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.