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.