Saturday 28 August 2004

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights (1995)

Edition: Scholastic, 1996
Review number: 1262

Harry Potter may have started the current revival in the children's books market, but it is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (of which this is, of course, the first) which has picked up most of the critical acclaim. Aimed at an older reader than the first Harry Potter stories, this is an imaginative and dark tale of a fantasy world where human beings are accompanied by personal daemons - basically externalised souls - in the form of animals.

Central character Lyra is a young girl brought up (in a neglected kind of way) by the scholars of an Oxford college. When children across Britain begin to go missing, she resolves to save them (after her closest playmate disappears); this decision takes her to fashionable London, a gypsy parliament in the Fens (at Ely under another name), and finally to the Arctic, where the Aurora or Northern Lights play an important part in beginning to resolve the mystery.

Comparison with the Harry Potter stories, particularly the Philosopher's Stone which began that series, is quite a useful way to enumerate some of the praiseworthy and not so praiseworthy aspects of this novel. The first thing that the reader notices about Northern Lights by comparison is that Pullman imagines a far more complex, logically thought out and intricate world, one that is a great deal less like the one in which we live than the one that contains Hogwarts is. Everything we read about seems to have a purpose within the overall scheme of things, while Rowling, at least some of the time, appears to put in details on the spur of the moment. While the Harry Potter books do have a plan - the final chapter of the seventh novel being among the first to be written - many of the background details do not relate to it (what do every flavour beans tell us about how the universe is structured, for example?). Everything here has its place, it all fills out a corner of a master plan. Though this may be in part something Pullman is able to do because he is writing for an older readership, this particular contrast is valid for the later Harry Potter books as well, which are not aimed at such young people.

Pullman's writing is made to seem far deeper and have more to offer on repeated reading by this method. It should be remembered that Rowling's books are meant to be funny, while Pullman wants to deal with big issues.

The feeling that there is more to be gained by repeated reading of His Dark Materials is bolstered by a second difference: the background to Pullman's series is far more imaginative than Happy Potter, which is really just a boarding school story with magic and a villain. The daemons, the cosmology (all the stuff about the Dust), the bears and so on are original ideas; this is not just another post-Tolkien fantasy novel. Pullman wins out on the broad brush aspects of writing a fantasy novel - the general background is far better - but what about the detail? On the character front, the central cast of Rowling's novels all seem to have something individual about them, though sometimes Ron Weasley in particular is a bit of a caricature. It takes a long while here to feel that Lyra has much of a character. His portrayal of her upbringing as a sort of urchin doesn't seem realistic - for that done really well in a book for teenagers, try Leon Garfield's Smith. The characters here seem to be mainly intended as pegs for the background - which is of course a common problem in novels driven by ideas.

Both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Northern Lights aim to make a big impact in their very first pages, with the outlandish idea of a boy living in a cupboard under the stairs in one and Lyra discovering a plot to poison her uncle in the other. Here Harry Potter wins again, but then it does have one of the most attention grabbing openings in fiction. Harry Potter also continues in much the same vein, and the pace really keeps moving; this is not true of Northern Lights. This is not necessarily a case of one being better than the other, however; it is another difference of emphasis.

The differences between the two series could be summed up as Pullman having more intellectual weight (and it is interesting that most of the reviews I have seen are about the underlying ideas rather than the writing itself), but Rowling being more appealing. It's a matter of mind or heart - each appeals more to the one than the other. Considering that they are the two most successful examples of the current revival of the children's book market, they are remarkably different from each other - especially given that they both fall within the fantasy genre.

Thursday 26 August 2004

Alastair Reynolds: Absolution Gap (2003)

Edition: Gollancz, 2003
Review number: 1260

This novel completes the story of Revelation Space and Redemption Ark, about how the human race falls foul of machines named Inhibitors or wolves, which destroy interstellar civilizations when alerted by the use of particular kinds of advanced technology. (Chasm City and the pair of novellas Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days share the same background, but are not part of the same story.) At the end of Redemption Ark, one group of humans had taken refuge on the backwater planet of Ararat; one strand of Absolution Gap starts when the Inhibitors attack them. The other main narrative thread is set on the bizarre world of Hela (a third describes the discovery of this world). Hela is an icy moon, home to a really strange religious movement. Many satellites have synchronous orbits, keeping one face towards the planet they orbit, as the Moon does to Earth - nobody could see the far side before the days of space travel. Hela nearly does this, but not quite, so the planet of Haldora appears to slowly move through the sky. On the equator is a route travelled by the strange cathedrals, slowly moving, huge buildings; their aim is to keep the planet directly overhead, under constant observation. (Of course, only one can do so at a time, causing a great deal of rivalry.)

Absolution Gap is a long novel, and to start with moves too slowly. Even though I had enjoyed Reynolds' other writing, I seriously considered giving up on this story. The depiction of Hela is a serious problem; although the cathedrals are a fascinating idea, with a great deal of scope for baroque description in the manner of Peake or Moorcock (they're easily the best thing in the novel), we don't actually learn very much about them. This is because Reynolds doesn't want to reveal twists in the plot beforehand, but it means that the reader's interest isn't sustained. Basically, Absolution Gap could have been better constructed; it is a lengthy wait for things to start to get interesting. Read it if you want to find out the end of the story of the Inhibitors; otherwise, it's not really worth the effort.

Tuesday 24 August 2004

Len Deighton: Mexico Set (1985)

Edition: Grafton, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1261

I don't think it would be possible to write sensibly about the second novel in the Game, Set and Match trilogy without giving away an important part of the plot of Berlin Game, the first one. So I'm not even going to try. Mexico Set is all about how Bernard Samson copes when his wife defects to the Russians after he uncovers the fact that she is a KGB agent (they were both senior members of the British secret service). So the novel is about Bernard's personal and professional difficulties; he has to try to work out how much of their marriage was a sham, t otry and be there for his children (which he fails miserably to do) and to deflect the questioning of his own loyalty by his colleagues - surely, they say, he should have suspected Fiona long ago, if he himself was innocent.

The plot of Mexico Set is about Bernard trying to persuade a KGB officer - Stinnes, who appeared at the end of Berlin Game and who works for Fiona- to defect. Once again, the narrative is cleverly done so that it doesn't just given an impression of Bernard's feelings, but also conveys something of how much he isn't saying. (How has this man, who views himself as reasonable and professional, come to be so feared by his colleagues?) The various backgrounds, from the sleaze of Mexico City to the paranoia of Berlin, are atmospheric and tightly integrated into the feelings that the novel produces as it is read - treachery is just so much more plausible in the settings Deighton provides for it. Everything about the novel fits together efficiently, and is about enhancing its effectiveness.

Mexico Set is mainly concerned with Bernard's character, which makes it seem a little low key for a modern thriller. Although the reader has the impression that there is not a great deal of action, in fact there is a fair amount of violence, all of it the consequence of some betrayal - by Fiona, or the deskbound officials in London (both of Bernard), or of one Russian agent by another. Betrayal is of course the main theme of the whole trilogy, but Mexico Set is remarkable for the number of different acts of bad faith.

Anyone who reads Berlin Match is very likely to read on through the rest of the trilogy (and quite probably through the other seven novels relating to Bernard Samson); together, they form one of the premier classics of the thriller genre. I am not quite sure how well Mexico Set would work by itself, having only every read it immediately following its predecessor, but I would certainly advise prospective readers to start at the beginning with Berlin Game.

Saturday 14 August 2004

Len Deighton: Berlin Game (1983)

Edition: Grafton, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1259

While no one who read The Ipcress File could deny that Len Deighton was one of the great spy fiction writers, several of his other novels seem quite tired. With Berlin Game, and indeed the whole of the Game, Set and Match trilogy, everything came together once again; this story would no doubt join Deighton's debut in many fans' lists of the absolute top spy stories. It is not surprising that Bernard Samson dominated the rest of Deighton's output in the same way that Harry Palmer did in the sixties.

From a plotting point of view, there are a lot of points of similarity between the two novels. Both are supreme examples of the "which of my colleagues is a traitor" storyline, and both are told by a world weary, cynical narrator. Both are set mainly in London, but with a second focus elsewhere - in each case, somewhere crucial to the unravelling of the treachery: Berlin here (obviously) and an American nuclear testing facility in The Ipcress File; the London scenes are mainly about office politics. Like Palmer, Samson doesn't quite fit in; twenty years after The Ipcress File, the secret service is still full of Oxbridge types who look down on someone who never went to university at all; both narrators have a serious chip on their shoulder about this, and the attitude is something of a constant theme in Deighton's writing about the secret service as part of the British establishment.

The main difference between the two narrators is in the situations of the narrators in the two novels. Bernard Samson is considerably older, and he is married (to another senior official from "the Department") with two youngish children. Harry Palmer's career began during the Second World War, Bernard grew up in post-war Berlin. These two changes make considerable difference; Bernard is willing to attribute more complex motives to those around him, and recognises shades of grey in treachery which would never occur to Harry. Bernard is so world weary that each betrayal just adds its bit to the total sadness in the world; there is nothing to be surprised about, no real blame to award, for treachery is only to be expected. And yet, even so, those around him describe Bernard as an optimist.

So Bernard Samson is an older, more settled character, and that affects every aspect of Berlin Game, from the amount of action to his analysis of motivations. Even without many of the traditional thrills of the genre, the novel keeps the reader enthralled from beginning to end. It is the characterisation of the narrator which does this - Deighton is subtle enough that we don't just get Bernard Samson as described by himself, but are able to see through that to a real character underneath. The Ipcress File might be more original (Berlin Game being very much derived from it), and it might have had more influence on other writers; but in Berlin Game Deighton has created not just another classic thriller, but one which is in my opinion better than its model.

Wednesday 11 August 2004

Dan Simmons: Ilium (2003)

Edition: Gollancz, 2003
Review number: 1258

To science fiction fans, Dan Simmons is best known for his award winning novel Hyperion, which uses the poetry of John Keats as its inspiration. In Ilium, his most recent novel and a return to the genre (in which he writes occasionally), the literary references are there again. Here, though, they are made more central (being far more frequently referred to directly), and are more varied. Homer is naturally the most obvious, but there are also direct references to Shakespeare (the Sonnets and the Tempest), H.G. Wells The Time Machine, and Proust as well as indirect ones to other sources.

In The Rolling Stones, Robert Heinlein satirises the flagrant plagiarism of some pulp science fiction authors, a character who is a writer blatantly reuses plots from the Odyssey, Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors. Here, Dan Simmons has done something which is even more clearly reuse, but he does this in a much more interesting way; his retelling of Greek myth is a springboard for a fascinating piece of science fiction.

There are three storylines in Ilium: one a retelling of Homer's Iliad, in which the Greek gods influencing the action are beings from the future; a story from the other end of history, where pampered humans have lost a great deal of knowledge but live in a world run for them by robot "servitors"; and a mission by a group of artificial beings engineered to live on the satellites of Jupiter to discover what is behind some strange quantum effects observed on Mars.

One thing that is interesting to me about Ilium is how Simmons places each story in a different part of the science fiction genre. The Iliad bits are part fantasy, part something like Lord of Light; the last humans on a depleted Earth are like a number of far future scenarios originally derived from the Eloi in The Time Machine; the outer solar system artificial beings hard science fiction rather like Kim Stanley Robinson. Even with all this complexity, Ilium does not come across as having a split personality; Simmons holds it together magnificently for over six hundred pages - which means that each strand is long enough to form a novel in its own right.

The reader of Ilium will get a lot more out of it if they have read the various literary sources it alludes to, and an acquaintance with the Iliad is even more useful. Neither is absolutely essential, as the important points are explained as the story develops. (The device of having the point of view character in the Iliad sections a Greek scholar re-animated at the scene to provide the "gods" with a commentary on how well what happens matches Homer's poem is useful in this respect.) Even without the clever folding of the literary themes, the little references to delight the knowledgeable, Ilium is an extremely well written, if slightly over long, novel. Entertaining and intelligent, definitely one of the best books I have read this year.

Saturday 7 August 2004

Sean McMullen: Souls in the Great Machine (1999)

Edition: Tor, 2000
Review number: 1257

There are plenty of post-apocalyptic novels, and plenty of science fiction about computers, but Souls in the Great Machine is the first story I have read which combines the two. Set about seventeen hundred years from now, following a nuclear winter, Souls in the Great Machine is about the effects of the development of a new form of a religiously proscribed machine, the computer. Because electronic equipment has become unusable (due to still functioning military satellites which destroy any detected electrical circuits), the components are men and women who perform the operations basic to the electronic computer of today by hand. The machine is slow compared to one using microchip technology, but powerful enough to bring prominence to the small state in which it is secretly constructed.

Souls in the Great Machine builds on well worn science fiction ideas in an original manner, and by centring on the Calculor itself becomes fascinating (at least for the first two thirds; the last two hundred pages of this novel, describing desert warfare, is more commonplace and not so interesting). The scenario is influenced by writers like Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling - despite the massive differences in the technology depicted, the closest novels in tone to Souls in the Great Machine that I can think of are The Diamond Age and The Difference Engine - as well as post apocalyptic novels, particularly A Canticle for Leibowitz, which also deals with the relationship between technology and religion. The desert warfare could come from Dune (which also, of course, has a religious prohibition on the development of computing machines), or a number of fantasy novels and the use of railways is (perhaps more superficially) like Pavane or Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Out of such influences, McMullen has forged a novel distinctively his own.

Souls in the Great Machine has flaws; as mentioned, it tails off in its final third; and it is also lacking in characterisation. It is as though the nature and effects of the Calculor are not just the main interest of the novel, but so much its focus that everything else not directly related to the topic is underwritten. For a genre novel, it is dense and that makes it a slow read, and the effect of the poor end segment is to make the reader wonder whether the effort has been worth it. I would say that for the earlier parts of Souls in the Great Machine, the whole is just worth it; enough for me to look out for his other books, some of which are also set in the same world.