Saturday 19 June 2004

Peter Crowther: Infinities (2002)

Edition: Gollancz, 2002
Review number: 1246

This volume claims to be "the very best of British SF today", and its four novellas certainly represent the work of some of the most respected young authors in the genre. Ken MacLeod and Alastair Reynolds were already familiar writers to me (I had in fact already read Diamond Dogs, Reynolds' contribution, elsewhere), but Eric Brown and Adam Roberts I had yet to sample, science fiction not being a high priority with our local library service.

The first story, Eric Brown's A Writer's Life, is disappointingly unimaginative, despite being extremely well written. The narrator, a hack genre writer, becomes obsessed with a more or less forgotten novelist, not just wanting to reaqd all his books but also to solve the mystery of his disappearance. It is an old fashioned Gothic tale, and, save for travel by car and such dating evidence, could have been written by a number of writers from William Hope Hodgson onwards. Even though it lacks originality (and that is presumably because it is intended as a homage to earlier fantasy writers), it is still an enjoyable read, until the extremely predictable ending. That Brown handles the Gothic atmosphere and characterisation of the narrator and his sceptical girlfriend so well implies that he could have produced something much more inventive - and still stayed in the tradition he clearly admires.

Ken MacLeod's The Human Front is a little more unusual, an alternate reality story set in a world in which the Cold War turned hot. Here, Stalin survived an American takeover of the Soviet Union and became a Che Guevara figure, a famous guerilla leader and an inspiration to generations of radicals. Scottish teenagers are joining a secret terrorist organisation, the Human Front, within the Communist Party, ready to bring the revolution home. While this in itself would be an interesting background to a story of the life of a young Scot, MacLeod adds more - hints of a bizarre conspiracy, of secret advanced technology that has come from nowhere. This all very cleverly builds up to a conclusion which ends up arriving too quickly; The Human Front feels like a novel where the second half has been turned into a five page summary. (This is not unique in science fiction, for a variety of reasons mainly connected to magazine publication procedures in the earlier years; but I didn't expect to see an example today in a collection of this format.)

This is followed by Diamond Dogs - and this story may have seemed different to me because this is the second time I have read it. The story, a typical science fiction plot involving the investigation of an alien artefact, is extremely gruesome; the artefact is a tower, a sequence of rooms containing sophisticated mathematical puzzles, but each time an error is made a bloody punishment is meted out to the investigators. This could almost be the plot of a (rather intellectual) computer game, rather than a novel, except for the way in which Reynolds is able to give the impression of advanced mathematics without having to go into details. It is an extremely artificial scenario, but it is done very well.

The final story, Adam Roberts' Park Polar, is set in a depressing world, an ecological disaster area. Every part of the surface of the earth is used for food production, the interior of Australia covered in hundreds of square miles of unending soya. Wild animals only survive in the gardens of the ultra-rich, in gene banks, and now in forms re-engineered to thrive in the polar icecaps. There, herds of yak-like snow wildebeest feed on special algae, themselves providing food for snow lions - a small, artificial ecology. The story is one of murder in a polar research station, but it is the background which fascinates the reader; finding out who the killer is does not really matter.

While all four stories are extremely well written, they all (except Eric Brown's) share a common flaw of shorter writing in today's novel-oriented age - they seem uneasily compressed to fit the required length. In fact, they are pretty long novellas; by the standards of the fifties, say, they would be considered short novels. The four stories are very different from each other, and give a fair view of the variety in British science fiction at the moment, even if they do it uneasily in terms of form. There is no particular reason that I could see for the collection's title Infinities, but it is an excellent piece of editing.

Thursday 17 June 2004

Len Deighton: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (1976)

Edition: Book Club Associates, 1977
Review number: 1245

At the start of this novel, the main characters (Major Mann of the CIA and the narrator, a British agent) pick up a Soviet defector in the middle of the Sahara Desert. This is an unusual start for a spy novel, where it would be more common for the plot to work up to the retrieval of the defector. But here the point of the novel is the investigation of some leaks of US research to the Russians, and it is this which makes Professor Bekuv valuable, as he was one of the beneficiaries before becoming disenchanted with the system and receiving a punishment appointment as a scientific advisor in Mali.

The title is an acknowledgement that this style of spy story was becoming old fashioned (even though Deighton continued writing them for another twenty years); it is the riposte given by the narrator to Major Mann's observation that in a few years the sky will be full of spy satellites, with the implication that this will render the old style of espionage obsolete. Even a quarter of a century later, though, I have never read a thriller which has a satellite as a major character; today's fictional spies may make far more use of computers and electronic surveillance, but they are still human.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy is not ashamed to be old fashioned - in fact it revels in it. It's exciting all the way, right up to the ending when the scene returns to the Sahara. Len Deighton's plots are usually quite complicated; Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy is a more straightforward thriller than most of his novels. Even so, it is excellently done, far better written than most of the genre. This is the Len Deighton to read if you are a fan of, say, Colin Forbes or Helen MacInnes, for those who think his other novels are too convoluted. To me, being someone who really enjoys working through the complexities, the novel is lacking something, entertaining though it is.

Wednesday 16 June 2004

Roger Zelazny: Lord of Light (1967)

Edition: Mandarin, 1986
Review Number: 1244

This novel is a science fiction classic - or possibly a fantasy classic, depending on how you look at it. It takes a particular theme of the genre, the relationship between science and religion, especially the counterfeiting of magical or divine power using superior technology, and develops it about as far as it is possible to go in its particular direction. For in Lord of Light, set on a world colonised from the now lost Earth, the controllers of technology have created the system of Hindu myth in reality, with themselves as the pantheon of the gods, controlling the cycle of birth and death and reincarnation. The plot of the novel is basically describing an attempt by someone who though one of the original colonists has remained something of an outsider, becoming a wandering preacher who has modelled his teaching on that of the Buddha, and aiming to overthrow the existing order of things.

The second half of the sixties saw the appearance of quite a few of the science fiction genre's most famous novels, many of which have religious themes - Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Traveller in Black series. Of course, this was picking up (and also feeding) the mood of the times; the hippies and the New Age movement didn't just influence the psychedelic music scene. More than any of the stories I've just mentioned, Lord of Light aims to recreate the atmosphere of ancient myth (Brunner's Traveller comes closest to it, and is also written in a similar style). It is eminently successful in this, full of characters who are clearly no longer fully human, who have become remote and detached, just as portrayals of the Hindu gods often seem to be, particularly to Western eyes.

Lord of Light can be wearing to read in large doses, but it is an impressive achievement by any standards. The main reasons it is hard to read are the difficulty in keeping track of the large number of names associated with each character, the deliberately wooden, mythic and stylised writing, and an occasionally confusing chronology (the first chapter, for example, comes near the end of the story). Persevere, and the rewards make it worth the effort.

Friday 11 June 2004

Len Deighton: Yesterday's Spy (1975)

Edition: Warner, 1976
Review number: 1243

The plots of a fair proportion of the novels Deighton has set contemporary to the date of writing involve something left over from the Second World War. There is an obvious reason why this happens, other than that the Cold War itself could be viewed as arising from the Second World War; many of the spies and spy masters of the seventies were still people who had had their greatest successes at that time. Deighton also does this kind of plot superbly; it lends itself to the kind of questioning cynicism which is the trademark of his novels. (The particular question which lies in the background of Yesterday's Spy is: are those who fought side by side thirty years earlier still comrades in arms?)

Steve Champion was a wartime hero, a British agent who organised a resistance cell in the south of France, though he was eventually captured and tortured by the Germans. After the war, he had made the most of his contacts to become a very rich, but decidedly shady businessman, used occasionally by British intelligence. But now he has some scheme of his own in mind, and growing closeness to the Egyptian government (more radical in the mid seventies than since) has made him a dangerous man to know.

The narrator was Champion's second in command during the war, and has continued to work for "the Department" ever since. So he seems the obvious person to use to infiltrate Champion's scheme, though he is not keen to do it and the fact that he is the obvious choice makes it harder for him to convince Champion of his sincerity. (And, once he has done so, to ensure that his employers still believe he is on their side.) Generally this is familiar Len Deighton territory; the narrator's character is little different from that of the narrator of Spy Story. (He actually has the same boss, though he doesn't seem to work in the same branch of intelligence at all.)

This familiarity is something of a problem with Yesterday's Spy. It is basically Deighton by numbers, more like the product of a good imitator than of Deighton himself - lacking in truly original inspiration. It has interesting ideas - the involvement of Champion's young son, part of a subplot in which the boy is kidnapped from his mother after a divorce, for example, but not enough is made from them.

Tuesday 8 June 2004

Michael Malone: Uncivil Seasons (1984)

Edition: Robinson, 2002
Review number: 1242

Over the last few months, I have suddenly started seeing and hearing the name of Michael Malone, basically out of the blue. Because of this, I assumed that he was a novelist who had taken up his pen relatively recently, and so was a little surprised to find out how old this novel, the first in a series set in Hillston in North Carolina, actually is. Apart from anything else, it is reminiscent of other more recent crime writers, particular Jeffery Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme novels, or Donald Harstad's relaxed Iowa cop.

The narrator of this novel is Justin Savile V, a police lieutenant in Hillston, but also from one of the foremost families of the area, with connections to everyone from the State Governor down. He has turned his back on privilege, finding investigation more interesting than the top-notch legal career mapped out for him (though alcoholism had something to do with this decision as well). His partner, Cuddy Mangum, couldn't be more different, his background being the rundown East Hillston, the wrong side of the tracks.

When Justin's uncle's wife is killed, there is an obvious suspect - one of the "usual suspects", in fact - lined up, but Justin begins asking dangerous questions which threaten those who have run the town for generations, relatives and family friends who consider him one of their own. The detective story works extremely well, with several sources of conflict driving the plot - resentment between the poor and the rich, lack of understanding between the under and over privileged, Justin looking to find the truth rather than cover up a potential scandal. There is also conflict in the narrator; his turning away from his background was to a large extent not a matter of principle but because he wasn't interested in the sort of rewards it could bring him (and many people would agree that investigating murders is more interesting than sitting on the North Carolina state legislature). The characterisation is well done, and makes both Justin and Cuddy interesting (Cuddy is much better realised, in particular, then the usually stereotyped sidekick characters in detective fiction). Uncivil Seasons is an extremely well written novel, with nods to the American noir tradition, without being as angst ridden as Connelly or Deaver.