to the various factions of post-humans, and it is unlikely that small children would have much interest in the philosophy of Heidegger.) It is strange that such a famous author as Grey is supposed to be turns out to be so uninteresting to read, though as it also would be odd if people whose bodies are full of nano-technological computer enhancements still thought in straightforward prose, this could be seen as a problem connected with reducing his words to a linear form. The main central section, the narrative of Madoc Tamlin, is much more interesting to read, and he of course would be more accustomed to writing in this format (though actually describing exciting events must help!).

Tamlin's narrative, however, is not without its own problems. As has already been mentioned, Stableford has already used the device of an individual waking up from cryogenic suspension; it is useful to the writer because the narrator would need to have many aspects of the world in which they find themselves explained, making this a natural part of the scenario and removing one of the biggest problems science fiction has as a genre - integrating the explanation of the background with a realistic narrative. This time round, though, the idea is used too clumsily to be convincing. While there are successful science fiction novels which have long sections of lecturing in them (Stapledon's Last and First Men comes to mind), this is not one of them. The action, when it does occur, is only the precursor to further lengthy discussions. Stableford has already in this very series shown he can impart a great deal of information without resorting to such dull exposition, so why does he suddenly start doing it here?

It is always a pity when the quality of a series drops; where the novels form a linked story, this is generally around the middle, and happens because the plot is insufficiently taut. Stableford avoided this by having a series made up of independent novels, but that makes the disappointment of this culminating volume even more acute. The cause? I suspect that he was keen to move on to something new; he just had to get this novel completed first.

Wednesday 17 December 2003

Len Deighton: Horse Under Water (1963)

Edition: Penguin, 1965
Review number: 1205

When The Ipcress File was such a huge success - it became an instant classic, and almost immediately a hit film - there must have been a great deal of interest in the follow-up. In fact, it plays safe, and is more of the same - a straight sequel. Indeed, throughout his career, despite occasional experimentation in novels such as Bomber and SS-GB, Deighton tended to return again and again to the disillusioned spy story of the type which made his name.

Harry Palmer is once again the narrator, of a story of treachery which has its roots in Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and the activities of several of its members during the war as well as the international drug trade (the "horse" of the title being, of course, heroin). Many things are much the same (down to Palmer's continued ineptitude for crosswords). But Horse Under Water is no Ipcress File; it is slower and more obvious, giving the reader time to wonder about things they shouldn't think about when reading a thriller (such as why a senior figure like Palmer, an expert in international financial dealings, is the operative sent on a diving course so he can search a sunken U-boat off the coast of Portugal - surely a job for an experienced diver and a more junior officer). There is something of afeeling of a lost age, too - a time when the best known fact about Málaga was its bombardment during the Spanish Civil War. Even so, Horse Under Water is not as dated as many other spy novels of the sixties and seventies.

It is not really to be expected that Deighton's second novel would be equal to such an explosive début as The Ipcress File, and Horse Under Water is constantly good enough not to be a disappointment.

Saturday 13 December 2003

Lawrence Durrell: Tunc (1968)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1969
Review number: 1204

The titles of the two novels which together are known as The Revolt of Aphrodite are taken from a Latin quotation familiar in translation - "It was then, or never". This fact is one which either you know or which you find out when you read the second, an action which generally makes Tunc rather clearer.

For here we are not staying in the relatively accessible territory of The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell's best known collection of novels. Indeed, the first seventy pages or so of Tunc are extremely difficult to read and through their concentration on words as words rather than as constituent parts of a narrative serves as a reminder that their author first made his literary name as a poet. The novel settles down a bit after this, though it is still possible to discern the influence of James Joyce and the techniques of stream of consciousness writing.

The narrator, Felix Charlock, is an inventor, who is involved in the early days of electronic engineering - at the start of the novel, he has developed a miniature sound recorder which he is using to tape voices for analysis on a primitive computer. While Cryptonomicon fans might be interested in this in itself, it is not particularly important to the story exactly what his inventions are, though the snatches of speech he records are used as an element of the novel's text. What is important is that he attracts the interest of the mysterious Merlin corporation, and falls for the daughter of one of its senior executives.

Charlock becomes involved with Merlin without knowing much about the company, and spends most of the second half of the novel trying to understand just what he has got himself into. He is confused by things like the executive always available by phone but completely elusive physically, or the company's involvement with one of his former mistresses, now a film star, or the possible reappearance of a former employee who had been reported dead. This gives the second half of the novel something of the air of an investigation into a secret society, like John Fowles' The Magus or even the Illuminatus trilogy.

Apart from Joyce, parts of this novel remind me of Iris Murdoch, or Durrell's own Alexandria Quartet. (The Avignon Quintet, which is even more similar, was written later, as was The Magus.) It is well worth making the effort to read the earlier sections, set in Athens and Istanbul; once the action moves to London, the more prosaic background is reflected in the less poetic writing. Without the sequel, there is much which doesn't get explained (the titles of both the books and the pairing for one thing, make little sense in relation to the content of this novel), so reading Tunc is likely to be quickly followed by reading Nunquam.

Thursday 11 December 2003

Henrik Ibsen: An Enemy of the People (1882)

Translation: Eleanor Max-Aveling
Edition: Heinemann, 1907
Review number: 1203

In most of his plays, Ibsen's major concern seems to be the depiction of hypocrisy. It is possible to expand this obvious idea into something which is an important part of even more of his works - he was interested in the relationship between the public and private aspects of people's personalities. Thus in Peer Gynt, the central character is unable to repress his inner childlikeness and rebels against developing an outer shell of an acceptable adult; Hedda Gabler, in the play bearing her name, is similarly unwilling to accept the changes society requires of her as a newly married woman; and in Brand an iron hard Puritan begins with his inner and outer selves in harmony but has his certainty chipped away by the events that unfold in the play. In An Enemy of the People, however, the central character is one whose inner and outer selves are the same and remain so throughout, while the hypocrites around him seek to make him compromise and then, when he refuses, try to destroy him and his reputation.

Dr Stockmann lives in a provincial Norwegian town (they continued to provide the setting for many of Ibsen's plays even after he moved to Italy), and was one of the main instigators of a plan to build a therapeutic baths, turning the town into a (hopefully soon to be fashionable) spa. The baths have recently been completed, but Stockmann has learnt that cost-cutting in the building has meant that the water supply is contaminated. For the long term good of the town, he wants to see the baths closed down and the water supply improved before a patient becomes seriously ill, causing a scandal. However, the leading men of the town refuse to listen, thinking only of the short term financial damage this would cause. (They are not so much to blame for this as a modern audience might think, as the idea of disease carrying bacteria invisible to the naked eye was far less well established in 1882, and was probably something of a novelty to a provincial capitalist.)

Of all the characters in Ibsen's plays, Stockmann is the one most frequently cited as a self-portrait. There are certainly many aspects of the character which match up with Ibsen's perception of himself. An example is the best known line from the play ("The minority is always right"), in which Stockmann declares that he will always be in the minority not to say that he is contrary in nature but that he is the kind of progressive who is always ahead of the majority, so that he will have moved on by the time they have caught up with his views. In fact, Ibsen apparently deliberately made the character of this man who was to put forward his own ideas as unlike himself as possible to increase the impact of what he says; he is, for example, exuberant where Ibsen himself was rather melancholic.

The play itself was wrtten in part as a response to the criticism heaped upon Ghosts, his previous drama, which had provoked a scandal that created the dramatist's international reputation. In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen turns what he considered the rotten centre of bouregois Norway into the metaphor or symbol or the corruption polluting the baths which are heralded as the heart of the town's future. Much of the central act, a town meeting addressed by Stockmann, was inspired by a particular remark made by fellow dramatist Bjornsen in a criticism of Ghosts, that the "majority always has right on its side".

This particular translation is one of the series made under the auspices of Ibsen fanatic William Archer, who oversaw the first English publications of many if not all of Ibsen's plays. (Indeed, several of the original Norwegian language versions were first published by Archer, so that Ibsen could take advantage of the British participation in international copyright treaties that Norway was not yet party to.) Many of these translations now appear stilted and wordy, but this one is still remarkably easy to read. I'm not sure it would work so well on the stage, since readability and performability are two quite different things.

Saturday 6 December 2003

Richard Morgan: Broken Angels (2003)

Edition: Gollancz, 2003
Review number: 1202

Richard Morgan's first novel, Altered Carbon, immediately established him as someone to watch in the science fiction genre. A year later, his second novel will have been eagerly awaited by those who enjoyed his first. In it, he picks up the story of former UN envoy Takeshi Kovacs again, some decades later; he is now involved in a brutal civil war on the planet Sanction IV.

Recovering in hospital from a wound, he is approached to take part in an illegal expedition, to form a group of mercenaries to make a raid on an archaeological site now on the front line. For Sanction IV is a rich source for the relics of a mysterious alien race, now disappeared, named Martians after the first planet where their artefacts were discovered. And the site, unknown to the major players in the war, contains an incredible prize, a still working hyperspace gateway decades ahead of human technology.

In the last decade or so, archaeology and technological relics have become frequently recurring themes in the trendiest science fiction. Dan Simmons, Iain Banks, David Brin and Alastair Reynolds are just some of the writers who have written this kind of story recently. It is an interesting development in mainstream science fiction, if hardly one without precedent (Arthur C. Clark's 2001 being an obviously closely related story, for example). Most earlier spacefarers are either humans blazing their way into a galaxy where they are technologically supreme (or morally superior), or part of a co-operative confederation of alien races. The political ideas behind these scenarios are quite clear even if they had been for many writers unconscious (the first in particular is connected to racist justifications of white American supremacy), but what the vanished aliens are trying to say is less obvious, at least to me. Certainly, one motivation for the increased popularity of the idea is some kind of nostalgia for the past, for a more cultured time; another is to deflate ideas of human superiority. It also makes creation of thriller style plots easier, artefacts providing concrete goals which are easy for the reader to grasp so that the author can put more effort into embellishing the background and emphasising the things that they want to say.

I'm not sure, however, that Morgan had much to actually say here. Altered Carbon had some new ideas in it, but Broken Angels doesn't; it could have been written by any of half a dozen current authors. That doesn't mean it's not a good science fiction novel; it's exciting and interesting, and well worth reading. It's just rather more in the tradition of Iain M. Banks than I expected as a follow up to such an original debut.

Thursday 4 December 2003

Len Deighton: The Ipcress File (1962)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965
Review number: 1201

In today's thrillers, we have come to expect that the heroes are likely to be flawed, disillusioned characters. Go back a few decades, and all that was different. I'm talking straight thrillers, here, not detective stories; a significant source for the change to the the thriller genre was the hardboiled detective school of fiction. Graham Greene was probably the writer who introduced this style to the spy story, but Len Deighton was not far behind. followed in his turn by John le Carré.

Spies also tended to be upper class (think James Bond), and it was really Deighton who popularised the alternative. Harry Palmer (the narrator, not actually named in this novel) is a bright man with a good war record, who has had a successful postwar career in intelligence (at the beginning of the novel, he is about to become second in command of a powerful department). Yet he has an obvious chip on his shoulder; he says things like "Ross was a regular officer [i.e. a gentleman]; that is to say he didn't ... hit ladies without first removing his hat." The whole of the novel - and its sequels - makes the narrator's constant sneering at the upper classes a major feature, something which must have seemed quite revolutionary in the Britain of 1962. (It was, after all, the year in which the prosecuting lawyer in the Chatterley trial could say, "Is this a book you would want your servants to read?")

The plot seems at the start to be standard sixties spy thriller fare, as Palmer starts investigating some mysterious defections and strange behaviour among senior British scientists. It turns into an attempt to frame Palmer as a traitor, a charge which in those post-Burgess and MacLean days he can only refute by uncovering the colleague who is really in the pay of the other side. The Ipcress File is one of the earlier spy novels with a betrayal scheme, even if it is an extremely familiar plot to readers of Deighton and Le Carré's later novels.

While many of the positive features of The Ipcress File became staples of the spy thriller genre, making them now seem less innovative, it still has nice touches all of its own. The ironic chapter headings, supposedly Harry Palmer's newspaper horoscope for the day, form one which I particularly liked. The Ipcress File is a paramount classic of the genre, establishing the mould for hundreds of imitators ever since, both as novels and in film.

Saturday 29 November 2003

Janny Wurts: To Ride Hell's Chasm (2002)

Edition: Voyager, 2003
Review number: 1200

The world of Wurts' standalone fantasy novel is a grim place, beset by immensely powerful demons and their minions, where only a few states have proved able to stand firm in human hands with the alternative being to become a larder for a hungry and sadistic demonic overlord. One country that has remained safe is the mountain stronghold of Sessalie - too remote, too inaccessible to be as great a prize as the plains kingdoms. When however Crown Princess Anjar disappears on the eve of her wedding to a glamorous foreign prince, panic sets in and blame is put on the person who seems to the racist Sessalians to be the obvious culprit, the ex-mercenary guard captain Mykhael, in reality the only person with sufficient knowledge and experience of fighting demons' minions and warding against their attacks to be able to save the country. (It is possible that Wurts is making a plea against the hounding of Muslims which followed the 9/11 atrocities, but its hard to be sure of this.)

To Ride Hell's Chasm has many strong points as a fantasy novel. The undercurrents of racism and snobbery it deals with gives it something to say rather than just being an adventure story with magic. It also rings the changes on the fairy tale plot of the princess' disappearance on the eve of her wedding (I'm not sure there is one, but I could easily imagine a Hans Andersen story in which a fairy godmother, slighted by not being invited to the wedding, kidnaps the bride). Some of the characters are interesting, particularly Mykhael, even if he is too omni-competent to be believeable, and the aged King Isenden, though the rest aren't really sufficiently developed to be three dimensional.

There are other problems, too, which nearly made me give up on To Ride Hell's Chasm at several points. In a genre such as fantasy, where novels tend to be speedily written, where elegant prose is not usually an aim, and where editing often seems to be perfunctory, it is common as a reader to find one's smooth progress through a story rudely jarred by an encounter with some infelicitous phrasing, something which doesn't quite flow properly. Wurts suffers particularly badly from this, especially in the early pages of this novel, and it is particularly annoying when a little rephrasing could have helped the reader immensely.

More seriously, the thrills of the second half (describing the desperate flight of Mykhael with Anja to find allies) are severely compromised. Each individual chapter, taken by itself, would be exciting enough, but there is far too much repetition and the whole journey begins to seem endless as far too many winged predators explode out of the sky to attack the pair. It makes the reader begin to think about how believable it is that they manage to keep going, which is fatal; realising that they would obviously have collapsed from exhaustion after just a few days destroys the impact of the story completely.

Wurts is an established and experienced writer, and To Ride Hell's Chasm should really be better constructed than this. There has been a tendency in recent years for genre writers to churn out volume after volume, with little editing; this is something which could be ascribed to the increasing ease of writing which has followed from widespread use of word processors. (At least, though, this is not the first of a trilogy!) It is something of a paradox, since it is also easier to edit and update a word processor document. Even so, too many recent novels read as though they are first drafts, and this is one of them.

Iain M. Banks; Against a Dark Background (1993)

Edition: Orbit, 1994
Review number: 1199

The novels which Iain Banks publishes with his central initial usually share the space opera background of the Culture, even if only tangentially (as in Inversions). In Against a Dark Background, however, the setting is carefully differentiated from the Culture, even if it is apparently quite similar on the surface. (Banks distances the setting from the galaxy-wide Culture by describing Golter, the planet on which Against a Dark Background is set, as orbiting a star a million light years from any other, something which makes the standard space opera device of inhabiting the planet with a disctinctly human race of beings ludicrous, presumably deliberately so.)

Like several of the Culture novels, the plot of Against a Dark Background concerns an attempt to acquire a missing technological relic, a lost ancient weapon. In this case, it is a quest to find the last remaining Lazy Gun, one of eight whimsical weapons produced for a long ended war. Sharrow and her companions are also the surviving parts of an eight-fold weapon - a unit of commandos with an enhanced ability to predict each others' actions, a useful skill in combat.

The planet of Golder is an interesting, anarchic background, full of the trademark whimsical touches that Banks delights in - the Solipsist mercenaries, the Useless Kings, and so on. It is a background typical of some of the more recent writers influenced by Banks - MacLeod or Reynolds, for example - and is really more designed to fascinate than to be believeable. The story contains many flashbacks, and sometimes (undoubtedly deliberately) it is hard to tell for a few pages whether the story is in the narrative present or past.

This is not one of Banks' best novels (I seem to have felt that quite regularly about the ones I have reread recently). The plot and much of the background are by now over familiar (the Culture novels are more successful if a lengthy gap is left between reading any two of them); the flashbacks may illuminate Sharrow's character and explain how she came to be in her current situation, but they don't have the kind of explosive purpose that they are used for in Use of Weapons. For someone who did a lot of narrative experimentation early in his career, Banks has seemingly employed less care than usual in putting this novel. Nevertheless, even "Iain Banks by numbers" is enjoyable enough.

Tuesday 25 November 2003

Zoë Heller: Notes on a Scandal (2003)

Edition: Viking, 2003
Review number: 1198

In recent years, there have been a fair few tabloid scandals about teachers having affairs with pupils. Zoë Heller's second novel is about precisely this, forty year old teacher Sheba Hart and her affair with a fifteen year old boy (younger than her own daughter). The story is told by an older teacher from the same school, Barbara Covett, who has become Sheba's closest friend, and it is in her narration that Heller has written something more than just a run of the mill novel about being in this sort of situation.

For what Heller does is to use Barbara's narration to expose her character - we learn, for example, that she makes a habit of starting possessive, managing friendships with younger female teachers. As she's about to retire, the age gap between her and Sheba is almost as much as that between Sheba and the boy - a point which Heller pointedly makes Barbara ignore. Most of the novel is concerned with the relationship between the two women, as that is what Barbara is interested in, rather than the media hounding of Sheba, the court appearances or even the affair itself (which is mainly discussed as a measure of Sheba's independence from Barbara's wishes).

The inadvertent self-revelation isn't particularly subtle, but is interesting and doesn't fit into the usual convention of the more or less impersonal narrator (which even affects first person narratives in many cases - where the narrator is really the author rather than a character in their own right). Barbara is quite a bitter woman, intolerant of the foibles of any except her current favourite, and this often makes what she says about other people tartly amusing.

Issues which would be considered important parts of the plot by most writers (whether a liaison between teacher and pupil would cause different reactions according to the sexes of the individuals involved, whether a fifteen year old boy - less than a year short of the age of consent in Britain - would feel exploited by such a relationship, how the teacher's family might feel, especially when she has a daughter of about the same age, and so on) are passed over briefly in this novel, or ignored completely. It is far more about the one thing which interests Barbara - herself. Notes on a Scandal is a novel to make the reader think about self-centredness.

Barbara is not a particularly pleasant person, and her character is well portrayed as such (the contrast between the feelings evoked by the distress of other human beings and by the death of Barbara's pet cat - the one being who offers her unconditional love - is an example of the sort of method Heller uses to do this).

All in all, a fun, amusing, thought provoking if occasionally vicariously embarrassing novel, well deserving of being on the Booker short list.

Saturday 15 November 2003

Donna Tartt: The Little Friend (2002)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2002
Review number: 1197

The Cleve family, at the centre of this novel, has been shaped by events about a decade before its beginning, when nine-year old Robin was brutally murdered during a Mother's Day family get-together. In all this time, no killer has been found. Robin's memory has been idolised, his mother has become depressive, and his younger sisters have been brought up by their grandmother and her sisters, and by the household servant. (Their father has moved away and lives with his mistress.) The novel itself is the story of his youngest sister Harriet's twelfth year, when she determines to find out the truth about Robin's death, fired up by reading Sherlock Holmes and the adventure stories of Kipling and Stevenson.

The geographical setting of the novel, a small town in the American state of Mississippi, is very strong and atmospheric. The Cleves were once the wealthiest family in the region, but now their fortunes have faded after their big house (with the ill-omened seeming name Tribulation) burnt to the ground. They are still well enough off to keep servants, however, even if only one to each of the sisters' households. The town is divided between three very culturally different groups: the rich whites, the poor whites, and the blacks, the last group playing only small roles in The Little Friend (the Cleves' servants being among the least developed characters).

The chronological setting of the novel seems more undefined. At times, it seems to be chronicling events as far back as the twenties and thirties; other parts seem to be set in the fifties, and occasional references mean that it must be meant to be at least the mid-seventies. This is partly because Harriet and her sister are being brought up by a group of elderly women always looking back to the past - both to the time when Robin was alive and to the glory days of the Cleve family. The American deep south, particularly the poorer rural areas, was also a place which was a bit old-fashioned and conservative. There may also be other reasons why the timing seems indeterminate other than these ones to do with the setting; The Secret History, Tartt's first novel, also had something of an old-fashioned air to it, so she may well be someone who likes that ambiance; and here there may also be something of a desire to evoke some of the famous writers of the South, such as Faulkner and Lee.

The Secret History became one of the biggest success stories of nineties fiction immediately it was published, and its many fans will have been eagerly awaiting the followup for over a decade; Donna Tartt is an extremely un-prolific author. The big question that everybody who was interested would have had, then, was whether it was worth the wait.

When The Secret History came out, it seemed different, original and exciting in a new way. Looking back on it now (as a much more widely read individual), it doesn't seem so original (it could be described as "if John Fowles wrote an American campus novel..."), but that I remember it clearly without having reread it in the interim is a tribute to how well it was written. The Little Friend is just as well written, and is a very good picture of a weird family life as seen through the eyes of a child who doesn't really understand it or what makes it so strange. The detection part of the novel, though clearly a part a satire on books for children which have teenage detectives, doesn't really work and gives the impression that it's not one of the aspects of the story which interested the author (which is a contrast to The Secret History). The sense that Harriet and her friend Hely end up getting swept along by something much bigger than they expected is good, however. The Little Friend is much more mainstream than Tartt's debut, even though it has proved less popular. It is also less easy to think of obvious parallels to it (one, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was published a year later). The Little Friend is a good novel, an interesting read, but it does not stand out in the way that The Secret History did.

Tuesday 11 November 2003

Iain Banks: Canal Dreams (1989)

Edition: Abacus, 1990
Review number: 1195

When I first read Canal Dreams, I found it disappointing; now, a couple of re-readings later, it has grown on me. It marks some changes in Banks' writing, not least in the setting - in place of the imanginary universe of the Culture, or the Scottish backgrounds of his earlier novels, Canal Dreams is set on a ship stranded in the Panama Canal by a revolution - and the protagonist - his first undoubtedly female central character is about as far removed from the author's experience as it is possible to be, being a Japanese cello player. Both these changes are part of a move away from experimentation towards more mainstream novels with cosmopolitan settings, which continues in several later novels, including The Business.

The plot is fairly simple; in the first half, when the ship is stranded but unharmed, it is about what could be done to pass the time in such a place as Cancun Lake - scuba diving, cello playing, and an affair with one of the ship's officers. The tone changes in the much darker second half, when the ship is taken over by the rebels and Canal Dreams becomes a thriller. The quietness of the early pages brings more emotional commitment from the reader to the later drama, making the violence more disturbing than it would be in a straightforward member of the thriller genre.

The make or break issue for this particular novel is how convincing Banks is able to make a central character as unlike himself as Hisako. He is not entirely successful, but at least manages to give the impression that his ideas about Japanese culture are not entirely culled from The Mikado. The big problem Banks faced is the contrast between her passivity in the first part and activity in the second, and he worked hard to motivate this at the expense, I felt, of other aspects of Hisako's character. Of course, with the title of the novel, it is entirely possible that the second half is a dream, a piece of wish fulfilment; Banks leaves this open.

Despite the eventual high levels of violence, Canal Dreams retains throughout the dreamy atmosphere generated by the first part - something which is clearly part of the reason for use of the word "Dreams" in the title. The novel doesn't make its points of interest as obvious as the expermental narrative forms Banks played with before it, and Hisako is not completely convincing as a character, but there is much to enjoy.

John Crowley: Little, Big (1981)

Edition: Methuen, 1983
Review number: 1196

From the very first pages of Little, Big, it is clear that it is one of the most original and different fantasy novels ever written. Over twenty years it seems to have become undeservedly forgotten; by rights it should be one of the top classics of the genre.

The story begins with a journey, as Smokey Bramble travels upstate from New York to the strange home of his fiancee, Daily Alice Drinkwater, to get married. (Most of the characters have these interesting, slightly Dickensian names.) She comes from a family of mystics, whose lives are ruled by a Tarot deck with unique trumps and whose country house Edgewood is situated on the edge of the Wild Wood and where photographs taken in the grounds occasionally show traces of strange little beings. It is a kind of folly, built by an architect as a pattern book to show each of his designs as it is viewed from different angles.

The setting of the novel, beyond the house and its gardens, is a senescent USA, where everything is beginning to fall apart, where civilization seems to be falling gradually away (though daytime soaps still thrive). Technologies are being given up, and the atmosphere of much of the novel is rather like that of the subgenre of science fiction known as "steampunk". There is also a mysterious supernatural side to things, one which is seen only by those who have the right gifts. Even they see only in part "as through a glass darkly". The universal uncertainty as to what is really going on, even felt by professional seer Ariel Hawksquill, forms a major part of the atmosphere of Little, Big, and it is a novel in which background plays an extremely important role.

Little, Big doesn't have the usual influences of fantasy - it is refreshing to read something in the genre that shows no traces of Tolkien. Some parts of it (the decaying Americana in particular) aren't really from the genre at all. Little, Big is perhaps more closely allied to the magic realism school of literature, with hints of a relationship to Salman Rushdie and John Fowles. The story of the girls who during the First World War supposedly took photographs of faries in the garden - which was filmed as Fairy Tale - is really the closest thing to an influence I can think of. It is even quite different from other fantasy novels about houses, such as Gormenghast and High House.

In the other direction, an obvious successor is Neil Gaiman, particularly in American Gods. But both in what influenced it and what it has influenced, Little, Big stands by itself, a unique and fascinating loner. Every time I re-read it, Little, Big seduces me with its magic all over again.

Wednesday 5 November 2003

Brian Stableford: Dark Ararat (2002)

Edition: Tor, 2003
Review number: 1194

Like its predecessor, The Cassandra Complex, Dark Ararat fills in something of a gap in Stableford's future history, lying between Inherit the Earth and Architects of Emortality. Each of the novels in the series (except the last, which I have yet to read) is a self-contained look at some aspects of the quest to bring immortality to the human race. Despite being part of this series, Dark Ararat is more tangential to this quest, and actually marks a return to one of the staple plots of (post-Campbell) science fiction - the adventures of the early pioneers to descent to the surface of an alien world, one which is considered a possibility for human colonisation. It is about genetics, and mortality, but is more concerned with setting up a plausible scenario in which the DNA molecule isn't the replicator at the centre of living organisms.

A book I have recently read is the cleverly argued Evolving the Alien by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart. It deals with what we might be able to expect to find in terms of life on other planets; speculation about what properties would be universals (true of life anywhere) and what would be parochials (true only of life on Earth). It is a book which makes it hard to read any science fiction dealing with aliens subsequently without starting to judge the biology according to its arguments.

Many older science fiction depictions of alien environments fail the tests by making their backgrounds too earthlike - grass like plants might be a universal, or at least commonplace, but the word "like" in that statement is very important. The plant may fill a similar ecological niche to grass on Earth, but only those aspects of its appearance and life history implied by that niche will be identical to those of real grass. Because writers are interested in other things (communication with intelligent aliens, or the technicalities of space flight and planetary colonisation, for example), they often haven't spent so much time thinking about just how different things might be.

It seems to me, on reading Dark Ararat, that I am not alone in having been impressed by Evolving the Alien. The alien planet, whose name has not been finalised but could be Ararat or Tyre, seems to have been constructed with Cohen and Stewart's ideas firmly in mind. The whole series of novels has already demonstrated Stableford's interest in the biological sciences, and here he has thought through an entire planet of ecologies based on a system of replicator molecules which are different from earthly DNA - replication via an encoded genome taken to be a universal, DNA a parochial.

The problem which many meticulously worked out science fiction stories have, and it is one which makes many people dislike the genre as a whole, is that the background takes over the story, pushing character and plot into minor roles. Stableford avoids this pitfall by making his plot melodramatic and organising it so that exposition of the background becomes a natural consequence of its outworking. This plot is partly a murder mystery, and partly a tale of political manoeuvring.

Not all the colonists have been thawed from the cryogenic suspension in which they travelled from Earth over seven hundred years, and the story starts when two men are woken, one to replace a murder victim, an ecologist, and the other a policeman to investigate the killing. Conflicts have arisen between the colonists and the ship's crew (who are descendants of the original crew and want to drop the colonists off and move on elsewhere) about the suitability of Ararat for colonisation, and these tensions are heightened by the possibility that there is intelligent life on the planet - stone tools have been found, and the victim was killed with a replica of one of them.

Dark Ararat is just the kind of clever, thoughtful and well written science fiction that readers have come to expect from Stableford; it keeps up the standard of one of the genre's best series in recent years.

Friday 31 October 2003

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2003
Review number: 1193

The fifth novel in this phenomenally successful series starts with a big dose of the theme which occurs in several of the others - Harry's feelings of abandonment and loneliness as he spends the summer holidays with the awful Dursleys. This particular year, he is especially cross about it, because the contact he does have with his schoolfiends consists of hints that something exciting is going on but they are unable to tell him what it is.

The tone of the seven hundred plus page novel is set by the early chapters, another similarity with the earlier Harry Potter stories. Harry spends the year angry (he is, after all, an adolescent), trying to deal with things he doesn't understand, and having people keep things from him. There is rather less of the straightforward problem solving or "derring do" than in the earlier books; the whole of The Order of the Phoenix is more sombre and generally less exciting and immediate.

With each new Harry Potter novel, anticipation and expectations have grown in intensity; with The Order of the Phoenix, the extra delay before its publication (a two year gap rather than a single one - though Rowling was at pains to point out that there was no plan to release a novel a year) made this even more the case than before. I was disappointed when I finally read the novel, but found it hard to decide whether it is truly poorer than its fellows, or if the weight of expectation was too much.

There are good points to The Order of the Phoenix. Harry's discovery that his father wasn't perfect is one; Harry and Ron's attempts to understand girls are amusing; the exploits of Fred and George continue to be enjoyable. New character Luna, strange daughter of the editor of a downmarket wizarding tabloid, is an asset. (The series as a whole is full of negative portrayals of the media, a reflection of Rowlings' feelings about her own treatment in the real world, presumably.)

There can be no denying that The Order of the Phoenix failed to live up to my expectations, at least. This is to some extent because of the way that anticipation was fuelled by the release of details from the plot, in particular that someone was going to die. Rowling rather unfairly plays with the knowledge, parading candidates for the role in front of the reader, and I found the part of the plot relating to this a disappointment. It would have worked much better to have the death of a major character as a surprise.

Overall, though, I did end up feeling that The Order of the Phoenix isn't up to the standard set by the earlier novels. If felt too long, and the writing seemed tired, particularly when repeating elements which had already appeared (such as descriptions of lessons). It would be a brave editor who suggests changes to as big a name as Rowling, but the novel would almost certainly have benefited if someone had done so, even though it would have been even more delayed.

Iain Banks: Dead Air (2002)

Edition: Little, Brown, 2002
Review number: 1192

Published just about a year after 9/11, Dead Air must have been one of the first serious attempts at a novel in which the tragic events of that day played a part. That being said, it doesn't play that important a role in the plot, being more significant in the emotional background to the novel. It is hard to think of a novel that has survived any length of time which is quite so firmly rooted in identifiable and important near contemporary events; the best known examples I can think of are the panic about anarchists which prompted Conrad's The Secret Agent and Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday about a century ago. There are many more novels which were prompted by events which seemed more ephemeral even at the time and which are now only remembered because of the literature they inspired - the story of Alexander Selkirk which was the basis of Robinson Crusoe, for example. Usually, novelists seem to choose events which are far enough in the past that their importance is clear, if they want to anchor a novel to a specific historical time, or events which are so important and wide-ranging in their effects that time has to be taken to digest even part of their meaning - people don't tend to write the best war stories during the conflict.

The tone of Dead Air is set by the first chapter, in which a wedding celebration turns into a game of dropping superfluous foodstuffs and possessions from a loft apartment into the car park far below, wanton destruction which is interrupted as everyone's mobiles go off to tell them to turn on the TV and see the attack on the World Trade Center. The novel is full of small unexpected ironies, twists and unusual ways of looking at the world (picking up on the phenomenon of everyone's phone going off more or less simultaneously is an example). In Canal Dreams, Banks has written about people more directly involved as victims of terrorist attacks; 9/11 seems to have been an event which was more than usually able to touch those who were not themselves physically harmed.

The story is about "shock jock" Ken Nott, who makes a pretty good living being outrageous on a London radio station. There are several events which form foci to the novel as well as 9/11 - the difficulties which arise from a love affair with the wife of a gangster, a series of death threats, a TV interview in which Nott confronts a Holocaust denier. The plot does rather come across as the setting for Banks to get the series of rants which he makes the main feature of Nott's radio show out of his system.

Dead Air came across to me as the least interesting of Banks' novels to date; there is nothing in it which reaches out and grabs the reader (or if there is, it missed me completely). That is not to say that it isn't well written and enjoyable, more that it is less individual and unusual than his earlier novels.

Friday 24 October 2003

Dan Simmons: The Rise of Endymion (1997)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 1191

Centuries after the events chronicled in Hyperion, the novel which began the series of which The Rise of Endymion is the fourth, human culture in the galaxy has changed dramatically, apparently returning to an archaic form. Through its monopoly of the cruciform, a parasitic, cross shaped piece of nanotechnology which makes it possible to reconstruct a person's personality and memory in a new body after death, the Catholic church has become the dominant power in the majority of the human populated worlds. It has changed to, to an organisation more closely resembling the corrupt church of the early sixteenth century (complete with Inquisition) than the reformed religious movement we see today.

The plot of The Rise of Endymion is fairly hackneyed; it tells of a young girl, prophesied to be a new Messiah, who takes on the might of the Catholic church armed only with her blook, which when drunk by others passes on an extreme awareness of the universe while being incompatible with the cruciform. The Messianic figure is so common in science fiction and fantasy that it is the details which are important rather than the general plot idea, and Simmons is a good enough writer to create a whole series of fascinating environments in which his story can unfold, including a most unusual orbital grown as a giant tree rather than by the more mundane method of constructing it from rock. (An orbital is basically an alternative to a planet, a ring around a star rather than an orbiting ball.)

The most obvious influence on The Rise of Endymion, including the standardised plotline, is Frank Herbert's Dune series, especially the later novels. It is probably the galactic political manoeuvrings as well as the Messianic plot which make this top of the list of related fiction. Simmons includes details which are little nods of homage to other writers, ranging from Asimov (the android characters all have the title 'A.', like the 'R.' given to Asimov's humanoid robots) to Wolfe. It is not all derivative, of course; the vast majority of the details are Simmons' own and the style is all his too. In the end, the novel lacks the visceral impact and originality of Hyperion and could be described as good rather than great.

Wednesday 22 October 2003

Nigel Williams: Hatchett & Lycett (2002)

Edition: Penguin, 2003
Review number: 1190

When a teacher dies on a school trip to France in 1939, her colleagues decide that it will be easier to smuggle her body through Customs back to England before "discovering" her death than it will be to deal with the complexities of the French judicial system. Though this turns out to be only the first in a series of murders of teachers at the Croydon girls' school at which she taught, the start of the war a month later overshadows the investigation, as does a last minute decision to help a Jewish girl escape to England by pretending she is part of the school party.

Stirring this in with a love triangle between the teachers most likely to work out what happened, and you get the recipe for this hilarious novel by the author of The Wimbledon Poisoner. While some of the jokes and ideas may have been recycled (notable sources include Spike Milligan's war memoirs, Catch 22 and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), and while most of the characters are eminently dislikeable, much enjoyment can be had laughing at the absurdities of the home front early in the War, the absurdities of the crime genre, and the absurdities of young love. The odd serious moment - several characters take a small boat to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk, for example - serves to heighten the effectiveness of the humour (as it does for Spike Milligan and Joseph Heller too, of course).

Hatchett and Lycett (named after the two male teachers in the love triangle) is well put together by a master craftsman of humour. It may not be really original, but it is better than the average comic novel. It doesn't seem to be stretching Williams terribly much (I didn't get the feeling that The Wimbledon Poisoner reached the limits of his talent either). Craftsmanship rather than inspiration is the order of the day here.

Tuesday 21 October 2003

Iris Murdoch: Henry and Cato (1976)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1976
Review number: 1189

Morality, religion and sexuality were constant preoccupations of Iris Murdoch as a novelist, and they are the central themes of Henry and Cato. As the title suggest, it is a novel with two central characters, who both have to come to terms with major upheavals in their lives. Henry Marshalson is the younger son of an English gentleman, working as a minor academic at a small American university, when his elder brother dies in a car crash and he inherits the estate so has to return his ancestral home. Cato Forbes is from the same village in northern England, and he converted to Catholicism at university and became a priest. Now, living in a failing mission in West London about to be demolished, his faith is turning to doubt. At the same time, he is falling for a good looking but amoral youth (known as Beautiful Joe) who haunts the mission.

Apart from their friendship, what Henry and Cato have in common is the desire to get away from their families (with the exception of Cato's sister Colette). Both have or had domineering and bullying fathers, an evil which is exacerbated in Henry's case by the feeling that he could never match up in any way to his brother Sandy. This feeling is shared (and fostered) by his mother, even after Sandy's death. Cato's Catholicism is something of an attempt to break from his father's influence, and particularly from his father's ideas about what his career should have been, though there is no doubt that the feelings he once had for Jesus Christ also seemed perfectly genuine.

Henry and Cato is a novel which poses questions about how people work rather than giving us Murdoch's answers to them (unless her answers boil down to "people are too complex to assign simple motivations to", which seems reasonable). Most of the major - and many quite minor - characters are well drawn individuals; the only exceptions are Colette and her and Cato's father. Their sketchiness is rather strange, considering the amount of effort the author has put into what is quite a large number of others.

Parts of the plot are distinctly melodramatic, presumably to intensify the dilemmas suffered by the characters. There are parts which are hard to believe, which left me feeling that this is one of Murdoch's least satisfying novels, even if it is an interesting read for the character development and description.

Thursday 16 October 2003

Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2003
Review number: 1188

Novels with disabled central characters, and particularly ones in which these characters are the narrators, are rare. Mental illness is something which makes people especially uncomfortable and books which deal with it in anything other than a superficial way are really hard to find. (The criminally insane crop up fairly regularly in thrillers, but they are usually a device to inspire fear or allow the author to obfuscate a killer's identity by making them not have a reasonable motive.) Where a disability is taken seriously, the treatment is likely to be worthy and heavy going, and it took considerable enthusiasm from my mother to persuade me to read this novel.

Christopher Boone is a fifteen year old who has Asperger's Syndrome, and he decides to write a book to describe his detection into the killing of a neighbour's dog, found impaled on a garden fork. He is clearly remarkably intelligent (although he attends a special school, he is about to take Maths A-level at the age of fifteen), but he doesn't relate to his environment (and particularly the people around him) in the same way that a normal individual would.

The novel is really an attempt to explore these differences in understanding, and we learn a lot about how Christopher thinks. It doesn't greatly matter who killed the dog, and an understanding of human motivations and relationships will almost certainly mean that the reader works it out long before Christopher does. Far more interesting are things like his justification for deciding by the patterns in the colours of cars passed whether the day will be a good one or a bad one, and other insights into what might at first glance seem to be irrational ideas.

There are at least two ways in which this novel throws an illuminating light on how people think. (It is not surprising that cognitive scientists find people with Asperger's particularly fascinating.) One of these is just how much we assume in everyday life, how good we become at relating things together and interpreting events in terms of all our past experience. This is exemplified in The Dog in the Night by Christopher's solo rail journey from his home in Swindon to London (one of the simpler UK routes), where even tiny things like not immediately being able to understand that "two ninety five" is the same as "two pounds and ninety five pence" prove to be difficulties. What strikes me about this is that Christopher's abilities in this area - extrapolation of known background - are more akin to those of a computer program than those of a normal human being. To most of us the process of classification and generalisation is so automatic that we find it hard to realise just how difficult a task it actually is.

The other realisation that downs on the reader is to do with how Christopher sees himself. It is conventional to describe someone with Asperger's as "afflicted", but that is certainly not how it seems to Christopher. He is generally quite happy (the events which distress him, such as being touched, only have short term effects, and things that would upset a normal child, such as being told his mother is dead, don't affect him on an emotional level). In fact, it is his family which is made unhappy by his actions and by the strain of coping with living with him, even though they obviously love him very much. They hide their exasperation as a result, and combined with Christopher's inability to empathise, they manage to keep the destructive effect he has had on his parents' relationship completely secret from him.

My Room 101 nightmare has always been that I might go mad (and sometimes when particularly depressed I wonder whether I might already be mad and just not realise it). But there is only a certain distance from normality that it is possible to go before one ceases to realise that one is thinking abnormally. It stops being possible to put yourself in the position of another person who is thinking normally, as external evidence such as Christopher's special school education will still (unless the abnormality is really serious) make one aware on some level that one is not like other people. The way that Christopher is is to him just a fact of life, and it doesn't distress him in the way that being served yellow coloured food does.

Christopher's happiness is extremely important in The Dog in the Night-Time, as it prevents the novel being heavy and depressing. Instead, it is easy to read and fascinating, and is in many places quite funny. Reading it was an unexpected pleasure.

Thursday 9 October 2003

G.K. Chesterton: The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

Edition: Wordsworth, 1996
Review number: 1187

In some respects, Chesterton's first novel seems almost contemporary in outlook; in others, it is stuck in its time, now almost a century in the past. One of the great problems of our age (at least in the West), according to politicians, is political apathy; that is a link between today and the Britain of 1904. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is set in 1984, a famous year in science fiction, and the consequence of that apathy has been to turn political office into the result of a random selection process. The fact that this is virtually the only change to have occurred in an eighty year period is Chesterton's side-swipe at the prophets who attempted to say what would happen in the twentieth century, a pastime as popular then as it has been again with the turn of the twenty first. (The first chapter consists mainly of ridicule of some of the ideas of these would be prophets, each one made ludicrous, and the principal butt of the attack is the scientific utopianism of H.G. Wells, ironically the most accurate of the prophecies, at least in its prediction of the dominance of technology.)

What sparks change in this vision of a static culture - like Wells in The War of the Worlds, Chesterton compresses his world to southern England - is the appointment of Auberon Quin as king of England. Quin is a practitioner of a dying art - humour - and his big joke is to create gaudy (and extremely uncomfortable) uniforms in medieval style and force the sober officials of the London boroughs to wear them on official occasions. This runs into one problem - Adam Poole, the Provost of Notting Hill, is a man without humour, who has an obsessive devotion to his home neighbourhood which has been fired by the cod-patriotic rhetoric which Quin uses to set up his scheme. From this it is a short step to open warfare between Notting Hill and its surrounding boroughs.

The introduction to this Wordsworth Classics edition suggests that Chesterton had a serious point (I'm not completely convinced that he did), which was that a war would be a good solution to the political apathy he saw around him. He goes on to say that such a position became unthinkable after the carnage of World War One, but I think that is a naive view of the world. It could easily be argued that the recent conflict in Iraq and the response of the US and other Western nations was manipulated for a variety of reasons which included this one; just look at how huge the media circus surrounding the fighting was right from the start. Earlier, the Falklands Was was escalated by Margaret Thatcher and her ministers to lay the basis for her subsequent re-election as British prime minister. At least this sort of behaviour has been fairly widely condemned as unacceptable.

If Chesterton did want to make a serious point, then another candidate could be based on the contrast between Quin and Poole, the one unable to take things seriously, the other unable to do anything but. Both prove equally responsible for the destruction of peace in Britain. In the pomposity of Victorian local government, there was much that was hard to take seriously, and Quin is to some extent a self-portrait by a man who clearly saw how ludicrous it could be.

Friday 3 October 2003

Iain M. Banks: The State of the Art (1991)

Edition: Orbit, 1991
Review number: 1186

The State of the Art is unique in Banks' output in being a collection of short stories. It contains seven short stories, previously published in magazines and anthologies, alongside the novella The State of the Art which had appeared in the States but not in the UK. The book really falls into two parts: the Culture stories (the long novella and two others) and the rest. To deal with the latter first, these stories are basically parodies of some of the basic clichés of the science fiction genre (first contact stories, for example) or fairly heavy handed social commentary. The parodies are heavily indebted to American giants of the short story form, such as Fredric Brown, while the other stories lean heavily on the shoulders of the British New Wave, particularly Michael Moorcock. In neither case does Banks really match the quality of those whose work he draws on. The best of each group are Odd Attachments, about an alien shepherd whose disappointing love life proves disastrous for a human astronaut, and Piece, about the fight between rational and irrational thought in eighties culture.

One of the Culture stories, Descendant, is really in the same vein as the non-Culture tales; it is only incidentally set in the same milieu as Banks' science fiction novels. A Gift from the Culture and The State of the Art pick up on one of the novels' major themes, the way that the Culture reacts to other civilizations. The State of the Art describes a Contact survey of the Earth in 1977 (Contact being the part of the Culture which deals with external relations), with the aim of deciding whether the galactic civilisation should reveal itself to us or not. This isn't a particularly new science fiction idea, but the decision of one of the surveyors to remain on Earth whatever is decided makes it an interesting exploration of the theme.

I found A Gift From the Culture to be the most effective of these stories. A former Culture citizen is blackmailed into performing an act of terrorism. It has a deeper exposition of character than is usually managed in a short story; Wrobik's life seems a mess but he (and Banks manages something unusual with the gender; born female but changing sex as is quite normal in the Culture, Wrobik is made quite a feminine man) doesn't really want to change it. This reluctance is epitomised by his relationship with a faithless dancer. He is a misfit now, and presumably was always one even in the anarchistic Culture, and this is what it makes it possible to manipulate him into the act of violence he is desperately keen to avoid.

The general impression given by The State of the Art is that Banks is a novelist dabbling in short story writing, an impression which is strengthened by the small number of short stories he has produced in his career. The collection is worth reading, but in the end is likely to appeal more or less exclusively to fans of the author's novels.

Thursday 25 September 2003

Robin Hobb: Fool's Errand (2001)

Edition: Voyager, 2002
Review number: 1185

The start of the third of Robin Hobb's fantasy trilogies returns to the background and characters of her first (the second, the Live Ship Traders series, is set in a distant part of the same world). Following the cataclysmic conclusion to the Red Ships War in the Farseer series, the royal assassin Fitz has hidden himself away in obscurity for over a decade. Rather than being recognised as the reluctant saviour of the Six Duchies that he actually was, he is regarded with hatred as a practitioner of the forbidden magic known as the Wit. This ability to bond with an animal in a close, telepathic, relationship, is viewed with suspicion and is the occasion for malicious tales and lynchings - like a medieval accusation of witchcraft. Fitz settles into an eremetic existence in a cottage in the middle of a forest, accompanied by his wolf Wit partner Nighteyes and bringing up a foundling boy.

Most people think Fitz dead, but there are some who know the truth. In the chaos following the war, with the Queen acting as regent for her son, the last heir of the Farseer line, and trying to bring order back to the Six Duchies and restore what the war had destroyed, it seems to her and her advisers that Fitz's unique talents are needed once again. And so Fitz is dragged, reluctantly, into a new adventure.

Fans of Hobbs' other novels will not need a recommendation. The third trilogy is perhaps not the best place to start if not, though Fool's Errand is one of Hobbs more cheerful novels. (Like Holly Lisle, Hobb tends to put her characters through absolute misery, which is not to everybody's taste and which certainly becomes wearing if you read too much in a short period of time.) As usual with Hobb, I got to the end of the novel with the feeling that after a few months wait I would be keen to move on to the next in the trilogy.

Saturday 20 September 2003

Iain Banks: Espedair Street (1987)

Edition: Orbit, 1988
Review number: 1184

Ever since I first read it, not long after it first came out, Espedair Street has been one of my favourite Iain Banks novels. It is his first more or less mainstream novel, neither experimental nor genre fiction, and every time I read it it still manages to amuse and move me.

Espedair Street is a novel which is pretending to be a rock star autobiography; the story of (fictional) seventies band Frozen Gold as told by bass player and song writer Danny Weir (known as Weird). It is told using one of Banks' favourite devices, the series of flashbacks which converge to and explain the present (Danny living as a recluse, pretending to be his own caretaker in a bizarre Victorian folly in Glasgow). Espedair Street is about the emptiness that can come to fill the life of someone who has realised all his dreams on a massive scale. It's about lots of other things too - the hedonistic life of a seventies rock star (modelled on the excesses of bands like Fleetwood Mac); the things that we do that we regret and feel guilty about later, and the effects that these have on us; Glasgow and the people who live there.

Much of the pleasure (and certainly the humour) provided by Espedair Street (named after a place in Glasgow where several important events in Danny's life occur) is derived from the accuracy with which much of it mimics "warts-and-all" rock journalism, and it has in fact been turned into a radio serial which takes precisely this form, complete with music written by Banks himself. This makes it immediately believable as a novel, the ludicrous actions of band members being no madder than many documented of real musicians.

Espedair Street's main weakness is the sentimentality of its ending; this quality begins to creep into Banks' writing from this point onwards, making it more accessible but bringing occasional disappointment.

Friday 29 August 2003

John O'Hara: Appointment in Samarra (1935)

Edition: Penguin, 1997
Review number: 1183

Set in an American small town during the Depression, Appointment in Samarra is the story of a man who takes to drink and then kills himself after a social faux pas. It was hailed as a great novel by Ernest Hemingway no less when it first appeared (though his praise was in part an attack on Sinclair Lewis, who had described it as obscene). From such a high, O'Hara's reputation could only dwindle, especially as he ended up as an author who outlived his talent. Even so, Appointment in Samarra made it into the Modern Library's list of the hundred greatest English language novels of the twentieth century.

One interesting thing about this novel is the naive style in which it is written. O'Hara is unwilling to introduce a character without telling the reader a great deal about them and their history (something that would-be authors are often warned not to do). In places this is irritating, but O'Hara usually manages to make it fascinating. These little portraits can be quite barbed, as when he says of the local doctor that "some of his patients even lived".

The central character, fairly closely based on parts of O'Hara's own early life, is massively important in this novel. Julian English begins as an insider, a rich young man who spends much of his time meeting other rich young people at exclusive clubs in and around his home town. He gives way to a drunken impulse (throwing his drink in the face of a man he doesn't like very much) and becomes an outsider, unable even really to see why he is no longer accepted. (His crime may seem trivial, but the man he attackes is someone to whom he owes a large sum of money, a particularly strong tie in the Depression, and is a pillar of the town's Catholic community while English is a Protestant, leading others to assume sectarian motives for the attack.) It is one of the strengths of Appointment in Samarra that this slight difference in status is so clearly portrayed.

While this all makes for an interesting read, it hardly amounts to sufficient reason to put Appointment in Samarra in the top hundred novels. What is unusual about it for its date is its sympathetic portrayal of feminine sexuality in the person of Julian's wife. D. H. Lawrence is famous for having introduced the woman as an openly sexual being into literature, but the women I know who have talked about this have told me that he doesn't really describe what, say, a female orgasm feels like; his portrayal is more a masculine idea of what it should be like. It seems to me that O'Hara is more believable in what he says, even if this is the aspect of the novel which was attacked as obscene. (I obviously can't be sure, as I have never experienced sex as a woman!)

The title of the novel deserves some comment. There is a story which I thought was in the Arabian Nights (though my dictionary of quotations attributes it to Somerset Maugham). A man in Baghdad met Death in the marketplace, a sure omen of his death. Although he saw that Death looked surprised, the terrified man leapt on his horse and galloped to Samarra. But there Death took his soul - no one can cheat death. The point of this little story is the reason for Death's surprise - it was because he met the man in Baghdad when he had an appointment with him for the next day in distant Samarra.

Friday 22 August 2003

Ann Patchett: The Magician's Assistant (1998)

Edition: Fourth Estate, 2002
Review number: 1182

Sabine has worked most of her life as a magician's assistant, hopelessly in love with her partner Parsifal even after she realises that he is gay. Then Parsifal's lover dies of AIDS, and he marries Sabine because he wants her to inherit everything he and Phan had without a massive tax bill (Phan was a programmer who wrote a massively successful game); he dies soon afterwards not from HIV but from an unexpected aneurysm. It is only a few days later that Sabine discovers that almost everything that Parsifal told her over the past twenty years about his family background has been a lie; instead of being from New England, his parents and siblings dead, he came from Nebraska, and he has left a letter with his lawyer asking that his mother and sisters be provided for. And so they come to Los Angeles to meet Sabine, visit Parsifal's grave and see a city none of them have ever visited before, and Sabine begins to find out something of her husband's true past, and why he had cut himself off from it so profoundly.

This, then, is a novel of discovery, but not the self-discovery which is so common a literary theme (though as Sabine gets to know her ex-husband's real family, she learns some surprising things about herself too). It is mainly about being able to move beyond initial snap judgements to a better understanding of people.

Patchett uses the setting to help herself underline the differences between Parsifal's life as a stage magician, accepted as gay by his friends and successful in his profession, and the repressive atmosphere of his upbringing in what must be one of the most old fashioned small towns in the United States, to judge by this account. She does this with the simple device of setting the novel's action in winter, so that Los Angeles remains a place of warmth while Alliance lies under a blanket of freezing snow.

This particular edition of The Magician's Assistant has a massively misleading blurb, which has led my local library to classify it as fantasy. (Mind you, they have also put Michael Connelly's Void Moon in the science fiction section, for even less reason.) The novel is described as being about Sabine's discovery of powers of actual magic - which might make for an intriguing fantasy novel - and this simply is not what The Magician's Assistant is about. There is one aspect of the supernatural in the apparent reunions with Phan and Parsifal that Sabine experiences in her dreams, and there is a hint that she goes beyond the possible in one magic trick that she performs, and that's all; far less than in magic realist novels like Midnight's Children that no library would put into the fantasy genre shelves.

Wednesday 20 August 2003

Raymond Chandler: Killer in the Rain (1964)

Edition: Penguin, 1969 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1181

There is one official, authorised, collection of Raymond Chandler short stories, The Simple Art of Murder, and then there are the eight collected in Killer in the Rain. So why was Chandler against the re-publication of these stories (he was very unhappy when several of them appeared in other, unauthorised collections). They are all early, and the development of the famous Chandler style and of the character who eventually became Philip Marlowe is easy and interesting to trace. The problem is not, though, that the stories betray an apprentice writer; they only appear to do so in relation to Chandler's later work.

When Chandler came to write his first novel, The Big Sleep, he turned back to these short stories - not just for inspiration, but for plot and character, and even for the details of description. (he aptly described this process as "cannibalization".) He then did the same for his next three novels, with the result that any fan of Chandler's work will find much that is already familiar in Killer in the Rain.

The result of this is paradoxically that these stories might well appeal to Chandler novices - the stories are good enough in their own right, and authentic examples of his work - and to die-hard fans. The latter will find themselves constantly running into nuggets that they recognise, which is a fascinating experience, and they can start to trace how both Chandler's style and one of the most famous characters in both literature and film developed. And, of course, that would also make the collection indispensable for Chandler scholars.

Wednesday 13 August 2003

Iain M. Banks: Use of Weapons (1990)

Use of Weapons coverEdition: Orbit, 1992
Review number: 1179

This Culture novel, the third, combines two of the themes common in the writing of Banks' other persona (the one without the central 'M'). It has the multiple interlinked narratives (just two of them; one is a series of flashbacks, nearly in reverse chronological order), and it has some sickening, unpleasant violence.

Like many of the other Culture novels, Use of Weapons is built around a thriller style operation by Special Circumstances, which is really the covert operations section of what amounts to their secret service (in the midst of the anarchy that is the apparent form taken by their government). The mission itself isn't really what the novel is about, though (Banks' treatment of it becomes extremely perfunctory towards the end); Use of Weapons is more interested in the background of the agent Cheradiene Zakalwe than anything else.

Apart from the presence of standard Iain Banks tricks, Use of Weapons is of interest for the way in which the author subverts some of the standard cliches of the thriller genre (the Culture series as a whole tends to do this with science fiction). Thus, it features the flawed maverick central character haunted by his passed, the disillusioned missing operative selected as the only one who can carry out the mission, and so on. It breaks little new ground; and, like its near contemporary, Canal Dreams, can be seen as Banks marking time as he prepares to move to a new phase in his writing.

Joseph Heller: Something Happened (1971)

Edition: Black Swan, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1180

It took a decade for Heller to produce his second novel, and it is one on which critical reception has been divided. It is the story of Bob Slocum, a successful executive (and even after 550 pages we still don't quite know exactly what he does or what the company he works for produces) in late sixties Connecticut. He isn't particularly happy at work despite his success, and he doesn't have a particularly happy home life (he has three children, a teenage daughter and two younger sons, one of whom is seriously brain damaged). As narrator, Bob spends much of the novel looking back on his past, in a way to me reminiscent of the Talking Heads' song Once in a Lifetime. His problem is that he ought to be happy - he has succeeded in everything that is part of the American Dream - but he isn't.

The American Dream gone sour is, in fact, what the novel is about. The emptiness of the idea plays the same role here as the evils of war do in Catch 22. This is obviously a less exciting subject, and despite the extra work Heller puts in it still leaves his second novel less successful than his first - less funny, less biting, less tragic, less gripping. Where it succeeds best is in atmosphere; in this, it inhabits the same claustrophobic, dysfunctional worlds as the much later films with similar backgrounds and purpose, The Ice Storm and American Beauty. (I actually watched the latter while reading the novel, and they are so close in tone, partly because the situation of the narrator is basically the same, that the one seems almost an adaptation of the other.)

There is irony in the novel's title because it is almost entirely reflection on how Bob got to his current situation; virtually nothing happens. Something Happened is a long novel, and it is quite repetitive, making it seem even longer. This can be a bit of a problem, and some parts are hard going (the section about how his able bodied son hates gym at school, in particular). But there are plenty of interesting and funny observations about human nature to encourage the reader to keep going to the end. This is a novel driven by character and by Heller's insights into middle class America, and it is mostly successful; it's problem is that it is not a classic on the scale of Catch 22.

Friday 8 August 2003

George R. Stewart: Earth Abides (1949)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 1178

Of all the post-apocalyptic science fiction novels ever written, Earth Abides is probably the most poetic. George R. Stewart wrote only the one science fiction novel, and his is one of the less well known classics of the genre. Most literary writers seem to adapt poorly to science fiction, overusing its clichés, but Stewart is one of a handful (in the company of Orwell, Huxley and possibly Atwood) to have found something to say and a way to say it which has expanded the reach of the genre.

The narrator, Isherwood Williams, is working in the high desert mountains of northern California, alone in a remote cabin, when the disaster strikes. Like John Wyndham in the contemporary The Day of the Triffids, Stewart eschews the obvious atomic apocalypse to eradicate almost all of humanity with a plague, survived only by those naturally immune or particularly remote. (Today, the plague, especially if caused by human tampering with genetics, is the fashionable apocalypse.) The novel has three main parts - the initial disaster and its immediate aftermath; the situation twenty years later, as a small group of survivors faces some major crises; and a fast forward to the last days of Ish's life, as possibly the last old American left alive.

Many novels of this type are about the process of rebuilding civilization after the catastrophe, but Earth Abides has one feature which really makes it stand out. Almost immediately after discovering what has happened, Ish sets out to travel around the States, to try and understand it. The descriptions of the deserted cities (and the handful of people that Ish does find alive) is the novel's major strength; it is an elegy for the end of the civilization we still see around us, and evokes such things as the empty city marvellously.

When describing the beginning of the renewed rise of civilization, most science fiction novels assume that the intellectual legacy of the past will be important, and that everything a group does will involve sensible planning (for example, ensuring the preservation of seed). This is at least partly because of the history of the science fiction genre, in that both readers and editors (especially in the States), approved of stories in which the intellectual man of science with whom they identified was able to triumph (sometimes writers seem to be trying to write a manual on "how to survive the coming catastrophe" rather than fiction). In Earth Abides, Stewart is not so optimistic about the ability of reason to reign supreme, and it must be admitted that there is a great deal of evidence on his side. Ish may be the most vocal member of the small community which grows up around him and the woman that he meets after returning from his travels, but he never manages to persuade them of such things as the importance of education and the preservation of learning. Ish is not as all knowing as tends to be the case with the characters with a scientific background in this situation, either (think of Heinlein's omnicompetent heroes for the standard examples from the time). He is caught out by the various waves of animal population explosion and collapse which follow the removal of checks and balances imposed by mankind (which occur at different times, depending on the reproductive rate of the animal concerned); as a result he is unable to have seed stockpiled before a plague of rats makes it virtually impossible to scavenge. (The group live for years mainly on tins recovered from around San Francisco.)

Earth Abides is the sole example of Stewart's distinctive voice in the science fiction genre, and it remains something of an outsider, a forgotten classic.

Thursday 7 August 2003

Carol Shields: Unless (2002)

Edition: Fourth Estate, 2002
Review number: 1177

I have started several of last year's Booker Prize short-listed novels, but this is the first which I have felt a desire to read more than the first few pages. (I have not yet attempted Yaan Martel's Life of Pi, the winner.) The ones I put aside seemed no more than pale imitations of other writers, notably V.S. Naipaul, while Unless was able to speak to me with a voice of its own almost immediately. This is precisely why I was looking out for the half dozen short listed novels, in the hope of finding something new to enjoy. I read Unless and wrote this review before hearing of Shields' death; it made me feel that I had discovered her only just in time.

Every parent knows that eventually their child will leave them for a life of their own. For Reta Winters, middle aged author and narrator of Unless, the departure of her eldest daughter Norah has been more sudden, unusual and traumatic than most. For Norah has dropped out of life almost entirely, leaving her university course and boyfriend as well as her family to spend her days sitting on a street corner with a sign on her lap bearing the single word "GOODNESS". She won't talk to her family about her reasons for doing this, so they are left to speculate about what has gone wrong (something which comes fairly easily to the rather self-absorbed Reta) and what, if anything, can be done.

Unless is set in Toronto, something which (as Reta at one point remarks) is no longer expected to limit the market for a novel, and I was occasionally reminded of another first person narrative set in the city, Margaret Atwood's Catseye. Though both also share a feminist outlook (for some time Reta is convinced that Norah's withdrawal from the world is caused by a realisation that as a woman she won't ever get as good a deal from the world as an otherwise similar man.) Nevertheless is not as hard-edged as Atwood's writing, though it does have something of a similar air (possibly a consequence of the location and feminist sympathy already mentioned). Something which is different is that Atwood's style has the intention of convincing the reader of the sincerity of the narrator, while Sheilds makes you think that Reta manages to manifest contradictory emotions, as serene and self-observing prose proclaims violent distress and overwhelming concern for another. Nobody, of course, is completely consistent, and the contrast is obviously partly a coping strategy and partly due to guilt over her role in Norah's withdrawal, whatever that might be.

Unless has one feature which is extremely unusual. The headings of the chapters, like the novel's overall title, are single words, all prepositions and conjunctions rather than the nouns and verbs which would usually fill such a role. For me, this has the effect of giving the narrative a wistful note, though I'm not at all sure why this is. The novel generally feels similar to one of my other favourites of recent years, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. Unless is magical to read - and makes me intrigued as to what The Life of Pi must have in order to have persuaded the Booker judges to choose it rather than this novel as the winner.